Amoris Laetitia : A Modern Pandora’s Box?

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By Tom Collingwood, Catholic Stand, February 22, AD2018

“But from the beginning of the creation, God made them male and female. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife;  and they twain shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. And in the house, his disciples asked him again of the same matter. And he saith unto them, Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery. (Mark 10: 6-12)

Since becoming a Catholic many years ago I have been a Church news “junkie”. I follow Catholic news outlets and blogs to get a sense of what is happening within the Church worldwide. It seems as if more and more of the news discussion concerns possible changes in the continuity of Church belief and practice.  Among those many issues, is one expressed in many press and opinion pieces: the publication of Pope Francis’ encyclical Amoris Laetitia almost two years ago. The comments and reporting about the encyclical appear to reflect serious disagreements over its interpretation and meaning.

Amoris Laetitia: Opening Pandora ’s Box?

Not being a theologian or canon lawyer, I am at a disadvantage in evaluating the press stories and debates. However, it would seem that the encyclical has opened a “Pandora’s box” for contrasting interpretations that affect several areas of Church teachings. In Greek mythology, Pandora opened a box and all the evils and ills of the world flew out. Today the phrase “to open Pandora’s box” pertains to performing an action that may seem small or innocent, but that turns out to have negative consequences.

Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, which discusses the possibility of communion for the divorced and remarried and couples in irregular situations, was the controversy that first got much media attention. It urges pastors to assist those in such situations and to make them feel part of the Church community.  In this Chapter, a process is suggested that could potentially lead these people back to the sacraments.  Since the encyclical itself does not seem perfectly clear on this matter, several Church leaders (Cardinals and Bishops) have asked for clarification. Unfortunately, it has not been forthcoming from the Holy Father. Consequently many are left to make their own interpretations, which has led to considerable debate.

Adding to the controversy was a letter made public by Pope Francis that he wrote to the Argentine bishops who had issued guidelines whereby the divorced and remarried may be allowed to receive Holy Communion. That letter appeared to agree with their interpretation. In turn, some Malta and Portuguese Bishops issued guidelines that shared the same opinion as the Argentines. Bishops from other countries, in reaction, have issued different guidelines (including Philadelphia Archbishop Chaput) reflective of traditional Church teaching on the issue.

Many canon lawyers and theologians have also expressed that access to the sacraments is impossible without following traditional Catholic teaching by gaining an annulment etc. To do so would violate Church law and doctrine. To date, there still are continuing conflicting interpretations over this issue and what should be the encyclicals’ definitive interpretation that has not been resolved.

On reading Catholic news outlets reporting the debate over Amoris Laetitia, one can conclude there are serious splits within the Church. The infighting between Cardinals publicly displays the politicization of this controversy. For example, I become concerned when I read the derogatory statements of Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga about Cardinal Raymond Burke (whom I consider to be a staunch defender of Church orthodoxy). It accused him of right-wing closed minded thinking because he is asking questions about Pope Francis’s encyclical,

Another example is that of philosophy professor Joseph Seifert who was dismissed from his teaching post at a Spanish seminary because he wrote an essay critical of Amoris Laetitia. What commonly occurs in many U.S. colleges today, whereby an opposing view isn’t debated but demonized, is now the case in discussions about Catholic practice.

Amoris Laetitia opening the box for controversy

More controversy has been raised by Amoris Laetitia than just the issue of communion for the divorced and remarried. For example, Father Maurzio Chiodi of the Pontifical Academy of Life recently madestatements in a lecture before the Gregorian University in Rome on December 17, 2017, defending the use of artificial contraception. Fr. Chiodi reportedly said that there are “circumstances – I refer to Amoris Laetitia, Chapter 8 – that precisely for the sake of responsibility, require contraception.”

The encyclical has also stimulated the expression of dissenting opinions by clergy regarding same-sex marriage. Bishop Bode of Osnabruck, (Vice-President of the German bishops’ conference), in an interview January 11, suggested that we should start talking about the blessing of same-sex unions. His opinion was followed by the view expressed by Cardinal Reinhard Marx (President of the German Bishops’ Conference) in early February. He expressed that in his opinion, Catholic priests can conduct blessing ceremonies for homosexual couples.

Previously, Cardinal Marx in a December 28th, 2017 interview proposed that the Catholic Church rethink her teaching on sexual morality in which he argued against “blind rigorism” in that he thinks it is “difficult to say from the outside whether someone is in the state of mortal sin.” He applied this statement not only to men and women in ‘irregular situations,’ but also to those in a homosexual relationship. Again, Archbishop Chaput offered a clear argument against such a view, stating that “any such ‘blessing rite’ would cooperate in a morally forbidden act.”

Cardinal Marx appears to be advocating situation ethics: one must consider the context of an act, rather than more rigid, absolute ethical standards.  Such a position appears to support moral relativism. In that sense, his view suggests that subjective feelings about Christian love and mercy should take priority over established principles of morality. It is important to note that the Church has condemned situational ethics since objective laws of morality cannot be made subject to love or any other personal feelings.

An opening for change in doctrine or practice?

Cardinal Parolin (the Vatican Secretary of State) in an interview on Vatican Radio this January 11, 2018, has stated that the changes that Amoris Laetitia appears to be suggesting “represents a new paradigm for the spirit and approach to many situations.” Proponents of a so-called “new paradigm” refer to the encyclical’s stressing that many may find themselves in circumstances where a rigid application of Church doctrine or canon law would not provide a merciful pastoral practice. As a consequence, their subjective conscience, with a process of discernment, could allow some divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion. That same reasoning could justify the use of artificial contraception in some cases. The advocates of this “new paradigm” argue that it is a change in practice, not doctrine.

Those who disagree with this interpretation say that by emphasizing “mercy” over doctrine, the proponents are setting the stage for offering “exceptions” to rules expressed by canon law and the Catechism. Their concern is that additional exceptions could then be allowed, for example, for same-sex marriage and abortion. In turn, such actions are not just a change in practice but, in fact, serve as a change in doctrine.

Was dissent in the box before Amoris Laetitia?

While these controversies may well have been around for years, there is no doubt that the publication of the encyclical brought them into the public light. For example, there have been some German Cardinals (most noticeably Cardinal Walter Kasper) who have been supportive of the notion of a discernment process with the possibility of communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. There were some Catholic priests in Ireland that supported the 2015 Irish referendum on same-sex marriage using the justification of diversity, inclusiveness, and mercy. Birth control has been a debatable topic for years, and such organizations as Catholics for Choice have been advocating changes in Church teaching for years on abortion.

While having unorthodox voices from theologians and clergy is not a new phenomenon, what is worrisome is that now they are coming from cardinals, bishops and members of pontifical councils who speak with some authority. The expression of the various differences of opinion stimulated by the publication of Amoris Laetitia does cause confusion, especially because of media coverage.

What to think – confusion or dissent?

Confusion is seen, for example, in the RCIA classes that I teach. Questions get raised about what does the Church really teach about requirements for receiving communion, about contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage? Who speaks for the Church? I think that being part of the mystical body of Christ requires us faithfully to discern such questions in terms of how the Church is dealing with them currently.

Canon lawyers can render opinions about canon law for the Church hierarchy.  Likewise, the media would lead us to believe that there are many nuances and interpretations at play.  I believe that we too (as concerned laymen) are capable of making judgments if we stick to the basics and rely on the three resources below to understand and judge “true” Church teaching;

1) Sacred Scripture;

2) the teachings of the Magisterium as expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church;

3) the Church’s traditional practice.

Using those as guidelines I can only conclude that opinions and interpretations expressed by some clergy about communion for the divorced and remarried artificial contraception, and same-sex marriage, are not consistent with the teachings above and, thus reflect dissent and are out of step with Church tradition.

As Jesus tells us (Mt. 7:15 “ Beware of false prophets…”) we need to be aware of “false teaching” for it has always been around. Hopefully, the Magisterium will prevail and correct any deceptive teaching that is being promoted. In that respect, it was recently announced that an international conference is being scheduled in April to discuss and hopefully resolve these issues that have been raised.