The confusion over Pope Francis’ Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) continues to worsen, and the criticism of it by both bishops and scholars is daily growing more pointed and precise. From its first appearance in March of 2016, many Catholics found this document, especially its eighth chapter, to contain statements and principles that either subtly or blatantly contradict Catholic teaching on marriage, sexuality, and the sacraments. More recently, four cardinals – Walter Brandmüller, Raymond Leo Burke, Carlo Caffarra, and Joachim Meisner – addressed a private letter to the pope, asking for clarifications on five key points of confusion. After receiving no response for two months, the cardinals decided to release their letter to the public. From this release, the four cardinals have been openly criticized and maligned by many in the Church, especially those sympathetic to the liberal perspectives of Pope Francis. Yet, there is also growing support for the four cardinals and the questions and objections posed in their letter. For example, an international group of twenty-three scholars recently published the following statement:
“As Catholic scholars and pastors of souls, we wish to express our profound gratitude and full support for the courageous initiative of four members of the College of Cardinals, Their Eminences Walter Brandmüller, Raymond Leo Burke, Carlo Caffarra and Joachim Meisner.”
In addition, two more scholars have published a statement entitled, The Misuse of Amoris Laetitia To Support Errors against the Catholic Faith, explaining how many passages in the pope’s document may be easily used to directly contradict Catholic teaching. Finally, Bishop Athanasius Schneider, in a talk given at the Laponto Foundation in Rome, has been especially blunt in his criticisms of Amoris Laetitia. He said,
“An ecclesiastical authority that issues norms or pastoral guidance that provides for such admission, arrogates to itself a right that God has not given it. A pastoral accompaniment and discernment that does not communicate to the adulterous person, the so-called divorced and remarried, the divinely-established obligation to live in continence as a sine qua non condition for admission to the sacraments, exposes itself in reality as an arrogant clericalism, as there does not exist any clericalism so pharisaical as that which arrogates to itself rights reserved to God.”
Finally, previous to the release of the document, and after reviewing its contents, as many as thirty cardinals had warned the pope that Amoris Laetitia would only weaken marriage, but the pope chose not to listen.
To state the obvious, the ideas proposed in Amoris Laetitia amount to changes in Catholic teaching and practice, especially regarding the reception of Holy Communion by those living in “second” marriages. Catholic doctrine, in accord with Holy Scripture, clearly teaches that civil divorce cannot break a sacramental marriage, so that those Catholics who divorce and enter into a second “marriage” are actually living in a state of adultery, since they remain married to their first partner while they live and have sexual relations with their second partner, to whom they are not actually married. And to be clear, this document proposes that such adulterous couples who continue to have sexual relations may, in certain cases, receive Holy Communion.
To use the popular accusations and judgements of the day: Are these notions of marital and sexual morality only pharisaical rigidity? Are they indications that one is seeing only in black and white? Are they the merciless precepts of nostalgic fundamentalist ideologues? Absolutely not! The issues involved in the Amoris debate concern fidelity or infidelity to the moral teachings of Jesus Christ. There is no other way to say it.
Speaking through the prophet Malchi, God revealed the divine perspective on divorce:
“…You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor at your hand. You ask, ‘Why does he not?’ Because the Lord was witness to the covenant between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Has not the one God made and sustained for us the spirit of life? And what does he desire? Godly offspring. So take heed to yourselves, and let none be faithless to the wife of his youth. For I hate divorce, says the Lord God of Israel…” (Mal. 2:13-16).
While debating with the Pharisees on the subject, Jesus said,
“For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery; and he who marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Mt. 19:8-9).
From the beginning, it was God’s intention that man and woman should marry and remain faithful to each other for life. Divorce, therefore, clearly contradicted the divine will, but under the Old Covenant and through Moses, it was tolerated due to the hardness of human hearts. With the establishment of the New Testament in Christ, however, the original will of God was re-established. Divorce was forbidden, but if a couple should divorce, at the very least they could not attempt to marry again as long as their spouses were still living. For since divorce cannot break the marital bond, but only death can, attempting to enter into a second marriage would constitute adultery – that is, living and having relations with one partner, while still being married to another.
Notice that, in the controversy between Jesus and the Pharisees, the Pharisees argue on behalf of divorce and remarriage, while Jesus forbids them. In other words, Phariseeism in this case entails the toleration of divorce and remarriage – and thus, adultery – rather than the condemnation of them – quite contrary to the way the charge of Phariseeism is carelessly thrown around these days. In this case, Jesus is clearly the “doctor of the law” type, the uncompromising teacher of black and white morals, rather than the halting moralist whose mercy is seen in his laxity.
The Catechism teaches the following on this subject:
“In his preaching, Jesus unequivocally taught the original meaning of the union of man and woman as the Creator willed it from the beginning: permission given by Moses to divorce one’s wife was a concession to the hardness of hearts. The matrimonial union of man and woman is indissoluble: God himself has determined it: ‘what therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder’” (CCC 1614).
“The Lord Jesus insisted on the original intention of the Creator who willed that marriage be indissoluble. He abrogates the accommodations that had slipped into the Old Law” (CCC 2382).
In light of these passages from the Bible and the Catechism, it is clear that divorce and “remarriage” amount to the mortal sin of adultery. Man cannot make right that which God has declared to be wrong. To do so is to indulge in a moral authority that he does not possess.
Christ foresaw all the difficulties that would follow from His teaching about divorce, all the hardships that married couples would face, including the pains of “failed” marriages and the loneliness that follows them. Nervertheless, He declared these moral truths, and it is the responsibility of the Church to proclaim them and of Catholic couples to live them. By divine grace, all things are possible, including the humanly impossible.
Parallel to the teaching of Christ on divorce is another remarkable warning: “Do not give dogs what is holy; and do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under foot and turn to attack you” (Mt. 7:6).
The so-called “dogs” and “swine” in this passage refer to the Gentiles in general, or more specifically, to sinners who reject the ways of the one true God. In other words, that which is holy is not to be given to those who are morally unfit to receive it or to appreciate it, for such would be a sacrilege. And sacrilege neither pleases God nor helps the sinner or the unbeliever.
Saint Paul took these principles a step further and made a defined connection between the issues of sin and that which is supremely holy; namely, Holy Communion. He wrote,
“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (1 Cor. 11:27-29).
This last excerpt provides the biblical basis for Catholic teaching. Any person guilty of a mortal sin must first be reconciled with God in the sacrament of Penance. Only after repenting of and confessing the sin may he or she receive Holy Communion. To receive our Eucharistic Lord while in a state of mortal guilt is to commit an additional grave sin of sacrilege. To permit people to commit such a terrible sin is neither compassionate not pastorally responsible.
Adultery is a mortal sin. Hence, the Church has always taught that people guilty of adultery must not receive Holy Communion. This is not an arbitrary law or a mere custom of the Church. Rather, like the Ten Commandments, it is divine law, and man cannot change the moral laws established and revealed by God. In fact, all people will be judged by this divine law, regardless of how they felt about it or whether it seemed in their view to be rigid, pharisaical, or overly black and white. Who are they to judge God?
The problem with Amoris Laetitia is that it proposes the reception of Holy Communion for some couples who are in invalid second “marriages” and who, in spite of understanding the teaching of the Church on the subject, nevertheless continue to have sexual relations. Previously, the Church in certain cases would allow such couples to receive Holy Communion only if they would live together continently, as brother and sister. In other words, the acts of adultery would first have to end before they could receive. Amoris Laetitia proposes a change in this requirement, and Pope Francis has repeatedly confirmed this.
Practically speaking, that one couple, knowingly and freely living in a state of ongoing adultery, committing one act of adultery after another, can receive Holy Communion, while another couple that has – say – neglected to keep the one hour Eucharistic fast cannot receive, reveals a moral system that is both inconsistent and incoherent. And should that adulterating couple be instructed to observe the Eucharistic fast out of respect for the Most Blessed Sacrament? Let their pastor try to make sense out of that one! Talk about straining out a knat and swallowing a camel!
It is in light of these principles that the controversy over Amoris Laetitia must be waged. It is not a matter of right or left, conservative or liberal, modern or traditional, but of right teaching or wrong teaching, of observing Christian morality or indulging in the world’s immorality. For the Holy Eucharist is the most sacred thing we have, since it is Jesus Christ Himself. To show an indifference in receiving Him is a scandal unto itself, and one that will lead to other acts of disrespect towards God. And just as importantly, the controversy poses a threat to our understanding of the very nature of Christianity itself; that is, are its teachings revealed by God or are they merely composed by men?
Religions have come about in various ways. Some religions are the collected musings of imaginative individuals, some are the nonsensical ramblings of lunatics, some are the result of experimentations with altered states of consciousness, some are the fabrications of opportunists, some are the result of contact with demonic spirits, while others are the fruit of sincere human inquiry into the mysteries of the soul, the afterlife, right and wrong conduct, and the nature of the Supreme Being. Religions that are the fruit of sincere human searching contain some truths and possess a certain value and nobility, and can be effective preparations for the reception of the Holy Gospel. But whereas the world’s religions are the result of man’s search for God, Christianity is the result of God’s search for man. As a result, they are worlds apart.
Christian teaching is the direct consequence of God’s having come in the flesh to walk among us, teach us what we could never have discovered by reason alone, demonstrate for us the meaning and nature of true righteousness and holy love, and finally, reconcile us with Himself through the Cross, thus making salvation possible for the first time since the infamous fall of our common parents. In other words, Christianity is a religion of divine revelation, and on this fact it either stands or falls.
Christian doctrine and morality are not human doctrine and morality. Rather, they are God’s doctrine and morality. They are founded on objective truths about God, man, the world, and the future that have been shown to us by our Creator, not arbitrarily, but purposefully, so that we may know, love, and serve Him in accord with His will. If a person does not believe this, if they instead believe that Christian doctrines and morals are merely the pious musings or the oppressive assertions of human beings, then he or she lacks substantial reason to be a Christian. And specifically, if a Catholic does not believe that the Catholic Church is God’s chosen means for making known this saving truth and dispensing the saving grace that accompanies it – and all this by the promised Spirit of Truth – then in the same way, he or she lacks substantial reason to be a Catholic.
The controversy over Amoris Laetitia concerns, not only the particulars of moral and sacramental theology, but also, the very nature of Christianity as a world religion among other world religions. If a pope may legitimately alter or eliminate any teaching he wishes, if he may simply ignore clear and emphatic commands made by Christ and Saint Paul, then Catholicism is not the true religion, but only one religion among many other equal religions, and the notion of a “one true religion” is only a fantasy. If divinely revealed teachings can be derided as “rigid,” and then new human teachings put in their place, then the proper order of the two great commandments has been reversed, and the Church is loving others in a manner that conflicts with the love of God.
When Christ gave St. Peter, the Apostles, and their successors the authority to teach, sanctify, and govern the faithful in His name, saying, “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven,” He did not give them an absolute authority. They could not then abolish the Ten Commandments and the Gospel precepts. Rather, such authority was given so as to uphold, expound, and defend the truths and laws of God in the face of opposition to them or confusion about them. The Church possesses no authority whatsoever to deny what Christ has asserted in the Gospel.
Confusion in serious matters of religion is not of the Holy Spirit, but of the devil, especially if that confusion concerns teachings which had previously been clear and certain. And the teachings regarding adultery and the reception of Holy Communion have been quite clear and certain. Yet, Amoris Laetitia has caused such confusion that even the bishops cannot resolve it; even they now disagree on fundamental matters of morality. Hence, if one is in Poland or certain dioceses in the Untied States, one cannot be an adulterer and receive Holy Communion; but if one is an adulterer in Germany, Belgium, or the Philippines, one can receive Holy Communion. This is a disaster that parallels the confusion of denominationalism. It makes the Catholic Church appear no better off than the countless sects and factions that resulted from the Protestant rebellion of the sixteenth century.
The Catholic Church and faith will survive, no matter what we do to them. But the fact is, the ancient faith is presently being neglected and assaulted by those who have the responsibility from Christ to be its chief defenders. In such difficult circumstances, we must all “contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). For we are not members of a football team or cheerleaders on the sidelines; rather, we are disciples of Jesus Christ, and it is our duty and privilege to live and die for the faith He taught…even when our leaders betray that faith. There can never ever be a good excuse for being a bad Catholic.
I stand firmly with the four cardinals, twenty-five scholars, and thirty cardinals against the confusion caused by Amoris Laetitia. But rather than have each confused passage be painstakingly resolved in an effort to “save” the document, I would personally prefer to see either the eighth chapter removed or the entire document withdrawn. Let’s end this catastrophic confusion by altogether eliminating the cause.
Let me conclude with one more superb passage from the Catechism concerning both Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition:
“Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication, and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith” (CCC 87).