If Father Raymond de Souza’s response to the Archbishop of Washington shows anything, it is that the lens through which Cardinal Wuerl suggests we read Amoris Laetitia remains hard for some to put on.
The hermeneutic of interpretation of Pope Francis’s document on the joy of love, says Wuerl, is that the Church’s teaching on marriage has not changed. Questioning that idea, de Souza responds that Wuerl can only be right if the German and Maltese bishops are wrong.
This is a classic maneuver of those whom the cardinal accurately describes as “challenging the integrity” of Amoris. De Souza says he hopes Wuerl is right, that “nothing has changed”; but if it hasn’t, then how can the Maltese bishops say “something has changed?”
But Wuerl never says nothing has changed. He says church teaching and laws on marriage haven’t changed.
Something has changed, not in church law or doctrine, but in moral theology and the pastoral application of sacramental discipline.
This shouldn’t be necessary to say, but for the record, Amoris Laetitia throughout its nine chapters upholds, promotes and passionately seeks to restore lifelong, faithful, stable, indissoluble unions.
Nowhere does it surrender to the individualist zeitgeist, the culture of divorce, or subjectivism, but issues a lucid and robust rejection of these.
Nor does Amoris question, undermine, or dilute John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor’s clarification that intrinsically evil acts may be rendered subjectively good.
And, just to be clear, it never remotely — not ever, not by a long shot — admits the possibility of recognizing second unions that have not been preceded by a death or annulment.
Adultery remains adultery. There is no remarriage. In the Catholic Church. Ever.
But as John Paul II compassionately recognized in Familiaris Consortio 84, it is inadequate to treat all divorced and remarried solely as adulterers living permanently and forever in a state of mortal sin.
And as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith recalled in February 1989, there is a distinction (but no opposition) between objective disorder and subjective guilt, which depends greatly on intentions, motivations, and concrete circumstances.
“In this line, the law of gradualness has been rightly developed,” wrote Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, “not only in moral and pastoral theology” but also in magisterial pronouncements. “As judge, Christ is not a cold legalist,” he added.
Christ engages a person, seeks the truth in their situation, leading them in what Amoris describes as the “divine pedagogy” of gradualness.
De Souza sets up a straw man in claiming that Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio’s excellent little treatise on Amoris posits a melodramatic and rare possibility of a wife wishing to leave her second husband but the man threatens to kill himself if she stops having sex with him.
I have Coccopalmerio’s book in front of me, and his hypothetical case reads rather differently. He takes the example of woman who goes to live with a validly married man and his three children who has been abandoned by his wife.
They form a loving stable union over time, and have a child together. Ten years on, she experiences a return to the Church, knows the situation is irregular, and seeks to change her life.
But in practice, what options are available? She has rescued her husband from despair and loneliness, and been a mother to the three children as well as her own. What is God’s will for her?
As Familiaris Consortio recognized, it is usually not open to such people to separate, because they have now taken on new responsibilities — including, usually, offspring.
She doesn’t question church teaching; she doesn’t hold — as de Souza suggests — “that sexual relations outside of a valid marriage can be a good moral choice.” She is not trying to define a new morality.
She might even sincerely regret the choices she has made; but she can’t turn back the clock. She wants, sincerely, to do God’s will in what is possible, in her concrete circumstances.
Familiaris Consortio considered the possibility of admitting such couples to the sacraments — a far bigger break with the past, incidentally, than Amoris — but asked them to abstain from sex as the price of that admission. But Amoris quotes Gaudium et Spes 51 and Paul VI in noting that this can often lead to greater ills.
In such situations, says Francis — and he makes clear that this is a long time after the first union — the Church’s priests must help couples who are seeking God’s will to enter into a deeper relationship with Him, through small, concrete steps, by discerning the signs of Grace in their lives, and understanding what God is asking of them within the real possibilities that are in fact open to them.
That’s the shift in moral theology — but no innovation: As many have pointed out, it’s wholly consonant even with recent papal teaching, and is rooted in an ancient pastoral tradition.
And as part of the Church accompanying such couples Amoris, like Familiaris, does not exclude admitting such couples to the sacraments, but demands a long period of discernment with a priest in the light of church teaching.
That’s the shift.
“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,” says de Souza. But of course, the Church wouldn’t be teaching that.
To walk with people living in objective states of sin but with diminished subjective culpability, helping them to do God’s will in their concrete state with the help of the sacraments, doesn’t undermine teaching on sin but puts into practice the merciful pedagogy of God.
The whole second half of de Souza’s argument — where he attempts to claim that Amoris sunders the link between sex and marriage — rests on this non sequitur.
Sure, there is the risk of scandal, as Amoris points out; and the Buenos Aires bishops in their document make this one of the criteria for discernment in admitting the divorced and remarried to the sacraments.
But the faithful are realistic. They know the mess people make of their lives. They know that God asks us not to fixate on a past that can’t be changed but to act in the present that can be.
In various talks I have given on Amoris in parishes here in England, people have been delighted at Francis’s realism and compassion. Their only question is whether their priests are up to the task of really entering into the realities of people’s lives and assisting in the discernment that Amoris beautifully envisages.
That’s what we should be discussing, one year on — not whether Amoris undermines church teaching (it doesn’t; let’s move on), but how the Church can practically make possible the accompaniment Amoris calls for.
And how, practically, we rebuild marriage from the ground up, so that we are no longer having to deal with the fatal consequences of relying on law and culture, rather than our own catechesis, to properly prepare Catholics for marriage.