A controversy among Catholics that has the potential of becoming the most serious crisis in the Church in nearly half a century now surrounds Pope Francis’s document on marriage, Amoris Laetitia.
Critics, including some cardinals and bishops, have said the papal document, whose Latin title means “The Joy of Love,” may come close to doctrinal error. They have urged the pope to clarify its meaning at key points.
Supporters, also including cardinals and bishops, say the critics are perilously close to illicit defiance of papal authority.
There’s been nothing quite like this since 1968, when organized theological dissent greeted Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, which reaffirmed the Church’s condemnation of artificial birth control. Even some bishops and bishops’ conferences waffled then.
But there is at least one big difference between then and now. In 1968, Pope Paul’s critics assailed him for repeating Church teaching. Today Pope Francis’ document is being questioned for perhaps departing from it. Papal loyalists of earlier times have become papal critics, while people who once took a minimalist view of papal authority are now vocal defenders.
Issue of divorce
The immediate focal point of the current argument — though not, some say, its most important issue — is whether divorced and remarried Catholics who haven’t received an annulment (a formal decision by an ecclesiastical court that the first union wasn’t a real marriage) can be given holy Communion.
Up to now, the answer has been no — receiving Communion is not possible for these people unless they and their new partners agree to live in a brother-sister relationship without marital intimacy.
That is the position expressed, for example, in Pope St. John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio, published in 1981 following an assembly of the Synod of Bishops on marriage and family the previous year.
In section 84, Pope John Paul writes:
“The Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried….
Reconciliation in the Sacrament of Penance, which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who ... ‘take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.’” (The quote is from John Paul’s homily at the closing of the 1980 Synod.)
The Synod process
Pope Francis, it seems, takes a different view. In October 2013, he announced that he would convoke not just one but two assemblies of the Synod of Bishops on marriage and family life — the first, in October 2014, to identify problems and their possible solutions, the second, in October 2015, to formulate recommendations. Instituted in 1965, following the Second Vatican Council, the Synod of Bishops is an assembly of bishops that advises the pope on questions he identifies.
As part of the preparations, Francis convened a two-day meeting of the College of Cardinals in February 2014, at which he invited Cardinal Walter Kasper to make the case for Communion for the divorced and remarried.
|Applying the Moral Law
For this reason, a pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in “irregular” situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives. This would bespeak the closed heart of one used to hiding behind the Church’s teachings, “sitting on the chair of Moses and judging at times with superiority and super ciality dif cult cases and wounded families”. Along these same lines, the International Theological Commission has noted that “natural law could not be presented as an already established set of rules that impose themselves a priori on the moral subject; rather, it is a source of objective inspiration for the deeply personal process of making decisions”.
— Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia, No. 305
Cardinal Kasper, a German theologian who formerly headed the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, has pushed that idea for years. His two-hour presentation to the cardinals drew a mixed response along with warm thanks from the pope.
In the months that followed, a vigorous debate on the proposal continued among cardinals, bishops and theologians. Then came the synod of October 2014.
In many ways, it was procedural chaos — a gathering of some 200 people held in semi-secrecy after a media buildup, accusations that the Synod was being manipulated, public release of a draft statement supposedly reflecting participants’ views that the participants hadn’t seen or approved.
Although this was a Synod about marriage and the family, a lot was said about cohabiting couples and couples in same-sex unions, as well as about the divorced and remarried.
For the short term, the result was confusion, consternation, ill will and conflict at every level of the Church, from Synod hall to local parish. But if it accomplished nothing else, the Synod did place the issue of Communion for the divorced and remarried before the universal Church.
Synod number two, in October 2015, was a more orderly affair. Its final report doesn’t refer specifically to the Communion question. Instead, section 86, adopted by a vote of 190 to 64, says this about pastoral care for the divorced and remarried: “Conversation with the priest, in the internal forum, contributes to the formation of a correct judgment on what places an obstacle to the possibility of a fuller participation in the life of the Church and on the steps that can favor that participation and make it grow... .
“This discernment can never prescind from the demands of truth and of charity of the Gospel proposed by the Church. So that this happens, the necessary conditions of humility, discretion and love for the Church and its teaching, in a sincere search for the will of God and in the desire to reach a more perfect response to it, must be guaranteed.”
The pope speaks
Then came Amoris Laetitia, the pope’s response — technically called an apostolic exhortation — to the synod.
The document, dated last March 19, is long — at 55,000 words, slightly longer than the Gospels of Matthew and Luke combined — and organized in nine chapters treating matters like family relationships, the education of children and the spirituality of marriage. The current controversy concerns chapter eight, titled “Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness.”
Without encouraging what it calls “irregular” situations like cohabitation, chapter eight insists that real-life situations, including divorce and remarriage, vary greatly from a moral perspective. Particular individuals “may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such” and should receive the Church’s help to “grow in the life of grace,” it says.
This statement by the pope carries a footnote — number 351 — whose much-disputed meaning is at the heart of the controversy now underway. It reads as follows:
“In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, ‘I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy’ [quotation from Pope Francis’ 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium]. I would also point out that the Eucharist ‘is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak’ [same source].”
Does this mean sometimes giving Communion to the divorced and remarried? Many people think so. Pope Francis appears to have endorsed that interpretation in a private letter to some Argentine bishops, which was leaked to the press.
Amoris Laetitia outlines a process in which divorced and remarried Catholics who want to receive Communion are invited to engage in discernment under a priest’s guidance to determine whether they’re eligible. If they decide they are, they should receive.
Since the papal document repeatedly declares support for the Church’s teaching that marriage is indissoluble, the assumption can only be that it approves having some people in second unions receive Communion even though their first unions have not been declared null by a Church tribunal. Nothing is said about forgoing marital intimacy as a condition for doing so.
The uproar this has caused has grown in the months since Amoris Laetitia appeared, with the debate spreading across blogs and social media.
In September, four cardinals sent Pope Francis a letter asking him to answer five yes-or-no questions — in technical language, “dubia” — about the document. The letter was signed by Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, former president of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences; U.S. Cardinal Raymond L. Burke, patron of the Knights of Malta; Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, former archbishop of Bologna; and Cardinal Joachim Meisner, former archbishop of Cologne.
On Nov. 14, having received no answer, the cardinals made the letter public.
Its first question is whether Amoris Laetitia means to say that a priest may give absolution — and thus admit to holy Communion — divorced and remarried Catholics who have intimate relations with their partners in their second unions. Other questions concern the papal document’s impact on the teaching that some acts, including adultery, are intrinsically evil.
Pope Francis has maintained his silence since the release of the letter. Cardinal Burke has said that if that continues, he may deliver a formal “correction” to the pope.
But even if Francis isn’t answering the cardinals directly, he does speak critically in homilies and elsewhere of unnamed persons he calls “rigid” for not getting on board with his program of mercy. Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, editor of the journal La Civiltà Cattolica and a papal adviser, said to have helped write Amoris Laetitia, has blasted “these sad cardinals [who are] wrapped up in the minutiae of doctrine.”
According to Austen Ivereigh, author of a biography of Francis, criticism of the papal document comes from Catholics worried lest the Church “conform itself to the world” on divorce. But the critics are saying much more than that. As the cardinals’ letter suggests, fundamental moral principles are inescapably implicated in this argument. That is clear, for example, in a detailed analysis of Amoris Laetitia by two ranking figures in contemporary Catholic moral thought — John Finnis, emeritus professor of law and legal philosophy at Oxford and professor of law at Notre Dame, and Germain Grisez, emeritus professor of Christian ethics at Mount St. Mary’s University. The two are co-founders of a school of ethical thinking called the “New Natural Law Theory.”
Finnis and Grisez maintain that loyal Catholics should interpret papal teaching in a manner consistent with the tradition of the Church. But, they add, some passages in Amoris Laetitia can and will be misused by theologians and pastors grinding axes of their own. That includes such ideas as that a priest can absolve a penitent who “lacks a purpose of amendment” in regard to grave sin or that “no general moral rule is exceptionless.”
For the good of the Church, they say, Francis needs to make it clear that he rejects such views.
The two men are sharply critical of pastors and theologians who think they are “dealing realistically” with lapsed or lapsing Catholics by advocating views that go against Church teaching on marriage and human sexuality. “Their strategy sets aside the Church’s tradition and primary mission — to preach the Gospel everywhere and always, and to teach believers all that Jesus has commanded,” Finnis and Grisez said.
Beyond theory and theology, the current state of uncertainty also is reflected in widely differing pastoral interpretations of Amoris Laetitia.
In the United States, these range from Philadelphia, where Archbishop Charles J. Chaput instructed his priests to tell the divorced and remarried they may not receive Communion unless living in a brother-sister relationship with their second partners, to San Diego, where Bishop Robert W. McElroy led a diocesan synod on the implementation of the document, the final recommendations of which included outreach to the divorced and remarried, as well as cohabiting couples and those in same-sex unions.
In an interview with the Catholic news website Crux, newly elevated Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark advised his brother bishops to “suck it up and do what we’re supposed to do” by implementing Amoris Laetitia in dialogue with one another as members of a national episcopal conference. At the same time, he said they should seek clarification from the pope if they need it.
Here is where the controversy now stands.
The four cardinals sent their letter and its questions not only to Pope Francis but also to Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In an interview with the Austrian Catholic press agency, Cardinal Müller said the CDF could answer the questions, but only if the pope authorizes it.
Meantime, he said, “it is important for each single one of us to remain objective and not allow ourselves to become divided and even less to trigger polarization.” For a Church increasingly split over a papal text, that was good advice.
In an Italian television interview in early January, Cardinal Müller added that there was no need for a fraternal correction of the pope such as Cardinal Burke envisaged, since Amoris Laetitia is clear in doctrine. “On the one hand we have the clear teaching on marriage, and on the other hand the obligation of the Church to worry about these people in difficulties,” he said.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.