Image: Salzburg, Austria
Today, on 7 February 2017, the Austrian Auxiliary Bishop Andreas Laun of Salzburg has published on the Catholic website Kath.net a commentary on the current situation in the Church with regard to the papal document Amoris Laetitia and its cumulative effects. Bishop Laun speaks about a German priest who now works in Southern America, and who just wrote to him the following earnest words:
Dear Andreas, while the questions concerning the remarried divorcees remain unanswered and vague – as the Holy Father does it currently – then there can soon come to pass the following absurd situation: a penitent [in the confessional] presents his situation – saying that he wishes to continue to live as husband and wife with his female partner – and he then demands absolution, with [a supporting] reference to the various bishops’ conferences and finally also to the pope himself; and then I [as a priest] say: “My conscience tells me that I cannot give you absolution even though the pope still keeps the question open; therefore, I cannot give absolution to you.” But, then, the other, with reference to the pope, insists upon receiving absolution as well as admittance to Holy Communion. Do I then have to change the formula of absolution and say: “The pope absolves you from your sins in the name of the Father and so on …?” For me, this is absolutely absurd! But is this not what it leads to? [my emphasis]
To this passage Laun then comments, with these words: “I fear that in this question is contained a logic which one cannot escape.” He continues, as follows:
There is no such thing as a double truth, and to some questions there is only one true answer – even when bishops and entire bishops’ conferences are giving contradictory answers. Some [answers] are true, others are certainly false. The four well-known cardinals who have presented their questions [dubia] to the pope might be well satisfied with the illustration of the problem as now presented here by this [German] priest from Southern America.
With some more encouraging words, Bishop Laun explains to his readers that, as Catholics, we cannot avoid this fundamental conflict: “I fear that there is no way of avoiding it; this conflict has somehow to be fought and carried out – and this [is to be done] without a false compromise! One cannot sit it out.” [my emphasis] Laun adds, nor may one avoid this conflict by a mere “reference to obedience toward the pope,” since it is “about a self-evident Catholic matter,” namely: “The pope is infallible, but this charism is not to be understood and respected without also considering the carefully described limits [to that charism].” [my emphasis]
The Austrian bishop then further describes some cases where a pope can, indeed, fall into error or be “a publicly recognizable sinner.” He continues, by saying: “The pope has the duty of being a father, and one may put questions to a good father, also critical ones!”
Laun adds that, in the past, popes have certainly committed some grave errors. For example, “one pope had even thought to have found, in a volcano, the entrance to hell.” The Austrian prelate explains: “No Catholic is bound – in the face of such a mishap – to give up his reason. One may chuckle, one may contradict, yes, one may even resist if the judgment of one’s [well-formed] conscience clearly says something different.” Sometimes, says Laun, it is of course better to be silent in the face of a pope’s mistake. This, however, is – according to Laun – not the case with our current conflict. One may not “put to rest” this disputed question. “It is about the Church, it is about people and their personal relationship with God, and it is, by the way, also about image of the Catholic Church to those who are ‘outside.’” Laun concludes with the following words:
There is a duty-bound obedience toward the pope and the authority of the Church; sometimes there exists in this Church the right – and sometimes the duty – to speak freely! It is undisputed that it can be difficult to unite both aspects under one hat. Faith and reason have to collaborate! This, too, is truly Catholic!
Bishop Laun is to be commended for his Catholic witness here and for his insistence upon a clarification amidst the confusions stemming from Pope Francis and his Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia. Even in a 23 December 2016 interview with OnePeterFive, Laun had already himself publicly expressed his deep sympathy and agreement with the Four Cardinals and their expressed dubia with regard to Amoris Laetitia.
It is important, moreover, that Bishop Laun should now raise the problems of conscience which faithful and orthodox Catholic priests are now facing in the Church, especially with regard to the Seal of the Confessional. For, if a priest refuses absolution to an impenitent adulterer, he might soon be accused by that penitent of not going along with the new rules in the Church. A grave problem then arises for a priest, who may not at all even defend himself, inasmuch as he is strictly bound to be silent in accord with the Seal of Confession – as Saint John Nepomucene – a martyr to the Sacrament of Penance – was to exemplify. This actual and potentially increasing conflict might then also indirectly, yet subversively, turn out to be not only an attack on the Seal of Confession, but also an undercutting of the sacred trust in the priesthood itself.