Preliminary Remarks on Religious Submission to Magisterial Teaching
Before turning to Amoris Laetitia I want to first give some general remarks on submission to Church teaching. I recently read Daniel Schwindt’s excellent overview of Catholic Social Teaching, and application of it to the American situation, The Papist’s Guide to America. Schwindt’s book is notable for its rich account of the common good, making use of Fr. Sebastian Walshe’s profound dissertation on the subject. It is also notable for the exemplary spirit of docility to papal teaching that it displays. Schwindt offers a devasting critique of the rule of private judgement typical of a liberal age, which has infected even many in the Church. And gives a resounding plea for submission to the teachings of the Roman pontiffs, a plea worthy of a Cardinal Manning.
There has been a lamentable tendency in Catholic theology since about July of 1968 to minimalize the requirements of submission to the teachings of the popes. Submission, so goes the argument, is only absolutely necessary to infallible teachings, and according to Vatican I the pope is only infallible under four conditions: “when, (1) in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, (2) in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, (3) he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals (4) to be held by the whole Church.” Many Catholic theologians, especially in Germany, have argued that these conditions are only met in solemn definitions, in which the supreme pontiff exercises his extraordinary magisterium. This was the strategy adopted by those who wished to dissent from the teaching on artificial contraception of the encyclical Humanae Vitae. This extremely minimalistic approach to the teachings of the supreme pontiffs has always been particularly abhorrent to me. The pope is infallible not only in his extraordinary magisterium, but also his ordinary and universal magisterium, when he intends to bind the Church definitively. Moreover, the Church requires religious submission of will and intellect even non-definitive teachings. My tendency has thus always been to the opposite extreme. And yet, this too can be taken too far.
There are different levels of authoritative teaching, and the require different kinds of assent. In the Professio Fidei, which I made before my ordination, three kinds teaching are laid out, which each require a different kind of assent:
- With firm faith, I also believe everything contained in the word of God, whether written or handed down in Tradition, which the Church, either by a solemn judgment or by the ordinary and universal Magisterium, sets forth to be believed as divinely revealed.
- I also firmly accept and hold each and everything definitively proposed by the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals.
- Moreover, I adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman Pontiff or the College of Bishops enunciate when they exercise their authentic Magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act.
The first kind of assent is the assent of divine faith, which has as its object those truths which are revealed by God in scripture and unwritten tradition. This assent has absolute certainty that rests on the veracity of God Himself. The second kind has as its object infallible teachings of the Church, and is therefore unconditional and certain. But the most delicate case is the third kind, which are teachings that are not infallible, and which therefore might be erroneous. Even this third kind requires submission of will and intellect, but such submission cannot be unconditional and absolutely certain as in the other cases. Fr. Chad Ripperfer, in his helpful pamphlet on magisterial authority, quotes the Tanquerrey as follows:
One is not certainly bound, therefore, to these declarations to assent of faith, but internal and religious which we establish by legitimate ecclesiastical authority; nor [is it] absolute assent, since the decrees are not infallible, but prudential and conditioned, so far as presumption rests with the superior in matters of faith and morals. (Tanquerrey, Synopsis Theologiae Dogmaticae, vol. 1, p. 571, n. 844; cited in Ripperger, Magisterial Authority, p. 35)
That is, the third kind of assent is not always given, but it is usually given, since one presumes that the legitimate ecclesiastical authority teaches reliably. The one exception is when a teaching contradicts more authoritative teachings of the Church. The assent is thus conditioned on the teaching not contradicting more authoritative teaching. Note that this is quite different from the carte blanche claimed by German theologians for rejecting non-infallible teachings that are not in accord with their private theological opinions. The exception here has to do with the tradition to which the whole Church, including her rulers, are bound. Thus Fr. Ripperger writes:
[In] the normal course of things one should simply follow the Magisterium. But the Church Herself recognizes by discussing the different kind of assent that there are occasion in which a particular member of the Magisterium will teach things contrary to the faith. (Ripperger, Magisterial Authority, p. 39)
If possible, when one finds a pope teaching something apparently contrary to more authoritative teaching, one ought to give a reverential reading, interpreting the new teaching in such a way as to make it fit with the old. But this is not always possible. Thus Fr. Ripperger writes:
As a matter of piety, one ought to try to reconcile teachings of various popes. This does not require us to set aside reason when such statements are clearly contradictory and assert that they have continuity. (Ripperger, Magisterial Authority, p. 24)
Something analagous to what I have said about submission to the popes as supreme teachers in the Church applies to their prudential decisions as supreme rulers of her. One is bound in obedience to official commands and legislation of the pope, and for the most part one can presume that his prudential decisions are sound, but one is not bound in every case to “save the appearances” and invent reasons for evidently imprudent actions.
For the most part, I think that Schwindt’s book is successful in avoiding an extreme maximalism. There are, however, a few points where glosses over tensions between different magisterial documents, or gives strained defenses of the prudence of certain ecclesiastical policies. For instance, he quotes Centessimus Annus on the universal destination of goods (“Christian tradition has never upheld this right [private property] as absolute and untouchable. On the contrary, it has always understood this right within the broader context of the right common to all to use the goods of the whole of creation.”), but glosses over the fact that Rerum Novarum seems to say the opposite (“private ownership must be held sacred and inviolable”). (Ernest Fortin has an excellent paper on this problem).
In his discussion of Vatican II, Schwindt defends the prudence of its approach on the following grounds:
The Church is an expert in humanity. She is its physician, and a responsible physician, if he senses the danger of disease or infection, does everything he can to warn his patient of the threat. Ideally speaking, his advice will be heeded (he is the expert, after all) and the patient’s health will be maintained. But sometimes, as we all know from our own experiences, the patient disregards his doctor’s advice and contracts the disease in spite of the efforts of his advisor. In this case and at this point, his doctor will accept this change in conditions and readjust his treatment. We would call him obstinate, ineffective, and even unwise if he did not make this change, for the disease has now set in and this requires advice of a different kind. The patient is diseased. The physician must treat him accordingly, and no amount of lecture about what he could have done to prevent the infection will be of any use to anyone: that course is not currently open to either party. (Schwindt, The Papist’s Guide to America, pp. 48-49).
Thus, Schwindt argues, the popes of the Pian Age tried to warn the world of the threat of liberal opinions, trying to preserve what was left of the health of Christian society. But at the Council the Church was faced with a world entirely infected by liberalism, and so it modified its treatment. I think that while there is some truth to this argument it is simplistic and overly optimistic. I would argue that the ecclesiastical strategy adopted by Vatican II was in fact not entirely prudent, and based partly on a false assessment of the situation of the patient.
Now, at last, I can turn to Amoris Laetitia. It would be easy to give an explanation of the apparent differences between Amoris Laetitia, and previous documents of the teaching Church along the lines of Schwindt’s defense of Vatican II. In a world so thoroughly corrupted by the sexual revolution, different medication is needed to start a recovery, than was used by Paul VI (for instance) who was still trying to prevent a full infection. Again, I think there might be some truth to such a defense. But again it is too optimistic and simplistic. I think that Amoris Laetitia’s approach is in many ways thoroughly imprudent. Moreover, it makes numerous statements that appear on an unstrained reading to contradict more authoritative teachings of the Church. It appears thus to me that we have with respect to certain propositions in Amoris Laetitia the exceptional case outlined above in which assent of mind and will cannot be given, because the propositions (taken in their natural sense) appear to contradict the Tradition.
I had thought of writing the Holy Father directly about my concerns with Amoris Laetitia, but in the end decided to write Cardinal Schönborn instead. The Holy Father chose Cardinal Schönborn as an official interpreter of Amoris Laetitia, and obviously trusts him. It was easier for me to write Cardinal Schönborn, since he is my own bishop, and I know him personally. As Dominican and a close student of St. Thomas his theological background is closer to mine. And he would be better able to explain my concerns to the Holy Father than I would myself. I reproduce the main body of my letter to Cardinal Schönborn below, omitting the first part, in which I discussed magisterial authority.
Excerpt from a letter to Cardinal Schönborn
I want to emphasize at the outset that I am in deep sympathy with most of Amoris Laetitia, and am grateful for its main teachings, which are beautiful and important. But I think that its most important and inspiring teachings are contre-carred by the sections with which I cannot agree.
I think the Holy Father’s concern that Catholic morality is about the attraction of the good, and of true happiness is very good and important. It is absolutely necessary to resist Pharisaical legalism and the Kantian ethics of duty, and to motivate ourselves, and those entrusted to us, by trying to see ever more the goodness of God’s plan, and allowing that goodness to draw us with its attractive power toward partial happiness in this life, and the fullness of happiness in the life to come. As you said in your presentation, this is a very Thomistic concern. I am truly grateful to the Holy Father for emphasizing this truth.
But then there are elements of the document that run against this main thrust— even ones that seem to be motivated by it.
As we know, there are acts which are in virtue of their very objects incompatible with having God as our final end— acts by which we implicitly say “my happiness is not to be found in God.” Such acts are thus totally incompatible with our happiness— even with happiness in this mortal life, which they destroy by depriving us of interior peace, and the friendship with God that we desire in the depths of our being, but they are especially incompatible with the complete happiness of eternal life. Every time that we commit a mortal sin we implicitly deny God. As Blessed Columba Marmion once put it: “Sin is… the negation by the creature of the existence of God, of His truth, His sovereignty, His holiness, His goodness… In voluntarily performing an action contrary to God’s will [the soul] practically denies that God is supreme goodness worthy of being preferred to all that is not Himself; it puts God beneath the creature.”
Of course the Holy Father is quite right that grave matter is not the only condition for mortal sin: there must also be full knowledge and deliberate consent. But I think that he seriously underestimates the power of conscience. It is possible for conscience in the sense of the particular judgment about what is good to be in error. It is even possible to be habitually in error about the moral good. But there is something indelible about conscience in the sense of synderesis, the knowledge of the good that God has inscribed in our hearts. Hence moral error always includes an element of “suppressing the truth” (cf. Romans 1:18) that gives witness against us in the depths of the soul.
Now, when someone is living in objective contradiction to the demands of conscience, they are liable to project the internal unrest of conscience on others, and say that others are “condemning” them. It seems to me that Amoris Laetitia misses that point. It speaks much about how the Church should not condemn people, not throw the law at people like a stone, using the confessional as a “torture chamber” etc. Fair enough. But I certainly do not think that that is the main problem with which we are struggling. I do not think that most priests today, especially here in Austria, are inclined to be overly condemning of the lives of persons who do not live according to the truth of marriage. When people project the internal witness of conscience onto the Church, and accuse her of being “unmerciful,” the last thing that they need is for pastors to agree with them that the “rule” is ummerciful, or doesn’t fit their situation, and that they are probably in a state of grace. As most of us probably know from personal experience (I certainly do), when one is being made uneasy by conscience one is eager to snatch at excuses to “prove” to oneself that everything is really OK. It is very dangerous for pastors to help people find such excuses. In the long run such excuses make them miserable in this life, and endanger their immortal souls. Yes, it is necessary to discern the subjective level of guilt— especially with regard to concrete acts in the past for which one has now to give a penance (for example)— but it is highly foolish and counter-productive to predict a low level of subjective guilt for objectively evil actions that someone is intending to perform in the future. If someone comes to me in the confessional and says that they are intending to continue committing objectively adulterous acts, then it is worse than useless to tell them that they will probably not be guilty of mortal sin in doing so, that mitigating factors will probably remove full knowledge or deliberate consent. What such a person needs is clarity to help them to come to repentance.
But what does the Holy Father say? At one point he says the following: “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’” (AL, Footnote 329). This is the sort of excuse that I hear often in the confessional. In my experience the worst response to such excuses is prevarication or circumlocution. What they need to hear in all clarity is that one can never do an intrinsically evil action that good might come. Recently someone gave this very excuse in confession, and I hesitated a bit before replying, but when with some trepidation I gave her a clear response she was very grateful— it was really a moment of grace. The Holy Father does not explicitly agree with the above excuse, but certainly the natural impression that one receives from the way he cites it seems to be that he agrees, and I am afraid that this is how people looking for excuses will take it.
At another point he writes: “A subject may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding ‘its inherent values’, or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin” (AL, ¶ 301). Again, one can say this about certain definite acts in the past, but when someone is contemplating their whole future way of life it is most dangerous to say something like this. We know that it is never necessary to do an act that it intrinsically evil; God always gives us a way out. Of course, one can foresee that it is likely that one will fall into a sin that has become habitual in a certain situation, but one can never intend to continue to commit acts that are objectively evil. How is it possible for someone in such a situation to sincerely seek God as their last end, highest good, and greatest happiness? One need only apply this way of reasoning to other kinds of sin to see how absurd it is. The Holy Father has been very eloquent in his condemnation of sins against the poor. Consider the case of a priest who would say to a capitalist, who denies his workers their just wage, “you are probably in a state of grace since, although you know the demands of the Gospel, you are not able to understand its inherent values.” What would the Holy Father say to such a priest? He would be horrified, and quite rightly so. Such a priest should say what the Holy Father himself says: “by closing your heart to the poor you are plunging into the eternal abyss of solitude which is Hell” (cf. Pope Francis, Message for Lent 2016). This is what people who are intending to live a life of continual adultery need to hear as well.
So I think that to say that persons who know the demands of the Gospel can intend to continue performing acts gravely contrary to it without mortally sinning is to deny such persons their dignity as moral agents, to deny the power of synderesis in their hearts, and to give them an excuse to make themselves miserable in this life and the life to come.
There were other things that saddened me in Amoris Laetitia, but I will not weary you with a list. I do, however, want to mention two more things. The first is the emphasis that the Holy Father puts on affirming the good elements to be found in “irregular situations:” the impression that one takes from his way of speaking is that all human relations are a mixture of good and bad, and that there is not much difference between a valid Christian marriage, and a so-called “second marriage” that is in contradiction to a valid marriage. But the difference is as great as light and darkness. Persons trying to live a valid marriage, however often they may fall short, are living a sign of Christ’s fidelity toward his Church. But people in an objectively adulterous union are living a lie. In ¶298, Pope Francis speaks of “second unions” as showing “proven fidelity” and “generous self giving.” I do not think that this is a helpful way of talking. Of course evil is always parasitic on good; the only thing that exists is the good, and so in every situation one will be able to find much good. But, as Dionysius says, in a passage often cited by St Thomas, good simpliciter comes from a complete cause, whereas evil (said without qualification) results from any defect. A good way of life is one that is ordered to God as the final end, and any serious lack of conformity to the order that God has established in His creation is enough to make a way of life evil simpliciter— however much it may resemble a good life in detail. A life of continual adultery cannot be ordered to God as its final end, and thus the generosity and the likeness of fidelity that can be found in such a union cannot make the union itself pleasing to God, anymore than the courage and loyalty shown by a Mafioso could make a life of continual theft and murder pleasing to God.
One last point that I want to mention: I was shocked in reading the section on “The family in the documents of the Church” to see that the Holy Father began a chronological overview with Vatican II! One of the great scandals of our time, and a great obstacle to credibility of the Church in the eyes of serious persons who are honestly seeking the truth, is the apparent contradiction between certain teachings of the Church before Vatican II, and certain teachings of Vatican II and the subsequent pontiffs. I have a friend who actually fell away from the Church, and joined the Russian Orthodox on this account. As for me, I have always defended the Council and subsequent magisterial documents, trying to read them with a “hermeneutic of reform” to use Pope Benedict XVI’s important phrase, a hermeneutic of “renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us” (Benedict XVI, Christmas Address to the Roman Curia, 2005). But documents such as Amoris Laetitia make such a reading very difficult. There are numerous passages in Amoris Laetitia that seem on the face of them to simply contradict previous teachings, rather than reforming and renewing them. I will mention only one example. In ¶161, Pope Francis writes: “Rather than speak absolutely of the superiority of virginity, it should be enough to point out that the different states of life complement one another, and consequently that some can be more perfect in one way and others in another” (AL 161). Contrast those words with the 10th definition of the 24th session of the Council of Trent: “If anyone says that it is not better and more blessed to remain in virginity than to be joined in marriage, let him be anathema.” Such an apparent contradiction, made without any attempt at explanation, without any acknowledgement at all of a solemn definition of an Ecumenical Council, is a scandal in the strictest sense.
Your Eminence, dear Pater Christoph, I hope that this letter, which I have tried to write with reverence as well as parrhesia, will not be taken as a sign of lack of docility on my part. I want to emphasize again that there are many, many things in Amoris Laetitia that I find very beautiful and helpful. The wisdom of an experienced and loving pastor will be a great help to me in my priestly life.
In Corde Jesu,
Header image: Titian, Sacred and Profane Love