Five Serious Problems with Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia | Dr. E. Christian Brugger | CWR
The most controversial section of Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation is fraught with problematic arguments and dubious moral theology—and gives the German bishops all they want.
For Catholics who feel weary about the abuse that the Christian family has lately suffered at the hands of militant secularism, Pope Francis’s Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia (AL) has many encouraging things to say: e.g., its forthright assertion that “no genital act of husband and wife can refuse” the truth that “the conjugal union is ordered to procreation ‘by its very nature’” (AL, 80; cf. 222); its ardent rejection of the killing of the unborn (no. 83); its unapologetic affirmation that every child has “a natural right” to have a mother and a father (no. 172), and its needed treatment—the lengthiest in any papal document of the last 50 years—of the importance of fathers for children (175).
But though the text says many true and beautiful things about “love in the family,” Chapter 8 (entitled “Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness”) allows—and seems intentionally so—for interpretations thatpose serious problems for Catholic faith and practice.
I focus here on five such problems:
1) The way it presents the role that mitigated culpability should play in pastoral care
2) Its inconsistent notion of “not judging” others
3) Its account of the role of conscience in acquitting persons in objectively sinful situations
4) Its treatment of moral absolutes as “rules” articulating the demands of an “ideal” rather than binding moral duties on everyone in every situation.
5) Its inconsistency with the teaching of Trent
1. AL’s treatment of subjective factors limiting responsibility
Catholic moral theology has spoken about the importance of pastors being sensitive to factors limiting a penitent’s subjective guilt in order to help penitents assess their true guilt retrospectively, i.e., to help them look at what they’ve already done to assist them to judge rightly about their culpability, so they can repent and be forgiven and deal with those factors and begin freely to choose rightly.
Chapter 8 introduces a significant change in the role that mitigating factors play in pastoral care. Pastors are directed to assess subjective culpability as a way of “discerning” what kinds of ecclesial participation, including sacramental participation, are appropriate for people who are going forth from the confessional. It focuses on assessing mitigated guilt for directing prospective action leaving in place the factors that mitigate guilt, so people may continue to sin without ever becoming responsible enough to sin mortally.
300. If we consider the immense variety of concrete situations such as those I have mentioned, it is understandable that neither the Synod nor this Exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases. What is possible is simply a renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases, one which would recognize that, since “the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases”, the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same. [note 336]1”
The term “pastoral discernment” is used throughout chapter 8, but its meaning is not consistent. Here it refers to the “personal discernment” of the divorced and civilly remarried. They are encouraged to assess their own subjective culpability in order to determine what kinds of ecclesial participation are appropriate. The text says that since “the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases”, the consequences of the “rule”—meaning consequences of violating the rule— may apply differently in different cases. “Rule” is AL’s term of choice for the objective demands of the Gospel for marriage.2 “Consequences” refer to the moral and ecclesial implications of violating the norm against adultery, namely, that one is guilty of grave sin and should not go to Holy Communion.3
The text will be read by many “remarried” spouses as meaning that they themselves can “discern” that, because of the complexity of their “concrete situations” (e.g., it is wrong to leave the kids and/or the new “spouse” and stressful to live as brother and sister, etc.), they themselves lack such a “degree of responsibility” as would have the consequence that they are guilty of grave sin and ought not to communicate.
The text goes on to speak about the ‘accompanying’ role of pastors:
300. Priests have the duty to ‘accompany the divorced and remarried in helping them to understand their situation according to the teaching of the Church and the guidelines of the bishop’.… What we are speaking of is a process of accompaniment and discernment which ‘guides the faithful to an awareness of their situation before God. Conversation with the priest, in the internal forum, contributes to the formation of a correct judgment on what hinders the possibility of a fuller participation in the life of the Church.’ (emphasis added; internal quote from Relatio Synodi, 2014)
Pastors are encouraged to assist individuals, who are objectively committing adultery, to judge what hinders their fuller participation in the sacraments.
Pastors will interpret this in conflicting ways. Those who are committed to traditional Catholic doctrine and practice will interpret it to mean accompanying remarried divorcees in their process of repenting for their sins, ordering their relationships according to the Gospel (at very least, ceasing to engage in non-marital intercourse), and reintegrating into the sacramental life of the Church. Others, however, will interpret it to mean assisting remarried divorcees to arrive at the judgment that since they lack sufficient responsibility, nothing hinders the possibility of fuller participation, provided they go through the formality of getting their pastors to agree with their judgment.