For a guided reading
Chapter Eight of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris laetitia is significantly entitled: “Accompanying, discerning and integrating weakness.” This part of the document is not very large, because it is composed of only twenty-two numbers, from n. 291 to n. 312, but it is very dense and therefore presents greater difficulties for analysis and comprehension. A certain non-organic structure should be added to this, that is, a sequence that is not always in the order of the topics covered.
Because of its content and also its form, this chapter has been judged or treated with a certain disapproval or at least with some reservation. For this reason, it has been, in a certain way, put aside, little examined, and therefore less subjected to careful and analytical exegesis.
The intent of these pages is instead to take into timely consideration the valuable text of Chapter Eight to try to grasp its rich doctrinal and pastoral message.
I believe, however, it would seem useful in this place not to offer a theoretical reflection on the basis of the texts of the Exhortation, but rather a reading of the texts themselves, which may enable us, on the one hand, to carry out a theoretical reflection on the various points of the document and, on the other hand, to encounter it in direct form, and therefore to get a taste of the original texts of the document itself.
The reading of the texts will be, therefore, a guided reading, which, however, will not follow the numerical order of the paragraphs of Chapter Eight, but rather the sequence of the arguments that we have specified below. By incorporating, however, the individual texts within the logic of the arguments, it will perhaps be easier then re-read them and understand them in numerical order.
That said, it seems useful to me to distinguish and present six arguments:
1. The exposition of the doctrine of the Church concerning marriage and family; 2. The pastoral attitude of the Church toward those people who find themselves in irregular situations; 3. The subjective conditions or conditions of consciousness of different people in different irregular situations and the related question of admission to the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist; 4. The problem of the relationship between the doctrine and the rule in their generality and individuals in their concreteness; 5. The integration of people who find themselves in irregular situations, that is, their participation in the life and also the ministry of the Church; 6. The hermeneutic of the person in Pope Francis.
The exposition of the doctrine of the Church concerning marriage and family
1.1. It seems to me that it is presented in a complete and clear way that we can read in this text:
“Christian marriage, as a reflection of the union between Christ and his Church, is fully realized in the union between a man and a woman who give themselves to each other in a free, faithful and exclusive love, who belong to each other until death and are open to the transmission of life, and are consecrated by the sacrament, which grants them the grace to become a domestic church and a leaven of new life for society. Some forms of union radically contradict this ideal, while others realize it in at least a partial and analogous way. The Synod Fathers stated that the Church does not disregard the constructive elements in those situations which do not yet or no longer correspond to her teaching on marriage. (Relatio Synodi 2014, 41-43; Relatio finalis 2015, 70)” (n. 292).
It is evident that the quoted text contains with absolute clarity all the elements of the doctrine on marriage in full coherence and fidelity to the traditional teaching of the Church.
We can, in particular, emphasize the affirmation of indissolubility, contained in the effective expression: “[they] belong to each other until death”.
The confirmation of the affirmation of the doctrine is found, then, in the words: “Some forms of union radically contradict this ideal, while others realize it in at least a partial and analogous way.”
The final part of the text introduces what we will say in the next point of our reading (cfr. n. 2.2).
It should, however, be noted that the text cited above is not taken from the two citations, but it is a new text, born directly with the Exhortation.
1.2. The presentation of the doctrine on marriage and the family is followed by a pastoral concern regarding the comprehension of it by many young people. Thus the Exhortation:
“On the other hand, it is a source of concern that many young people today distrust marriage and live together, putting off indefinitely the commitment of marriage, while yet others break a commitment already made and immediately assume a new one. “As members of the Church, they too need pastoral care that is merciful and helpful” (Relatio Synodi 2014, 26)” (n. 293).
The pastoral attitude of the Church toward those people who find themselves in irregular situations
We can say that the Exhortation offers two starting points: the repeated affirmation of the firm determination to remain faithful to the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family; the outlook of the Church, of pastors and of the faithful, towards irregular unions, particularly civil marriages and merely de-facto unions.
2.1. The repeated affirmation of the firm determination to remain faithful to the Church’s teaching on marriage and family is demonstrated by some excerpts that we can read:
“… Another thing is a new union arising from a recent divorce, with all the suffering and confusion which this entails for children and entire families, or the case of someone who has consistently failed in his obligations to the family. It must remain clear that this is not the ideal which the Gospel proposes for marriage and the family.” (n. 298).
“Given that gradualness is not in the law itself (cf. Familiaris Consortio, 34), this discernment can never prescind from the Gospel demands of truth and charity, as proposed by the Church…. These attitudes are essential for avoiding the grave danger of misunderstandings… When a responsible and tactful person, who does not presume to put his or her own desires ahead of the common good of the Church, meets with a pastor capable of acknowledging the seriousness of the matter before him, there can be no risk that a specific discernment may lead people to think that the Church maintains a double standard.” (n. 300).
“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.” (n. 301).
“In order to avoid all misunderstanding, I would point out that in no way must the Church desist from proposing the full ideal of marriage, God’s plan in all its grandeur… A lukewarm attitude, any kind of relativism, or an undue reticence in proposing that ideal, would be a lack of fidelity to the Gospel and also of love on the part of the Church for young people themselves. To show understanding in the face of exceptional situations never implies dimming the light of the fuller ideal, or proposing less than what Jesus offers to the human being… ” (n. 307).
We can re-read and then highlight some expressions that want to affirm the full intention of fidelity to the traditional doctrine of the Church:
“This discernment can never prescind from the Gospel demands of truth and charity, as proposed by the Church… there can be no risk that a specific discernment may lead people to think that the Church maintains a double standard” (n. 300); “lest anyone think that the demands of the Gospel are in any way being compromised” (n. 301); “in no way must the Church desist from proposing the full ideal of marriage, God’s plan… any kind of relativism, or an undue reticence in proposing that ideal, would be a lack of fidelity to the Gospel… never… dimming the light of the fuller ideal … than what Jesus offers…”.
These expressions speak for themselves.
2.2. The outlook of the Church, of pastors and of the faithful, towards irregular unions, particularly civil marriages and merely de-facto unions.
We can read some texts:
“The Fathers also considered the specific situation of a merely civil marriage or, with due distinction, even simple cohabitation, noting that ‘when such unions attain a particular stability, legally recognized, are characterized by deep affection and responsibility for their offspring, and demonstrate an ability to overcome trials, they can provide occasions for pastoral care with a view to the eventual celebration of the sacrament of marriage’. (Relatio Synodi 2014, 27) … For the Church’s pastors are not only responsible for promoting Christian marriage, but also the ‘pastoral discernment of the situations of a great many who no longer live this reality. Entering into pastoral dialogue with these persons is needed to distinguish elements in their lives that can lead to a greater openness to the Gospel of marriage in its fullness’. (Relatio Synodi 2014, 41). In this pastoral discernment, there is a need ‘to identify elements that can foster evangelization and human and spiritual growth’. (ibid.)” (n. 293).
” ‘The choice of a civil marriage or, in many cases, of simple cohabitation, is often not motivated by prejudice or resistance to a sacramental union, but by cultural or contingent situations’ (Relatio finalis 2015, 71). In such cases, respect also can be shown for those signs of love which in some way reflect God’s own love. (ibid.) … ‘Simply to live together is often a choice based on a general attitude opposed to anything institutional or definitive; it can also be done while awaiting more security in life (a steady job and steady income). In some countries, de facto unions are very numerous, not only because of a rejection of values concerning the family and matrimony, but primarily because celebrating a marriage is considered too expensive in the social circumstances. As a result, material poverty drives people into de facto unions’. (Relatio Synodi 2014, 42). Whatever the case, ‘all these situations require a constructive response seeking to transform them into opportunities that can lead to the full reality of marriage and family in conformity with the Gospel. These couples need to be welcomed and guided patiently and discreetly’ (ibid., 43). That is how Jesus treated the Samaritan woman (cf. Jn 4:1-26): he addressed her desire for true love, in order to free her from the darkness in her life and to bring her to the full joy of the Gospel.” (n. 294).
“As for the way of dealing with different ‘irregular’ situations, the Synod Fathers reached a general consensus, which I support: ‘In considering a pastoral approach towards people who have contracted a civil marriage, who are divorced and remarried, or simply living together, the Church has the responsibility of helping them understand the divine pedagogy of grace in their lives and offering them assistance so they can reach the fullness of God’s plan for them’ (Relatio Synodi 2014, 25), something which is always possible by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (n. 297).
It seems to me that the passages quoted contain valuable messages of a purely pastoral nature. And, in fact, pastors should conduct themselves in a positive and constructive manner in the presence of irregular unions like civil marriages and also de-facto unions, which seems to me to mean three important attitudes.
The first is to recognize in an objective and serene way, that is, without preconceptions, without hasty judgments, the reason that has led certain members of the faithful not to make the choice of canonical marriage, but rather other forms of cohabitation: this reason is not always, or it is not frequently, the denial of the value of canonical marriage, but rather some circumstance, such as lack of work and therefore of a secure income.
The second attitude of pastors of souls should be to refrain from an immediate condemnation of irregular unions and to recognize that there are positive elements in many of them, such as stability, pledged even with a public bond, a real affection towards the partner and towards the children, a commitment to society or the Church.
A third attitude suggested by the texts is certainly that of a dialogue with these couples, which means that pastors of souls should not be content with an irregular situation, but should work so that the members of the faithful who find themselves in that situation might reflect on the possibility, indeed on the beauty and the opportunity, to arrive at the celebration of a marriage in its fullness, before the Church.
The subjective conditions or conditions of conscience of different people in different irregular situations and the related question of admission to the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist
This is the hardest part to understand precisely. We can distinguish some aspects.
3.1. I will start from a text that seems to me foundational for other statements:
The Church possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations. Hence it is 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. “(n. 301).
Using the expression: “in some situations considered “irregular”,” the quoted text refers to all those who are civilly married or who cohabitate in merely de-facto unions or who are bound by a previous canonical marriage. All these members of the faithful cannot live “in a state of mortal sin,” they cannot be “deprived of sanctifying grace”.
3.2. But what are the reasons for this moral judgment? It is certainly interesting to read the rest of the text just quoted above:
“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’ (John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio [22 November 1981], 33: AAS74 , 121) or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin. As the Synod Fathers put it, ‘factors may exist which limit the ability to make a decision’. (Relatio finalis2015, 51). Saint Thomas Aquinas himself recognized that someone may possess grace and charity, yet not be able to exercise any one of the virtues well; (see Summa Theologica III, q. 65, a. 3, ad 2; De malo q. 2, in . 2), in other words, although someone may possess all the infused moral virtues, he does not clearly manifest the existence of one of them, because the outward practice of that virtue is rendered difficult: ‘Certain saints are said not to possess certain virtues, in so far as they experience difficulty in the acts of those virtues, even though they have the habits of all the virtues’ (ibid., ad 3)” (n. 301).
It seems to me that the quoted text contains three reasons which would exempt a person from being in a state of mortal sin:
a) “mere ignorance of the rule” and therefore inculpability in the case of violation of the same rule;
b) “great difficulty in understanding the inherent values of the moral rule”. Therefore, knowledge of the rule and at the same time, however, an inability to consider it as good. We easily note that this inability to consider the rule as good is in fact equivalent to not knowing the rule. And, therefore, inculpability in the case of violation of that rule;
c) “a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin,” “factors… which limit the ability to make a decision.” For this reason, knowledge of the rule and of its goodness, however, an impossibility to act as the rule directs without incurring a new sin.
3.3. The first and second reason require attention and discernment. Pastoral activity ought to provide that the consciences of the faithful be formed by knowledge of the rule.
The third of the three reasons is the most problematic. How should we understand it exactly?
Another text comes in handy:
“… 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. (Familiaris Consortio, 84)’ ” (n. 298).
In the cited text we want to highlight these expressions: a) “a new union consolidated over time” b) “with new children” c) “with proven fidelity, generous self giving, Christian commitment ” d) “a consciousness of the irregularity of their own condition” e) “great difficulty of going back without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins.” f) “serious reasons, such as the children’s upbringing” g) “[they] cannot satisfy the obligation to separate.”
We can easily say that the text of n. 298 contains expressions parallel to those of the text we have just analyzed above, i.e. no. 301.
We see parallel expressions in the two quoted texts:
“a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise” and “factors may exist which limit the ability to make a decision” (n. 301)
“The great difficulty of going back without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins.” and “a man and woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate” (n. 298).
To facilitate our reflection, we can further break down, the two parallel expressions above into three segments, which are, in turn, of course, parallel:a) “to act differently” and “to decide otherwise” (n. 301) – “to go back” (n. 298). The meaning of the first expressions is easy to understand: to abandon the illegitimate situation. The meaning of “to go back” is clearly indicated by the expression in the text itself: “to satisfy the obligation to separate,” so we have the same meaning: to abandon the illegitimate situation;
a) “to act differently” and “to decide otherwise” (n. 301) – “to go back” (n. 298). The meaning of the first expressions is easy to understand: to abandon the illegitimate situation. The meaning of “to go back” is clearly indicated by the expression in the text itself: “to satisfy the obligation to separate,” so we have the same meaning: to abandon the illegitimate situation;
b) “without further sin” (n. 301) – “without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins.” (n. 298). The meaning, therefore, seems clear: to abandon the irregular situation would entail committing a new sin;
c) “a concrete situation which does not allow” and “factors which limit the ability to make a decision” (n. 301) “for serious reasons… a man and woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate” (n. 298). These expressions try to explain why to abandon the illegitimate situation would entail the commission of a new fault, the reason is that there are “concrete conditions,” “factors,” “reasons” that do not allow it.
The concrete conditions, factors, and reasons of which we are speaking are those that we have indicated by letters a) b) c). For this reason, one who finds himself in an illegitimate situation, which, however, is “consolidated over time,” has “new children”, is marked by “proven fidelity, generous self-giving, Christian commitment,” cannot abandon such a situation, cannot “satisfy the obligation to separate.”
We ask ourselves why, however. And the only possible reason seems to be the following: to abandon the illegitimate situation in the cases indicated would mean to harm other people who are innocent in themselves, specifically the partner and the children, especially the latter, who could be at a delicate age or in problematic situations, and therefore, particularly in need of paternal and maternal care.
But there is another element contained in the cited text and decisive for the right understanding of our delicate problem. It is contained in this expression: “a consciousness of the irregularity of the situation itself.”
The text, therefore, states that the people of which we speak are conscious “of the irregularity”, they are, in other words, conscious of the situation of sin.
The text, however, does not claim that these persons intend to change their illegitimate situation. It does not say it explicitly, but it certainly presupposes it implicitly; it speaks, in fact, in the following, about their “great difficulty of going back without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins” and “they cannot satisfy the obligation to separate.” This clearly means that the people we are talking about are discussing the problem of changing and thus have the intention or at least the desire to change their situation.
In order to better illustrate what so far has been said, let us appeal to a concrete case, that is, the case of a woman who went to cohabitate with a canonically married man who was abandoned with three young children by his wife. However, this woman has saved the man from a state of deep despair, probably from the temptation of suicide; she has brought up the three children, not without considerable sacrifices; their union lasts for ten years now; a new child is born. The woman of whom we speak is fully conscious of being in an irregular situation. She sincerely would like to change her life, but evidently she cannot do it. If, in fact she left the union, the man would return to his situation from before, the children would be left without a mother. To leave the union would mean, therefore, not to fulfill her grave duties to people who are innocent in themselves. It is therefore evident that it could not take place “without a new fault.”
3.4. This raises, however, the usual objection: those cohabitating mentioned above must rightly live “as brother and sister”, in other words, they must abstain completely from conjugal relations.
In this regard, we can re-read the famous text of Familiaris Consortio 84, which says as follows:
“Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage. This means, in practice, that when, for serious reasons, such as for example the children’s upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they ‘take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.’ (John Paul II, Homily at the Close of the Sixth Synod of Bishops, 7 [October 25, 1980]: AAS 72  1082)”.
At this point let us return to reading Amoris laetitia, and we can examine footnote 329, which turns out to be especially interesting. Let us begin to read the text:
“In such situations, many people, knowing and accepting the possibility of living ‘as brothers and sisters’ which the Church offers them, point out that if certain expressions of intimacy are lacking, ‘it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of the children suffers’ (Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, 51).” (n. 298, footnote 329).
This footnote in Amoris Laetitia, therefore, refers to Gaudium et Spes, 51 and he quotes some excerpts of it which, however, are good to re-read in full context:
“This council realizes that certain modern conditions often keep couples from arranging their married lives harmoniously, and that they find themselves in circumstances where at least temporarily the size of their families should not be increased. As a result, the faithful exercise of love and the full intimacy of their lives is hard to maintain. But where the intimacy of married life is broken off, its faithfulness can sometimes be imperiled and its quality of fruitfulness ruined [translated otherwise in Amoris Laetitia footnote 329 as ‘the good of the children suffers’], for then the upbringing of the children and the courage to accept new ones are both endangered.”
It is important to ask ourselves what the expression used by the Council exactly means: “the intimacy of married life” (in the original Latin text: “intimata vita conjugalis”). Undoubtedly, this means the performance of conjugal acts. Beyond the meaning of the words, what is said above leads to this exegesis: “at least temporarily the size of their families should not be increased.”
At this point, the text states: “… where the intimacy of married life is broken off” (Latin text “abrumpitur”), and so the performance of conjugal acts is interrupted, “it is not uncommon that fidelity is imperiled and the good of the children may be endangered… their upbringing… the courage to accept new ones”.
One may naturally note that the opportunity to not abstain from performing conjugal acts in order to prevent that “fidelity is imperiled and the good of the children may be endangered” is a directive given by the Council for situations of marriage, in other words, for legitimate unions, while it is applied by the Apostolic Exhortation to cases of unions which are at least objectively illegitimate. I believe, however, that this difference is not relevant to the correctness of this application.
Having considered the preceding texts, it seems to me that it may be held:
a) if the commitment to live as brother and sister proves possible without difficulty for the couple’s relationship, then the two cohabiting may accept it willingly;
b) if, however, this commitment creates difficulties, the two cohabiting seem not to be obligated in and of themselves, because they will meet the case of the subject of which n. 301 speaks with this clear expression: a subject “can be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin”.
3.5. It should now be carefully noted that in the case hypothesized above, the impossibility to act differently, that is, to leave the union, is determined by objective evidence (the cohabiting partner, the children).
But there is another reason why it becomes impossible or at least very difficult to act differently. Let us read a pair of passages:
“The Church has a solid reflection on the conditioning and the mitigating circumstances” (n. 301).
“The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly mentions these factors: ‘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’ ” (n. 1735).
“In another paragraph, the Catechism refers once again to circumstances which mitigate moral responsibility, and mentions at length ‘affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen or even extenuate moral culpability’. (cf. ibid., 2352, and all of footnote 344 is doctrinally interesting). For this reason, a negative judgment about an objective situation does not imply a judgment about the imputability or culpability of the person involved (Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, Declaration Concerning the Admission to Holy Communion of Faithful Who are Divorced and Remarried [24 June 2000], 2). On the basis of these convictions, I consider very fitting what many Synod Fathers wanted to affirm: ‘Under certain circumstances people find it very difficult to act differently. Therefore, while upholding a general rule, it is necessary to recognize that responsibility with respect to certain actions or decisions is not the same in all cases. Pastoral discernment, while taking into account a person’s properly formed conscience, must take responsibility for these situations. Even the consequences of actions taken are not necessarily the same in all cases.’ (Relatio finalis 2015, 85)” (n. 302).
In the cases described above, the impossibility of acting differently, that is, of stopping the negative situation, is determined not by objective reasons as in the previous case, but rather by subjective reasons, that is, from behavioral conditioning. The result, however, seems the same.
3.6. Now the conclusion of Amoris laetitia is well noted, however, in a text far away from the previous one:
“Because of the conditioning or mitigating factors, it is possible that, within an objective situation of sin – that is not subjectively guilty or that it is not so full – you can live in the grace of God, we can love, and you can also grow in the life of grace and charity, receiving for this purpose the help of the Church” (n. 305).
This text is consonant, almost to the letter, with n. 301, already quoted above: “Hence it is 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.”
That said, the text refers to the interesting footnote 351, which we ought to read carefully:
“In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, ‘I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy’ (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium [24 November 2013], 44: AAS 105 , 1038). I would also point out that the Eucharist ‘is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak’ (ibid., 47: 1039).” (n. 305, footnote 351).
3.7. The Church, therefore, can admit the faithful who find themselves in an illegitimate union to Penance and the Eucharist provided, however, that they meet two essential conditions: they desire to change such a situation, but cannot realize their desire.
It is clear that the above essential conditions must be submitted to a careful and authoritative discernment on the part of an ecclesial authority. The well-known principle is shown to be most especially true, in fact, in these occasions: Nemo judex in causa propria [No one should be a judge in his own case].
The ecclesiastical authorities will be, at least normally, the pastor, who knows the people directly and for this reason can make a proper judgment for these delicate situations.
A service by the Curia could, however, be necessary or very useful at least, in which the diocesan Ordinary, analogously to what is provided for difficult cases of marriage, may offer special counseling or even a specific authorization in these cases of admission to the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist.
There remains, however, an obstacle to overcome, that of the scandal which would come to the community from the aforementioned admission. By the word scandal we mean the following erroneous judgment: because the Church admits certain members of faithful who find themselves in irregular unions to the sacraments, this means that union is regular and, therefore, marriage is neither necessary nor indissoluble.
It is, therefore, indispensable to avoid the aforesaid scandal. And this is achieved by instructing the faithful and by offering to them practically the following standard of judgement: when certain members of the faithful, who live in irregular situations, approach the Eucharistic table, which means that the same members of the faithful, in the judgment of the ecclesial authority who knows their situation, meet the two conditions, always to be considered essential, the desire to change and the impossibility to do it.
It is obvious, in any case, that the competent ecclesial authorities, I would say the Bishops’ Conferences, ought promptly to issue some guidelines to instruct the faithful and pastors in this delicate matter.
3.8. At this point, having carefully considered, without preconceptions and – we hope – having faithfully analyzed, all the elements contained in the Exhortation, we can theologically assess the potential admission of a member of the faithful to the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist.
I believe that we can assume, with a certain and clear conscience, that the doctrine is respected in this case.
The doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage is respected in this case, because the members of the faithful in the situation hypothesized do not find themselves in illegitimate unions, or rather, more precisely, we can certainly say that such a situation is objectively of grave sin.
The doctrine of sincere repentance, which entails the intention to change one’s situation of life as a necessary requirement to be admitted to the sacrament of Penance, is respected in this case, because the members of the faithful in the situations hypothesized, on the one hand, are conscious, are convinced of the situation of objective sin in which they presently find themselves and, on the other hand, they have the intention to change their situation of life, even if, at this moment, they are not able to realize their desire.
The doctrine of sanctifying grace as a necessary prerequisite to be admitted to the sacrament of the Eucharist is also respected because the members of the faithful of whom we speak have, however, the intention to make such a change, even if, at this time, they have not yet arrived at a real change of life because of the impossibility of doing it.
And such a desire is precisely the theological element that allows absolution and access to the Eucharist, always – we repeat – in the presence of an impossibility to change the situation of sin at once.
To whom, instead, can the Church absolutely not grant Penance and the Eucharist – it would be a patent contradiction? To a member of the faithful who, knowing that he is in grave sin and being able to change, however, did not have any sincere intention to realize such a desire. The Exhortation alludes to this with these words:
“Naturally, if someone flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal, or wants to impose something other than what the Church teaches, he or she can in no way presume to teach or preach to others; this is a case of something which separates from the community (cf. Mt 18:17). Such a person needs to listen once more to the Gospel message and its call to conversion…. ” (n. 297).
The problem of the relationship between the doctrine and the rule in their generality and individuals in their concreteness
As stated in the previous number, this has its roots in a broader topic that is among those marginalized.
4.1. We see in the first place some passages of the Exhortation:
“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. I earnestly ask that we always recall a teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas and learn to incorporate it in our pastoral discernment: ‘Although there is necessity in the general principles, the more we descend to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter defects… In matters of action, truth or practical rectitude is not the same for all, as to matters of detail, but only as to the general principles; and where there is the same rectitude in matters of detail, it is not equally known to all… The principle will be found to fail, according as we descend further into detail’ (Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 94, art. 4) It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations. At the same time, it must be said that, precisely for that reason, what is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances cannot be elevated to the level of a rule. That would not only lead to an intolerable casuistry, but would endanger the very values which must be preserved with special care.” (n. 304).
In support of this text, we should read footnote 348:
“In another text, referring to the general knowledge of the rule and the particular knowledge of practical discernment, Saint Thomas states that ‘if only one of the two is present, it is preferable that it be the knowledge of the particular reality, which is closer to the act’: Sententia libri Ethicorum, VI, 6 (ed. Leonina, t. XLVII, 354.)” (n. 304, footnote 348).
Let us continue reading the text:
“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. This would bespeak the closed heart of one used to hiding behind the Church’s teachings, ‘sitting on the chair of Moses and judging at times with superiority and superficiality difficult cases and wounded families’ (Address for the Conclusion of the Fourteenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops [24 October 2015]: L’Osservatore Romano, October 26-27, 2015, p. 13). Along these same lines, the International Theological Commission has noted that ‘natural law could not be presented as an already established set of rules that impose themselves a priori on the moral subject; rather, it is a source of objective inspiration for the deeply personal process of making decisions’. (In Search of a Universal Ethic: A New Look at Natural Law , 59)” (n. 305).
4.2. The problem of the relationship between the doctrine and the rule in their generality and individual persons in their concreteness is fundamental, however, it is complex and requires careful reflection. At this point, we must limit ourselves to a few annotations.
a) This is simply an initial reflection on the being of the person, which immediately takes on a double aspect.
On the one hand, all people have common elements that together constitute the reality of the person, they are the ontology of the person considered in his generality, that is, precisely, in the elements common to all persons
On the other hand, each person, while he possesses the abovementioned elements, at the same time has unique elements, which constitute the reality of the person, are the ontology of the person, considered, however, in his individuality, in his uniqueness, in his concreteness.
As has been said, each person, because of the common elements is equal to any other person, but, on the other hand, because of the unique elements, he is different from any other person.
It should be carefully noted, therefore, that both in reference to the common elements, and in reference to the unique elements, we mean to speak of the ontology of the person.
But we can identify and distinguish between two typologies of ontology of the person.
The first typology is that of the ontology constituted by the common elements and only by the common elements, and having, therefore, the characteristic of being general and abstract.
The second typology is that of the ontology constituted by the common elements and the unique elements together and having the characteristic, therefore, of being unique and concrete.
There seems, however, to be no doubt that, in speaking of the ontology of the person, it is necessary to refer not only to the common elements, but also at the same time to the unique elements, for the simple, obvious reason that these elements, if they do not constitute, and neither can they constitute, the general and therefore abstract ontology of every person, but they constitute, however, the unique and therefore concrete ontology of this person.
b) The above is particularly interesting in the case of those elements that in some way limit the person, especially in the ability to understand, and therefore to want to act.
In these cases, we find ourselves in the presence not only of a person, but also of a person with a unique limiting element which consists of an incapacity to act normally.
The Exhortation treats of these elements that limit the person’s capacity to act, in a variety of texts, using the terms “conditioning” or “extenuating circumstances” and the image of the “weakness”. Let us look at some passages.
As to the conditioning and the mitigating circumstances, we can re-read the two texts above n. 3.5.
As to the image of weakness, we note that already appears in the title of the Chapter Eight and then recurs in various texts:
“The Synod Fathers stated that, although the Church realizes that any breach of the marriage bond ‘is against the will of God’, she is also ‘conscious of the frailty of many of her children’. (Relatio Synodi 2014, 24) …” ‘the Church must accompany with attention and care the weakest of her children, who show signs of a wounded and troubled love…’ (ibid., 28)” (n. 291).
“The Synod addressed various situations of weakness or imperfection.” (n. 296).
“… I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness… Pastors, in proposing to the faithful the full ideal of the Gospel and the Church’s teaching, must also help them to treat the weak with compassion …” (n. 308).
c) Respecting the ontology of the person has always been and is today especially decisive for the life of the Church, especially for pastoral activity.
It is now noted closely that when I say: to respect the ontology of the person, I intend to refer to two aspects of this ontology, to that of the common elements and to that of the unique elements.
And, indeed, I believe that the Church, while at other moments, seemed to give importance only to the first aspect, in our present day, to the contrary, seems to give more and more of its pastoral attention also to the second aspect.
Perhaps such behavior had a beginning, or at least a significant increase (because nothing is truly new in the Church) starting from the Second Vatican Council and offers outstanding examples in the pastoral style of Pope Francis.
4.3. Having considered the ontology of the person also in the unique elements and particularly in those that in some way limit the person in his capacity to act normally, it seems to me that the Exhortation leads to three important consequences: the so-called “law of gradualness,” the recognition of the good that is possible, the non-immediate imputability of all those people who do not fulfill the law or who fulfill it only in part, and the consequent need to refrain from judging these people as culpable and therefore as in a state of grave sin.
a) The so-called “law of gradualness” recurs many times in the magisterium of Pope Francis, in the proposals of the Synod of Bishops and in the Exhortation Amoris laetitia. Let us see at least one passage:
“Along these lines, Saint John Paul II proposed the so-called ‘law of gradualness’ in the knowledge that the human being ‘knows, loves and accomplishes moral good by different stages of growth’. (Familiaris Consortio, 34). This is not a ‘gradualness of law’ but rather a gradualness in the prudential exercise of free acts on the part of subjects who are not in a position to understand, appreciate, or fully carry out the objective demands of the law. For the law is itself a gift of God which points out the way, a gift for everyone without exception; it can be followed with the help of grace, even though each human being ‘advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God and the demands of God’s definitive and absolute love in his or her entire personal and social life’ (ibid., 9)” (n. 295).
The so-called “law of gradualness” presupposes, therefore, an incapacity or a serious difficulty for a person to put the law into practice, at least in its totality, in all its requirements, on account of a condition of weakness.
For these members of the faithful, pastors of souls should, on the one hand, state the ideal, that is, the law in its entirety and in all its demands, but they should, on the other hand, work to heal the weakness, that is, to increase ability to act, by using the normal methods of pastoral care in this work, especially preaching and the sacraments.
From this case, we should distinguish another case of impossibility or serious difficulty in putting the law into practice.
And, in fact, the law is given for all people, and does not take into account, nor could it, a condition in which individual persons can come to find themselves with an incapacity to act normally, and therefore, to observe the law, such as, for example, a condition of sickness.
We can recall that, by making provisions for such situations of inability with pastoral wisdom, canon law has already provided in its roots some remedies that are comprehensively referred to as “aequitas canonica” [canonical equity], and those are known as exception, dispensation, and epikeia.
In the case, however, of the “law of gradualness,” the impossibility or serious difficulty to put the law into practice is caused by an incapacity to will it because of a condition of weakness of the will.
At this point, the Exhortation arrives at two very doctrinally and pastorally relevant solutions.
b) The first solution is the recognition of the good that is possible. Let us look at some texts:
“Recognizing the influence of such concrete factors, we can add that individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the Church’s praxis in certain situations which do not objectively embody our understanding of marriage. Naturally, every effort should be made to encourage the development of an enlightened conscience, formed and guided by the responsible and serious discernment of one’s pastor, and to encourage an ever greater trust in God’s grace. Yet conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal. In any event, let us recall that this discernment is dynamic; it must remain ever open to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realized” (n. 303).
“Discernment must help to find possible ways of responding to God and growing in the midst of limits. By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God. Let us remember that ‘a small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order, but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties’. (Evangelii gaudium, 44). The practical pastoral care of ministers and of communities must not fail to embrace this reality.” (n. 305).
“At the same time, from our awareness of the weight of mitigating circumstances – psychological, historical and even biological – it follows that ‘without detracting from the evangelical ideal, there is a need to accompany with mercy and patience the eventual stages of personal growth as these progressively appear’, making room for ‘the Lord’s mercy, which spurs us on to do our best’. (Evangelii Gaudium, 44) …. a Church … a Mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, ‘always does what good she can, even if in the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street’. (ibid., 45)” (n. 308)
Three barely reported texts are undoubtedly of great human and pastoral value. It seems important to me to re-read three particular expressions:
“… what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God… it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits.” (n. 303)
“… possible ways of responding to God and growing in the midst of limits….” “a small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God…” (n. 305)
“… eventual stages of personal growth…” “the Lord’s mercy, which spurs us on to do our best.” “… a church … a mother … always does what good she can…”.
These are expressions that speak for themselves. They are, however, [expressions] of great realism and great respect for the concrete ontology of every person. The statement should be noted that God himself requires only what is possible and He accepts, therefore, what is possible. Likewise, the Church [is] like a Mother.
c) The second solution: the non-immediate imputability of those people who do not fulfill the law or fulfill it only in part, and the consequent need to refrain from judging these people as culpable and therefore in a state of grave sin. We can read a pair of texts:
“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” (n. 304).
“The Church’s pastors, in proposing to the faithful the full ideal of the Gospel and the Church’s teaching, must also help them to treat the weak with compassion, avoiding aggravation or unduly harsh or hasty judgements. The Gospel itself tells us not to judge or condemn (cf. Mt 7:1; Lk 6:37). Jesus ‘expects us to stop looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune, and instead to enter into the reality of other people’s lives and to know the power of tenderness. Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated’ (ibid., 270)” (n. 308).
We can re-read the valuable text of n. 305 already cited above (cfr. no. 4.1.).
I would say that all this makes the reason complete for what we have said above regarding the person and the moral action made impossible by concrete conditions, such as that one exemplified by a woman cohabiting for years, conscious of the illegitimacy of her union, genuinely desiring to put an end to it, but however, it has been made impossible, at least at present, to put her desire into pract
The integration of people who find themselves in irregular situations, that is, their participation in the life and also the ministry of the Church
A further aspect seems to me to emerge from Chapter Eight and is indicated in the little title.
5.1. In the first place, the Exhortation offers us some general statements about the necessity of integration. Here are two texts:
“The Synod addressed various situations of weakness or imperfection. Here I would like to reiterate something I sought to make clear to the whole Church, lest we take the wrong path: ‘There are two ways of thinking which recur throughout the Church’s history: casting off and reinstating. The Church’s way, from the time of the Council of Jerusalem, has always been the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and reinstatement… The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone for ever; it is to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart… For true charity is always unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous’. (Homily at Mass Celebrated with the New Cardinals [15 February 2015]: AAS107 , 257). Consequently, there is a need ‘to avoid judgements which do not take into account the complexity of various situations’ and ‘to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience distress because of their condition’. (Relatio finalis 2015, 51)” (n. 296).
“It is a matter of reaching out to everyone, of needing to help each person find his or her proper way of participating in the ecclesial community and thus to experience being touched by an ‘unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous’ mercy. 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. Naturally, if someone flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal, or wants to impose something other than what the Church teaches, he or she can in no way presume to teach or preach to others; this is a case of something which separates from the community (cf. Mt 18:17). Such a person needs to listen once more to the Gospel message and its call to conversion. Yet even for that person there can be some way of taking part in the life of community, whether in social service, prayer meetings or another way that his or her own initiative, together with the discernment of the parish priest, may suggest.” (n. 297).
5.2. At this point, it seems to me that the Exhortation indicates two forms of integration into the life of the Church: the first would consist in various ministries and the second in the exercise of fraternal charity.
As to the various ministries we have the following text:
“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, while avoiding any occasion of scandal. The logic of integration is the key to their pastoral care, a care which would allow them not only to realize that they belong to the Church as the body of Christ, but also to know that they can have a joyful and fruitful experience in it. They are baptized; they are brothers and sisters; the Holy Spirit pours into their hearts gifts and talents for the good of all. Their participation can be expressed in different ecclesial services, which necessarily requires discerning which of the various forms of exclusion currently practiced in the liturgical, pastoral, educational and institutional framework, can be surmounted. Such persons need to feel not as excommunicated members of the Church, but instead as living members, able to live and grow in the Church and experience her as a mother who welcomes them always, who takes care of them with affection and encourages them along the path of life and the Gospel. This integration is also needed in the care and Christian upbringing of their children, who ought to be considered most important.’ (Relatio Finalis 2015, 84)” (n. 299).
As to the exercise of fraternal charity we can read this passage:
“In every situation, when dealing with those who have difficulties in living God’s law to the full, the invitation to pursue the via caritatis must be clearly heard. Fraternal charity is the first law of Christians (cf. Jn 15:12; Gal 5:14). Let us not forget the reassuring words of Scripture: ‘Maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins’ (1 Pet 4:8); ‘Atone for your sins with righteousness, and your iniquities with mercy to the oppressed, so that your prosperity may be prolonged’ (Dan 4:24 ); ‘As water extinguishes a blazing fire, so almsgiving atones for sins’ (Sir 3:30). This is also what Saint Augustine teaches: ‘Just as, at the threat of a fire, we would run for water to extinguish it… so too, if the flame of sin rises from our chaff and we are troubled, if the chance to perform a work of mercy is offered us, let us rejoice in it, as if it were a fountain offered us to extinguish the blaze’. (De cathechizandis, 1, 14, 22: PL 40.327; cf. ibid., n. Evangelii Gaudium [24 November 2013], 193: AAS 105  1101)” (n. 306).
The hermeneutic of the person in Pope Francis
It seems to me that once again the hermeneutic of the very person of Pope Francis is affirmed. This time in the aspect of not excluding anyone. This is because the person, therefore, every person and in every condition he finds himself, is of value in himself, although he may have elements of moral negativity. The Pontiff reiterates non-exclusion on many occasions and in many forms.
What does the hermeneutic of the person mean? A hermeneutic – as we know – means an instrument of knowledge and, therefore, how to think, how to assess reality, how to interpret the world. This hermeneutic, in Pope Francis, is the person.
In other words, Pope Francis evaluates reality through the person or, again, he puts the person first, and thereby he evaluates reality. What counts is the person, the rest comes as a logical consequence.
And the person has value in himself, regardless of the reason for his structural peculiarities or his moral condition.
A person can be beautiful or not beautiful, intelligent or not intelligent, educated or ignorant, young or old, these structural peculiarities are not relevant: every person, in fact, has value in himself, and therefore, he is important, therefore, he is lovable.
A person can be good or not good, even this does not matter, and above all, this does not matter: every person, even a not good one, has value in himself, therefore, he is important, therefore, he is lovable.
From here follows a principle which is a fundamental element in the life of Pope Francis: his opposition to every form of marginalization of people. He repeats it continuously. No exclusion for any person.
The reference to Jesus is spontaneous, especially in two parables which are in the Gospel of Luke: the parable of the shepherd who goes after the hundredth sheep that got lost (no exclusion for this poor little one) (cf. Lk 15:1-7) and the parable of the son who returns home (no exclusion for this poor little one) (cf. Lk 15:11-32).
The love of Jesus and the Father, which is the same as that of the shepherd and that of the Father in the two parables, is that Jesus and the Father consider individual persons so important, who – let us note it well – not only benefit from it, but above all, they need it, they cannot be without some of them, so they feel revived when they find the lost one or when the son returns.
Thus – it seems to me – this is the soul, this is the style of Pope Francis, this is – in other words, and to return to the initial speech- his hermeneutic of the person.
Certainly, by practicing this love, Pope Francis goes to take on the well known risks of a shepherd of the lost sheep and of the Father of the son who returns. The pastor can be injured, the father can suffer, even things perhaps more painful than a wound, the dispute of the elder son, that one who does not understand why the Father would welcome the prodigal son with love.
Outside of this image, very much alive nevertheless, Pope Francis also has experienced and experiences wounds and misunderstandings for his hermeneutic of the person. In other words, if the shepherd seeks the lost sheep, that is, the person of the sinner, if the father welcomes back the son, that is, the person who has sinned, if the Pope welcomes the sinner, if the Pope does not exclude those who make mistakes, does not this attitude come at the expense of the integrity of doctrine? Should the purity of doctrine prevail or the love and welcoming of the sinner? In welcoming the sinner, is the behavior justified and the doctrine repudiated?
Certainly not, as it seems to us that we have shown in particular cases in the previous pages. However, we note that the Pope himself is the interpreter and takes charge of the special sensitivity or certain anxiety of some pastors and does it with these words already quoted in the preceding pages:
“I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion. But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a Mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, “always does what good she can, even if in the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street”. “(Evangelii gaudium, 45)” (n. 308).
Here is re-expressed the hermeneutic of the person.
Such a hermeneutic does not stay something just theoretical with Pope Francis, but results in feelings, which are of compassion and tenderness. The Pope returns often to this issue of the tenderness, notably in relation to those who suffer.
I do not want now to use my own words. I use those of Francis in the Sunday Angelus, on February 15, 2015, a real little gem. Let us listen:
“In these Sundays, Mark the Evangelist speaks to us about Jesus’ actions against every type of evil, for the benefit of those suffering in body and spirit: the possessed, the sick, sinners…. Jesus presents Himself as the One who fights and conquers evil wherever He encounters it. In today’s Gospel (cf. Mk 1:40-45)… Jesus responds to this humble and trusting prayer because his soul is moved to deep pity: compassion. ‘Compassion’ is a most profound word: compassion means “to suffer-with-another”. Jesus’ heart manifests God’s paternal compassion for that man, moving close to him and touching him. And this detail is very important. Jesus ‘stretched out his hand and touched him…. And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean’ (vv. 41-42)…. The Gospel of the healing of the leper tells us today that, if we want to be true disciples of Jesus, we are called to become, united to Him, instruments of his merciful love, overcoming every kind of marginalization.”
“Christian marriage, as a reflection of the union between Christ and his Church, is fully realized in the union between a man and a woman who give themselves to each other in a free, faithful and exclusive love, who belong to each other until death and are open to the transmission of life, and are consecrated by the sacrament, which grants them the grace to become a domestic church and a leaven of new life for society” (Amoris Laetitia n. 292).
[CRITIQUE by SPINELLO]
August 30, 2017
Many of Pope’s Francis’ closest allies have presented vindications of his troubling apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia. Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, who is the President for the Pontifical Office of Legislative Texts, stepped forward last year with a booklet concentrating on the controversial claims of Chapter Eight. This guided reading is now accessible in English thanks to Andrew Guersney’s translation for Homiletic and Pastoral Review. The Cardinal seeks to clarify the ambiguities that still haunt the pages of this final chapter. But are his arguments valid and rooted in truth? And do they enrich the ongoing debate about this papal teaching?
Cardinal Cupich from Chicago certainly thinks so. In his forward to the English edition he asserts that this manual can help readers navigate their way through the opaque passages of Chapter Eight in order to grasp its “rich doctrinal and pastoral message.” Cardinal Cupich seizes on the theme of the ontology of the person as Coccopalmerio’s “greatest contribution” to the current discourse about Amoris Laetitia.When dealing with irregular situations it is essential to consider both the general and peculiar aspects of a person’s life, “the full ontology of the person.”
In the narrow compass of this article we cannot do justice to all of the themes articulated in Coccopalmerio’s commentary, so let us restrict our attention to the two main intertwined arguments. The cardinal agrees with the standard interpretation of Amoris Laetitia that divorced and remarried couples in irregular situations can be admitted to the Eucharist under certain conditions, even if they do not live as brother and sister. Cardinal Schönborn’s recent statements and Pope Francis’ private letter to the Argentinian bishops also confirm this interpretation.
Cardinal Coccopalmerio hopes to allay the concerns of those with reservations about this pastoral innovation that has divided the Church. We must all better understand the proper “pastoral attitude” of the Church toward people in such situations and the mitigating circumstances that preclude a state of serious sin. Those in irregular unions are not in a state of mortal sin if they do not understand the moral rule, have difficulty comprehending the “inherent values” of such a rule, or if there is a “concrete situation which prevents someone from acting differently without further sin.” His exposition dwells on the third and most “problematic” condition. As an example, he refers to the situation where a couple has been in an irregular union for some time with new children, and that union is characterized by mutual love and generosity. Perhaps the wife was abandoned by her husband and the request for a declaration of nullity was denied. Nonetheless, she has married again and now has several children with her second husband. This couple cannot separate without doing harm to their children. They are conscious of their “irregularity,” but practically impotent to resolve that irregularity.
The Church, of course, has always recognized those demanding situations and implored such couples to live chastely as brother and sister before receiving the Eucharist. But the Cardinal declares that for some couples this requirement is utterly impossible. The thrust of Amoris Laetitia is that the Church should admit the faithful in these illegitimate unions to the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist so long as they desire to change but cannot realize their desire. This sincere “desire” to change is the “theological element,” the decisive factor, that allows access to the Eucharist. According to Cardinal Coccopalmerio, “the impossibility of acting differently, that is, of stopping a negative situation,” is determined by objective reasons but also by “subjective reason,” or behavioral conditioning. The objective reasons in this case are the children whose lives will be disrupted if the union is dissolved. The subjective reasons are based on psychological and social factors that impede a chaste relationship and therefore severely attenuate moral culpability. Thus, in some situations, a man and woman in an adulterous relationship, who cannot dissolve the relationship and who cannot live chastely, can receive the Eucharist in good conscience. We cannot blame them for the sin of adultery because they are incapable of escaping their irregular relationship. According to Amoris Laetitia, some people are “not in a position” to “fully carry out the objective demands” of divine commands or natural laws (par. 295).
To be sure, there may be occasions where a couple in an irregular union for many years cannot dissolve that union without damage to their children. Cardinal Coccopalmerio is certainly correct about these objective reasons why an irregular union must be sustained. But he is on far less secure ground when he suggests that psychological and social factors make it impossible for them not to live chastely and avoid the sin of adultery. The moral proposition implicitly being defended by the cardinal is that it is sometimes impossible to live according to the norms of Christian morality, and this indeed seems to be the broader argument presented in Chapter Eight. However, as moral theologian Germain Grisez points out, when people say that living a Christian life is “impossible” they usually mean that the norm in question is incompatible with a way of life they prefer not to relinquish. While a couple, who has deliberately entered into this irregular union, may need to remain together for the sake of their innocent children, they can choose to live chastely as a condition for receiving the Eucharist. Coccopalmerio offers no rationale for why any couple in an irregular union lacks the capacity to make a commitment to chastity, despite psychological or social factors that might make such a commitment difficult.
The second problem is that this principle can be applied to other areas of morality. Many business people, for example, contend that it is “impossible” to be honest and fair in their business dealings because so many of their competitors bribe and cheat their way to success. Complex psychological and social forces will also be at work in these fraught situations. They too can claim that these factors overpower their desire to carry out the objective demands of the Gospel. Are we to offer them the same pastoral solicitude as the couple in an irregular union?
Cardinals Coccopalmerio and Cupich insist on the continuity of Amoris Laetitia with the Catholic tradition, but the assertion that it is sometimes impossible to live according to the Commandments cannot be reconciled with Scripture and traditional doctrine. In Sacred Scripture we are repeatedly told that nothing is impossible with God (Mt.19: 26; Lk 1:37). Moreover, the teachings of the Church councils such as Trent are quite explicit: “If anyone says that the commandments of God are impossible to observe even for a man who is justified and in a state of grace: let him be anathema.” The Second Vatican Council’s document, Gaudium et Spes, is less forceful, but affirms that while people cannot overcome sin on their own but they are liberated from sin through God’s grace (par. 13). To declare that even with the help of prayer and grace it is impossible to forgo the sin of adultery is a radical breach with Scripture and Tradition.
Cardinal Coccopalmerio also presents a philosophical foundation for his arguments in the form of an “ontology of the person,” a treatment of the person’s metaphysical structure. The Cardinal explains that we all have “common elements” that are general and abstract. But there are also more concrete “unique elements.” He writes that “in speaking of the ontology of the person, it is necessary to refer not only to the common elements, but also at the same time to the unique elements.” Those unique elements can limit the person and hinder his or her capacity to act normally.
The cardinal doesn’t elaborate on the common abstract elements that we all possess. He is far more interested in those unique characteristics, which are intimated in Amoris Laetitia by terms such as “conditioning,” “extenuating circumstances,” or “weakness.” In order to respect the full ontology of the person, the Church must give more attentive consideration to our unique situations. While some individuals are mature and strong, others are weak and so psychologically conditioned that they cannot live up to their moral responsibilities. In such cases we “must refrain from judging these people as culpable.”
This discussion on ontology, however suggestive, is woefully deficient and inevitably slides into subjectivism. It leaves too much unspecified and amounts to little more than vague and superficial rhetoric. It is true that persons have something in common and also possess a certain uniqueness. But Cardinal Coccopalmerio’s circumstantial analysis is devoid of persuasive, logical arguments that elaborate the ethical implications of his ontology. He never precisely demonstrates how these concrete differences absolutely prevent some individuals from living up to the demands of the moral law.
The philosopher Karol Wojtyla (who became Pope John Paul II), also developed an “ontology” of the person, though he never used that term. He offers a far more coherent metaphysic of the person that takes into account our uniqueness. Since all human beings belong to the same species, they must have something in common, which is the soul with its powers of intellect and will. Our souls are fundamentally the same, so all human persons can know the truth and will the good. These intellectual powers of the soul make possible self-possession, the hallmark of personhood. Every person possesses himself through self-awareness and self-governance, and therefore every person is master of his or her own actions.
Thus, we are obviously different, since every soul is adapted to a particular body, but we are not qualitatively different. Thanks to that spiritual soul, each person has the innate capacity to know and love, and each person is ordered to intrinsic goods such as life and health, marriage, and friendship which provide fulfillment. All of this we learn from metaphysics. Yet Wojtyla was not content with explaining personhood solely through these objective common structures inherited from the thought of Aquinas. Like Cardinal Coccopalmerio, he recognized each person’s “primordial uniqueness” and originality. We must, therefore, always seek to understand every person “from within,” as a concrete self, and so the category of “lived experience” has a place in ethics. Metaphysics cannot do justice to the inner subjective experience of each person, which includes her intentions, motivations, and even her noetic and moral frailties. However, while Wojtyla fully appreciated the importance of taking into account our existential uniqueness in the moral life, he also claimed that we are not “doomed to subjectivism.”
Although we are fallen creatures with certain defects, we are not so deflated by concupiscence that we are incapable of knowing and choosing the good. The contingent factors in each person’s life such as his environment or behavioral conditioning do not undermine the power of self-governance and render the will impotent. None of these subjective factors subvert our self-mastery, which is the source of our dignity as persons. Assuming that someone is not mentally ill or coerced in any way, they remain self-governing moral subjects, capable of guiding themselves toward God as their final goal through their free choices.
Coccopalmerio’s analysis also puts him squarely at odds with central doctrines of John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor. In his papal writings, John Paul II remained sensitive to the unique elements of each human life, but resisted any notion of an opening between the moral law and the person’s “concrete possibilities.” We must oppose the attitude of those who seek to make their “own weakness the criterion of the truth about the good” (par. 104). In addition, we must always recall that we are not just talking about the capabilities of the ordinary man and woman but the man and woman “redeemed by Christ,” who can access the graces necessary to live according to the Commandments (par. 103). What’s strikingly omitted in Cardinal Coccopalmerio’s commentary is any discussion of the efficacy of grace that elevates and sanctifies our fallen condition. It’s only in the light of grace and redemption that Christian moral norms become reasonable and attainable.
Unlike many of the works now coming forth from the Vatican, the writings of Wojtyla/John Paul II have lost none of their intellectual force and deep wisdom. If only more cardinals were reading them today.
This Webpage was created for a workshop held at Saint Andrew's Abbey, Valyermo, California in 2014