Opinion: It’s helpful to view Pope’s Francis’ ‘Amoris Laetitia’ in context of Church guidance

by William R. Hamant | May 01, 2016

William Hamant

Please note: This opinion originally appeared in The Morning Call on April 30, 2016. 

Among those who have written recently on Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation, "Amoris Laetitia," are two extremes: those who claim (somewhat naively or insincerely) that Francis changed nothing, that the document is simply a much-needed meditation on the beauty of marriage and the difficulties facing it today; and those such as Pope Francis' fellow Jesuits at Georgetown, for whom everything has changed and who quite openly see Francis as a corrective to the dogmatic and heavy-handed magisteria of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

William HamantIn the middle are those who argue more soberly that "Amoris Laetitia" (The Joy of Love) needs to be seen in the context of the Church's tradition as expressed through previous magisterial declarations, for one or both of the following reasons: Either the document is vague or incomplete and must be interpreted in light of clearer statements; or the document is a "pastoral" document and not meant to be binding on Catholics — or at least as binding as other, more authoritative statements.

One prominent figure in this middle camp is Cardinal Raymond Burke. He believes that Francis does not understand his exhortation to be part of the infallible, binding magisterium, but rather is a personal reflection on the work of the 2014 and 2015 synods of bishops.

The document can be pastorally helpful, but the faithful must keep its pastoral nature in mind, lest they be led into confusion by certain sections or choices of words. Burke points to Francis' phrase, "the ideal of marriage," as an example of a potentially "misleading" manner of speaking: Christian marriage, Burke insists, is not an "ideal," but a reality that gives that couple the grace to live the life they promise to live together. This is an area of concern that I share.

Cardinal Burke is right to highlight the scale of degrees of authority with which popes speak at various times. I respectfully do not agree that "Amoris Laetitia" is a "personal reflection" on the part of Pope Francis. But like the cardinal, I would place myself in this middle camp, holding that other documents of the Church's teaching (e.g., John Paul II's encyclical letter "Veritatis splendor," his apostolic exhortation "Familiaris consortio" and the Catechism of the Catholic Church) are more authoritative and clearer where Francis is ambiguous or gives perhaps an incomplete picture.

One of the most ambiguous or even misleading elements in the document is Francis' treatment of "culpability" — the extent to which I am more or less guilty for doing something objectively wrong. Not all parties involved in a civil divorce, for instance, bear the same level of responsibility and guilt. This is tremendously important for the Church's pastoral response to wounded and broken families, and Pope Francis is right to highlight it.

But culpability for civilly ending a marriage is irrelevant for the no-less-crucial question of whether a couple is sacramentally and indissolubly married in the first place. However much there are degrees of culpability, there are no degrees of marriage: It is an objective bond that is either there or isn't.

The much-discussed issue of whether the divorced and civilly re-married may present themselves for the public action of receiving Communion cannot be separated from whether one is bound in the public covenant of marriage to someone other than one's legal spouse. The pope risks giving the impression that there is wiggle room when there is none.

Closely related is the completeness of the doctrine of conscience in "Amoris Laetitia." The pope rightfully stresses that conscience speaks directly from within one's heart, and that the Church must "form" but never "replace" the conscience. Yet nowhere does Francis mention that I can be guilty for following an erroneous conscience, if it is my fault that I believe something good that is in fact evil — a point without which the doctrine on conscience guarantees the salvation even of Hitler.

Finally, the pope speaks of the difficulty of applying principles to circumstances in a way that often seems to downplay the importance of the principles themselves. In this way Francis speaks of an "abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage" and warns against a "cold bureaucratic morality," as if truth could be nothing more than artificial and coldly bureaucratic.

It was the merciful Jesus who said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life," and who promised, "You shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free." The truth is not an external condition imposed on God's mercy; it is mercy's form and an essential condition.

Such are the points of ambiguity or incompleteness in the pope's otherwise very beautiful exhortation. To clarify or complete these points requires the Church's established magisterium.

William R. Hamant is an assistant professor of theology at DeSales University.


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