Interacting With the Spaemann Interview on Amoris Laetitia

Interacting With the Spaemann Interview on Amoris Laetitia 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.

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