An Open Letter to Bishop Athanasius Schneider
Written by Christopher A. Ferrara
To your everlasting credit, but to the Church’s everlasting shame, you alone among the entire Catholic episcopacy have protested publicly and forthrightly against the many statements in Amoris Laetitia (AL), particularly in Chapter 8, which appear to derogate from the negative precepts of the natural law, including those against divorce, adultery and fornication. By the divine will, these precepts, as Your Excellency writes, “are universally valid… oblige each and every individual, always and in every circumstance” and “forbid a given action semper et pro semper, without exception” because they concern “kinds of behaviour which can never, in any situation, be a proper response.”
Yet there is no question that AL was written ambiguously, but with relentless consistency, precisely to create the impression of “exceptions” to absolute moral precepts which the document tendentiously describes throughout its text as merely “general rules (2, 300, 304)”, a “general principle,” “rules (3, 35, 288)”, “a set of rules” (49, 201, 305)”, “a rule (300, 301, 304)”, “the rule (301 & note 348)”, “a general rule (301)” and “a general law or rule (301).”
As Your Excellency has doubtless discerned, AL’s reduction of the moral law to a “general rule” is the rhetorical device by which “exceptions” to the rule are introduced in “certain cases” involving what AL euphemistically describes as an “irregular union” or “irregular situations” (78, 298, 301, 305 & note 351)—meaning, of course, those who “are divorced and remarried, or simply living together (297)” in a state of continuing public adultery or simple fornication.
At the same time it reduces the moral law to a “set of rules” to which there can be practical exceptions—as with any mere rule—AL also demotes the indissolubility of marriage from its divinely ordained status as the universally binding, exceptionless moral foundation for conjugal relations to merely an “ideal (36), “a demanding ideal (38),” “the ideal (298, 303)”, “this ideal (292)”, “the ideal of growing old together (39),” “the Christian ideal (119, 297)”, “a struggle to achieve an ideal (148)”, “the ideal of marriage (157)”, “the high ideal (200)”, “the beautiful ideal (230)”, “the full ideal (307)”, “the fuller ideal (307)”, and “the evangelical ideal (308).”
Having reduced marriage to a mere ideal, AL dares to suggest that certain sexually immoral unions can “realize it in at least a partial and analogous way” and that they possess “constructive elements (298).” AL even goes so far as to declare that a “second union”—meaning a relationship Our Lord Himself condemned as adultery—can exhibit “proven fidelity, generous self giving, [and] Christian commitment… (298).” AL thus obscures, indeed seeks to eliminate, the sense of divine moral reprobation of the adulterous character of nonexistent “second marriages.”
Even the teaching of the very Pope that Francis canonized is subjected to a devious reductionism. In line with all of Tradition, John Paul II affirmed in Familiaris consortio that the divorced and “remarried” cannot be admitted to the sacraments without a commitment to abstain from further adulterous relations: “Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance, which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples” (Familiaris Consortio, 84).
Yet, as Your Excellency rightly objects, AL systematically omits any reference to John Paul’s affirmation of the Church’s constant teaching in this regard. Rather, AL relegates it to a footnote wherein an absolute moral imperative is falsely presented as the mere “possibility of living ‘as brothers and sisters’ which the Church offers.” In the same footnote even this gross misrepresentation of the authentic Magisterium is undermined by the suggestion (based in turn on a flagrantly misleading quotation of Gaudium et spes) that “In such situations, many people… point out that if certain expressions of intimacy are lacking, ‘it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of the children suffers.’” As if “intimacy” were morally required to ensure “faithfulness” to a partner in adultery!
Finally, in a summary statement that should alone suffice to cover this tragic document with opprobrium until the end of time, AL declares that even those who know full well “the rule” and “the ideal” can nonetheless be justified in their deliberate decision not to conform their actions to the moral law, and that God Himself would approve of this disobedience to His Commandments in “the concrete complexity” of one’s situation:
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 that 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. (303)
This statement, reflecting the entire tenor of the document, is obviously nothing less than a license for the “pastoral” exoneration of habitual public adultery or cohabitation based on the subjective self-assessment of objective mortal sinners. These people would then be admitted to the sacraments, without a prior amendment of life, in “certain cases,” following a local priest’s “pastoral discernment filled with merciful love, which is ever ready to understand, forgive, accompany, hope, and above all integrate (312)” people living in immoral sexual unions. (Cf. 305 & note 351).
Your Excellency notes with due alarm that in the wake of AL’s promulgation “There are bishops and priests who publicly and openly declare that AL represents a very clear opening-up to communion for the divorced and remarried, without requiring them to practice continence.” And, as you rightly observe: “It must be admitted that certain statements in AL could be used to justify an abusive practice that has already been going on for some time in various places and circumstances in the life of the Church.”
Indeed, Your Excellency’s conclusion is inescapable. Also inescapable are the consequences, which you yourself enumerate and we summarize here:
– the Sixth Commandment would no longer be universally binding;
– the very words of Christ would not apply to everyone in every situation;
– one could be allowed to receive Holy Communion with every intention of continuing to violate the Commandments;
– observance of the Commandments would become merely theoretical, with people piously professing belief in the “theory” as they violate God’s law in practice;
– all other forms of permanent and public disobedience to the Commandments could likewise be justified on account of “mitigating circumstances”;
– the infallible moral teaching of the Magisterium would no longer be universally valid;
– observance of the Sixth Commandment in Christian marriage would become a mere ideal attainable only by “a kind of elite”;
– the very words of Christ enjoining an uncompromising obedience to the commandments of God—that is, the carrying of the Cross in this life— “would no longer be valid as absolute truth.”
Yet your fellow prelates now observe an all but universal silence in the face of this “catastrophe.” Only Your Excellency courageously declares before the world that “Admitting couples living in ‘irregular unions’ to Holy Communion and allowing them to practice acts that are reserved for spouses in a valid marriage would be tantamount to the usurpation of a power that does not belong to any human authority, because to do so would be a pretension to correct the Word of God himself.”
Among more than 5,000 bishops and more than 200 cardinals, Your Excellency stands alone in protesting publicly the unthinkable abuses to which this disgraceful document—utterly without precedent in the bi-millennial history of the papacy—undeniably lends itself. Even the few among your fellow prelates who have addressed the crisis AL has provoked have tried to deny its clear intendment, so evident in Chapter 8. They propose emasculating “interpretations” in “continuity with the Magisterium” amounting to virtually the opposite of what AL’s most problematic passages assert repeatedly in different ways.
But as the eminent French theologian Father Claude Barthe observedimmediately after AL’s publication: “I honestly do not see how one could interpret Chapter 8 of the Exhortation in the sense of traditional doctrine. It would do violence to the text and wouldn’t respect the intention of the compilers…” Likewise, the renowned Catholic philosopher Robert Spaemann, an advisor to John Paul II and a friend of Benedict XVI, replied thuswhen asked if AL represents a breach with prior teaching: “That it is an issue of a breach emerges doubtlessly for every thinking person, who knows the respective texts.”
Others among your brethren, unwilling to deny the obvious, have seriously proposed that Francis has promulgated nothing more than inconsequential “personal reflections” he does not expect anyone to heed. But even this objection focuses on formalities such as tone and style, rather than admitting openly that AL cannot belong to the Magisterium for the simple reason that its assertions, given the meaning of words according to their ordinary signification, cannot be reconciled with the Church’s authentic teaching on marriage and sexual morality.
None of these timid objectors among the hierarchy seem willing to recognize the almost apocalyptic aspect of a papal document wherein the moral law is depicted as a “general rule,” Holy Matrimony is reduced to “an ideal,” and the sacred pastors of the Church are told that “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 (305).” This is not the language of Our Lord and His Gospel, but rather a kind of demagogic incantation that seems to fulfill Saint Paul’s prophecy of a time when the people “will not endure sound doctrine; but, according to their own desires, they will heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears: And will indeed turn away their hearing from the truth, but will be turned unto fables (2 Tim 4: 3-5).”
Aside from Your Excellency and a few courageous priests, only the laity have exhibited anything approaching the vigorous opposition which this scandalous “apostolic exhortation” demands from every member of the Church. In this regard, Your Excellency remarks on the parallel between our situation and the Arian crisis of the 4th century, when “almost the entire episcopate had become Arian or Semi-Arian.” Pope Liberius excommunicated your namesake St. Athanasius, and the Pope himself “signed one of the ambiguous formulations of Sirmium, in which the term ‘homoousios’ [of one substance] was eliminated.” You also note that “St. Hilary of Poitiers was the only bishop who dared to rebuke Pope Liberius severely for these ambiguous acts.”
The parallel with your own courageous witness against the “ambiguous formulations” of AL is lost on no one who has any sense of Catholic history. As you write: “Arguably, in our time, confusion is already spreading with regard to the sacramental discipline for divorced and remarried couples.” Hence, you conclude, the teaching of John Paul II in Familiaris consortio 84—totally suppressed in AL’s 256 pages, as it was throughout the years-long “synodal journey”— “may be seen, to some extent, as the ‘homoousios’ of our days’.”
In light of these considerations, however, we must in candor raise these questions for Your Excellency’s consideration: Is it enough to call, as you do, for “an authentic interpretation of AL by the Apostolic See” that would reaffirm Familiaris consortio 84 and the bi-millennial sacramental discipline it defends? Is it not perfectly clear that such an authentic interpretation is precisely what AL was devised to preclude, and that therefore it will never be forthcoming during this pontificate (barring a miraculous turn of events)? And, finally, is it not also perfectly clear that the problems with AL go far beyond the ecclesial status of the divorced and “remarried” to an attack on the very foundations of the objective moral order, rhetorically reduced to a set of rules from which an actor may be excused in “certain cases”?
For all these reasons, we implore Your Excellency to do everything in his power to persuade his brethren in the episcopacy—above all the cardinals, who are bound by oath to lay down their lives for defense of the Faith—to mount concerted and decisive public opposition to the destructive novelties of Amoris laetitia, explicitly identifying them as such, warning the faithful against them, and respectfully petitioning the Pope for their immediate correction or the total withdrawal of the catastrophic text.
As Prof. Spaemann has said: “Every cardinal, but also every bishop and priest, is called to defend, in their own field of expertise, the Catholic sacramental system and to profess it publicly. If the Pope is not willing to introduce corrections, it will be up to the next pontificate to put things back in place officially.” Meanwhile, however, we humbly submit to Your Excellency that this shameful silence of the hierarchs must end for the good of the Church and the welfare of souls. For as Sister Lucia of Fatima warned Cardinal Caffarra, one of the few staunch opponents of the progressive faction (and thus Francis himself) during the Synod: “the final battle between the Lord and the reign of Satan will be about marriage and the family.”
The final battle is surely underway. And woe to the shepherds who leave the sheep to defend themselves in its midst.
In Christo Rege,
Christopher A. Ferrara