America Comment

Why Cardinal Wuerl’s ‘Amoris Laetitia’ document is open to abuse

Cardinal Donald Wuerl (CNS photo/Tom Tracy)

As this magazine has reported, the Archdiocese of Washington has published a detailed pastoral plan for the implementation of Amoris Laetitia. The beautifully produced and lavishly illustrated booklet can be found on the archdiocesan website. It runs to 58 pages. Never before, as far as I can remember, has a Papal document produced such a response. I don’t remember anyone, for example, producing something similar for Familiaris Consortio or even for Veritatis Splendor. Amoris Laetitia is clearly, as some see it, in a class of its own. Why this should be, given that it is only one post-Synodal Exhortation among many, is not immediately clear.

Moving onto the text of the document, which says a lot of things no one could possibly disagree with, one immediately wants to know what it has to say about the reception of Holy Communion by those who are living as man and wife in unions that are not recognised by the Church, specifically the divorced and the remarried. But on this the document has nothing to say at all – at least not specifically. The canonist Ed Peters has, however, spotted one phrase in which may be a coy reference to this matter, though it is hardly clear and specific.

“Priests are called to respect the decisions made in conscience by individuals who act in good faith since no one can enter the soul of another and make that judgment for them.” SJL, p. 52.

Dr Peters points out that this could apply to those living in second unions as well as to people in numerous other situations. He is not at all happy with the implications of this from a canonical perspective, and neither am I from a moral perspective.

The sentence seems to say that everyone can be the judge of his or her own case. This implies that moral decisions are subjective. In other words, when I ask myself should I go to Holy Communion (a question we all need to ask ourselves, by the way), the answer depends not on my consideration of objective criteria, but on something much less robust, namely how I feel about myself and my actions. So, instead of asking myself whether I am in a state of mortal sin, and whether my actions constitute mortal sin – using the criteria of grave matter, deliberate choice and full knowledge – instead I ask myself whether I feel guilty or not. But as we know, lots of people who have done gravely immoral things feel no guilt at all, because they have practiced self-absolution.

Of course the sentence above does say “in conscience” and refers to those acting “in good faith”, but I am not at all sure that this reflects the riches of the Second Vatican Council’s teaching about conscience, found in Gaudium et Spes 16. That famous passage starts off thusly: “In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience.” The Washington statement seems to tend in exactly the opposite direction, hinting that we make the law for ourselves, rather than discovering a pre-existing law that calls us to obey.

As this magazine reports, Cardinal Wuerl has spoken of “the understanding of the family as the site of God’s revelation lived out in practice.” Again, this is difficult territory. The whole of human experience is the locus for the living out of Divine Revelation, but, and it is a huge but, Divine Revelation must not be reduced to whatever we think our lived experience makes it. God calls us upwards, onwards, to ever deeper understandings of truth. He never pats us on the back and tells us that our sin-stained experience is what we are meant for. Family life is not the end point of Divine Revelation – with the exception perhaps of the Holy Family of Nazareth – it is rather a staging post on the way to salvation, which is altogether different. We learn a lot in family life, but sometimes the most important lesson we learn is how wrong we are, and how badly we need Divine Grace.