Writing for Crux on the disagreement over Amoris Laetitia’s chapter 8, dealing with Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, Father Dwight Longenecker frames things as a clash between objective truth and subjective interpretation, then spurns any chance of balance by claiming that those who agree with the document are subjectivists conquered by the zeitgeist of relativism.
This is a shame, because at one point he illuminates the issue with an excellent analogy of two men breaking the speed limit — but then abandons the analogy without seeing it through.
In one car, the man is racing his buddy; in the other, a man is trying to get his daughter to the hospital following a tragic accident. Both men broke the law, says Longenecker, yet in the second case the culpability is negligible.
Good. And you expect him to follow this by saying, “and so the law should treat him differently.”
But he doesn’t. He pivots to a classically conservative denunciation of the zeitgeist. We live in a world, he says where truth is liquid and shifting and every opinion is held to be as valid as the next, where people make up their minds “according to feelings, not facts,” and in which it seems “unthinkable” for a person to submit to the objective discipline of the Church.
All of which may well be true — although in my experience, contemporary society is ill at ease with its subjectivism, which it all too quickly renounces under stress.
But it is most definitely not true in the case of the pope and the bishops who have supported his attempt to apply the law differently in certain cases of the divorced and remarried.
I can be persuaded of many things, but not that Cardinals Francesco Coccopalmerio in Rome, nor Lluís Martínez Sistach of Barcelona, nor Malta’s Archbishop Charles Scicluna — to name but three distinguished canonists who have recently written on the application of Amoris Laetitia — have succumbed to the lure of liquidity, and now hold that each opinion carries the same freight as the next.
Longenecker expresses irritation with the pope for “ignoring the clear questions he was asked” — referring to a series of questions about Amoris put to him by four cardinals, including American Cardinal Raymond Burke — and goes on to accuse Francis of sidestepping his responsibility “to clarify the true teachings of the Church.”
But in his haste to summon a papal diktat, he quite forgets the speeding cars and their unfortunate drivers now arraigned, trembling, before the judge. Let us visit, for a moment, that courtroom.
Let us suppose that the judge tells the father who was racing to get his girl to the hospital: “It’s a tragic case, but the law’s the law, and those that break it for whatever reason deserve the same punishment. You are a speeder, Sir, and speeders must face the full effects of the law lest people start to ignore the limits on any old pretext.”
Some might salute that judge, and punch the air with delight. There is too much speeding out there, they will say.
Yet Christians, surely, would say he is too literal and too harsh. Yes, there is too much speeding, but the answer is not to sacrifice individuals for the sake of the law. Rather what are needed are wise judges, skilled appliers of the law, who can distinguish between the testosterone-filled racer and the father with a daughter unconscious from lack of blood, whose culpability, as Longenecker acknowledges, is diminished to almost zero.
Here, then, is a problem not of subjectivism and laxity, but of legalism and rigorism. This, too, is a feature of our contemporary age. The flip-side of the zeitgeist is a crude technocratic paradigm, in which black is black and white is white and to speak of grey areas is to deny the binary law of logic.
To name only the liquidity of our contemporary age but not its rigidity is lopsided (as it would be the other way).
But anyhow, what we should be primarily concerned about is not our culture, but the way the law is applied in our Church. For a body that proclaims Christ, it is not enough to assert and enforce what is true in a general way; we must also be attentive to particular, human circumstances, as Jesus always is.
In the case of the discipline of the sacraments, the pope has determined — following a lengthy synod process — that the application of the law has been too legalistic, too rigorist. In this area, the Church has defended the truth at the expense of mercy, and thereby failed to witness to the whole truth.
Like the judge applying the law to the father of the sick child with the same force as he does to the boy racer, the Church’s pastoral practice has failed to take into account the subjective lack of culpability. Amoris Laetitia asks for this to be examined and discerned, not in order to set aside the law, but to apply it more accurately.
“Why can’t all this be left to the marriage tribunals?” asks Longenecker, for it is here that “we apply the objective rules of the timeless gospel to the ever varied, subjective situations.”
The answer is a statistic. One of every two annulments granted in the world is in the United States, yet American Catholics make up less than ten per cent of the global Catholic total.
The fact is, in large parts of the world the annulment system is barely operative, and there are cases which cannot be resolved juridically.
Francis has addressed that problem primarily through annulment reform, allowing for an abbreviated process led by a bishop. But there are still those who fall through the cracks: where there is moral conviction of an invalid first marriage but where this can’t, for technical reasons, be proven; or where a person has been abandoned by a first spouse, has civilly remarried for the sake of her children, and desires to be sacramentally married, but can’t — and so on.
These are the kinds of cases which Amoris asks pastors not to treat as simply adultery, as the law does, but with special care and discernment.
Why does this idea produce moral panic, particularly in many Americans? The answer is because they’re so focused on the threat of the zeitgeist that they’ve become blinded to the real stories and the people involved.
Francis has not ignored the questions he was asked. He has refused to accept the terms on which they are posed, and has chosen instead to answer them fully but indirectly a hundred times over.
The dubia are not questions at all, but objections poorly dressed up as queries, which scream only one thing: Pope Francis, you have undermined the law!
No, Eminences. The pope and the bishops have applied the law as it should be applied: to concrete realities, with justice, to ensure that the penalty fits the crime, and, where the crime is diminished through lack of subjective culpability, with mercy and compassion.
If not all bishops can accept this, it does not follow that there is confusion that can be only resolved by a papal clarification. It is more likely that there is a rejection of papal teaching to which the only response, as Francis is showing, is patience. Time is greater than space, as he would say.
This would not be the first time that a small minority of bishops has had difficulty with papal teaching — remember Humanae Vitae? — and it won’t be the last. But Amoris Laetitia is here to stay, because it invites the Church to navigate precisely the space so bravely marked out by Jesus — the space where God’s call to embrace the radical wholeness of truth meets the brokenness of our human sin and failure.
And because it is of the Gospel, it is not a space that, once embraced, can be abandoned — however unpopular it may now be in some quarters.