There's been a recent exchange of rather-tense articles between Larry Chapp and Pedro Gabriel on the subject of the Magisterial document Amoris Laetitia, which was controversial at the time and which has seen the controversy reignited by a recent conference in Rome. Dr. Chapp has maintained that Amoris Laetitia (AL) was written in a way that it could be used to defend proportionalism contrary to the teaching of Veritatis Splendor (VS), even though it in principle only dealt with issues of culpability for sin, because of a dangerous (and perhaps even deliberate) ambiguity. Because of that ambiguity, as a practical and pastoral matter, the teaching of the Church is being disregarded. This is the "rupture" that Dr. Chapp points out, and it seems to me both that the criticism is entirely legitimate and that supporters of Pope Francis, including Gabriel, aren't actually answering that criticism.
There are historical examples of Popes being judged harshly for exactly this sort of "technically correct but practically dangerous" teaching, including the notorious cases of Liberius, Honorius, and Vigilius. In each case, while there is a legitimate defense that what was written did not dogmatically contradict the deposit of faith, it had the practical effect of making it more difficult to fight error. The case of Liberius and Hosius was probably the most innocuous, as Liberius's friend Athanasius the Great pointed out, because the faithful knew full well what the faith was and that any ambiguous statements by Liberius were going to be taken in a manner compatible with the faith. Mental reservations in a case like that are going to be much more apparent. Honorius seems to have been relatively oblivious to the theological controversy into which he was weighing, but that practical context made his decision to weigh in dangerous for the faith. Lastly, Vigilius's vacillation on the disciplinary side made it difficult to the point of being nearly impossible to clearly condemn the Nestorian heresy of the time. In each case, one could say that the Pope had not taught contrary to the faith, but that he had exercised his Magisterial office in a way that sowed confusion and made the correction of error more difficult as a practical matter.
That is where I think we are with Pope Francis: he is depriving the Church of pastoral and disciplinary tools that prevent heresy. Where that puts him on the scale of these notorious Popes of history is a matter that can be debated, and I am inclined to think that the Christological errors of the early Church were more serious than the matters of moral theology that are being debated, simply because there is already going to be a great deal of pastoral judgment in this area. But in terms of being on the side of Popes who have done very bad things from the practical perspective that make it more difficult to prevail against heresy, that conclusion seems inescapable. As history has shown, that doesn't violate the indefectibility of the Church, but it does make those stretches of time relatively more miserable, both for the Church and for the world to which the Gospel is presented.
I. Problems with Amoris Laetitia
When AL was published, there were predictions that this was going to be the result. First, there was a question as to whether it was even compatible with the prior teaching concerning intrinsic evil in VS. Then, there were questions as to whether the Pope even had the right to alter sacramental discipline concerning these matters, particularly regarding the sacramental discipline of couples in objectively deficient civil marriages. Those questions resulted in a dubia written to the Pope by some rather prominent figures in the Church, who later also sought to offer "fraternal correction" to the Pope. The reason that I raise these questions is that I considered (and still consider) those criticisms to be unfounded based on AL itself, but they do point to an opportunity for abuse.
In the first place, as Gabriel correctly points out, AL deals not with intrinsic evil but with culpability for evil conduct:
An intrinsically evil sin can have diminished culpability and still remain intrinsically evil. (It is one thing to say that a sin is not justified in any circumstance and another thing to say that there are circumstances where the sinner is not fully culpable.)”
“Veritatis Splendor deals with the objectively evil nature of sin, and especially of intrinsically evil acts. Amoris Laetitia deals with the subjective culpability of the sinner. The latter does not change the former. The fact that a sinner is more or less culpable does not change the object of the sin: it remains wrong. Therefore, we are talking about different planes, which do not generally intersect in those two documents, so that they cannot contradict each other. As I said in previous chapters, it is a matter of emphasis.
That was the same understanding I had at the time, but this needs to be carefully nuanced. There are two cases where public evidence of subjective culpability might be relevant. Specifically, based on this understanding of subjective culpability, AL is revising the following teaching of Familiaris Consortio (FC):
However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church's teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.
The relevance of subjective culpability to AL, if consistent with FC, is to say that what FC means by "objectively contradict" is too broad. The truth is that irregular unions only give the appearance of objective contradiction in addition to being manifest violations of canon law, and AL proposes that we should deal with the objective reality of the situation (including its subjective aspects) rather than equating the canonical situation with the moral situation. In other words, there can be a disconnect between the outward appearance of the union with its violation of the canons and its true nature. This arises especially in two cases, one of which is explicitly contemplated by FC:
1. The most obvious case is people who do not have the resources to demonstrate to the tribunal that their first marriage should be annulled, even when they might have a high degree of certainty that it is the case. These are marriages that could be regularized and may well be valid but illicit, yet circumstances make it difficult or impossible to make any official finding that this is the case. Since the couple lacks authority to make the determination for themselves, even if they have made that determination accurately, they are in a complex set of circumstances, and giving these couples the benefit of the doubt may be a reasonable sacramental practice. Given the risks involved, it is a good idea to keep this as a high bar, because as with doubtful baptisms, the consequences of invalid marriages are enormous. However, that's a matter of pastoral judgment, so at least giving priests the latitude to address these situations seems like a reasonable pastoral provision.
2. With respect to divorced and remarried couples who do not have this level of certainty about their prior marriage, the moral directive to divorced and remarried couples is the same as the one given in FC: they must "take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples." The question is whether that step of taking on the duty must itself be made publicly or whether it should be handled in the same way all other moral duties are handled. The moral law is that the couple must abstain, but rather than presuming that they are going to fail for purposes of sacramental discipline, the presumption will be that they are trying in good faith with the help of the Sacraments to do so. If the couple is giving what AL describes as "what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God" ("[Conscience] 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"), then it can be left to the conscience as to how well they are fulfilling that call and how serious their breaches of that obligation are.
There is precedent in the 1997 Vadamecum for Confessors for this exact kind of cooperation in an act that might otherwise be considered evil -- contracepted marital acts. That document discusses the following case:
Special difficulties are presented by cases of cooperation in the sin of a spouse who voluntarily renders the unitive act infecund. In the first place, it is necessary to distinguish cooperation in the proper sense, from violence or unjust imposition on the part of one of the spouses, which the other spouse in fact cannot resist.
This cooperation can be licit when the three following conditions are jointly met:
when the action of the cooperating spouse is not already illicit in itself;
when proportionally grave reasons exist for cooperating in the sin of the other spouse;
when one is seeking to help the other spouse to desist from such conduct (patiently, with prayer, charity and dialogue; although not necessarily in that moment, nor on every single occasion).
If we accept the assertion that the overall living arrangement is permissible as per Familiaris Consortio and if we likewise consider that sexual acts are in their nature cooperative, it seems that this is the situation contemplated in AL 298 n. 329: In such situations, many people, knowing and accepting the possibility of living “as brothers and sisters” which the Church offers them, point out that if certain expressions of intimacy are lacking, “it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of the children suffers.” That complexity seems to be the additional consideration offered in AL, and if it is, then it seems to be nothing more concerning from a dogmatic perspective than the Vadamecum was, even though the subject matter is still one of intrinsic evil. Of course, some moral theologians had very serious concerns about even that document, but being a layman and not a theologian myself, I can personally defer to AL and the Vadamecum as expressing the Magisterial opinion on the matter. At the very least, it would be hard to argue that AL was going beyond VS when the Vadamecum was issued only a few years after VS in the same pontificate.
So there seem to be these two cases of significant relevance where FC needed some additional thought. (1) is probably a case that is more common today given how much more rarely canonical formalities are being observed, and (2) is acknowledging that, when couples are trying to achieve something together, one or the other might fail at a certain time. All of this seems fine, except for one thing: there is no mention of the obligation for divorced and remarried couples to abstain. The words "abstain" and "abstinence" are not found anywhere in AL. And that is the exceptionless norm: unless you are morally certain that the person with whom you are having sexual relations is your true spouse (whether or not you can prove that to a tribunal), you are committing adultery. It is significant that a document devoted almost entirely to the application of this moral principle mentions it only in a footnote and there only with reference to what "many people ... point out" about the surrounding circumstances.
Another reason for confusion in this area is that AL cites a number of considerations that are simply irrelevant. Yes, mortal sins require full knowledge and consent, but subjective culpability isn't particularly difficult for things like murder, fornication, or adultery, which is the entire rationale for public sins. With murder, if you know that you are killing an innocent person and you mean to kill that person, it's irrelevant (1) whether you know exactly why killing people is wrong or (2) what your ulterior motives are for killing the person.
With that in mind, AL 302 says the following:
The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly mentions these factors: “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 another paragraph, the Catechism refers once again to circumstances which mitigate moral responsibility, and mentions at length “affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen or even extenuate moral culpability”. For this reason, a negative judgment about an objective situation does not imply a judgment about the imputability or culpability of the person involved. On the basis of these convictions, I consider very fitting what many Synod Fathers wanted to affirm: “Under certain circumstances people find it very difficult to act differently. Therefore, while upholding a general rule, it is necessary to recognize that responsibility with respect to certain actions or decisions is not the same in all cases. Pastoral discernment, while taking into account a person’s properly formed conscience, must take responsibility for these situations. Even the consequences of actions taken are not necessarily the same in all cases”.
The confusion here is between canonical procedure and moral rules, yet Pope Francis seems to be almost deliberately obscuring the distinction. The mention of "negative judgment about an objective situation" and "a general rule" seems to be canonical procedure, as he refers earlier to "general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases." A similar criticism can be leveled at the use of "objective ideal" (or exemplar in 303. If he means by "objective ideal" a canonically regular marriage, so that we cannot automatically infer subjective culpability from the objectively irregular situation, then this is simply an expansion of FC. If it were to mean that one could willfully initiate objectively adulterous sexual intercourse without culpability for it as a mortal sin, that would be just as absurd as saying that one could deliberately kill an innocent person without guilt for the mortal sin or murder. Yet the reason that this distinction is completely opaque in AL is that Pope Francis introduced the concept in the context of "mortal sin" as follows:
The Church possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations. Hence it is can no longer simply be said that all those in any “irregular” situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace. More is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule. A subject may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding “its inherent values”, or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide other wise without further sin.
That statement has literally no relevance to the moral case of adultery, none at all. The citation from FC 33 is in the context of contraception; the citation from the Catechism in AL 302 relates to masturbation. It is fairly clear that on sexual issues particularly, the discussion about culpability for violations and whether they rise to the level of mortal sin is an open one, and that is primarily related to the nature of the act and what intent is necessarily embodied in the act. (Whether that may extend even to homosexuality is a current discussion along the same lines.) There is no such discussion about adultery, nor can there be given the clarity and the nature of the commandment, because it is not merely a sexual sin but a sin against marriage itself. Many moral principles are extensions of the Decalogue, but when they are as plainly stated in the Decalogue as the commandments against adultery and coveting another's wife, it's in the same class as murder or theft in terms of things that are obviously wrong as a matter of natural law. It is one thing if one genuinely believes that one has never been married before. It is another thing entirely if one believes that one was previously married and yet does not abstain in a subsequent union. This isn't a case where those mitigating factors are particularly relevant. Like murder, the evil just is the doing of the thing, so it's not possible to initiate the act voluntarily without intending the evil and falling into mortal sin. There is no conceptual room for these factors to reduce culpability to the point that it ceases to be a mortal sin if you intend to do it (as opposed to mere cooperation).
And note a critical difference here: unlike AL, the Vadamecum doesn't talk about the "inherent values" of the rule at all. Rather, it raises the possibility that consent to sexual intercourse is not the same thing as planning and initiating it. There is no question about the wrongness of the act itself, only whether the participation in the act necessarily counts for moral responsibility for the act. That development was a long-needed one for distinguishing what rape victims suffered from a sexual act in its moral object, and the Vadamecum is consistent with that reasoning. But saying that there is a difference between initiating and consenting in terms of moral object in no way denies that there is a species of act known as adultery.
The only possible way that this statement could have a correct application is in saying that disregard for the canonical rules about marriage is excusable. In other words, not following the canonical rules is not itself an objective sin against marriage, but an objective sin against one's duties as a member of the Church to submit to Her administration of the Sacraments, including marriage. If AL is arguing that docility to the Magisterium (and specifically canon law) is one of those sins for which culpability could be diminished or even nearly excused because people do not perceive its "inherent values," so that it is not always a mortal sin, then that seems reasonable. Perhaps one would not want to say that openly in a Magisterial document, so this is why both FC and AL dance around this issue. But given that it comes at the cost of potentially confusing the exceptionless moral teaching about adultery, saving face for the Magisterium seems to come at much too high a price in this case.
The resulting ambiguity between adultery, a sin against marriage, and other sinful sexual acts is simply dangerous. In the general context of what is appropriate pastoral guidance, a statement about reduced culpability would be innocuous. In the context of this particular discussion, it's reckless, because this section of Chapter 8 isn't about pastoral guidance of couples generally but specifically the divorced and remarried. It is simply not relevant to that point; the factors cited are completely inapplicable to the obligation of abstinence with a partner who is not known to be your spouse. Whether you see the "inherent values" of the rule against adultery is simply irrelevant, just like it would be with respect to murder. No one honestly has "great difficulties" understanding that you don't kill innocent people, and the fact that people plead such difficulties in supposedly "complex cases" such as abortion nonetheless fails to give them an excuse. So it is with adultery; to perform the fact deliberately is to be guilt of mortal sin.
II. The Problems Become Manifest
Now, as I said, the problem is not that AL teaches anything wrong in terms of principles. The problem is that there is a mention of mortal sin and subjective culpability that is simply irrelevant to the case of adultery. Just as we know murder is wrong instinctively based on our own humanity, we know what marriage is, and we know that adultery is a sin against it.
So we can ask the following questions of AL: Is there a correct interpretation of the statement concerning mortal sin? Certainly. Is there any point in including such a statement in the context of adultery? Certainly not.
This was the point raised in the contemporary criticisms of AL; it's not that the statement in and of itself taught proportionalism, but that it was teaching in a way that would almost inevitably lead to misinterpretation. In that way, it was similar to Honorius's description of "one operation" in the monothelite controversy. Subjectively, Honorius very likely intended nothing more than that Jesus's divine and human operations were the operations of the same subject, but he should have known that in the context of a discussion on the integrity of natures, that assertion was going to look like papal approbation for monotheletism.
Although there were certainly signs of that confusion in the response of Argentinian bishops to AL, that risk in AL became more than theoretical as of the May 2022 conference "Moral Theology and Amoris Laetitia." During the conference, which was introduced by Pope Francis himself as part of a year-long meditation to encourage adoption of AL, the keynote speaker Fr. Julio Martinez and one of the organizers, Fr. Miguel Yañez, both endorsed a change in the application of moral rules for married couples.
Fr. Martinez says in his interview with America magazine:
“Conscience is a fundamental part of morality. Indeed, you cannot eliminate conscience,” Father Martinez said. But “Veritatis Splendor,” he added, “very much fears what is called ‘creative conscience,’” and insists that “conscience cannot be creative. It has to somehow be obedient to the rules and the norms of the magisterium, and especially the magisterium of the pope, whose role it is to recognize and formulate the norms so the faithful can know and follow them.”
Father Martinez characterized this move as “a hypertrophy [an excessive development] of the magisterium in the field of moral theology, that took place during the long pontificate of John Paul II,” he said. “As a result, the magisterium speaks on every single issue of personal or social morals—but especially on personal morals, sexual morality and violence.” With this hypertrophy of the magisterium, he said, “conscience has, in equal proportion, been diminished; even though ‘Veritatis Splendor’ affirms conscience is the main instance of morals.”
Fr. Yañez says:
Pope Francis’ approach in “Amoris Laetitia” is “quite different” from that taken by Pope John Paul II in his own 1981 post-synodal apostolic exhortation “Familiaris Consortio,” Father Yáñez said. The latter can be seen as “a more dogmatic document” that emphasized “what the family should be and not what the family is in reality,” he said.
John Paul II realized that the traditional notion of family was changing, but his way of facing it was different to that of Francis, Father Yáñez said. In “Amoris Laetitia,” Francis “offers a sense of humanity regarding the new realities of the family—single-parent families, ensembled families, mixed-race families and, ultimately, even ‘rainbow’ families—and went beyond what ‘Familiaris Consortio’ stated.”
Many bishops and pastors find this approach difficult to accept, Father Yáñez said. He recalled that after Vatican II ended in 1965, the Vatican accepted a renewal in social ethics, but it had difficulty in accepting a renewal in issues of personal morality with regards to the family, sexuality and marriage.
Indeed, “the whole problem regarding family life and marriage was reduced to sexual relations. There was a failure to see the complexity of marital life,” he said. “Familiaris Consortio,” he recalled, “stated that a person who is divorced and remarried could not receive Communion, unless the couple [were to] abstain from sexual relations.
“But if marriage is reduced to sexual relations, there is a difficulty to see the complexities and richness of marital and family life. In my view, the problem was due to the fact that sexuality and marriage was not studied in a scientific way,” Father Yáñez concluded. “The bishops and clergy didn’t know the findings of science.”
“I believe that one of the strongest calls we receive today is to make moral theological reflection on good scientific data, for which we need a good formation in all pastoral agents. This is crucially important for clergy,” he said. For Pope Francis, sexuality is a gift, he said, and we need an integral and realistic sexual education.
These men are simply dissidents from Pope St. John Paul II's moral teaching. This has nothing to do with the "science" of sexuality, which is clearly behind Fr. Yañez's reference to "rainbow" families. I can give AL the benefit of the doubt as a synodal document that involved compromises, which is exactly the sort of consultation that Pope Francis or any other Pope ought to do in order to be a wise teacher. But this is precisely the interpretation of AL's teaching that would be heterodox, the one that the dubia was aimed at resolving, and Pope Francis is doing nothing to stop it. On the contrary, he has practically encouraged it. This was the point at which Pope Francis has crossed the line into bad conduct as a shepherd.
As I mentioned, in terms of gravity, I don't think that this rises to the level of the Christological problems that strike directly at the heart of the faith. For that reason, I wouldn't put Pope Francis on the level of historically bad Popes like Honorius, but I think we can definitely point to other bad Popes like John XXII, who sowed confusion on matters of salvation. It seems that, after this conference, Pope Francis has lived down to the low expectations set by AL. Those who would condemn liberal dissidents should be condemning Pope Francis as well. That is not because he has taught anything contrary to the faith, but because he issued something with an ambiguity (perhaps even a deliberate ambiguity) that has been exploited by liberal dissenters, and he has done nothing whatsoever to distance his own teaching from their interpretation.