On the Fernández Document: PART III

Eamonn Clark



Is this change possible and acceptable? Can Francis accept what was taught by St. John Paul II and yet open a door that was closed? Yes, because an evolution in the Church’s understanding of her own doctrine and its disciplinary consequences is possible. Let us look at some historical examples.

Rather, because the pope is the supreme legislator of the Church, he can write and interpret ecclesiastical law authoritatively, so long as it does not contradict Divine law – or, presumably, other existing ecclesiastical law. To date, Pope Francis does not seem to have done either with respect to c. 915 or c. 916 as it relates to the divorced and remarried beyond stating what has always been taught, albeit in a way that is open to other interpretations – yet continuity and custom are also relevant for understanding law (c. 20, c. 21, c. 27, etc.), and so long as it is not clear that the law or its authoritative interpretation has changed, there should be no change in the application of that law except to bring practice more in line with the law itself.

In 1832, Pope Gregory XVI, in Mirari vos, had said that it is an “absurd and erroneous doctrine, or rather delirium, that freedom of conscience is to be claimed and defended for all men” (MV 15). In the Syllabus of Pius IX (1864) religious freedom is condemned as one of the principal “errors.” But in the following century, the Second Vatican Council substantially modified these very firm ideas (cf. DH 2-3). A similar evolution occurred on the issue of the possibility of salvation outside of the Catholic Church. We recall also the case of slavery: Pope Nicholas V allowed the king of Portugal to take slaves. Then, in 1455 the Bull Romanus Pontifex reaffirmed this. And this is not a secondary issue, since it has to do with the inalienable dignity of the human person. (With respect to this subject of the evolution in the understanding of the doctrine, the examples can be taken into account which are given in: Thomas Rausch, “Doctrine at the service of the pastoral mission of the Church,” La Civiltà Cattolica, v. 3981, May 14, 2016; pp. 223-236.) As of those changes in the understanding of doctrine, there were, as a consequence, various changes in discipline.

This is not the place to launch into an extensive investigation of slavery or soteriology, but the Archbishop’s confidence in these examples as analogies is unwarranted. Chattel slavery, the intrinsically evil institution within the very broad term “slavery”, has never been taught as moral by the Church (nor is it taught as moral in Scripture), so there has been no development of doctrine here. The development on “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” was with respect to the scope of the Church itself, not with respect to its necessity for salvation.

However, some hold that these comparisons are not convincing, and insist that any evolution should be carried out in the same line as what was said previously by the Church. It would be a kind of magisterial “fixism.” But, precisely in the examples mentioned above, it can be seen that the evolution did not take place “in the same line” as before, at least not on the question in itself. Between allowing slavery and not allowing it in any case, there is an immense evolution. There is only Continuity in the general doctrine about human dignity, but not in the precise point in question, where the Church really evolved in its understanding. In the same way, between affirming that only a Catholic can be saved and holding that there is a possibility of salvation outside the Church, there is no continuity with regard to the question in itself. It is obvious that the Church grows into a better reception of the proposal of the Gospel, in a more complete vision and in new ways of applying what has been taught. But some have an enormous difficulty in admitting that something similar can occur in questions related to sexuality.

The Archbishop insists on his examples as good ones, though he is apparently aware that some disagree. It is in no way clear how his exposition of these matters would not constitute an about face in doctrine, an act which would undermine the Church’s very authority to teach without error. For example, if the Church really taught that there is no salvation outside the Church, then taught that there is, we are left with two possibilities: either the Church does not possess the guarantee of truth in definitively teaching on matters of faith and morals, or there are multiple truths which may contradict each other. Neither of these conclusions is admissible.


The fact is that even in the praxis related to the disciplinary treatment given to the divorced in a new union, there have already been major changes over the last century. Let us recall that, with the same arguments with which it is not accepted that they may not receive communion, a long time ago “the prohibition against funerals and any public funeral service” was also applied to them (Francisco Elizari, Pastoral de los divorciados [Pastoral Care of the Divorced], Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 31-32.). This changed without all the beliefs that supported that praxis falling away.

The Archbishop apparently does not realize that this penalty may still be applied, if it seems prudent to do so. See Dr. Ed Peter’s post on this matter for more: HERE

Based on reasons that remain standing, the previous Code of Canon Law (1917) sustained a discipline which the current Code (1983) does not maintain: “If, spurning the admonition of the Ordinary, they stay in the illicit relationship, they are to be excommunicated according to the gravity of the deed or struck with personal interdict” (Canon 2336). This indicates the possibility of changes in the disciplinary practice that do not necessarily make the great beliefs that supported the previous praxis fall away, but the possible practical consequences of the general norm are considered in another way.

This is also incorrect, if the Archbishop means to say that under the Pio-Benedictine Code those who divorced and remarried incurred the penalty of excommunication simply by the act itself. See the same article linked to in the previous paragraph for more details.

Amoris Laetitia gives rise to a new change, which does not imply a contradiction with the previous teaching, but a harmonious evolution and a creative continuity. The prestigious philosopher and specialist in the thought of St. John Paul II – Rocco Buttiglione – has explained it very well:

“John Paul II, however, does not want at all to nullify the role of the subjective conscience. The objective aspect of the act determines the goodness and the seriousness of the act. The subjective aspect of the action determines the level of responsibility of the agent … Pope Francis sets himself on the ground, not of the justification of the act, but of the subjective attenuating circumstances that diminish the agent’s responsibility. This is precisely the balance of Catholic ethics and distinguishes the realistic ethics of St. John Paul II from the objectivistic ethics of some of Pope Francis’s opponents. … Familiaris Consortio, moreover, when it formulates the rule, does not tell us that it does not tolerate exceptions for a proportionate reason. The rule that no one who is not in grace God ought to receive Eucharist by its very nature does not tolerate exceptions. Whoever receives the Body and the Blood of Christ unworthily eats and drinks his own condemnation. The rule according to which persons in God’s grace are excluded from communion as the canonical penalty for the counter-witness which they have given, however, may be subject to exceptions, and this is exactly what Amoris Laetitia tells us.” (Rocco Buttiglione, L’Approccio Antropologico di San Giovanni Paolo II e quello Pastorale di Papa Francesco [The Anthropological Approach of St. John Paul II and Pastoral Care of Pope Francis])

By now the same point has been made a number of times, namely, that a person committing adulterous acts may not be gravely culpable for those acts which are themselves grave matter. However, this does not respond to the difficulty with public reception (c. 915), nor to the difficulty of a habitual intention to continue such behavior, an intention which is separate from the acts themselves, which is far less easily mitigated in culpability. 

It would be fitting to clarify Buttiglione’s expression “for the counter-witness they have given” by saying: “because their situation does not objectively correspond with the good that the general norm proposes.”

Indeed, a counter-witness really is given, as general norms do more than propose: they oblige.


Once again, we may say that this does not imply watering down an objective value. What Francis suggests is the situation of a person who, in dialogue with the pastor, does not present the intimate acts of a more uxorio cohabitation as subjectively moral, that is to say, as the object of a personal choice that legitimates them. It only presents them as difficult to avoid in their concrete circumstances, even if they are sincerely willing to grow in this point. Circumstances can diminish culpability, but not transform an act, immoral by virtue of its object, into an act that one may justifies as a choice. In fact, the same Amoris Laetitia, rejects the attitude of someone who “flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal” (AL 297). Therefore, it is clear that Francis does not admit that that act is justifiable as a “personal choice”.

The Archbishop does speak correctly here, but whether he keeps this line throughout the whole document is questionable.

Amoris Laetitia refers to people aware of the severity of their situation, but with “great difficulty of going back without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins” (AL 298). That culpability is diminished, because the capacity for a decision is strongly conditioned, does not mean presenting one’s situation as a personal plan consistent with the Gospel. That is why discernment is not closed, but “is dynamic; it must remain ever open to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realized” (AL 303). This, according to an authentic understanding of the “law of gradualness” (AL 295), invites us to respond better to God each time by trusting in the help of His grace.

Finally, there is an indication that a couple in an irregular union is called to grow toward the norm. This is good.

If the act remains objectively immoral and does not lose its objective gravity, then it is not possible that it can be “chosen” with conviction, as if it were part of the Christian ideal. Still less could it be held that, by this “choice of life”, it becomes subjectively moral. It is another very different thing is to propose, as Francis does, that in a context of attenuated culpability one seeks to respond to the will of God with a greater commitment, possible in the context of that situation. For example, with a greater generosity towards the children, or with the decision to assume as a couple a more intense commitment for the common good, or with a maturation in familial dialogue, or with the development of mutual gestures of more frequent and intense charity, etc. These attempts can be objects of a “personal choice”, and they are examples of that “possible good” that can be realized within the limits of the situation itself (cf. EG 44-45, AL 308). They are expressions of the “via caritatis“, to which “those who have difficulties in living God’s law to the full” (AL 306) can always turn. Staying on this path, conscience is also called to recognize “what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God … the commitment which God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits” (AL 303).

In this paragraph the Archbishop returns to an apparent contradiction of Trent on the possibility of following the Commandments (and/or the connected doctrine on sufficient grace). And surely, the Archbishop is not suggesting that the adulterous acts themselves could constitute “expressions of the ‘via caritatis’” or are “what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God … the commitment which God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits,” although this could easily be taken away from this passage of the article or from the quoted paragraph of Amoris Laetitia.

It is not that everything is the same, or that now “nothing matters”. The need to avoid concealing the seriousness of the situation explains why the Pope sets some firm limits on the proposed discernment. For example, it excludes the case of “a new union arising from a recent divorce” or “the case of someone who has consistently failed in his obligations to the family” (AL 298). At the same time, he asks that people be guided so that they may sincerely recognize their own truth, especially in relation to “how they acted towards their children” or with the abandoned spouse (cf. AL 300). There are limits that discernment should not exceed, particularly when the recognition of the other is at stake, or when there is still little clarity about the situation itself. The Gospel is not reduced, let alone its demands of charity, but it is incarnated in the concrete possibilities of human complexity.

Let it be noted that the conditions laid down for the “proposed discernment” (of one’s culpability for current adulterous acts, presumably) do not constitute anything other than vague suggestions of how to discuss these difficult situations.


In the discussions about Amoris Laetitia, some hold that the Pope claims to grant to people’s conscience a power to create the truth and the norms at its whim. With this argument, these opponents of Francis try to force others to assume a determinate logic, from which there is no way out. The Gospel is thus subjected to a kind of theological and moral mathematics. Once that mental structure is adopted, there is no choice but to accept all the logic and consequences of that manner of using reason. It is a death-trap.

One must wonder what this “determinate logic” actually consists of. The Archbishop does not say, though surely he would grant that the rigorous application of immemorial laws as they have been authentically interpreted would be a good thing for the Church and Her faithful, no?

It is not the logic that Francis proposes for the shepherds of this time (cf. AL 296. 312). In addition, he rejects the pretension of “those who long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance” (EG 40). He recognizes the value of reason to reflect on the Gospel, and appreciates the dialogue between faith and reason. But this does not imply canonizing “a” reason, a determinate manner of reasoning, a philosophy to which the Gospel and the whole Church must submit. The Gospel is not enclosed in a philosophy because “Christian morality is not a form of stoicism, or self-denial, or merely a practical philosophy or a catalogue of sins and faults” (EG 39).

Again, because the Archbishop does not detail the line of reason he critiques, one is left to speculate. However, his assertion that the Gospel and the whole Church need not submit to any philosophy is at least open to some criticism, given the condemnation of many kinds of philosophical worldviews which do not allow for the Gospel as the Church understands it. There are philosophies which allow for the Gospel, and there are philosophies which do not. The Archbishop fails to describe how the “determinate logic” does not allow for the Gospel in the way Modernism, Relativism, or Nihilism do not allow for the Gospel. What seems especially important to affirm in this discussion is that we can in fact know the truth of what is right and wrong, and we are in fact free in proportion with our capacity for reason. If the Gospel does not “submit” to this, then it must at least co-exist with it.

If a determinate manner of using reason is absolutized, only those who possess this mental structure will be able to interpret doctrine and revelation, and they would place themselves even above the pope. The supernatural vision of the Church and the Petrine ministry would thus be lost. Someone has said that this is an “intellectual Pelagianism”, because a determinate reason occupies the place of the Gospel and of the action of the Spirit in his Church. The Scriptures would serve only to illustrate the logic proper to “that” reason, administered by an oligarchic group of ethicists.

Surely, the Church is not called to stone the adulteress – but She is indeed called to tell her to sin no more. (John 8: 1-11)

Anyway, let us remember what Francis says about the importance of conscience; for example, in the following texts:

We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them (AL 37).

…Individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the Church’s praxis in certain situations which do not objectively embody our understanding of marriage (AL 303).

This is all true, but announcing the truth to which a conscience must conform is certainly distinct from replacing that conscience.

However, Francis does not indicate that the conscience of each member of the faithful should be left completely free to its own judgement. What he asks for is a process of discernment accompanied by a pastor. It is a “personal and pastoral” discernment (AL 300), which also takes very seriously “the teaching of the Church and the guidelines of the Bishop” (ibid.) and supposes a “properly formed” conscience (AL 302). It is not a conscience that pretends to create the truth as it pleases, or to adapt it to its desires. On the part of the pastor, it “never implies dimming the light of the fuller ideal, or proposing less than what Jesus offers to the human being”, nor “an undue reticence in proposing that ideal” (AL 307). Some priests may be questioned who tend to fall into irresponsible or hasty discretion, causing confusion. The Pope does not ignore these risks that must be avoided (cf. AL 300). Each local Church will find the right balance through the experience, dialogue and guidance of the Bishop.

The “irresponsible or hasty discretion” which the Archbishop condemns, as the Church has always understood it, is a suggestion given to a person in an adulterous relationship living “more uxorio” to go to Holy Communion publicly. Suppose the divorced person shows up in the parish and finds his or her spouse according to ecclesiastical law going to Holy Communion publicly while civilly married to another person with whom there is reasonably presumed a “more uxorio” relationship. If this person approaches the pastor, what recourse does he have to Divine or ecclesiastical law? None. What terrible injustice, scandal, and pain has been caused in such a situation, with no spiritual advancement for anyone. The current law helps prevent such a tragedy (although people certainly can and do take their own initiative to receive illegally and hope for the best). Tribunals exist to discern whether a person can live “more uxorio” with a person other than the presumed spouse and then go to Holy Communion publicly – NOT individual priests or bishops or bishops’ conferences, especially through a judgment on the internal forum (see c. 130). The timeless wisdom of the Church on this matter should not be quickly set aside. “Do not move an ancient boundary stone…” (Proverbs 22:28, 23:10) To delegate these judgments in a way differently from how it is now (through the courts) would be a disaster. The best way to judge these cases is with a real system of courts who are not “interested” or “biased,” who are well educated, who have appropriate perspective of the whole situation, and who can effectively promulgate their decisions. A confessor cannot gather and weigh evidence in this manner, not all bishops are well-trained in canon law (and thus one might question the prudence of the “Briefer Process” outlined in Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus), and pastors have the temptation to succor favor with their parishioners. Most dangerous of all would be the delegation of these decisions to the interested individuals themselves.

Francis’s proposal is very demanding. It would be easier or more convenient to apply norms in a rigid and universal way, to pretend that everything is “black and white” (AL 305), or to start with some general beliefs and draw fixed conclusions without taking into account the complexity of reality and the concrete life of persons. But this comfortable rigidity can be a betrayal of the heart of the Gospel: “At times we find it hard to make room for God’s unconditional love in our pastoral activity. We put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance. That is the worst way of watering down the Gospel.” (AL 311).

On the contrary, the traditional teaching and practice of the Church seem much more demanding both of doctors of souls and of those in irregular unions. This is why Our Lord’s words on divorce and remarriage startled the Apostles so much that they exclaimed, “In that case, it is better not to marry!” Our Lord did not disagree. (Matthew 19: 10-11) It is seriously doubtful that the places where this proposal is adopted as legitimate and is put into practice that chastity will actually be preached in any meaningful way. Rather, human nature will simply take over in the absence of a strict ecclesiastical law. We have to wake up and smell the concupiscence.


Although the question of the possible access to the communion for some divorcees in a new union has caused much commotion, the Pope intended – unsuccessfully – that this move be made in a discreet manner. Therefore, after developing the presuppositions of this decision in the body of the document, the application to communion for the divorced in new union was made explicit in the footnotes.

Herein lies the proof that there has been no authentic interpretation of law, let alone a change in legislation. There can be no discreet authentic interpretation or legislation – these must be open and clear, like the reforms Pope Francis made for tribunal proceedings in Mitis Iudex.

This caution is explained by the fact that what Francis considers “central” are the chapters of Amoris Laetitia “devoted to love” (AL 6), where he proposes for us a beautiful task in order to stimulate “the growth, strengthening and deepening of conjugal and family love” (AL 89). He asks us to carry on “before anything else a pastoral care of the marriage bond, assisting couples not only to deepen their love but also to overcome problems and difficulties” (AL 211), a pastoral care that encourages communion, generous dedication, the bonds of tenderness and mutual belonging.

All well and good. Recall, however, that the Church understands “conjugal love” to exist only between validly married persons, not between non-spouses.

For, ultimately “marital love is not defended primarily by presenting indissolubility as a duty, or by repeating doctrine, but by helping it to grow ever stronger under the impulse of grace” (AL 134). It would be very good for us to work more intensely in this line, in the face of a world darkened by the comfortable and superficial individualism that weakens and destroys these bonds.

Who could disagree with these closing lines? And yet the article’s ubiquitous pessimism about both human nature and the help of the grace of the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony seems quite contradictory to the spirit of what the Archbishop ends with. If we want “to work more intensely in this line,” we must indeed present “indissolubility as a duty” and repeat doctrine to call people to account, as our culture and so many in the Church are falling into confusion on this critical part of human society.


Some closing thoughts… In all of these theoretical back-and-forths, it can be easy to forget that behind it all there are indeed real people in truly difficult situations. We must indeed accompany them diligently and carefully, a theme this pontificate has routinely emphasized. But we must remember too that mercy is the removal of an affliction, and this may involve causing some pain. When serious sin becomes easy, comfortable, banal, and even feels like a duty, the sinner sits in such profound darkness that the light of Christ will necessarily hurt. This does not mean it ought to be hidden under a bushel basket, which is the idea one sometimes gets from the modern usage of the word “pastoral.”

We must carry the lost sheep gently, but where are we really carrying them: back to the fold, or to the jaws of the wolf? Let every person charged with the cure of souls recall those foreboding words which God said to Ezekiel: “If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you do not warn them or speak out to dissuade the wicked from their evil conduct in order to save their lives, then they shall die for their sin, but I will hold you responsible for their blood.” (Ezekiel 3:18) 

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