As many readers will remember, footnote 329 of Amoris Laetitia makes the following point about divorced and civilly “remarried” persons who have serious reasons for not separating:
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’.
In my letter to Cardinal Schönborn on Amoris Laetitia I made the following comment on that note:
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 the time, a reader objected (via e-mail) to my critique of footnote 329, by arguing that “certain expressions of intimacy” need not mean sexual intercourse:
The critics, it seems to me, understand the expression “expressions of intimacy” as a kind of standard pontifical euphemism for sexual acts which are mortally sinful when engaged in outside of matrimony. They take that for granted. But the fact is that “expressions of intimacy” represents something broader than sexual acts. This means that “expressions of intimacy” is not reducible to sexual acts. […] “Expressions of intimacy” are permitted not simply for those who our divorced and remarried, but also analogously for those who know and accept the possibility of living together as brother and sister. These expressions are not the same expressions, but analogous expressions.
To which I replied:
I do not understand your point about a man and a woman living together as brother and sister having “expressions of intimacy” analogous to the expressions of a married couple. Is this an analogy of proportion? [Sexual intercourse] : [marriage] : : [x] : [relation of brother and sister]? What is x? In Trollope’s novel The Eustace Diamonds, Frank, who is engaged to Lucy, kisses Lizzie “as a brother.” But then he reflects that this might cause some trouble with Lucy: «Frank was sufficiently experienced in the ways of the world to know that trouble would sometimes come from young ladies who treat young men like their brothers, when those young men are engaged to other young ladies. The other young ladies are apt to disapprove of brothers who are not brothers by absolute right of birth.» If we have a man (let’s call him Frank) who has been validly married to a woman (let’s call her Lucy), and civilly divorced, and has civilly “married” a second woman (let’s call her Lizzie), but has since converted, but has decided for serious reasons not to return to Lucy, but to live with Lizzie “as a brother,” then (it seems to me) that “expressions of intimacy” between Frank and Lizzie “as between brother and sister” would reasonably be resented by Lucy.
In any case, however, I was sure that the footnote would not be taken in the sense given it by my reader, but rather in the more scandalous sense that he evaded. And, “if a teaching document is almost ubique et ab omnibus understood in a harmful way, then it is not a good teaching document.”
Sadly, footnote 329 is indeed being interpreted by many pastors with the responsibility of implementing it in a harmful way. As again many of my readers will know, the bishops of the “pastoral region” (?) of Buenos Aires have issued a directive on the implementation of chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia in which they read footnote 329 as referring to the difficulty of living as brother and sister in such situations [¶5]. And then they go on to argue in the following way:
In other, more complex circumstances, and when it is not possible to obtain a declaration of nullity, the aforementioned option may not, in fact, be feasible. Nonetheless, it is equally possible to undertake a journey of discernment. If one arrives at the recognition that, in a particular case, there are limitations that diminish responsibility and culpability (cf. 301-302), particularly when a person judges that he would fall into a subsequent fault by damaging the children of the new union, Amoris Laetitia opens up the possibility of access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist (cf. notes 336 and 351). These in turn dispose the person to continue maturing and growing with the aid of grace. [¶7]
Regrettably, the Holy Father himself has endorsed the Argentine document in a letter. This letter of the Holy Father’s example is a perfect example of a case I envisioned in the reflections on submission to magisterial teaching with which I introduced my letter to Cardinal Schönborn. The case has to do with that category of magisterial teachings with the least authoritative weight. In the Professio Fidei we promise religious submission of will and intellect to 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.” But this submission is not absolutely unconditional and certain, as it is with regard to definitive teachings. Teachings that are not intended to be proclaimed by “a definitive act,” do not fall under the definition of infallibility, and there is therefore a possibility that they might be in error. Usually one submits to them, since one ought to trust the legitimate authority to teach reliably. But if the teachings are in conflict with more authoritative statements of the same or a higher authority then one has to start making distinctions. In some cases one can give a reverential reading, interpreting the problematic statement in the best possible light, but if there is no reasonable means of “saving of the appearances” then one must give preference to the more authoritative teaching. Pope Francis’s letter to the Argentine bishops seems to me a clear case where the appearances cannot be saved.
But it is of great importance to emphasize that our duty to submit to the Holy Father’s teaching in general is not touched by this circumstance. We cannot allow ourselves to take this case as an excuse for rejecting the Holy Father’s teaching generally. Religious submission of will and intellect to non-definitive teachings of the Supreme Pontiff is conditional only in the very limited sense sketched out. We can still be good ultramontanes.