[Editor’s note: In this essay, Professor Michael Pakaluk of the Catholic University of America examines the role of Argentine Archbishop Victor Fernandez, a theological adviser to Pope Francis, in Amoris Laetitia, the pontiff’s document on the family. Crux invited Fernandez to respond, and his comments appear at the bottom of the article.]

The most important footnote in Amoris Laetitia may not be, as many suppose, one dealing with access to the sacraments for Catholics in “irregular” situations. Instead, it may be a footnote that’s not actually in the document but which should be, since one of the sentences in Amoris is lifted nearly verbatim from an essay published in 1995 in a Buenos Aires theological journal.

The sentence, from the notorious chapter 8, is this: “Saint Thomas Aquinas himself recognized that someone may possess grace and charity, yet not be able to exercise any one of the virtues well; in other words, although someone may possess all the infused moral virtues, he does not clearly manifest the existence of one of them, because the outward practice of that virtue is rendered difficult: ‘Certain saints are said not to possess certain virtues, in so far as they experience difficulty in the acts of those virtues, even though they have the habits of all the virtues.’” [Cf. Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 65, art. 3 ad 2 and ad 3].

One must see the Spanish to see the plagiarism clearly.  In Spanish, the Amoris sentence is this:

“Ya santo Tomás de Aquino reconocía que alguien puede tener la gracia y la caridad, pero no poder ejercitar bien alguna de las virtudes, de manera que aunque posea todas las virtudes morales infusas, no manifiesta con claridad la existencia de alguna de ellas, porque el obrar exterior de esa virtud está dificultado: ‘Se dice que algunos santos no tienen algunas virtudes, en cuanto experimentan dificultad en sus actos, aunque tengan los hábitos de todas las virtudes.’”

And the corresponding sentence from that 1995 theological journal is this:

“De hecho santo Tomas reconocia que alguien puede tener la gracia y la caridad pero no ejercitar bien alguna de las  virtudes “propter  aliquas dispositiones contrarias” (Summa Th., I-IIae., 65, 3, ad 2), de manera que alguien puede tener todas las virtudes pero no manifestar claramente la posesion de alguna de ellas porque el obrar exterior de esa virtud esta dificultado por disposiciones contrarias: “Se dice que algunos santos no tienen algunas virtudes en cuanto tienen dificultades en los actos de esas virtudes, aunque tengan los habitos de todas” (Ibid, ad 3).”

And here is the footnote that should be there, but isn’t: “Victor M. Fernandez, Romanos 9-11 : gracia y predestinación, Teologia, vol 32, issue 65, 1995, pp. 5-49, at 24.  Cf. Victor M. Fernandez, La dimensión trinitaria de la moral II: profundización del aspecto ético a la luz de “Deus caritas est”, Teologia, vol 43, issue 89, 133-163 at 157. Evangelii Gaudium 171.”

One must add the bit about Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation on the joy of the Gospel, because the same sentence was used there too without attribution, and one must also refer to another article by Fernandez, with yet another version of the sentence.

Naturally, I use the term “plagiarism” in its material, not formal sense.

You and I will suspect that Fernandez, now an archbishop and close friend of the pope and said to be the ghostwriter of Laudato Si, was also the ghostwriter of Amoris chapter 8 and parts at least of Evangelii Gaudium. In the sentence cited above, he was simply helping himself to his own, earlier writings.

But materially, for an author to present the words of another as his own words is still plagiarism, and Pope Francis, not Victor Fernandez, is the author of Amoris and Evangelii Gaudium.

In fact, the use in Amoris of material from Fernandez’s earlier writings is more pervasive than a single missing footnote. At one stage, an entire section of the document is largely lifted from a 2001 essay by Fernandez, though it’s of lesser theological and ethical import.

Here is a chart showing the dependence:

Amoris Laetitia 129
Victor Manuel Fernandez,
“Danza de alegria en el cielo y en la tierra,” Revista Criterio No. 2268, Dec 2001, p. 4.
La alegría de ese amor contemplativo tiene que ser cultivada.
Puesto que estamos hechos para amar, sabemos que no hay mayor alegría que un bien compartido: «Da y recibe, disfruta de ello» (Si 14,16). Puesto que estamos hechos para amar, sabemos que no hay mayor alegría que en un bien compartido: Da y recibe, y alegra tu vida (Eclo 14, 16).
Los carismas que hemos recibido son para iluminar la vida en sociedad con el gozo de dar y recibir. Por eso, dice el Eclesiastés que no hay mayor placer que gozarse en el fruto de un trabajo (Ecli 3, 22).
Las alegrías más intensas de la vida brotan cuando se puede provocar la felicidad de los demás, Las alegrías más intensas de la vida brotan cuando un don recibido provoca la felicidad de los demás,
en un anticipo del cielo.
ya que hay más alegría en dar que en recibir (Hech 20, 35) y Dios ama al que da con alegría (2 Cor 9, 7).
Cabe recordar la feliz escena del film La fiesta de Babette, donde la generosa cocinera recibe un abrazo agradecido y un elogio: «¡Cómo deleitarás a los ángeles!». Es dulce y reconfortante la alegría de provocar deleite en los demás, de verlos disfrutar. Ese gozo, efecto del amor fraterno, no es el de la vanidad de quien se mira a sí mismo, sino el del amante que se complace en el bien del ser amado, que se derrama en el otro y se vuelve fecundo en él. Cabe recordar la feliz escena del film La fiesta de Babette, donde la generosa cocinera recibe un abrazo agradecido y un elogio: «¡Cómo deleitarás a los ángeles!». ¡Qué dulce y reconfortante alegría es la de provocar deleite en los demás! Ese gozo, efecto del amor fraterno, no es el de la vanidad de quien se mira a sí mismo, sino el del amante que se complace en el placer del amado…. No basta derramarme en el otro, hacerme fecundo en él.

I wish that these lapses could stand as a regrettable but isolated fact about Amoris, but they cannot. I will point out three broader implications.

The first is that Amoris needs to be “taken back to the shop,” to have various flaws removed or corrected.  I have already pointed out how footnote 329 misquotes Gaudium et Spes, and that it must deliberately misquote that document to advance its implicit argument.

Surely no text published under the name of the Roman pontiff should contain an inaccurate quotation of an ecumenical council.

There are seven or eight other instances of poor scholarship—misquotation, misleading quotation, misattribution, and so on—which should be corrected.  I would be happy to supply a list. But there are many competent scholars, with goodwill toward the pope, who could have vetted the document in advance and who could still help clean it up now.

I suppose if Amoris were “taken back to the shop” for these relatively minor flaws, it might be good if Pope Francis at the same time definitively resolved its widely-noted ambiguities.

A second implication is that these instances of material plagiarism call into question Fernandez’s suitability to be a ghostwriter for the pope.  A ghostwriter should remain a ghost. By quoting himself, Fernandez has drawn attention to himself and away from the pope.

In secular contexts, a ghostwriter who exposed the author he was serving to charges of plagiarism would be dismissed as reckless.

Worse than that, Fernandez strains the consciences of the faithful. Not a few bishops and cardinals, putatively speaking on behalf of the pope, have been saying to laypersons who find difficulties in Amoris, “It is the magisterium.  You must accept it.”  But in the plagiarized sentence do we find “the magisterium,” or Fernandez’s own theological speculations?

You may say that, as the pope has approved of the text, so he has approved those speculations. But surely each sentence in the text is approved in the manner appropriate to it.  When Francis quotes Martin Luther King, Jr., Jorge Luis Borges, and Mario Benedetti, we rightly take the quotations to have exactly the weight that should be given to what poets and activists have astutely said, and no more.

Likewise, an explicit quotation of a theological journal article would be received as having its own distinctive force and weight. To say about it, then, in an unqualified way, “it is the magisterium,” would be a kind of spiritual bullying.

In fact, there is a distortion of St. Thomas in the first line from Fernandez quoted above, as he seems to want to use St. Thomas’s sound point (that some saints have found difficulty in doing some virtuous acts easily and well) to support an unsound point (that some persons have been saints while acting contrary to some virtues). I reject as contrary to the thought of St. Thomas what the sentence seems to intend to suggest, as do other scholars.

But a third implication arises from the fact that these earlier texts were even consulted at all.  Why should someone ostensibly writing about “the joy of love” be rummaging about in obscure theological articles?

Since Fernandez did go to these articles, we should expect their bigger themes to be connected to what he wrote in Amoris.  The suspicion is not wholly unjustified that perhaps he might aim to have his own speculations win out, not through the usual tug-and-pull of theological debate, but by slipping them in as papal teachings.

If one reads the 1995 article, it presents an argument from Scripture and tradition that, by virtue of the Passion of Christ, each member of the human race, past and present, without any exceptions, and even apart from the instrumentality of baptism in any ordinary sense, has been saved and “effectively predestined” by God to eternal happiness.

He regards this view as the proper development of the tradition and, although he concedes it is not a “truth of the faith,” still, he feels so strongly about it that at the end of his article he concludes with a passionate Credo: “I rely firmly upon the truth that all are saved.”

It follows, Fernandez says, that the Gospel needs to be presented with an emphasis on God’s mercy and in a purely positive light, emphasizing its beauty and joy.  Fear is never a good Christian motive, as the only question facing the soul is what degree of glory it will attain in the life to come.

If everyone is effectively predestined to salvation, then should everyone also be invited to share in Holy Communion?  Fernandez seems sympathetic to the suggestion, although he takes up the question only indirectly.

He says Catholics who believe that only those already in a “state of grace” should receive Communion are not simply excluding others, they also seem to be “flouting” or “boasting about” freely given grace.

Fernandez seems to prefer, in contrast, sinners who would approach the Communion table without that kind of boasting, although, he puts it delicately, this approach “points in the direction of a dialogue with Luther’s doctrine of simul iustus et peccator” (that everyone is at the same time both justified and a sinner).

Fernandez uses the plagiarized sentence in arguing that persons might be in objectively sinful situations yet still be “effectively predestined to salvation.”  To be concerned that such persons risk eternal damnation, is to suppose that human creatures just on their own could reverse God’s will.

These are the main speculations of the article.  If they are affirmed, it seems, the essential nature of Christianity as involving test and probation changes; the moral law is rendered irrelevant; and the distinction between mortal and venial sin breaks down. That is, Fernandez’s essay is deeply problematic.

Yet now an apostolic exhortation of the Holy Father references it. Worse than that, a plagiarized passage is plucked right from a line of thought which bears a superficial similarity to the Holy Father’s.

This can only cause confusion—because in the Holy Father too, of course, one finds an emphasis on mercy, including: a confidence of God’s action even among sinners in seemingly desperate conditions; a concern to hold up the appeal of a Christian way of life as beautiful and joyful; and a solicitude to welcome and foster (by “accompanying”) even the most fragile signs of movement toward God in souls.

These attractive themes are among the most loveable and helpful notes of Francis’s papacy. It seems obvious that they mark a good path for the Church now. Yet how can anything but mischief be the result if the problematic speculations of Fernandez are yoked to them?

It is not difficult to imagine the Holy Father and his ghostwriter as inadvertently at cross-purposes. This need not be deliberate; in professional ethics one speaks of a “conflict of interest.” What the pope understands as special solicitude for the weakest Christians, the theologian might view, perhaps even in spite of himself, as the fuller expression of everyone’s effective predestination.

In fact, Fernandez has a track record of distorting papal teaching to match his own theological ideas.

In the 2006 article, Fernandez applies his 1995 view to Pope Benedict’s encyclical Deus Caritas Est. After using that sentence about St. Thomas and citing the Catechism at 1735 and 2352, Fernandez says, “There can be no doubt that the Catholic magisterium has taken the position with clarity that an act which is objectively wrong, such as a premarital relationship, or the use of a condom in sexual relations, does not necessarily lead to the loss of the life of sanctifying grace, from which the dynamism of charity springs.”

Rather, in such couples who have diminished culpability (including same-sex couples, he says), it is precisely their sexual relationship which can realize subjective values which have “a theological and Trinitarian richness.” Sex for them becomes “an expression of the ecstatic dynamism of the love which imprints sanctifying grace.” It involves “a sincere and genuine search (búsqueda) for the happiness of the other,” which is the essence of charity.

To propose, then, that such couples should continue this search while refraining from sexual relations, “to exclude completely bodily desire and pleasure,” Fernandez says, would be to place eros and agape in opposition, which Pope Benedict in his encyclical “has rejected with overwhelming force.”

It follows from Benedict’s teachings, he says, that the sexual acts in such relationships have “a deep Trinitarian content, which is at the same time a positive moral reality.”

It is shocking enough that Fernandez says such things, but even more disturbing that he says that Pope Benedict is committed to them also.

As for Amoris, Rocco Buttliglione argues that its silence on some key teachings of Popes John Paul II and Benedict – silence, not a contrary assertion— can be construed as a continuous development or extension, involving a small group of problematic cases. Others, such as Ed Feser, are not so sure, and think they see, even in the absence of an affirmation, the risk of a surrender to the sexual revolution or a collapse into antinomianism.

Whatever we hold on these matters, it cannot be denied that Fernandez’s “I rely firmly upon the truth that all are saved,” and then what he seems to regard as the concrete pastoral implications of that doctrine in his “extramarital sex can be an expression of the ecstatic love of charity,” represents a fundamental, not a slight, difference.

Michael Pakaluk is Professor of Ethics at The Catholic University of America and author of The Appalling Strangeness of the Mercy of God (Ignatius).

Archbishop Victor Fernandez responds:

First, Fernandez said that anyone wishing to understand his views on grace and the sacraments should consult this article published in 2011.

Second, he sent two paragraphs of response to Pakaluk’s analysis:

“The article about predestination has no connection with much later articles on the Trinitarian dimension of morality. The commentator also imagines that I make a connection between predestination and the possibility of Communion of a sinner, but that is in his imagination and cannot be based on my texts, because I would never make that connection. Why? Because predestination is related to the final state of the person and therefore with the grace of final perseverance (at the last instant), but not directly with the historical path of the person.”

“I would never admit that anyone can receive Communion if the person is not in a state of sanctifying grace. This profoundly contradicts my own theology, and cannot be based on my texts. I say only that an objective situation of sin can be subjectively not guilty. In that case, the objective situation of sin would not deprive the state of sanctifying grace.”