LifeSiteNews: Catholic Philosopher: Amoris Laetitia Uses Orthodoxy as ‘Mask’ to Conceal Moral Errors

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Photo:  Prof. Claudio Pierantoni

By Diane Montagna, LifeSiteNews, Oct. 10, 2017

ROME, October 10, 2017 (LifeSiteNews) — Italian philosopher and former friend of Pope John Paul II, Rocco Buttiglione, last week attacked the authors of the “Filial Correction,” criticizing them for standing as “judges over the Pope,” of not discussing but “condemning,” and of being unfaithful to the the text of Amoris Laetitia.

In the October 3 interview with Vatican Insider’s Andrea Tornielli, one of Pope Francis’ closest media advisors, Buttiglione critiqued the seven heresies the Correctio authors and signatories accuse Pope Francis of propagating, arguing that in each case the correctors did not understand what the Pope was trying to say. Buttiglione also accused the authors and signatories of “isolating Pope Francis by opposing him to his predecessors,” and cast them as mostly fringe academics. Yet he acknowledged that the Correctio document has had “a great echo in the media.”

Now an acquaintance of Buttiglione, and one of the shapers of the “Filial Correction,” Italian philosopher and Church historian Claudio Pierantoni is responding to Buttiglione’s criticisms. Pierantoni, professor of Medieval Philosophy at the University of Chile, says to accuse the signatories of standing as judges over the Pope is “false and tendentious” and a surprising “act of calumny.” He also takes on Buttiglione’s attempt to rebut the correctors’ charges of spreading heresy.

In this interview, Pierantoni explains how Amoris Laetitia Chapter 8 skillfully interweaves the authentic Catholic doctrine about extenuating circumstances with the heterodox concepts of situational ethics, according to which there are “no intrinsically evil actions” and, in some situations, “what is normally evil may be the right choice, so it can objectively be a good act.” The doctrine of extenuating circumstances, Pierantoni argues, is being used here as “a mask to conceal situational ethics.”

As to the other heresies being challenged, Pierantoni regards Buttiglione’s rebuttal as “extremely rushed and superficial,” and says it does not do justice either to the complexity of the issues raised, or to the extensive bibliography that has appeared on the subject.

“A person of Buttiglione’s intellectual and moral standing” would never defend “such an indefensible text,” Pierantoni concludes, if he were not doing so “in order to defend a preconceived position, an ideological choice ultimately based on a false concept of the papacy.”

Here below is our interview with Professor Pierantoni. The authorized Italian text can be found here.

LifeSite: Professor Pierantoni, how do you know Rocco Buttiglione? Have you spoken with him in the past about issues surrounding Amoris Laetitia?

Prof. Pierantoni: I met Rocco Buttiglione a decade ago here in Santiago de Chile as a student of Josef Seifert’s International Academy of Philosophy (IAP). For many years, Buttiglione has been one of the most qualified teachers of the academy, and has held various executive positions. Within this circle of friends of the IAP, I participated in an ongoing debate via email among the members or ex-members of the Academy, since the day, you might say, when Amoris Laetitia was issued. We have exchanged dozens of emails on the topic, always on very warm and friendly terms, despite our differences of opinion.

In his October 3 interview with La Stampa, Rocco Buttiglione seems to think there is no real difference between accusing the pope of spreading heresy and accusing him of being a heretic. Is that fair?

No, it seems to me that this isn’t fair at all. There is a clear difference between “material heresy” (which refers objectively to the content of what the Pope is being charged with propagating through his words, deeds and omissions) and “formal heresy,” which would refer subjectively to his person and to his personal imputability. Now, this is very clearly excluded in the Correctio Filialis (CF). After defining what the crime of heresy consists in, we specify: “The above descriptions of the personal sin of heresy and of the canonical crime of heresy are given solely in order to be able to exclude them from the subject of our protest. We are only concerned with heretical propositions propagated by the words, deeds and omissions of Your Holiness. We do not have the competence or the intention to address the canonical issue of heresy” (Elucidation, pg. 12, emphasis added). There is, therefore, an obvious difference between what is said about the content and what is stated about the person. It’s rather hard to imagine that Buttiglione has overlooked or doesn’t understand this difference.

It is equally false and tendentious to say that we are setting ourselves up or acting as judges of the Pope or as Tribunal of the Holy Office, when, to the contrary, we clearly state, in the very first pages: “As subjects, we do not have the right to issue to Your Holiness that form of correction by which a superior coerces those subject to him with the threat or administration of punishment (cf. Summa Theologiae 2a 2ae, 33, 4). We issue this correction, rather, to protect our fellow Catholics and those outside the Church, from whom the key of knowledge must not be taken away (cf. Lk. 11:52) – hoping to prevent the further spread of doctrines which tend of themselves to the profaning of all the sacraments and the subversion of the Law of God” (CF pg. 2).

In light of this should we assess Buttiglione’s completely unfounded statement: “Here a group of men stand as judges over the Pope. They do not raise objections, they do not argue. They judge and condemn.”

Let us leave aside the fact — perhaps Buttiglione forgot — that objections, discussions, questions and the ‘dubia’ were submitted to the Pope for 17 months, and none of them received a response. But to reach the point of saying that we are judging or even condemning the Pope is a real act of calumny that I would have never expected from him.

Buttiglione seems to deny this distinction when he goes on to lay such a stress upon the difference between the objective gravity of adultery and the subjective guilt of the adulterer. Is there a significant difference between adultery and heresy in this regard?

There is certainly an important difference, because in the case of material heresy, the heretical statement can be understood in itself, independently of the person who made the statement. The act of adultery, because of its nature, has no existence independent of the agent, even though it can be considered in the abstract. But there is also a clear analogy between them, because in both cases the objective element (i.e. what is said about either the actual fact, or the actual sentence he expresses) is opposed to the subjective element (i.e., what is said of his personal guilt). So it’s strange, as you say, that Buttiglione does not take this opposition into account, which is precisely the main point of his argument against us.

Rocco Buttiglione also seems to suggest the signatories of the correction deny the need for full knowledge and full consent for a grave sin to be mortal. Is this fair?

More precisely, Buttiglione says that the critics of Amoris Laetitia on this point have changed their minds: “Critics began by arguing that under no circumstances can the remarried-and-divorced be in God’s grace. Then someone (I, for example) reminded them that to commit a mortal sin, not only is grave matter necessary (and adultery is certainly a grave matter of sin) but also full knowledge and full consent of the will. Now they seem to be backtracking: they have also understood that in some cases a person who is divorced and remarried may not be at fault due to subjective extenuating factors (lack of full knowledge and full consent of the will). What do they do to cover up their retreat? They attribute to the Pope the affirmation that the divorced/remarried person who remains in his situation with full knowledge and full consent is nevertheless in a state of grace.” (emphasis added).

This “backtracking” or “retreat,” which Buttiglione attributes to us, is completely invented by him. His suggestion that dozens of colleagues were suddenly hit by a case of amnesia when Amoris Laetitia came out, and that they all simultaneously forgot such an obvious aspect of moral doctrine, seems rather improbable, not to say frankly absurd.

Of course, this is not the case: we all already knew about the existence of the doctrine which considers full knowledge and deliberate consent essential for imputability. Therefore, it’s obvious that we took it as a given. Indeed, if Amoris Laetitia chapter VIII were only dealing with this, as Buttiglione claims, no one would have been scandalized. On the other hand, if it was only for the sake of repeating something that is already so widely known, none of the editors would have taken the trouble of writing this famous Chapter VIII of AL. The fact is that, albeit skillfully interwoven with many statements on subjective responsibility and full knowledge, AL VIII contains several very clear affirmations of “situational ethics.” According to this doctrine, absolute prohibitions don’t exist, and there are situations in which the violation of a negative command can be a morally good act. This doctrine was vigorously condemned by Pope St. John Paul II in the encyclical Veritatis Splendor which, not coincidentally, is never cited in Amoris Laetitia. This has already been highlighted in dozens of articles, which Buttiglione cannot ignore, particularly because the main arguments have already been repeated in a number of letters both by Professor Seifert and by me and others.

Buttiglione has not been able to respond effectively to these arguments, and has limited himself to repeating that there is nothing more in AL VIII than the traditional doctrine regarding subjective extenuating circumstances. It must be accurately emphasized that, as much as the text of AL tries to mix the doctrine of extenuating circumstances, which in itself is orthodox, with situational ethics, which on the other hand is heretical, we are dealing with two entirely different things. The first argues that, although an action may in itself be evil, there can be elements, such as a state of serious psychological impairment, or ignorance, which diminish, or even annul, subjective guilt.

Instead, situational ethics states that there are absolutely no intrinsically evil actions and that, in some situations, what is normally evil may be the right choice, so it can objectively be a good act. I will cite a crystal clear passage in this regard, Amoris Laetitia paragraph 303, which states: “Naturally, every effort should be made to encourage the development of an enlightened conscience, formed and guided by the responsible and serious discernment of one’s pastor, and to encourage an ever greater trust in God’s grace. Yet conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal.”

Why is this passage especially relevant?

As Professor Seifert explained in a now famous article, which cost him the chair in Granada (and as I then sought to clarify in a subsequent article in defense of Seifert: “Josef Seifert, Pure Logic and the Beginning of the official persecution of Orthodoxy within the Church”), Amoris laetitia affirms, regarding a situation that “does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel” (viz. the prohibition of adultery), that one may “come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits” (AL 303). This is an extremely problematic claim. In the first place, AL distorts reality when it calls what is actually a commandment to be strictly observed, a mere “ideal” (Latin “exemplar”). Note that in the same sentence it calls it “demand” (“mandatum”). But there is something worse: we realize that here it is said that “a given situation [that] does not correspond objectively to the commandment of the Gospel” would be “what God himself is asking.” (emphasis added). This implies, just as situational ethics holds, that there are not absolute commandments. The text in question does not speak of a decrease in guilt, or of ignorance, but instead says that the subject discovers, based on “the development of an enlightened conscience, formed and guided by the responsible and serious discernment of one’s pastor” that the action is good: it is nothing less than “what God is asking.”

Now Buttiglione defends even this truly indefensible passage very cleverly, but to do this he is obliged to introduce an element that doesn’t appear in the text at all. Indeed, Buttiglione states: “The Pope does not say that God is happy with the fact that divorced-and-remarried continue to have sexual intercourse with each other. The conscience recognizes that it is not in conformity with the law. However, the conscience also knows that it has begun a journey of conversion. One still sleeps with a woman who is not his wife but has stopped taking drugs and going with prostitutes, has found a job and takes care of his children. He has the right to think that God is happy with him, at least in part.” (emphasis added.)

For Buttiglione, then, God would be happy, with the person in question, not in relation to the situation that does not correspond objectively to the commandment of the Gospel (the adulterous situation), but with other (good) things. And really, if AL said this, no one would object. Unfortunately, however, the text does not say this, since it does not refer to other aspects, but it says loud and clear, to quote it once more, that “a situation that does not correspond to the commandment of the Gospel” — this situation, not something else — is “what God himself is asking.” So AL 303says something completely different from what Professor Buttiglione would like it to say. And yet Buttiglione claims that it’s us who are making the Pope say what he didn’t really say.

Rocco Buttiglione seems to be saying that a priest can advise a penitent to receive Communion, even if he is an unrepentant adulterer, so long as he lacks full knowledge and full consent. But wouldn’t the priest be obliged to form the penitent’s conscience so that he did have full knowledge and full consent, and so either had to stop committing adultery or abstain from receiving Holy Communion?

And here we come to the most obvious contradiction of the text under consideration: in fact, in addition to what we have already illustrated about the presence of “situational ethics,” recourse to the issue of diminished awareness or of ignorance directly conflicts with the main theme proposed by Amoris Laetitia VIII: “to accompanying, discerning and integrating fragility.”

Throughout this process of accompaniment and discernment, which should culminate in sacramental confession, it is logical to expect that the person is brought to know the truth of his situation: sacramental absolution then will only be possible to give to those who, once conscious of their sinful situation, repent of it. It’s unthinkable that, in a process of discernment of his adulterous situation, the penitent confess only his other sins, those he would “be aware of,” while he would not be aware of the adultery, which is precisely the matter about which he is being accompanied and discerning.

In general, this contradiction means that the doctrine of extenuating circumstances is not used correctly in the document; in fact, if the main theme of the text is “accompanying and discerning,” i.e. helping someone become aware and take stock, it doesn’t make sense to then invoke, in this same context, the lack of awareness.

And so Buttiglione’s claim that we are unfaithful to the text, in his initial example, also falls apart. He says: “Let’s take an example: in their second proposition they attribute to the Pope the statement that the remarried divorcee who remains in this state with full knowledge of the nature of their act and full consent of the will, is in God’s grace. Whereas the Pope says something else: in some cases, a person who is divorced and remarried who remains in that state without full knowledge and full consent of the will can be in God’s grace.” Now, it’s true that the Pope refers to extenuating circumstances, but the fact is that this reference conflicts with what is supposed to be taking place, which is discernment. It is, in fact, contradictory to claim “to discern” and yet be “without knowledge.” So these “few cases” in which full knowledge is lacking certainly exist, but you cannot pretend that they belong to the subject under consideration. From this observation, one realizes that the doctrine of extenuating circumstances is used here only as a mask to conceal situational ethics.

St. John Paul II says: “It would be a very serious error to conclude that the Church’s teaching is essentially only an ‘ideal’ which must then be adapted, proportioned, graduated to the so-called concrete possibilities of man, according to a ‘balancing of the goods in question’. But what are the ‘concrete possibilities of man’? And of which man are we speaking? Of man dominated by lust or of man redeemed by Christ? This is what is at stake: the reality of Christ’s redemption.” Are the signatories saying that (if Pope Francis is acting with full knowledge and full consent) he is guilty of this “very serious error” and implicitly denying “the reality of Christ’s redemption”?

In AL VIII the frequent reference to “the limits of the situation,” which supposedly hinder the observance of the commandment, is implicitly, but clearly, proof that the text is materially in conflict with the canons of the Council of Trent which condemn the statement that it is impossible for a man who is justified to observe the commandments. However, I must again emphasize that we absolutely make no judgement on the issue of whether the pope is personally guilty of this error. On the contrary, we explicitly deny both to have the intention and the power to do it. In this, we clearly distinguish ourselves from Buttiglione, who instead takes the liberty of harshly judging us, even attributing to us “great malice” (in his commentary to our fourth censure).

In general, what do you think of Buttiglione’s rebuttal of your propositions?

It seems clear to me that it’s an extremely rushed and superficial rebuttal: the very fact that Buttiglione thinks he is refuting us with these few sentences is frankly surprising to see in such an intelligent and reflective person. As we have seen from the few examples cited from the Correction, each sentence deserves a long treatment, and a rich bibliography has already appeared about each one. And, as I’ve already said, Buttiglione is not ignorant of this. And so this attitude rather reveals a certain nervousness, a certain anxiety to hurry away from a much more complex situation than Buttiglione is willing to admit. I sincerely hope that he comes back and reflects more seriously about this whole situation.

How far is the neo-conservative movement in the Church responsible for creating this crisis by confusing (over many years) ultramontanism for orthodoxy?

Certainly there is some responsibility: far too often it’s been the case that many people say that something is true “because the pope said it,” avoiding the trouble of studying the sources of the Tradition and Scripture, and also the difficulty of thinking through the philosophical foundations of ethics. This is definitely something we need to correct: the papacy is an immense gift for Catholics, but it shouldn’t be turned into an incentive for ignorance and laziness, as when people adopt the Pope’s position uncritically, without really examining or understanding the issues.

In the present case, I am compelled to point out that a person of Buttiglione’s intellectual and moral standing would never defend such an indefensible text, if he were not doing it in order to defend a preconceived position, an ideological choice ultimately based on a false concept of the papacy.

Do you think Pope Francis knows full well the rule that he is supposed to teach orthodox doctrine, but has great difficulty in understanding ‘its inherent value’?

I have taught for a decade in a theological faculty here in Latin America, where I have gotten to know many Jesuits, both as colleagues and as students. In light of this experience, I have come to the conclusion that, unfortunately, Pope Francis has deeply absorbed, both within the Company of Jesus, as well as from certain German universities (which in turn have profoundly influenced theology here in Latin America), more than one idea that has little to do with Catholic orthodoxy.  One of these ideas is the sovereign contempt for everything that is “doctrine” (and for those who dedicate themselves to defend it). Such contempt is summed up in his famous maxim: “Reality is superior to ideas” (which we already discussed in our previous interview).

Providentially, however, this same disdain for “doctrine” prevents him from presenting as genuine magisterium (which precisely would be “doctrine”) the opinions that he holds as a private teacher.