May 16, 2019

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Richard A. Spinello, author of this article at Crisis!!!, goes as far as to claim that the pope emeritus’s recent letter was an “implicit rebuke” of Amoris Laetitia. Odd, then, that the Vatican gave the green light to B16. How very careless of Frank, to miss his subtext this way. But Spinello sees all, even though “Benedict is quite discrete, of course, and never mentions Amoris Laetitia.” It all has the tone of wishful thinking on Spinello’s part.

Here’s why I say that. First we must listen to Spinello:

[B16’s] reference to an “absolute good” and to “fundamentally evil” actions stands in sharp contrast to the more pliant moral doctrine proposed in this papal pronouncement.

So I am to believe, am I, that Pope Francis, in Amoris Laetitia, rejects concepts of “absolute good” and “fundamental evil.” Problem is, if you actually read the text—I have, dear reader—you will discover that the pope explicitly affirms these things. Here is §295:

For the law is itself a gift of God which points out the way, a gift for everyone without exception; it can be followed with the help of grace.

So there are no exceptions to the divine law. But Amoris Laetitia continues. Here is §297:

Naturally, if someone flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal, or wants to impose something other than what the Church teaches, he or she can in no way presume to teach or preach to others; this is a case of something which separates from the community (cf. Mt 18:17). Such a person needs to listen once more to the Gospel message and its call to conversion.”

So there is such a thing as “objective sin,” according to Pope Francis. And if you try to reject it, you are “separate[d] from the community.”

Well, it sure does not sound as though Pope Francis believes in a “pliant moral doctrine.” Does it? Where there is some pliancy in Amoris Laetitia, it has to do with the reality that grave matter does not always equal mortal sin. This is standard Catholic moral theology. The Catechism lists three conditions for mortal sin, and only one of them is that grave matter be involved. But there must also be “full knowledge” and “deliberate consent.” And Pope Francis recognizes, as did St. John Paul II before him in Familiaris Consortio, that individuals approach full understanding of the moral law gradually.

So there is a great deal of “pliancy” there, but not at all on the fact that the moral law is objective. The pope states clearly that it is, and Spinello does not the truth when he tells you otherwise.

November 16, 2016


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Imean, really, dear reader, maybe I am a fool, but didn’t we have a clarification already from Cardinal Schonborn? I reported on this all the way back on May 1. If my math is correct, that was two hundred days ago. Have people not been reading this blog? Listening to Schonborn?

Back in April, the wery month the pope released Amoris Laetitia, Cardinal Schonborn addressed “the question of this little footnote.” (That’s footnote 351, if I may refresh your memory, dear reader, the smoking gun, the elephant in the corner, the heresy in the Church, the prevailing of the gates of Hell, which, if we are to believe 1 Vader 5 and the other usual suspects, says that unrepentant couples in an adulterous union may nevertheless receive communion.)

“In certain cases,” says the footnote, couples in such irregular unions can receive “the help of the sacraments.”

Grab me my fainting couch, what does that mean?!

Cardinal Schonborn tells us. Behold, I told you before. Says Schonborn:

There is one point, very clear already. John Paul II has known, in certain cases, explicitly. And this is important for the understanding. You all know the famous exception John Paul has explicitly said.

And what is this “exception” given by John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio 84? Let us look.

[W]hen, for serious reasons, such as for example the children’s upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they “take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.”

Oh. So according to Cardinal Schonborn, the “certain cases” the pope has in mind in footnote 351 are the ones described by John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio 84. The couple must agree to live in continence, and then they can receive Communion.

And remember, dear reader, according to Life Site News itself, Pope Francis has said that Schonborn’s interpretation on this topic is “the final word.”

So where’s the confusion? Why aren’t we listening to Cardinal Schonborn?

Or why aren’t we listening to Cardinal Muller, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith? According to Muller, Amoris Laetitia is in perfect accord with Church teaching on communion in such cases, which would mean Familiaris Consortio 84. Right? Teach me, if I be wrong.

According to Muller:

Without going into details, it is enough to point out that this footnote [351] refers to objective situations of sin in general, not to the specific case of civilly remarried divorcees. The situation of the latter has peculiar features which distinguishes it from other situations. . . . [it] does not apply to the previous discipline. . . . The standard of FC 84 and SC [Sacramentum Caritatis] 29 and their application in all cases is still valid.

[Note: SC, Pope Benedict XVI’s apostolic exhortation of 2007, reiterates in paragraph 29 the conditions of FC 84.]

Why, dear me, what Schonborn and Muller say about Amoris is exactly what I said about it all through the month of April!

Don’t doubt me, dear reader.

More importantly, don’t doubt the princes of the Church who have already given this same clarification multiple times. I fail to understand why prelates must rush out upon demand to clarify Amoris Laetitia over and over and over again. How many times is enough? Seven? Seventy? Seventy times seven? 35 quintillion?

Every time one of them clarifies Amoris, he tells us, Hey, guys, gals, kittens and puppies, and everything that God hath made, Amoris is to be read completely and fully in line with the tradition of the Church, it is consistent with Familiaris, it is consistent with Sacramentum, don’t worry, don’t pitch yourself over a cliff, don’t listen to 1 Vader 5.

And yet now, God help us all, there is a request for one more clarification, as if we don’t have other things to talk about, with dire warning of cardinals making a “formal correction” of Pope Francis, with desperate talk of there being confusion and division, and we need Burke, Caffara, Brandmuller, and Meisner to ride in on white horses and save the Church from the pope.

Why? Because Schonborn and Muller are not to be believed? Who are they, anyway? Schonborn and Muller? Pshaw! Schonborn and Muller are asses who don’t know which way is up, which way is down, or perhaps they are lying, covering for a heretic, spreading the smoke of Satan. Who knows?

I just fail to understand what more should be clarified, and so does Dave Armstrong.

Perhaps you can help me, dear reader.

May 10, 2016

The Council of Trent, by Pasquale Cati
The Council of Trent, by Pasquale Cati

Note: This is Part 5 of a five-part response to Dr. E. Christian Brugger’s critique of Amoris Laetitia. Part 1 can be found here. Dr. Brugger’s article can be found at Catholic World Report here. Amoris Laetitia can be found here.


Dr. Brugger’s fifth and final claim about Amoris Laetitia is that it is “inconsistent” with the Council of Trent. This one is very briefly refuted. He is thinking of AL 301:

Hence it is can no longer simply be said that all those in any “irregular” situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace. More is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule. A subject may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding “its inherent values”, or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin.

Dr. Brugger finds this at odds with the Council of Trent’s insistence, in canon 18 of the Decree on Justification, that “If any one says the commandments of God are impossible to keep, even by a person who is justified and constituted in grace: let him be anathema.”

But the reader will recall AL 295, which I keep bringing up since Dr. Brugger does not mention it at all in more than five thousand words:

For the law is itself a gift of God which points out the way, a gift for everyone without exception; it can be followed with the help of grace.

However one reads AL 301, he can not read it in such a way that it would deny what the pope had said just six paragraphs earlier. The pope does not think that “the commandments of God are impossible to follow,” for he says in AL 295 that “everyone without exception” can do so. Dr. Brugger does not mention this part.

So what is the pope saying in AL 301? The first thing that must be kept in mind, when answering that question, is the context: In 301 the pope is discussing various factors that can mitigate culpability when grave matter is present. He is not speaking about the truth of the moral law, nor one’s ability to follow it, but instead whether one’s failure to follow it constitutes mortal sin.

When that context is considered, AL 301 does not become much of a problem at all. “Hence it can no longer simply be said,” the pope writes in the very passage cited by Dr. Brugger, “that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace.” The discussion here is about whether one can be charged with mortal sin, not whether one is unable to follow the moral law.

“What AL is ignoring,” says Dr. Brugger, “is the adequacy of grace to enable people to respond to the overall objective demands of the Gospel.”

Not so: Remember AL 295: “It can be followed with the help of grace.” Where in that statement does Dr. Brugger find a denial of “the adequacy of grace”?

That is the unanswered question.


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May 10, 2016

Amoris laetitia

Rembrandt, “Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law” (1659)

Note: This is Part 4 of a five-part response to Dr. E. Christian Brugger’s critique of Amoris Laetitia. Part 1 can be found here. Dr. Brugger’s article can be found at Catholic World Report here. Amoris Laetitia can be found here.


I wish Pope Francis had not used the word “ideal” at all in reference to the moral law; if for no other reason than its potential to mislead. I can be frank about that. The word can suggest that a moral life is no more than a goal; God prefers that you achieve it, but strictly speaking you can do without it if you fall short.

But that is not what Pope Francis meant to imply. And to know he didn’t, we need look no further than AL 295, where he speaks of the Law of Gradualness:

This is not a “gradualness of law” but rather a gradualness in the prudential exercise of free acts on the part of subjects who are not in a position to understand, appreciate, or fully carry out the objective demands of the law. For the law is itself a gift of God which points out the way, a gift for everyone without exception; it can be followed with the help of grace.

The moral law is “objective”; it is “for everyone without exception”; and it “can be followed.” Thus says Pope Francis, in a passage Dr. Brugger does not quote even once. (That is remarkable in an article of more than five thousand words.) He discusses three passages from Chapter 8—in sections 304, 305, and 307-308—but at no time does he refer to 295 to try to shed light on the pope’s meaning.


In AL 304, Pope Francis cites St. Thomas Aquinas regarding how, the further one “descend[s] to matters of detail,” one may “encounter defects” in “general principles”:

Although there is necessity in the general principles, the more we descend to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter defects. … In matters of action, truth or practical rectitude is not the same for all, as to matters of detail, but only as to the general principles; and where there is the same rectitude in matters of detail, it is not equally known to all. … The principle will be found to fail, according as we descend further into detail” (ST, I-II, q. 94, a. 4).

Pope Francis cites this passage in order to point out that “It is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being.”

Dr. Brugger raises the following objection to the pope’s use of Aquinas in this context:

Aquinas certainly does not have the norm against adultery in mind when he speaks about the “failure” of general principles (“encountering defects”). We know this because we know he does not consider the norm against adultery a general principle, but rather a concrete moral absolute. Aquinas’ definition of adultery (II-II, q. 154, a. 8c) is very specific: “adultery is access to another’s marriage-bed”, i.e., engaging in sexual intercourse despite the fact that at least one of the acting persons is married to someone else. This is not a general norm, such as “love your neighbor as yourself.” It is specific and concrete and Aquinas expressly teaches that it is binding even when by adultery one could save the country from tyranny.

And while all that is strictly true, as applied to Amoris Laetitia it is an exercise in question-begging. Dr. Brugger simply assumes that by “general rule,” the pope has in mind: “Adultery is morally wrong”; or: “A second marriage without annulment of the first is adultery.” If he had paid attention to the overall context in which §304 comes up, he might have avoided this assumption.

Go back a mere two paragraphs earlier, to §302, and you will find the pope discussing factors that mitigate culpability where there is grave matter. Dr. Brugger himself has admitted that mitigating factors are an important aspect of moral theology. In that context, the “general rule” the pope has in mind might be: “Those who contract an irregular marriage are guilty of the mortal sin of adultery.” In other words, the pope is addressing situations where there might be adultery (grave matter) without guilt for adultery (mortal sin). The “general principle” is not: “Adultery is grave matter,” but: “Where there is grave matter there is mortal sin.”

“What’s missed throughout chapter 8,” Dr. Brugger claims, “is any discussion—or even any mention—of the truth that adultery is intrinsically evil.”

Not so; and that is why I began by quoting from AL 295. In the paragraphs leading up to 295, the pope’s discussion is about the moral law in general terms, not mitigating factors that diminish culpability. When the pope speaks of the moral law generally, he says that it is an “objective demand” for “everyone.” When he speaks of factors that mitigate culpability, he speaks of “general principles.” Dr. Brugger treats a discussion of the one as though it is a discussion of the other.


AL 305 begins:

Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors [See how I told you this was the context, not the moral law of itself?] it is possible that in an objective situation of sin [I thought Dr. Brugger told us the pope does not believe adultery is objectively sinful!] which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such [See the importance of context?] a person can be living in God’s grace.

The pope goes on to discuss how pastoral discernment can help such couples to discover “paths of sanctification.” Dr. Brugger immediately declares: “In this passage the German bishops get all they want.” He is distressed enough by the thought to put it in italics and underline it.

If only he had printed it in bold-face and all caps too.

But I am not entirely clear how he reaches any such conclusion. He seems to read it into the text. “It is true,” he says, “that because of invincible ignorance, people can be living in grace while choosing objectively gravely immoral objects. But even if a pastor could know they are in such ignorance, he would have a duty in charity to help them get out of their objectively sinful situation.”

Well, what does Mr. Brugger think the pope has just been describing? In which sentence does the pope say, “Allow them to remain as they are”? Is remaining as you are a “path of sanctification”?

Moreover, in which sentence does the say, “Allow them to line up for communion”? Mr. Brugger claims to find this in the phrase “the Church’s help.” By “the Church’s help” the pope must mean “receive communion,” and Dr. Brugger cites footnote 351. Cardinal Schonborn himself, however, in a presentation long available by the date Catholic World Report published Dr. Brugger’s article, specified that the “certain cases” in which communion could be given were those in which the couple agreed to live in continence. Might not continence be a “path of sanctification”?

“More than this,” Dr. Brugger continues,

all those who dissented against the Church’s teachings of moral absolutes get what they wanted. For those so-called absolutes are now non-binding ideals, and people who think that contracepting, etc., are okay for them here and now are doing what God is asking of them in their complex situations.

Wait, how did contraception come into this? And earlier in the article, Dr. Brugger said that one of the strengths of Amoris Laetitia was its reiteration of the evil of contraception. But now I am supposed to believe the pope approves of it in a passage where it’s not even the subject? How does that work?

Nowhere in this section does Dr. Brugger explain how the German bishops are being given an imprimatur to distribute communion to anyone at all, still less how Humanae Vitae just got overturned. He just claims it, without doing sufficient work to show where he finds it in the text.


Dr. Brugger last goes on to quote from AL 307-308, giving emphasis to all the times Pope Francis describes Christian marriage as an “ideal.” Since I concede this is a weakness of the exhortation—in terms of word choice—I would only point out that is careful not to read into the poor word choice a meaning that is not there. It is poor word choice, and that is all it is.

It is perfectly true to say that this word choice could be misleading. But it is not true to say, as Dr. Brugger does, that behind it stands some belief on the pope’s part that “the command of Christ is merely an ideal.” For the pope has already described it as an “objective demand.” (AL 295 is important.)

Again, we must not be so eager to critique this paragraph that we disregard that passage.


Part 5 can be found here

May 4, 2016

Amoris laetitia

Francois Chifflart, “La Conscience” (illustration for Victor Hugo)

Note: This is Part 3 of a five-part response to Dr. E. Christian Brugger’s critique of Amoris Laetitia. Part 1 can be found here. Dr. Brugger’s article can be found at Catholic World Report here. Amoris Laetitia can be found here.


Of five “serious problems” Dr. E. Christian Brugger claims to find in Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, the third is “its account of the role of conscience in acquitting persons in objectively sinful situations.” Specifically, Dr. Brugger finds the pope’s account self-contradictory.

He begins by quoting the following passage from AL 303 [bolding mine]:

We can add that individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the Church’s praxis in certain situations which do not objectively embody our understanding of marriage. Naturally, every effort should be made to encourage the development of an enlightened conscience, formed and guided by the responsible and serious discernment of one’s pastor, and to encourage an ever greater trust in God’s grace. Yet conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal.

Dr. Brugger finds the latter part of this to be “in direct opposition” to the first. “An individual’s conscience,” he says,

may both: [1] judge that some action does not correspond to the overall demands of the Gospel; and [2] judge that God is asking them to perform that action. In other words, God can be “asking” someone to live in a life-state in which they are objectively violating grave matter.

But the pope does not suggest that God is asking anyone to perform grave sin. Dr. Brugger reads that into the passage, and does not explain why it is the necessary reading. At no point ask whether he may have misread the text. He does not seek any consistent sense in which one might read this passage.

But the pope’s exact words are “what is for now the most generous response that can be given to God.” That is “what God is asking.” Perhaps you may not, overnight, be able to abandon a sin you have been guilty of a long time. Things you do by habit you often need to abandon in stages. Yes, I avail myself of the confessional; I make a firm purpose of amendment; but perhaps in three days I fall again. The “most generous response” is to recognize the error, return to confession, and try again. God does not say, “I want you to keep sinning.” He does say, “If you can’t abandon your sin overnight, I want you to move in that direction.”

This is why the pope uses words like “for now” and “yet not fully.” He is telling us about a process; and he is fully consistent with his earlier discussion of the Law of Gradualness.

Dr. Brugger seems to understand this when he speaks about penitents who are “weak” and “struggling with a compulsive condition.” Why he does not see the application to AL 303, I can not explain.

Nor does he quote the very last sentence of 303:

In any event, let us recall that this discernment is dynamic; it must remain ever open to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realized.

The pope is speaking of people who are moving toward the moral law, but not in one great leap. Where is the inconsistency?

The pope speaks of the development of conscience in light of the Law of Gradualness elsewhere, such as §222. There he says:

The more the couple tries to listen in conscience to God and his commandments (cf. Rom 2:15), and is accompanied spiritually, the more their decision will be profoundly free of subjective caprice and accommodation to prevailing social mores.

The pope understands that some people’s sinful behaviors, particularly in divorce and remarriage, can originate in “subjective caprice” and “prevailing social mores”; but he understands that the corrective to that is more than justs the word “Stop.” It’s a process in growth of conscience; one moves gradually in the direction of the moral law. God, in the pope’s view, does not ask us to sin; He asks us to abandon our sin, even if it may take time and effort. The “most generous response,” then, is to try—not necessarily to succeed right away.

That’s what AL 303 is saying.


Part 4 can be found here

May 2, 2016

Photo credit: Michael L. Russell, public domain

Photo credit: Michael L. Russell, public domain

The following is a guest post by Deacon Jim Russell, a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine. Deacon Jim has been one of the strongest defenders of Amoris Laetitia in his conversations on Facebook. He gives a much-needed historical perspective on what the pope’s exhortation means for the future of the Church, particularly in the United States.


This post on Amoris Laetitia will not cite the text directly; nor will it get into why other commenters’ interpretations fall short of understanding the pope’s words. (Though some certainly do.) Rather, I will try to give a very simple account of what I have read and understood about this all-important papal work. My goal is to help any average person in the pew to understand—and appreciate—what our Holy Father’s innovative message really is.

First we have to set the stage a bit. Why are so many, particularly in the United States, having trouble understanding the pope’s thinking about divorce, remarriage, and communion? Why do so many Americans seem to conclude that he wants to allow reception to those in an irregular marriage? I believe that we Americans are well behind the curve in being able to assess Amoris Laetitia. In part, that is because we have hardly any pastoral tradition at all in accompanying those in irregular unions. And this is because, in the United States, from the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884 until 1977, such Catholics were automatically excommunicated.

Let that sink in. Here in the United States, up until just a few years before Pope John Paul II published Familiaris Consortio), Catholics in these situations were excommunicated. They were ostracized from the Church. In the majority of cases, it is certain they neither sought nor received recognition or pastoral support while excommunicated. (Unless they were prepared to pursue an annulment.)

Once these excommunications were lifted in 1977, the prohibition against receiving Communion remained. But there was no longer any basis for excluding these Catholics from the parish community. John Paul II noted that clearly in Familiaris.

But, in the last 35 years, very little has been done to integrate the divorced and remarried into parish life. Rather, the focus has remained upon whether they may receive Communion. This could not have been clearer as the media seized upon this theme in covering the two recent synods on the family.

But that theme is not what Pope Francis has been trying to address. Rather, he wants us to do what Pope John Paul II asked us to do 35 years ago. He wants us to accompany and integrate the divorced and remarried into parish life. He wants us to do that regardless of whether they are pursuing an annulment or are in a position to receive Communion.

You see, for 35 years in the United States, the extent of our pastoral “accompaniment” of such persons has amounted to those two things. We’ll help you get an annulment; and we’ll let you receive Communion if you can either separate or live as brother and sister. (And not give scandal in receiving Communion.)

Pope Francis gets that. And he’s not trying to change that. Rather, he’s trying to bring to fruition what his predecessors also said; namely, that these two things are not enough. Our pastoral response is supposed to be for all couples in irregular unions. It is not just for those who seek an annulment or those agree to remain continent.

It is not enough to cite the “rules” to a couple. Hey, you need an annulment; you need to stop having sex if you want Communion. It’s not enough to just set the bar. Why? Because many such couples are not yet converted enough to want an annulment, or a life of continence.

Everything Pope Francis says in his new exhortation is designed to encourage pastors and parishes to embrace all Catholics who find themselves in irregular unions. We should not just embrace those who want an annulment, or perfect continence. So, while the whole world is interested only in whether he’s changed the Communion discipline, Pope Francis is trying to get us to pay attention to the larger question. What are we able to do with those who still say “no” to annulments and “no” to perfect continence? Pastors still have responsibilities in those circumstances.

And conscience plays a role in this discernment for couples. When a person discerns that a prior marital bond was possibly invalid, then they would be encouraged to pursue an annulment. But what if a person decides that they are bound by the prior marriage—-despite their longstanding new union, kids and all? Such a person would have no reason to seek an annulment. Or what if a couple is not sufficiently formed to understand the call to perfect continence? They’re not going to immediately cease sexual relations; they can’t see its value.

In such circumstances, both Confession and Eucharist are out of reach. But participating in the life of the Church is not out of reach. And this is what makes Amoris Laetitia an “innovative” document; this is how it develops doctrine. It’s telling us that ministering to such couples is not an option. Rather, the only way forward for such couples is through accompaniment, discernment, and integration. That is how they will advance toward the larger goals.

Such discernment may or may not ever lead to the Sacraments. Yet, we are called to make room for these couples in our parish communities; regardless of whether they ever move toward such a return. And this integration is so entirely foreign to many in the United States, they cannot see the forest for the trees. They can only imagine a slippery slope toward letting unrepentant couples in irregular unions receive Communion.

The truth may actually be more unsettling for some; for Pope Francis is saying that we may need to let couples in irregular unions be treated as members of our parish communities, even in the midst of their gradual return to a deeper and more real conversion.

In the end, Pope Francis is telling us that the existing “rules” are not enough. But it’s not because they’re not important. Rather, it’s because they do not, by themselves, put us in the position of encounter with our brothers and sisters. And once we open the door to allCatholics, any thought of applying a one-size-fits-all “rule” falls by the wayside. But importantly, the rule itself doesn’t fall by the wayside. Those who come to believe their prior bond may be invalid should seek an annulment, as always. Those who are repentant should go to Confession and commit to remaining in a state of grace by remining continent. They will be able to receive Communion.

The innovation, however, is to be found in how we seek to support those who aren’t there yet. Most of the time, Catholics in the United States have merely written off such folks. They conclude that accompaniment begins only when they want the annulment or can commit to continence. But Pope Francis rejects this approach as too rigid. Nothing he says challenges the “rules, or the “certain cases” in which a return to the sacraments is possible. He’s asks nothing new. Instead he asks for something new when it comes to those who have yet to achieve even that level of spiritual progress. He’s asking us all to stand with couples who may never get an annulment, who may never find their way back to the Sacraments.

And we, here in the United States, are apprentices in this kind of pastoral work. We lack even the most basic tradition in this area; we only stopped excommunicating these couples in 1977.

So we’ve got a huge amount of work to do. And let us be grateful that our Holy Father has our back. He wants us to succeed in this. And he’s given us gracious words of encouragement. Let’s not be confused or panicked by reports of how all this is back-door deception so that people can receive Communion unworthily. It’s not.

Pope Francis just wants everybody—everybody—to live up to their baptismal calling. Not just the divorced and remarried, but the rest of us as well.

April 30, 2016

Robert Spaemann (Photo Credit: Jorg Noller, Creative Commons)

Robert Spaemann (Photo Credit: Jorg Noller, Creative Commons)

Dr. Robert Spaemann, a retired German philosophy professor—why is it always the Germans?—who was an adviser to St. John Paul II and is a friend of Benedict XVI, gave an interview in the German press, critical of Amoris Laetitia (AL), warning of schism; and it has been picked up by all the suspect media. One Vader Five carried the story; as did LSD News. One cannot wave a blithe hand and dismiss Spaemann, however pleasant that would be. And so we must sort out and weigh what he says in this interview with Anian Christoph Wimmer, the editor of CNA’s German-language edition.)

Mr. Wimmer begins by asking Dr. Spaemann whether AL “should be read in continuity with the teachings of the Church.”

(Of course it should. This is how one reads Church documents. Hermeneutic of continuity, etc., etc. Dr. Spaemann is a friend of Benedict, you know. He should know this. Next question?)

Now, I note here that Cardinal Burke has taken up this question himself; and his answer is the same as mine: Of course it “should be read in continuity”; what are you talking about? He has strong words for those who say otherwise:

Such a view of the document [i.e., as a “radical departure”] is both a source of wonder and confusion to the faithful and potentially a source of scandal, not only for the faithful but for others of goodwill who look to Christ and his Church to teach and reflect in practice the truth regarding marriage and its fruit, family life, the first cell of the life of the Church and of every society.

Now mark that. Get out your red pens and underscore it well. Burke says that those who cry “Rupture! Rupture!” are the ones causing scandal and confusion. These do not come from the pope, nor his defenders, but from his detractors. Mark.

It is also a disservice to the nature of the document as the fruit of the Synod of Bishops, a meeting of bishops representing the universal Church “to assist the Roman pontiff with their counsel in the preservation and growth of faith and morals and in the observance and strengthening of ecclesiastical discipline and to consider questions pertaining to the activity of the Church in the world” (Canon 342). In other words, it would be a contradiction of the work of the Synod of Bishops to set in motion confusion regarding what the Church teaches, safeguards and fosters by her discipline.

The only key to the correct interpretation of Amoris Laetitia is the constant teaching of the Church and her discipline that safeguards and fosters this teaching.

I agree with Burke. Burke holds to the hermenutic of continuity. Burke is firm about it. Spaemann, by contrast, hedges in his answer to the question:

For the most part, it is possible, although the direction allows for consequences which cannot be made compatible with the teaching of the Church. Article 305 together with footnote 351—in which it is stated that believers can be allowed to the sacraments “in an objective situation of sin” “because of mitigating factors”—directly contradicts article 84 of Pope John Paul II’s exhortation Familiaris consortio.

So it is possible to read it in continuity “for the most part”; but AL somehow allows “consequences” out of step with Church teaching, and thus it “directly contradicts” Familiaris Consortio.

This is odd. How is it “possible” to read AL “in continuity” if it “directly contradicts” Familiaris? In FC 84, Pope St. John Paul II expressly reiterates the practice (cf. Canon 915) of withholding the Eucharist from Catholics in an irregular marriage, except when they agree to live in continence.

But it is just not true that AL 305 (and footnote 351) “directly contradict” that restriction. In 305, Pope Francis reiterates a commonplace of Catholic moral thought: that not everyone who is in a state of objective sin is mortally culpable. There may be grave matter but none of the other criteria to call it mortal sin (cf. CCC 1857-1860). The pope says that the Church must be ready to help such people “grow in the life of grace and charity”; then adds this footnote: “In certain cases this can include the help of the sacraments.”

In “certain cases”; but the pope does not say which cases. Nor does he say which sacraments. Did you know there are seven of them? The Eucharist is not the only one. Fr. Dwight Longenecker made note of that himself.

One must not forget what kind of document AL is, and more importantly the kind of document it is not. It is an apostolic exhortation; which means it is about pastoral care. It is not a teaching document. It is not a legislative document. Canon lawyer Dr. Edward N. Peters makes this point well in his article “The Law Before Amoris is the Law After.” Not only, Dr. Peters says, does Pope Francis not alter Canon 915, he does not even discuss Canon 915.

Dr. Spaemann is wrong, then, when he claims that AL “directly contradicts” FC. “A change in the practice of the administration of the sacraments,” he says, “would therefore be … a breach in [Church] teaching on marriage and human sexuality.” No doubt it would, but popes can not change the discipline of the sacraments in an exhortation. Footnote 351 is not the “decisive sentence” Dr. Spaemann thinks it is, that “change[s] the teaching of the Church.” (As though the pope has the authority to do, or could do, such a thing to begin with. Am I to believe the pope has chosen a footnote in an exhortation as the place to change Church teaching and sacramental discipline? Come on!)


Further on in the interview, we read this exchange:

Wimmer. The Holy Father emphasizes in his exhortation that nobody may be allowed to be condemned forever.

Spaemann. I find it difficult to understand what he means there. … I would like to know from the Pope, after what time and under which circumstances is objectively sinful conduct changed into conduct pleasing to God.

To be honest, I find it difficult to know what Spaemann is talking about here. I have not read the passage where the pope says that “objectively sinful conduct” may at some point become “conduct pleasing to God.” Where is that to be found?

The pope speaks of something quite different, “the law of gradualness,” a concept first described by John Paul II in FC 34. (To hear some people talk, you would think §84 was the entire text of FC.) Pope Francis explains:

For the law is itself a gift of God which points out the way, a gift for everyone without exception; it can be followed with the help of grace, even though each human being “advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God and the demands of God’s definitive and absolute love in his or her entire personal and social life”.

The quotation comes from FC. Pope Francis tells us that the moral law is objective; “everyone without exception” is obliged to follow it; which they can “with the help of grace,” even if they must proceed gradually. So the pope says the opposite of what Dr. Spaemann claims to read in AL: not that sinful conduct gradually becomes pleasing to God, but that sinners gradually learn to do what is pleasing to God.

Next Mr. Wimmer asks whether AL really does constitute a “breach.” Note well Dr. Spaemann’s response:

That it is an issue of a breach emerges doubtlessly for every thinking person, who knows the respective texts.

I find these words remarkable for their lack of charity, their out-of-hand dismissal of any different view than Dr. Spaemann’s own. Cardinal Burke does not think of AL as a “breach.” Does that mean Burke does not “know the respective texts”? Does that mean Burke is not a “thinking person”? If you disagree with Dr. Spaemann, it can only mean that you don’t think, or you can’t think? That’s an interesting way for Spaemann to avoid discussing the merits of any argument opposed to his own. Am I to think this is how renowned philosophers treat the discussion of ideas?

If I am wrong, then I am open to discussion about where and how I am wrong; just as I in my turn try to show where arguments I disagree with are wrong. I don’t accuse Spaemann of being anything other than a thinking person.


Not long after this, Dr. Spaemann claims that the pope believes in “situational ethics”; meaning that the pope thinks that “sexually disordered conduct” may not be “objectively sinful.” He contrasts this with the view of St. Thomas Aquinas.

Now, what’s odd about that is that the paragraph he cites to make this claim is 305; and in that paragraph the pope describes irregular marriages as “an objective situation of sin.” How very inconvenient for Dr. Spaemann. (N.B., I have read a number of people who say the pope never speaks about sin at all in AL. They have no clue at all what they are talking about.)

Culpability differs from case to case; but that’s not “situational ethics,” that’s Catholic moral theology; that’s the Catechism. So where is this “situational ethics” that Spaemann insists you can find in AL?

At the end of the interview, Mr. Wimmer asks about the consequences of Amoris.

The consequences are already foreseeable: uncertainty and confusion, from the bishops’ conferences to the small parishes in the middle of nowhere.

[There is no one a priest or bishop can write to? They are in the wilds? There’s been an EMP attack? This is so very odd.]

A few days ago, a priest from the Congo expressed to me his perplexity in light of this new papal document and the lack of clear precedents. [He can’t query his bishop? The Congo does have a bishop.] According to the respective passages from Amoris laetitia, not only remarried divorcés but also everyone living in some certain “irregular situation” could, by further nondescript “mitigating circumstances”, be allowed to confess other sins and receive Communion even without trying to abandon their sexual conduct—that means without confession and conversion. [That is not in the document. Is Dr. Spaemann making this up?.] Each priest who adheres to the until-now valid discipline of the sacraments, could be mobbed by the faithful and be put under pressure from his bishop.

[So what is Dr. Spaemann’s evidence that mobs are on horizon? The poor man is having a fretful fantasia. Exhortations do not change the discipline of the sacraments.]

Rome can now make the stipulation that only “merciful” bishops will be named, who are ready to soften the existing discipline. [Spaemann is having the sweats.] Chaos was raised to a principle by the stroke of a pen. The Pope must have known that he would split the Church with such a step and lead toward a schism—a schism that would not be settled on the peripheries, but rather in the heart of the Church. May God forbid that from happening.

So now Dr. Spaemann is uncharitably accusing the pope of deliberately trying to cause a schism. And whose schism? Are all those so-called “faithful” Catholics going to pack it up and head toward the Sedevacantist Hills? In what sense would that make them “faithful”? Or will the schism come when the German bishops and cardinals abandon the discipline of the sacraments and do what they may please? But to hear Dr. Spaemann tell it, AL permits this. So I’m not sure where Dr. Spaemann fears this schism is going to come from.

Dr. Spaemann continues.

One thing, however, seems clear to me: the concern of this Pope—that the Church should overcome her own self-referencing in order to be able to free-heartedly approach persons – has been destroyed by this papal document for an unforeseeable amount of time. A secularizing push and the further decrease in the number of priests in many parts of the world are also to be expected. [All because of AL? How does Spaemann know this? Where’s the data?] It has been able to be observed for quite some time that bishops and diocese[s] with a clear stance on faith and morality have the greatest increase in priests.

Well, okay, I can see that much. The valid criticism of AL, in my view, has to do with the fact that, in some sections (not all but some), the pope is broad and vague enough that mischievous priests and bishops can read their own desires into it. The pope will need to clarify and discipline. To avoid confusion, commentators must emphasize the hermeneutic of continuity; but Spaemann does not help in that regard. Would that he were the only such commentator.

April 25, 2016

Amoris laetitia

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Note: This is Part 2 of a five-part response to Dr. E. Christian Brugger’s critique of Amoris Laetitia. Part 1 can be found here. Dr. Brugger’s article can be found at Catholic World Report here. Amoris Laetitia can be found here.


The second of five “serious problems” that Dr. Brugger finds in Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia is that it is “inconsistent” in its treatment of not judging others. He deals with this “problem” much more succinctly than he does with the first one; so I can be succinct as well.

Dr. Brugger is referring to §298, which I will quote in full. (The part in bold is the part that Dr. Brugger quotes.)

The Synod addressed various situations of weakness or imperfection. Here I would like to reiterate something I sought to make clear to the whole Church, lest we take the wrong path: “There are two ways of thinking which recur throughout the Church’s history: casting off and reinstating. The Church’s way, from the time of the Council of Jerusalem, has always always been the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and reinstatement. The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone for ever; it is to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart. For true charity is always unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous.” Consequently, there is a need “to avoid judgements which do not take into account the complexity of various situations” and “to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience distress because of their condition.”

The context is a discussion of restoration and mercy, and that implies that wrongdoing has taken place. If no wrong has occurred, there is no need for mercy. Mercy, says the pope, must be requested “with a sincere heart,” meaning that one must be truly repentant and desire to have one’s life rightly ordered toward God. The pope says as much elsewhere, and I discuss that in part 1.

It is in this context that the pope tells us “to avoid judgments which do not take into account the complexity of various situations.” The qualification is important: The pope does not say we must not judge at all, only that all the facts need to be known.

But watch the trail that Dr. Brugger goes down with this statement. He begins by describing it as “sound advice” that “should be taken seriously.” If you suspect this is a prelude to a “but,” you are right:

But if we shouldn’t—and indeed can’t—render a judgment of condemnation on another person’s state of soul [which is not the kind of judgment the pope is talking about in the first place], then we shouldn’t and can’t render a judgment of acquittal either.

Except the pope did not just say we “can’t render a judgment,” end stop. He said we can’t render a judgment without all the facts. That’s different. And decisions about the state of one’s soul is not the pope’s topic in the first place. He is talking about pastoral care and mercy.

Dr. Brugger goes on:

[C]hapter 8 implies that pastors can have adequate certitude that a person lacks subjective culpability and so can free them to participate in the sacraments. [Not so. I go into that at length in Part 1: You can only come to that conclusion if you ignore key parts of Chapter 8.] No. 299 even refers to the divorced and civilly remarried as “living members” of the Church. The common understanding of a “living” member is a baptized person in grace.

I wonder whether Dr. Brugger would wish to identify any “serious problems” with Familiaris Consortio. For in §84 Pope St. John Paul II has this to say:

Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations. There is in fact a difference between those who have sincerely tried to save their first marriage and have been unjustly abandoned, and those who through their own grave fault have destroyed a canonically valid marriage. Finally, there are those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children’s upbringing, and who are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably destroyed marriage had never been valid.

Together with the Synod, I earnestly call upon pastors and the whole community of the faithful to help the divorced, and with solicitous care to make sure that they do not consider themselves as separated from the Church, for as baptized persons they can, and indeed must, share in her life. They should be encouraged to listen to the word of God, to attend the Sacrifice of the Mass, to persevere in prayer, to contribute to works of charity and to community efforts in favor of justice, to bring up their children in the Christian faith, to cultivate the spirit and practice of penance and thus implore, day by day, God’s grace. Let the Church pray for them, encourage them and show herself a merciful mother, and thus sustain them in faith and hope.

It sounds to me as though Chapter 8 does no more than repeat FC 84: discernment of situations, not all cases are the same, the divorced and remarried are not excommunicated, the Church must show mercy. John Paul II, like Francis, is talking about pastoral care toward wounded, and even erring, members of the Church.

Now, it is certainly true that the word “living” has a theological sense to it, in contrast with the state of being dead in your sins. In that sense, a “living member” is indeed someone who is in a state of grace.

But I would point out two things here. The first is that, if we are speaking about a situation of diminished culpability, it would be inaccurate to say that such and such a person is “dead in sins.” If we are speaking about a person who is repentant and wishes to be restored, it would be inaccurate to say that such and such a person is “dead in sins.”

Indeed, whether a person is dead in sin is not what Pope Francis is asking us to discern or judge. It is heresy to think one can know if anyone is or is not in a state of grace. (Remember Joan of Arc? She was asked, in her trial, “Are you in a state of grace?” The question was a trap: If she answered “no,” it would be an admission of guilt. If she answered “yes,” she could be condemned for heresy. Joan’s answer was brilliant: “If I am, I pray God may keep me there. If I am not, I pray God may put me there.”)

Therefore—second point—I do not think Pope Francis had in mind a judgment on someone’s soul. I am content to follow Benedict XVI’s hermeneutic of continuity (a hermeneutic Cardinal Burke applies to AL) and assume that when Pope Francis speaks of such people as “living members” of the Church, he means nothing different than John Paul II meant when he said that they “share in her life.” If you share in the Church’s life, you are in some sense a “living member,” are you not? No judgment is implied about whether or not such and such a person is in a state of grace.

“But how,” Dr. Bruger wonders, “can a priest judge that such people are in grace without judging? Pope Francis insists, and rightly so, that we mustn’t judge.”

No, that’s not what he said. He said we mustn’t judge without all the facts. He did not say we mustn’t judge at all, nor did he say we should judge whether anyone is in a state of grace. Dr. Brugger superimposes a soteriological context onto a discussion of pastoral care.

But I am confused. Dr. Brugger tells us that the pope is right to say we must not judge, he tells us that we can’t judge, and yet the pope is wrong because he tells us we should be judging. The pope tells us not to judge, and he is right; but he asks us to judge, and he is wrong. If this makes sense to you, dear reader, let me know.

Dr. Brugger goes on to explain why priests can not render a judgment on a person’s soul, but that was never what Pope Francis had asked us to do in the first place. This is a discussion of pastoral care, not a doctrinal treatise on soteriology. I don’t see any reason to assume a departure in Amoris from what John Paul II had already said. Pope Francis does no more than to tell us the criteria for any judgment—“discernment” is a better word—that is made in a pastoral context.

I take up Dr. Brugger’s third claim here.

April 25, 2016

Amoris laetitia

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At Catholic World Report, Dr. E. Christian Brugger has posted an article entitled “Five Serious Problems With Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia.” It is a long article, which my own never are; a full five thousand four hundred twelve words; longer than Chapter 8 itself. (For indeed, dear reader, I counted.)

So this will take some time to work through. Dr. Brugger’s article—unlike so many wailing panic attacks about Amoris Laetitia that can be briefly scoffed at, and refuted, and left to dry up like a raisin in the sun—is, or aims to be, analytical and scholarly. It requires care. And here I must point out that I don’t necessarily disagree with everything that Dr. Brugger says. I must separate the pro from the con.

To do all that (and since Dr. Brugger claims to have found five “serious problems” with AL) means that I will respond in five parts. I will take up these claims one post at a time.


For overview, here are the “serious problems” Dr. Brugger finds in Chapter 8:

  • It presents an erroneous view of the role of “mitigated culpability” in pastoral care;
  • It is inconsistent in its pleas to not judge others;
  • It is flawed in its treatment of individual conscience;
  • It insufficiently describes the moral law in terms of a “rule” and an “ideal”;
  • It contradicts the Council of Trent.

Also for overview—and so the reader may have a brief sense of how much goes awry in Dr. Brugger’s article—here are a few points of my own:

  • Although the actual text of AL calls for “personal and pastoral discernment,” Dr. Brugger elides this to “personal discernment”; as though the pope means for couples to engage in discernment all on their own.
  • Dr. Brugger claims that AL never mentions the requirement of continence for couples in an irregular marriage; when, in fact, the pope does mention this in footnote #329.
  • Dr. Brugger begins his article by praising AL for, among other things, upholding the Catholic teaching against contraception; but later, when discussing his fourth point, he claims that AL permits contraception.
  • In his discussion of his second claim, Dr. Brugger quotes AL’s description of the criteria that one must apply to any act of judgment; but then proceeds to treat it as though the pope has just forbade judging altogether.
  • Dr. Brugger frequently interprets entire passages of text as though they affirm what the pope expressly denies in other passages that Dr. Brugger makes no mention of at all.

I give these examples to illustrate why it is necessary to examine this article as carefully as I do. One could easily be be impressed by the weight and length of analysis Dr. Brugger provides us; and yet, it is slips like these that call his claims into question and require some time and effort to identify and point out.


I must commend Dr. Brugger, however, for recognizing some key strengths of Amoris Laetitia. For he does; and that is worth praising in one of the pope’s critics. I wrote a post earlier this month pointing out some passages in AL that few, I suspected, would make note of. Dr. Brugger is one of the few who do make note of them; even though his article is largely critical of AL.

  • Amoris Laetitia affirms in §80 and §222 that conjugal union must be procreative. That is to say, Pope Francis upholds the teaching of Humanae Vitae on the intrinsic evil of contraception.
  • It reiterates the evil of abortion in §83.
  • It affirms, in §172 and 175, that every child has a right to both a mother and father, and that children need their fathers.

On this last point, Dr. Brugger points out that AL contains the lengthiest treatment of the importance of fathers of any papal document in the last fifty years. That’s remarkable; Catholics should point that out, in the pope’s praise. I am glad that Dr. Brugger does.

For an exhortation with these strengths, one should approach with caution any claim that orthodoxy has gone amiss in some later chapter. But Dr. Brugger does not stop there; he goes further; he speculates that the pope may in fact have intended heterodoxy:

Chapter 8 … allows—and seems intentionally so—for interpretations that pose serious problems for Catholic faith and practice.

This is unfortunate. The word “seems” seems to provide Dr. Brugger with an escape from any charge that he has falsely accused the pope. But give Dr. Brugger the word; how does he know this? What evidence does he have that all this is intentional? He does not say. He simply makes the claim and proceeds apace. That will not do.


Dr. Brugger begins his review of his first claim—that AL presents an erroneous view of “mitigated culpability”—with the following overview [his emphases vs. mine]:

Catholic moral theology has spoken about the importance of pastors being sensitive to factors limiting a penitent’s subjective guilt in order to help penitents assess their true guilt retrospectively, i.e., to help them look at what they’ve already done to assist them to judge rightly about their culpability, so they can repent and be forgiven and deal with those factors and begin freely to choose rightly.

Chapter 8 introduces a significant change in the role that mitigating factors play in pastoral care. Pastors are directed to assess subjective culpability as a way of “discerning” what kinds of ecclesial participation, including sacramental participation, are appropriate for people who are going forth from the confessional. It focuses on assessing mitigated guilt for directing prospective action leaving in place the factors that mitigate guilt, so people may continue to sin without ever becoming responsible enough to sin mortally.

So according to Dr. Brugger, the pope is saying—think about this—that pastors should identify situations of mitigated culpability; but then not help anyone to develop a fully-formed conscience. Instead they should permit people to continue sinning; they should leave malformed consciences as they found them.

Is that really so? That’s a large claim to make. I would want strong evidence of this. Dr. Brugger gives us a few examples where he thinks he finds this flaw; and I will look at them; but before I do that, I want to mention a few places that call this claim into serious question.

  • First. Pope Francis’s discussion in §295 of the “law of gradualness; which Pope St. John Paul II first expounded in Familiaris Consortio 34.

Here is the definition we read in FC:

[M]an, who has been called to live God’s wise and loving design in a responsible manner, is an historical being who day by day builds himself up through his many free decisions; and so he knows, loves and accomplishes moral good by stages of growth.

So Pope Francis’s discussion is fully in keeping with the teaching of St. John Paul II. More than that, watch how he develops the thought in §295:

This is not a “gradualness of law” but rather a gradualness in the prudential exercise of free acts on the part of subjects who are not in a position to understand, appreciate, or fully carry out the objective demands of the law. For the law is itself a gift of God which points out the way, a gift for everyone without exception; it can be followed with the help of grace, even though each human being “advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God and the demands of God’s definitive and absolute love in his or her entire personal and social life.”

The pope is describing a process; but it is a process toward the “objective demands of the law.” They are “demands” and they are “objective”; God requirs them “without exception”; we can follow them “with the help of grace.” Some people just aren’t there yet; and it is not helpful to deny this, or the need for pastors to help such people along toward the good.

But it sure does not sound to me as though the pope means to say that pastors should allow people to remain as they are. The law of gradualness is not a law of stasis; and the pope does not describe it as though it is. The text says no such thing.

  • Second. Pope Francis’s discussion of the “call to perfection” in §291.

Although she constantly holds up the call to perfection and asks for a fuller response to God, “the Church must accompany with attention and care the weakest of her children, who show signs of a wounded and troubled love, by restoring in them hope and confidence, like the beacon of a lighthouse in a port or a torch carried among the people to enlighten those who have lost their way or who are in the midst of a storm.” Let us not forget that the Church’s task is often like that of a field hospital.

The Church calls its members to perfection, even the weakest. The Church calls people to a fuller response to God. Pastors must work to restore the weakest among us to perfection. The pope does not say, “Let sinners remain as they are.”

One might object that, since the pope begins with the word “although,” he really means to brush aside the call to perfection. But no. For what follows “although” is simply a reminder that no one achieves perfection all at once. That’s a very sensible reminder. Pope Francis calls the Church to the work of “restoring” people with malformed consciences. To “restore” does not mean to leave people as they are. It takes time, but the pope is not describing stasis.

The pope uses three images here to illustrate what he means: a lighthouse, a torch, and a hospital. Lighthouses and torches direct people toward safety; their purpose is not to leave people in danger. Hospitals cure the wounded and the sick; they do not merely diagnose them.

I discuss several more such examples in this post from April 14.

Any discussion of the passages that Dr. Brugger cites to bolster his claims must take into consideration other passages such as those above. A document must be read consistently. You do not set one passage at odds with another or ignore passages that conflict with your interpretation of other ones. There is no school of hermeneutics that can justify that.

One might wish to say, Well, the pope is just being inconsistent. Perhaps he does so inadvertently; or perhaps he does so on purpose; but inconsistent he is.

That, however, is a separate claim and it would require its own proof. Apart from proof, one must assume that AL is consistent with itself.


Dr. Brugger cites two passages where he finds evidence that the pope wants pastors to leave couples in their state of diminished culpability, allow them to return to communion, and never require that they abandon grave sin.

The first of these is §300. Here is the part Dr. Brugger quotes (with my own bolding):

If we consider the immense variety of concrete situations such as those I have mentioned, it is understandable that neither the Synod nor this Exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases. What is possible is simply a renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases, one which would recognize that, since “the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases”, the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same.”

Dr. Brugger does not discuss the first block of bolded text; but we should take note of it. If the pope is not issuing any new rules, or amending canon law, it would follow that the existing law is to remain as it is. Dr. Edward N. Peters, on his Canon Law blog, noted that very thing. He writes:

To legislate for the Church popes usually employ certain types of documents (e.g., apostolic constitutions, motu proprios, ‘authentic interpretations’) or they use certain kinds of language (e.g., ‘I direct’ or ‘I approve in forma specifica’). Amoris laetitiae, an “apostolic exhortation”, is not a legislative document, it contains no legislative or authentic interpretative language, and it does not discuss Canon 915. The conclusion follows: whatever Canon 915 directed before Amoris, it directs after, including that holy Communion may not generally be administered to Catholics living in irregular marriages.

But is the pope somehow giving priests a license to ignore this law, even though it remains on the books? I am glad you asked, because the pope specifically denies that he is.

And where does he do that? I am glad you asked that too, because he does so in §300. (And that’s the very section Dr. Brugger is quoting from at the moment Only, he does not quote that part.) Here is what the pope says:

For this discernment to happen, the following conditions must necessarily be present [Discernment has conditions, the pope says.]: humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it.” These attitudes are essential for avoiding the grave danger of misunderstandings, such as the notion that any priest can quickly grant “exceptions”, or that some people can obtain sacramental privileges in exchange for favours. When a responsible and tactful person, who does not presume to put his or her own desires ahead of the common good of the Church, meets with a pastor capable of acknowledging the seriousness of the matter before him, there can be no risk that a specific discernment may lead people to think that the Church maintains a double standard.

So the pope expressly denies that priests can “grant exceptions” to Canon 915. More than that, he names the “necessary” criteria of discernment. A couple must be “responsible” and “tactful.” They must “not presume to put [their] own desires ahead of the common good of the Church.” (For “their own desires,” read “receive the Eucharist”; for “good of the Church,” read “avoid scandal.”) The pastor must “acknowledge the seriousness of the matter.” Under no circumstances may the Church “maintain a double standard.”

Dr. Brugger does not mention any of this. What he does do is latch upon the phrase “personal and pastoral discernment” (in the direct quotation) and then change it (in his own reiteration) to “personal discernment”; as though the pope is calling upon couples in irregular unions to do their own discerning. Note where Dr. Brugger first does this:

The term “pastoral discernment” is used throughout chapter 8, but its meaning is not consistent. Here it refers to the “personal discernment” of the divorced and civilly remarried. [Note the shift. AL 300 does not say “personal discernment,” singular; it says “personal and pastoral discernment,” plural.] They are encouraged to assess their own subjective culpability in order to determine what kinds of ecclesial participation are appropriate. The text says that since “the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases”, the consequences of the “rule”—meaning consequences of violating the rule—may apply differently in different cases.

But the text I quoted above, also from §300, does not, at all, counsel Catholics to do their own discerning and decide for themselves whether to stand in line for communion. Instead, the pope says that true discernment requires a “responsible” person to “meet with a pastor.” He says that true discernment is responsive to “the common good of the Church.” He says that discernment must not lead to a “double standard.” He says that discernment must not allow priests to “make exceptions.”

In other words, whatever the pope means when he says that the consequences of a rule might not always be the same, it cannot mean what Dr. Brugger claims it to mean. He is interpreting §300 not only against other sections of Chapter 8, but against itself.

Dr. Brugger turns to a prediction:

The text will be read by many “remarried” spouses as meaning that they themselves can “discern” that, because of the complexity of their “concrete situations” (e.g., it is wrong to leave the kids and/or the new “spouse” and stressful to live as brother and sister, etc.), they themselves lack such a “degree of responsibility” as would have the consequence that they are guilty of grave sin and ought not to communicate.

Well, sure, some people might insist on reading the text that way. I doubt it nothing. But is that what the text says? If the pope expressly says that he is speaking of the kind of person “who does not presume to put his or her desires ahead of the common good of the Church,” then this hypothetical misreader that Dr. Brugger has in mind is ignoring the standards of §300. It is that person who needs correction, not the pope.

But Dr. Brugger claims that even “pastors will interpret this in conflicting ways.”

Those who are committed to traditional Catholic doctrine and practice will interpret it to mean accompanying remarried divorcees in their process of repenting for their sins, ordering their relationships according to the Gospel … and reintegrating into the sacramental life of the Church. Others, however, will interpret it to mean assisting remarried divorcees to arrive at the judgment that since they lack sufficient responsibility, nothing hinders the possibility of fuller participation, provided they go through the formality of getting their pastors to agree with their judgment.

Again, §300 specifically states the former. I don’t doubt that some priests might attempt to read into §300 the latter; but the latter is not what AL says. If one goes through all of §300, not just the parts of it Dr. Brugger quotes, he will find that the pope takes care to specify the criteria of true discernment.

Maybe we should consider the possibility that, when the pope says pastors should identify what hinders full participation in the Church, he means that as the first step in removing the hindrance, not denying it.


The second text that Dr. Brugger cites is from §302. Here the pope discusses what the Catechism has to say (§1735) about different factors that contribute to mitigated culpability for grave sin. This is a “sound principle of moral theology,” Dr. Brugger says; but then claims that the pope applies it “in a problematic way.” Here is the part of the text that he has in mind:

I consider very fitting what many Synod Fathers wanted to affirm: “Under certain circumstances people find it very difficult to act differently. Therefore, while upholding a general rule, it is necessary to recognize that responsibility with respect to certain actions or decisions is not the same in all cases. Pastoral discernment, while taking into account a person’s properly formed conscience, must take responsibility for these situations. Even the consequences of actions taken are not necessarily the same in all cases.”

Now, Dr. Brugger will want to claim that this last observation, about the consequences not always being the same, is specifically a reference to communion. He says:

The text implies that mature “pastoral discernment” may include acquitting individual consciences to return to Holy Communion without requiring the individuals to order their relationships according to Jesus’ teaching.

But the pope says no such thing. He is making a general observation; to assume that he has in mind a specific consequence is to read into the text something that is not there. And in fact, since the pope says earlier (in §300) that pastors can not just “grant exceptions,” it would seem evident that the pope has a different set of “consequences” in mind.

Nor does the pope say that individuals need not “order their relationships according to Jesus’ teaching.” For he specifically says, in the passage from §295 I cited above, that the moral law is an “objective demand.” God calls everyone to it, “without exception.” We can follow the moral law, the pope says, “with the help of grace.”

How could §302 “imply” what the pope denies just seven sections before? Am I to assume that Amoris Laetitia is a series of disconnected sentences that we can lift out of context and cross-examine for “implications” that are at odds with other sentences elsewhere? Is that how you read a text? Is this hermeneutics?

Dr. Brugger is very concerned, however:

But finding it “difficult to act differently” is not alone a sufficient reason not to invite remarried divorcees to extricate themselves from objective adultery. It is safe to say that most all of those who are in this situation will find it difficult to act differently. But Jesus gives us sacramental grace precisely so that we can do with his help what we find very difficult to do on our own.

No doubt. But that is the very thing the pope himself said in §295. Remember? I quote again:

For the law is itself a gift of God which points out the way, a gift for everyone without exception; it can be followed with the help of grace.

I find it curious that Dr. Brugger feels the need to inform us that Jesus gives us grace so we can follow the demands of the law; for Pope Francis just seven sections earlier tells us that Jesus gives us grace so we can follow the demands of the law.

“It is disturbing,” Dr. Brugger concludes, “that the text never mentions the universal moral obligation held and taught since the Apostles for separated spouses to abstain from non-marital intercourse.”

Actually, it does. Footnote 329. I have written about that footnote myself, both on this blog and in this article at Aleteia. Let’s go to the footnote, which we find in §298.

In such situations, many people, knowing and accepting the possibility of living “as brothers and sisters” which the Church offers them, point out that if certain expressions of intimacy are lacking, “it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of the children suffers.”

I know that some have argued that this footnote gives a dismissive wave of the hand against the requirement of continence on the idea that it might threaten faithfulness and the good of the children. I go into more detail about that in my prior articles; but will say here that the fact that the pope notes that certain couples “accept” continence puts such a reading into question. Moreover, the fact that the pope says in §295 that grace is sufficient to allow everyone to follow the moral law, however far from it they might presently be, raises a further difficulty with that interpretation.

The key point is that, contrary to what Dr. Brugger claims, the pope does mention this “universal moral obligation.”

Read Part 2 here.

April 14, 2016

Amoris Laetitia Chapter 8

Angelika Kauffmann, “Christ and the Woman at the Well” (1796)

In Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis speaks of the “law of gradualness”; John Paul II was the first to write of such a law, in Familiaris Consortio 34. Here is what John Paul II says:

It is always very important to have a right notion of the moral order, its values and its norms; and the importance is all the greater when the difficulties in the way of respecting them become more numerous and serious.

Very much so. That is the very situation in which we find ourselves, in an increasingly secular, even pagan, culture. We have lost the “right notion of the moral order”; and the obstacles to our knowing and following it have become “more numerous and serious.” Many of us have malformed consciences; many of us are walking around wounded. This is a fact; and it does us no good to refuse to face it. If anything, the situation is much more grave in 2016 than it was in 1981 when St. John Paul II wrote Familiaris. Here is more:

Since the moral order reveals and sets forth the plan of God the Creator, for this very reason it cannot be something that harms man, something impersonal. On the contrary, by responding to the deepest demands of the human being created by God, it places itself at the service of that person’s full humanity with the delicate and binding love whereby God Himself inspires, sustains and guides every creature towards its happiness.

[The moral law is not our enemy but our friend.]

But man, who has been called to live God’s wise and loving design in a responsible manner, is an historical being who day by day builds himself up through his many free decisions; and so he knows, loves and accomplishes moral good by stages of growth.

Consciences form through time; those whose consciences are malformed need time to repair them. That does not happen all at once. It was good for St. John Paul II to point this out; and it is why Pope Francis, in §305 of Amoris Laetitia, says that “[P]astor[s] cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in ‘irregular’ situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives.” The mere iteration of a moral law as a cudgel against those who have not lived by it does no good; the Church must help sinners walk toward the true and the good; even when they are far away and getting there will take more than a few footsteps. And so Pope Francis says:

The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone for ever; it is to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart. For true charity is always unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous.” Consequently, there is a need “to avoid judgements which do not take into account the complexity of various situations” and “to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience distress because of their condition.” (AL 296)

A pharisaical lot loves to ridicule “meeting people where they are”; but Pope Francis does not suggest that the Church leave people where they are. St. John Paul II gives an important qualification about the law of gradualness; one which Pope Francis reiterates. Here is John Paul II:

[W]hat is known as “the law of gradualness” or step-by-step advance cannot be identified with “gradualness of the law,” as if there were different degrees or forms of precept in God’s law for different individuals and situations. In God’s plan, all husbands and wives are called in marriage to holiness. (FC 36)

The law for one is the law for all, even if gradually approached. And so Pope Francis, himself quoting Familiaris Consortio 90, says:

This is not a “gradualness of law” but rather a gradualness in the prudential exercise of free acts on the part of subjects who are not [yet] in a position to understand, appreciate, or fully carry out the objective demands of the law. [Note that he says “objective demands,” not subjective options.] For the law is itself a gift of God which points out the way, a gift for everyone without exception; it can be followed with the help of grace, even though each human being “advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God and the demands of God’s definitive and absolute love in his or her entire personal and social life.” (AL 295)

I like the pope’s description of the moral law as a “gift” rather than a set of rules. I think that this is key to fully understanding Francis’s theology of joy. It is a gift for everyone, however far away from it; even if we have to go out to them and bring them back.

The pope does not say: I am giving you a gift by permitting you to ignore the moral law. By no means.


To illustrate his point about the Law of Gradualness, Pope Francis in §294 refers to Christ’s meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well. We find the story in chapter 4 of John’s gospel.

7 There cometh a woman of Samaria to draw water: Jesus saith unto her, Give me to drink.

8 (For his disciples were gone away unto the city to buy meat.)

9 Then saith the woman of Samaria unto him, How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, which am a woman of Samaria? for the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans.

10 Jesus answered and said unto her, If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water.

11 The woman saith unto him, Sir, thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is deep: from whence then hast thou that living water?

12 Art thou greater than our father Jacob, which gave us the well, and drank thereof himself, and his children, and his cattle?

13 Jesus answered and said unto her, Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again:

14 But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.

15 The woman saith unto him, Sir, give me this water, that I thirst not, neither come hither to draw.

16 Jesus saith unto her, Go, call thy husband, and come hither.

17 The woman answered and said, I have no husband. Jesus said unto her, Thou hast well said, I have no husband:

18 For thou hast had five husbands; and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband: in that saidst thou truly.

19 The woman saith unto him, Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet.

20 Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.

21 Jesus saith unto her, Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father.

22 Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews.

23 But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him.

24 God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.

25 The woman saith unto him, I know that Messias cometh, which is called Christ: when he is come, he will tell us all things.

26 Jesus saith unto her, I that speak unto thee am he.

In “Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life” (here), the Pontifical Council for Culture says that John 4:7-26 is “a paradigm for our engagement with truth.” Christ, who knows full well about the Samaritan woman’s serial remarriages, does not throw a moral law at her like a stone but instead uncovers her true desire, her true longing, for the “spring of water welling up to eternal life.” As Pope Francis puts it:

[H]e addressed her desire for true love, in order to free her from the darkness in her life and to bring her to the full joy of the Gospel. (AL 294)

The Samaritan woman’s serial marriages were a continual search for true love where it was not to be found. Each of those five husbands were water that only made her thirst again. What she was really looking for was an encounter with Christ. And so, rather than telling her about a rule, Christ offered her a gift.

In this way, the Law of Gradualness is a process of acquainting wounded people, hurt by failed marriages, with where they will find true joy. It is a process of helping them reorient their lives toward God.


None of this means compromising on the moral law or the requirements of the Church. The pope, time and again, says otherwise.

The Church, says Pope Francis, “constantly holds up the call to perfection and asks for a fuller response to God” (AL 291).

“Christian marriage,” says Pope Francis, “as a reflection of the union between Christ and his Church, is fully realized in the union between a man and a woman who give themselves to each other in a free, faithful, and exclusive love.” They belong to each other until death and are open to the transmission of life.” No change in the law against contraception. They “are consecrated by the sacrament [of marriage], which grants them the grace to become a domestic church and a leaven of new life for society” (AL 292).

Priests, says Pope Francis, “are responsible for promoting Christian marriage” (AL 293).

“If someone,” says Pope Francis (in one of his strongest statements), “flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal, or wants to impose something other than what the Church teaches, he or she can in no way presume to teach or preach to others; this is a case of something which separates from the community (cf. Mt 18:17). Such a person needs to listen once more to the Gospel message and its call to conversion.” The goal for those in irregular marriages, says Pope Francis, is “to reach the fulness of God’s plan” (AL 297).

Priests, says Pope Francis, have the responsibility of “helping [those in irregular unions] to understand their situation according to the teaching of the Church and the guidelines of the bishop.” “Useful in this process,” he says, “is an examination of conscience through moments of reflection and repentance” (AL 300). (Yes, the pope does call for repentance. Someone tried to tell me he does not.)

Priests, says Pope Francis, must “guide the faithful to an awareness of their situation before God. Conversation with the priest, in the internal forum, contributes to the formation of a correct judgment on what hinders the possibility of a fuller participation in the life of the Church and on what steps can foster it and make it grow.” “This discernment,” he says, “can never prescind from the Gospel demands of truth and charity.” Discernment, he says, requires “love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it.” To that end, the pope disabuses readers of the thought that priests can just go around making exceptions to Church law. That, the pope says, would be a “grave misunderstanding” (AL 300).

Catholics and their pastors, says Pope Francis, must “discern and ensure full fidelity to God” (AL 304).

“In no way,” says Pope Francis, “must the Church desist from proposing the full ideal of marriage. … A lukewarm attitude, any kind of relativism, or an undue reticence in proposing that ideal, would be a lack of fidelity to the Gospel” (AL 307).

Time and again the pope says the opposite of what the bedwetters insist that he said. No one points this out; that is why I am here to do so.

But with pastoral charity, the pope does tell us that many, many people, in their marital and sexual lives, have fallen short of the moral law. That has happened for any number of complex reasons; pastors must discern carefully what those reasons are and what will best help bring wounded couples back into the life of the Church and a complete embrace of the moral law. The pope does not condemn sinners; neither does he condone sin. He is giving pastors guidelines on bringing sinners back home.


But what about those pesky parts like footnote 351? someone will ask. Is it the “smoking footnote” that Raymond Arroyo says it is? Does it allow communion for the divorced and remarried who have no annulment?

Well, I would start by saying that I have addressed this in an op-ed I wrote for Aleteia.

The second thing I would point out is that footnote 351 must be read in harmony with all the other places where the pope is firm about obedience to the teaching of the Church. One can not interpret it in such a way as to put it in conflict with what the pope says elsewhere. That is a false hermeneutic.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker is also of help here, in an excellent point he makes on his blog. (I had thought this very thing myself, but he beat me to saying it.)

Have we forgotten that there are seven sacraments? If we are welcoming those who are wounded and seeking the Lord then the sacraments are exactly what we give them in certain cases. In certain cases they will need baptism. In certain cases they will need confirmation. In certain cases they will need confession. In certain cases they will need anointing of the sick. In certain cases they will need marriage. Will they also need the Eucharist? Of course. They need to come to Mass. They need to come to Eucharistic Adoration. Do they need to receive communion? Of course—once their marriage situation has been regularized through the annulment procedure and proper Catholic marriage.

Fr. Dwight’s gloss of footnote 351 has the advantage, unlike the panicking ones, of being in harmony with what the pope says elsewhere. Just to imagine reading AL as a coherent text! What continuity is this, and what hermeneutics?

If I have any disappointment at all with Chapter 8, it is that the pope does not say a word about the importance of the annulments. These help to realign irregular marriages with Church teaching and God’s law. Perhaps the pope thought that local priests will naturally know to look into that first; and so he thought he did not need to mention it. But I still wish he had. An annulment can not only remove second marriages from their irregular status, but it also is a powerful aid in healing wounds.

In my own case, I pursued—and received—an annulment even though I did not technically need one. (I have not remarried.) And I found that the process not only healed me from the hurt of divorce, but it forced me to confront my own sins and failings and thus helped to reorder my life toward God. Since that is the pope’s real subject in Chapter 8, I wish he would have brought up the annulment process.

That was my only real quibble.


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