Editor’s Note: When major Catholic intellectuals have a problem with something a given pope has said or done, often they tend to couch their critique in gentle and deliberately vague terms — suggesting the pope was misunderstood, perhaps, or arguing that the latest development has to be seen in the light of a larger tradition and context.
Not so Robert Spaemann, arguably the foremost Catholic philosopher in Germany today, an admirer of St. John Paul II and a friend of Pope Benedict XVI, who turns 89 on Thursday. In a recent interview with the Catholic News Agency, Spaemann bluntly says there are aspects of Pope Francis’ recent document on the family, Amoris Laetitia, which create consequences that “cannot be made compatible with the teaching of the Church” and that “directly contradict” the teaching of Pope John Paul II.
Specifically, Spaemann says neither the Church nor the pope have the authority to approve “disordered sexual relationships,” including divorce and civil remarriage, through access to the sacraments.
Such criticisms are not new for Spaemann, who a year ago in an interview with a German newspaper said that Francis’ papacy ” is one of the most autocratic in a long time.”
“Francis underlines that he can intervene directly in every diocese of the world,” Spaemann said then. “The powers of the pope are being emphasized in a remarkably strong way, and no newspaper gets upset. If Benedict had done this, there would have been immediate protests.”
The following is the full text of Spaemann’s interview with Anian Christoph Wimmer of the Catholic News Agency.
Professor Spaemann, you have accompanied the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI with your philosophy. Many believers are now asking, whether and how Pope Francis’ post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia should be read in continuity with the teachings of the Church and these previous Popes. How do you see this?
For the most part, it is possible, although the direction allows for consequences which cannot be made compatible with the teaching of the Church. Article 305 together with footnote 351 – in which it is stated that believers can be allowed to the sacraments “in an objective situation of sin” “because of mitigating factors” – directly contradicts article 84 of Pope John Paul II’s exhortation Familiaris consortio.
What then is Pope John Paul II’s exhortation about?
John Paul II explains human sexuality as a “real symbol for the giving of the whole person,” and namely, “without every temporal or other limitation.” He thus formulates very clearly in article 84 that remarried divorcés must refrain from sex if they want to go to communion. A change in the practice of the administration of the sacraments would therefore be no “further development of Familiaris consortio,” as Cardinal [Walter] Kasper said, but rather a breach in her essential anthropological and theological teaching on marriage and human sexuality.
The Church has no authority, without prior conversion, to approve disordered sexual relationships through the administration of the sacraments, thereby anticipating God’s mercy – regardless of how these situations are to be judged on a human and moral level. The door here – as with the ordination of women to the priesthood – is closed.
Couldn’t someone object that the anthropological and theological reflections you mentioned are indeed correct – that God’s mercy is not, however, bound to such limits, but it is linked to the concrete situation of the individual person?
God’s mercy concerns the heart of the Christian faith in the Incarnation and Redemption. Of course, God has each individual person in his or her own situation in view. He knows each person better than they know themselves. The Christian life, however, is not a pedagogical event in which marriage is aimed for as an ideal, as Amoris laetitia appears to suggest in many places.
The whole realm of relationships, especially sexual relationships, concerns the dignity of the human person, his or her personhood and freedom. It has to do with the body as a “Temple of God” (1 Cor 6:19). Every violation to this realm, even if it were to occur often, is, therefore, also a violation of one’s relationship to God – to which Christians know they are called – a sin against God’s holiness, and always in need of purification and conversion.
God’s mercy consists in always allowing this conversion anew. Of course, it is not bound to definite limits, but the Church on her part requires a proclamation of conversion and does not have the authority to overstep established boundaries by administering the sacraments, and to abuse God’s mercy. That would be imprudent.
Therefore clergy, who comply with the existing order, judge no-one; rather, they take into consideration and announce these boundaries of God’s holiness – a salvific promulgation. I don’t want to comment any further to insinuate [note: quoting Pope Francis] that they would “hide behind the Church’s teachings” and “sit on the chair of Moses” so as to throw “stones … at people’s lives” (AL, 305).
It may be noted that the respective verses in the Gospel are alluded to mistakenly. Jesus indeed says that the Pharisees and scribes sit on the chair of Moses, but he expressly emphasizes that the disciples should adhere to what they say. They should not, however, live like them (Matt 23:2).
Pope Francis has stressed that we should not focus on only single sentences of his teachings; rather the whole should be kept in mind.
Concentrating on the stated passages is fully justified in my eyes. It cannot be expected in a papal exhortation that people will rejoice in a pleasant text and ignore decisive sentences, which change the teachings of the Church. There is actually only a clear yes or no decision: to give Communion or not. There is no intermediary between them.
The Holy Father emphasizes in his exhortation that nobody may be allowed to be condemned forever.
I find it difficult to understand, what he means there. That the Church is not allowed to condemn anyone personally – of course not forever, what she cannot do, thank God – is clear. When it concerns sexual relationships which objectively contradict the Christian way of life, I would like to know from the Pope, after what time and under which circumstances is objectively sinful conduct changed into conduct pleasing to God.
Is it, in your perspective, actually an issue of a breach with the teaching tradition of the Church?
That it is an issue of a breach emerges doubtlessly for every thinking person, who knows the respective texts.
Regardless whether or not one agrees with this assessment: the question arises as to how it came to this.
It was already apparent that Francis views his predecessor Pope John Paul II from a critical distance when he canonized him together with John XXIII, even though a second required miracle was not attributed to the latter. Many felt this to be manipulative. It seemed as if the Pope wanted to relativize the importance of John Paul II.
The actual problem is an influential movement in moral theology, which holds a purely situational ethics, and which can be found as early as the 17th century among the Jesuits. The quotes from Thomas Aquinas, which the Pope cited in Amoris laetitia, appear to support this direction.
Here it will be overlooked, however, that Thomas knows objectively sinful actions for which there are no exceptions. Among them is all sexually disordered conduct. John Paul II rejected situational ethics and condemned it in his encyclical Veritatis splendor – as did Karl Rahner before him, in an essay in the 1950s that contained all of these essential and presently valid arguments.
Amoris laetitia also challenges Veritatis splendor. With all of this, we cannot forget that it was John Paul II who centered his pontificate on the subject of divine mercy – his second encyclical was devoted to it, the diary of Sister Faustina was discovered in Krakow, and he later named her a saint. He is her authentic interpreter.
What consequences do you see for the Church?
The consequences are already foreseeable: uncertainty and confusion, from the bishops’ conferences to the small parishes in the middle of nowhere. A few days ago, a priest from the Congo expressed to me his perplexity in light of this new papal document and the lack of clear precedents. According to the respective passages from Amoris laetitia, not only remarried divorcés but also everyone living in some certain “irregular situation” could, by further nondescript “mitigating circumstances,” be allowed to confess other sins and receive Communion even without trying to abandon their sexual conduct – that means without confession and conversion.
Each priest who adheres to the until-now valid discipline of the sacraments, could be mobbed by the faithful and be put under pressure from his bishop. Rome can now make the stipulation that only “merciful” bishops will be named, who are ready to soften the existing discipline. Chaos was raised to a principle by the stroke of a pen.
The pope must have known that he would split the Church with such a step and lead toward a schism – a schism that would not be settled on the peripheries, but rather in the heart of the Church. May God forbid that from happening.
One thing, however, seems clear to me: the concern of this pope – that the Church should overcome her own self-referencing in order to be able to free-heartedly approach persons – has been destroyed by this papal document for an unforeseeable amount of time. A secularizing push, and the further decrease in the number of priests in many parts of the world, are also to be expected.
It has been able to be observed for quite some time that bishops and diocese with a clear stance on faith and morality have the greatest increase in priests. We must remember the words of St. Paul in the Letter to the Corinthians: “If the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?” (1 Cor. 14:8).
In your opinion, where do we go from here?
Every single cardinal, but also every bishop and priest, is called upon to preserve uprightly the Catholic discipline of the sacraments within his realm of responsibility and to confess it publicly. In case the pope is not ready to make corrections, it remains reserved for a later pope to officially make things right.
Translation by Richard Andrew Krema.