Were Critics too Hasty in Judging Amoris Laetitia?

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Shortly following the release of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, Raymond Arroyo from EWTN aired a number of segments (see World Over airing on 04/14/2016 and 09/15/2016) in which he and his guests analyzed and responded to the content of the document. After watching these segments, and hearing the concerns of his guests, I decided to read Amoris Laetitia myself, to determine if critiques of the document are well-founded. And to my surprise, I did not find what I was expecting—at least not what I had been led to believe.

I should first state, I have great respect for EWTN and all the tremendous work they do in promoting and supporting Catholic values around the world. And to be fair, EWTN has since softened in its criticism of Amoris Laetitia (just Yesterday, for example, Dr. Matthew Bunson encouraged viewers to read the document as a whole, and not just focus on the controversial parts in chapter 8). And, I would even agree that certain ambiguous parts of the document could benefit from clarification from the pope.

Nevertheless, it needs to be said that the initial response to the pope by Raymond’s guests did not meet the level of scholarship that I have come to expect from EWTN. In fact, when I read the document myself, I couldn’t help but wonder whether Raymond took the time to read the document, or whether he just relied upon the analysis of his two guests; for if he had, I suspect he would not have committed the mistakes he did. (If he did read the document, perhaps it was only done summarily and without careful attention to every word).

Having a background in classical [Aristotelian] philosophy, and having studied Saint Thomas Aquinas at length, one comes to understand that every word matters. Reading the great masters of philosophy and theology teaches you to read carefully—to read as a theologian—for one small word can change the entire meaning of a sentence.  And it also teaches you that most of modern society does not read with this level of scholarship. We tend to breeze over words in an effort to quickly and efficiently gather an impression. And while this may be expedient for causal reading, it is not appropriate when approaching a Church document. Reading Church documents require a high degree of scholarship, knowledge of the technical language of the Church, as well as a proper Catholic hermeneutic (a background in theology is ideal). It is necessary slow down, to read every word carefully, to confer with the footnotes, and read the whole document in its complete context, as a single entity. And what is more, it is necessary to place it within the greater context of Church tradition. I must repeat this point: Ambiguous statements must be read within the greater context of Church tradition. This requires beginning with an assumption of a continuing tradition, not a break from it. If there is a to be a new change in practice, it must be explicitly stated by the pope in a formal and unambiguous way.

The initial news reports by Raymond and his guests did not seem to approach the document in this way. While I do not necessarily disagree that certain part of Amoris Laeitia are ambiguous and could be clarified, there is still no reason for a trusted news source to make the simple mistakes and omissions they did. For example, the controversial paragraph 298 was mentioned;

“The divorced who have entered a new union, for example, can find themselves in a variety of situations, which should not be pigeonholed or fit into overly rigid classifications leaving no room for a suitable personal and pastoral discernment. One thing is a second union consolidated over time, with new children, proven fidelity, generous self-giving, Christian commitment, a consciousness of its irregularity and of the great difficulty of going back without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins. The Church acknowledges situations ‘where, for serious reasons, such as the children’s upbringing, a man and woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate.’

Raymond and his guests questioned the Catholicity of this statement. But what they failed to mention, was that pope Francis was merely quoting pope John Paul II in the above statement (yes, this is a serious blunder to have been aired to millions of viewers, which gave the impression that Francis is a lone-ranger shooting from his hip). In fact, many of the statements and footnotes in Amoris Laetitia draw heavily from John Paul II and Vatican II. In other words, the principles that pope Francis operates from are based on principles already established by the Church, such as, for example, the “law of gradualism” (coined by pope John Paul II in Famliaris Consortio), which accounts for the fact that people are  different, and are at different points in their spiritual growth; one must necessarily meet them where they are at, take them by the hand, and walk with them toward the ideal.

If Amoris Laetitia is read in its context, it becomes immediately evident that pope Francis is not intending to change Church teaching, but is only building on a prior tradition spearheaded by pope John Paul II and Vatican II. He states very clearly in paragraph 295 (see also 307 to the end) that he is not even broaching the question of law at all, but merely exhorting in matters of “prudential exercise.” This is an important context to properly interpret the pope’s letter, because it admits no interpretation that could potentially change Church teaching. Period.

Another controversial paragraph was mentioned in the news segments, paragraph 301;

“For an adequate understanding of the possibility and need of special discernment in certain “irregular” situations, one thing must always be taken into account, lest anyone think that the demands of the Gospel are in any way being compromised. The Church possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations. Hence it can no longer simply be said that all those in any “irregular” situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace. More is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule. A subject may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding “its inherent values.

Again, the EWTN panel expressed concern over the above statement (in bold)—that it may be contrary to Church teaching, insofar as it seems to legitimize those in irregular situations. But as I have said above, words matter. Notice the qualifiers “simply” and “all.” This changes the meaning of the statement significantly. The pope is not opening the door to a slippery slope, nor removing culpability for all those in irregular situations, as some have suggested. In my estimation, he is merely restating current Church teaching, that; in some cases, there can be some situations in which such couples are not in a state of mortal sin. Mortal sin, after all, requires full knowledge of the gravity of the act. If a couple is not aware of the seriousness of their situation, or if one is the victim of circumstances beyond their control, their culpability can be mitigated, if not entirely removed. This is basic Church teaching. There is nothing new here. (Note, however, there does seem to be a development in the pastoral application of doctrine, insofar as how we treat couples who meet this criteria; whether we treat them in the same way as we would to couples living in mortal sin).

In the final statement above, the pope further alludes to the meaning of “full knowledge,” that is; it is more than just being told with words “this is grave,” but rather, it requires some degree of understanding of the mind. This, again, is basic Church teaching. The the pope is merely restating current Church teaching on both counts (albeit, with a strong emphasis toward mercy and leniency).

The news reports also mentioned another controversial statement in paragraph 299;

“I am in agreement with the many Synod Fathers who observed that ‘the baptized who are divorced and civilly remarried need to be more fully integrated into Christian communities in the variety of ways possible….their participation can be expressed in different ecclesial services”

The panel once again expressed concern that the statement is ambiguous, and could be interpreted to open a wide door to the reception of Holy Communion. And if this statement is read by itself—as if in a vacuum—then their concern may be justified. However, the greater context of the pope’s exhortation admits no room for such an interpretation. The pope clearly defines elsewhere in the letter what he means by a “fuller participation in the life of the community,” such as, for  example, paragraph 297, “Yet even for that person there can be some way of taking part in the life of the community, whether in social services, prayer meetings, or another way that his or her own initiative, together with the discernment of the parish priest may suggest.” As is evident by this statement, the pope is speaking primarily in terms of external ministry, not in terms of sacramental participation. (Although it should be noted that there is discussion on whether the pope believes more exceptions should be made to allow such couples to receive Holy Communion. Further clarification from him on this point is required.)

When read in context, chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia is not an open the door for unmitigated reception Holy Communion. Pope Francis, in fact, has taken pains to clarify that he is not even broaching the matter of Church law. Throughout Amoris Laetitia, he states repeatedly that the purview of the document is in matters of pastoral application only; it is not doctrinal. The ideal is still the ideal. The law is still the law. But it is how we lead people to the ideal that the pope is concerned about.

Some may object that gradualism can appear to be a double standard—that while it holds the law as the ideal, it is only a symbolic gesture so to speak, an empty abstraction. But the pope seems to rebut this objection in the document itself, (see, for example, paragraph 300, and 307+). His exhortation, overall, still seems to be ordered toward the ideal. It is not stagnant, insofar as it meets people where they are at and leaves them there (In this case, the pope would be in heresy—against the law of love—and his statements ought to be condemned). The pope seems to stress, rather, that there is always a direction, a movement if you will, toward the ideal that the law outlines. The very name “gradualism” confirms this inherent ordering and progression toward truth. In other words, no matter how meek, no matter how lenient, no matter how gentle and forgiving a priest’s pastoral practice may seem, it should always tend toward the clear, bold, and uncompromising standard of truth.

The point that the pope is making, it seems to me, is that priests can (and should) be both. They can be both meek lenient and gentle, while also approaching every situation with the gravity and seriousness it deserves (he in fact says this at the end of paragraph 300). It is not always necessary nor prudent to verbally demand the ideal “out of the gate” so to speak, with all its blunt force.

While I do agree that some of the pope’s statements could benefit from clarification, it is important to mention these strengths of Amoris Laetitia, because I believe the pope is putting his finger on an important tenet of our faith, namely; he is highlighting a key aspect of love. He is showing pastors, in a practical way, how to see the person in front of you, how to recognize and honor their dignity by adjusting your pastoral approach accordingly, rather than just dropping a hammer on everyone.  Granted, the pope has a casual way of speaking that can sometimes seem ambiguous or imprecise. And furthermore, the scope of Amoris Laetitia is narrow insofar as it speaks primarily to a small segment of clergy (those who tend to be hardcore traditionalists).

Yes, as we know, to love means to “will the good of the other.” And sometimes this requires “tough love,” of stating the truth plainly and forcefully (some people, in fact, need to be ‘clobbered over the head’, so to speak, in order for them to see their own error). But what the pope is emphasizing, it seems, are all the other times of love manifest, of the gentle and patient hand required to avoid leading one into discouragement and despair.

As we know, human nature, apart from grace, tends towards extremes, toward polarization and division. Some people tend to be always rigid and tough in their pastoral approach (which could discourage some on the path to holiness). Others tend to be always lenient and passive in theirs (which could enable others to continue in error). Love, rather, takes the “middle-way” of virtue. It neither discourages by excessive rigidity nor enables by excessive indulgence and passivity. Love, in other words, is not political; it doesn’t take sides, nor does it allow itself to be fixed on one extreme. “Love is free, like a bird” (to use Saint Faustina’s expression), and tailors its delivery to the needs of each soul, in what will spur it to holiness. Love can be hard and tough when it needs to be. And it can be gentle and patient at all other times. Whatever will inflame the other to to seek God—the ideal—embodied in the law.

This is what it means to be live the priestly vocation. To be a priest is to be a master of souls; it means knowing human nature well enough to know the kind of medicine each person needs, and in the proper amount, in order prompt an inner desire for the good within them. Unfortunately, however few seem to understand this. And more seem to make religion political, always “voting down party lines.”

When I read Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia within the greater context of the Church, this is the overall trajectory I see. I see the pope adding a note to the chorus of prior popes, filling a gap, so to speak, that he believes needs filling. Far from a rupture, he merely seems to be building upon a tradition set by his predecessor, in developing pope John Paul II’s law of gradualism, which, in other words, seems to be (based on my rudimentary knowledge of it) merely a pastoral guideline on how to love, especially for those who tend toward one extreme. For those who tend to be more rigid and uncompromising—who tend to be of a more traditional mind—this exhortation seems particularly suited.

So why focus on just one extreme and not the other? Why address only those of a more “conservative” tendency and not those who have no regard for the truth whatsoever? Well, that is not the scope of this document. The pope clearly has been shaped by a certain background, and he is only speaking to what he knows and what he feels compelled to speak about. Perhaps he grew up surrounded by priests who tended toward this one extreme, toward a rigid hard-lined approach, which has thus made him sensitive to this formational problem in the Church. Whatever the case may be, ultimately he is the pope. And if he feels the need to emphasize this one area of need, then that is his prerogative. Given that the pope is singularly guided by the Holy Spirit unlike any other man on earth, it is necessary to must always err on the side of charity in our interpretation of his words.

Furthermore, when one interprets Amoris Laetitia within the greater context of the Church tradition, it a vain question to ask “why focus on this, and not that” or “why single me out?” Amoris Laetitia is one voice in a chorus of voices dating back to the beginning of Christianity. It merely adds one more note to the harmony that is the greater opus of Church tradition. This is how we must approach every papal encyclical. When we read Church documents, we must not read them in a vacuum, usurped from this greater context. Why did the pope choose to focus on certain things and not others? Perhaps because he felt there were some gaps in that chorus that needed to be filled. Whatever the case may be, it is undoubtedly the wrong question to ask. The question we should be asking—the question we should always be asking—is how can I understand this document in light of that greater context of Church tradition. And efforts to resolve this question, I am afraid, have yet to be met with the degree of scholarship they demand (as of the date of this article at least).


One Response

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