Some (Not Entirely Random) Thoughts on “Amoris Laetitia”

The following is excerpted and adapted from Robert Royal’s remarks at Assumption College’s panel discussion on “Amoris Laetitia” Thursday evening, along with USCCB President Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, Worcester Bishop Robert MacManus, Margaret McCarthy of the JPII Institute on Marriage and the Family, and EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo moderating. The entire exchange was videotaped and will be broadcast on EWTN at a later date. 

My natural tendency in dealing with a document like Amoris Laetitia (AL) is that we ought to stick to the words of the text. Everything else is speculation – the Spirit of this, the implication of that, claims that we need to read between the lines. If so, I would normally say, what’s the point of the lines?

But we’re not in a normal situation. When I was writing daily reports on the Synod, I tried to convey to people back home: don’t listen to every odd idea picked up by the media on a given day, pay more attention to responsible efforts by many bishops – usually ones not getting air time – to grapple with the problems facing the family in the modern world.

But the whole process of producing and presenting AL has made it impossible to take a solely textual approach. I have called the process and the substance “bizarre.” I meant this as no disrespect to the Holy Father or anyone, but as a description. How do you spend two years on something, and find yourself uncertain about what it means until a papal letter to some Argentinean bishops is – not published – but leaked, and only confirmed when it was impossible to deny? Bizarre. A strong word, I know, but apt.

I’m going to put on a William Jamesian/American Pragmatist’s hat and argue that we can partly know what something is by what it does. And AL has done many things beyond its confusing text.

Consider: When Paul VI issued Humane Vitae in 1968, which reaffirmed the Church’s ban on artificial contraception, there was no doubt what he meant. It was unpopular in some quarters, of course, but the pope made a responsible decision, and that responsibility entailed making clear exactly what the decision was.

Can anyone say with certainty what, precisely, Amoris Laetitia teaches? This is where the “bizarre” makes its initial appearance. We seem to have a text that wishes to say, with Cardinal Kasper, that there are cases of divorced and remarried Catholics whose moral condition could allow them to receive Communion.

A perfectly clear thesis, though highly debatable – not least since it has never been the practice in the Western Church. What’s clear is that it seeks to extend a kind of mercy amidst widespread confusion and social breakdown, which have obscured the bases and meaning of marriage.

Pope Francis invited Kasper to make this case to bishops in Rome in February 2014, ahead of the first Synod. On the flight back from Greece this year, asked if AL has changed Catholic teaching, Francis answered, “Posso dire di si,” – “I can say yes, many things,” but then deferred to Cardinal Schoenborn’s interpretation, the day of AL’s release, in order not to give a “simplistic” answer.

Cardinal Kasper with the pope
Cardinal Kasper with the pope

I find this, too, bizarre. Even Cardinal Kasper has said Communion for divorced and remarried is nowhere in the document. Two ambiguous footnotes, vague suggestions in several passages? If that was what was intended, why not say so openly?

Indeed, that is precisely why it took a “clarification” to a group of Argentine bishops to – apparently – have settled the matter.

Bishops in Argentina and Canada and the USA immediately made clear – when the Argentinean letter was released – that this does not mean unqualified Communion for everyone divorced and remarried, but a question about special cases. We’ll see how long those qualifications will remain in our current cultural situation, when everyone thinks he’s a special case.

Here’s where a William Jamesian/American pragmatist approach helps. Part of the meaning of this text emerges from what it does. Some of us predicted after the Synod that we could soon have a Catholic Church that was not universal. That what was a sacrilege in Poland – taking Communion while divorced and remarried – would, if you drove to Germany, become regarded as a new outpouring of mercy.

No one predicted conflicts within countries, which we now have – Rome permitting, Florence not permitting Communion. Or between different parishes. And we’re also hearing that individual conscience is the ultimate arbiter. In Washington, we note that when a politician wrestles with his conscience, it’s remarkable how often he wins.

And here we reach the heart of the bizarre. What was intended as a generous gesture within the troubled circumstance of modern marriage now threatens to become a practical schism. Cardinal Kasper just stated in an article that the scandal is not in the change; the scandal would be to deny the divorced and remarried Communion.

With all due respect to the Cardinal: those twenty centuries when the Church forbade Communion to the divorced and remarried, were they a large public scandal? Have we blessed and enlightened ones living in 2016 – not only in hacked Democratic Party emails – achieved a mercy and truth hidden from the Church Fathers, doctors of the Church, mystics, and saints that preceded us?

And poor Jesus Himself? Who made so shocking a statement about the indissolubility of marriage that his Jewish contemporaries mumbled, then, maybe better not to get married at all?

Ahead of the first Synod, Cardinal Pell gave a lecture and said, if it were up to me, I’d probably want to be a bit more lenient than Jesus. But he wasn’t, “and I have to be with him.”

By contrast, even though there’s no explicit statement changing who can receive Communion in AL, Cardinal Kasper has said to all who feel confused, “The alleged confusion comes from a third party, which has alienated itself from the faith and the life of the people of God.”

It’s sad that a Prince of the Church would say to a large – and perhaps the most loyal and active part of Catholics worldwide – that they’ve separated themselves from God’s people. And this in the closing days of the Year of Mercy.

Whether anyone feels or thinks better of marriage, inside or outside the Church, after all this, is, to say the least, in grave doubt.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.