Saturday, November 26, 2016

Responses to Cardinal Burke et al's Dubia

I figured I'd take a whack at responding to doubts proposed by Cardinal Burke and his three cardinal colleagues. This is how I imagine Pope Francis might answer, though I would not presume to actually speak for him or anyone but myself. My intent is to balance objective moral truth against the messy reality that is life, and I think that's really what Pope Francis is urging that pastors do. I think he's said as much on numerous occasions.

I will grant that I am no theologian or canon lawyer, and that my understanding of Catholic moral tradition is less than others'. Despite that, I think my answers are orthodox, even if not a wholly traditional Catholic approach. It's good to keep in mind that the discipline and application of definitive truth can change without necessarily doing damage to the truth. It tends to be a matter of personal judgment on whether a specific change incurs actual damage to the truth. They are not independent of each other, but they are not so bound up that it is impossible to change practice/discipline/law (as is manifestly evident from Church history).

Traditionalists/conservatives tend to err on the avoid changing things to be safe side of things; progressives/liberals tend to err on the side of being more concerned with contemporary adaptation in the hope of addressing new challenges (perceived or real). Where one falls on this tends to be a spectrum and not a binary, and I am certainly somewhere in between.

The proposers of these doubts suggest that they can be answered in a simple yes or no; however, they take pains to preface and then elaborate on each of them. While theoretically such questions can be answered yes or no, I do not think it is reasonable to expect a simple yes or no, nor have I bound myself to that stricture. In fact, I would say that simply answering yes or no, especially given the way the questions are asked, can easily lead to faulty interpretations and actions, based on such a simple answer. I suggest that expecting a simple yes or no puts the power in the hands of the question framers, and so it would not really be appropriate for the CDF or Pope Francis to answer with a simple yes or no.

If I had to guess why no answer has been given so far, it is because the Holy Father well knows that no matter what answer he gives, even with clarifications, it will only engender more debate, debate which I'm sure he feels has been given due space in the synods leading up to Amoris Laetitia. The contemporary Church is not given to expressions of anathema sit, and even/until an actual ecumenical council were called (and warranted) to address these concerns, no matter what the Pope teaches, there will be dissenters and differing interpretations and applications of laws. When Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI were in office, we had plenty of "confusion" and dissent in the Church; those who pretend that Pope Francis is new in this way, only think so because it is now their positions which are challenged.  The Church always has had and will always have its share of dissenters and divergences of opinions and interpretations.

And as we have seen with even ecumenical councils, there remain dissenters even after those definitive gatherings. So the fantasy that a clarification by Pope Francis on these items would end differing opinions, create unified pastoral guidance, etc. is just that--a fantasy. Suggesting that his not doing so is somehow indicative of his intention to signal approval of heresy is simply outrageous and is bitterly ungenerous, presumptuous, and potentially sinful in itself.

I welcome thoughtful dialogue on the answers below. But if you start out by telling me I'm a heretic, or if you simply assert that my answers are heretical or unorthodox or not Catholic or anything along those lines, be prepared to be ignored. If, however, you want to argue for alternative positions or point me to some definitive teachings that seem to call my answers into question, I will gladly consider those. My desire is always to remain faithful to God and his Church.

Know that I do not consider canons or prior legislative texts or this or that Vatican congregation or this or that bishop, cardinal, or pope weighing in on something as de facto infallible or irreformable (again, in keeping with Catholic Tradition). Not even everything in our current Catechism is infallible or irreformable or not subject to further discussion and development. That is to say, if you use a text to support your position, be prepared to surround it with argumentation as to why you think it is authoritative in the context and how it supports your view. Proof texting, even from Scripture, is an impoverished practice in such dialogue.

Now onto the dubia...

DOUBT 1) It is asked whether, following the affirmations of Amoris Laetitia (300-305), it has now become possible to grant absolution in the sacrament of penance and thus to admit to holy Communion a person who, while bound by a valid marital bond, lives together with a different person more uxorio without fulfilling the conditions provided for by Familiaris Consortio, 84, and subsequently reaffirmed by Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 34, and Sacramentum Caritatis, 29. Can the expression “in certain cases” found in Note 351 (305) of the exhortation Amoris Laetitia be applied to divorced persons who are in a new union and who continue to live more uxorio?

I ANSWER THAT given sure knowledge of the specific conditions enumerated here, particularly definite knowledge of the validity of a prior union and no intention of living in continence in the new union that is acknowledged to be adulterous, it would not be appropriate to absolve such a penitent. It is a given that Divine law requires a repentant heart for forgiveness.

It is possible to absolve, however, if the validity of prior unions is uncertain (or even doubtful). This is particularly true if the new union appears more likely to be valid than prior unions, even if if has yet to be adjudicated as such.

It may also be possible to absolve if the penitent clearly expresses a firm intention to amend his life, even if it seems unlikely he will be able to do so (and even if he has a history of not being able to do so), particularly in situations where, as Pope St. John Paul II wrote in Familiaris Consortio, 84, taking the objective actions necessary to prevent future sin would involve committing new injustices or would otherwise be impracticable. The pastor should be generous and supportive of the intention, whatever doubts he may have.

In certain cases, it may be that the penitent cannot honestly apprehend that his new situation is sinful, perhaps due to serious personal doubts of the validity of the prior union (even having tried to adjudicate nullity without success) or failure to apprehend the true nature of marriage even now (which should cast doubt on validity of either union). These could be a defect of knowledge and, consequently, of full consent. Pastors should endeavor to determine if such is willful ignorance or a defect in intellect or some other mitigating factor, always with a preference for generosity if the penitent displays honest intention to live a holy life and grow in sanctification, accompanying and guiding the penitent toward that life.

In all cases, the pastor should counsel according to the teaching of the Church to help the penitent correctly discern his situation, encourage and help the penitent to seek a decree of nullity if possible, and offer practical advice to help the penitent avoid sin.

DOUBT 2) After the publication of the post-synodal exhortation Amoris Laetitia (304), does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor, 79, based on sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, on the existence of absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts and that are binding without exceptions?

I ANSWER THAT, yes, there are indeed absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts (and as such objectively, intrinsically evil acts do definitely exist). Murder. Adultery. Blasphemy. Idolatry. And so on.

It is not, however, an objective fact that someone who has been married was definitely validly, sacramentally married. The fact of an ecclesiastical legal system and tribunals that adjudicate the validity (or nullity) of marriages is sufficient evidence of this, as is Church teaching on what is necessary for a valid marriage to occur in the first place.

Given this, it is possible for someone to objectively be in a second union without, by virtue of that objective fact, committing adultery. And given the known terrible state of catechesis today coupled with secular cultural norms that directly contradict a Catholic understanding of marriage and sexuality, not to mention a growing understanding of human physiology and psychology, it is reasonable to be more uncertain in contemporary times that all, or even most, marriages--even those celebrated in Catholic churches--are valid. In short, it is not a safe assumption that someone who is remarried is, by the simple fact of being remarried, committing adultery, and more than that, it is arguable that this is more doubtful today than at any point in Christian history.

On the other hand, there are still objective actions that can be assumed to be adultery, such as sleeping with someone who is married without being in any form of marriage with that person. The distinction here is between a married couple where one of the individuals is divorced and remarried, versus two people having sex outside of marriage, with one or both being in a marriage (confirmed to be valid or not). It is beyond a doubt in the latter case that such is extramarital sexual relations, without regard to determining the validity of the prior or current marriage. So cohabiting unmarried people who engage in sex, those having sexual affairs, keeping a mistress, etc. would fall under the objective adultery category.

DOUBT 3) After Amoris Laetitia (301) is it still possible to affirm that a person who habitually lives in contradiction to a commandment of God’s law, as for instance the one that prohibits adultery (Matthew 19:3-9), finds him or herself in an objective situation of grave habitual sin (Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, “Declaration,” June 24, 2000)?

I ANSWER THAT it is still possible to affirm this when the sin in question is public and indisputable, for example, in the case of a politician repeatedly, obstinately pursuing governmental policies that promote an intrinsic evil. However, in the case of adultery (and sex in general), which is by nature private, we cannot assume, even by the nature of a public commitment such as marriage, that adultery is habitually occurring by the simple fact of persons living together (married or not). This is as true for a minister of Communion discerning the application of Canon 915 as it is for any lay person observing another.

However, if adultery is determined publicly and an individual publicly manifests an intent to continue in that sin, a minister of Communion could infer an objective situation of grave habitual sin and act accordingly by applying Canon 915. This seems like it would be rare. Most people do not affirm adultery publicly. It is arguable that if a person, say, prominently were to keep a mistress, then Canon 915 could apply, even if the person did not explicitly affirm that adultery because the nature of keeping a mistress is that it is an actively sexual relationship, as would typically be an affair. In such cases, there are no other reasons for two unmarried people to be together.

On the other hand, a remarried (or even cohabiting) couple may have other practical reasons to to remain together, and assuming the relationship is adulterous is less of a reliable assumption than in these others. This is not to say that it is not reasonable to think that such a relationship is sexual, only that it should not be assumed that it is with regards to the application of Canon 915 or a general perception of an objectively adulterous situation. In short, unless they express in private to a minister or in public that they are living as man and wife, one should be willing to extend the benefit of the doubt.

What should be obvious is that pastoral discernment is still required even when one may suspect grave sin and that in general both clergy and laity should not presume sexual sin simply based on external circumstances alone. And the public act of refusing Communion should be based in a commensurately public grave sin. It is better, in most cases, to counsel such persons privately to discern whether or not to approach the sacrament, as is the clear intent of St. Paul in 1 Cor 11.

DOUBT 4) After the affirmations of Amoris Laetitia (302) on “circumstances which mitigate moral responsibility,” does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor, 81, based on sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, according to which “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”?

I ANSWER THAT yes, one ought to regard that teaching as still valid. No matter the mitigations of personal circumstance that diminish culpability, an objectively evil act can never be transformed into a morally acceptable choice much less a good, considered in itself. It's worth noting that this does not mean that other goods cannot accidentally accompany or follow as a result of objectively immoral actions, but such goods do not change the nature of the evil act in itself.

Amoris Laetitia 302 does not seek to countermand this teaching. Rather, it calls to mind the well-established distinction in Church teaching between objective grave sin and subjective mortal sin.

DOUBT 5) After Amoris Laetitia (303) does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor, 56, based on sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, that excludes a creative interpretation of the role of conscience and that emphasizes that conscience can never be authorized to legitimate exceptions to absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts by virtue of their object?

I ANSWER THAT it is not the role of conscience to make an act moral or immoral. It is the role of the conscience to discern the path of good from the path of evil. Amoris Laetitia 303 suggests that it further can discern the best that a specific person can do in a specific situation. This is no commentary on the objective nature of the acts in question. It is, rather, a recognition of the limitations of the person in question to choose the good, i.e., to maximize the good and avoid the evil in as much as a person can. It, in itself, does not determine whether or not such an action is actually good or evil; it can only determine what is in its best judgment the best path.