Amoris Laetitia: a Triumph of Subjectivism

Father Matthias Gaudron, priest of the Society of St. Pius X, comments on the subjectivism of the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia released on April 8, 2016.

On April 8, 2016, the long-awaited post-synodal exhortation by Pope Francis was published. In this letter the Pope neither granted general permission to administer Holy Communion to the divorced-and-remarried nor gave the bishops’ conferences authority to make exceptions. He also repeated the words of the recent Synod of Bishops, saying that there are “absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and the family” (¶251). Finally he spoke in clear terms against “gender theory,” describing it as an ideology opposed to the order of creation (cf. ¶56). On account of all this, Pope Francis disappointed many people who are Catholics in name only and many who move in liberal circles.

And yet, with Amoris Laetitia, he has opened a breach that in effect calls into question all Catholic moral teaching. In Chapter 8 (Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness), Pope Francis opens the door to abandoning Catholic morality under the aegis of papal teaching. He not only repeats the dubious statements of the last Synod of Bishops to the effect that the divorced-and-remarried are “living members of the Church,” upon whom the Holy Ghost pours out “gifts and talents for the good of all” (¶299), but he goes even further. It is true that Catholic doctrine about marriage and all previous norms continue to remain in force, and therefore persons living in concubinage or with a civil union only are by the very fact forbidden to receive absolution or Holy Communion. But…there are exceptions!

Questioning Catholic Morality

We must, says the Pope, “avoid judgments which do not take into account the complexity of various situations” (¶304). General norms are of course very good, “but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations.” That may be true of most human norms, but not of divine laws which decree that the conjugal act is permitted only to a man and a woman validly married, and that a consummated sacramental marriage cannot be dissolved by any authority on earth — not even by the Pope. These laws admit of no exceptions and are valid independent of any particular circumstance.

Furthermore the Church, along with many non-Christian philosophers, has always taught that in addition to morally indifferent acts, there exist some which are inherently good or bad. The morality of an action is in part objective and thus does not depend merely on circumstances or the intention of the agent. Killing an innocent person, abusing a child, and calumniating someone are always and in every case wrong, and hence they cannot become morally good actions even if done with the best of intentions. If out of ignorance and having an erroneous conscience, a man thinks it is permissible to kill an innocent person in order to save another, or that it is permissible to calumniate an adversary in the interest of a worthy cause, subjectively he may perhaps not be guilty of the sin, but his action remains objectively evil. On the other hand, helping the needy and remaining faithful to one’s spouse are always good actions. If someone performs a good deed for the sole purpose of being praised for it or in order to have the same done unto him, his personal merit would be lessened or disappear altogether. Yet his action would still be inherently good. The natural law is therefore not just a “source of inspiration” for decision-making, as ¶305 says; rather, it categorically forbids or commands certain actions.

This has nothing at all to do with “thinking that everything is black and white” (¶305). One can very well sympathize with a woman driven into a new relationship because of the infidelity or callousness of her husband. In such a case one may admit that the guilt is lessened, but adultery is still an inherently evil act.

But now Pope Francis maintains that “it 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,” and that this is so not only through ignorance of the divine law, but also on account of the “great difficulty in understanding its [the rule’s] ‘inherent values.’” Someone could even “be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin” (¶301). Thus the Pope is declaring officially the possibility that someone in an objectively sinful relationship must remain in it so as not to commit yet another sin. The only such imaginable case would be that of a man and woman who, though not validly married, stay together to raise their minor children. The Church gives, as in the past, its approval to such a situation, provided the couple live together in perfect continence as brother and sister.

What are the Logical Consequences of These Errors?

Let us assume now that a couple living together without the benefit of marriage has “great difficulty” recognizing their situation is sinful. These two people want to love and serve God in this situation and act subjectively in good conscience. Such a case is imaginable because of the widespread confusion caused by the media, public opinion, and priests who disregard the Church’s teaching of the contrary. If it be possible that such a couple remain subjectively without sin, their relationship still is objectively in contradiction with the will of God. A true shepherd, whose mission is to bring straying sheep back to the path that leads to God, cannot therefore approve of such a situation or administer the sacraments to these people as though they were bound by Christian marriage. But that is precisely the logical result of the Pope’s recommendations. “It is possible,” he writes, “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” (¶305). As the corresponding footnote n. 351 expressly remarks, this help of the Church “in certain cases” can “include the help of the sacraments,” for the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”1 Therewith the Pope distances himself from Catholic moral theology, daring to cite in support of such sophisms certain distinctions taught by St. Thomas Aquinas.

In vain does Pope Francis point out that it is necessary “to avoid all misunderstanding,” to propose “the full ideal of marriage...in all its grandeur,” and also to avoid “any kind of relativism” (¶307), since it is now up to the individual pastor to undertake in the internal forum “a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases” (¶300). Thus the decision to administer or not the sacraments in such cases is left de facto to the personal judgment of each priest. But what priest will dare to administer the sacraments to one couple based on their particular situation and then refuse the sacraments to other unmarried couples?

Moreover, the Pope’s arguments can readily be applied to other cases. If two homosexuals truly love each other and simply cannot understand that their lifestyle is sinful, can one then give them also Holy Communion?

And what are we to think about this statement: “No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel!” (¶297)? In the Gospel the Son of Man tells the evildoers: “Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire, which was prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt. 25:41). Anyone unwilling to give up a sinful situation and who perseveres in sin unto the end is therefore condemned by God for all eternity. The Pope, however, seems to say that Communion cannot be withheld forever from a couple that is living in sin. Likewise, how can we condemn forever a thief who is unwilling to return what he has stolen? Do the ill-gotten goods become legally his with the passage of time? That is exactly what the Pope’s logic implies.

Even the Fine Passages Are Not Free of Error
 

We should not fail to say that there are also very fine passages in Amoris Laetitia. The Pope really strives to promote the ideal of Christian marriage. He explains why the union of husband and wife in marriage must by its very nature be indissoluble; he draws a beautiful picture of the Christian family, speaking about the great gift of children; he gives advice for overcoming crises and raising children. Against the widespread ideology regarding gender, he writes: “Every child has a right to receive love from a mother and a father; both are necessary for a child’s integral and harmonious development” (¶172). He emphasizes that children need a mother’s presence, especially in the first months of life (¶173), and also points out the important role of the father and the dangers of a “society without fathers” (¶176). Furthermore Pope Francis makes mention of the fact that the education of children is “a primary right” of parents (¶84) and that the State has only a subsidiary role in it.

But even in those sections certain criticisms are unavoidable. For example, is it really appropriate to include in a papal text about marriage and family a long quotation from Martin Luther King, a notorious non-Catholic whose doctrines are out of place in such a document?

The Pope also commits a Christological error when he writes that Jesus “[came] to know that ancestral faith until he made it bear fruit in the mystery of the Kingdom” (¶65). Being Son of God by nature, Jesus had no faith, since He beheld his Father and divine things directly, and therefore He had no need of being instructed in the faith.

Several times there is confusion between the natural and supernatural orders, when he is too quick in praising a natural good as the work of the Holy Ghost. Thus Pope Francis maintains that in every family that raises its children to desire what is good, the Holy Ghost is at work, regardless of the family’s religion (¶72; cf. ¶47 and 54).

Above all, though, Chapter 8 is what makes Amoris Laetitia one of the most deplorable papal documents in recent Church history. We can only hope that the cardinals, bishops, and theologians who have constantly defended the Church’s teaching on marriage against dilution these last two years will still have the courage to offer resistance.

  • 1Paragraph n. 300, in connection with footnote n. 336, says explicitly that the consequences of a rule need not be the same for everyone, including with regard to “sacramental discipline.”