Quick Hits: More cautionary thoughts on Amoris Laetitia

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Oct 19, 2016

  • Writing in Catholic World Report, Samuel Gregg remarks that Amoris Laetitia steers around the discussion of “intrinsically evil acts.” This is unfortunate, he writes, because in all the discussion of showing mercy to troubled souls, there is no clear indication that “mercy itself demands that catechesis involves, among many other things, Catholics coming to know that intrinsically evil acts put our souls at risk.”

    True mercy, then, requires informing the world about these intrinsically evil acts—as St. John Paul II did, with admirable clarity, in Veritatis Splendor—a document that is given short shrift in Amoris Laetitia—and in Familiaris Consortio. It was in the latter that the Polish Pontiff mentioned the pastoral strategy of gradualness—encouraging struggling Catholics along a step-by-step approach to proper moral conduct. But he stipulated that this approach “cannot be identified with ‘gradualness of the law,’ as if there were different degrees or forms of precept in God’s law for different individuals and situations.” In practice, then, a good priest-confessor would not condemn someone outright for being involved an illicit marital union; he would take the time to help that person come to understand where he had gone wrong. That process might take some time—thus the call for “gradualness.” But at no point would the confessor tell the individual that his current illicit union was acceptable, even as a temporary arrangement. If it is intrinsically wrong to enter into a 2nd union while one’s partner in a 1st valid marriage is still living—and Jesus Christ left no doubt on that score—then it can never be justified, under any circumstances.

  • Also in Catholic World Report, Thomas Nash warns that “the Holy Father is venturing down a rather precarious pastoral path” with Amoris Laetitia. He sees the need for clarification, particularly on the hotly disputed question of when, if ever, divorced and remarried Catholics should receive Communion. Nash suggests “a new Vademecum, which should be written under the close supervision of the CDF,” to resolve that question.

    There is a precedent, Nash points out: the 1997 Vademecum issued by the Pontifical Council on the Family to guide confessors in dealing with Catholics who used contraception. St. John Paul II had encouraged confessors to help bring couples to a better understanding of the Church’s teaching on that issue, just as Pope Francis asks priests to “accompany” Catholics who are struggling with the teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. The crucial point, Nash argues, is that while confessors might try to bring couples gradually into line with Catholic moral standards, they can never accept an objectively illicit union. Thus:

    In summary, as the 1997 Vademecum makes clear, gradualness is to help a penitent overcome any invincible ignorance, so they can embrace the Church’s teaching fully, with the same moral goal provided for married couples in which one spouse is coercively insisting on contraception. Applied to the case of the divorced and invalidly remarried, that would mean always leading divorced and remarried couples toward living as brother and sister, i.e., completely refraining from sexual relations.

    Some interpreters of Amoris Laetitia believe that divorced and remarried Catholics might be allowed, with their confessor’s approval, to receive the Eucharist while they progress along this path back into conformity with Church teaching. But the approval of a confessor, in the “internal forum,” is not the same as a formal finding by a marriage tribunal that the previous union was not a true marriage. Different confessors may set different standards for these couples, and divorced/remarried couples will inevitably seek out the priests most likely to give them approval. “And so,” Nash writes, “the mainstreaming of this subjective standard will unmistakably open the door to ecclesiastical anarchy.”

  • From the perspective of canon law, Edward Peters writes, in this discussion the emphasis on the “internal forum” (that is, sacramental confession and spiritual counseling) is a category mistake. Peters explains that a penitent may, with the help of a good confessor, clarify his own understanding of whether or not he is eligible to receive Communion. But the “internal forum” does not alter the situation for a priest, who must decide whether or not to administer the Eucharist to someone who is known to be involved in an illicit 2nd marriage. The priest is obligated, under Canons 912 and 915, to protect the Blessed Sacrament against sacrilege and scandal, and therefore to withhold the Eucharist from those who “obstinately persist in manifest grave sin.” So while a good confessor may help individuals with their own problems of conscience, “a minister’s decision about giving the Sacrament to an individual is not controlled by the recipient’s subjective conscience (well-formed or otherwise).”

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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