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April 12, 2016 (LifeSiteNews) – The number of thoughtful critiques of the pope’s apostolic exhortation by respected Catholic writers and journalists is piling up. A list of many of the best of them is included below. 

What strikes the reader about many of these articles is the circumspectness and charity with which many of the writers issue their criticisms. They are not the knee-jerk reactions of hard-line fundamentalist anti-papal agitators. In many cases, the writers are obviously angst-ridden at having to say anything in criticism of their beloved Holy Father.

Many go out of their way to highlight the many positive elements of the document. But in the end, they cannot ignore what they view as the fatal flaws of the exhortation, especially the explosive chapter 8. 

What is also interesting is that many of these articles appear on the websites of publications that have – or are penned by writers who have – in the past gone way out of their way to interpret the pope’s frequent ambiguities in the most favorable light. 

Indeed, there is the sense that the pope’s exhortation may mark something of a sea change in the world of Catholic journalism. For the past three years most Catholic writers have been at great pains to explain and interpret Pope Francis in the clear light of traditional Church teaching – even as one detected a growing anxiety in the subtext of the glut of “what the pope really said” articles that flooded our Facebook news feeds or e-mail inboxes after every puzzling papal proclamation.

But by this time the question many Catholic journalists are naturally asking is: why do we have to keep doing this? Why does it require such hard work simply to understand what the pope is saying and how it might be construed as being in conformity with established teaching? In reference to the exhortation itself: why do we even have to engage in such tortured exegesis simply to understand individual footnotes, let alone the full text – and even then, why are so many intelligent thinkers arriving at such divergent interpretations of key passages? Would it have been so hard to be a bit clearer, as previous popes were?

Pope Francis himself answers that question – in a way – towards the end of that controversial chapter 8. “I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion,” he writes. “But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a Mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, 'always does what good she can, even if in the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street'.”

In other words: the confusion you’re experiencing is a feature, not a bug. What many Catholic writers are asking is: to what end? And what, precisely, does it mean for the Church to “get her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street”? Count me among those who are stumped. 

Here are some of the best articles floating around out there:


Beautiful, Moving, and Divisive – Robert Royal – The Catholic Thing

“For all his claims to the contrary in these many pages, Francis seems more interested in bringing people comfort than full conversion to what Christ clearly taught on marriage. Newman had seen that too: “Those who make comfort the great subject of their preaching seem to mistake the end of their ministry. Holiness is the great end. There must be a struggle and a trial here. Comfort is a cordial, but no one drinks cordials from morning to night.”

The Pope's confused message undermines his own pastoral program – Phil Lawler – Catholic Culture

“Amoris Laetitia is not a revolutionary document. It is a subversive one…

“Unfortunately, Cardinal Schönborn’s caveat, like much of the Pope’s own message, will be lost in the discussion of Amoris Laetitia. Inevitably, as it is received by ordinary Catholics in the pews, the Pope’s message will be understood only in a simplified form: as a green light for the divorced/remarried to receive Communion. Priests who are already all too willing to accommodate the wishes of divorced/remarried Catholics will be confirmed in their attitudes. Those who want to demand more—the conscientious pastors who would be most likely to help Christians grow in holiness– will be isolated and undermined.”

In Amoris Laetitia, who is admonishing whom? – Fr. James Schall – Catholic World Report

“It would be difficult to know what else to call this section but an exercise in sophisticated casuistry. Every effort is made to excuse or understand how one who is in such a situation is not really responsible for it. There was ignorance, or passion, or confusion. We are admonished not to judge anyone. And we are to welcome anyone and make every effort to make him feel at home in Church and as a neighbor. Attention is paid to victims of divorce who are treated unfairly, and especially children. But the prime interest is in mercy and compassion. God already forgives everything and so should we. The intellectual precision that the Holy Father uses to excuse or lessen guilt is cause for some reflection. The law cannot change but the “gradual” leading up to understanding this failure to observe the law takes time and patience.

“But when we add it all up, it often seems that the effect of this approach is to lead us to conclude that no “sin” has ever occurred. Everything has an excusing cause. If this conclusion is correct, we really have no need for mercy, which has no meaning apart from actual sin and its free recognition. One goes away from this approach not being sorry for his sins but relieved in realizing that he has never really sinned at all. Therefore, there is no pressing need to concern oneself too much with these situations.”

A Stubborn Givenness – R.R. Reno – First Things

“When it comes to a pastoral response to those of us wounded, damaged, and deformed by the sexual revolution, I fear Francis represents a spiritualized technological mentality. In this Apostolic Exhortation, when faced with the theological limitations to his vision of mercy-inspired evangelization, he employs the hyper-subjective logic of modernity. This will not end well, for it tempts us to imagine that we must master our Christian inheritance and re-engineer it into more useful, more missionary forms.”

The Curate’s Egg: A Reflection on Amoris Laetitia – Fr. George Rutler – Crisis Magazine

“Much, perhaps too much, has already been said about this apostolic exhortation, often revealing as much about the commentators as their commentaries. It is true that there are parts of it that are eloquent, but most of them are quotations of God and Saint Paul. The Word does have a way with words, and the charity of the Apostle gave him the tongue of an angel. In contrast, there are a lot of gongs clanging and cymbals clashing in the contradictions and redundancies of much of the exhortation’s diction. Parts like the affirmation of Humanae Vitae settle the text in the sacred tradition, but there is also the muddled treatment of moral culpability that almost nods to the neuralgic interpretation of the “fundamental option” theory rejected by St. John Paul II (Veritatis Splendor, nn.65, 67). This had been addressed earlier by a formal declaration of the Holy See:  A person’s moral disposition “can be completely changed by particular acts, especially when, as often happens, these have been prepared for by previous more superficial acts. Whatever the case, it is wrong to say that particular acts are not enough to constitute a mortal sin” (Persona Humana, December 29, 1975, No. 10).”

Francis' sprawling Exhortation a marriage of profound and muddled – Carl Olson – Catholic World Report

“Exactly right. For whatever reason, Francis seems to think that the past few decades have been marked by a dogmatic rigidity that is as merciless as it is obsessed with the fine details of law, causing countless innocent or near innocent Catholics to flee a Church that they perceive to be cold and heartless. That perspective is, to put it nicely, dubious and problematic. The impression often given, unfortunately, is that any emphasis on objective moral standards regarding actions and relationships is bound to quickly degenerate into a harsh and uncharitable condemnation. 

“It doesn't help matters that Francis apparently plays a bit fast and loose with some of his arguments and sources.” 

Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia and St. John Paul II – Eduardo Echeverria – Catholic World Report

“There are three significant problems with the chapter titled “Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness”, especially in light of “Veritatis Splendor.”

Always fear, always love – Matthew Schmitz – First Things

“Something strange is going on here. Aquinas does say that, 'every human being is bound to live agreeably with those around him.' But Francis has left off the second half of the sentence: ' . . . unless it should be necessary for him for some reason to cause them profitable sadness at some time.' Francis’s politeness does not seem to have room for the profitable sadness known to Aquinas, that edifying state brought on by necessary rebukes and hard truths.

“The half-quotation of Aquinas typifies Francis's procedure in Amoris Laetitia. Half of the Christian tradition is simply left out, and so the basic shape and essential tensions of the whole are lost. The love of God is present, but the fear of God—the terrible knowledge that we are responsible for our souls—is not. This omission is deliberate.”

First thoughts on the English version of Pope Francis’ Amoris laetitia. – Ed Peters

“In AL 297, Francis writes: “No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel!” To the contrary, it is precisely the logic of the Gospel that one can be condemned forever. CCC 1034-1035. If one meant, say, that no one can be ‘condemned for ever’ by earthly authority, one should have said so. But, of course, withholding holy Communion from those in “public and permanent adultery” is not a “condemnation” at all, so the point being made is not clear.”

Yes, the Eucharist is ‘powerful medicine’, which means… – Ed Peters

“The bounteous effects of the Eucharist, specifically in regard to forgiveness of and preservation from sin, are laid out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1393-1395, 1436, and 1846. These passages amply support the pope’s phrasing in fn 351. But missing from the pope’s commentary here is an acknowledgement that, as is true of a “powerful medicine”, taking the Eucharist improperly can be harmful, even spiritually deadly, to the recipient.

“…In sum, what one may question is not the pope’s comparing the Eucharist to “powerful medicine”, but rather, the failure to mention the warnings against improper consumption listed on the label.”

The law before ‘Amoris’ is the law after – Edward Peters

“Amoris Laetitia': The Good, the Disturbing, and the Torturous – Dorothy Cummings Mclean – Catholic World Report

“The Apostolic Exhortation suggests that although its principal author has a talent for pastoral theology, he is out of his depth when he strays into another theological specialty.”

The New Catholic Truce – Ross Douthat – New York Times

“A slippage that follows from this lack of confidence is one of the most striking aspects of the pope’s letter. What the church considers serious sin becomes mere “irregularity.” What the church considers a commandment becomes a mere 'ideal.' What the church once stated authoritatively it now proffers tentatively, in tones laced with self-effacement, self-critique.”

Accompanying, Discerning, and Integrating—in the Way of the Master – David Paul Deavel – Catholic World Report

“Pope Francis is often esteemed as an optimistic pope in contrast with his dogmatic German and Polish predecessors. But is there not a deep pessimism about the power of grace in #298 where the Pope proposes pastorally recognizing second unions where “Christian commitment” is accompanied by “consciousness of its [the second union’s] irregularity” because of “the great difficulty in conscience that one would fall into new sins”? But the call to “discern” with such couples is a call to figure out whether the union is not just “irregular” but actually sinful. If the regula or rule which is being violated is simply a positive or prudential law of the Church, then the Supreme Legislator can change it, but if the rule is about an intrinsic evil, then the obligation of pastors is to say that: first, this rule must stay, and second, that the Church’s accompaniment is going to involve working with the couple to end the sinful situation in which they are tangled and help them to not “fall into new sins.” 

Amoris Laetitia – David Warren

“It can indeed simply be said, and has always been said by Holy Church, with innocent simplicity, that mortal sin is mortally sinful, so once again I think the pope must be corrected. Men, including my heroes Thomas More and John Fisher, went to the block for such simple assertions as the indissolubility of marriage. Does the Holy Father now propose to decanonize half our saints and all our martyrs?”

John Jalsevac is Web Strategy Director of He has a bachelor's degree in philosophy with a minor in theology from Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia. He has published hundreds of articles in publications including Crisis Magazine, Catholic Insight, The Wanderer, and of course, LifeSiteNews.