Instructions For Not Losing the Way in the Labyrinth of “Amoris Lætitia”
Intentionally written in a vague form, the post-synodal exhortation allows two opposite ways out. A Dominican theologian indicates the right one here. As in a little catechism, for the use of priests and faithful
by Sandro Magister
06 May 16
ROME, May 5, 2016 – One month after the publication of the post-synodal exhortation “Amoris Lætitia” it is ever more evident that in interpreting and applying it there is growing “uncertainty and confusion, from the bishops’ conferences to the small parishes in the middle of nowhere,” in the forceful criticism of the eminent German philosopher Robert Spaemann, a peer and longstanding friend of Joseph Ratzinger:
The eighth chapter of the exhortation, on “irregular” couples and on communion for the divorced and remarried, is the one at the center of the most conflicting interpretations. With the effect, again according to the criticism of Spaemann, that “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.”
The most at sea, in effect, are the pastors who so far have obeyed the magisterium of the Church but now find themselves accused of disobeying the pope, “who instead says. . . .”
The following is precisely a reasoned response to this disorientation. It was written by a religious of the order of Saint Dominic, Angelo Bellon, a professor of moral theology at the seminary of the archdiocese of Genoa, specifically to respond to the requests for help that have come to him from many priests and faithful.
And it is like an instruction manual. Which examines point by point the most controversial passages of the eighth chapter of “Amoris Lætitia” and gives for each of these the interpretation most in line with the magisterium of the perennial Church, the only right thing to do, as Fr. Bellon explains from the beginning.
Naturally the proponents of the new course will not recognize themselves in the exegesis that the Dominican theologian makes of the most ambiguous passages of the exhortation.
And perhaps Pope Francis will not recognize himself in it either, because then he would not have expressed himself in such a vague and obscure form as to make “Amoris Lætitia” a labyrinth with two ways out.
One of which is none other than the way indicated by the Dominican theologian. While the other, of rupture with the millennia-old tradition of the Church, “instead leads nowhere and shows itself to be inconclusive and mistaken.”
The text of the exhortation:
Instructions for reading the post-synodal exhortation “Amoris Lætitia”
by Angelo Bellon, O.P.
In the exhortatiton “Amoris Lætitia,” the most controversial question is the one concerning communion for the divorced and remarried, which however is never expressly mentioned.
It must be noted that above all in the eighth chapter the language is at times very indefinite and can lend itself to conclusions that are not only different but even conflicting.
So then, precisely with regard to this chapter I would like to present a few general reflections and then take into consideration the most controversial expressions.
GENERAL CRITERIA OF INTERPRETATION
1. The first criterion of interpretation is that of the context in which the exhortation must be read in order to avoid distorting it.
This context was provided by John Paul II in the encyclical “Veritatis Splendor,” in particular at footnote 100:
“The development of the Church’s moral doctrine is similar to that of the doctrine of the faith. The words spoken by John XXIII at the opening of the Second Vatican Council can also be applied to moral doctrine: ‘This certain and unchanging teaching (i.e., Christian doctrine in its completeness), to which the faithful owe obedience, needs to be more deeply understood and set forth in a way adapted to the needs of our time. Indeed, this deposit of the faith, the truths contained in our time-honored teaching, is one thing; the manner in which these truths are set forth (with their meaning preserved intact) is something else’.”
So the hermeneutical principle of interpretation is found here: the documents of the magisterium, including those on moral issues, must be interpreted according to the hermeneutic of continuity and development. And certainly not according to the hermeneutic of discontinuity, rupture, or transformation with respect to the perennial magisterium.
The progress of the moral doctrine of the Church takes place under the action of the Holy Spirit that gradually leads to the knowledge of the whole truth, without ever contradicting or denying the previous magisterium.
So this is a homogeneous and not a dialectical progress.
2. Having presented this fundamental premise, “Amoris Lætitia” must be read in the light of the previous magisterium, because it continues and explores this, as the exhortation itself says repeatedly, as for example when it says at no. 79:
“Therefore, while clearly stating the Church’s teaching, pastors are to avoid judgements that do not take into account the complexity of various situations, and they are to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience and endure distress because of their condition.”
Since it is above all the eighth chapter of the exhortation that has been interpreted in the most disparate and contradictory ways, it is necessary to say that the exact interpretation, the one indicated by the magisterium, is the one given “in meliorem partem,” if it can be put this way, meaning in the line of continuity.
Moreover, it is only this interpretation that can make the text understood without ambiguities and without contradictions.
3. So while the interpretation “in meliorem partem” does not run up against objections that would block its way, the one given “in peiorem partem,” meaning according to the hermeneutic of rupture, instead leads nowhere, instead running up against a myriad of statements by the magisterium and showing itself to be inconclusive and mistaken.
THE CORRECT INTERPRETATION OF A FEW STATEMENTS OF “AMORIS LÆTITIA”
1. No. 302 of the exhortation recalls a great variety of reasons to be taken into account in the evaluation of individual cases:
“The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly mentions these factors: ‘imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors’ (no. 1735). In another paragraph, the Catechism refers once again to circumstances which mitigate moral responsibility, and mentions at length ‘affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen or even extenuate moral culpability.’ (no. 2352) For this reason, a negative judgment about an objective situation does not imply a judgment about the imputability or culpability of the person involved (Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, Declaration Concerning the Admission to Holy Communion of Faithful Who are Divorced and Remarried (24 June 2000).”
So then, those listed are all reasons why an ecclesiastical tribunal can give and in fact already gives a sentence of nullity of the marriage contracted.
In order to prevent it being said in a Christian community that one divorced and remarried person has been given absolution and another has not, the best thing is to proceed methodically, which means asking for a sentence of nullity of the marriage and possibly healing at its root the union contracted civilly.
This is the first way suggested by Pope Francis with the reform of the procedure in marriage cases. Even more, he himself has asked that the sentence be given within a year, without bureaucratic delays. This is the most orderly and sure way.
On the contrary, leaving everything to the not always enlightened evaluation of the parish priest or confessor can lead to uncertainty and can cause confusion and discontent in the communities. It could easily be argued: why one yes and another no?
2. At no. 299 it says:
“The baptized who are divorced and civilly remarried need to be more fully integrated into Christian communities in the variety of ways possible, while avoiding any occasion of scandal.”
This too must always be taken into account. In the event that the priest should give absolution to a divorced and remarried person or to a cohabiting person, it is necessary to recall that one can receive holy communion only where one is not known as remarried or cohabiting. Otherwise it would generate scandal among the faithful.
The declaration of the pontifical council for legislative texts of July 7, 2000 on the admissibility of the divorced and remarried to holy communion in fact says:
“Those faithful who are divorced and remarried would not be considered to be within the situation of serious habitual sin who would not be able, for serious motives – such as, for example, the upbringing of the children – ‘to satisfy the obligation of separation, assuming the task of living in full continence, that is, abstaining from the acts proper to spouses’ (Familiaris Consortio, n. 84), and who on the basis of that intention have received the sacrament of Penance. Given that the fact that these faithful are not living ‘more uxorio’ is per se occult, while their condition as persons who are divorced and remarried is per se manifest, they will be able to receive Eucharistic Communion only ‘remoto scandalo’.”
“Remoto scandalo” means that communion can be received privately or where one is not known as divorced and remarried or cohabiting, to keep from causing judgment, confusion, distress, and scandal among the faithful.
3. This is also the perspective for understanding what is written at no. 305:
“Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end. Discernment must help to find possible ways of responding to God and growing in the midst of limits.”
Here the exhortation implicitly reiterates that in order to receive holy communion it is necessary to be in the grace of God.
This is not a human but a divine norm, as Sacred Scripture recalls: “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let each one therefore examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why there are many sick among you, and a good number have died” (1 Cor 11:27-30).
4. Then there is what is written in footnote 351, regarding the “help of the Church” for those living in grace in spite of being “in an objective situation of sin”:
“In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, ‘I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy’ (Evangelii Gaudium, 44). I would also point out that the Eucharist ‘is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak’ (EG 47).”
Here the pope does not say “tout court” that holy communion should be given to the divorced and remarried.
He provides that those who have repented and are living in grace, meaning without adulterous relations or fornication, may receive absolution and may participate in the Eucharist, even receiving holy communion, always ‘remoto scandalo.’
5. Also when the pope says that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak,” he is affirming something profoundly true. Precisely because we are all weak, even if we are living in the grace of God we need to strengthen ourselves with this Bread in order to sustain ourselves in the journey toward Heaven.
But it is still true that one who is spiritually dead, because he is in mortal sin, before nourishing himself in a salutary manner with this food needs to be resuscitated and regain the supernatural life through confession, which the holy Fathers of the Church define as a second baptism.
Therefore the proper sacrament for one who is spiritually dead is confession. Otherwise what Sacred Scripture has said comes true: “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor 11:27).
This is why John Paul II said in the encyclical “Ecclesia de Eucharistia,” at no. 36:
“The Apostle Paul appeals to this duty when he warns: ‘Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup’ (1 Cor 11:28). Saint John Chrysostom, with his stirring eloquence, exhorted the faithful: ‘I too raise my voice, I beseech, beg and implore that no one draw near to this sacred table with a sullied and corrupt conscience. Such an act, in fact, can never be called communion, not even were we to touch the Lord’s body a thousand times over, but condemnation, torment and increase of punishment.’ Along these same lines, the Catechism of the Catholic Church rightly stipulates that ‘anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to communion.’ I therefore desire to reaffirm that in the Church there remains in force, now and in the future, the rule by which the Council of Trent gave concrete expression to the Apostle Paul’s stern warning when it affirmed that, in order to receive the Eucharist in a worthy manner, ‘one must first confess one’s sins, when one is aware of mortal sin’.”
6. At no. 298 the pope recognizes that there are “divorced who have entered a new union. . . consolidated over time, with new children, proven fidelity, generous self giving, Christian commitment, a consciousness of its irregularity and of the great difficulty of going back without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins,” and that “for serious reasons, such as the children’s upbringing, a man and woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate.”
And in footnote 329 he adds: “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’ (Gaudium et Spes, 51).”
With regard to this footnote that has drawn the attention of many, it must be said:
– first: the pope recalls the teaching of “Familiaris Consortio” that requires not living “more uxorio” but living in chastity, as friends and brothers and sisters;
– second: the pope, in spite of making reference to Vatican Council II that speaks of conjugal intimacy, speaks here only of intimacy. It is in fact clear that in any case this would not be conjugal, because the two are not husband and wife.
– third: the pope means that in spite of “accepting to live as brother and sister,” if it sometimes happens that they go farther, one must use patience and exhort them to do what Paul VI says in ‘Humanae Vitae,’ no. 25: “If, however, sin still exercises its hold over them, they are not to lose heart. Rather must they, humble and persevering, have recourse to the mercy of God, abundantly bestowed in the Sacrament of Penance.”
This means understanding “in meliorem partem.” Giving another interpretation means that the sixth commandment that forbids sexual relations between persons not married to each other may be subject to exceptions.
“Veritatis Splendor” in fact says at no. 52: “The negative precepts of the natural law are universally valid. They oblige each and every individual, always and in every circumstance. It is a matter of prohibitions which forbid a given action semper et pro semper, without exception, because the choice of this kind of behaviour is in no case compatible with the goodness of the will of the acting person, with his vocation to life with God and to communion with his neighbour. It is prohibited — to everyone and in every case — to violate these precepts. They oblige everyone, regardless of the cost, never to offend in anyone, beginning with oneself, the personal dignity common to all.”
7. At no. 301 of “Amoris Lætitia” it reads:
“The Church possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations. 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.”
To tell the truth, this “can no longer simply be said” has never been said by either the magisterium or the theology manuals.
It should suffice to recall the declaration of April 26, 1971 from the congregation for the clergy in reference to what is called the “Washington case”: “Particular circumstances surrounding an objectively evil human act, while they cannot make it objectively virtuous, can make it inculpable, diminished in guilt or subjectively
The pope is therefore referring to something that can be said by Fr. Tom, Dick, or Harry. Here we find the exhortative character of the document and the colloquial mode of expression of Pope Francis. Taking the sentence in itself, it does not correspond to reality, because that thing has never been said.
8. Analogously, at no. 304 it states:
“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.”
Read superficially, this statement seems like a criticism of moral theology as it has been taught until now.
But neither does this correspond to the truth, because it has always been taught that the criteria for discerning the morality of an act are three: object (finis operis), intention (finis operantis), and circumstances.
Here as well the pope is therefore referring to the way of acting of someone who without looking at the subject and at the circumstances may have judged only on the basis of the moral law. So this is indeed reductive, and moreover is wrong.
9. Also at no. 301 the pope writes:
“Saint Thomas Aquinas himself recognized that someone may possess grace and charity, yet not be able to exercise any one of the virtues well (Summa Theologiae I-II, 65, 3, ad 2); in other words, although someone may possess all the infused moral virtues, he does not clearly manifest the existence of one of them, because the outward practice of that virtue is rendered difficult: ‘Certain saints are said not to possess certain virtues, in so far as they experience difficulty in the acts of those virtues, even though they have the habits of all the virtues’ (ibid., ad 3).”
In reality Saint Thomas, after saying that together with grace the moral virtues are also infused, writes: “It happens sometimes that a man who has a habit finds it difficult to act in accordance with the habit, and consequently feels no pleasure and complacency in the act, on account of some impediment supervening from without: thus a man who has a habit of study finds it difficult to understand, through being sleepy or unwell. In like manner sometimes the habits of moral virtue experience difficulty in their works, by reason of certain ordinary dispositions remaining from previous acts. This difficulty does not occur in respect of acquired moral virtue, because the repeated acts by which they are acquired remove also the contrary dispositions” (ibid., ad 2).
And at ad 3: “Certain saints are said not to have certain virtues, in so far as they experience difficulty in the acts of those virtues, for the reason stated; although they have the habits of all the virtues.”
So then, here Saint Thomas means that some practice a certain virtue badly or do not practice it at all (for example: devotion or recollection in prayer) on account of the dispositions left by the previous actions (for example: being afflicted or irritated by bad news or a big argument. Then, as emerges from experience, one prays poorly, with little recollection and with many distractions).
But it is one thing to practice a virtue badly or not practice it at all, because of which one has little or no merit.
It is another thing to commit a grave sin against that virtue. With sin there is always detriment and offense against the Lord.
Among other things, for Saint Thomas if an individual act contrary to an acquired virtue does not cause the loss of this virtue because the act contrasts the virtue but not the habit (so that if one becomes drunk one time this does not mean that one has lost the virtue of sobriety), there is however an exception for lustfulness: “Sed actu luxuriae castitas per se privatur”: But with an act of lust chastity is intrinsically destroyed (Summa Theologiae in II sent., d. 42, q. 1, a. 2, ad 4).
Because of this, by interpreting “in meliorem partem” this no. 301 of the exhortation it can be said that the divorced and remarried, even if they are living as brother and sister, having to be together on account of the presence of the children, are not practicing chastity in the best way.
But if this text were intended to say that they are living in grace even if they have sexual relations, this would be completely wrong, because it is contrary not only to the teaching of Saint Thomas but to that of God and the Church.
Interpreted in this way, the most burning points of the exhortation present no difficulty. While many difficulties arise from a different interpretation.
It must finally be considered that this exhortation is entirely permeated by a climate of acceptance and mercy. This is the style that was intended to be given to it. And this must be taken into account.
English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.