Pope Francis has just published his long-awaited Apostolic Exhortation on the Family, Amoris Laetitia. In it, he repeats many of the problematic and controversial statements of the previous 2014 and 2015 Synods of Bishops on the Family. Among these, one finds the law of gradualism with regard to sinful relationships, the claim that there are “seeds” of goodness in such relationships that are objectively contrary to God’s laws, and a general tone of not speaking of sin at all with regard to those ways of living that put the soul of the persistent sinner gravely at risk of not attaining to eternal salvation.
Pope Francis quotes amply both the 2014 and 2015 Synod reports, which shows that he approves of how they were handled, as well as the way they deftly steered the Church toward a more lenient attitude as regards the sinner and his misconduct. He also makes clear at the very beginning of his document that “not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium. ” Some “aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it” can be, according to the pope, interpreted in different ways. He explicitly stresses that
Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs. For “cultures are in fact quite diverse and every general principle… needs to be inculturated, if it is to be respected and applied”.
The pope chooses, however, not to define what he means by “solutions better suited to its culture.” Is this, in fact, a form of cultural and moral relativism? The answer is not immediately clear.
Beside these themes, problematic in themselves, there are two grave and deeply serious claims in this new papal document which were not discussed during the previous two Synod sessions in the manner in which they appear in the exhortation. Each represents a deviation from the Catholic Church’s traditional moral teaching, thereby effectively departing from the Universal Magisterium of the Church.
In Chapter 8 (Paragraph 298), Pope Francis speaks about the “remarried” divorcees and claims that one has to look at each case individually – suggesting a form of Nominalism – since not every case has to be assessed the same way. As an example, he refers to a second “marriage” which has been “strengthened” (or “consolidated,” depending on the translation) and which also has “new children, proven fidelity, generous self giving, Christian commitment” – but which is also aware of “its irregularity and of the great difficulty of going back without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins.” As an example, Pope Francis brings up the education of children that calls for the “remarried” couple to stay closely together as a couple. While this example has been brought up repeatedly during the last two years, Pope Francis adds a novelty in his footnote (329) to this paragraph:
many people, knowing and accepting the possibility of living “as brothers and sisters” which the Church offers them, point out that if certain expressions of intimacy are lacking, “it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of the children suffers” [Here, a reference is made to the Second Vatican Council’s constitution on the Church in the modern world, Gaudium et Spes.]
What this means concretely is that the pope is sending a deeply troubling message: those who are living in the objective state of adultery (since they are still sacramentally and validly married to their real spouse, not the person they are living with) and have children from this second “marriage” are essentially bound to stay in this relationship, living as husband and wife (which they are not) and continuing to engage in acts proper only to spouses, and thus, adulterous in nature. Otherwise, the pope reasons, their new relationship – and the welfare of the children involved – could be put at risk! In this, Pope Francis undermines Catholic moral teaching at its core, and puts supposed practical concerns over the higher concern of the salvation of souls.
In paragraph 299 of Chapter 8, which deals in general with “irregular” unions, Pope Francis also claims that “remarried” divorcees should be more “integrated” into the life of the Church, “not only to realize that they belong to the Church as the body of Christ, but also to know that they can have a joyful and fruitful experience in it.” He proposes removing “forms of exclusion” with regard to “the liturgical, pastoral, educational and institutional framework”.
In this context, in Paragraph 300, Pope Francis brings up this idea of a “process of accompaniment and discernment” with the help of the “internal forum” in which the “remarried” divorcees may discern their own special situation with the help of a priest. “Discernment,” “pastoral accompaniment” and “integration” are key words here. In this context, the pope also calls for the humility, discretion, the love for the Church and her teaching and for the search for God’s will on the side of those taking counsel with a priest, and says that
These attitudes are essential for avoiding the grave danger of misunderstandings, such as the notion that any priest can quickly grant “exceptions”, or that some people can obtain sacramental privileges in exchange for favours.
This question of access to the sacraments for the divorced and remarried is taken up again in paragraph 305:
Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.
At the end of that sentence, footnote 351 clarifies: “In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments,” and then refers to both Confession and the Eucharist. He writes: “I would also point out that the Eucharist ‘is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.’”
These statements call to mind the substance of the so-called Kasper proposal. The language of the Eucharist as “not a prize” is something both Kasper and Francis have used in public statements on this topic since the Synod process began in 2014. There is no specific prescription on whether the divorced and “remarried” can have access to the sacraments in this, but one sees the opening of a door.
The second grave scandal comes in paragraph 301. In the context of the question of “discernment” for those “irregular” relationships, Pope Francis does away with the claim that those who do not live according to God’s law are living in the state of mortal sin! He says:
Hence it is [sic] can no longer simply be said that all those in any “irregular” [to include homosexual relationships?] situations are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace. More is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule. A subject may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding “its inherent values” [?], or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin.
Among other mitigating factors in this regard, the pope mentions “affective immaturity” and “force of acquired habit” and “conditions of anxiety,” as well as other “psychological or social factors” that would alleviate a person’s culpability.
This statement of the pope seems to do away with any moral foundation on the question of marriage and divorce. It breaks apart the very basis of moral law, and opens the door to a lax and relativistic approach to the sanctity of marriage.
Taken together, we see that the pope is claiming that “remarried” couples who have children should continue to live as “husband” and “wife” and should not live “as brother and sister” and that all “irregular” relationships which are not in accordance with God’s laws do not, in his estimation, necessarily mean that persons in such situations are living in a state of sin. Thereby, the pope also indirectly opens the door to the admittance of all these persons to the sacraments, and, at the same time, undermines not just one, but three sacraments: the Sacrament of Marriage, the Sacrament of Penance, and the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.
There is much more in the document that still demands to be unpacked. But on the basis of these points alone, we see the potential for serious danger to the souls of the faithful who would follow the advice laid out herein.
This post was updated to include the reference to paragraph 305 and footnote 351.