Amoris Laetitia: Year One

The request for a Papal Audience by the four Cardinals who submitted the five dubia on Amoris Laetitia to Pope Francis in September 2016 is an encouraging sign for everyone dismayed by the doctrinal confusion that the Church is currently experiencing. Cardinals Caffara, Brandmüller, Burke, and Meisner have acted with fortitude and filial deference in asking Pope Francis to put an end to this situation fraught with danger for the Church.

They wrote in their April 25, 2017 letter: “Despite the fact that the Prefect of the Doctrine of the Faith has repeatedly declared that the doctrine of the Church has not changed, numerous statements have appeared from individual Bishops, Cardinals, and even Episcopal Conferences, approving what the Magisterium of the Church has never approved. Not only access to the Holy Eucharist for those who objectively and publicly live in a situation of grave sin, and intend to remain in it, but also a conception of moral conscience contrary to the Tradition of the Church.”

Pope Francis never responded to the dubia letter, and so far has not responded to this second letter seeking an opportunity to speak with him about these grave concerns.

The first letter sent by the Cardinals to Pope Francis, dated September 19, 2016, stated: “Following the publication of your Apostolic Exhortation ‘Amoris Laetitia,’ theologians and scholars have proposed interpretations that are not only divergent, but also conflicting, above all in regard to Chapter VIII. Moreover, the media have emphasized this dispute, thereby provoking uncertainty, confusion, and disorientation among many of the faithful.”

The escalation of the crisis in the intervening months is clear. The Cardinals note in their second letter that it is no longer simply “theologians and scholars” but now “Bishops, Cardinals and even Episcopal Conferences” that are saying things that contradict the Magisterium of the Church, and this despite the repeated statements by Pope Francis’ own Prefect of the Congregation of the Faith, Cardinal Müller, that the doctrine of the Church has not changed.

What are we to make of Year One of the Amoris Laetitia era? We have had: papal silence on the dubia; papal approval of a draft statement by a group of Argentine bishops of the Rio de la Plata region that opens the door to the reception of Holy Communion by divorced and civilly remarried Catholics; affirmations by Cardinal Müller that Holy Communion cannot be given to those living in a state of adultery; the publication by the pope’s own newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, of the statement by the Bishops of Malta that couples in invalid second marriages can receive Holy Communion if they at are at peace in their conscience with that decision; the reaffirmation by the Bishops of Poland that the teaching and discipline enunciated by St. John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio have not changed, and that only those civilly remarried couples who live as brother and sister may be admitted to Holy Communion; the Archbishop of Philadelphia saying the same thing; while the bishops of Belgium and Germany agree with the bishops of Malta and Rio del La Plata, Argentina.

The four Cardinals: Brandmüller, Caffarra, Burke, Meisner

This is the current unholy mess. As the four Cardinals lament: “And so it is happening – how painful it is to see this! – that what is sin in Poland is good in Germany, that what is prohibited in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is permitted in Malta.”

There cannot be a divided truth about the indissoluble nature of marriage, or the nature of mortal sin or the nature of human freedom and responsibility for one’s freely chosen acts. The truth is one and must be defended from errors and misinterpretations.

Geographically different doctrine within the same Catholic Church is not simply bizarre. It is impossible. If such is found to be the case, then we are dealing with error in one place and true doctrine in another. It is not that hard to tell which is which.

In an explanatory note accompanying the dubia, the Cardinals prophetically identified what would be at stake if Amoris Laetitia did, by the express intent of Pope Francis, change the Church’s discipline concerning the non-admission to Holy Communion of those living in an adulterous union:

It would seem that admitting to communion those of the faithful who are separated or divorced from their rightful spouse and who have entered a new union in which they live with someone else as if they were husband and wife would mean for the Church to teach by her practice one of the following affirmations about marriage, human sexuality, and the nature of the sacraments:

— A divorce does not dissolve the marriage bond, and the partners to the new union are not married. However, people who are not married can under certain circumstances legitimately engage in acts of sexual intimacy.

— A divorce dissolves the marriage bond. People who are not married cannot legitimately engage in sexual acts. The divorced and remarried are legitimate spouses and their sexual acts are lawful marital acts.

The logic here is airtight. If either of these alternatives is in fact what Amoris Laetitia intends, then it is Amoris Laetitia that needs to be revised. If Pope Francis did not intend either of these alternatives, then it is reasonable to ask him to clarify this as chaos and division spread, thus putting an end to the further growth of beliefs and practices contrary to the doctrine of the Faith.

The lay faithful ask to be confirmed in the Faith of the Church, and pastors of souls, especially parish priests, ask to be freed from what the Cardinals call in their second letter a “situation of confusion and disorientation.” These are holy desires. It cannot be in anyone’s true interest to leave matters where they now stand.

The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D. is a canon lawyer and the pastor of Holy Family Church in New York City. His new book (with Diane Montagna), Calming the Storm: Navigating the Crises Facing the Catholic Church and Society, is now available.