Fr. Gerald E. Murray: The Crisis We Are Living

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Photo:  Cardinal Kasper and the pope

By Fr. Gerald E. Murray, The Catholic Thing, Jan. 6, 2018

Fr. Gerald E. MurrayThe publication in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis of Pope Francis’ letter confirming the interpretation of Amoris Laetitia by the bishops of the Buenos Aires region marked a new phase in the serious crisis affecting the Church. We now know that the pastoral advice of this group of bishops embodies what Pope Francis intended in chapter 8 of AL. Pope Francis wrote to them: “The document is very good and completely explains the meaning of chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia. There are no other interpretations.” Pope Francis’ endorsement had previously been in the form of a private letter. Such a letter does indicate the pope’s mind on a certain matter, but it is not an act of official teaching for the whole Church.

With its publication in the Acta (along with the Argentinean document) under the new title of Apostolic Letter, and further described in an accompanying note as possessing the quality of “authentic magisterium,” it is no longer a private letter. And it’s no surprise that three Kazakh bishops this week issued a public statement affirming traditional teaching and (in an extraordinary move) were quickly joined by former nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò and Archbishop Luigi Negri – with perhaps others to follow.

It’s worth noting, however, that the Buenos Aires guidelines leave room for further interpretation by each bishop: “We believe it is convenient, as bishops of the same pastoral region, to agree to certain minimal criteria. We offer them without prejudice to the authority that each bishop has in his own diocese to specify them, complete them, or restrict them.” So the guidelines for interpreting AL do not ask individual bishops, in the Buenos Aires region or now of the whole world, simply to follow what they propose. Rather, individual bishops can “specify, complete, or restrict” the “minimal criteria.” And thus, the papal endorsement also implies that each bishop retains authority in his own diocese.

The advice given in the guidelines seems at first to reaffirm – but then contradicts – the constant teaching and discipline of the Church. The Buenos Aires bishops write: “When the concrete circumstances of a couple [in a second marriage] make it feasible, especially when both are Christians with a journey of faith, it is possible to propose that they make the effort of living in continence.” The encouragement to live as brother and sister, when their particular circumstances (for example, ill health, young children, advanced age) would make separating inadvisable, in order to receive worthily the help of the sacraments, was clearly taught by Saint John Paul II in various places.

The next paragraph, however, teaches the exact opposite:

In other, more complex circumstances, and when it is not possible to obtain a declaration of nullity, the aforementioned option may not, in fact, be feasible. Nonetheless, it is equally possible to undertake a journey of discernment. If one arrives at the recognition that, in a particular case, there are limitations that diminish responsibility and culpability (cf. 301-302), particularly when a person judges that he would fall into a subsequent fault by damaging the children of the new union, Amoris Laetitia opens up the possibility of access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist (cf. notes 336 and 351). These, in turn, dispose the person to continue maturing and growing with the aid of grace.

Here’s the problem: When a group of bishops teaches that persons in invalid second marriages are free to judge that it is not “feasible” for them to avoid committing acts of adultery, they are telling the faithful that they are not at fault for doing what the Catholic Church teaches to be gravely sinful. “Feasibility” means “the state or degree of being easily or conveniently done,” and even more precisely “capable of being done, accomplished or carried out.” The avoidance of mortal sin does involve difficulty and inconvenience. But the Church does not teach that grown-up people in their right minds are incapable of obeying God’s commandments.

To say to someone that it may be infeasible for him to refrain from acts of adultery is to advise him that, in effect, he is not subject to God’s law in this matter. When pastors tell Catholics living in sin that they are not really guilty of mortal sin as long as they decide that they cannot “feasibly” observe God’s law, the shepherds have seriously failed them.

This unchristian fatalism of denying man’s freedom and ability to avoid committing mortal sin leads to the incredible claim that adultery is not that bad for some people, that they are free to receive both sacramental absolution and Holy Communion without renouncing the intention to commit acts of adultery, and that this reception of the sacraments will “dispose the person to continue maturing and growing with the aid of grace.” This plainly contradicts the Gospel as taught by the Church through the ages.

Cardinal Walter Kasper recently said: “universally valid objective commandments . . . cannot be applied mechanically or by purely logical deduction to concrete, often complex and perplexing, situations.” He denies that this is moral relativism: “[this] has nothing to do with situational ethics that knows no universal commandments, it is not about exceptions to the commandment, but about the question of [sic] understood as situational conscience cardinal virtue of prudence.”

To justify this novel position, Cardinal Kasper caricatures the Church’s unwavering fidelity to God’s word as a “mechanical” (read “inhuman”) attempt to apply “purely logical deductions.”

It is offensive to describe fidelity to the Church’s perennial doctrine and discipline in the matter of divorced and remarried Catholics as acting as an unthinking and uncaring machine. Speaking Christ’s truth is the perpetual mission of the Church’s pastors.

As the Kazak bishops rightly say: “The Catholic faith by its nature excludes a formal contradiction between the faith professed on the one hand and the life and practice of the sacraments on the other.”

Yet that is where one arrives if one claims that for some people mortal sin is both inevitable and inculpable. The Gospel is compromised, the constant Magisterium of the Church is repudiated and those who object to this are stigmatized.

Herein lies the crisis we are living.


The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D. is a canon lawyer and the pastor of Holy Family Church in New York City.