A New Council [Or Rather, Heresy], Like Sixteen Centuries Ago

A New Council Heresy, Like Sixteen Centuries Ago

The conflicts set into motion today by “Amoris Laetitia” have a precedent in the Christological controversies of the late Roman empire. They were resolved by the ecumenical council of Chalcedon. From Chile, one scholar proposes that the same journey be made again

by Sandro Magister

ROME, November 28, 2016 – By the very act of not responding to the appeal of the four cardinals to bring clarity on the most controversial points of “Amoris Laetitia,” Pope Francis has made at least one thing understood. And it is his unshakeable certainty in the goodness of the processes that he has set into motion with the post-synodal exhortation, precisely by virtue of the calculated ambiguity of the text, which has opened the way to a multiplicity of interpretations and applications, some of them decidedly new with respect to the age-old teaching of the Church.

It is not the first time, in Christian history, that a situation of this sort has come about. Meaning that statements of the magisterium, intentionally unclear, have allowed multiple contrasting interpretations to coexist, even on central points of dogma.

This is what happened happened during the first phase of the Trinitarian and Christological controversies of the fourth century.

In the essay that follows, an expert on those ancient controversies shows how closely their dynamic resembles the conflict now underway in the Catholic Church over the sacraments of matrimony and the Eucharist.

Back then, the heresy running rampant was that of Arius, which undermined the divinity of Jesus. While today what is in danger is the indissolubility of Christian marriage.

The author of the essay, Claudio Pierantoni, studied classical philology and the history of Christianity at the University of Rome “La Sapienza” and at the Augustinianum, where his instructor was the illustrious patrologist Manlio Simonetti, specializing in the Christological controversies of the fourth century and in Saint Augustine.

Married and with two daughters, since 1999 Pierantoni has been living in Santiago, Chile. He has taught Church history and patrology at the Pontificia Universidad Católica and currently teaches medieval philosophy at the Universidad de Chile.

In Chile he has forged friendships with other Catholic scholars who have emigrated to that country, such as Josef Seifert of Austria and Carlos Casanova of Venezuela, both engaged in the current controversy over “Amoris Laetitia.” He is among the signers of what is called the “document of the 45,” the petition sent last summer to the cardinals and patriarchs requesting that they ask the pope to clarify the most controversial points of the exhortation.

In English, the essay by Professor Pierantoni has been published in recent days by the German magazine “AEMAET – Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift für Philosophie und Theologie” and can be downloaded in PDF format from their website:

> The Arian crisis and the current controversy about “Amoris Laetitia”: a parallel

Reproduced below are the beginning and final parts of the essay. The picture that is examined in it is dramatic, but not devoid of hope for a positive outcome for the contemporary crisis. Perhaps with a new ecumenical council, as in Chalcedon so many centuries ago (see illustration).

Enjoy the read!


The Arian crisis and the current controversy about “Amoris Laetitia”: a parallel

by Claudio Pierantoni

The following reflections take their origin from a curious enough coincidence. At the beginning of April 2016, at the theological Faculty of the Catholic University of Chile started a study group about the Arian controversy, in the context of an investigation project.

During the first meeting of this group, we were reflecting about the extraordinary speed with which the controversy begun by Alexandrian presbyter Arius in 318 or 319, only apparently terminated with his condemnation by the metropolitan Bishop Alexander, rapidly spread in Palestine and shortly inflamed the whole of the Eastern Roman Empire, convincing Emperor Constantine to convoke the First Ecumenical Council in order to resolve the problem. Apparently, it was only about one or two imprudent sentences about the relation of the Divine Son with the Father, but they were such as to lay bare profound doctrinal differences among the episcopacy, and gave way to a controversy that had long before been latent.

Precisely in those days of April 2016, the Apostolic Exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” was published, and shortly afterwards […] came the reactions from Card. Burke and Card. Müller and the controversy started. It didn’t take long before one could conclude that, just as in the days of Arius, the fire that was spreading was of vast proportions, in spite of the modest appearences of being based only on a couple of imprudent notes in a long document; notes which the Pope even declared he didn’t remember.

So it came natural to me to start comparing the two controversies. […] The two moments can be viewed as an analogy, given that in both cases a significant pronouncement by the Magisterium is perceived by many Catholics as in conflict with traditional doctrine, in particular with recent and important Magisterial documents. In both cases one also perceives a “deafening silence” of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, with exceptions of course, in the face of the respective pronouncements.

In terms of content, the two crises are certainly different: in the first crisis, the matter under dispute was purely theological, relating as it did to the foundation of Christian doctrine on a triune God, whereas the second matter is about moral theology and centrally concerned with the matter of marriage.

However, the key common characteristic of both crises is, I believe, the fact that both concern a pillar of the Christian message, the destruction of which would strip that message of its very essence. […]

I. Parallel with the current crisis, in doctrinal documents

In terms of doctrinal documents, the parallel element most deserving of attention is the characteristic of ambiguity in the proArian formulas in the years 357-360.

In effect, […] although holding power, the pro-Arian minority does not venture to put forward a position too clearly in opposition with the traditional view. It does not expressly state that the Son is inferior to the Father, although employing a generic term, “like” to the Father, which could lend itself to differing degrees of subordinationism. In short, although holding the reins of power, it seeks to conceal itself.

By analogy, the famous Chapter VIII of the current Apostolic Exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” does not openly deny the indissolubly to marriage, but indeed explicitly affirms it. However, it denies in practice the necessary consequences ensuing from matrimonial indissolubility. But it does so through a meandering and convoluted discourse, using wording which covers a range of diverse positions, some more extreme, others more moderate.

For example, it says that “in certain cases” persons in “so-called irregular” unions could be granted “the help of the sacraments”. What these cases are is not stated, so the text is open to at least four interpretations, the more restrictive of which are obviously incompatible with the broader ones. In the interest of clarity of interpretation, it is therefore useful to classify them according to their various degrees of breadth, beginning with the most restrictive and ending with the broadest:

1. According to the principle of hermeneutic of continuity, the expression “in certain cases” should be interpreted as referring to specific cases indicated in documents of already existing Magisterium, such as “Familiaris consortio” (FC), which states that absolution and Eucharistic communion can be given in cases in which the cohabitants promise to cohabit as brother and sister.

This interpretation is based on a fundamental hermeneutic principle, which may appear irrefutable; but is unfortunately contradicted by footnote 329, which explicitly states that this behaviour (namely cohabitation as brother and sister) is potentially damaging and hence to be avoided.

2. “In certain cases” can be interpreted in a broader sense as referring to the subjective certainty of the nullity of the previous marriage, assuming that, for particular reasons, it is not possible to prove this in a tribunal.

In such cases it could certainly be possible that, in the secret of conscience, there is no fault in the new union: this could be viewed, in terms of moral doctrine, as in accordance with FC. Yet there remains a fundamental difference in ecclesiological terms: Eucharist is a sacramental, public act, in which it is not possible to take into consideration a reality which is inherently invisible and publicly unverifiable.

3. “In certain cases” can be interpreted, still more broadly, as referring to a lesser or even non-existent subjective responsibility, due to ignorance of the rule, lack of capacity to comprehend it, or even “force majeure”, in which a given special circumstance can be so strong as to “compel” cohabitation “more uxorio”, which would hence not constitute a grave fault; indeed, according to the document, the abandonment of cohabitation could incur a still more grave fault.

Here we already run into more serious problems of moral theology. Ignorance and lack of capacity to understand may in effect limit personal responsibility: yet it is incongruous, not to say contradictory, to invoke them in this discourse, in which a process and guided discernment are envisaged, processes which should be specifically designed to overcome ignorance and lack of capacity to understand.

With regard to “force majeure”, it is certainly not obvious, but indeed contrary to the entire tradition, and major dogmatic pronouncements, that this can justify failure to adhere to divine law. It is true that it cannot a priori be excluded that there may be particular circumstances in which the situation can change the moral species of an act which is externally the same, even conscious and intentional: for example, where the act of removing an object from someone could be construed, not as a theft, but as an act to help a person in an emergency, or an act designed to prevent a greater evil. However, even assuming, for the sake of argument, that this can be applied to adultery, a decisive impediment to a justification of this kind is the characteristic of permanency of objectively negative conduct which, even if it were justifiable in a specific moment of emergency, cannot be justified in a stable situation, consciously chosen.

At all events validity must always be accorded – as in the previous case to the ecclesiological principle that under no circumstances can something which, by its very nature, belongs to the secret of conscience, be rendered magically visible at the public level.

4. “In certain cases”, according to the broadest interpretation of all, can be extended to include all those cases – those which are real, concrete and frequent which we generally have in mind – in which there is an unhappy marriage, which fails due to a series of misunderstandings and incompatibility and is followed by a happy cohabitation stable over time, with reciprocal fidelity, etc. (cf. AL 298).

In such cases, it would appear that the practical result, in particular the duration and felicity of the new union by comparison with the brevity and/or unhappiness of the previous union, is interpreted as a kind of confirmation of the goodness, and hence legitimacy, of the new union: in this context (AL 298), any consideration of the validity of the previous marriage, lack of capacity to understand or “force majeure”, is absent. In effect when, a little further on (AL 300), consideration is given to the type of discernment required in such cases, it becomes still clearer that the matters under discussion in the examination of conscience and associated repentance will be none other than good or bad conduct in the face of the unsuccessful marriage and the good outcome of the new union.

It is clear that the “repentance” which is the concern here is in no way related to the new union in the presence of a previous lawful union; but relates instead to: a) the conduct during the previous crisis, b) the consequences (not more clearly defined) of the new union on the family and the community.

It is hence manifest that the document intends to push beyond those cases in which there is subjective certainty of the invalidity of the previous bond, cases of ignorance, difficulty in understanding, “force majeure” or presumed inability to comply with the law.

It is now sufficiently clear that the valid benchmark for a judgement on the “lawfulness” of the new union is ultimately its practical success and visible happiness, as against the lack of success and unhappiness of the previous marriage: this assumed “lawfulness” is obviously a pre-requisite for the reception of sacramental absolution and the Eucharist. The inevitable consequence is that the previous marriage is implicitly, but publicly, now regarded as devoid of effect and hence dissolved: therefore, we note that, by this kind of “pastoral care” marriage is in fact declared dissoluble. Hence, although the Catholic Church continues in words to affirm its indissolubility, in fact divorce is introduced.

It is also clear that, if the success of the new marriage is sufficient to establish its lawfulness, this includes justification of virtually all cases of a new union: in fact, if the new union were thought to be devoid of success, there would be no incentive to justify it and one will then be open to a further union, in the hope of greater success. This, and nothing else, is precisely the logic of divorce.

From this it can be further deduced that the discussion on cases we can term “intermediate”, namely those situated between the traditional position and the broadest position, which, as we say, virtually extends to all cases, while on the one hand allows many “moderates” to recognise themselves in one or the other gradation and hence potentially has a reassuring effect, it is, on the other hand, in practical terms, ultimately of little relevance. In essence, in fact, the document, by its generic formulation, provides carte blanche to resolve the vast majority of real situations on the basis of a rather simple criterion and one in line with the predominant mentality of our civilization: in other words, to repeat it once more, perfectly in line with the ideology of divorce.


Returning to our parallel, this brings rather vividly to mind the policy of the Emperor Constantius in seeking a sufficiently generic term with the intention of pleasing multiple different positions. The generic nature of the term “like to the Father according to the Scriptures” perfectly corresponds to the generic nature of the formula “in certain cases […] Sacraments may be given”, which we find in the current document. In theory, almost every position can here be recognised.

In consequence, the situations are also analogous in terms of the practical result. Equally, almost the entirety of the Episcopate of the Empire signed the formula of Rimini-Constantinople in 359-60, and today also, the vast majority of the Episcopate has accepted the new document without comment, although aware that it in fact legitimates a series of positions which are mutually incompatible, and some manifestly heretical.

Today many bishops and theologians salve their consciences by asserting, both in public and to themselves, that saying that “in certain cases divorced and remarried persons can receive the sacraments” is not of itself erroneous and can be interpreted in a hermeneutic of continuity as in line with the previous Magisterium. By the same token, the ancient bishops believed it was not of itself incorrect to say “the Son is like to the Father according to the Scriptures”.

Certainly, in both cases, although a broad range of positions can be recognised in the formula if it is considered in isolation, at the same time, in the context of the respective documents, it is clear that the orthodox position, truly in line with the previous Magisterium, is precisely the position that is decidedly excluded. […]

In the case of “Amoris Laetitia”:

– through the recantation of “Familiaris Consortio” on the abstention from cohabitation “more uxorio” as a pre-requisite for access to the sacraments;
– through the elimination of previously clear boundaries between certainty of conscience and the sacramental ecclesiological rules;
– through the perverse use of the Gospel precepts of mercy and non-judgement, invoked in support of the contention that it is not possible, in the Church, to impose general censure on specific, objectively unlawful, behaviours;
– and, last but not least, through harsh criticism of those who advance the supposedly “narrow-minded” and “hypocritical” claim of invoking precise juridical norms to judge individual cases, which instead, according to the document, should be left strictly to personal discernment and guidance.

Hence, although with the good intention of respecting a hermeneutic principle which is certainly valid, that of continuity with previous documents, there is a risk of overlooking a principle still more important and evident: the immediate context in which a proposition is formulated.

If one does not read the individual assertions in “Amoris Laetitia” in isolation, but in their full context, and the document in turn in its immediate historic context, one readily discovers that the general mens which guides it is, in essence, the notion of divorce, in addition to the now widespread notion of not imposing clear boundaries between a lawful marriage and an “irregular union”. […]

II. Parallel with the current crisis, in historical development

From the viewpoint of the historical development of the heresy, an evident parallel is to be noted: in preparation during the second half of the third century, the Arian heresy came to open light at the beginning of the fourth. Once out in the open, it was condemned by the Council of Nicaea, a condemnation, however, widely rejected in the East. Though, the rejection of Nicaea was initially more moderate and Arianism proper was only tolerated as a lesser evil. However, little by little, this tolerance allowed it to gather strength, to the point where, given the favourable political circumstances and also its superiority in terms of political manoeuvring, it gained power. Having gained power however, it nevertheless felt a need for concealment, not expressing itself frankly and directly, but indirectly, and relying on pressure and political intimidation. However, the very fact that, although a minority, it imposed itself on a fearful and undecided majority, exposed it to a confutation far stronger and clearer from the more orthodox and aware section of the Episcopate which, gradually but inexorably, prepared for their final defeat over the two decades which followed.

By analogy, with regard to the current heresy, which, from the name of its principal proponent, we may call “Kasperian”, we have witnessed its slow preparation, beginning in the second half of the XX century. Once out in the open, it was condemned in documents issued by John Paul II, such as “Veritatis Splendor” and “Familiaris Consortio”. However, these documents were rejected more or less openly and radically by a section of the Episcopate and by learned theologians, and orthodox practice has been disregarded in vast and important sections of the Catholic world. This rejection has been extensively tolerated, both in theory and in practice. Hence it has gathered strength to the point where, given the favourable political and political-ecclesiastical circumstances, it has reached a position of power. However, although in power, the heresy is not expressed frankly and directly, but through Synodal activities which are not entirely clear (2014-2015), resulting in an apostolic document, which is exemplary for its tortuosity. But the very fact that this position has showed up in a Magisterial document is now arousing moral indignation and a much stronger and more dynamic intellectual reaction, calling for those with the necessary intellectual tools to rethink orthodox doctrine, in order to reach a deeper and clearer formulation, and so prepare for a definitive condemnation not only of the errors in the doctrine of matrimony, but also of all the other errors connected with it, that infect the sacramental and moral doctrine of the Church. This also makes it possible, which is no mean feat, to put to the test, recognise and in many ways unite those who, truly and solidly, adhere to the Deposit of Faith.

This is precisely the stage at which we can say we find ourselves at this moment: it has scarcely begun, and promises to be not without obstacles. We cannot predict its duration, but must have the certainty of faith, that God would not allow this grave crisis, were it not for the superior good of souls. It will certainly be the Holy Spirit who will give us the solution, enlightening this Pope or his successor, maybe even through the convening of a new Ecumenical Council. However, in the interim, each of us is called, in humility and prayer, to give his testimony and contribution. And the Lord will certainly hold each of us to account.

Get AQ Email Updates

Leave a Reply