The renowned philosopher Josef Seifert issued a cri de coeur last month expressing grave concern that if Amoris Laetitia n. 303 is taken literally (as some are in fact doing), this could destroy Christian morality by suggesting that God can command immoral acts.
Despite the professor’s acknowledged expertise and dedicated ecclesial service, the Archbishop of Granada, Javier Martínez Fernández, immediately accused him of damaging the communion of the Church and announced Seifert’s “resignation” from a philosophical institute associated with the archdiocese. Shooting the messenger, however, is not a solution unless one is prepared to keep shooting because the underlying concern will not go away.
That concern cannot go away because it goes to the heart of Christian life. It focuses on the precise point where some of those seeking to “develop” the Church’s belief and practice regarding remarriage after divorce have introduced, intentionally or not, a concept entirely foreign to the Gospel. To understand what is at stake, it is necessary to examine two very different justifications being offered.
Many advocates of change seek to justify their position by invoking Aquinas and the Catholic moral tradition regarding situations in which a person commits an objectively immoral act, but is subjectively innocent due to circumstances of ignorance or diminished freedom. This part of their rationale is sound. No matter how heinous an ongoing action might be (e.g., adultery, abuse, arms trafficking, or exploitation of immigrants), without sufficient knowledge and freedom there is no culpability.
Opposition to their proposed “developments,” therefore, has not been directed against their appeal to the objective-subjective distinction. Instead, the dispute revolves around pastoral and theological issues concerned with the well-being of the subjectively innocent person. For example, whether he should receive Holy Communion despite being aware that he departs from Catholic belief and practice. Or how best to deal with the ignorance and compulsion that trap him in a situation that, despite his innocence, is actually (i.e., objectively) harmful to him and others.
A further challenge is to establish criteria and processes by which a person could rightly set aside a marriage vow based on his innocent conscience even though that decision involves the first spouse, the children, the “second spouse,” the community, and God.
To date, these proponents have not offered their critics precise solutions that safeguard the well being and rights of all parties. This is deeply troubling, but not the ultimate source of concern.
The real problem is that some of the innovators do not base their justification on the objective-subjective distinction, but on a radically different claim that the subjectively innocent person is actually doing what is proper under the circumstances.
For instance, they say that despite the Gospel “ideal” of marital fidelity, those in second unions may engage in sexual relations with a “second spouse” if that is necessary to preserve their common life and the well-being of the children. Thus, the duty to the first marriage is set aside in favor of an alleged duty to have sexual relations in the second.
Dr. Seifert’s concern, shared by many Catholics, is that this approach transforms objectively immoral behaviors like adultery into legitimate moral duties. No longer is the subjectively innocent person considered to be innocently doing the wrong thing, but to be doing the right thing for the right reasons given the complex circumstances.
This would mean that God is not merely tolerating the harm done by objectively immoral behavior while he works to free a subjectively innocent person from error and constraint, but that He is actually (i.e. objectively) proposing this behavior in the present situation. Pastoral accompaniment, then, should do likewise.
Advocates of this radical theory naturally want to claim papal approval, so it is easy to see why they might try to co-opt AL 303 (emphasis added):
Conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal.
Of course, were the innovators’ theory and interpretation of AL correct, that would mean an end to Christian morality rooted in the evangelical life of the Church. For whatever Gospel “ideals” the Church proclaims, God could actually “ask” someone to believe or act differently according to circumstances.
Yet the truth is God asks no one to sin, he never abandons us to circumstance, and he always provides sufficient grace to live the fidelity of Christ. If we fail, it is either because we embrace sin or because we suffer from ignorance or mitigated freedom. It is not because God proposes such actions.
No doubt, conscience maintains its integrity in the midst of innocent error and coercion. It does not, however, always maintain accuracy in its role as the “voice of God.” An internal refraction can take place, which distorts or counterfeits that voice without the person being aware.
Someone who follows a mistaken conscience is not in sin, but neither is God the source of what the conscience proposes, such as committing adultery to “preserve” family life. In fact, the awareness that one’s conscience departs from the actual life and teaching of the Church is itself the small, whispering voice of the Bridegroom summoning the person to a new and freer way of life. Proper pastoral care –including overseeing access to Holy Communion – seeks to heighten that awareness, not diminish it.
It might seem ironic that those concerned for the well being of their second unions are greeted with a pastoral accompaniment open to approving their actions, whereas those troubled in conscience over the welfare of the Church are dismissed out of hand and declared enemies of communion.
It is not ironic. It is a sign that some innovators believe that questioning their agenda, unlike committing adultery, really is intrinsically wrong.