I am going to risk a prediction: 2018 will be the year we see an end to the fighting over Amoris Laetitia.
This might seem rather presumptuous, given that just this week five bishops have underscored the Church’s traditional teaching on the reception of Communion by the divorced and remarried. The bishops’ statement is a positive delight to read for its clarity of thought and expression – especially after some of the tortured sophistries we have had to endure of late.
The document unflinchingly reminds us that some things are just wrong, and no amount of personal reflection or mitigating circumstances can change that.
Seeming to address directly the various interpretations of that single contentious footnote in Amoris Laetitia (the one Pope Francis cannot remember), the five bishops quote St John Paul II: “The confusion created in the conscience of many faithful by the differences of opinions and teachings … about serious and delicate questions of Christian morals, ends up by diminishing the true sense of sin almost to the point of eliminating it.” This describes all too well the results, and I would say the intentions, of many of the opaque and tendentious “pastoral” guidelines which have followed Amoris Laetitia.
The doctrinal errors in interpreting Amoris Laetitia are part of a serious movement afoot in the Church to undermine her clarity of thought and expression on the moral order, especially regarding marriage, sexuality and personal conscience. What drives this movement? Let’s be clear: it has nothing to do with helping divorced and remarried Catholics. Those of us who work in marriage tribunals, where canonists and priests have more contact with such couples on a daily basis than most working in bishops’ conferences have in a year, can tell you that the divorced and remarried are, in the vast majority of cases, desperately seeking clarity from the Church, not to be told to “do whatever they think is right.”
Those so vocally opposing a “legalistic” approach, in which some things are objectively right or wrong, show themselves to be a peculiar kind of Pharisee. The law of the Church, including canon law, is made up of Divine Law, which no power on earth can change, and ecclesiastical law, which the Church promulgates on her own authority to better help the faithful understand their situation, live in accord with Divine Law and, ultimately, get to heaven.
Contrast this with many of the “interpretations” of Amoris Laetitia which call for the divorced and remarried to be admitted to Communion, even if they are living as husband and wife. Some are arguing that canon law can be twisted to vindicate a person’s situation through their desire for it to be different, even if they have no intention to change it. Essentially, as long as someone wishes they were really married, or wishes they were able to live according to the truth that they are not, that is close enough.
It is a nonsense solution which, even if it could technically be argued to satisfy ecclesiastical law (which it does not), would do nothing to change the Divine Law regarding the sinfulness of living with someone who isn’t your husband or wife as if they were. Those who think it could, do so from a dangerously flawed and warped legalistic mentality, one which thinks that the Church makes laws, and we get to heaven by following them. In fact, the Church uses law as a means of guiding us towards God’s truth, not reinventing it. Canon law is a tool, not a means of salvation. It is a light for our steps. Those using tortured philosophical and legal rationales to justify what the Church knows and says to be wrong are marking out a very different path, with a different destination.
The push for a change, or “development,” in Church teaching regarding the divorced and remarried has much wider implications. The real goal is to spin the Church into an abdication of her objective and absolute moral authority, especially in the realm of human sexuality. The language of “personal conscience” is being used to dress up the grave evil of moral relativism. Those fighting for it are the remnant and inheritors of the liberal generation of the 60s and 70s.
Which brings me to the reason I am predicting that the debates around Amoris Laetitia will come to an end in 2018. The reason is not that the Communion issue will be resolved, but that the faction will move on to their real agenda. This year will mark the 50th anniversary of the issuing of Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s affirmation of the dignity of human sexuality, and the intrinsic and unbreakable link between the unitive and procreative aspects of the sexual act.
Last year the National Catholic Register’s Edward Pentin quoted a “well-respected Church figure” as telling him during the 2014 family synod: “Of course, you realise this is all about Humanae Vitae. That’s what I think they’re after. That is their goal.” Pentin says the current mood in Rome suggests his source knew what she was talking about. I have to agree with him: the efforts to “interpret” Amoris Laetitia and the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage will prove to have been a mere dress rehearsal for an all-out assault upon Pope Paul’s great encyclical.
At the time of the cultural and sexual revolution, the Church spoke powerfully and prophetically against the inevitable consequences of what was happening. In the last half-century, Paul VI’s encyclical has proven ever more prescient and relevant. It is a bitterly comical irony that, just as wider society is beginning to wake up to the consequences of a sexual ethic based solely on consent and the pursuit of personal fulfilment, the Church is having to defend herself against those within who deny not just the Church’s teaching, but the last 50 years of history which have so convincingly vindicated it.