Church strives for harmony on family matters

The “filial correction” of Pope Francis, published by a group of several dozen clergy, scholars and writers Sept. 24, claims that the pope has failed to stop the spread of heresy in his teaching on marriage and family life, specifically when it comes to his rationale for Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics. The case for giving Communion to some of these Catholics recently was presented in an insider’s explanation of Pope Francis’ document on the family, Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”). Leaving the charges of the “filial correction” aside, it nevertheless appears that this insider’s explanation, given by Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez, rector of the Catholic University of Buenos Aires, rests on thinking at odds with Pope St. John Paul II’s writings on moral principles.

John Paul’s 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor (“The Splendor of Truth”) was the first papal document to give a systematic account of the fundamental philosophical and theological principles underlying the Church’s moral teaching. It is viewed as a benchmark by Catholic moralists who accept the papal magisterium — the pope’s teaching authority — as a reliable guide.

Amoris Laetitia, published in April 2016, is an apostolic exhortation, a category of papal documents carrying less authority than encyclicals. Its meaning has been debated since its release, with some saying and others denying that it gives guarded approval to Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics whose first marriages are considered still valid by the Church.

Sacramental practice

Up to now, such people have been ineligible to receive Communion unless they live with their second partners in a “brother and sister” relationship — that is, without having marital relations. Amoris Laetitia sets no such condition and appears to allow some who are in second unions to judge themselves worthy to receive after a process of self-examination carried out in consultation with a priest.

The newly published explanation of the papal document is the work of Archbishop Fernandez, the archdiocese that Pope Francis headed before being elected pope. Archbishop Fernandez, a member of the pope’s inner circle of advisers, is said to have helped write Amoris Laetia. His article, which appeared in Medellin, a theological journal sponsored by the Latin American Bishops’ Conference (CELAM), is an analysis of Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, which deals with theology.

The disputed passage in the pope’s document is a relatively brief footnote accompanying the following text: “Because of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible 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.”

Footnote 351 says of this: “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. ... I would also point out that the Eucharist ‘is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.’”

One interpretation

Archbishop Fernandez says the meaning of this is clear from a note sent by Pope Francis to the bishops of Buenos Aires, confirming that Amoris Laetitia is indeed speaking here of Communion for the divorced and remarried. In his Medellin article providing a rationale for this innovation, the archbishop distinguishes actions that are objectively seriously sinful from the subjective guilt of the persons who commit them.

Although it is always “an objective situation of habitual grave sin” for a Catholic whose first marriage hasn’t been annulled to have marital relations with a second partner, he writes, nevertheless such a person might subjectively have little or no guilt because of circumstances. It’s not that the objectively bad act then becomes objectively good, he adds, but that the person performing it remains in a state of grace and thereby eligible to receive Communion. Determining whether this is so requires a “pastoral discernment in the realm of the internal forum” carried out by the individual involved under the guidance of a priest, the archbishop says. This approach “does not imply a contradiction with the previous teaching” but is instead “a harmonious development and a creative continuity,” he maintains.

John Paul’s contribution

Since Veritatis Splendor was written 23 years before Amoris Laetitia, John Paul’s encyclical can hardly be taken as a direct response to Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation. But the earlier document does contain a passage with a bearing on the later one — namely, subsections 79-83, grouped under the heading “’Intrinsic evil’: it is not licit to do evil that good may come of it.” The heading carries a parenthesis citing Chapter 3 of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, which vigorously rebuts the idea that it’s acceptable to do evil for the sake of a good result.

John Paul says intrinsically evil acts are those that, “on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances,” are “incapable of being ordered” to God, inasmuch as they “radically contradict the good of the person made in his image.” “Consequently, without in the least denying the influence on morality exercised by circumstances and especially by intentions, the Church teaches that ‘there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object,’” Pope John Paul writes. The quotation is from St. Thomas Aquinas.

As for the role of circumstances and intentions in determining the morality of an action, the pope adds this: “If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it.” Quoting St. Augustine, who calls it “absurd” to suggest that things like theft, fornication and blasphemy might sometimes not be sinful or might even be “sins that are justified,” John Paul says: “Circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by its object into an act ‘subjectively’ good or defensible as a choice.”

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Veritatis Splendor doesn’t discuss Communion for the divorced and remarried, but another document by Pope John Paul does. This is Familiaris Consortio — like Amoris Laetitia an apostolic exhortation, published in 1981 after an earlier Synod of Bishops on marriage and the family. John Paul here tells pastors to exercise “careful discernment” toward such persons, some of whom entered second unions for their children’s sake and are convinced their first marriages weren’t valid. But even so, he says, these Catholics must agree to practice “abstinence from the acts proper to married couples” before they can be absolved and receive Communion.

Is Archbishop Fernandez’s explanation of Amoris Laetitia a “harmonious development” of what St. John Paul teaches or something else? Now there’s a question worth discussing.

Russell Shaw is an OSV Newsweekly contributing editor.