Two Priests Reflect on the State of the Church

Misusing St. JPII to Alter Doctrine

by Fr. Gerald E. Murray

The Jesuit review La Civiltà Cattolica recently published a “Conversation with Cardinal Christoph Schœnborn about Amoris Laetitia.” The Cardinal answered various pointed questions in terms that reveal a troubling effort to justify the well-known ambiguities and possible errors in AL by appealing to St. John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio. And he even claims, “now we must read the previous statements of the magisterium about the family in the light of the contribution made by AL.”

Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J. asked this question: “After this Exhortation, therefore, it is no longer meaningful to ask whether, in general, all divorced and remarried persons can or cannot receive the sacraments. . .?”

Schœnborn replied:

The doctrine of faith and customs exist, the discipline based on the sacra doctrina and the life of the Church, and there also exists the praxis that is conditioned both personally and by the community. AL is located on this very concrete level of each person’s life. There is an evolution, clearly expressed by Pope Francis, in the Church’s perception of the elements that condition and that mitigate, elements that are specific to our own epoch. “The Church possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations. Hence it can no longer simply be said that those in any ‘irregular’ situation 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 decide differently and act otherwise without further sin. As the Synod Fathers put it, ‘factors may exist which limit the ability to make a decision.’” (AL 301)

Note that the Cardinal believes there is “an evolution” in what he calls “the Church’s perception,” a euphemism for “an evolution in the Church’s teaching,” concerning the imputability of mortal sin to those who knowing “full well the rule” concerning the grave sinfulness of adultery, nevertheless decide to continue to commit adulterous acts while claiming various exculpatory reasons for not incurring mortal sin.

Fr. Spadaro then asks: “But this orientation was already contained in some way in the famous paragraph 84 of ‘Familiaris consortio,’ to which Francis has recourse several times, as when he writes: ‘Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations.’” (AL 79)


Schœnborn replies: “Saint John Paul II did indeed distinguish a variety of situations. He saw a difference between those who had tried sincerely to salvage their first marriage and were abandoned unjustly, and those who had destroyed a canonically valid marriage through their grave fault. He then spoke of those who have entered a second marital union for the sake of the upbringing of their children and who sometimes are subjectively certain in their consciences that the first marriage, now irreparably destroyed, was never valid. . . .John Paul II already presupposes implicitly that one cannot simply say that every situation of a divorced and remarried person is the equivalent of a life in mortal sin that is separated from the communion of love between Christ and the Church. Accordingly, he was opening the door to a broader understanding, by means of the discernment of the various situations that are not objectively identical, and thanks to the consideration of the internal forum.”

What Cardinal Schœnborn fails to acknowledge here is that St. JP II nowhere stated that the subjective culpability, or lack thereof, of divorced and remarried Catholics is the deciding factor in whether or not they should be admitted to the reception of the sacraments. John Paul taught: “However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: 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.” (FC 84)

The Church’s sacramental discipline and law is not based on a determination of the subjective guilt of the adulterer, but rather on the public fact of entering an invalid second union. Hence the law regulating the reception of the sacraments cannot “evolve” simply because some assert that, for various reasons, they are not culpable.

Given that, we can also ask if it is truly an act of pastoral charity to encourage people to think that they are entitled to assert a self-interested claim to innocence of mortal sin in spite of knowing that adultery is a mortal sin? Such assertions of an evolving relaxation of what it takes to be guilty of a mortal sin can easily lead the faithful to embrace rather than reject sinful behavior.

True pastoral charity demands that the Church’s shepherds issue a candid challenge to those who try to justify themselves in such matters: “How can you be so sure that you are not in state of mortal sin when you freely and knowingly commit adulterous acts? Isn’t it more likely that you are in fact guilty of doing what God does not want you to do? Adultery is still adultery even when you wish it were not so.”

John Paul II went on to state quite clearly:

Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage. This means, in practice, that when, for serious reasons, such as for example the children’s upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they “take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.” (FC 84)

What must change in order to worthily receive the Holy Eucharist is one’s way of life.

St. JPII’s real teaching does not support changing the Church’s discipline. The so-called evolution is in fact a misapplication of the moral reasoning the Church employs in evaluating one’s sins and one’s duties as a Catholic.


Houston, We Have a Problem 

by Fr. Mark A. Pilon

When Amoris Laetitia was first published, I knew immediately that a big problem was facing the Church. Reading Chapter 8 confirmed my judgment that the present pope has a serious problem with the Church’s teaching on moral absolutes, as so brilliantly presented in St. JPII’s Veritatis Splendor. In fact, I began to wonder whether one of the primary goals of the quickly summoned Synod on the Family, was precisely to overcome or correct the pastoral implications of the teaching on moral absolutes, and in particular the teaching on birth control and the pastoral problems that resulted from Humanae Vitae and Familiaris Consortio.

It seemed indeed strange that another Synod on the Family should be called so relatively soon after the 1980 Synod, which had already dealt with the Christian Family, and the exhortation Familiaris Consortio, which followed the next year. Had anything so radically changed in thirty-three years that might justify another synod dealing with the family? Had there been no really effective pastoral program that emerged from the earlier synod and the great exhortation that followed?

Of course, the wide spread legal recognition of homosexual marriage in many first-world western countries needed to be addressed. But that was hardly the main consideration that led to and was addressed by this Special Synod. The underlying interest in this special Synod seemed to be more to develop a more effective pastoral program related to marriage and family across the board.

But at the heart of the “more effective” approach was definitely the teaching found in Chapter 8, the teaching that quite clearly has gone astray from the essential teaching found in both Familiaris Consortio and Veritatis Splendor. Is it any wonder that Amoris Laetitia has brought great joy to the hearts of the German hierarchy, and others as well, who welcomed the new teaching that basically justifies a pastoral approach rooted in the dictates of private conscience and the effective relativism of moral norms?

While I found this all very distressing, I was and still am convinced that this obvious problem of the conflict between the traditional Church teaching, as enunciated by St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict, simply could not for long escape the scrutiny of a whole generation of moral theologians and bishops raised in the era of JPII. As in the case of Pope John XXII in the Middle Ages, there is bound to be a challenge coming, and perhaps that day has arrived.
In a recent issue of the Catholic World Report, there is a rather humorous but telling parody dealing with the interior contradictions of Pope Francis and his exhortation. It’s called A Different Kind of Papal Press Conference, and it is really quite well done and easily read and understood by non-experts.

Obviously, it’s not a theological argument, but often in today’s world this is where opposition begins to become public. It begins with a kind of light satire, but eventually is picked up by the more professional intellectuals, which will include some bishops.


The author uses, as an example, an unscrupulous and exploitive employer who cheats his employees out of their wages. He gradually has Pope Francis apply principles, found in his own exhortation, basically to suggest a kind of lenient pastoral solution that allows the unscrupulous employer to continue his practice in good conscience.
At the end, the author has a Polish reporter asking a series of questions that spell out the apparent contradictions in the two exhortations, Veritatis Splendor and Amoris Laetitia. Needless to say, the pope has a difficult time responding, and he resorts to some Germanic philosophical concepts about space and time to give a rather unconvincing, unintelligible answer.

But the contradictions involved here are really no laughing matter. This rather transparent attempt to establish a pastoral solution to broken marriages – and by extension, of course, to the much more extensive problem of Catholics practicing birth control – won’t stop with moral issues related to marriage and the family. The point of the CWR parody is that, once you embrace these moral and pastoral principles, the door is opened to much greater problems.
Just one for instance. The other night, I was talking with some friends and the conversation turned to what can be done, morally, to destroy ISIS. One of the guys was an ex-government operative; his solution was simply to annihilate the leadership in Raqqa by totally destroying the city. He recognized that this would entail massive civilian casualties, but he was convinced that only total war could destroy believers in total war.

A priest friend and I tried to explain how this violated the Church’s clear condemnation of total war as a crime against humanity. His response was based on something very much like a certain principle of Amoris Laetitia. He said that, while he saw this teaching as a moral ideal, there simply was no other way to defeat these terrorists and save even greater numbers of innocent lives. This is a common justification, but it would. I fear, become an even more deep-seated justification, if my friend were to become familiar with AL’s Chapter Eight.

My own reasoning here is somewhat along the line of what is found in Francis Ford Coppola’s movie Apocalypse Now. If the only way you can defeat your enemy is by adopting the total war strategy, as Colonel Kurtz argued, you will – with that choice – open us all to the ultimate horror of apocalyptic nuclear war and self-destruction.

When there are no more moral absolutes – only moral ideals – and when you teach that people can be justified in their actions as along as they are moving toward the ideals, you open up horrific possibilities.

To avoid this and other deadly problems, the Church will ultimately have to decide. Either John Paul II taught error in Veritatis Splendor or Francis has taught error in Amoris Laetitia. These are ordinary non-infallible teachings of the popes and thus are not totally guarded from error. But such errors can have terrible consequences for us all, and intellectual honesty and moral courage will eventually demand an answer as to who was right – and wrong.

The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D. is pastor of Holy Family Church, New York, NY, and a canon lawyer. Fr. Mark A. Pilon, a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, received a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from Santa Croce University in Rome.



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