A Diptych for a Cardinal

During a talk in Ireland, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn revealed that he had suggested to Benedict XVI that St. John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio (FC) and Francis’ Amoris Laetitia (AL) can be viewed as a sort of “diptych,” a pairing of artistic works that illuminates and transcends the meaning of each element. Benedict – he says – concurred, but did not accept the further assertion that FC is Platonic and AL is Aristotelean. The Cardinal’s anecdote and subsequent discussion of morality suggest it might be good to consider his remarks in light of another diptych: Raphael’s Vatican frescos of The School of Athens and Disputation of the Holy Sacrament.

The Cardinal’s claim implies that John Paul’s theology of marriage and the family expresses idealistic principles, whereas Francis’ realism allows us to apply those principles to the nitty-gritty of daily life. Raphael famously depicted these contrasting philosophical approaches in the two central figures of the School of Athens: Plato, the idealist, whose raised hand points to the heavens, and Aristotle, the realist, whose outstretched hand is turned to the earth.

That the Cardinal wants to read AL as a realist interpretation of the alleged idealism of FC is evident from his description of the moral life. He maintains that “Moral Theology stands on two feet: Principles, and then the prudential steps to apply them to reality.” For him, this is carried out through a discernment of conscience, which interprets the ideals within the context of human limitations. This produces a “right relation between principles and concrete application.”

The Cardinal praises AL for encouraging “a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of all particular [marriage] cases.” Once complete, this discernment can then address the question of reception of Holy Communion.

The difficulty with approaches like this is that they are founded on an inadequate premise. Christian morality does not stand on two feet; it stands on the person of Jesus who is the principle – the source – of our moral life. Morality is nothing other than living united to Christ. In turn, Moral Theology is fundamentally the study of Jesus and our life in Him, not of abstract principles and their application.

The School of Athens, 1509

The teachings and commands of the Gospel are not philosophical expressions needing rational analysis to be validated and, then, implemented in daily life. They are the words and deeds of Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, which reveal to us in a humanly understandable way who God is and who we are. Jesus expresses the truth, which, as such, is already attuned to the realities of life.

When Jesus says, “you shall not commit adultery” or “whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery,” He is not presenting an ideal or something that cannot be adequately put into words. He is announcing the concrete truth about Himself and is assuring us that, as the faithful God who has become the Bridegroom, He will never abandon us. He is also describing in unequivocal terms the reality of marriage, fidelity, and indissolubility.

Were these divine prohibitions merely abstract principles, then conscience would doubtless still find reasons for permitting remarriage after divorce. This would happen, not because such reasons are realistic or legitimate, but because without grace fallen human judgment and concupiscence have rarely led to the discernment that marriage is, by nature, indissoluble. Jesus revealed this truth as a remedy for our weakness and to foster our well-being. Consciences that erroneously “discern” otherwise, therefore, cause suffering and need healing.

This brings us to Raphael’s diptych. The philosophers of Athens discuss wisdom in an entirely earthly setting surrounded by statues of mythical gods; the participants in the Disputation are united to each other and to the saints in heaven in giving worship to the living God who, in the person of the Word, has taken flesh as Jesus, who is in glory, and is present as the Eucharistic Host on the altar. The earthly “disputants” are not engaged in partisan disagreement about who is adored in the Sacrament, but are instead discussing the wonder of that reality as members of the body of Christ, the Church.

The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, 1508

Raphael’s frescos remind us that fallen human reason can discern much, but does not entirely free itself from error (note the idols) or reach agreement regarding ultimate truths (Plato and Aristotle point in contrary directions), while God’s self-revelation in Christ gathers us in the Church to know, love, and praise him even as we seek to penetrate more deeply the mysterious reality of God and His works.

Christ’s nuptial union with the Church is, like the Eucharist, a reality rather than an ideal. And it reveals the reality of human marriage. (Eph. 5:31-32) The Gospel teaching appears “idealistic” only because the Fall has clouded reason and weakened the will as regards the reality of marriage in the face of life’s difficulties. Through Faith, the reality of marriage – and the impossibility of a second union after divorce – stands out as clearly as the Eucharist.

Contrary beliefs and practices do not help anyone but keep them from knowing Christ more deeply and leave them suffering needlessly from the unrealities of their lives.

Methods of discernment like the one proposed by the Cardinal cannot assist those in need or their priests. Without precise Christological criteria, fallen human reason and concupiscence cannot be expected to arrive at an accurate assessment of a first marriage, a second union, or the reception of Communion. All the more so when our Lord’s explicit prohibitions are treated as mere ideals. Such approaches are manifestly inadequate and unrealistic.

As long as Christian morality and doctrine are viewed as idealistic principles, their concrete meaning in life will be held hostage to the endless debates of diverse schools of philosophy and theology. Only when they are viewed within the Church as realities rooted in Christ and embraced in daily life will we be able to discover in them the true meaning of marriage, family, and all our joys and sorrows.


[Note: Both of the paintings discussed and displayed in Father Vaverek’s column are located in the Raphael Rooms in the Apostolic Palace in Rome.]

Fr. Timothy V. Vaverek, STD has been a priest of the Diocese of Austin since 1985 and is currently pastor of Assumption parish in the city of West. His studies were in Dogmatics with a focus on Ecclesiology, Apostolic Ministry, Newman, and Ecumenism. His new book is As I Have Loved You: Rediscovering Our Salvation in Christ (Emmaus Road Publishing). Click here to watch Scott Hahn interview Fr. Vaverek about about the book.