Reading Exercises. The “Amoris Laetitia” of Cardinal Müller
In a monumental discourse in Spain, the prefect of the doctrine of the faith leads the post-synodal exhortation back to the course of the Church’s previous discipline. Too late. Because Francis has already written it so as to imply the opposite
by Sandro Magister
ROME, May 11, 2016 – With “Amoris Laetitia,” something is happening in the Catholic Church similar to what happened half a century ago with “Humanae Vitae.” With the sides reversed.
The encyclical of Paul VI on procreation was perfectly clear. But dissenting theologians, bishops, and episcopal conferences spread convoluted and hazy interpretations of it, in order to make appear licit that which the pope prohibited.
The post-synodal exhortation of Francis on the family was instead written in an intentionally vague form, allowing anyone to read what he wants in it, in particular on the crucial question of communion for the divorced and remarried. And it is up to willing theologians, bishops, and cardinals to struggle to give a clear and univocal interpretation of it, in accord with the Church’s perennial magisterium.
Among these, the highest authority is Cardinal Gerhard L. Müller, former bishop of Regensburg, editor of Joseph Ratzinger’s opera omnia, and since 2012 prefect of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith.
Just a few days before the publication of “Amoris Laetitia,” Müller had reiterated the firm points from which the Church’s magisterium could not depart, in a book published in Spain with the title: “Informe sobre la esperanza”:
> How Cardinal Müller Is Rereading the Pope (29.3.2016)
But in early May, after “Amoris Laetitia” had been published, he returned to Spain, first to Madrid and then to Oviedo, not only to present his book but above all to set down an interpretation of the papal exhortation rigorously in keeping with what is written in it.
Cardinal Müller gave his long and detailed talk illustrating “Amoris Laetitia” at the seminary of Oviedo, on May 4. And on this other webpage it can be read in its entirety just as he delivered it, in Spanish:
The complete Italian translation is here:
And here the English version:
While here is the one in German, published by “Die Tagespost” and accompanied by a dozen footnotes:
Further below, instead, the central and final parts of the talk are presented.
In reading it, one will see how Müller interprets the ambiguities of “Amoris Laetitia” not as a green light for changes in doctrine and practice, but on the contrary as proof that Pope Francis did not intend in any way to cancel the previous discipline, because “if he had wanted to eliminate such a deeply rooted and significant discipline, he would have said so clearly and presented supporting reasons,” something he did not do.
As for the now famous footnote 351, enlisted by the proponents of communion for the divorced and remarried, Müller shows how this has nothing to do with the specific case.
And as for the “discernment” to examine if a person is or is not subjectively culpable and on account of this to admit him to communion or not, he says:
“The economy of the sacraments is an economy of visible signs, not of internal dispositions or subjective culpability. A privatization of the sacramental economy would certainly not be Catholic.”
But the crucial element of the entire talk is its doctrinal and theological architecture. The cardinal says:
“The basic principle is that no one can truly desire a sacrament, that of the Eucharist, without also desiring to live in accord with the other sacraments, including that of marriage. [. . .] Changing the discipline on this concrete point, admitting a contradiction between the Eucharist and marriage, would necessarily mean changing the profession of faith of the Church, which teaches and realizes the harmony among all the sacraments, just as she has received it from Jesus. On this faith in indissoluble marriage, not as distant ideal but as concrete reality, the blood of martyrs has been shed.”
It is striking that Cardinal Müller should have given a talk of such significance not in Rome but in Spain, and without getting any publicity in particular. “L’Osservatore Romano” ignored it completely.
Because in practical terms its impact is minimal. Just as the role of prefect of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith has now become marginal and irrelevant.
With Francis, in fact, the form of the papal magisterium has changed.
The perfectly clear “Humanae Vitae” of Paul VI was capsized by the haziness of dissenting bishops and cardinals.
While instead “Amoris Laetitia” is victorious precisely thanks to its calculated vagueness. Because what has gotten through to all levels of the Church as also to public opinion is not what is written there in clear letters, but only what is left for intuition.
What can we expect from the family?
A culture of hope for the family starting from “Amoris Laetitia”
by Gerhard L. Müller
[. . .]
1. Church and family: Noah’s ark
[. . .]
2. The architecture of the ark: the love of Christ lived in the family
[. . .] The pope insists that pastoral care for marriage must be “centered on the marriage bond” (AL 211). In comparison with an emotive pastoral approach, which seeks only to stir up sentiments or contents itself with providing personal experiences of the encounter with God, a pastoral emphasis on the bond is a pastoral approach that prepares one for the “yes forever.” It is from here that light is shed on preparation for marriage: to accompany the stages of the engagement period so that the young persons may learn to say “yes, I want,” and accept God’s plan for them. In cultivating the bond, love reaches out from itself, overcomes the fluctuation of sentiment, becomes strong in order to support society and welcome children. This is once again a matter, as we see, of providing a dwelling place for the family, in which the marriage bond is the keystone. In the bond the individualism of the couple or the spouse is overcome and the culture of the family is created, an environment in which love can blossom, a Noah’s ark for navigating together the flood of fluid postmodernity. The Church guarantees for the spouses that, in any case, in any situation in which they might be, I will watch over this bond, I will guarantee it and protect it, so that it may remain alive, so that you may always come back to it, because in it lies your deepest vocation.
It is on this basis that the insistence of Pope Francis on what he calls the “Christian ideal” must be understood. Some have interpreted this as if it were a distant goal, abstract, only for a few. But this is not the thought of Francis. The pope is not a Platonist! Entirely to the contrary, for him Christianity touches the flesh of man (cf. “Evangelii Gaudium” 88, 233). This can be seen very clearly when Francis cautions us against setting up “a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families” (AL 36). Here the pope himself rejects the notion that the ideal is something abstract and artificial.
So what is the pope saying to us when he refers to the ideal of marriage? An ideal in the Church is always an incarnate ideal, because the Word, the Logos, became flesh and accompanies her life in the sacraments. This living and transformative presence of the complete love of Jesus is encountered precisely in the sacraments, which, as I was saying, contain the architecture of Noah’s ark. “Amoris Laetitia,” in fact, speaks various times about the relationship between between Christian initiation and matrimonial life (AL 84, 192, 206-207, 279), and of the connection between Eucharist and marriage (AL 318). We could conclude: every family, and the whole Church, count on this culture of the love of Jesus, which is preserved in the economy of the sacraments. These endure as a living sign of Christ, in order to generate his own life among men. They constitute the architecture of the ark, that ark whose measurements were given by God.
Our time, full of fluid desires, requires as I was saying before a dwelling place of love, a culture of love. The Church encourages this culture of love precisely in her sacraments, which constitute her. She will be able to offer hope to men, to all, even to the most alienated, as long as she remains faithful to this dwelling that she has received from Christ; as long as she promotes this common culture of the love of Christ, confessed in the sacramental signs, which are the architecture of the boat that takes us to the fair haven.
The image of Noah’s ark, of the Church that sails and brings hope in the midst of the world, is united with the number eight that symbolizes, since ancient times, the eighth day, the day of Christ’s resurrection, the beginning of the future world. In this way there was insistence that the Church is not only journeying toward a distant fullness, but that in her this fullness has already been inaugurated. Yes, it is possible to live the love of which Saint Paul speaks to us in his hymn, and for this we need not wait until the end of time. It is possible to live this love now, because the Church, in her sacraments, keeps alive and efficacious, as an original gift of Christ, the dwelling that accepts, supports, and gives vigor to our poor powers.
3. Welcoming into the ark the most distant: accompanying, discerning, integrating
One can address, from this great horizon of the culture of love, a question to which the pope dedicated his attention in “Amoris Laetitia’: How to give hope to those who live in alienation, and especially those who have lived the drama and the wound of a second civil union after a divorce? They are those who, if it can be put this way, were capsized in the flood of fluid postmodernity and have forgotten that spousal promise by which they sealed in Christ a love forever. Can they come back to Noah’s ark, built on the love of Christ, and escape the waters? In three words the pope indicates to us the way for this task of the Church: accompany, discern, integrate (AL 291-292). It is on the basis of these that chapter VIII of “Amoris Laetitia” can be interpreted.
3.1. Accompany: the ark that floats and navigates
This is a matter, in the first place, of accompaniment. These baptized persons are not excluded from the Church. On the contrary the Church, the new Noah’s ark, welcomes them even if their life does not correspond to the words of Jesus. Saint Augustine describes this capacity for welcome by establishing a distinction, again around Noah’s ark as an image of the Church. In the first place, it was not only the animals that were clean according to the Law that entered into the ark. This means, for Augustine, that the Church takes to her bosom both just and sinners, under a single roof; that she is made of men who fall and get back up, who have to say, at the beginning of every Mass: “I confess.” In this way the Catholic Church distances itself from the Donatist vision, which set up a “Church of the pure,” in which there was no place for the sinner. Only at the end of time will God separate the wheat and the chaff, including the chaff that grows in every believer.
So then, Saint Augustine says, all of these animals, clean and unclean, passed through a single door and lived in a single dwelling, with the same walls and roof. Here the bishop of Hippo refers to the sacraments, with Baptism as the door, and with the change of life that they ask of anyone who wants to receive them, abandoning sin. In this harmony between the sacraments and the visible life of Christians, Saint Augustine says, the Church keeps before the world the testimony not only of how Jesus lived, but also of how the members of the body of Jesus are called to live. The consistency between the sacraments and the Christian way of life guarantees, therefore, that the sacramental culture in which the Church lives and which she proposes to the world remains habitable. It is only in this way that she can receive sinners, welcoming them with care and inviting them on a concrete journey that they may overcome sin. What the Church can never lose is the architecture of the sacraments, or she would lose the original gift that supports her and suffer the darkening of the love of Jesus and of the way in which this love transforms Christian life. It is precisely in assimilating the sacramental structure that the Church avoids the two possible ways of becoming a “Church of the pure,” the exclusion of sinners and the exclusion of sin.
So the first key element for this journey of accompaniment is the harmony between the sacramental celebration and Christian life. This is the reason for the Eucharistic discipline that the Church has maintained from the beginning. Thanks to this, the church can be a community that accompanies, welcomes the sinner without thereby blessing the sin, and thus offers the foundation so that a path of discernment and integration may be possible. Saint John Paul II confirmed this discipline in “Familiaris Consortio” 84 and in “Reconciliatio et Poenitentia” 34; the congregation for the doctrine of the faith, in its turn, affirmed this in its document of 1994; Benedict XVI explored it in “Sacramentum Caritatis” 29. This is a matter of a consolidated magisterial teaching, supported by scripture and founded on a doctrinal reason: the salvific harmony of the sacrament, the heart of the “culture of the bond” that the Church lives.
Some have affirmed that “Amoris Laetitia” has eliminated this discipline and has permitted, at least in some cases, the divorced and remarried to receive the Eucharist without the need to change their way of life according to what is indicated in FC 84, which means abandoning the new union or living in it as brother and sister. To this it must be replied that if “Amoris Laetitia” had wanted to eliminate such a deeply rooted and significant discipline, it would have said so clearly and presented supporting reasons. There is however no affirmation in this sense; nor does the pope bring into question, at any time, the arguments presented by his predecessors, which are not based on the subjective culpability of our brothers, but rather on their visible, objective way of life, contrary to the words of Christ.
But isn’t this change of course found – some object – in a footnote that says that in some cases the Church could offer the help of the sacraments to those who are living in an objective situation of sin (no. 351)? Without entering into a detailed analysis, suffice it to say that this footnote refers to objective situations of sin in general, without citing the specific case of the divorced in new civil unions. The situation of these latter, effectively, has particular characteristics that distinguish it from other situations. These divorced persons are living in contrast with the sacrament of marriage, and therefore with the economy of the sacraments, the center of which is the Eucharist. This is, in fact, the reason recalled by the previous magisterium to justify the Eucharistic discipline of FC 84; an argument that is not present in the footnote or in its context. That which footnotes 351 affirms, therefore, does not touch the previous discipline: the norm of FC 84 and of SC 29 is still valid, and its application in every case.
The basic principle is that no one can truly desire a sacrament, that of the Eucharist, without also desiring to live in accord with the other sacraments, including that of marriage. One who lives in contrast with the marriage bond is opposed to the visible sign of the sacrament of marriage; in that which touches his bodily existence, even if he should be subjectively not culpable, he makes himself an “anti-sign” of indissolubility. And precisely because his bodily life is contrary to the sign, he cannot be part, in receiving communion, of the supreme Eucharistic sign, where the incarnate love of Jesus is revealed. The Church, if she were to admit this, would fall into what Saint Thomas Aquinas called “falsity in sacramental signs.” And what we have before us is not an excessive doctrinal conclusion, but rather the very basis of the sacramental constitution of the Church, which we have compared to the architecture of Noah’s ark. It is an architecture that the Church cannot modify because it comes from Jesus himself; because she, the Church, comes from here, and supports herself here to navigate the waters of the flood. Changing the discipline on this concrete point, admitting a contradiction between the Eucharist and marriage, would necessarily mean changing the profession of faith of the Church, which teaches and realizes the harmony among all the sacraments, just as she has received it from Jesus. On this faith in indissoluble marriage, not as distant ideal but as concrete reality, the blood of martyrs has been shed.
Someone might insist: isn’t Francis lacking in mercy if he does not take this step? Isn’t it too much to ask these persons to move toward a life in keeping with the word of Jesus? What happens is instead the contrary. We would say, using the image of the ark, that Francis, sensitive to the flood situation of the contemporary world, has opened all possible windows of the boat and has invited all of us to throw ropes from the windows in order to pull the castaway onto the barque. But to permit, albeit in only some cases, that communion be given to those who visibly lead a way of life contrary to the sacrament of marriage would not be opening an extra window, but opening a leak in the bottom of the boat, allowing the sea to enter in and endangering the navigation of all and the service of the Church to society. Rather than a way of integration, it would be a way of the disintegration of the ecclesial ark, a way of water. In respecting this discipline, therefore, not only is no limit placed on the Church’s capacity to rescue families, but the stability of the boat is also guaranteed together with its capacity to bring us to a fair haven. The architecture of the ark is necessary precisely so that the Church may not allow anyone to get stuck in a condition contrary to Jesus’ word of eternal life, that is, so that the Church may not condemn “anyone eternally” (cf. AL 296-297).
In preserving the architecture of the ark there is preserved, we could say, our common home that is the Church, established on the love of Jesus; there is preserved the culture or environment of the family, decisive for its whole pastoral care of the family and its service to society. In this way we return to what we have considered the central point of the Church’s hope for the family: the need to create a culture of the family, to offer a dwelling place for desire and love. This is a matter of inspiring a “culture of the bond,” parallel to the “pastoral care of the bond” of which the pope speaks; a culture that today, in postmodern society, only the Catholic Church generates. Here we see that this discipline of the Church has an immense pastoral value.
In recent years we have discussed a great deal the possibility of giving communion to the divorced who are in a new civil union. At the beginning of “Amoris Laetitia,” the pope recalled a few excessive positions that have been presented. The topics were many and highly varied, with the risk of getting lost in intricate thickets of casuistry. Let us seek for a moment to get a bit of distance and to look at the question in perspective, forgetting about the details. If the Church were to admit to communion the divorced who are living in a new union without asking them for a change of life, allowing them to continue in their situation, should it not simply say that it has accepted divorce in certain cases? Of course, it would not have accepted it in writing, it would continue to affirm [indissolubility] as the ideal, but doesn’t our society also admit it as the ideal? So how would the Church be different? Could it say that it is still faithful to the words of Jesus, clear words, which sounded tough at the time? Were not these words contrary to the culture and practice of his time, which were lenient with divorce on a case-by-case basis in order to adapt themselves to the frailty of man? In practice, the indissolubility of marriage would remain as a nice principle, because it would however not be confessed in the Eucharist, the true place where the Christian truths are professed that touch upon life and give shape to the public testimony of the Church.
We must ask ourselves: have we not considered this problem too much from the individual point of view? We can all understand the desire of these brothers to receive communion, and the difficulties they have in abandoning their union or living it in a different way. From the point of view of each of these stories, we could think: What does it cost us, at bottom, to let them receive communion? We have forgotten, it seems to me, to look at things from a wider perspective, from the Church as communion, from its common good. Because on the one hand marriage has an intrinsically social character. Changing marriage for some cases means changing it for all. If there are some cases in which living against the sacramental bond is not important, wouldn’t young people who want to get married also need to be told that these exceptions apply to them? Wouldn’t this idea also infiltrate those couples that are struggling to remain united but are suffering the hardship of the journey and the temptation to give up? Moreover, on the other hand, the Eucharist also has a social structure) cf. AL 185-186), it does not depend only on my subjective conditions, but also on how I relate to the others in the body of the Church, because the Church is born of the Eucharist. Understanding marriage and the Eucharist as individual acts, without taking into consideration the common good of the Church, ends up dissolving the culture of the family, as if Noah, in seeing many castaways around the boat, were to dismantle the deck and walls to give each one a table. The Church would lose its communional essence, founded on the ontology of the sacraments, and would become a jumble of individuals floating aimlessly at the mercy of the waves.
In reality, the divorced in a new civil union who abstain from receiving the Eucharist and are making an effort to regenerate their desire in conformity with it are protecting the dwelling of the Church, our common home. And for them as well it is good to keep intact the walls of the ark, of the dwelling where the sign of Jesus’ love is contained. So the Church can remind them: “Don’t stop, there is a possibility for you too, you are not excluded from the return to the sacramental covenant that you have contracted, even if this will take time; you can live, with God’s strength, in fidelity to it.” And if anyone says that this is impossible, let us recall the words of “Amoris Laetitia”: “Certainly it is possible, because it is what the Gospel asks” (AL 102). So let no one feel himself excluded from the journey to the great life of Jesus. The desire to receive communion can lead, with the help of the pastor (and here the way of discernment is opened), to the regeneration of desire, so that we may rediscover in ourselves the thirst to live according to the words of the Lord.
Essentially, in the exhortation the pope is warning us against two deviations. There are those who want to condemn and who content themselves with a rigidity that does not open new ways so that these persons may regenerate their hearts. And on the other hand there are those who see the solution in finding exceptions in various cases, declining to regenerate the hearts of the persons. Would it not be necessary to rise above all of this and take another point of view? This point of view is that of ecclesial communion, that of the common good of the Church, that of keeping alive in its center, as culture of the family, the very life of Christ that enlivens us in the sacraments. If we demolish the structure of Noah’s ark, how can we be sure that it will remain afloat and that Christian hope for families will not sink to the bottom?
3.2. Discerning and integrating
Within this culture of the family, which rests on the architecture of the ark, we can then ask ourselves: what are the new ways in which “Amoris Laetitia” invites us to open? The pope reflects on these, urging us to discern and integrate.
Let’s consider discernment first. Some have made the interpretation that the pope, in saying that attenuating circumstances must be taken into account, is asking that discernment be based on these, as if it consisted in examining whether or not the person is subjectively culpable. But this discernment would ultimately be impossible, because only God examines hearts. Moreover, the economy of the sacraments is an economy of visible signs, not of internal dispositions or subjective culpability. A privatization of the sacramental economy would certainly not be Catholic. This is not a matter of discerning a mere interior disposition, but rather, as Saint Paul says, of “discerning the body” (cf. AL 185-186), the concrete visible relations in which we live.
And that means that the Church does not leave us alone in the face of this discernment. The text of “Amoris Laetitia” indicates to us the key criteria for getting to the bottom of it. The first consists in the goal that is desired in discernment. It is the goal that the Church proclaims for all, in any case and situation, and that must not be silenced out of human respect nor out of fear of clashing with the mentality of the world, as the pope recalls (AL 307). It consists in returning to the fidelity of the marriage bond, thus entering anew into that dwelling or ark which the mercy of God has offered to the love and desire of man. The whole process is directed, step by step, with patience and mercy, to revivifying and healing the wound from which these brothers suffer, which is not the failure of the previous marriage, but rather the new union established.
Discernment is necessary, therefore, not for selecting the goal, but for selecting the path. Having clearly in mind where we want to take the person (the full life that God has promised us), one can discern the ways by which each one, in his particular case, may arrive there. And here enters, as the second criterion, the logic of little steps of growth, about which the pope also talks (AL 305). The key is that these divorced persons should decline to establish themselves in their situation, that we not make peace with the new union in which they live, that they be ready to illuminate it in the light of the words of Jesus. Everything that may lead to abandoning this way of life is a small step of growth that must be promoted and enlivened.
Truly, he who desires to feed himself with Jesus in the Eucharist will also have the desire, using the biblical image, to feed on his words, to assimilate them into his life. Or better, as Saint Augustine says, he will have the desire to be assimilated by them. Because it is not Jesus who adapts himself to our desire, but it is our desire that is called to be conformed to Jesus, to find in him its full realization.
From here we can move on to the third word, “integrate,” and examine the new ways that “Amoris Laetitia” opens for the divorced in a new union. The pope asks us, following the synod, to develop a process that must be realized in every diocese under the guidance of the bishop and according to the teaching of the Church (AL 300). This should be done, if possible, with a team of qualified and expert pastors.
It is essential that the word of God be proclaimed in the process, especially in that which concerns marriage (AL 297). Thus these baptized persons will shed light, little by little, on this second union that they have begun and in which they live. This would also open the possibility to review a possible nullity of the sacramental marriage, according to the new norms issued by the pope.
On this journey we also find another innovation opened by the pope in “Amoris Laetitia.” Without changing the general canonical regulations, the pope admits that there may be exceptions regarding the assumption of certain public ecclesial offices by these divorced persons. The criterion is, as I indicated before, the person’s journey of concrete growth toward healing.
Throughout this whole process, it is good to recall that the sacraments are not just a momentary celebration, but a journey: whoever begins to move toward penitence finds himself already in a sacramental process, is not excluded from the sacramental structure of the Church, already receives in a certain way the help of the sacraments. Once again, the important thing is to be willing to let oneself be transformed by Jesus, even if one knows that the journey will be long, and to let oneself be accompanied on this journey. That which moves the pastor is the desire to introduce the person into the culture of the bond, offering a dwelling place for his desire, so that it may be regenerated according to the words of the Lord.
The pope invites us to undertake a process; this is the key. Eucharistic communion will be on the final horizon and will come at the moment willed by God, because it is He who acts in the life of the baptized, helping them to regenerate their desires in conformity with the Gospel. Let us begin step by step, helping them to participate in the life of the Church, until they reach “the fullness of God’s plan for
them” (AL 297).
I conclude. In the waters of fluid modernity, the Church can offer a hope to all families and to all of society, like Noah’s ark. She recognizes the weakness and need for conversion of her members. Precisely for this reason she is called to maintain, at the same time, the concrete presence in her of the love of Jesus, living and active in the sacraments, which give the ark its structure and dynamism, making it able to plough through the waters. The key is to develop, and the challenge is not a small one, an “ecclesial culture of the family” that may be a “culture of the sacramental bond.”
Saint John Chrysostom says that Noah’s ark differs from the Church in one important detail. The ancient ark took into its hull the irrational animals, “alogos,” and kept them there still irrational. The Church, instead, also receives the man who, because of sin, has lost the Logos, reason, and is therefore “irrational,” walking without the light of love. But precisely because the Church has the vital environment of the body of Christ, because she preserves the harmony of the sacraments, she, unlike Noah’s ark, is capable of regenerating man, of conforming the human heart to the Word (Logos) of Jesus. In her men come in “irrational” and come out “rational,” which means ready to live according to the light of Christ, according to his love that “hopes all” and “endures forever.”
English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.