New statement from the German bishops raises questions yet again about the meaning of Amoris Laetitia.
Doctrinal Change in Amoris Laetitia?
Pardon the use of an apocalyptic mixed metaphor, but Amoris Laetitia has been at the epicenter of a giant firestorm of controversy since its publication in 2016, the fundamental question being this:
Does Amoris Laetitia promote heretical doctrinal change?
The Catholic News Agency was first out of the gate to defend AL. On the very day that Amoris was published, CNA ran with this reassuring headline:
No doctrine change from Pope Francis – but a call for better pastoral careCNA
Faulty Textual Analysis from CNA
Their defense included an important piece of textual analysis from the controversial chapter eight:
Considering the “immense variety of concrete situations” that the divorced-and-remarried have put themselves in, he said, “it is understandable that neither the Synod nor this Exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules … applicable to all cases.”No doctrine change from Pope Francis – but a call for better pastoral care
The quotation from Amoris Laetitia comes from paragraph 300 of the document. The part that I highlighted in bold, you will notice, is not part of the Amoris text. That is the CNA writer’s annotation. Here is the original Amoris text without the CNA annotation:
300. If we consider the immense variety of concrete situations such as those I have mentioned, it is understandable that neither the Synod nor this Exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases. What is possible is simply a renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases . . . .
The part in bold is what CNA clipped out of their version, which they replaced with their own annotation. The problem is that CNA’s additions and deletions misrepresent the meaning of the original text. Paragraph 300 is not just about divorce and remarriage. It is the concluding paragraph of a sub-section of chapter 8, and it summarizes the content of that section. (Anyone who read my book would know this.) The sub-section is titled, “The Discernment of Irregular Situations,” which means that the section is covering more ground than simply the divorced and remarried. When the pope refers to “the concrete situations such as those I have mentioned,” he is referring to the situations mentioned in that sub-section. What are those situations? Paragraph 297 is the key. There, in addition to the divorced and remarried, he explicitly mentions those in a civil, but not sacramental, marriage. He also mentions those who are unmarried and living together. But earlier in par. 297 he writes this:
“No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel! Here I am not speaking only of the divorced and remarried, but of everyone, in whatever situation they find themselves.“Amoris Laetitia, par. 297
Thus, the concluding par. 300 is incendiary. It is saying there are no general rules governing any irregular sexual situation. When he mentions those who are living together without marriage, that certainly could be interpreted to include same sex couples or even polyamorous situations. Paragraph 300 could even be used to justify, rationalize, or excuse pedophilia, as some theologians did in the seventies, and as I documented in my book and in this article.
Is this such a far-fetched reading of Amoris? Apparently the German bishops don’t think so—at least as far as homosexuality is concerned. The Catholic News Agency confirmed this piece of catastrophic news in their extremely tardy article, “German bishops commit to ‘newly assessing’ Catholic doctrine on homosexuality and sexual morality” And CNA confirmed, as well, that the Germans are claiming that Amoris allows for such a reevaluation of homosexuality:
Calling for a “solid discussion supported by human sciences and theology” [Bishops] Koch and Bode said that Amoris Laetitia already provides for noticeable “developments” of both Church doctrine and practice . . . .Source: Catholic News Agency
Certainly, if there are no moral absolutes governing sexuality, as par.300 and a slew of other AL passages claimed or implied, then the traditional absolute prohibitions against homosexuality were erroneous, and the German bishops were correct to identify Amoris as opening the door to a reevaluation. While the German bishops demonstrate a complete lack of comprehension about what it means to be a Catholic and Apostolic Church, their understanding of Amoris Laetitia nevertheless surpassed that of the CNA pundits.
CNA’s distortion of the text was a clear and egregious transgression of journalistic ethics. (Perhaps it was done unintentionally. Perhaps their expert analysts didn’t understand the text . . . .) But that was the story they were going with. Only a few days after the publication of AL, CNA doubled down with its second article on Amoris:
Chapter Eight deals with “accompanying, discerning and integrating weakness”, or pastoral care for those in irregular family situations. Contrary to assumptions that it demonstrates a change in Church teaching on reception of Holy Communion by divorced-and-remarried persons, the document upholds existing Church teaching, both Martens and Fr. Petri affirmed.
The exhortation must be interpreted “obviously within the context of the texts that have gone before it,” Fr. Petri stated. It “builds strongly” on Familiaris consortio, St. John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation on the role of the Christian family in the modern world following the 1980 Synod on the Family.
In Familiaris consortio, John Paul II had written that the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the reception of the Eucharist is possible for the divorced-and-remarried only when they ‘live in complete continence’.
Martens agreed that Amoris laetitia builds upon the foundation of Familiaris consortio. “I don’t see a fundamental change in here,” he said.
The most innocent spin that could be put on Amoris was on display in this article: It speaks of chapter eight as though it were only about divorce and remarriage. Thus, the document’s numerous passages about exceptions to moral rules (pars. 2, 296, 298, 300, 304, 305) could be construed as pertaining only to the divorced and remarried. And since, for such cases, Pope John Paul had already identified an exception to the Eucharistic exclusion in Familiaris Consortio, one could make the stretch that Amoris was just a logical and reasonable development of orthodox doctrine. Thus could the “hermeneutic of continuity” be preserved and everyone breathe easily once again. That’s what’s going on in the excerpt above. The trouble with this approach (besides the fact that it is blatantly false, as it is contradicted by the Amoris text itself) is that no one but a handful of eastern seaboard academics and pundits was buying it. (But were they really?)
Which brings us to my favorite people in the whole wide world.
The Dubia Cardinals
The four so called “dubia” Cardinals are the caped crusaders of this story. They include American canon lawyer and theologian Cardinal Raymond Burke, as well as the late Carlo Caffarra, a world renowned theologian handpicked by John Paul II to be the founding president of the pope’s institute on marriage and the family. Together with Cardinals Walter Brandmüller and the late Joachim Meisner, they posed five dubia, or questions, to Pope Francis about Amoris’s meaning.
And their questions were revelatory. Four of the five questions demonstrated that they didn’t buy CNA’s bizarre misreading of paragraph 300. Amoris Laetitia was attacking the absolute and immutable sexual morality of the Bible. The dubia Cardinals knew it, and they were calling Pope Francis out on it. Here is their second dubium:
Dubium Two: After the publication of the Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” (cf. n. 304), does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II’s Encyclical “Veritatis Splendor” n. 79, based on Sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, on the existence of absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts and that are binding without exceptions?
Veritatis Splendor defended the Church’s perennial teaching that the Bible established precisely what Amoris Laetitia declared in par. 300 to be impossible, namely, the existence of a timeless, exceptionless, and universal moral law that governed sexual behavior. As John Paul reminded us in VS 81, St. Paul summed up this eternal law in 1Corinthians:
Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.1Cor. 6: 9–10, NRSV
Thus, what John Paul II affirmed in Veritatis Splendor, to the vexation of many progressives, was that, because the Church’s sexual morality came from the Apostles, it belonged to the deposit of divinely revealed truth and was, consequently, absolute and not subject to revision or reevaluation of any kind. Not from scientists. Not from the pope. Not from anyone. Not even “an angel from heaven”:
But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed.Gal. 1: 8, RSV
It is difficult to believe that any pope would reject a bedrock principle of Christian sexual morality as Francis has done in Amoris Laetitia. But some historical perspective can help to make the unthinkable a little easier to understand. As I showed in my book, Confronting the Pope of Suspicion, it was a common heresy among progressive theologians in the seventies to argue that modern science, psychology in particular, had refuted the sexual morality of the Bible and exposed the Bible’s “ignorance” of human nature. These errors were widespread in the Jesuit order that educated and formed Pope Francis when he was a seminarian. Thus, in Amoris Laetitia, Francis was merely repeating what he was taught in seminary.
Some unnamed German insider was quoted as saying about the Amazon synod that it was about “dusting off old folders from the seventies.” The same could be said of Amoris Laetitia and the whole of the Francis regime.
Consider, for instance, that the Pontifical Biblical Commission, an official arm of the Vatican, has just published a new book that agrees with the German bishops in calling for a reassessment of the Biblical laws concerning homosexuality. What is their reasoning? The same as the German bishops: “Because the Bible is culturally biased and unscientific.” This same old heresy from the seventies was recycled by Pope Francis and inserted stealthily into Amoris Laetitia, as I described in my book and in this article. And now, the German bishops, acting in evident coordination with the Vatican, are busy implementing the heretical, anti-magisterial Francis “magisterium” originally laid out for us in Amoris Laetitia.
The Dubia Answered
If any good has come from this, it is the blessing of clearer vision, appropriately dawning in the year 2020. And with this clearer vision, what we can now see is Francis’ answer to the dubium quoted above. If his Vatican is going to agree with the Germans in calling for a reevaluation of homosexuality, then the Francis “magisterium” rejects the teaching of “Scripture and Sacred Tradition” upheld by Pope John Paul in Veritatis Splendor concerning the existence of absolute moral standards that govern sexual behavior and that include an absolute prohibition against homosexual acts.
As I have stated many times, Amoris Laetitia rejects the absolute sexual morality of the Bible. In multiple places, the text casts doubt on the reliability of general moral principles, but in not one single place can you find the remotest affirmation of the Bible’s absolute sexual morality that John Paul defended in Veritatis Splendor. Have a look for yourself at some of the key incriminating passages:
Amoris Rejects Bible:
- AL 304: “304. It is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being.”
- AL 305: “305. For this reason, a pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in ‘irregular’ situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives.”
- AL 296: “Consequently, there is a need ‘to avoid judgments which do not take into account the complexity of various situations’ . . . .”
- AL 298: “The Synod Fathers stated that the discernment of pastors must always take place . . . with an approach which ‘carefully discerns situations.’ We know that no ‘easy recipes’ exist.”
- AL 2 “The debates carried on . . . among the Church’s ministers range from an immoderate desire for total change without sufficient reflection or grounding, to an attitude that would solve everything by applying general rules . . . .”
- AL 300: “300. If we consider the immense variety of concrete situations such as those I have mentioned, it is understandable that neither the Synod nor this Exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases. What is possible is simply a renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases . . . .”
- AL 2: “The complexity of the issues that arose revealed the need for continued open discussion of a number of doctrinal, moral, spiritual, and pastoral questions.
No doctrinal change, CNA? Would you and your go-to pundits, Kurt Martens and Fr. Petri, like a minute to reconsider your answer? And to help you out, I include below a listing of the many dissenting statements of renowned scholars and theologians who could see in Amoris Laetitia what you apparently cannot: the doctrinal anarchy that is now being openly promoted by the Vatican and the German bishops.
Chronology of Major Dissents
- June 29, 2016. Letter to Cardinals and Patriarchs from 45 scholars identifies 19 errors in Amoris Laetitia. They do not hesitate to use the word heresy to describe these errors.
- September 19, 2016. Four Cardinals send a letter to the pope containing five dubia, or questions, concerning the doctrinal fidelity of Amoris.
- July 16, 2017. Sixty-two scholars send a letter of “filial correction” to the pope. They identified 7 errors in Amoris.
- April 30, 2019. Nineteen theologians accuse the pope of heresy in 7 areas of doctrine.
I conclude that there never has been, nor could there ever be, a valid defense of Amoris Laetitia. From the beginning, those defenses were founded on grave distortions of the Amoris text which can no longer be defended while keeping a straight face. The pope has forced Catholics to make a choice, for he has made it quite clear: It’s either the pope or the Apostles. The Church is just not big enough for the both of them.