The course of true love never does run smooth, and neither does any papal pronouncement about love. The tsunami caused by Humane Vitae— Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical on birth control— still continues to ripple around the world, and the waves of emotion over Pope Francis’s Amoris Laetitia also don’t look like they’re subsiding anytime soon.
The worst thing about this controversy is that we now have different bishops and cardinals expressing contradictory interpretations of the document.
Cardinal Gerhard Müller says divorced and re-married Catholics can’t come to communion. Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio says if they’re well-intentioned, it’s okay. The Archbishop of Malta decides that in certain circumstances those who are remarried after divorce may “participate in the Eucharist,” while the Archbishop of Philadelphia thinks otherwise.
Beneath the battle of words is a clash between objective truth and subjective interpretation. Catholic doctrine and canon law is based first and foremost on the objectivity of truth, but recognizes the subjective aspect in the application of that truth.
A moral action is always objectively right or wrong according to natural law and the law revealed in Sacred Scripture and the church’s magisterium. However, a person’s culpability for a wrong action can be lessened or increased according to the subjective aspects of intention and circumstances.
Let’s say two men are zooming down the highway at ninety miles an hour where the speed limit is sixty-five. There is no argument that both have objectively broken the law. However, one man has been drinking and is racing his buddy in a hot sports car. The other man is frantically trying to get his daughter to the emergency room because she has had a terrible accident.
Both men broke the law. The first man’s guilt is great. The second man’s guilt is so negligible that it doesn’t exist. The circumstances and intent vary the person’s culpability, but they do not change the fact that both men broke the law.
Those who are wrestling with the ambiguities of Amoris Laetitia are really wrestling with the clash between the objectively sinful situation of a divorced and remarried person, and the subjective level of culpability determined by their intentions and circumstances.
Those who favor a kinder, more cuddly approach would like to bend the rules to accommodate difficult subjective circumstances. Those who favor a stricter discipline insist that the objective situation cannot be dispensed with a hug and the wave of a hand.
The fact that this clash exists is exacerbated by what Pope Benedict XVI called “the dictatorship of relativism.” We live in a society where many believe there is no such thing as objective truth, or if there is, one cannot express it in a concrete and binding way.
Situational ethics has swept our society so that most people think anything goes as long as you mean well and do not seem to be hurting anyone else. In an age where every truth is shifting and every opinion is supposed to be as valid as the next, it is difficult for people (including Catholics and Catholic clergy) to accept that people should be bound by their objective condition.
Sentimentalism is another form of relativism that clouds the issue. The sentimentalist makes his judgement according to feelings, not facts.
Sympathy for the divorced and remarried person who means well, is a sincerely spiritual person and apparently a “good Catholic” swamps the situation, and compels a pastor to make a subjective decision. The concept that an individual (even if they are in a subjectively sympathetic situation) should submit themselves to the objective discipline of the church seems unthinkable.
That Pope Francis is ignoring the clear questions he was asked, and continues to sidestep his responsibility as Supreme Pontiff to clarify the true teachings of the Church, is only making matters worse.
His encouragement to embrace “grey areas” in a recent address to religious superiors is worrying. Grey is only possible because there is such a thing as black and white. Pastors can only grapple with the grey areas when they have the black and white guidelines to do so. We can only wrestle with the subjective realities if we have clear, objective teaching as a rule and guide.
As a pastor myself, I am on the front line when it comes to the tragedy of marriage breakdown. At least once a month I face the marriage mess. I deal with the broken hearts, broken families, broken lives and wounded children, and do the best I can to bring Christ’s reconciliation and healing while wrestling with the strictures of our faith.
What would help me and other pastors enormously is not continued vague, well-meaning documents from bishops that contradict the teaching of other bishops. Instead, I wish for action.
Müller is the doctrinal chief. Why is it impossible for the Holy Father to affirm the timeless teaching of the Church, and then set a team to work to revising and updating the annulment process? The rules for validity of marriage can be re-examined and arguments could be made that in the unprecedented modern age there are new norms and expectations that should apply to marriage.
The marriage tribunals are where we apply the objective rules of the timeless gospel to the ever varied, subjective situations, and that is where we should focus our efforts.