Catholic moral theology and Amoris Laetitia

WHY AMORIS LAETITIA IS MUCH WORSE THAN ORIGINALLY THOUGHT

“I am not speaking only of the divorced and remarried, but of everyone, in whatever situation they find themselves.” (Pope Francis)

From the beginning the controversy regarding Amoris Laetitia has been portrayed as being limited to whether a divorced and civilly remarried Catholic might be permitted, in certain circumstances, to receive Holy Communion. The purpose of this note is to demonstrate that the reach of Amoris Laetiti goes well beyond just the divorced and remarried, at least for those who do not intend to interpret the exhortation through the previous teachings of the Church regarding the impermissibility of exceptions for intrinsically evil acts.

In fact, in the controversial Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia Pope Francis states that the type of mercy being advocated is not just for the divorced and remarried but for everyone “in whatever situation.” He states:

297. It is a matter of reaching out to everyone, of needing to help each person find his or her proper way of participating in the ecclesial community and thus to experience being touched by an “unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous” mercy. No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel! Here I am not speaking only of the divorced and remarried, but of everyone, in whatever situation they find themselves. 

In a 2016 letter to Pope Francis, distinguished professors Germain Grisez and John Finnis pointed out just how easy it would be for those not committed to Catholic orthodoxy to interpret Paragraph 297 of Amoris Laetitia in a way that runs profoundly afoul of Catholic morality, and they petitioned the Pope to correct such a misunderstanding (see, “The Misuse of Amoris Laetitia to Support Errors Against the Catholic Faith,” available online). These professors provided numerous examples in their letter as to how no. 297 could be used to support immoral behavior.

Even within the parameters of a more restrictive interpretation, AL 297 specifically mentions couples “living together,” and by the time you get to paragraph 301 the generalized use of the term “irregular situations” begins to appear. No precise definition of what “irregular situations” means is given, but one presumes the more generalized language is purposeful.

Here is the very troubling passage from Amoris Laetitia (no. 301) which clearly suggests that a person can be in a “concrete situation” where he has no choice but to live in mortal sin (and is thus justified in remaining in his objectively sinful condition even though he knows the rule):

301.  For an adequate understanding of the possibility and need of special discernment in certain “irregular” situations, one thing must always be taken into account, lest anyone think that the demands of the Gospel are in any way being compromised.  The Church possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations. Hence it is can no longer simply be said that all those in any “irregular” situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace.  More is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule.  A subject may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding “its inherent values”, or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin.  

Amoris Laetitia, no. 303, contains another very controversial statement made by Pope Francis, stating that a person can come to the realization that God wills him to stay in his sinful condition. It reads, in pertinent part:

“Yet conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal. In any event, let us recall that this discernment is dynamic; it must remain ever open to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realized.”

In his great encyclical on Catholic morality, Veritatis Splendor, Saint Pope John Paul II specifically foresaw and rejected the type of argument put forth in Amoris Laetia (303) quoted above. He stated very clearly that

“It would be a very serious error … to conclude that the Church’s teaching is essentially only an “ideal” which must then be adapted, proportioned, graduated to the so-called concrete possibilities of man.” (VS 103) 

Still further, Saint John Paul II stated:

“circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act “subjectively” good or defensible as a choice.” (VS 81)

Pope John Paul II explained in Veritatis Splendor the clear Catholic teaching that an intrinsically evil act cannot be creatively transformed into something willed by God under concrete circumstances (the suggestion put forth in AL 303 and 301).

“The negative moral precepts, those prohibiting certain concrete actions or kinds of behavior as intrinsically evil, do not allow for any legitimate exception. They do not leave room, in any morally acceptable way, for the “creativity” of any contrary determination whatsoever.” (Veritatis Splendor 67)

“The negative precepts of the natural law are universally valid. They oblige each and every individual, always and in every circumstance. It is a matter of prohibitions which forbid a given action semper et pro semper, without exception.” (VS 52)

By trying to claim that an intrinsically evil act like adultery, fornication or other “irregular situation” may be the most generous response a person can give to God at a certain moment in his life, Pope Francis has embraced situation ethics and has strayed far from the firm and authentic foundations of Catholic morality. Pope John Paul II had already warned that such an argument is clearly erroneous.

CONCLUSION: Amoris Laetitia potentially opens the door to the justification of practically any type of mortal sin, not only because it is arguably for “everyone” in “all situations,” but also because “no area of Christian morality can remain unscathed” if the general statements about moral acts in the document are considered valid, to quote the great Dominican scholar, Father Aidan Nichols. For example, why would a married gay couple not be able to claim under the rationale of Amoris that their union is the best response they can make given their concrete situation. Thus, when Dr. Joseph Seifert referred to Amoris Laetitia as a “theological atomic bomb” which in essence would blow up Catholic morality, making all Catholic morality essentially optional, his opinion was not mere hyperbole.

Amoris Laetitia has created quite a mess for those who teach moral theology. One could forcefully argue it is the greatest threat to Catholic morality the Church has ever encountered.

Thomas L. Mulcahy, M.A., J.D.

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