Thursday, December 29, 2016

Thoughts on Amoris Laetitia and Pope Francis

I feel the best way I can write this blog post is in numbered points:

1) OK, I am going to come right out and admit it-- until this very evening, I had not read Pope Francis's controversial document on marriage and the family, Amoris Laetitia.

I read Pope Francis's other major documents as soon as they were released. It wasn't intellectual laziness that kept me from reading this one. It was, in fact, fear. I was frightened of what I was going to read in it.

I have now read it-- carefully, slowly, and with an open mind. And I must say, I wasn't really surprised in any way. It was much as I expected from what I have read about it, and from the Pope's previous writings.

2) Pope Francis is the Pope. He is the Holy Father. He is the successor of Peter. I feel this point cannot be stressed enough.

One of the reasons I left Facebook was because I found the behaviour of both my liberal and conservative Catholic friends to be often upsetting. The liberal Catholics seemed infatuated with politics, and with hatred of Donald Trump and hatred of 'the right' in general. They just couldn't seem to get it into their heads that issues like the death penalty, immigration and the minimum wage are open for debate in a way that issues like abortion and euthanasia are not. Mark Shea, a writer I once greatly admired, seems to have completely succumbed to this mentality.

The conservatives, on the other hand (and I am a conservative), often spoke about the Holy Father in a way that was extremely disrespectful. They often referred to him brusquely as "Francis", or even "Bergoglio".

Now, I am not an ultramontanist. I understand the limits of infallibility. (Here is a good blog post from Edward Feser on the subject.)

But how, as Catholics, can we simply see Pope Francis as the incumbent-- the chairman of the board-- a kind of placeholder on the throne of Peter?

Though Popes can indeed err, surely our assumption should be that the Holy Father is indeed guided by the Holy Spirit? Surely our attitude should be one of docility, receptiveness and filial love?

3) This is not to say that I don't read Amoris Laetitia with considerable trepidation. I do. In fact, I believe those cardinals, archbishops and theologians who have challenged it (or some interpretations of it) are acting according to their consciences and fulfilling a solemn duty.

4) The whole kernel of the matter seems to be well expressed in this paragraph in the Catechism:

 Imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors. 

In other words, although we can say when a situation is objectively sinful, it's very difficult to say when someone has committed a mortal sin because we don't know the state of their soul. The argument that the Church can preserve doctrine while adapting pastoral practice would seem, on the face of it, legitimate given this principle. I can see how, applying this principle, it may be the case that not every 'irregular situation' can be assessed in the same way. 

5) G.K. Chesterton famously wrote: "We don't want a Church which is right where we are right. We want a Church which is right where we are wrong."

I have often quoted this dictum in defence of Church teaching that other people found challenging.  In all consistency, I have to apply it when I find teaching challenging.

6) I found an excellent article on this subject on (of all places) the Irish Jesuit page. To be honest, I found it using the search terms "Amoris Laetitia" and "casuistry"-- since it occurred to me that the document went in for a casuistry that could unravel the Church's moral teaching, not only on sex and marriage, but on absolutely everything.

The article is by a chap (not a priest) called Dermot Roantree and, like every good article, it anticipates the objections of the reader.

In particular, Roantree anticipates the very question that was in my own mind as I read the document; that is, would Pope Francis be so willing to apply this distinction between objective sin and moral culpability to some 'social justice' field such as pollution or economic exploitation?

Roantree argues that the same principle does, in fact, apply, and that this is not simply special pleading to accommodate the sexual mores of our time:

The big point of Amoris Laetitia, in fact, is precisely that these same considerations hold in all moral cases, of whatever hue. What we’re seeing, I think, is the rehabilitation of casuistry in the Church’s approach to practical ethics – a return to the practice of circumscribing the judgement of universal laws and absolute principles by paying close attention to the concrete circumstances of particular cases. If this is true, it’s a good thing. Casuistry was unfairly (if brilliantly) dealt a death blow by Blaise Pascal in his mid-17th century Provincial Letters, in which he used the excesses and abuses of some casuists to ridicule the whole practice. But, as modern casuists have been quick to point out, casuistry may be open to abuse, but that is not an argument against casuistry, only an argument against its abuse. The way this is put by Albert Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin, co-authors of The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning (1988), which did much to revive interest in this approach, is that there is a difference between “good casuistry, which applies general rules to particular cases with discernment, and bad casuistry, which does the same thing sloppily”.

7) I absolutely get the objection that confessors, Catholic teachers, priests and pastors are already too lax, very often, in intepreting the teaching of the Church-- at least in the developed world. (Perhaps it is different in other countries.) And yes, giving them even more rope seems like it could be a mistake. This seems to me like something that has to be taken into consideration.

8) As recently as September, Pope Benedict said he saw "no contradiction" between his pontificate and that of Pope Francis. I don't believe the conspiracy theories that Benedict has been drugged or intimidated into compliance. This is a man who, I believe, would suffer martyrdom for the faith. His words must be taken seriously.

9) Having said all this, I must also acknowledge that the brilliant Catholic philosopher Edward Feser-- who played a huge part in my own acceptance of the Catholic faith-- takes a much grimmer view of the situation, and he makes a very strong case in labelling this a 'doctrinal crisis'.

What then? What is my conclusion?

I am not sure that Amoris Laetitia is not dangerously confusing, as its critics claim. I do very much see the arguments that are made against it.

However, Pope Francis is the successor of St. Peter. Popes have been in error, but it's extremely rare. If we begin to question the authority of the Pope willy-nilly, where does that leave us?

I don't believe the Church can ever apostasise. I believe the guarantee our Lord made to St. Peter. Those cardinals, bishops and moral theologians who have reservations about this document are, in my view, entirely justified and to be applauded in challenging it, or in seeking clarifications. They may, indeed, be the instrument by which the Holy Spirit is at work.

In the meantime, I will continue to read the words of the Holy Father as written under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, as instruction and not as a text to be critically assessed, or to be filtered through my own private judgement.

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