Soft Truths, Vague Boundaries
Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation meant to restate Catholic teaching on marriage and family, has stirred up a controversy about divorce, remarriage, and the sacramental discipline of the Catholic Church. In a notoriously vague section, Francis gives the impression that those who divorce and remarry can, in some circumstances, receive the Eucharist. There have been official challenges. Four cardinals formulated five dubia, a formal way of requesting clarification. John Finnis and Germain Grisez wrote a detailed letter (published on our website) asking the Holy Father to condemn eight positions they argue can be supported by the ambiguities of the papal document. In recent months, bishops and episcopal conferences in different parts of the world have offered divergent, even incompatible interpretations. On the eve of the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, is the Catholic Church entering a new season of schism?
I don’t anticipate a breakup, but the controversy is serious. At root, it is a referendum on John Paul II, or at least one aspect of his legacy. That long and fruitful pontificate reached its most countercultural point with the publication of Veritatis Splendor, the encyclical on moral theology. That document issued an unequivocal affirmation of moral truth as an objective reality. It surveyed a number of modern moral theories known as proportionalism or consequentialism, as well as arguments that the real subject matter of moral reflection should be the inner state of the individual rather than his outward behavior. These theories have important differences. But they’re united in their basic dynamic, which is to soften moral demands, making them more flexible and adaptable to difficult circumstances. Veritatis Splendor rejects them all.
This rigorous view of moral truth runs against our nonjudgmental, therapeutic age. But Veritatis Splendor was still more radical. John Paul II exulted in the moral rigorism of the Church’s perpetual teaching that some acts are intrinsically evil and should never be done. Drawing on the New Testament’s account of Jesus’s command to the rich young man—sell all your possessions and follow me—Veritatis Splendor champions the spiritual heroism that makes great sacrifices in order to obey truth’s unalterable demands. The modern secular world tends to flatten out existence by encouraging us to live in accord with the hearth gods of health, wealth, and pleasure. The Church’s unflinching commitment to moral truth beckons us to transcend that limited horizon. The Ten Commandments are not sad limitations. The unalterable “thou shalt not” stops us in our worldly tracks, shocking us out of our comfortable, wealth-sated complacency and calling us to higher things.
Veritatis Splendor made quite a stir when it was released in 1993. I was a young theology professor at a Jesuit university at the time. Most of my colleagues silently dissented. Over time, I came to see that the vast majority of moral theologians in Europe and North America rejected the encyclical. A few did so openly. Bernard Häring was among the most outspoken. He angrily denounced the encyclical as a naked assertion of papal power exercised to prop up Humanae Vitae, Paul VI’s encyclical prohibiting artificial means of birth control. Häring went on to condemn John Paul II’s moral rigorism. An inflexible notion of moral truth subjects ordinary Christians to severe burdens, and this imposition “is unlawful and possibly a great injustice.” Others took the more cautious route of arguing that John Paul II had mischaracterized the complex moral theories that allowed for exceptions, and therefore they remained legitimate ways of thinking. Most ignored the encyclical and continued to teach the moral theories John Paul II had condemned.
At the time I was not a Catholic. Nevertheless, I was somewhat taken aback by the scope of dissent. Many, perhaps most, Catholic theologians whom I knew did not want to believe that there are inflexible moral truths. In retrospect, however, that’s not surprising. The Catholic Church is a universal church. Its theological and pastoral culture, however, remains closely tied to Western culture. Over the last three generations, the West has become increasingly ambivalent about strong truths, seeing them as divisive and judgmental. The influential intellectual and cultural movements of recent decades have sought a view of truth that’s more fluid, open, and inclusive. This is obvious when it comes to sexual morality. But it’s evident in other areas as well. Many want a more flexible view of suicide, one that allows people to take their own lives if they face pain or despair. Divorce—the focus of controversy surrounding Amoris—should be treated as “tragic,” not wrong. In this issue, Christopher Caldwell reports on the softening, nonjudgmental language professionals now encourage, even require, when talking about drug addiction (“American Carnage”). At every turn, our dominant culture weakens strong truths.
The majority of Catholic theologians, priests, and bishops have gone along with this pattern of weakening. All the changes in the Church since Vatican II have been in the direction of relaxation and softening. We have sharp rhetoric about social justice, but the preferential option for the poor is an open-ended exhortation, not a precise moral demand like the condemnation of taking innocent life as an intrinsically evil act. But most of the energy in Catholic moral theology has gone into making arguments showing that what used to be prohibited can actually be licit. There have been exceptions, of course, such as the Dominican Servais Pinckaers, who wrote beautifully about the fullness of the Catholic vision of the moral life. But as a rule, the discipline of moral theology, when it’s not hectoring us for failing to be sufficiently progressive in our political judgments, has for many decades specialized in permission. This has been the Catholic Church’s way of bringing her moral teaching into conformity with the spirit of our age.
The ambiguities in Amoris Laetitia concerning divorce, remarriage, and the sacraments participate in the preferential option for permission. One can understand the impulse, given the cultural assumptions that currently reign. Are we to say out loud that a Catholic who has remarried without receiving an annulment is committing adultery when having sexual intercourse with his “wife”? Aren’t the scare quotes around “wife” an insult to adults who are trying their best to live good, decent lives? What church could survive such a countercultural legalism? So Pope Francis retreats to weasel words such as “accompaniment” and in his own way recapitulates the super-subtle scholasticism of the theorists of exceptions who came to prominence after Vatican II.
Closely related to this softening of moral truth has been a relaxation of church discipline. Before the modern era, the Catholic Church’s governance, structures, and self-understanding were intertwined with secular institutions. As Christendom dissolved and the modern nation-state began to claim a monopoly on legitimate authority, the Church worked to disentangle herself and establish a sacred polity distinct from worldly authorities. The culmination of this project was the 1917 Code of Canon Law, one of the great achievements of modern Catholicism. The code was superseded by the 1983 code, but the latter operates in the same spirit. It establishes a clear frontier between the Church and the world, and canonical discipline maintains that boundary.
With the trend toward flexible truths came ambivalence about boundaries. The Eucharist is the sacramental center and spiritual summit of Catholicism. Insofar as the Church is a set-apart, supernatural body, the Eucharist is naturally encircled by disciplines that protect its celebration from invasions by the profane, just as the Code of Canon Law firms up the boundaries between the Church and the world. Those disciplines were much relaxed after Vatican II. Liturgical ideologies of that era encouraged a more relaxed, casual approach to Eucharistic celebration. The physical boundary of the altar rail was often removed. Translations into the vernacular were deliberately demotic and banal. Music was written to make the experience more contemporary. The border between the sacred and profane was deliberately made uncertain and porous.
Pope Francis follows in this post–Vatican II tradition, which we’ve all experienced because it’s the dominant tradition of the past fifty years. The Church is a field hospital, a temporary, moveable structure like so much in our contemporary world. The hospital tent needs to have open flaps to bring in the wounded, and the spiritual physicians don’t have time to check credentials or worry about fine questions of canonical legitimacy. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Amoris is insouciant about the question of the integrity of the Eucharist and the need to maintain a steady discipline concerning its celebration and reception. When it comes to the Church, Pope Francis follows in the tradition of the majority of priests and bishops who went along with the removal of altar rails. He’s not a fan of clear boundaries.
John Paul II was an outlier. Though pope for more than two decades, he was a minority voice, at least in the West. Since Vatican II, most Catholic theologians—dogmatic, moral, and liturgical—have been on the side of the dominant secular culture, making things softer, weaker, and more porous. It’s foolish to invest too much time trying to parse chapter eight of Amoris. It’s a muddle—like most post–Vatican II Catholicism. That this document—and by implication, this pontificate—is not being swallowed happily by today’s Church suggests that some, perhaps more than we realize, do not want still more flexibility and permission.