Why we can't let go of the 'Amoris' debate just yet

Why we can’t let go of the ‘Amoris’ debate just yet

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On the one-year anniversary of 'Amoris Laetitia,' Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington says it's time to celebrate the document's 'beauty and relevance.' That would be easier to do, however, if Pope Francis were to clarify that Wuerl is right, that the document does not undercut Church teaching on the existence of intrinsically evil acts.

Commentary

Earlier this year, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington wrote that “a very small number of clergy and their media supporters” have “challenged the integrity” of Amoris Laetitia.

As both clergy and a member of the media, might I be so bold as to answer why we’ve done so? It seems reasonable to ask those of us anxious about what Amoris Laetitia means to explain what we think is at stake, and why we continue to encourage clarification of contested points.

A year after the exhortation was released, can the matter not be dropped? Not if you believe that the Church’s teaching on marriage is at stake, her fidelity to the Gospel teaching of the Lord Jesus, and her ability to offer an evangelical alternative to the sexual revolution, the acids of which have destroyed for so many the very joy of love that Pope Francis proposes.

On the first anniversary of the release of Amoris Laetitia, Wuerl suggested on this site that, after a year of arguments, “perhaps now we stand in a better position to appreciate its beauty and relevance for the life of the Church.”

He notes that the pastoral guidance of Amoris Laetitia, found in chapter 8, has been controversial, but explains why there is no cause for alarm:

“The hermeneutic required for a fruitful appropriation of the document’s teaching on this point is based on the understanding that none of the teaching of the Church has been changed: This includes the doctrine on the indissolubility of marriage, the directives of the Code of Canon Law, and also the role of individual conscience in the determination of personal culpability,” he wrote.

“The exhortation does not create some sort of internal forum process in which a marriage can be annulled, or in which the objective moral order can be changed,” Wuerl said. “Instead, the exhortation places greater emphasis on the role of the individual conscience in appropriating those moral norms in the person’s actual circumstances.”

I would prefer that Wuerl is right, and that nothing has changed. I, too, could then eagerly focus as he does on other aspects of the document, for example the marvelous chapter 4 on St. Paul’s hymn to love in I Corinthians 13.

Maybe Pope Francis intended the three years of this debate, with all of its attendant upheaval, as a simple encouragement to pastors of souls to be more generous in accompanying couples in “irregular” unions to regularize their situation, but it would seem more plausible that he pursued the path he chose – at not insignificant cost – because he thought something noteworthy needed to change.

Wuerl is exceptionally careful and a master catechist, so he may be correct while others, like the bishops of Malta and several in Germany, are wrong about Amoris Laetitia. Certainly the bishops of Malta think that something has changed.

For example, Wuerl holds that the teaching of St. John Paul II’s 1993 document Veritatis Splendor is true, and still must guide pastoral care. Section 81 clearly asserts the existence of intrinsically evil acts, which can never be rendered “subjectively” good.

Adultery would be an example of an intrinsically evil act which could never be “defensible as a choice.” The bishops of Malta, and those who think as they do, apparently no longer think the teaching of Veritatis Splendor holds true.

I would like to convince myself that Pope Francis thinks Wuerl is right, and the Maltese bishops and others are wrong.

Interpreters of Amoris Laetitia have advanced two ways of interpreting its teaching on the state of couples who live in a sexual union outside of a valid marriage.

The first is a person who acknowledges that his or her union is contrary to Gospel teaching, and desires either to separate or, at least, to refrain from sexual relations, but is unable to do so. The usual reason given is threatened consequences from the other party.

Italian Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio advanced the case of a woman who might desire just that, but whose civil husband would commit suicide if they stopped having sex. It’s a dramatic, and likely rare, set of facts.

Yet while that melodramatic situation pushes the envelope of the Catholic tradition, it arguably remains within it. It is possible to choose a gravely sinful act, but not be guilty of grave sin due to some lack of knowledge or free consent. That option is presented in Amoris Laetitia 305.

It would be strange pastoral practice to suggest an ongoing pattern of objectively sinful behavior on the grounds of a lack of subjective culpability, but situations could be imagined where it may be a possible starting point toward regularization. Certainly it would never be proposed as a static and enduring resolution.

Whatever the case, it need not call into question the teaching of Jesus on marriage. This would appear to be the position of those who maintain that Amoris Laetitia has changed nothing in the Biblical teaching on marriage, or on conscience.

A second situation is that of a couple not validly married – either divorced and remarried, or a never-married couple cohabiting – who are fully aware that their relationship is contrary to the Gospel, but choose to continue sexual relations as the better moral course, given that to separate or abstain would lead to new sins.

What these “new sins” might be, as opposed to the difficulties always inherent in following the moral law in a fallen world, are not specified.

This reading, which holds that sexual relations outside of a valid marriage can be a good moral choice, does depart from the Biblical teaching on marriage. That is the territory into which Amoris Laetitia 301 may tread, when it teaches that “a subject may know full well the rule, yet … be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide other­wise without further sin.”

What appears to be envisioned here is that in some circumstances, it would be better, with full knowledge and full consent, to choose extra-marital sexual relations. It would certainly be a novelty for the Catholic Church to teach that there are circumstances in which sexual relations are morally permissible, much less morally advisory, outside of a valid marriage.

If so, it would contradict the clear teaching of the Bible about marriage and sexual relations. Is this what Amoris Laetitia teaches?

If Wuerl is right, Veritatis Splendor excludes this interpretation of Amoris Laetitia. If that were also the view of the Holy Father, it would ease the anxiety of that “very small number of clergy and their media supporters.”

Far more is at stake than the consistency of the Church’s magisterium.

What Amoris Laetitia proposes, according to some, is a more radical step than the Anglican Communion took in 1930 when it departed from the universal Christian teaching about the immorality of contraception. The Anglicans permitted the use of contraception in some limited cases for married couples.

Permitting that separation – sex from procreation – by Anglicans and others led to a steady decoupling of many things the Christian tradition had put together: sex and marriage, sex and love, marriage and indissolubility, marriage and children, marriage and male-female complementarity.

By the end of the twentieth century, much of the Protestant world had largely accepted divorce and contraception, and had made its peace with the sexual revolution writ large.

The Anglican innovation in 1930 was so alarming that Pope Pius XI wrote an entire encyclical that very same year to uphold Christian tradition, Casti Connubii (“On Chaste Marriage”). The Catholic Church’s fidelity to the truth about sex and marriage has put it offside with the sexual revolution, and earned it the opprobrium of vast parts of the culture.

Yet nearly ninety years later, the “relevance and beauty” of the Catholic witness on sexual ethics shines all the brighter against that same culture. That is what Wuerl advises should be celebrated on the first anniversary of Amoris Laetitia, but it would be easier to celebrate if it were clarified that Amoris Laetitia does not compromise that same witness.

It would be easy enough to do so. Pope Francis would just have to say that Wuerl’s reading of “no change” is correct, and then let the celebration begin.

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