Cardinal Müller walks the tightrope: A Catholic tutorial?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Dec 02, 2016

I have been advocating the end of an unhealthy preoccupation with the problems presented by Pope Francis, but I am going to risk further comment because I find that Cardinal Müller’s current predicament offers a fairly healthy way to put things in perspective. The head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith says he cannot undertake to respond to the questions that have been raised about Amoris Laetitia unless Pope Francis instructs him to do so. However, he still managed to point out that the apostolic exhortation, which focuses on marriage, ought to be read in a manner consistent with previous statements and decisions of the Church.

Of course, this is necessarily true of all Catholic teaching. But Müller also drew particular attention to the CDF’s rejection in 1993 of a proposal by the German bishops to admit divorced and remarried couples to Communion under certain circumstances (in essence, the Kasper Proposal). It would seem that the Cardinal misremembered the year, for the decision of the CDF under Pope St. John Paul II to which he refers was published (as far as I can tell) in late 1994: Concerning the Reception of Holy Communion by Divorced and Remarried Members of the Faithful.

Based on the traditional practice and doctrinal reasoning of the Church, the CDF’s decision was probably a foregone conclusion. Pope St. John Paul had already addressed this question with admirable clarity in his Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, which the CDF instruction directly references. It is well worth reading the entire CDF statement, which is fairly brief, because it bears directly on the current controversy. For example, it specifically disallows the kind of reasoning recently advanced by Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego.

Familiaris Consortio is also worth reading, but it covers the whole territory of the family. Since it is a very long document, let me reproduce the three most relevant paragraphs here:

[T]he church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon sacred scripture, of not admitting to eucharistic communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the church which is signified and effected by the eucharist. Besides this there is another special pastoral reason: If these people were admitted to the eucharist the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.
Reconciliation in the sacrament of penance, which would open the way to the eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage.
This means, in practice, that when, for serious reasons such as, for example, the children’s upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they “take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.” [#84, the quotation is from the homily the Pope gave at the close of the Sixth Synod of Bishops in 1980]

Subjective and objective considerations

Interestingly, Pope St. John Paul gave two reasons for his decision, the first expressed as logically conclusive, and the second as pastorally salutary. It is a fairly strong statement, not because it reaffirms a longstanding practice (for longevity is not a proof of immutability), but because it gives an essentially doctrinal reason rooted in the very nature of the Church, which St. Paul teaches is itself formed in a marital covenant (cf. Eph 5). John Paul explained that the state and condition of life of such couples “objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the church which is signified and effected by the eucharist”. Apparently, then, it is this objective contradiction when renders admission to the Eucharist impossible.

Cardinal Müller, who is clearly between a rock and a hard place, has done what he can by pointing out that it is impermissible for a Catholic to read Amoris Laetitia in a way that is inconsistent with previous Magisterial teaching. And in fact there is absolutely nothing in the actual text of Amoris Laetitia which forces us to read it in this way. There is perhaps a lack of clarity here and there, but a lack of clarity in one Magisterial text (which is quite common as various considerations are brought to the fore) is open only to interpretations that do not contradict what is clearly stated in other Magisterial texts.

In other words, there is no Magisterial crisis here, such as would call into question the Catholic belief in the protection of the Magisterium by the Holy Spirit. Rather, the precise issue which forces Cardinal Müller to tread so carefully is that Pope Francis himself has privately (that is, non-Magisterially) approved interpretations of Amoris Laetitia which do appear to contradict Familiaris Consortio.

It is still (barely) possible that this contradiction is only apparent. John Paul II’s language is not theoretically incompatible with the discovery of some rare factor which, in some presumably small number of cases, would eliminate the real contradiction between the couple’s state and the union of love signified by the Eucharist. In fact, the brother and sister solution is exactly such a factor. In such cases, the contradiction identified by John Paul II remains apparent but it is not real.

In all the cases of which I am aware, however, those who seek to expand reception of Communion among the divorced and remarried (and, given contemporary trends, perhaps among those who claim to be in new kinds of “marriages” which the Church does not recognize) are looking not for objective factors but subjective ones. This, presumably, is why Pope Francis includes in Amoris Laetitia a consideration of those who, while still doing things that are objectively evil, have taken some step which God approves (conditionally, as it were) because it is for them an improvement and the best thing they are capable of at that point in their lives.

This opens up the very large question of gradualism, an issue in moral theology which the Church accepts in some forms (for example, in the recognition of the subjective and typically gradual character of growth in virtue and spiritual progress) but not in others (for example, in the implication that subjective elements can somehow make what is evil good). An analysis of gradualism would take us far beyond the scope of this brief essay, but the relevant point here is that Pope St. John Paul II specifically based his teaching in the matter we are discussing on the objective state and condition of the couple in question. In other words, gradualism, however conceived, simply does not apply.

Going forward

It may well be true, as Cardinal Müller diplomatically suggests, that Pope Francis is seeking to help couples “find a way that is in accordance with God’s gracious will”. We must always keep in mind that Francis has articulated the Christian understanding of Creation, the sublime givenness of our human nature, and the Catholic vision of marriage with great sensitivity, beauty, and spiritual insight. Moreover, he has repeatedly insisted that what he wants is a Church whose priests refuse to categorize but instead reach out to all those in spiritual need, seeking to nourish and heal them in the Confessional. The frustration of his critics (including myself) can lead to dangerous over-simplifications. For all the Pope’s obvious faults in his non-Magisterial speech, and for all the turmoil he creates by his own admission, it is not easy to dismiss him as a garden variety Modernist or a closet secularist.

Nonetheless, if I understand what the Magisterium has already taught on this matter, the path to the Eucharist for the divorced and remarried requires alterations in the objective elements of their situation, and not interpretations of their subjectively good or bad will. Clearly, those like Bishop McElroy, who encourage the couples in question to decide the issue based on their own subjective evaluation of their readiness for Communion, are making a rather fundamental analytical blunder—indeed, a basic category mistake. Happily, Pope Francis has never gone this far in theory, but he has gone just far enough for Catholics to wonder whether this is what he actually intends in practice.

It is of the greatest importance that Magisterial texts be parsed with extraordinary care. And it is precisely for this reason that those who have questioned Pope Francis’ intentions in the most responsible way have repeatedly asked him to give examples of the factors he has in mind which would remove a given couple from the class of those who contradict, by their objective state and condition of life, what the Eucharist signifies. Again, Pope St. John Paul II established “complete continence” as the only factor he could envision which meets the necessary objective test.

Unfortunately, the peculiar decision of Pope Francis to promote privately what he has not chosen (or been able) to justify Magisterially has brought out into the open a crisis of understanding which seriously divides the Church (and has done so, less openly, for at least two generations). The Pope and his allies have chosen to dismiss all who raise questions as suffering from a chronic inability to see moral issues in anything but black and white. But this response fails to satisfy: First, it is not a moral argument but a clever way of dismissing critics as intellectually inferior and, in fact, spiritually blind; second it seeks to shift the ground of the debate to the realm of the subjective when, as far as the Magisterium has spoken on this point in the past, the subjective is irrelevant to the problem that must be overcome.

And so Cardinal Müller walks his tightrope. His position makes it difficult for him to say anything that reflects badly on Pope Francis, just as it makes it impossible to issue an official statement without the Pope’s approval. He has very little operational freedom (though the person on the planet who has by far the least operational freedom in these matters is Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who could so easily split the Church right down the middle, and raise the specter of an anti-Pope). But in walking his tightrope, the head of the CDF provides a tutorial for the rest of us.

We, of course, have greater freedom of operation, coupled with far less influence and authority. But just as Cardinal Müller has no Magisterial warrant for interpreting Amoris Laetitia in a manner which contradicts Familiaris Consortio, neither have we. And just as Cardinal Müller may not defy the Pope’s legitimate authority, neither may we. Within our stations, our duties are conceptually the same. We must interpret Amoris Laetitia in a manner compatible with Familiaris Consortio. We must do our best to minimize the damage caused by all those who refuse to do the same. As for those in difficult quasi-marital situations, we must also understand that Pope Francis wants us to love them, not dismiss them. And in this he is not wrong.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: bernie4871 - Dec. 03, 2016 5:11 PM ET USA

    I do not see how any Catholic can just walk away from this whole thing. This is an elemental issue. Francis is saying to his ministers: 'Show them what the Church teaches, then leave it to each person to decide for himself'. This pastoral advice is in the context of the marital relationship which is utterly and immutably tied in a profound analogy that speaks to God's immutable love of His Church. Effectively Francis invites persons to act like any other pagan. Preposterous!

  • Posted by: wojo425627 - Dec. 03, 2016 8:35 AM ET USA

    I have seen many catholics on other website comment sections who seem unable or unwilling to recognize that divorce and remarriage are not just a subjective dimensions In their minds but that it has an outward objective dimension, that they are objectively in a situation that contradicts church teaching. I've tried explaining it to various people but they are stuck on the internal forum and subjective beliefs of their mind regarding their situation.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Dec. 03, 2016 1:00 AM ET USA

    The reality (as demonstrated in San Diego) is that it's already too late. The real trouble with Amoris Laetitia is its ambiguity, an ambiguity that appears intentional. This cannot be minimized because this is THE problem. Recognizing this, the 4 cardinals, in fidelity to their duty before Christ, have done nothing more than what clearly had to be done. There's ample evidence to date and there is the use of reason. As this goes by, the less "meaningful" will be any future clarification.

  • Posted by: claude-ccc2991 - Dec. 02, 2016 4:51 PM ET USA

    Two views of Cardinal Muller's position: 1/ he has conditionally left open the door to answering the questions (of course, the Pope must request it) and 2/ he has left open that it is not improper for the questions to have been asked (as Cardinal Pell said, who can disagree with a question?), and not improper for the questions to be answered. It is in the nature of the dubia, and the principle of Non-contradiction, that the dubia have answers.

  • Posted by: Gramps - Dec. 02, 2016 3:51 PM ET USA

    Dr. Jeffrey, Thank you for your defense of Catholic moral law. It would appear to this observer that mercy cannot exist without justice (I read that somewhere). Justice, invariably, requires clarity. Clarity appears to be threatened by (1) that section of AI, and (2) the decision not to reply to the dubia. It is confusing, also disheartening, to observe the Pope's inaction. That inaction could give life to the tory of the Pope's reaction to receiving the letter (dubia) in the first place.