Fidelity that is too creative becomes infidelity
With regard to the contribution from Rodrigo Guerra López in “L’Osservatore Romano” of July 23, 2016
by Jaroslaw Merecki
I must say that the text by my friend Professor Rodrigo Guerra has brought me a certain discomfort.
Let me explain. The author begins his commentary on the apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” by recalling the debate that took place in Krakow after the publication of the book by Karol Wojtyla “Person and Act.” The debate – backed by Wojtyla himself – included various professors of the Catholic University of Lublin, where Wojtyla directed the ethics department, and of other centers of Christian thought as well.
Anyone who read this debate could become convinced that Wojtyla’s book had prompted a serious discussion that hinged above all on the methodological and epistemological aspects of the attempt at a synthesis between metaphysics and phenomenology. The debate was very rich in philosophical nuances and subtleties. To maintain – as Guerra does – that the professors with a Thomistic outlook who took part in the debate were not accustomed to getting back to things in themselves and stuck to “repeating a certain canon of philosophical orthodoxy” is not only incorrect but also unjust.
Some – I remember only the great philosophers and friends of Wojtyla, the professors Mieczyslaw Albert Krapiec and Stanislaw Kaminski – have profoundly refurbished Thomism, giving it a methodologically and epistemologically mature and modern style.
Moreover, in his book about man – with a title that is eloquent in terms of getting back to things in themselves: “I, Man” – Krapiec incorporated various concepts developed by Wojtyla, and his method could in many ways be described as the passage from the phenomenon to the foundation.
So is it possible to say, as Guerra says, that to them everything – the method, the language, the proposal – seemed unsatisfying? The thesis according to which for Krapiec and his school truth is the conformity of the mind to Saint Thomas has little to do with reality. But it has a great deal to do with the author’s preconceptions.
On the other hand, it must be added that Wojtyla himself had a deep appreciation for the metaphysics of Saint Thomas. In fact, his philosophy of man cannot be understood without the fundamental metaphysical concepts that come from the tradition of Aristotle and Saint Thomas, and it would be interesting to make a list of his references to Saint Thomas above all in the first edition of his book, not yet “corrected” by the phenomenologists.
Also in what is called his “theology of the body” John Paul II expresses his admiration for the philosophical and theological synthesis of Aquinas. Of course this does not change the fact that he develops and enriches it in his own way, just as his Thomist colleagues at the University of Lublin did in their own way. Some of them taught me philosophy, and therefore I feel obligated to defend them against the disdainful judgments of those who probably have never taken the trouble to read their writings.
My take on Guerra’s text is not, however, of an historical character only. His interpretation of Karol Wojtyla and John Paul II in the context of the contemporary discussion on marriage also seems lacking to me.
It is true, as Guerra says, that Wojtyla appreciated and analyzed “the rich world of subjectivity and of conscience.” But – according to Wojtyla – at the same time the human person possesses his objective dimension.
There exists the subjective truth of every human person that develops in his lifetime, but there also exists the objective truth about man. And there also exist moral norms that express this objective truth.
This is not a matter of “a unilateral accentuation of certain moral absolutes,” but precisely of the expression of the objective truth about man. The necessary discernment of concrete cases cannot go against this truth, but must seek solutions that do not bring it into question.
John Paul II dedicated the encyclical “Veritatis Splendor” precisely to the criticism of theories that reject moral absolutes, recalling the concrete character of every situation and the irreducibility (which he also affirms) of every human person. Then in his great “theology of the body” he profoundly analyzes the truth about the goodness of indissoluble marriage, including as an image and expression of the faithful relationship between Christ and the Church.
It cannot be faithful – creatively or otherwise – to make any interpretation that goes directly against the intention, clearly expressed, of the author. And yet this is the case with Guerra.
Guerra says: “To state in a tacit or explicit way that every ‘irregular’ situation is by definition a mortal sin and deprives of sanctifying grace those who are living in it is a serious error that is not in keeping with the Gospel, with the natural law, and with the authentic teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas.”
Even if we give this statement the benefit of the doubt, we can ask: but how do we know that an objectively irregular concrete situation does not involve mortal sin? Professor Guerra knows theology well, and he knows that according to the Council of Trent not even in the case of my own person can I say with ultimate certainty that I possess sanctifying grace.
We cannot know that another person does not possess sanctifying grace, nor can we know that he possesses it. Here the judgment is reserved to God. What we can know, however, are our external actions. We can judge external actions and external situations, and we can say that some actions and some situations are contrary to this communion of Christ with his Church that finds its expression in the Eucharist. We need not resort to psychoanalysis in order to know that the conscience is manipulable. And it is none other than the objective judgment concerning external actions that can be of help to us in judging our subjective situation as well, in having the moral certainty that we are in the state of sanctifying grace, and in not falling into subjectivism.
I too, together with Professor Guerra, believe that “there does not exist a fracture in the magisterium of the recent pontiffs.” Those who suggest the hermeneutic of rupture are instead – and unfortunately – authors like Guerra, even when they call it “creative fidelity” (the language can easily be abused – I remember that when I was a young man in Poland the communist dictatorship was called “popular democracy”). If what used to be called “A” is now called “not-A,” we are not dealing with continuity, but precisely with discontinuity and rupture. Such discontinuity can be justified or not, that is another question. But it is certainly not continuity.
In my reading of the pontifical document, I have not found the statement that what are called irregular couples – I assume that Guerra is thinking of divorced and remarried persons – must be given access to the Eucharist. The pope says that they need to be accompanied, that they must not feel excluded from the ecclesiastical community, and footnote 351 says that they need not be deprived of sacramental help as well. Then the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist are mentioned. This statement is not clear. Which sacrament is intended here? And if what is intended is the Eucharist, under what conditions? It is precisely here that the hermeneutic of continuity is at stake.
Reading the document by Francis according to the hermeneutic of continuity with the magisterium of the Church means interpreting this statement in the light of the previous magisterium, which has already explicitly spoken about this problem. We think of “Familiaris Consortio” by John Paul II and “Sacramentum Caritatis” by Benedict XVI. “Familiaris Consortio” proposes to remarried persons a penitential journey that can even open access to the Eucharist without bringing the indissolubility of marriage into question (the way of penance that consists of renouncing the sexual acts that are proper to legitimate marriage). Nothing in the text of Pope Francis suggests that he wanted to change this teaching. Suggesting that this very clearly stated magisterium has been changed in a footnote that requires interpretation seems to me excessively creative.
Certainly the vision of marriage and the family left to us as a legacy by John Paul II does not prevail in the “mainstream” of Western culture. But in going against the tide, the pope followed the example of Christ himself. When Christ began his proclamation of the gospel of marriage and family, he was going against the universally accepted practice in his cultural environment. More than that, when Jesus speaks of the indissolubility of marriage the Pharisees invoke the authority of Moses, who had allowed a woman to be given a writ of repudiation and sent away (cf. Mt 19:3). Evidently Christ did not consider such a practice as an ultimate and decisive criterion for his teaching in this regard, urging his disciples to go back to the beginning, to God’s original plan for man, marriage, and the family.
Is it still realistic to propose this vision today, when so many marriages do not stand up to the test of time? The true aggiornamento of which Vatican Council II spoke does not consist of imitating or assimilating the mentality that prevails in this world, but rather of proposing with renewed force the message of the Gospel in all of its radicalism.
John Paul II said that the situation today does not need to go beyond the Gospel, but to return to the Gospel. That is why we can assume that the pope of the family would repeat today the same words with which he began his pontificate: “Be not afraid.” Be not afraid of proclaiming the gospel of the family in its full scope, with all of its demands, in the conviction that ultimately only it responds to the most authentic demands of the human heart.
English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.