Priest: Pope Francis’ pastoral revolution goes against 2,000 years of tradition
Fr. Brian W. Harrison, O.S.
April 13, 2016 ( LifeSiteNews.com/opinion/priest-pope-francis-pastoral-revolution-goes-against-2000-years-of-traditio ) – Pope Francis’ long-awaited Apostolic Exhortation on the Family, Amoris Laetitia (AL), has finally been released.
A proper understanding and evaluation of this lengthy document will require considerable time, study and prayerful reflection. But it is already quite clear from certain key passages that in carefully crafted language, with a plausibility that is enhanced by selective and misleading quotations from the previous magisterium and St. Thomas Aquinas, the Holy Father is quietly introducing a profound revolution into the very heart of the Catholic Church’s moral teaching and pastoral/sacramental practice. He is not repudiating in principle the objective truth of any revealed dogma or moral norm; but at the level of praxis he is shifting the emphasis away from objective standards of right and wrong behavior and placing it instead on presumed subjective sincerity and individual conscience. Thus, in the name of Christ’s ‘mercy’, the exhortation tends to downplay the gravity of sin, instead of maintaining the uncomfortable bipolar tension between the two that we find embedded in the Gospels.
To be fair, AL presents us with a great many valuable and timely observations and recommendations concerning marriage and family life in our troubled times, notably a fine meditation on St. Paul’s teaching on the true nature of love (I Cor. 13). But these positive features of the exhortation are outweighed in importance, unfortunately, by Francis’ audacious rupture with the teaching and discipline of all his predecessors in regard to the pastoral care and ecclesial status of Catholics living in illicit sexual relationships.
The tendency to gloss over grave sins against chastity first shows itself in the very defective treatment – or rather, non-treatment – of contraception in this document. Just one paragraph (#222) out of 325 alludes indirectly to this sin, but never actually mentions it. We read here that “family planning fittingly takes place as the result [of] a consensual dialogue between the spouses”. A heavy emphasis is then placed on the role of their own consciences in this decision-making process, but without reaffirming that Catholic consciences must be formed in accordance with the Church’s magisterium. Humanae Vitae and Familiaris Consortio are mentioned only for their general helpfulness in “counter[ing] a mentality that is often hostile to life”. So, at a time when violation of the divine law against unnatural birth control has reached tsunami proportions among Catholics, Pope Francis gives it the silent, elephant-in-the-living-room treatment. He goes no further than saying that “the use of methods based on the law of nature and the incidence of fertility are to be promoted” for various reasons; but he does not add that contraceptive methods are not to be “promoted”, and much less that they are to be reprobated as intrinsically and gravely immoral. Thus, most contracepting readers of AL will feel their consciences soothed, rather than pricked, by the Pope’s words and significant omissions. For they insinuate that natural family planning is just an ‘ideal’, so that if your own inter-spousal dialogue tells you pills or condoms are OK in your situation, then you’re not guilty of serious sin.
Next, we find a very defective treatment of sex education. In the six full paragraphs of AL (280 – 285) dedicated to this topic, we do not find even a passing nod to the Church’s constant teaching about the primary responsibility of parents in this area (cf., for example, Familiaris Consortio 37 and the Pontifical Council for the Family’s 1995 document, “The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality”). Instead, right after quoting Vatican II’s brief statement about the need for an age-appropriate “positive and prudent” education in sexual matters (Gravissimum Educationis, 1), Pope Francis seems to take it for granted that classrooms are the main place for this to be given: “We may well ask ourselves,” he comments, “if our educational institutions have taken up this challenge”.
The most troubling aspect of AL, however, is its treatment of those living in irregular sexual unions. This topic is covered in considerable detail in Ch. 8 of the Exhortation. Not a few well-known champions of the papacy (among them, Robert Moynihan and George Weigel) are hastening to assure us that there is “no change of doctrine” embodied in the new document. But that just isn’t so. Doctrine – which includes matters of divine law – can be changed not only when it’s directly and explicitly contradicted, but also when it is undermined by a radical change of discipline that is logically or practically inseparable from it. And this kind of revolutionary change is found lurking in (of all places!) two key footnotes.
In note 336 to paragraph 300, the Holy Father goes against the teaching and discipline of all his predecessors in the See of Peter by allowing at least some divorced and civilly remarried Catholics (with no decree of nullity and no commitment to live as ‘brother and sister’) to receive the sacraments. He says there that the different consequences flowing from different types of divorce-and civil-remarriage situations (discussed in the main text of paragraph 300) also apply to “sacramental discipline, since discernment can recognize that in a particular situation no grave fault exists”. The reason, says Francis, is that owing to a variety of psychological factors, the culpability for what is objectively gravely sinful behavior can sometimes be mitigated. Then, in footnote 351 to article 305 of AL, the Pope says even more explicitly that, because of such mitigating factors, the “help” offered by the Church to these civilly remarried and sexually active divorcees can “in certain cases . . . include the help of the sacraments.”
I have addressed this issue of mitigating factors in an article arguing against the well-known ‘Kasper Proposal’ (“Divorced and Remarried Catholics: Diminished Imputability?”, The Latin Mass, Summer 2015, pp. 6-12) [see comment below].
In allowing exceptions to the ‘no-Communion’ law for those in invalid marriages, Pope Francis is acting against the clear and constant bimillennial teaching confirmed by Pope St. John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio #84, and reaffirmed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (nos. 1650 and 2390, last sentence). Also under St. John Paul II, the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, in its Declaration of June 24, 2000, has asserted unequivocally that the exclusion of such Catholics from the sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist flows from divine law, so that no human ecclesiastical law can change it, since it’s irrelevant whether the subjective imputability of remarried divorcees might in some instances be diminished. Why is this irrelevant? Because, says the Declaration, the admission to Communion of those who are publicly living in a situation which Jesus himself calls adultery will send a clear message that the Church doesn’t really take too seriously this teaching of our Lord about the indissolubility of marriage. And this will inevitably cause scandal (in the theological sense of leading others into sin). Pope Francis briefly mentions this document; but only by uncritically using the selective and deceptive citation found in the 2015 Synod Relatio (#85). Thus, both the Relatio and Amoris Laetitia omit altogether the main point of the 2000 Declaration, which is that the obligation of priests and other ministers to refuse Communion to civilly remarried divorcees “is by its nature derived from divine law and transcends the domain of positive ecclesiastical laws: the latter cannot introduce legislative changes which would oppose the doctrine of the Church” (section 1).
Also, this Declaration points out that logically, a concession to some remarried divorcees on the grounds that their subjective conscience may not be gravely guilty will open the way for further concessions, on the same grounds, to many who are living publicly in other objectively immoral situations. For instance, now that some civilly remarried divorcees are to be admitted to sacramental absolution and Communion, will not at least some same-sex couples have to be admitted these two sacraments on the same grounds (i.e., ‘diminished imputability’)?
Are we now supposed to believe that Pope Francis alone is right on this issue, and that all his predecessors, including the still living Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and the Catechism promulgated by St. John Paul II, have been wrong and ‘unmerciful’ in allowing no exceptions in this area? If so, why should we believe that? Doesn’t it seem more likely that just one pope is wrong, and that all the other hundreds of popes have been right?