Rorate Caeli

Guest Op-Ed: Amoris Laetitia and the new church of Francis

By Veronica A. Arntz

Rejecting False Teachings on Marriage:
An Analysis of Rocco Buttiglione’s Article

In 1997, Rocco Buttiglione wrote a book entitled Karol Wojtyła: The Thought of the Man Who Became Pope John Paul II, which is a beautiful and faithful interpretation of the Pope’s philosophical thought, particularly of his early works of Love and Responsibility and The Acting Person. If Buttiglione has such a deep understanding of the Pope’s philosophy and theology, it is surprising that, in a recent article in L’Osservatore Romano entitled “The Joy of Love and the Consternation of Theologians,” he argues that the much-debated post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia has the same end in mind as Pope John Paul II’s own theological vision. This article appeared at an unfortunate time, coming about a week prior to the release of censures against the document from theologians and scholars around the world. The common mistakes made in Buttiglione’s article (with all due respect to its author) regarding Amoris Laetitia are worth describing, for they are the most confusing for the faithful.

Let me make two preliminary remarks regarding Buttiglione’s article. In reflecting on Amoris Laetitia and the Pontificate of Pope Francis, he remarks that the “learned class” seems to criticize the Pontiff, but “the sensus fidei of the Christian people immediately embraced and followed him.” Speaking strictly in terms of the document Amoris Laetitia, we know that is simply untrue. From the very beginning, Rorate has explained parts of it (here, here, and here, among others). And, in a 2014 First Things article by Luma Simms, we read the following heartfelt message:

The day my soul became Catholic was the day I found out that as a divorced and remarried woman, I could not receive Communion. Tears of sorrow and joy flowed. Sorrow because I had then grasped the truth of transubstantiation, only to find I couldn’t consume, and joy because at last we found the ground of real authority—his Church, the one he founded, the one tasked to keep all he taught her Apostles.

She concludes her article, after describing the attraction of the beauty of the Church’s teachings on marriage, family, and the Eucharist, in comparison to her previous Calvinistic beliefs, with the following words: “I have run to her [the Church] for shelter. I now pray—for my sake, for my children’s—that the Church will not waver.” Clearly, not all the faithful have embraced the recent teachings on the divorced and remarried from the Pope. This woman describes how important it is for the Church to adhere to her teachings, despite the sacrifices they require, because then she is upholding the will of Jesus Christ. The only ones who have “embraced and followed” the Pontiff in these matters on the divorced and remarried are those who are poorly catechized or cohorts of the liberal agenda.

Second, Buttiglione writes, “Let’s try to read the most controversial part of Amoris Laetitia through the eyes of a child.” It becomes clear throughout the article that, for Buttiglione, to be a child means to look at things naively, without an informed vision of the Faith. This perspective is the opposite of how Christ himself understood the child. The thought is based on the following words of Christ: “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3 RSV). A child in the Kingdom of Heaven is not naïve concerning the teachings of Christ; rather, he is docile and humble in the sight of God, willing and ready to follow his Lord’s commands. In the words of the Psalmist: “His delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:2). The child of God is always open to hear God’s laws. St. Paul speaks of the process of maturing in the Faith: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways” (1 Corinthians 13:11). A true child of God does not look at the Word of God without a mature understanding of the Faith; he does not fall into false ideologies and individualistic interpretations of the Church’s teachings.

With these thoughts in mind, there are four areas of concern within this article that should be addressed. Buttiglione begins by describing the Catechism of his youth, promulgated by Saint Pius X, who wrote on the necessary components for mortal sin: the object must be grave matter, the individual has full knowledge of the evil, and the individual must give full consent. All of that is true. Buttiglione then applies this concept to specific situations and Amoris Laetitia:

Can we imagine circumstances in which a divorced and remarried person finds himself or herself living in a situation of serious sin without full knowledge or deliberate consent? Perhaps a woman was baptized but never truly evangelized, entered marriage superficially, and then her spouse abandoned her. Perhaps a man entered a union with someone he was helping in a moment of serious crisis. He sincerely loved her and became a good father (or a woman a good mother) for the sake of the children the spouse had from the first marriage.

All of these situations are certainly imaginable and perhaps happen on a frequent basis. Let us review the first situation. Clearly, Buttiglione has in mind a woman who may not realize that she is living in a state of serious sin when she remarries after her spouse abandons her. In the case of this woman’s first marriage, what does it mean that she “entered marriage superficially?” Was she taken away by her passions, or did she not fully intend what the Church intends? In the latter case, then it is possible that the first marriage was not even valid. If, however, she was only poorly catechized concerning marriage, and was marrying because she had the feeling of love for this man, without fully understanding the Church’s teachings, this would not be sufficient grounds for an invalid marriage, as we read in Canon 1099. 

“Error concerning the unity or indissolubility or sacramental dignity of marriage does not vitiate matrimonial consent provided that it does not determine the will.” Thus, even if the woman in this particular situation had made an error about (or did not fully understand) the essential characteristics of marriage (so long as she was not willing something else), this first marriage would still be valid. Why is this true? John Paul II spent much of his pontificate defending the idea that marriage is natural; because marriage is written into the very natures of man and woman, it is difficult not to know what marriage really is. Even when children grow up in a household with divorce (much like the children of Ms. Simms), marriage is still written into their very natures, and this may explain why so many are able to recognize that divorce is not good. To quote from John Paul II’s 2001 Roman Rota address, “The ordering to the natural ends of marriage—the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring—is intrinsically present in masculinity and femininity. This teleological characteristic is crucial for understanding the natural dimension of the union” (art. 5).

Still considering this woman’s situation, we have the added difficulty that her spouse abandoned her. Does this action make her marriage invalid? Not necessarily. If her husband intended, from their wedding day, to abandon her if she no longer satisfied him, then it would be invalid. But does this mean that the woman necessarily has the right to remarry without seeking a declaration of nullity? Many mistakenly believe that the subjective culpability lies within the divorce. This woman clearly did not want the divorce; why should she be punished for the separation? Even in this “no-fault divorce,” it is possible that a valid marriage may still exist, which holds the favor of the law (cf. Canon 1060). Thus, if this woman were to remarry after her first marriage, it is possible that she is committing adultery, because she is still married to the first man; a declaration of nullity would be necessary to show that there was never a first marriage. Moreover, if this woman, after entering into a second union, would have a renewed desire to pursue her Faith, only one conversation with a priest would be necessary to clear up any errors about the nature of second unions. It would be impossible for her to continue to remain in a state of grace in such a situation at that point, because she would have full knowledge of the sin of adultery.

In the second situation, in which the man marries a woman for the sake of the children, it is unclear from the text whether he is marrying her while the former spouse is still living. If the woman’s former spouse were still living, the second marriage would be invalid and considered adultery—regardless of marrying for the sake of the children. Furthermore, it is extremely rare to enter a second union without full consent; the only kind of sexual union that does not have full consent is considered rape. Very few actually enter into a union that would be considered rape. In this case of this man, unless he were pressured by the woman, he is consenting to marry her, which means that he is not actually marrying her under any “conditions,” as Buttiglione would suggest.

Buttiglione makes the following claim about Amoris Laetitia in light of this discussion, claiming that the document does not completely open the way for the divorced and remarried to receive Communion:

The Pope invites divorced and remarried persons to undertake (or continue walking along) the path of conversion. He invites them to question their conscience and to find help from a spiritual director. He invites them to go to confession and to be open about their situation. He invites penitents and confessors to walk the path of spiritual discernment.

This kind of accompaniment of the divorced and remarried is false, and in all actuality, the unmerciful option. As stated previously, one conversation with the priest could remove all of the confusion surrounding the Church’s teaching on the divorced and remarried. Because, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, adultery is “public and permanent” (CCC 2384), the couple would need to agree to live as brother and sister (at least until a declaration of nullity could be sought) in order to receive the sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist. Buttiglione asks the rhetorical question, “What if the partner refuses to do so [live as brother and sister]?” Then the answer is clear: they cannot receive the sacraments. This has been the constant teaching of the Church (cf. FC 84). The kind of accompaniment that Buttiglione is advocating here is a false application of the “law of gradualness,” as described by John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio (cf. art. 34). Even if the couple were poorly catechized and unaware of the Church’s teachings, they cannot be allowed to live with their erroneous consciences; rather, it is the duty of their “spiritual director” to explain to them the truth of their situation. This is why the following from Amoris Laetitia cannot be said concerning second unions: “One thing is a second union consolidated over time, with new children, proven fidelity, generous self-giving, Christian commitment, a consciousness of its irregularity and of the great difficulty of going back without feeling in consciences that one would fall into new sins” (AL 298). How could a couple be conscious of their irregularity, but not be subjectively culpable for the second union?

Let me make one final note, before turning to the next issue in this article. Buttiglione writes, “The path the Pope proposes to divorced and remarried persons is exactly the same the Church proposes to all sinners: go to confession, and the priest, once he has considered all the circumstances, will decide whether to give you absolution and admit you to the Eucharist or not.” The problem, once again, with adultery is that it is “public and permanent” (CCC 2384). A priest cannot offer absolution if the couple is still intending to have conjugal relations with each other. Unlike a theft, for example (unless the individual is a kleptomaniac), when the sin can occur once and be absolved (if there is true repentance), adultery cannot be absolved unless there is the intention to live as brother and sister—to no longer live in an adulterous union. It should also be noted that not once in the eighth chapter on accompanying the divorced and remarried does Pope Francis mention the sacrament of confession, except in fn. 351, which refers to the confessional as a “torture chamber.”

Let us turn now to the second difficulty in this article, which is related to the first. Buttiglione mentions how some believe that Amoris Laetitia contradicts John Paul II’s monumental encyclical, Veritatis Splendor. To this objection, he says, “Thus, there is no ‘ethics of circumstance’ in Amoris Laetitia, but rather the classic Thomistic balance that distinguishes between the judgment of the act and the judgment of the one preforming the act, in which case attenuating or exonerating circumstances need to be considered.” Considering that Veritatis Splendor is not mentioned or cited once in Amoris Laetitia, it is difficult to believe that Pope Francis is following his predecessor’s example. Let us consider some passages from Veritatis Splendor and then Amoris Laetitia. The first is when John Paul II is discussing the erroneous conscience and invincible ignorance.

Conscience is not an infallible judge; it can make mistakes…In any event, it is always from the truth that the dignity of conscience derives. In the case of the correct conscience, it is a question of the objective truth received by man; in the case of the erroneous conscience, it is a question of what man, mistakenly, subjectively considers to be true. It is never acceptable to confuse a ‘subjective’ error about moral good with the ‘objective’ truth rationally proposed to man in virtue of his end, or to make the moral value of an act performed with a true and correct conscience equivalent to the moral value of an act performed by following the judgment of an erroneous conscience (art. 62-63).

Even if the individual is invincibly ignorant, the action “does not cease to be an evil, a disorder in relation to the truth about the good” (art. 63). Here, John Paul II situates the conscience within the realm of truth. The conscience on its own cannot determine what is good; objective truth is necessary. An erroneous conscience subjectively believes something to be true, but he is wrong; we must always distinguish between the objective truth and the subjective error. Furthermore, John Paul II later says, “If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it…Consequently, circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act ‘subjectively’ good or defensible as a choice” (art. 81). Therefore, intrinsically evil acts, of which adultery is one (cf. CCC 1756), can never be considered good, no matter what the circumstances.

What does Amoris Laetitia say about the conscience? We read:

Recognizing the influence of such concrete factors, we can add that individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the Church’s praxis in certain situations which do not objectively embody our understanding of marriage. Naturally, every effort should be made to encourage the development of an enlightened conscience…Yet 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 (AL 303).

Notice the shift in rhetoric. Here, even if the conscience recognizes the objective good as is its end (cf. VS 82), it does not necessarily have to pursue that objective good. If the subjective conditions do not allow the individual to pursue the objective good, and this individual has discerned that to be so, then the conscience can be at peace with its actions. And, within this context, it is clear that the Pope is thinking of the divorced and remarried who are living in “complex” situations, perhaps couples who are living together for the sake of children. This leads the Pope to arrive at the following conclusion:

Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, 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 (AL 305).

How is it possible for both this passage and the passages quoted from Veritatis Splendor to be true? How can a divorced and remarried person, while admittedly living in a state of objective sin, be living in the life of grace? John Paul II was very clear: the situation’s circumstances do not omit the evil of an intrinsically evil action. Although Buttiglione denies the presence of moral subjectivism and situational ethics in Amoris Laetitia, when we look at these passages from the document in light of Veritatis Splendor, one can hardly agree with his statement.

The third error in Buttiglione’s article that we shall consider is his misapplication of the development of doctrine to the removal of excommunication for the divorced and remarried from the 1983 Code of Canon Law. Buttiglione writes of this change as “an extraordinarily courageous decision that broke from an age-old tradition.” (NB: Buttiglione fails to mention the many other drastic changes made in the 1983 CCL, including how these changes have either helped or hindered the Church. It should also be noted that there was a general push to remove excommunications from the 1983 CCL). While it may be true that this was a major change in Canon Law, it does not justify Buttiglione’s argument, namely, that we should also consider changing the practice concerning the divorced and remarried receiving Communion, even though Familiaris Consortio taught that they could not receive. The first sentence of John Paul II’s apostolic constitution, Sacrae Disciplinae Leges, written for the promulgation of the new 1983 CCL, says the following. “During the course of the centuries the Catholic Church has been accustomed to reform and renew the laws of canonical discipline so that in constant fidelity to its divine founder, they may be better adapted to the saving mission entrusted to it.” Thus, the Church’s canon law is changeable, so that the faithful can be in greater unity with the Faith given by Christ. Canon law is based on the divine faith, not the other way around. We derive our law from the Gospel message, which means that the law must always be in accordance with that message.

As such, the Church’s teaching on second unions as being adulterous comes from the Faith itself. Canon law did not first describe that or put it into the Church’s teachings. Rather, Christ himself established this law: “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” (Matthew 19:8-9). Therefore, we cannot simply change this doctrine as we can change Canon Law. Christ himself has given us this teaching, and it has been the constant teaching of the Church since that time, that whoever marries another while his or her spouse is still living is committing adultery.

The fourth and final error we shall consider stems from this discussion concerning excommunication of the divorced and remarried. Buttiglione argues that, at the time when excommunication was a penalty, “It was a legitimate pastoral strategy in a largely homogeneous society at that time. Divorce was an exceptional situation, [and] the divorced and remarried were few.” But, according to Buttiglione, the situation is different today. “Now divorce is a much more frequent phenomenon and there is risk of mass apostasy if the divorced and remarried abandon the Church and no longer give their children a Christian education.” This, unfortunately, marks the underlying problem within the whole discussion of the divorced and remarried receiving Communion (and not only in Buttiglione’s own argument).

Recently within the Church, there has been a strange acceptance of divorce, which is unlike any other time in history. While the Church recognizes that separation may be necessary, she always advocates for the couple to return to married and conjugal life if it is at all possible (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 1649, 2382-2386). Divorce has always been condemned by the Church; in fact, at one point, Pope Leo XIII wrote an encyclical praising Americans for how devoted they were to the indissolubility of marriage because they were “terrified by the licentiousness of divorce” (Longinqua Oceani, art. 14). In The Gospel of The Family: Going Beyond Cardinal Kasper’s Proposal in the Debate on Marriage, Civil Re-Marriage, and Communion in the Church (Ignatius Press, 2014), Stephan Kampowski firmly but appropriately writes, “It would be disastrous if her [the Church’s] pastors and teachers were to give the least impression of having come to terms with the fact that in most legislations in the world there exists the legal institution of divorce. It is a fact that she can never accept” (p. 136, emphasis added).

Yet it seems that the Church has accepted the fact of divorce. While the Church does not deny assistance to those who have experienced divorce, that does not mean we should change the pastoral practice of the Church because the rate of divorced couples has risen. If the Church changes her pastoral practice, a change in doctrine will follow. She is then accepting divorce as a reality, which would be giving the State credence over the divine institution of God. Yes, the Church does need to develop her pastoral assistance for the divorced and remarried. But the Church’s practice must insist more ardently on the beauty of the indissolubility of marriage, the importance of God’s commands even when they require sacrifice, and the reverence that is due to Christ in the Eucharist. That is the truly merciful practice, for it does not merely follow the changes of society, but rather, upholds the constant teachings of the Church.

In a 2014 interview with Real Clear Religion, Rocco Buttiglione said the following:

The Church taught me the right way to fall in love, to be faithful in love, to let love grow, and to have children. The Church taught me what it means to be a man, and allowed me to find a woman who knew what it means to be a woman. Don Ricci [an influential priest part of the Communion and Liberation group] taught me to watch women. He said: First the head, then the heart. Try to imagine that girl carrying a child, your son. Would you like to have that mother? It is important to help young people understand the real meaning of sex and marriage. If you learn to make use of perhaps the most important force of life, there is nothing that can move you.

This is the truth about the Church and marriage—how far he has fallen away in his most recent article! The Church should be protecting her teachings on marriage to help the young people discover the true meaning of marriage, rather than following the culture’s idea of marriage. We cannot accept a cheap version of those teachings, regardless of who promulgates them. We cannot be afraid of what the Church really teaches—that marriage is indissoluble, that it is between one man and one woman, that children are a necessary part of marriage. The world will continue to hate us for it, but we cannot forget that it has hated Christ first (cf. John 15:18). Therefore, let us remain faithful to Christ’s command concerning marriage, so that we might be more committed to the Church than to the world.

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