Determining the precise meaning of the pastoral guidance in Amoris laetitia (AL) for the reception of Holy Communion is not the real crisis facing the Church. AL is tangled up in a centuries-long struggle with Subjectivism, which seeks to establish the primacy of private judgment as the effective norm for Christian life. No response to the Cardinals’ dubia can resolve this crisis, therefore, because AL did not start it. And besides, the controversy has now reached the stage that the question facing us is the authentic interpretation of the ordinary Magisterium of the Church, not the meaning of prudential guidance found in lesser pastoral letters of individual popes or bishops.
Subjectivism’s attack on the Gospel is rooted not only in the Reformation’s “private interpretation” of Scripture, but in the subsequent individualism and relativism that has characterized the Modern and Post-Modern West. It’s the same error that Cardinal Newman opposed in the 19th century. Although Newman famously defended conscience, he insisted that its only private judgment was the act of accepting the Church as teacher, after which it was bound to be docile to the Church’s normative proclamation of the Gospel.
He was affirming the apostolic truth that in conscience, as in life, we stand before God with Christ and the Church, not alone. In the 20th century, Subjectivism metastasized among Catholics and other Christians, stripping many mainline Protestant denominations of their witness and membership, and giving rise to the disastrous misinterpretation of Vatican II (the so-called “Hermeneutic of Discontinuity”). Humanae Vitae (HV) was a watershed, of course, and false moral theologies gained popularity from that time forward.
Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI labored throughout their ministries to address the errors of Subjectivism with minimal denunciation, preferring careful, clear, and consistent affirmations of the Faith that presented the authentic spirit of Vatican II. In retrospect, they seem to have been attempting patiently to reunite the Church and calmly to guide us out of confusion.
They made significant headway among the younger generation of committed Catholics and, at least in America, younger clergy. They did not, however, win over many of the older adherents of Subjectivism among the theologians, clergy, and bishops. Thus the 21st century found the Church stronger, but with the controversy unresolved. This is the overarching context of Pope Francis, the two synods, and Amoris laetitia.
The pre-existing struggle over Subjectivism explains how a few inconclusive passages in a simple papal exhortation have been taken as justifying fundamental changes in Church belief and practice. Otherwise, the passages would have been interpreted and the pastoral issues resolved in continuity with all that came before.
Instead, we see an effort to promote practices regarding marriage and morality that – regardless of the interpreters’ intentions – accord with the subjectivism of the already-refuted moral theologies of the past fifty years. Particularly at risk are the truths that:
1) the Gospel taught by the Church is a realistic norm of behavior rather than merely a guide or an ideal;
2) in every circumstance God gives the grace to live the Gospel norm;
3) a valid marriage is permanent, and
4) marriage, conscience, and reception of Holy Communion are Christological and ecclesial rather than strictly private.
We know from the HV crisis what happens next. Once false beliefs and practices are publicly allowed or mandated, it will become almost impossible to call the misled bishops, priests, theologians and faithful back to fidelity even through determined pastoral efforts lasting decades.
By definition, the priests and bishops affirming the truth will be undercut because they will be unable to point to uniform belief and practice. There will be efforts to assert that inaccurate or false interpretations of the Gospel are consistent with the authentic Magisterium, representing the true “development,” “renewal,” or “spirit” of the Catholic faith. To be successful, these efforts will need to marginalize critics, stooping to name-calling (e.g., “Pharisee,” “nostalgic,” and “rigid”) or labeling them a disloyal minority.
The Maltese bishops and others have already independently gone beyond the text of AL to assert that the established teaching of the Church mandates that those “at peace” in conscience (a situation not limited to the “remarried”) be admitted to Holy Communion. Thus, they claim to speak for the pope’s “real” intentions in AL and to offer the only authentic interpretation of the Catholic faith. The implication, sometimes stated explicitly, is that those who disagree are not acting “in communion” with the pope.
Thus, in a single year the issue has gone from considering Holy Communion in rare cases for the “remarried” to entrusting local bishops with determining policy, to mandating Holy Communion for everyone in “good” conscience, to claiming this innovation is integral to being in communion with Rome. If this latter position stands, there will be no room for the consciences of priests or the authority of bishops who disagree.
To be clear: what is now being promoted – sometimes in the Vatican’s own newspaper – are theologies and practices that heretofore were rejected as contrary to the Faith. Recall the aftermath of HV and consider where we will be in a few years if the teachings on conscience, marriage, and Holy Communion are abused and abandoned by laity, clergy, and bishops at the same rate. Only prompt action would prevent grave damage to souls and to the life of the Church.
The question is not AL. The question is whether the new approach reflects the ordinary Magisterium of the Church in communion with Rome as claimed and, if not, what is to be done.
After HV the Church engaged in a Cold War against Subjectivism without complete success. That strategy will not work today when the mere passage of time could prove catastrophic as misinterpretations of the Magisterium spread. With the meaning of the Gospel at stake, the faithful need from the pope and the bishops more than ambiguous guidance, silence, or dueling policy statements. We need the clarity and authority of a witness worthy of the Apostles.