The Amoris debate: Is it really a matter of confusion?

The Amoris debate: Is it really a matter of confusion? (Part I)

By Phil Lawler | Jan 11, 2018

Critics of Amoris Laetitia say that it is confusing. Defenders of the papal document say that there is no cause for confusion. This state of affairs is, I’m sorry to say, confusing.

Stepping back from the substance of this particular controversy, let’s take a few minutes to examine the form of the argument. Suppose that you present me with a statement, and I tell you that it confuses me. If you want to continue the conversation, what are your options?

  1. You might try to explain your statement to me. That is the first, clear, and obvious response, isn’t it?
  2. You might gently (or not so gently, depending on the circumstances) suggest that my confusion is understandable, because I’m not intelligent enough to understand your statement. That’s a possibility, I suppose. But if you choose this option, you can’t very well claim to be sensitive and caring. Nor—unless you’re prepared to make even more insulting remarks about my intelligence—can you claim that your statement is easy to understand. In which case perhaps you should consider clarifying. (See #1 above.)
  3. You might remark that nobody else is confused. But that’s not really an answer; it doesn’t bring me any greater clarity. Anyway, that avenue is closed to you if many other people have already said they, too, are confused by the same statement.
  4. You might insist that the statement itself is perfectly clear. But again that’s not really a response. And you’ll have trouble defending that position if other people have made public claims that your statement supports their views, when those views clearly contradict each other on a key point.
  5. You might raise the suspicion that I’m not really having trouble understanding your statement—that by claiming to be confused, I’m actually showing that I’m opposed to your statement. That’s an undeniable possibility. But once you invoke that possibility, our discussion takes on a very different, less friendly tone. You are making an ad hominem argument; you are questioning my good faith.
  6. But here’s what you cannot do: You cannot order me to stop being confused. If you have authority over me, you may have the right to command that I obey your statement. But if I don’t understand the statement, I can’t be expected to obey it.

In the Amoris Laetitia debate, option #1 has been taken off the table; the Pope apparently will not respond to the dubia, nor he will explain why he declines to respond. Options 2, 3, and 4 are available, and all have been tried, but they are not convincing, for the reasons cited above.

In practice, the most vocal supporters of the papal document have used options 4 and 5. They have argued that the critics of Amoris Laetitia are dissembling; that the arguments against the document are in reality criticisms of the Holy Father. Then they go on to say that such criticism is unseemly, because all Catholics are under an obligation to respect the authoritative teachings of the Roman Pontiff. Notice that the latter argument applies only if the former is true. I cannot be under an obligation to follow instructions that I do not understand. So when the Pope’s supporters tell us, in effect, to shut up and obey, they imply that we actually understand the Pope’s teaching—which is the very point in dispute.

Moreover, by employing this odd combination of arguments, the defenders of Amoris (or, if you prefer, the critics of the critics of the document) are transforming a debate on the contents of the apostolic exhortation into a debate about the bona fides of their adversaries. Such ad hominem arguments are never attractive, but they are particularly unfortunate when they are used against respected theologians and princes of the Church. Nor are the ad hominemarguments persuasive, since the confusion caused by Amoris is now so clearly illustrated by the public record. (See #3 and #4 above.) When one prelate applauds the document for saying X, and another applauds the same document for not saying X, that’s confusing—or at a bare minimum, the burden of proof is on those who don’t see a contradiction.

But let us suppose, just for the sake of the argument, that the Pope’s supporters have good reasons for their suspicions. Let us suppose that critics of Amoris Laetitia aren’t really confused by the document, but in fact disagree with its teaching. If that were the case, then how would honest, loyal Catholics express their disagreement with the Holy Father? Again I can see a couple of possibilities:

  • The critics might say: “I disagree with the Pope. He is wrong; his argument contradicts the permanent teaching of the Church. I will not accept his authority.”
  • Or they might say: “I cannot believe that the Holy Father really means what he seems to be saying, since his argument appears to contradict previous Church teaching. I am confused. I wish he would clarify.”

Which of those two approaches would show greater respect for the Petrine office and the teaching magisterium?

The next question—to be addressed in my next post: What can Church leaders do to ease the confusion?

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3 comments on “The Amoris debate: Is it really a matter of confusion?

  1. Very nice job, Phil! You seem to have covered all the bases, with a totally objective, logical analysis of the situation.
    Now, why not take a look at *why* the Modernist hierarchy seems to be either
    1) Insensitive and uncaring, and/or
    2) Incapable of comprehending why Amoralis Licentia is in fact unclear, and/or
    3) Accusing people of feigned ignorance of what it means (hence also bad will), and/or
    4) Actually ordering people to stop being confused
    The reason Modernists behave this way is because Modernists are a species of Liberal.
    Liberals do not use or like logic or objectivity; they do not believe that the intellect is the tool by which truth is attained; they judge everything by their own blind will. Modernists, in addition, believe that, through the blind operations of a multitude of human wills, a sort of consensus evolves as to what is true, for we are all men and brothers (at least that’s the consensus, right?), so we by nature ought to agree, at least on important things. As Blondel therefore said: “Truth is conformity of the mind to life”, “life” of course being the consensus; the ‘what’s happening now’.
    Now, anyone who does not conform to the consensus is by inference somewhat less than human; an individualist, a Traditionalist with an unhealthy need for the “safety” of the past status quo; a perverse type; in one way or another either a damaged or even an evil soul.
    Thus Modernists are insensitive and uncaring, because they are willful people. Willful people are of necessity more in love with themselves than anything else, because original sin is operating in them (even if they don’t want to believe it exists).
    Modernists may be incapable of comprehending that AL is unclear, because, not believing that the intellect is our means of arriving at truth, they don’t think that any real thinking is necessary to “understand” AL. In fact, AL doesn’t even have to be clear in the objectivist, intellectual sense. It’s all about “tone”, you know. Liberals all have their set of liberal nostrums, which were all acquired by unthinking absorption from their liberal environment and teachers. To interpret AL, you just read it in the right “tone”, as conforming to the nostrums. That’s the “consensus”, because, of course, the only genuine “consensus” is the liberal consensus.
    Which is why Modernists will accuse those who are confused by AL of feigned ignorance and bad will. If they were Liberals, they would be good people, doncha know?, and being good Liberals, they would understand without having to think.
    Which is why Modernists see no problem in actually commanding people not to be confused. For it really amounts to commanding them to stop being evil. If these people would just become “good”, they would be Liberals too, and being Liberals, they wouldn’t have to think…

  2. The Amoris debate: Is it really a matter of confusion? (Part II)

    By Phil Lawler | Jan 15, 2018

    Last week in this space I argued that Amoris Laetitia definitely has caused confusion (claims to the contrary notwithstanding), and that actually to call the situation “confusing” should be recognized as a display of respect for the Pope’s authority.

    In closing that short essay, I promised to turn my attention next to the question of how other Church leaders could ease the confusion. Here goes:

    A few bishops from Kazakhstan opened the new year with a statement observing that the reigning confusion is, as a practical matter, “spreading the plague of divorce.” In light of this pastoral disaster, they concluded that, in their role as successors to the apostles, they were “not allowed to be silent.” So they made a new plea for clarity. They added that the widespread notion that divorced-and-remarried Catholics may now receive the Eucharist—a notion undeniably made popular by the fallout from Amoris Laetitia, whatever one might conclude that the text says—is “alien to the entire tradition of the Catholic and apostolic faith.”

    Only a bare handful of the world’s bishops have joined their Kazakh colleagues in that public statement. For that matter only four cardinals signed the dubia, the original public plea for papal clarification. Why have so few prelates joined in this necessary call for an end to the general confusion?

    Today’s CWN news headlines point to a statement by Archbishop Luigi Negri, one of those few prelates who has signed the plea for clarification. The Italian archbishop indicates that he is open to the possibility that some divorced-and-remarried Catholics might receive the Eucharist under some circumstances. What he cannot accept, the archbishop says, is the current uncertainty. “I am against confusion,” he explains simply. How can anyone who is responsible for the integrity of Church teaching think otherwise?

    Under different circumstances I might conclude that the silence of the world’s bishops could reflect the general popularity of Pope Francis. But only recently we saw clear evidence that quite a few bishops lack enthusiasm for the current pontificate. When I first called attention to that evidence, I’m afraid I made my point in a way that struck some readers as flippant, and for that I am sorry. But the point is important; let me try again.

    In the past, seminarians who wanted to serve as acolytes at the Pope’s Christmas Mass were asked to enter their names in a lottery. This year there was no lottery; every seminarian who asked for a place on the altar was accepted. Maybe I am overanalyzing this incident, jumping hastily to unwarranted conclusions. But unless human nature has suddenly changed, it is striking that young men training for the priesthood would not seize an opportunity to be seen alongside the Pope. What does that fact tell us?

    First, we know that as a group the seminarians studying at the various national colleges in Rome (generally speaking the most promising candidates for the priesthood) are not as enthusiastic today as their predecessors were in past years about celebrating Christmas with the Pope. Next, we can safely assume that the seminarians were under no pressure to volunteer for the acolytes’ roles, and that in turn suggests that the directors of the national colleges were less enthusiastic. Finally—and most important, in terms of my present argument—since prudent seminarians usually do what they know their bishops want done, we can infer that these young men did not think that their bishops back home would be delighted to see them standing next to the Roman Pontiff. So it would not be a stretch to conclude that quite a few bishops are unenthusiastic, too.

    But if bishops have reservations about Pope Francis, isn’t it also likely that they have reservations about the single most controversial aspect of his pontificate? And if they have such reservations—that is, if they recognize the damage to the faith caused by the current confusion—why are they silent?

    Here I am raising questions that do not allow for definitive answers. So let me end this admittedly speculative post by making the questions explicit:

    ~Am I wrong to conclude that the shortage of seminarians interested in serving as acolytes testifies to a general lack of enthusiasm about this pontificate, among seminarians from all around the world and presumably also among their bishops?

    ~If the world’s bishops are not particularly happy about this pontificate, is it unreasonable to assume that the confusion caused by Amoris Laetitia is one major reason for their dissatisfaction?

    ~If many of the world’s bishops are troubled by the confusion, why don’t they join in the effort to restore clarity?

  3. There is no confusion. That’s gaslighting. “Oh, you’re just confused. You didn’t see the Shackups at communion. You didn’t see Bill and his wife Dave going to communion. Just put the lime in the coconut and call me in the morning.”

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