Two more neo-Catholics go over to the dark side: Exemplar, oblatio, and terra firma

[Two more neo-Catholics go over to the dark side:] Exemplar, oblatio, and terra firma

[Hat-tip to De Profundis at GloriaTV: “Dawn Eden and Robert Fastiggi were once defenders of Catholic moral teaching. Now they are defenders of Amoris Laetitia”]

At Vatican Insider, there is an article by theologian Robert Fastiggi and the theologian and journalist Dawn Eden Goldstein, arguing that the Latin version of paragraph 303 of Amoris laetitia has a significantly different meaning than the English translation. Their argument hinges on the translation of objectivum exemplar as “objective ideal” instead of “objective model” and on the nontranslation of oblatio. It is their opinion that these translation choices have had an impact on the understanding on Amoris laetitia by its critics. In short, Fastiggi and Goldstein argue that the critics are wrong about what paragraph 303 says because they are basing their arguments on translations at variance with the Latin original. It’s an argument.

On one hand, it is nice to be back on the terra firma of arguing about Latin words and precise interpretations of papal texts in Latin. On the other hand, it would have been altogether more generous of Fastiggi and Goldstein to admit that Amoris laetitia was released in Latin only in the last few months. Some of the essays they critique may have been written and in the publication process before the Latin text of Amoris laetitia was widely available. Ordinarily, we agree that it is best wait for the Latin text, but the Holy Father, since his accession to the Petrine See, has not always released important texts in Latin. (As far as we know, Evangelii gaudium, despite its incipit, is not available in Latin.)  And, as everyone knows, the initial round of debate over Amoris laetitia was based upon the versions initially released in vulgar tongues. Indeed, it seems to us to be profoundly ungenerous to critique interpretations of Amoris laetitia that were based on vernacular versions that everyone, including high prelates, were using at the time. The critiques were based upon the texts that were considered definitive until earlier this summer. Furthermore, it is far from clear to us that the vernacular versions are not in some way definitive. Fastiggi and Goldstein neglect to note that the Argentine bishops’ based their norms upon the vernacular text. And, as Archbishop Fernandez helpfully observedthe Pope sent an appreciative letter to the Argentine bishops about these interpretations. If this appreciative letter has magisterial weight, as Archbishop Fernandez contends it does, which it has conveyed to the Argentine bishops’ norms, can it be said that the vernacular translations of Amoris laetitia are entirely meaningless? It is not an easy question. And, again, it would have been more generous of Fastiggi and Goldstein to answer the question—or at least acknowledge it.

Turning from the authority of the Latin text to the argument, we have a couple of points in response. We acknowledge that exemplum more precisely means “pattern, model, exemplar, original, an example” (per the standard reference Lewis & Short dictionary). Fine. But what is the difference between a pattern or a model and an ideal? They never say. It is enough for them to suggest that, well, the Latin original says exemplum. Their philological argument, to our mind, comes up short. Examples of usage of exemplum would have been more persuasive, especially if they could find examples of exemplum in comparison to other terms closer to their sense of “ideal.” Maybe they have a philological point, but it would be nice if they’d condescend to make it in terms comprehensible to a philologist.

Second, as most defenders Amoris laetitia do, Fastiggi and Goldstein set aside their technical discussion of exemplum (and oblatio) to play the what-if game. But their argument raises a couple of more interesting points that they simply leave to one side. First, they talk about the conscience discerning what God is asking a person to do in a given situation. But we have seen—and Cardinal Caffarra would have explained had he not gone on to his reward—Bl. John Henry Newman’s argument about what conscience is or is not. In Newman’s account, conscience is God’s law apprehended in the minds of men more or less well. It is emphatically not a free will responding or not to conditions it apprehends. Fastiggi and Goldstein come close to this sort of argument, but never quite manage to get across the goal line. For example, they say:

We believe the key to understanding what Pope Francis is saying in Amoris laetitia303 is found in Amoris laetitia 305, where he quotes section 44 of his 2013 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii gaudium: “Let us re­member that ‘a small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order, but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties.’”

It is very clear from the Latin text of Amoris laetitia 303 that Pope Francis is describing how conscience can discern that God himself is asking for a small step in the right direction in the midst of a mass of impediments and limitations. The Holy Father is not saying that God himself is asking certain people “to continue to commit intrinsically wrong acts such as adultery or active homosexuality.” This is a most unfortunate reading of the text by Seifert. Instead Pope Francis is saying that in certain difficult situations God is asking for a “generous response” (liberale responsum), an offering (oblationem)—that is, a step in the right direction. 

(Emphasis supplied.) What does this mean? Is this a case of an individual better apprehending God’s law, and therefore following better his conscience? Or do they mean to imply that God’s law is not written on our hearts and we choose to respond to God’s law once we apprehend it more or less well? The former case seems to us to be more readily reconciled with Newman’s definition of conscience. The latter case seems to be fraught with difficulties. And it is unclear, even from Fastiggi and Goldstein’s example, what they mean. While we are perfectly happy to be polemical, we are genuinely curious.

Moreover, what is the relationship between the oblatio “requested” by God through the means of conscience and the eighteenth canon of the Council of Trent on justification (sixth session, January 13, 1547)? That is, “Si quis dixerit, Dei præcepta homini etiam justificato et sub gratia constituto esse ad observandum impossibilia: anathema sit.” This remains a serious question. In other words, “If anyone says that the commandments of God are, even for one that is justified and constituted in grace, impossible to observe, let him be anathema.” God does not demand the impossible, and thus it seems to us that there is some question about the oblatio in a given situation, particularly if the oblatio is somewhat less than compliance with God’s law. Once again, we are simply curious as to what Fastiggi and Goldstein mean.

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One comment on “Two more neo-Catholics go over to the dark side: Exemplar, oblatio, and terra firma

  1. Yes, Amoris Laetitia 303 really undermines Catholic moral teaching: scholar

    Pete Baklinski

    September 28, 2017 (LifeSiteNews) — Two Catholic theologians published an article earlier this week arguing that a major criticism of Pope Francis’ exhortation Amoris Laetitia (AL) is based on a faulty Vatican-rendered translation into English from Latin.

    In their La Stampa article titled Does Amoris Laetitia 303 Really Undermine Catholic Moral Teaching?, Drs. Robert Fastiggi and Dawn Eden-Goldstein provide what they say is a more accurate translation of Amoris Laetitia paragraph 303. They argue that critics have raised alarm “precisely upon what the Latin text does not say.”

    They have used their translation to cast doubt on the Filial Correction made public on the weekend that accused Pope Francis of propagating heresy. The Filial Correction lists AL 303 among the dozen passages found in the exhortation that the signers say serve to propagate heresy.

    Paragraph 303 is where Pope Francis speaks about “irregular couples” living in a situation that does not “correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel.”

    The official Vatican English translation reads:

    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 which 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. In any event, let us recall that this discernment is dynamic; it must remain ever open to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realized.
    Catholic philosopher Dr. Josef Seifert logically deduced from this paragraph that if Pope Francis believes that adultery — to quote the exhortation — “is what God himself is asking” of couples in “irregular” situations, then there is nothing stopping any other intrinsically evil act, such as contraception and homosexuality, from eventually being justified.

    It was for this reason that he called Amoris Laetitia a ticking “theological atomic bomb” that has the capacity to destroy all Catholic moral teaching.

    Dr. Christian Brugger also argued that AL 303 implies that God is “asking” some people “to live in a life-state in which they are objectively violating grave matter.”

    But Drs. Fastiggi and Eden-Goldstein believe that critics “misread and distort” what Pope Francis is actually saying in AL 303. They write:

    Our translation from the Latin shows that Pope Francis is clearly not saying that conscience may rightly discern that an objectively immoral act is not immoral. Instead, he is noting that in some complex and irregular situations a person’s conscience will recognize that God is asking for a generous response, indeed an oblationem, or offering, that moves in the right direction even though it does not completely rectify the objective irregularity of the situation.

    …It is very clear from the Latin text of Amoris laetitia 303 that Pope Francis is describing how conscience can discern that God himself is asking for a small step in the right direction in the midst of a mass of impediments and limitations. The Holy Father is not saying that God himself is asking certain people “to continue to commit intrinsically wrong acts such as adultery or active homosexuality.” This is a most unfortunate reading of the text by Seifert. Instead Pope Francis is saying that in certain difficult situations God is asking for a “generous response” (liberale responsum), an offering (oblationem)—that is, a step in the right direction.
    LifeSiteNews asked Dr. Christian Brugger, Senior Fellow of Ethics at the Culture of Life Foundation in Washington D.C., for an analysis of Fastiggi and Eden-Goldstein’s proposed translation. He responded with a small treatise that he asked be published in full.

    He concluded after a detailed examination of the Latin text that Fastiggi and Eden-Goldstein’s proposed translation that would render AL 303 in a more orthodox light “is not justified by the text.”


    Dr. Christian Brugger’s response to Does Amoris Laetitia 303 Really Undermine Catholic Moral Teaching?

    I sympathize with Professors Fastiggi and Goldstein’s (FG’s) effort to read AL 303 in line with Catholic moral tradition. Indeed, the effort is required of theologians whenever they read magisterial documents. But if the obvious meaning of a text is contrary to a traditional Catholic teaching, there is no unfaithfulness to truth or the Church in elucidating it and identifying the points of departure from the traditional teaching.

    FG believe that I and other critics of AL, Ch. 8, because we have followed the Vatican English (VE) translation, “misread and distort” what no. 303 actually says. Working from the authoritative Latin, they provide their own English translation, which they believe—and I concur—is much more precise. Their superior translation does not, however, change what in my judgment is the obvious meaning of AL 303.

    They rest their argument upon two translational changes: first, “perfectum nondum sit obiectivum exemplar”, translated in VE as “not yet fully the objective ideal,” should be translated “not yet be the perfect objective model.” They believe that when the Latin term “exemplar” (“model”) is understood in its full meaning, it will dispel the idea that what’s being set forward is some kind of unattainable “ideal”.

    The second, “illam esse oblationem quam ipse Deus requirit”, translated in VE as “that it is what God himself is asking”, should be translated “this is the offering [“oblatio”] that God himself is asking”. The failure of VE to translate “oblatio”, FG believe, has obscured the meaning of the text. What remarried divorcees are giving to God is an “oblation” (an “offering”) by which they are (FG’s words) “mov(ing) in the right direction even though it does not completely rectify the objective irregularity of the situation”; they are making “a gift of self that moves toward God and the objective moral norm”.

    FG believe these two demonstrate that AL 303, rather than envisaging a scenario where remarried divorcees live together in a sexually active marital-type relationship, practice perfect continence but cohabit for the sake of the children. In their case the “civil ‘marriage’ does not correspond to the objective model of Christian marriage”, but the couple is not committing intrinsically evil actions.

    Their reading is not justified by the text. The paragraph in question reads:

    (1) This conscience, however, can not only recognize a certain state [quendam statum] to be objectively at variance [obiective dissidere] with the universal command of the Gospel [universali Evangelii mandato]; (2) it can also recognize sincerely and honestly what may be [quod sit] the generous response owed to God in the present circumstances; (3) and this same firm conscience [firma conscientia] can come to understand with a certain moral certitude [quadam morali certitudine] that this [illam] is the offering that God himself is asking [oblationem quam ipse Deus requirit] … although it may not yet be the perfect objective model [perfectum nondum sit obiectivum exemplar]” (numbers added).
    We might ask what it is (quod sit) that is being offered to God in (2)? The Latin tells us: a “statum quendam ab universali Evangelii mandato obiective dissidere” (“a certain state that is objectively at variance with the universal command of the Gospel”). “Quod sit” clearly refers back to “quendam statum”. The clause “at variance with the universal command of the Gospel” obviously does not refer to the “perfect continence” scenario envisaged by FG. It is referring to violations of the universal command of the Gospel to reserve intercourse for the marital relationship alone. Since at both the beginning and end of the short paragraph the text refers to correlative moments of falling short (at the beginning to situations that “are at variance with … the Gospel”; and at the end to situations that do “not yet” embody the “the perfect objective model”), we can see that the context set by the first requires that we read “perfect objective model” in the second as referring precisely to the model—i.e., the universal command—given by Jesus in the Gospel to reserve sex to marriage.

    So the text teaches that conscience not only can recognize the failure of my objectively adulterous second union to meet Jesus’ universal command; it also can recognize that this statum—this objectively adulterous state—is the best I can give here and now; and that with a “firma conscientia” I can achieve “a certain moral certitude” that God is asking me to make an “oblatio” of this statum however far from the objective model of Gospel morality it may depart.

    When the text refers to persons in civil unions not yet living up to the perfect objective demands of Gospel chastity, it is referring to civilly ‘remarried’ divorcees who are living in a sexually active marital-type relationships with someone other than their valid spouses.

    It is these couples that the text is presently freeing to return to Holy Communion without requiring a radical emendation of life.

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