Amoris Laetitia is ‘ambiguous,’ ‘not a Thomistic document’: Filial Correction signatory

Amoris Laetitia is ‘ambiguous,’ ‘not a Thomistic document’: Filial Correction signatory

Dorothy Cummings McLean

ENGLAND, October 11, 2017 (LifeSiteNews) — Father Thomas Crean, O.P., one of the first signers of the Filial Correction, has had a thorough grounding in the philosophy and theology of fellow Dominican St. Thomas Aquinas.

After earning a B.A. in Philosophy and Theology at Oxford University, Crean took a Lectorate at Blackfriars, Oxford’s Dominican college; an S.T.L. from the St. Thomas Aquinas Institute in Toulouse, France; and a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the International Theological Institute in Austria.

LifeSiteNews contacted Fr. Crean to settle a burning question: Is Amoris Laetitia, as Cardinal Christoph Schonborn has assured us, Thomistic?

LifeSiteNews: First, what school of Thomas do you follow?

Crean: I would sympathize most with what is called half-humorously and half-seriously “Thomism of the Strict Observance,” which emphasizes the tradition of the commentators, especially Cajetan and John of St. Thomas, as further mediated and developed in the 20th century by men like Gredt, Garrigou-Lagrange, Maritain, and Grenier. Maritain, especially at the end of his life, was closely connected with the Toulouse Dominicans.

LifeSiteNews: In what ways could Amoris Laetitia be interpreted as Thomistic? That is, why might Cardinal Schonborn think so?

Crean: Two things come to mind. One is that it presents the moral or spiritual life as primarily a growth in virtue, by which we gradually respond less imperfectly to God’s invitation to life and happiness with Him, rather than as primarily conformity to commandments and the avoidance of sin.

The other, which is an aspect of the first, is that it speaks of the need for the virtue of prudence (“discernment”), in consequence of the infinite variety of situations in which human beings find themselves, a variety which means that a necessarily finite code of rules will never be sufficient for good action.

Apart from that, it also quotes St. Thomas on … 14 or 15 occasions, including some works less often cited, such as the commentary on Aristotle’s Ethics.

LifeSiteNews: In what ways could Amoris Laetitia be interpreted as not Thomistic?

Crean: Some of the quotations from Aquinas used in Amoris Laetitia are cut short in such a way as not to give a well-rounded view of his thought on a given subject or, more seriously, quoted out of context so as to give an impression that he thought the opposite of how he really did. Sometimes he is quoted when his words are only slightly relevant to the matter of hand, as if just to increase the number of times his name appears in the footnotes.

LifeSiteNews: What is your “Respondeo” (i.e. answer) to the question “Is Amoris Laetitia Thomistic?”

Crean: If by “Thomistic” one means a document written in the style of St. Thomas himself, or in the style of someone who has taken St. Thomas for his guide in theology, then Amoris Laetitia is not a Thomistic document.

St. Thomas’ work is characterized by conciseness and clarity, whereas Amoris Laetitia is expansive, and, on certain key points, ambiguous – at least if we are to judge by the conflicting interpretations it has received. Again, a phrase such as “time is greater than space” is reminiscent not of St. Thomas but of a certain gnomic, metaphorical style of writing which St. Thomas criticized in the works of Plato.

More important than style is content. Here we could consider either the content of Amoris Laetitia as a whole, or those places in it where St. Thomas is explicitly quoted, or at least referenced.

A grave danger to faith and morals

On the first point, I was one of 45 signatories of a letter about Amoris Laetitia sent last year to all the cardinals and Eastern patriarchs of the Church. … This letter said: “When it comes to (Amoris Laetitia) itself … there is no doubt that it constitutes a grave danger to Catholic faith and morals. It contains many statements whose vagueness or ambiguity permit interpretations that are contrary to faith or morals, or that suggest a claim that is contrary to faith and morals without actually stating it. It also contains statements whose natural meaning would seem to be contrary to faith or morals.”

This letter listed 19 passages of Amoris Laetitia (saying) either that they suggested heresies and other grave errors, or else that their natural (obvious) meaning … was heretical or gravely erroneous. Hence, given that St. Thomas has been declared the Common doctor of the church and presented as a model for theologians … I should not consider Amoris Laetitia to be a Thomistic document.

When it comes to the explicit use made of St. Thomas, we should look at the individual passages. Certain passages quote him accurately and aptly in support of themes in the exhortation. Paragraphs 102, 120, 123, 126-7, and 134 fall into this category. For example, they quote his remarks that marriage is the greatest of friendships, that there need be no limit to the growth of charity in this life, and that friendship involves considering another person as a being of great worth.

At other times, Amoris Laetitia quotes St. Thomas accurately, (but) less aptly or even misleadingly. Thus Paragraph 146 cites (him) in connection with the statement that: “A family is mature when the emotional life of its members becomes a form of sensitivity that neither stifles nor obscures great decisions and values, but rather follows each one’s freedom.”

The reference is not apt, since in the passage cited, St. Thomas is not talking about families or great decisions, or even values or freedom. He is simply discussing whether the virtues co-exist with the moral virtues, and explaining that they sometime do and sometime don’t.

Minor and major misuses of St. Thomas

In regard to misleading uses of St. Thomas, there are minor and major examples.

A minor example occurs in paragraph 99. Talking about family life, Amoris Laetitia quotes these words from the Summa: “Every human being is bound to live agreeably with those around him.” However, it omits the second half of the sentence, which is nisi propter aliquam causam necesse sit aliquando alios utiliter contristare (“unless it should be necessary for him for some reason to cause them profitable sadness at some time”).

Another example occurs in paragraph 148. This first cites Aquinas in support of the statement that excessive seeking of some pleasure can weaken that same pleasure, and also alludes to his teaching that pleasure in the marital act is compatible with observing the “mean” of virtue.

The references here are accurate, but one has the distinct impression in this section that St. Thomas is being pressed into support a more “optimistic” view of human sexuality than he in fact upheld. For example, he taught that the conjugal act in fallen human beings tends, even when legitimately exercised, to weaken the impulse of charity toward God (2a 2ae 186, 4). He also held that for a spouse to ask for the paying of the marital debt without the desire for procreation is always at least a venial fault (Supplement, 49, 5).

Seriously misleading passages

I come now to what I should respectfully consider to be more seriously misleading passages.

(The English version of) paragraph 145 (of Amoris Laetitia) states: “Experiencing an emotion is not, in itself, morally good or evil. The stirring of desire or repugnance is neither sinful nor blameworthy. What is morally good or evil is what we do on the basis of, or under the influence of, a given passion.” It footnotes the Summa, 1a 2ae 24, 1.

But what St. Thomas says here is that no emotion, abstractly considered, is either good or bad. Even hatred is not bad as such: it is good to hate sin. However, every actually existing emotion will always be either good or bad. This is true, independently of any actions to which they may give rise.

St. Thomas says: ipsae passiones, secundum quod sunt voluntariae, possunt dici bonae vel malae moraliter. Dicuntur autem voluntariae vel ex eo quod a voluntate imperantur, vel ex eo quod a voluntate non prohibentur (“The emotions themselves, inasmuch as they are voluntary, can be called morally good or bad. And they are said to be voluntary inasmuch as they are commanded by the will, or else because they are not checked by the will.”) There is a serious mistake in the text of Amoris Laetitia here, since certain emotions can rise by themselves to the level of mortal sin, for example, certain kinds of deliberate anger and sexual desire. It is dangerous to give the impression that only outward acts can be morally good or evil.

The Latin text of paragraph 145 is slightly different, but the net result is the same. On the one hand, it changes “the stirring of desire or repugnance is neither sinful nor blameworthy” to “perceiving a desire or repugnance beginning is neither harmful nor blameworthy,” which strictly speaking is true, since the perception itself would not be a sin. However, it retains the claim that moral good and evil lie only in outward action. And, bizarrely, it also quotes one of the objections in the Summa as if it were St. Thomas’ own teaching!

Next, paragraph 301. Here Amoris Laetitia states that people … can be living in irregular (e.g. adulterous) situations and may know the Church’s teaching on ‘the rule’, and yet may be unable to see the value of “the rule.” These people, Amoris Laetitia says, may possess sanctifying grace and may be unable to obey the rule without sinning.

It goes on: “St. Thomas Aquinas himself recognized that someone may possess grace and charity, yet not be able to exercise any one of the virtues well.” As Dr. Joseph Shaw has pointed out, this quotation is irrelevant to the question of whether one can be excused from obeying the divine law by an ability to see its value, or whether one can be obliged to disobey it to avoid some other sin. St. Thomas is simply talking of people who have repented of past sins, and who now live virtuously, but do so with some difficulty because of the effect that those past sins have left behind.

Hence Dr. Shaw wrote: “Aquinas is simply pointing out that impediments are more likely when the virtue has not been acquired by a process of training and habituation over time, but by an infusion of grace from God. This abstruse issue is completely irrelevant to the matter at hand, and makes me wonder about the intellectual integrity of the people advising Pope Francis at this point in the document.” A more relevant passage from the Summa would have been found in 1a 2ae 19, 6: “If erring reason tell a man that he should go to another man’s wife, the will that abides by that erring reason is evil; since this error arises from ignorance of the Divine Law, which he is bound to know.”

More serious because more plausible misuse

A more serious, because superficially more plausible, misrepresentation of the angelic doctor is found in paragraph 304. Amoris Laetitia is discussing the question of universal moral laws, in the context, of course, of invalid second marriages and the conferral of the sacraments, and it quotes a passage from 1a 2a 94, 4: “Practical reason deals with contingent things, upon which human activity bears, and so although there is necessity in the general principles, the more we descend to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter defects … In matters of action, truth or practical rectitude is not the same for all, as to matters of detail, but only as to the general principles.”

Although the argument at this point in Amoris Laetitia seems designed to be hard to follow, the impression is very strongly given that St. Thomas would have said that either sexual activity within a marriage not recognized by the Church as valid, or else giving Holy Communion to those who engage in such activity, cannot be objects of a universal prohibition. There can be, the text implies, only a defeasible presumption against such things. In fact, St. Thomas teaches, with the whole tradition of the Church, that there are indeed such things as intrinsically bad actions which generate universal prohibitions.

Thomas would have been horrified

On the question of the reception of the sacraments, Amoris Laetitia can hardly be considered Thomistic, (because) it does not quote the relevant text from the Summa: “Holy Communion ought not to be given to open sinners when they ask for it” (3a 80), or the identical teaching in the Scriptum (Super Sent., lib. 4 d. 9 q. 1 a. 5 qc. 1 co).

What then was the meaning of the passage from Aquinas quoted in Amoris Laetitia 304?

St. Thomas there spoke of certain ”general principles” that are the same for all. These include the commandments of the decalogue and any other precepts of divine law. In addition to these, there are “matters of detail,” i.e. certain rules of good action which human reason can work out for itself, such as “keep your promises” (and) “obey the law of the land” …

But these, though generally applicable, may in certain circumstances not serve as reliable guides to good action, because human reason cannot foresee all cases. For example, it may be necessary to break a promise to meet someone in order to deal with a medical urgency, or to break a speed limit to drive someone to hospital. It is fair to say that St. Thomas would have been horrified to think that any bishop would one day use this common-sense teaching in order to authorize Holy Communion for those publicly committed to illicit unions.

Finally, in a footnote to the same paragraph, Amoris Laetitia says: “In another text, referring to the general knowledge of the rule and the particular knowledge of practical discernment, St. Thomas states that ‘if only one of the two is present, it is preferable that it be the knowledge of the particular reality, which is closer to the act.’” It refers us to his commentary on the Nicomachaean ethics, Book 6, lecture 6, section 11.

Again, it misrepresents Aquinas’ teaching, with potentially seriously consequences. St. Thomas is not here contrasting rules and ‘discernment’ but rather universal truths and more particular truths. He gives the example of one man who knows that ‘light flesh’ is healthy to eat, but not what counts as light flesh, and another man who doesn’t know the general principle about ‘light flesh’, but does know that the flesh of birds is healthy to eat. The latter person is a better guide about how to eat.

Hence, St. Thomas is not saying that a priest who thinks he can discern the presence of the Holy Spirit in Mr. Smith’s soul despite Mr. Smith’s invalid second marriage but has never heard about the principle of not giving Holy Communion to those in adultery is in a better position to judge what to do at the altar rails than a priest who knows the principle but can’t discern the Holy Spirit in Mr Smith’s soul. Rather, he is saying that a priest who knows the truth that one should not give Holy Communion to those in public adultery, but doesn’t know the more universal truth that one should not give it to those in public sin, is in a better position to decide what to do than one who knows that one should not give it to those in public sin, but who does not know that a second marriage counts as public sin.


In conclusion, although many and various passages from St. Thomas’ works are quoted in Amoris Laetitia, I cannot say that I believe that they give, as some readers might suppose … a reliable account of the angelic doctor’s teaching on married love, the emotions, universal moral prohibitions or the reception of Holy Communion by public sinners. Hence, given also what was said above about the content of Amoris Laetitia as a whole, and about its style, I should not be able to say that I considered Amoris Laetitia a Thomist document.

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