Restoring the ancient tradition
23 February 2017 There is an exceptional level of turbulence in the Roman Catholic Church, and it arises from resistance to Pope Francis’ leadership. His critique of free-market capitalism, his outspoken sympathy for refugees and his strong support for measures to combat global climate change have been denounced in right-wing political circles. His reforms to the papal curia have been slowed down if not actually blocked by some of those affected. And his desire to temper the way certain moral teachings of the Church are understood and applied, as in his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, has stirred up an unprecedented level of opposition among conservative Catholics across the world.
Pope Francis does not stand alone. The nine cardinals who serve on his advisory council began their recent meeting with a spontaneous and unanimous vote of confidence in his leadership. There is no reason to suppose that the great majority of Catholics, bishops, clergy and lay people, would dissent from it. They would give Amoris Laetitia its obvious interpretation – that there are circumstances where the Church need not disapprove if a Catholic who is divorced and remarried receives Holy Communion. A series of articles in this edition of The Tablet shows that in this interpretation, Pope Francis is being consistent with past teaching and pastoral practice. There is no betrayal.
His critics include scholars of international standing who have put forward thoughtful arguments. They include Professor John Finnis of Oxford and four senior cardinals who have publicly challenged Pope Francis to defend his teaching or to retract it. Several bishops’ conferences have made pronouncements which insist that the rigid rules about Communion for remarried Catholics remain in force.
Yet the conservative side is in some disarray. One tactic is to insist that Amoris Laetitia cannot mean what most people interpret it to mean, because that would contradict long-established Church teaching. The principle they claim to be defending is wider than this one issue – it concerns the proposition that there are certain moral norms that apply in all circumstances, regardless of the consequences and regardless of the subjective judgements of an individual’s conscience. This may be right, but it is not the issue here, which is about access to the Eucharist when an individual is acting in good faith.
One approach to Amoris Laetitia is represented by Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth, who hailed it as a “magnificent document” but asked: “Does the Pope say the divorced and civilly remarried may now be readmitted to Holy Communion?” to which he answered: “No.” Amoris Laetitia must be assumed to be in continuity with previous teaching, he said. But not everybody supports his prohibition, even within his own diocese. Earlier this month Bishop Egan went on Twitter to say, “Council of Priests yesterday: Whom do we obey, the bishop or the pope? I’d say Both! But there’s a growing problem: let’s pray 4 the Church.”
However, the four cardinals do not find in Amoris Laetitia the ambiguity which reassures Bishop Egan and others that nothing has really been altered. They find straightforward doctrinal error. There has been no change in Canon Law, certainly. Though it contains no explicit ban regarding remarried divorcees, Canon 915 states: “Those ... obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.” In 2000, the Vatican issued a document which insisted subjective good faith made no difference to the binding effect of Canon 915. But Amoris Laetitia takes a different approach. “Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors,” Pope Francis writes, “it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.” He adds: “I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion. But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness ...”
In fact this is traditional Catholic teaching, and it is the 2000 document on the interpretation of Canon 915 which is the anomaly. It even orders priests to instruct lay Eucharistic Ministers to refuse to give Communion to those who are known to be remarried divorcees. Pope Francis has set it aside.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, published seven years earlier, states that “imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors”. In his exhortation Familiaris Consortio of 1981, Pope St John Paul II called for discernment in judging cases, saying: “There is in fact a difference between those who have sincerely tried to save their first marriage and have been unjustly abandoned ... Finally, there are those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children’s upbringing, and who are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably destroyed marriage had never been valid.”
It is arguments such as these, firmly traditional, which allowed the bishops of Malta to declare that when a person comes “with an informed and enlightened conscience, to acknowledge and believe that he or she is at peace with God, he or she cannot be precluded from participating in the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist” – despite the fact that they remain in a sexual relationship as part of a second marriage that the Catholic Church has not recognised. In other words, they are deemed not to be “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin,” which would bring them under Canon 915. They are acting in good faith.
In the opening chapter of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis sets out his stall. “Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church,” he says, “but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it.” He deserves a grateful vote of confidence from the whole Church for being a “faithful servant of the servants of God” who has not departed from the ancient tradition of the Church, the tradition of mercy, but who has restored it.