Amoris Laetitia: Considerations on Chapter 8

Father Jean-Michel Gleize, professor of ecclesiology at the SSPX seminary of St. Pius X in Econe, comments on the chapter 8 of the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia released on April 8, 2016.

1.    The Apostolic Exhortation is striking in both its amplitude and its structure. It is divided into nine chapters and includes over 300 paragraphs. The most sensitive issues are dealt with in Chapter 8 (¶291 – 312), starting with ¶293. After discussing Catholic marriage and the Catholic family, the document examines “situations of weakness”. We will restrict ourselves here to this long-awaited section. We are of course aware of other points worthy of consideration and analysis, such as ¶250 on homosexuals, the section on the erotic aspects of love, “a specifically human manifestation of sexuality” (¶150 – 152), as well as the positive and more normal aspects of the document, wherein it recalls the doctrine of marriage, its grandeur, and indissolubility. All this will be examined in due time: since we cannot say everything at once, we will make distinctions…and making distinctions does not mean denying or forgetting!

2.    The Exhortation speaks first of all of purely civil unions and cohabitation, in ¶293 – 294:


’The choice of a civil marriage or, in many cases, of simple cohabitation, is often not motivated by prejudice or resistance to a sacramental union, but by cultural or contingent situations.’ In such cases, respect also can be shown for those signs of love which in some way reflect God’s own love.” […]  “‘All these situations require a constructive response seeking to transform them into opportunities that can lead to the full reality of marriage and family in conformity with the Gospel. These couples need to be welcomed and guided patiently and discreetly.’ That is how Jesus treated the Samaritan woman (cf. Jn. 4:1-26): he addressed her desire for true love, in order to free her from the darkness in her life and to bring her to the full joy of the Gospel.”

3.    The Pope states here that unions heretofore deemed illicit are “signs of love which in some way reflect God’s own love” and that they can be used as “opportunities that can lead to the full reality of marriage and family.” Is an occasion of sin therefore no longer an occasion of sin, but an opportunity for marriage? Curious theology! What is its source and on what doctrinal grounds could Pope Francis found it? The document introduces here what it calls the principle of gradualness in pastoral care, which John Paul II had called a “law of gradualness” in the Exhortation Familiaris Consortio of 1981, ¶34.

“This is not a ‘gradualness of law’ but rather a gradualness in the prudential exercise of free acts on the part of subjects who are not in a position to understand, appreciate, or fully carry out the objective demands of the law.”  

4.    This is a play on words. It is true that prudence requires pastors to take into account the state of souls; such prudence might mean temporarily abstaining from telling persons that their manner of living is wicked, but nonetheless it must never mean telling them that their manner of living is good. It is one thing to refrain from immediately denouncing a state of sin for what it is, but another to say that a situation already sinful is a path towards the good, or that something against charity is a sign of love. Whether one likes it or not, the “law of gradualness” leads to gradualness of law and moral relativism.

5.    Next, the document turns to what it calls “irregular situations,” that is, the situation of public sinners in general and especially the divorced and remarried - public adulterers. The principle established is the same:

“There is a need ‘to avoid judgements which do not take into account the complexity of various situations’” (¶296); “the discernment of pastors must always take place ‘by adequately distinguishing’ with an approach which ‘carefully discerns situations.’ We know that no ‘easy recipes’ exist.” (¶298). “If we consider the immense variety of concrete situations such as those I have mentioned, it is understandable that neither the Synod nor this Exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases. What is possible is simply a renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases, one which would recognize that, since ‘the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases,’ the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same” (¶300).

6.    If it is true that prudence may provide a variety of solutions depending on circumstances, these solutions are all based on one single principle. In this sense, the consequences of the rule are always the same, as they are founded on the same principle. If, for instance, we must keep holy the Lord’s day (Third Commandment of the Decalogue), applying this rule will result in keeping the Lord’s day holy, in one way or in another. What may vary is the manner in which we accomplish the duties imposed on us by the virtue of religion. Generally speaking, this would be by attendance at Holy Mass; exceptionally, where attendance at Mass is impossible or very difficult, by increased prayer. But in every case, the practice of the virtue of religion is necessarily required. In this way, the accomplishment of the Third Commandment will always be the same. Likewise, the objective situation of the divorced and remarried is a public sin of adultery. Every Christian must publicly disapprove of this situation, in one way or another. However done, the censure must be public.

7.    Such is clearly not the Pope’s point of view. To be convinced of this, it is enough to read what follows:

“It is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being” (¶304).

8. So is every priest being overly simplistic when, in hearing confessions, he judges the conformity of his penitents’ actions with the law of God? And does whoever examines his conscience in order to make a good confession incur the censure of Pope Francis? If sometimes this examination is insufficient, it is still necessary. And often it does suffice. Does not Holy Scripture tell us about the law of God that it is “unspotted, converting souls,” and “giving wisdom to little ones”? (Psalm 18:8)

9. But the next part of this same ¶304 clearly displays the sophistry underlying all this renewal of pastoral theology:

“It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations. At the same time, it must be said that, precisely for that reason, what is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances cannot be elevated to the level of a rule. That would not only lead to an intolerable casuistry, but would endanger the very values which must be preserved with special care” (¶304).

10. As always, the sophistry is founded on a confusion of ideas. To dispel it one need only remember a distinction of capital importance. It is true that human law (civil or ecclesiastical) cannot foresee every possibility, cannot “provide absolutely for all particular situations.”  Thus there are exceptional cases when one is obliged to return to the first principle of this human law (which is divine law) to derive from it a practical conclusion not foreseen by the human law. Sanctifying the Sunday is a well-known example of such a case. God says that we must keep this day holy, and the Church says we must keep it holy by attending Mass. When attending Mass is impossible, we keep the Lord’s day holy in an equivalent manner, for instance by praying the rosary or by reading and meditating on the propers of the day in the missal. On the contrary, when it comes to divine law we are faced with the work of a sovereignly wise and infallible legislator, both all-powerful and all-foreseeing. The divine legislation has foreseen everything, absolutely everything, and the infallible foresight of God includes absolutely all particular situations. Therefore the natural law and the revealed law found in the Gospel cannot be subject to dispensation or appeal in the principles they reflect. Now, the necessity and indissolubility of marriage are both determined by this divine law. In questions of moral laws regarding marriage, we are on the level of divine law (natural and revealed). This law is founded on absolute principles to which no exceptions can be made: God the legislator has foreseen every possibility, and no concrete situation can have escaped his forethought. As the Council of Trent teaches, God always gives man the means to obey His commandments. “For God does not command impossibilities, but by commanding admonishes thee to do what thou canst and to pray for what thou canst not, and aids thee that thou mayest be able.” Faced with a particular situation, the practical discernment of the pastor is obliged, sooner or later, to bring the actions of his flock into conformity with the rule of this divine law, whether natural or revealed. And he is able to do so for the very reason that the grace of God is sufficient and efficacious. This is what the Church has always said and done. And this is what the Exhortation of Pope Francis - in this very passage - evades and implicitly denies, in playing on words and in creating confusion. The magic expression “intolerable casuistry” belongs to a rhetoric prejudicial to the salvation of souls.

11. The Pope’s words here are of unparalleled gravity, because by the practice they authorize in the name of “an approach which ‘carefully discerns situations,’” they strike a deadly blow to divine law itself. If put into practice on all the points set forth above, this pastoral Exhortation will be concretely no more and no less than an exhortation to sin; in other words, it is a scandal. After recalling in theory in the opening chapters (¶52, 62, 83, and 123) the Church’s unchanging doctrine on the indissolubility of marriage and the efficacy of supernatural grace, the document encourages the denial of this same doctrine in practice. And let no one rush to point out that in ¶299 the Pope says that “any occasion of scandal” must be avoided, because it is undeniable that having allowed such confusions, his words cannot but lead to scandal.

12. What follows is, unfortunately, the logical consequence. After having thus facilitated the practical relativization of the principles of Catholic moral theology, all that remains is to draw favorable conclusions for the case of public sinners. Here we have a ready-made justification for ceding to all the demands of libertines.

13. The supreme rule is no longer the law:

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).

14. One does not fail to see the allusion: applying the law means stoning the woman taken in adultery, and contradicting the mercy of the Good Shepherd. But He Himself told the unfortunate woman, “Go, and sin no more.” And just what is sin, if not everything said or done against the law of God? The Pope’s rhetoric should have gone no further. But what comes next is even worse, for it introduces into a papal document the protestant principle of private judgment:

Along these same lines, the International Theological Commission has noted that ‘natural law could not be presented as an already established set of rules that impose themselves a priori on the moral subject; rather, it is a source of objective inspiration for the deeply personal process of making decisions’” (¶305).

15. The natural law is therefore no longer a law which would be the expression of an obligatory command. It is reduced to a mere counsel, an encouragement, a recommendation. A source of inspiration. We find here the proposition condemned by St. Pius X in the Decree Lamentabili: “Truth is no more immutable than man himself, inasmuch as it evolves with him, in him, and through him” (DS 3458).

16. If there be no more law, there is no sin either, or rather, sin cannot be recognized in the external forum, and no authority in the Church or any member of society can render a judgment concerning sin. God alone will judge. Who are we to judge?... That is truly the signature expression of Pope Francis. “Hence it can no longer simply be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace” (¶301).

17. At most one might admit that “it is not possible to deny that some, among all those in any ‘irregular’ situation, do not live in the state of mortal sin and are not deprived of sanctifying grace.” But it is impossible to accept the Pope’s words. They imply that it is impossible to consider illicit unions as sinful or as occasions of sin. The divorced and remarried and cohabiting couples are no longer to be considered public sinners then. Once again, who are we to judge? What total moral confusion this is: confusion between good and evil on the level of public actions.

18. If the supreme rule is no longer God’s law, it is replaced by man’s conscience.

Recognizing the influence of such concrete factors, we can add that individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the Church’s praxis in certain situations which do not objectively embody our understanding of marriage.  … [Conscience] 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” (¶303).

19. Christian marriage may perhaps remain the ideal in the eyes of the Church, but what counts is the idea that each individual conscience has of the ideal. What is good is not what is objectively good, but what the conscience considers to be good. Even if one supposes that the consciences of the married are more enlightened than those of others and thus conceive a higher ideal, it is still the conscience that determines the ideal. The difference between the ideal of the married and the ideal of others is a difference of degree, a difference of greater or lesser fullness. Now this is total subjectivism and therefore total relativism. Relativism comes from subjectivism: situation ethics, which is moral relativism, is the result of morality founded on conscience. And such is the new morality of Pope Francis.

20. One of its possible consequences was widely anticipated. Here it is at last:

I am in agreement with the many Synod Fathers who observed that ‘the baptized who are divorced and civilly remarried need to be more fully integrated into Christian communities in the variety of ways possible, while avoiding any occasion of scandal’” (¶299).

21. “In the variety of ways possible:” why not, then, in admitting them to Eucharistic Communion? If it is no longer possible to say that the divorced and remarried are living in a state of mortal sin (¶301), why should the fact of giving them Communion be an occasion for scandal? And at that point, why refuse them Holy Communion? The Exhortation Amoris Laetitia is clearly moving in this direction. In so doing, it represents an occasion of spiritual ruin for the entire Church; or in other words, what theologians call a “scandal” in the full sense of the term. And this scandal is the consequence of a practical relativization of the truth of the Catholic Faith concerning the necessity and indissolubility of the sacramental union of marriage.