+ Analysis of Ed Feser’s “Doctrinally Problematic” Criticisms
Ed Feser, an orthodox Catholic and Thomist, is an associate professor of philosophy at Pasadena City College (see his books and articles). He runs a popular blog, and has been described by National Review as “one of the best contemporary writers on philosophy.” Sir Anthony Kenny, writing for the Times Literary Supplement stated that Feser “has the rare and enviable gift of making philosophical argument compulsively readable.” His words below will be in blue.
Here are Feser’s criticisms (from his blog) of Pope Francis with regard to the issue of divorce, including the charge that he has not spoken forcefully enough (a la Pope Honorius) in defense of these dogmatic Church teachings:
Pope Francis has made many statements that at least seem to contradict traditional Catholic teaching on divorce and remarriage, . . .
[W]hether or not Honorius and John XXII were guilty of strict heresy, they were undeniably guilty of making statements that fell under one or more of the lesser theological censures cited above. Similarly, even if Pope Francis’s problematic statements can be given readings that avoid strict heresy, it doesn’t follow that they can avoid falling under one or more of the lesser theological censures. . . .
Had the pope simply reaffirmed traditional teaching in response to these straightforward and respectfully presented questions from several of his cardinals [in the dubia], the main doctrinal controversy that has roiled his pontificate would have been swiftly resolved.
For another thing, what a person fails to say, and how he acts, can “send a message” no less than what he does explicitly say. . . .
Similarly, when the pope not only makes theologically ambiguous statements about divorce and remarriage, conscience, etc. but refuses to clarify those statements, and promotes and praises people with a reputation for departing from traditional teaching in these areas while criticizing and sidelining people with a reputation for upholding traditional teaching, it is hardly surprising if many people worry – whether correctly or not – that he does not agree with traditional teaching but doesn’t want to say so directly. (“Some comments on the open letter”, 5-6-19)
Pope Francis is accused of trading in ambiguities in the interests of “accompanying and integrating” Catholics who do not accept the Church’s teaching on divorce and remarriage. And the problem, the critics hold, is that Amoris’s way of accommodating these dissenters makes of that teaching a dead letter, or even implicitly contradicts it. (“Denial flows into the Tiber”, 12-18-16)
[A] permissive attitude toward divorce and remarriage is the very last thing one could justify in the name of Christ’s understanding of mercy.
Does Pope Francis endorse such a reversal of traditional teaching? The open letter accuses him of this and other errors. Of course, some of the pope’s statements on doctrinal matters are ambiguous, and in interpreting what a person means, it is only fair to look at the larger context rather than consider an ambiguous statement in isolation. (“Popes, heresy, and papal heresy”, 5-25-19)
[O]n several issues – marriage and divorce, . . . Pope Francis has repeatedly made statements that appear to contradict traditional Catholic teaching, and has persistently refused to respond to respectful requests for clarification made by members of the hierarchy and prominent theologians. Moreover, he has done so not only in offhand comments during interviews and the like, but in official magisterial documents, such as Amoris Laetitia, and now the Catechism. (“Pope Francis and capital punishment”, 8-3-18; see similar statement made in a First Things article from the same date)
Large numbers of Catholics hold heterodox views on matters of divorce and marriage . . . They are quite happy with Amoris, the change to the catechism, and all the other doctrinally problematic statements the pope has made over the last five years. Meanwhile, many orthodox Catholics, well-meaning but naïve, have been willing to put up and shut up as long as they can cobble together some far-fetched interpretation of the problematic statements that seems to preserve continuity with past teaching. (“Hubris meets nemesis? (Updated)”, 8-28-18)
Even in the Church, recent years have seen the ad hominem routinely deployed against even the most respectful and scholarly critics of Pope Francis’s doctrinally problematic statements concerning divorce and remarriage, . . . (“The ad hominem fallacy is a sin”, 7-3-18)
Ambiguity? In Amoris maybe, but, historically speaking, none whatsoever in Catholic teaching on divorce and remarriage. (“More on Amoris”, 1-16-17)
Now I shall proceed to document many of Pope Francis’ affirmations of the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church regarding marriage and the indissolubility of marriage, divorce, and remarriage. It’s notable that in not a single instance of Feser calling out the pope on his blog for his supposed departure from the traditional norms, could he be bothered to take a few minutes out of his busy schedule and enlist Google Search to find the statements that I have found without too much effort.
He claims that the pope is ambiguous and not clear enough, blah blah blah (all standard talking points these days among his innumerable critics), yet in fact the pope has made it very clear, as I will show. Despite that, for some strange reason (assuming there is reason involved) his critics rarely look up these things and present them, so as to be fair to the head of the Catholic Church and the successor of St. Peter. It’s inevitably a one-way presentation, much as media portrayals of political debates only show one side (the liberal / Democrat positions).
In the last citation above, Feser complains about ad hominem against “critics” of the Holy Father. By the same token, I complain about ad hominem against the pope, too. If in fact Pope Francis upholds Church teaching on marriage and divorce (as I contend and, I think, demonstrate below), then to state otherwise would be in effect (and knowingly or not) an attack on him, since he doesn’t hold these views falsely attributed to him.
Let’s take a survey, then, of what sure seem to me to be clear, unambiguous affirmations of the Church’s traditional moral teaching on marriage, from Pope Francis (my bolding throughout):
The holiness and indissolubility of Christian matrimony, often disintegrating under tremendous pressure from the secular world, must be deepened by clear doctrine and supported by the witness of committed married couples.
Christian matrimony is a lifelong covenant of love between one man and one woman; it entails real sacrifices in order to turn away from illusory notions of sexual freedom and in order to foster conjugal fidelity. (4-25-14; cited in “Pope emphasizes ‘indissolubility of Christian matrimony'”, Catholic News Agency, same date)
And this always – we have said it here, in the Hall – without ever putting into question the fundamental truths of the Sacrament of marriage: the indissolubility, the unity, the faithfulness, the fruitfulness, that openness to life (cf. Cann. 1055, 1056; and Gaudium et spes, 48). (10-18-14, Address for the Conclusion of the Third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops)
No intervention called into question the fundamental truths of the Sacrament of Marriage, namely: indissolubility, unity, fidelity and openness to life (cf. Second Ecumenical Vatican Constitution, Gaudium et Spes, n. 48; Code of Canon Law, 1055-1056). This was not touched. (12-10-14, General Audience)
Through the centuries, the Church, having attained a clearer awareness of the words of Christ, came to and set forth a deeper understanding of the doctrine of the indissolubility of the sacred bond of marriage, developed a system of nullities of matrimonial consent, and put together a judicial process more fitting to the matter so that ecclesiastical discipline might conform more and more to the truth of the faith she was professing. . . .
This Committee, under the guidance of the Dean of the Roman Rota, drew up a plan for reform with due regard for the need to protect the principle of the indissolubility of the marital bond. . . .
Nevertheless, we are not unaware of the extent to which the principle of the indissolubility of marriage might be endangered by the briefer process; for this very reason we desire that the bishop himself be established as the judge in this process, who, due to his duty as pastor, has the greatest care for catholic unity with Peter in faith and discipline. (8-15-15, Apostolic Letter Motu Proprio Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus)
Marriage is indissoluble when it is a sacrament. And this the Church cannot change. It’s doctrine. It’s an indissoluble sacrament. . . . With the reform of the marriage annulment procedure, I closed the door to the administrative path, which was the path through which divorce could have made its way in. Those who think this is equivalent with “Catholic divorce” are mistaken because this last document has closed the door to divorce by which it could have entered. It would have been easier with the administrative path. . . . “Catholic divorce” does not exist. Nullity is granted if the union never existed. But if it did, it is indissoluble. (9-27-15, cited in “Pope Francis Reaffirms that Catholic Marriage is Indissoluble”, John Burger, Aleteia, 9-30-15; see another version at the Holy See website)
To a rhetorical question – probably asked as a trap to make him unpopular with the crowd, which practiced divorce as an established and inviolable fact – Jesus responds in a straightforward and unexpected way. He brings everything back to the beginning, to the beginning of creation, to teach us that God blesses human love, that it is he who joins the hearts of two people who love one another, he who joins them in unity and indissolubility. This shows us that the goal of conjugal life is not simply to live together for life, but to love one another for life! In this way Jesus re-establishes the order which was present from the beginning. . . .
To carry out her mission in fidelity to her Master as a voice crying out in the desert, in defending faithful love and encouraging the many families which live married life as an experience which reveals of God’s love; in defending the sacredness of life, of every life; in defending the unity and indissolubility of the conjugal bond as a sign of God’s grace and of the human person’s ability to love seriously. (10-4-15, Homily at the Mass for the opening of the Synod on the Family)
[The synod] was about urging everyone to appreciate the importance of the institution of the family and of marriage between a man and a woman, based on unity and indissolubility, and valuing it as the fundamental basis of society and human life. [10-24-15, Closing message to the Synod on the Family; “Pope Francis: Synod was about affirming family, indissoluble marriage”, Catholic News Agency, 10-24-15)
The lack of formation in faith and also an error regarding the unity, indissolubility and sacramental dignity of marriage may vitiate matrimonial consent only if they determine the will. It is precisely for this reason that errors regarding the sacramental nature of marriage must be evaluated very carefully. . . .
The family, founded on indissoluble marriage, unitive and procreative, belongs to the ‘dream’ of God and of his Church for the salvation of humanity, . . .
[The] essential elements [or marriage are] offspring, the good of spouses, unity, indissolubility, sacramentality. (1-22-16, cited in “Francis affirms indissolubility of marriage, objectivity of annulment conditions”, The Catholic World Report / Catholic News Agency, 1-23-16)
No one can think that the weakening of the family as that natural society founded on marriage will prove beneficial to society as a whole. . . . There is a failure to realize that only the exclusive and indissoluble union between a man and a woman has a plenary role to play in society as a stable commitment that bears fruit in new life. (52)
In various countries, legislation facilitates a growing variety of alternatives to marriage, with the result that marriage, with its characteristics of exclusivity, indissolubility and openness to life, comes to appear as an old-fashioned and outdated option. (53)
The Synod Fathers noted that Jesus, “in speaking of God’s original plan for man and woman, reaffirmed the indissoluble union between them, even stating that ‘it was for your hardness of heart that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so’ (Mt 19:8). The indissolubility of marriage – ‘what God has joined together, let no man put asunder’ (Mt 19:6) – should not be viewed as a ‘yoke’ imposed on humanity, but as a ‘gift’ granted to those who are joined in marriage… (62)
It is particularly helpful to understand in a Christocentric key… the good of the spouses (bonum coniugum)”, which includes unity, openness to life, fidelity, indissolubility and, within Christian marriage, mutual support on the path towards complete friendship with the Lord. (77)
For they bear witness, in a credible way, to the beauty of marriage as indissoluble and perpetually faithful. (86)
Marriage joins to all this an indissoluble exclusivity expressed in the stable commitment to share and shape together the whole of life. (123)
In the words of Saint Robert Bellarmine, “the fact that one man unites with one woman in an indissoluble bond, and that they remain inseparable despite every kind of difficulty, even when there is no longer hope for children, can only be the sign of a great mystery”. (124)
Marital love is not defended primarily by presenting indissolubility as a duty, or by repeating doctrine, but by helping it to grow ever stronger under the impulse of grace. (134)
It is a deeper love, a lifelong decision of the heart. (163)
[W]e know that “marriage was not instituted solely for the procreation of children… Even in cases where, despite the intense desire of the spouses, there are no children, marriage still retains its character of being a whole manner and communion of life, and preserves its value and indissolubility”. (178)
Both short-term and long-term marriage preparation should ensure that the couple do not view the wedding ceremony as the end of the road, but instead embark upon marriage as a lifelong calling . . . (211)
Another great challenge of marriage preparation is to help couples realize that marriage is not something that happens once for all.
Their union is real and irrevocable, confirmed and consecrated by the sacrament of matrimony. Yet in joining their lives, the spouses assume an active and creative role in a lifelong project. (218)
The Christian community’s care of such persons is not to be considered a weakening of its faith and testimony to the indissolubility of marriage; rather, such care is a particular expression of its charity”. (243)
Divorce is an evil and the increasing number of divorces is very troubling. (246)
[W]e are also experiencing a culture of the provisional. I heard a bishop say, several months ago, that a young man, who had finished his university studies, a fine young man, introduced himself to the bishop and told him: “I want to become a priest, but for 10 years”. It is the culture of the provisional. This happens everywhere, even in priestly life, in religious life. The provisional. This is why a part of our sacramental marriages are null, because they [the spouses] say: “Yes, for a lifetime”, but they do not know what they are saying, because they have another culture. They say it, and they mean well, but they do not have the awareness. A woman in Buenos Aires once scolded me: “You priests are clever, because to become priests you study for eight years, and then, if things do not go well and the priest finds a young woman that he likes…. in the end you give him permission to get married and have a family. And we lay people, who have to make an indissoluble lifelong sacrament, they make us have four conferences, and this for a lifetime!”. To me, one of the problems is this: the preparation for marriage. . . .
The marriage crisis is because people don’t know the sacrament, the beauty of the sacrament: they do not know what indissoluble means, they do not know that it is for a lifetime. (6-16-16, Address)
But when we receive a sacrament which is indissoluble for our whole life, it is the mystery of Christ and of the Church and it lasts a lifetime, they prepare us with three or four conferences?”. It’s true: the preparation for marriage. It is better not to get married, not to receive the sacrament if you are not certain of the fact that there is a sacramental mystery there, it is truly the embrace of Christ with the Church; if you are not well prepared. (6-18-16, Address)
Marriage is the most beautiful thing that God has created. The Bible tells us that God created man and woman, created them in his own image (cfr Gen 1:27). That is to say, the man and woman who become one flesh, are the image of God. . . . do you know who pays the divorce fees? Two people pay. Who pays? . . . Both? More! God pays, because when “one flesh” is divided, the image of God is soiled. And the children pay. You do not know, dear brothers and sisters, you do not know how much children suffer, the little ones, when they witness the arguments and the separation of parents! Everything should be done to save a marriage. (10-1-16, Address)
When we speak of marriage as a union between man and a woman, as God established it, as an image of God, it is a man and a woman. The image of God is not the male: it is both man and woman. Together. They become one flesh when they are united in marriage. This is the truth. It is true that, in this culture, conflicts and any number of problems are not well handled, and there are also philosophies like “Today I’ll enter this [marriage], and when I get tired of it, I’ll enter another, then a third, then a fourth…” This is the “world war” against marriage you were talking about. We need to be careful not to let these ideas take hold in us. But first of all, marriage is the image of God, man and woman in one flesh. When this is destroyed, the image of God is “marred” or distorted. (10-2-16, In-Flight News Conference)
Today fleeting relationships are preferred to the stability of a definitive life project. But a house built on the sand of frail and fickle relationships cannot stand. What is needed instead is a rock on which to build solid foundations. And this rock is precisely that faithful and indissoluble communion of love that joins man and woman, a communion that has an austere and simple beauty, a sacred and inviolable character and a natural role in the social order. (1-8-18, Address)
Jesus’ love for children, his filial relationship with the heavenly Father, his defence of the marriage bond, which he declares sacred and indissoluble, fully reveals the family’s place in God’s plan: being the cradle of life and the first place of welcome and of love, it plays an essential role in mankind’s vocation and is like a window which opens wide onto the very mystery of God, who is Love in the unity and in the trinity of the Persons. (6-16-18, Address)
Of all the kinds of human fruitfulness, marriage is unique. It is about a love that gives rise to new life. It involves mutual responsibility for the transmission of God’s gift of life, and it provides a stable environment in which that new life can grow and flourish. Marriage in the Church, that is, the sacrament of matrimony, shares in a special way in the mystery of God’s eternal love. When a Christian man and woman enter the bond of marriage, God’s grace enables them freely to promise one another an exclusive and enduring love. Their union thus becomes a sacramental sign – this is important – the sacrament of marriage becomes a sacramental sign of the new and eternal covenant between the Lord and his bride, the Church. Jesus is ever present in their midst. He sustains them throughout life in their mutual gift of self, in fidelity and in indissoluble unity (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 48). Jesus’ love is, for couples, a rock and refuge in times of trial, but more importantly, a source of constant growth in pure and enduring love. Gamble big, for your entire life! Take a risk! Because marriage is also a risk, but it is a risk worth taking. For your whole life, because that is how love is. (8-25-18, Address in Dublin)
The love of Christ that renews all things is what makes possible marriage and a conjugal love marked by fidelity, indissolubility, unity and openness to life. (8-25-18, Address at Croke Park Stadium, Dublin)
Quite often, the very root of problems that come to light after the celebration of the Sacrament of Matrimony is to be found not only in a latent and unsuspected immaturity that suddenly explodes, but especially in the weakness of Christian faith and the absence of accompaniment from the Church, in the solitude in which young spouses are generally left after the wedding. Only when they are faced with everyday life together, which calls spouses to grow on a journey of giving and sacrifice, do some realize that they had not fully understood what they were about to begin. And they find themselves unprepared, especially when faced with the magnitude and meaning of Christian marriage with regard to the practical implications linked to the indissolubility of the bond, to being open to pass on the gift of life, and to fidelity.
That is why I reaffirm the need for a permanent catechumenate for the Sacrament of Matrimony, which concerns its preparation, celebration and the initial times that follow. (Address, 9-27-18)
And here, Jesus again takes up the Book of Genesis: “from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female’. ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one’” (vv. 6-8). And he concludes: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder” (v. 9). In the Creator’s original plan, it is not that a man marries a woman and, if things do not go well, he repudiates her. No. (10-7-18, Angelus)
I would ask Ed Feser and the many others who “argue” as he does in this regard, “what part of ‘indissolubility of marriage’ is so difficult for you to understand?” What is so unclear or “ambiguous” about the above? And why was it so hard for all these critics to find all of this? Or if they could find it (using computer skills any smart seven-year-old today possesses), why were they unwilling to do so, or unwilling to include this ultra-relevant information in their attack-pieces?
See the the two follow-up papers:
Photo credit: Mohamed Mahmoud Hassan [PublicDomainPictures.Net]
Summary: I document Pope Francis’ affirmations of Catholic teaching regarding divorce & the indissolubility of marriage, over against Ed Feser’s critical (“doctrinally problematic”) claims.