Although Pope Francis has been criticized for creating ambiguity and confusion by doing so, his closest theological adviser said the pontiff sought to move the Church forward on the question of Communion for some remarried divorcés “in a discreet way” because he wanted the chapters in Amoris Laetitia on love to be central.
That is why, says Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández, the rector of the Catholic University in Buenos Aires, the pope dealt with the concrete application of the new policy in footnotes rather than in the body of the text — although he accepts that the “furor” over the issue meant the pope was ultimately unsuccessful in keeping it “discreet”.
The remarks come towards the end of an article in Spanish in a special edition of Medellín, the theology journal of the Latin-American bishops’ umbrella body, CELAM, dedicated to Pope Francis. Entitled “Chapter Eight of Amoris Laetitia: What Remains After the Storm,” it gives Fernández’s most systematic defense of the document to date.
In it he argues that some of those critics deploy a kind of logic that amounts to a “death trap,” making the Gospels and papal teaching subject to a kind of “intellectual Pelagianism … administered by an oligarchic group of ethicists,” in an approach that risks “a betrayal of the heart of the Gospel.”
Fernández, who is sometimes described as the pope’s amanuensis, is widely considered to have helped draft Amoris, and is therefore in a unique position to comment on it after what he calls months of “intense activity” by a “small but hyperactive” group of critics.
He begins by asserting the pope himself gave an authoritative interpretation of chapter eight of Amoris, where the footnote on Communion is found, in a letter to the bishops of Buenos Aires on Sept 9, 2016.
In the letter, Francis thanked the bishops for guidelines they had drafted allowing for discernment leading in some cases to the sacraments, and said there was “no other interpretation” of Amoris than the one they had given.
Responding to critics that the pope cannot make an authoritative statement in such a format, Fernández cites past instances of papal correspondence to bishops being quoted in teaching documents (for example, in a note by Pope Pius IX cited in Lumen Gentium, a document of the Second Vatican Council).
Those precedents prove the “hermeneutical authority” of his letter to the Buenos Aires bishops, Fernández said.
He goes on to note that St. John Paul II’s own opening to Communion to remarried divorcés in his 1980 exhortation Familiaris Consortio was “already an important novelty.” (Familiaris allowed remarried divorces, previously barred from the sacraments, to be admitted if they assumed a commitment to live chastely.)
“Many resisted that step,” and still do, Fernández said, because of a fear it would give rise to relativism.
Fernández then turned to moral norms and their application in Amoris, where the pope’s critics have accused him of encouraging relativism and subjectivism.
Francis never claims general moral laws are incapable of covering every situation, nor that they are incapable of determining a decision in conscience, but that in their formulation they are incapable of addressing each and every situation, the archbishop said.
“It is the formulation of the norm that cannot cover everything, not the norm in itself,” Fernández said.
In the case of norms forbidding killing and stealing, for example, the norms are absolute, admitting of no exceptions; yet it is questionable, he said, whether taking life in self-defense is killing, or taking food to feed a hungry child is stealing.
In the same way, Fernández goes on,
“… It is also licit to ask if acts of living together more uxorio [i.e. having sexual relations] should always fall, in its integral meaning, within the negative precept of “fornication”. I say, ‘in its integral meaning,’ because one cannot maintain those acts in each and every case are gravely dishonest in a subjective sense. In the complexity of particular situations is where, according to St. Thomas [Aquinas], ‘the indetermination increases.’ Indeed, it is not easy to describe as an ‘adulterer’ a woman who has been beaten and treated with contempt by her Catholic husband, and who received shelter, economic and psychological help from another man who helped her raise the children of the previous union, and with whom she has lived and had new children for many years.”
Francis is not primarily concerned here with the woman’s awareness of the gap between her state of life and the objective moral norm, nor with the use of offensive language such as “adulterer” or “fornicator” to describe people in such situations, but with the deeper issue of responsibility and culpability, Fernández argued.
The pope’s point, he said, is that particular circumstances can diminish or even eliminate responsibility and culpability, even in the case of negative precepts and absolute moral norms, such as the “in a more uxorio cohabitation.”
“The life of sanctifying grace is not always lost,” Fernández said, pointing to similar points made by both St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
Such cases, Fernández said, become even more complex where one member of the couple is not a practicing Catholic, and typically involve serious moral consequences (such as depriving children of a stable upbringing) . Therefore, they “demand a lot of care when it comes to issuing judgements solely on the basis of the moral norm.”
Fernández said this is especially true, as Amoris notes, of families in fragile or economically deprived situations whose freedom of movement may be severely curtailed.
He said Pope Francis has resisted proposals of progressive moral theologians to drop altogether a distinction between objective sin and subjective guilt, and has maintained that sexual relations by divorced people in a new union always “constitute an objective situation of habitual grave sin,” even if culpability might not exist in a subjective sense in some cases.
Even in these cases, however, “for Francis it is not the concrete circumstances that determine the objective morality,” said Fernández, adding: “The fact that conditions might diminish culpability does not mean that what is objectively bad thereby becomes objectively good.”
Rather, the objectively sinful situation persists “because there remains the clear Gospel proposal for marriage, and this concrete situation does not objectively reflect that.”
Turning to the process of discernment outlined in Amoris, Fernández said Francis nowhere claimed that someone can receive Communion if they are not in a state of grace, only that an objectively grave fault is not sufficient to deprive a person of sanctifying grace.
Therefore, “there can be a path of discernment open to the possibility of receiving the food of the Eucharist.”
Discernment in such cases, he said, involves a person using his or her conscience to examine before God their real situation, together with its limits and practical possibilities, in the company of a pastor and enlightened by the Church’s teaching.
Such discernment, he went on, is not about the moral absolute of the norm, but about its disciplinary consequences. The norm remains universal, but its consequences or effects can vary. By making clear that this can be discerned by means of a “pastoral dialogue,” said Fernández, “this is what opens the way to a change in [sacramental] discipline.”
“Francis’s great innovation,” he wrote, “is to allow for a pastoral discernment in the realm of the internal forum to have practical consequences in the manner of applying the discipline [his italics].” The general canonical norm remains, but “may not be applied in certain cases as a consequence of a path of discernment.”
This, said Fernández, is where Francis “is bringing in a change with respect to the previous praxis.”
That change is legitimate, said Fernández, who cites examples from history of the Church evolving, both in the understanding of her doctrine and of the disciplinary consequences that flow from it — over slaveholding, for example, or the question of the salvation of non-Catholics. Doctrine has remained constant but there have been at times clear shifts in the understanding and application of that doctrine, he added.
Over the past century alone, Fernández went on, there have been important changes even in the area of the discipline concerning the divorced and remarried. He cites the example of their being denied a church burial, which was one of the effects of excommunication of the divorced and remarried that was possible under the 1917 Code.
The lifting of that ban was opposed, said Fernández, with the same arguments against their receiving Communion now. Yet the change introduced by Amoris “does not imply a contradiction with the previous teaching” but is “a harmonious development and a creative continuity,” he wrote.
Fernández strongly critiques those who claimed that Amoris allows people to use their consciences to determine what is right or wrong. (Although Fernández does not explicitly mention it, the “dubia” letter by four cardinals, for example, appears to make that claim.)
“By deploying that argument, opponents of Francis seek to force others to assume a particular logic from which there is no way out,” he said. “Once this mental structure is adopted, there is no other option than to accept the whole logic and consequences of using this way of reasoning.”
“It is a death trap,” Fernández wrote.
He went on to accuse the pope’s critics of a kind of “intellectual Pelagianism,” in which a particular form of reasoning becomes the yardstick for judging the Gospel as well as the Petrine ministry. In this way, he said, “the Scriptures are only there to illustrate the logic of ‘that’ reasoning, administered by an oligarchic group of ethicists.”
In any case, he said, Francis’s brand of discernment is not designed to foster “a conscience that claims to create the truth as it pleases, or adapt it to his desires,” and on the part of the pastor, “it never implies concealing the full light of truth.”
What Francis calls for in Amoris “is very demanding,” concludes Fernández. It is far easier to apply black-and-white norms, without taking into account complex realities and concrete lives, but “that comfortable rigidity can be a betrayal of the heart of the Gospel.”
(Readers can download this article and others in PDF, for free, in the Medellín special edition, ‘Francis: You are Peter!’)