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Famed moral theologians urge Pope Francis to renounce ‘misuses’ of Amoris Laetitia

Claire Chretien Claire Chretien Follow Claire

December 9, 2016 (LifeSiteNews) – Two notable Catholic professors revealed today that they sent Pope Francis a letter asking him to renounce eight errant positions that "find support in statements by or omissions" in Amoris Laetitia and "are or include errors against the Catholic faith."

Dr. John Finnis, an emeritus professor of law and legal philosophy at the University of Oxford and Biolchini Family Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame, and Germain Grisez, an emeritus professor of Christian ethics at Mount St. Mary’s University, co-authored the 35-page letter. It carefully outlines how the exhortation can be used to advocate for:

  • the absolution of penitents who lack a firm purpose of amendment
  • the notion that some people are incapable of following God's commandments or sometimes ought to choose sin over the commandments
  • the idea that there are exceptions to every general moral rule
  • sexual standards out of line with Catholic moral teaching
  • an understanding of indissoluble marriage as sometimes dissoluble
  • the argument that a "Catholic need not believe that many human beings will end in hell."

The letter is addressed "to the Supreme Pontiff Francis, to all bishops in communion with him, and to the rest of the Christian faithful" and was sent on November 21.

The letter specifically asks Pope Francis to correct "misuses" of the exhortation that are contrary to the Catholic faith and does not "assert or deny that teachings in AL need to be qualified and delimited." It also goes into detail about how truths of the faith and morality can "never supersede or annul one another."

Firm purpose of amendment no longer required in Confession?

"The issue of admission to Communion for the divorced and remarried, discussed at length during the 2014 and 2015 sessions of the Synod of Bishops, involves the question of whether, at least under some conditions, priests administering the Sacrament of Reconciliation should absolve penitents who lack a purpose of amendment with respect to some sin in grave matter," Finnis and Grisez wrote. "Some Catholic theologians and pastors have held, at least implicitly, and some will likely hold explicitly:

Position A: A priest administering the Sacrament of Reconciliation may sometimes absolve a penitent who lacks a purpose of amendment with respect to a sin in grave matter that either pertains to his or her ongoing form of life or is habitually repetitive. Proponents may suggest that, in place of a purpose of amendment, such penitents should meet three conditions: regret for sinning (to keep in view the ideal from which they are falling short); ongoing penance (to counterbalance their ongoing sin); and an effort to mitigate harm to others (to cover their sinning with love for others)."

"Proponents of Position A will claim that AL strongly and clearly, even if only implicitly, supports their view," the professors warned. They pointed to the now-infamous footnote 351, which suggests those in unrepentent adulterous relationships may sometimes access the Sacraments, as one example of a portion of the exhortation that could be used to make such an argument.

Finnis and Grisez wrote:

They will point out that early in chapter eight, which concerns those in 'various situations of weakness or imperfection,' AL 296 makes 'clear to the whole Church, lest we take the wrong path,' that 'There are two ways of thinking which recur throughout the Church’s history: casting off and reinstating. The Church’s way, from the time of the Council of Jerusalem, has always been the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and reinstatement. … The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone for ever; it is to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart. … For true charity is always unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous.'[326] Consequently, there is a need 'to avoid judgements which do not take into account the complexity of various situations' and 'to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience distress because of their condition.'[327]

[AL] 297. It is a matter of reaching out to everyone, of needing to help each person find his or her proper way of participating in the ecclesial community and thus to experience being touched by an 'unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous' mercy. No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel! Here I am not speaking only of the divorced and remarried, but of everyone, in whatever situation they find themselves.

However, against Position A "there stands a pastoral practice of the Catholic Church that has the clear marks of Tradition: a purpose of amendment has been regarded as essential for the valid reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation both throughout the Church and for a very long time," Finnis and Grisez countered. They cited Bible passages demonstrating "the requirement of a purpose of amendment is very strongly grounded in Scripture." They also noted that Pope St. John Paul II gave "another special pastoral reason" in paragraph 84 of Familiaris Consortio for the denial of Communion to the divorced and remarried: "if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church's teaching about the indissolubility of marriage."

"If the divorced and remarried, or any other ongoing sinners in grave matter who have no purpose of amendment, were absolved and admitted by the Church to the Eucharist, her act of admitting them would teach something false: either (1) that grave matter is light and mortal sins venial, or (2) that mortal sins are compatible with the living relationship with Jesus that is incipiently realized in Holy Communion but ultimately perfected by the sharing in Jesus’ life with his Father and Holy Spirit that we call the beatific vision," the professors cautioned. "Neither (1) nor (2) is a mere false abstraction; both are matters of life and death—not temporal but eternal life and death."

Some commandments just too hard to follow?

Another proposition that Amoris Laetitia could be used to argue and that Finnis and Grisez dismantled is

Position B: Some of the faithful are too weak to keep God’s commandments; though resigned to committing ongoing and habitual sins in grave matter, they can live in grace.

This argument could be backed up by the exhortation's suggestion "about people 'not in a position' to 'fully carry out the objective demands' of a divine prohibition," they wrote. However, this is incompatible with what the Church teaches about prayer and faith, Finnis and Grisez asserted. It also "contradicts a solemn definition of the Council of Trent: 'If anyone says that the commandments of God are impossible of observance even by a person justified and established in grace: let him be anathema.'"

The professors then moved onto "three consecutive portions" of Amoris Laetitia 304 that theologians and pastors will use to justify

Position C: No general moral rule is exceptionless. Even divine commandments forbidding specific kinds of actions are subject to exceptions in some situations.

Finnis and Grisez responded to Amoris Laetitia 304, which partially quotes St. Thomas Aquinas, by explaining that actually, St. Thomas "often teaches [that] some negative precepts (prohibitions), which pertain to natural law and are clarified by divine revelation, are subject to no exceptions."

"John Paul refers to 'the moral commandments expressed in negative form in the Old and New Testaments,” and teaches that 'Jesus himself reaffirms that these prohibitions allow no exceptions and that 'they oblige each and every individual, always and in every circumstance. It is a matter of prohibitions which forbid a given action semper et pro semper, without exception, because the choice of this kind of behaviour is in no case compatible with the goodness of the will of the acting person, with his vocation to life with God and to communion with his neighbour,'" they continued.

Pope St. John Paul II's Veritatis Splendor (VS) and "the unbroken Tradition...so clearly and strongly reaffirms...the absoluteness, in each and every situation, of certain negative precepts," the letter continues. These are "both rooted in and verified by a comprehensive and careful consideration of what God’s revelation shows his mercy to be: his omnipotent love, not feebly tolerating evil but creatively overcoming it. Moreover, VS and the earlier Tradition alike teach that the exceptionlessness of the relevant precepts/norms is itself revealed. 'In teaching the existence of intrinsically evil acts, the Church accepts the teaching of Sacred Scripture.' (VS 81; see also 29, 49, 52, 67, 82, 110, 114)."

Commandments just an 'ideal'?

The fourth position incompatible with Catholicism that Amoris Laetitia could be used to defend is the notion that God's commandments and rules are an "ideal" of which people may sometimes be required to choose the opposite due to their "weaknesses" or "complexities," the scholars wrote:

Position D: While some of God’s commandments or precepts seem to require that one never choose an act of one of the kinds to which they refer, those commandments and precepts actually are rules that express ideals and identify goods that one should always serve and strive after as best one can, given one’s weaknesses and one’s complex, concrete situation, which may require one to choose an act at odds with the letter of the rule.

"But Position D has no plausible ground in earlier magisterial teaching or in previous Catholic moral theology, and is incompatible with all the teachings recalled in relation to Position," they rebutted. "Jesus never said that God’s commandments are ideals; he bluntly told the Samaritan woman that she was living with a man not her husband (Jn 4:17–18), and he instructed the woman taken in adultery to sin no more (see Jn 8:11)."

And, in VS, Pope St. "John Paul added a warning against being tainted by 'the attitude of the Pharisee,' today 'expressed particularly in the attempt to adapt the moral norm to one’s own capacities and personal interests,'" they concluded.

Also related to Position C, the letter goes on, is 

Position E: If one bears in mind one’s concrete situation and personal limitations, one’s conscience may at times discern that doing an act of a kind contrary even to a divine commandment will be doing one’s best to respond to God, which is all that he asks, and then one ought to choose to do that act but also be ready to conform fully to the divine commandment if and when one can do so.

"Position E presupposes a modern notion of conscience that is alien to Christian Tradition," Finnis and Grisez wrote. "In the Tradition, conscience is one’s God-given capacity to grasp moral truths, so that one can walk in their light rather than in darkness; one may and must follow one’s conscience only because it is one’s access to the truth about the good and the right as in his wisdom God wills it....judgments of conscience can be criticized by checking the soundness of the reasoning and the truth of the premises."

Pornography, polygamy, prostitution, and other sexual sins suddenly okay?

Finnis and Grisez also expressed concern that the following secular view of sexual ethics could be defended using Amoris Laetitia:

Position F: Choosing to bring about one’s own, another’s, or others’ sexual arousal and/or satisfaction is morally acceptable provided only that (1) no adult has bodily contact with a child; (2) no participant’s body is contacted without his or her free and clear consent to both the mode and the extent of contact; (3) nothing done knowingly brings about or unduly risks significant physical harm, disease transmission, or unwanted pregnancy; and (4) no moral norm governing behavior in general is violated.

Proponents of Position F "will claim that the Exhortation approves of remarriage after divorce, and will argue that it cannot reasonably be taken to be less merciful to other sex sinners than it is to the remarried, whose intercourse Jesus characterized as an instance of the adultery proscribed by the Sixth Commandment," they wrote. And,

They also will argue that, if the Exhortation is thought to be dealing only with matters explicitly discussed during the 2014 and 2015 sessions of the Synod of Bishops, it is misinterpreted, because all other passages in AL bearing on sexual morality ought to be read in light of the following passage:

'It is a matter of reaching out to everyone, of needing to help each person find his or her proper way of participating in the ecclesial community and thus to experience being touched by an 'unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous' mercy. No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel! Here I am not speaking only of the divorced and remarried, but of everyone, in whatever situation they find themselves. (AL 297)'

Proponents of Position F will point out that Everyone, in whatever situation is broad enough to include anyone viewing internet pornography and masturbating, adolescents engaging in sex-play with one another, couples engaging in intercourse deliberately rendered infertile, those so disposed [to] engaging in sodomy, spouses committing adultery, people practicing polygamy, those buying or selling sexual services, groups of people engaging in orgies, and so on. Proponents will conclude that only a sex ethics as liberal as Position F can accommodate such widely diverse actions of individuals, couples, and groups."

Proponents of Position F will also point out that nowhere in AL, not even in its seven paragraphs on sexual education, is there any indication that every choice to masturbate, engage in premarital or extramarital sex play, fornicate, engage in homosexual activities, or commit adultery is the matter of grave sin, as is every choice of spouses to bring about orgasm apart from marital intercourse. Nor does AL anywhere mention one of the fundamental principles underlying those norms, namely, that sexuality is only for marriage.

Although Position F outlines "some relevant requirements of justice" and "expresses a part of the moral truth to which Christians should conform, it is radically inadequate as a sexual ethics," Finnis and Grisez wrote. This is because "Position F falls far short of respecting, promoting and protecting the great human good of faithful marital communion. That good can never be realized except by one man and one woman who forsake all others and faithfully hold fast to each other through good times and bad and, if they are able, have and raise the children who incarnate their communion."

"Against the adequacy of Position F also are the teachings of St. John Paul II, already quoted or cited in dealing with Positions C, D, and E, that make it clear that the truth God revealed in Jesus includes exceptionless moral norms, some of which bear upon sinful sex activities," they wrote.

Indissoluble bond is dissoluble?

Many of the questions about Amoris Laetitia are related to whether marriage is indissoluble, and, "since the early 1960s, many Catholic theologians have argued that the Church’s teaching on marriage’s indissolubility could be changed," Finnis and Grisez wrote. Such theologians would likely support 

Position G: A consummated, sacramental marriage is indissoluble in the sense that spouses ought always to foster marital love and ought never to choose to dissolve their marriage. But by causes beyond the spouses’ control and/or by grave faults of at least one of them, their human relationship as a married couple sometimes deteriorates until it ceases to exist. When a couple’s marriage relationship no longer exists, their marriage has dissolved, and at least one of the parties may rightly obtain a divorce and remarry.

"Proponents of Position G will argue that their view is implicitly supported by AL when it describes a second union in a way that, they will claim, can hardly be verified unless it is a second marriage: 'a second union consolidated over time, with new children, proven fidelity, generous self giving, Christian commitment, a consciousness of its irregularity and of the great difficulty of going back without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins' (AL 298)," the letter explains. "If such a second union is a marriage, however, the first union must at some time have ceased to exist—unless, of course, both of the marriages exist simultaneously." Additionally, "proponents of Position G will observe with satisfaction that AL never mentions Jesus’ linkage of divorce and adultery (see Mt 5:32, 19:9; Mk 10:11–12; Lk 16:18)," and "will also observe that, whereas the indissolubility of marriage not only is mentioned three times in St. John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio, 84, but also determines its teaching about the treatment of the divorced and remarried, the indissolubility of marriage is never mentioned in AL 291–312, the paragraphs from which that Exhortation’s directives about how to deal with the divorced and civilly remarried must be gathered." 

The professors noted that the indissolubility of marriage is mentioned elsewhere in Amoris Laetitia.

"Against Position G stands Jesus’ teaching about divorce and remarriage," Finnis and Grisez refuted. "When some Pharisees ask whether divorce is ever 'lawful,' Jesus begins his reply (see Mt 19:3–6, cf. Mk 10: 2, 6–9) by recalling that marriage in God’s plan involved persons of the two sexes leaving parents to be joined by marital intercourse and so become one flesh ('Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?’) [Jesus] then draws a first conclusion: the two really are one ('So they are no longer two but one flesh'). But their being one flesh is a union of their persons that is more than physical oneness. It is a covenantal oneness so sacred and inviolable that divorce...is never lawful ('What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder')."

Hell: practically empty?

Finally, Finnis and Grisez tackled 

Position H: A Catholic need not believe that many human beings will end in hell.

Believers of Position H "will point out that AL nowhere mentions the young man’s question, 'Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?' or Jesus’ direct reply: 'If you would enter life, keep the commandments' (Mt 19:16, 17). Proponents will conclude that one need neither do anything nor abstain from anything to have eternal life, since by virtue of Christ’s redemptive act and God’s 'indulgent love' (AL 62), every human person will inherit eternal life and none will end in hell (see AL 117, 297, 310, 325; also see Encyclical Laudato Sí (2015), 83 and 243)."

The professors also predicted those arguing Position H "may also cite a statement that Eugenio Scalfari, an Italian journalist to whom Pope Francis has granted interviews, attributed to him in a column."

Scalfari wrote:

The answer of Francis is distinct and clear: there is not punishment but the annihilation of that soul. All the others participate in the beatitude that is to live in the presence of the Father. Annihilated souls do not take part in that feast; with the death of the body their journey is finished. And this is the motivation of the missionary Church: to save the lost.

"Against Position H, the New Testament and Church teachings make it clear that many human persons who die in unrepented mortal sin will undergo unending punishment in hell," Finnis and Grisez wrote, listing a plethora of Scripture passages.

The errant propositions Finnis and Grisez listed that could be drawn from a reading of Amoris Laetitia are similar to the concerns 45 theologians raised about the exhortation earlier this year.

Finnis and Grisez implored Pope Francis to "put an end to the misuse of your Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, by condemning the eight positions dealt with above and reaffirming as truths of faith the teachings of the New Testament and Tradition contradicted by each of those erroneous positions."

The full letter is available here, and a summary here.

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