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Francis the Thomist? Do not lose the thread.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 29, 2017

Now Pope Francis has claimed that the morality underlying Amoris Laetitia is Thomistic. Please note that I am resisting the temptation to write another of my 10,000 word commentaries. Like the rest of you, I really, really want to have a life. Instead, to make things quicker and easier, I offer bullet points:

  • To grasp Amoris Laetitia one must read everything: Pope Francis stated that we must read the entire text plus the work of the two Synods on the Family. Unfortunately, the Pope implies that his critics have not done so. But everybody who has raised serious questions has done this, and has become even more disturbed.
  • Theology must be done on the knees: This is indispensable advice from Pope Francis—were it not for the implication that all those who question him are notorious in their failure to heed it. Judging anecdotally, the most prominent advocates of Pope Francis’ penchant for novelty seem significantly less committed to a life of prayer than do their critics.
  • We must avoid the casuistry of the old manuals: Again, a valid concern—were it not for the implication that those who question this Pope are by definition stuck in the old manualistic rut. But casuistry has always been used in two senses: (1) The resolution of moral problems through the application of moral principles to specific cases; (2) The use of highly-elaborated but fundamentally unsound reasoning to justify faulty moral conclusions. To abandon the first is to embrace the conclusions produced by the second—that is, to confirm only what we would prefer to be true.
    • Related point 1: The Manuals The problem with the “manuals” used to teach theology in the early twentieth-century was a Scholasticism in which ideas were regarded as safe only if they fit into an essentially human system, eliminating mystery. This led many brilliant theologians to be treated with suspicion by the Holy Office, precisely for their insistence on returning to Scripture and the Fathers in order better to do theology on their knees. Henri de Lubac is a prime example. The greatest living exponent of the subsequent renewal is Joseph Ratzinger. Those who did not stay on their knees became Modernists.
    • Related point 2: The Culture There was a corresponding cultural tendency to live the faith prescriptively in those days, a preoccupation with knowing the rules necessary to squeak into purgatory. But the culture-wide reaction to old rules in the second-half of the twentieth century was hardly an effort to go deeper into the mystery of the relationship between God and the soul. If it had been, why have so many Catholics constantly fallen back on cultural rather than Divine influences since that time—just like everybody else?
  • Discernment: The only answer Pope Francis gives to those with questions is to stress the priority of “discernment” in dealing with the spiritual and moral fragility of the human person. But the role of discernment here is not to make a public determination of the degree of subjective guilt. Faced with two persons caught in the same objective moral situation, it is not for the pastor to say: “You on my left are a goat; do not darken the Church door. But you on my right are a sheep. Take Communion with us!” No, the purpose of discernment here is to sense what the most serious obstacles to conversion are, and to target those issues as effectively as possible.
  • Invincible ignorance: The discernment Pope Francis has advocated seems to be predicated on what we might call the level of “partially invincible ignorance” of each person. Thus he wishes to discern whether God is calling someone to do his or her best in a given moment, even if this still entails serious sin, so that the Church can treat that person accordingly. Not only is this an impermissible judgment, but the whole problem of truly invincible ignorance is completely beyond the Divine remit of the Church, which is called always and only to present the full Gospel of Christ. Though invincible ignorance may indeed prevent any given person from being damned, those who will not or cannot recognize the spiritually authoritative character of the Church cannot enter into communion with her. (And what valid motive could they have for desiring to do so?)
  • The Church as polity: The previous point relates closely to what we might call the “polity” of the Church. The Church is the mystical body of Christ but also an institution with its own structure and polity, both of which are designed to represent Christ the way, Christ the truth, and Christ the life to all, insofar as that is possible for an institution of sinners. For this reason, the desire for and the profession of Faith has always been not only the key spiritual determinant but the key institutional determinant of membership/communion. The Church’s polity demands not the assumption that all who are not in communion with her are damned, but the recognition that all who refuse to profess the Church’s faith are not in communion with her.
  • The neuralgic point: It is precisely this that is the neuralgic point for the critics of Amoris Laetitia and related aspects of Pope Francis’ pontificate. They fear that Pope Francis is, as it were, baptizing the continuation of an extremely damaging cultural trajectory. I mean the continuing pattern of diluted convictions which, in our culture, has caused the number of those who claim no religion to grow dramatically, along with the number of self-identified Catholics who feel free to deny what the Church teaches in the name of Christ. It is not necessary to live without sin to be in full communion with the Church; but it is necessary to profess the Church’s faith and accept her spiritual authority.
  • Ecclesiastical discipline: What the critics are struggling to preserve is the distinction between sin and a refusal to accept what the Church is. The former does not eliminate communion; the latter does. That is why the Church’s consistent refusal to admit some to receive Communion, regardless of interior states of mind and heart, has always been based on the problem of scandal. Those who publicly manifest their rejection of the Faith or their refusal to accept the Church’s spiritual and sacramental authority are not to be admitted to communion. This may be determined by their public commitment to a particular state of life (as in marriage cases) or by their public actions and speech (as in those who openly support various intrinsic evils which the Church condemns).

Conclusion

Some will argue that there is no longer any scandal connected with things like invalid marriages, or political advocacy for abortion, or even gay liaisons under various public names. But such persons simply fail to understand scandal. The scandal in question is not a popular reaction of horror at such open sins. It is exactly the opposite. The scandal is the failure to perceive the horror of such open sins. It is precisely this scandal which is increased whenever the Church’s ministers, at any level, find ways to pretend that those who are committed to such sins remain in good standing and full Communion with the Church.

In other words, this is the scandal of the Church denying her very being. I refer everyone again to Our Lord’s own words, which I quoted in June, in The problem with doctrinal obscurity: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’, and not do what I tell you?” (Lk 6:46). Finally, to penetrate the heart of the controversy precipitated by Amoris Laetitia, please reread Mark 19:6 and Matthew 10:9 on marriage: “So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”

The task of all of us is to protect the Church against policies and practices which make it appear normal and acceptable to tear asunder the work and the will of God.

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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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Deacon George - Oct. 01, 2017 9:48 PM ET USA

    Regarding AL as Thomistic see the October 2016 essay in "The Thomist" quarterly review by Serge-Thomas Bonino, O.P.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Sep. 30, 2017 1:37 PM ET USA

    "...morality underlying [AL] is Thomistic." In his answer to the Jesuits' question about theological reflection, the Pope again fails in charity towards those he criticizes. To assert that critics of AL have not read the entire document and appreciated the vast majority of it is disingenuous. It is not the whole document that many of us object to, but rather the paragraphs that call into question certain dogmatic and moral truths. Does Francis cover his ears and eyes to avoid sting of criticism?

  • Posted by: feedback - Sep. 29, 2017 11:01 PM ET USA

    This, very sadly, reminds me again about the resignation statement of Pope Benedict XVI: "However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me."

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Sep. 29, 2017 5:39 PM ET USA

    St. Thomas was never, never, never ever "doctrinally obscure". His theological and philosophical points were indeed subject to discussion and even disagreement but it was always on the merits not on well, he might've meant, gee, he could've meant,...If by Thomist, the pope thinks that his ambiguous statements amount to the Thomistic format of Objections...I answer, he is as sadly mistaken in that as in the validity of the most important part of the tear-the-church apart encyclical.