Thoughts on Cardinal Coccopalmerio’s “Amoris Booklet”

Eamonn Clark, STL

I am continuing to publish some of my notes for a potential book on the various readings of Amoris Laetitia. I’m not sure it will ever see the light of day otherwise.

Bad interpretations of AL, in particular of Chapter Eight, remain a major pastoral-academic concern, despite the dust seeming to have settled. In actual Catholic life, which lies outside of seminary classrooms and the blogosphere, this is a real issue and will continue to be so until there is either sufficient intellectual conversion among the elite, both ecclesiastical and academic, or there is extremely strong papal teaching on the matter.

Here, we look at a small book put out some years ago by Cardinal Coccopalmerio, who used to be prefect of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts. We should pray for His Eminence. He is very old now, and we never really found out exactly what the deal was with that infamous party at his secretary’s residence. Really – pray for him.

On we go, then. Some small edits made from my notes.

Coccopalmerio perhaps makes a better case than Fernández regarding the question of grace but arguably ends up with an even less tolerable position on the nature of the moral law.

“Having considered the ontology of the person also in the unique elements and particularly in those that in some way limit the person in his capacity to act normally, it seems to me that the Exhortation leads to three important consequences: the so-called “law of gradualness,” the recognition of the good that is possible, the non-immediate imputability of all those people who do not fulfill the law or who fulfill it only in part, and the consequent need to refrain from judging these people as culpable and therefore as in a state of grave sin.”

“The so-called ‘law of gradualness’ recurs many times in the magisterium of Pope Francis, in the proposals of the Synod of Bishops and in the Exhortation Amoris laetitia. Let us see at least one passage: ‘Along these lines, Saint John Paul II proposed the so-called “law of gradualness” in the knowledge that the human being “knows, loves and accomplishes moral good by different stages of growth”. (Familiaris Consortio, 34). This is not a “gradualness of law” but rather a gradualness in the prudential exercise of free acts on the part of subjects who are not in a position to understand, appreciate, or fully carry out the objective demands of the law. For the law is itself a gift of God which points out the way, a gift for everyone without exception; it can be followed with the help of grace, even though each human being “advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God and the demands of God’s definitive and absolute love in his or her entire personal and social life” (ibid., 9)’ (n. 295). The so-called ‘law of gradualness’ presupposes, therefore, an incapacity or a serious difficulty for a person to put the law into practice, at least in its totality, in all its requirements, on account of a condition of weakness.”

This last statement of Coccopalmerio seems to exceed the teaching of the Holy Father when the Cardinal claims that there can be an “incapacity” in fulfilling the demands of the law. However, he goes on to say that such an incapacity could be derived from “a condition of sickness”:

“For these members of the faithful, pastors of souls should, on the one hand, state the ideal, that is, the law in its entirety and in all its demands, but they should, on the other hand, work to heal the weakness, that is, to increase ability to act, by using the normal methods of pastoral care in this work, especially preaching and the sacraments. From this case, we should distinguish another case of impossibility or serious difficulty in putting the law into practice. And, in fact, the law is given for all people, and does not take into account, nor could it, a condition in which individual persons can come to find themselves with an incapacity to act normally, and therefore, to observe the law, such as, for example, a condition of sickness.”

This is a fine position, even though his expression of the position is unclear. People who struggle with sin should be helped by preaching and the sacraments. People who cannot avoid a materially sinful act due to sickness (we assume he means mental illness) are not guilty of actual sin, and so we must use common-sense jurisprudence in our dealings with such people, taking into account their objective inability to perform human acts in a normal way. There is no problem with this suggestion. But he goes further: 

“We can recall that, by making provisions for such situations of inability with pastoral wisdom, canon law has already provided in its roots some remedies that are comprehensively referred to as “aequitas canonica” [canonical equity], and those are known as exception, dispensation, and epikeia. In the case, however, of the “law of gradualness,” the impossibility or serious difficulty to put the law into practice is caused by an incapacity to will it because of a condition of weakness of the will.”

Now we are left wondering if “a condition of weakness of the will” means something other than “a condition of sickness.” He does not clarify. Let us suppose, for his sake, that it is what he means.

“Three barely reported texts are undoubtedly of great human and pastoral value. It seems important to me to re-read three particular expressions: ‘…  what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God… it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits.’ (n. 303) ‘… possible ways of responding to God and growing in the midst of limits….’ ‘a small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God…’ (n. 305) ‘… eventual stages of personal growth…’ ‘the Lord’s mercy, which spurs us on to do our best.’ ‘… a church … a mother … always does what good she can…’. These are expressions that speak for themselves. They are, however, [expressions] of great realism and great respect for the concrete ontology of every person. The statement should be noted that God himself requires only what is possible and He accepts, therefore, what is possible. Likewise, the Church [is] like a Mother.”

At long last, Coccopalmerio rightly draws attention to the fact that God cannot command the impossible. He is also right to imply that the careful urging of a person toward greater virtue is a role proper to the Church as a Mother, and its pastors who do this work should be attentive to the status of a person’s individual inclination towards vices and virtues, just as St. Gregory the Great indicated in the Pastoral Rule. This is his first “solution”: to say that a person cannot live up to the ideal of the law due to a weakness of will. There would be no problem with this except with the ambiguity of the words “can,” “impossible,” etc., provided he left it there: such weakness of the will we call vice, and vice produces sin.

However, he has much more in mind than this, as the next passage shows:

“The second solution: the non-immediate imputability of those people who do not fulfill the law or fulfill it only in part, and the consequent need to refrain from judging these people as culpable and therefore in a state of grave sin. We can read a pair of texts: “It is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being” (n. 304). “The Church’s pastors, in proposing to the faithful the full ideal of the Gospel and the Church’s teaching, must also help them to treat the weak with compassion, avoiding aggravation or unduly harsh or hasty judgements. The Gospel itself tells us not to judge or condemn (cf. Mt 7:1; Lk 6:37). Jesus ‘expects us to stop looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune, and instead to enter into the reality of other people’s lives and to know the power of tenderness. Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated’ (ibid., 270)” (n. 308). We can re-read the valuable text of n. 305 already cited above (cfr. no. 4.1.). I would say that all this makes the reason complete for what we have said above regarding the person and the moral action made impossible by concrete conditions, such as that one exemplified by a woman cohabiting for years, conscious of the illegitimacy of her union, genuinely desiring to put an end to it, but however, it has been made impossible, at least at present, to put her desire into practice.”

It is no longer reasonable to give the Cardinal the benefit of the doubt. By his last words in this section, it is evident that what he has in mind is not a case of severe mental illness but instead a case of severe attachment to sexual activity in the context of an illicit union. This is clear because the Cardinal says that there are concrete conditions which make “the moral action” impossible in the case he gives of a woman living for years in an illicit union, who is aware of its illicit character, and somehow both genuinely desires to stop sinning but it is impossible to stop nonetheless. The details of the case he refers to were explained earlier in the book: 

“[Suppose there is] a woman who went to cohabitate with a canonically married man who was abandoned with three young children by his wife. However, this woman has saved the man from a state of deep despair, probably from the temptation of suicide; she has brought up the three children, not without considerable sacrifices; their union lasts for ten years now; a new child is born. The woman of whom we speak is fully conscious of being in an irregular situation. She sincerely would like to change her life, but evidently she cannot do it. If, in fact she left the union, the man would return to his situation from before, the children would be left without a mother. To leave the union would mean, therefore, not to fulfill her grave duties to people who are innocent in themselves. It is therefore evident that it could not take place ‘without a new fault.’”

The Cardinal at least realizes that leaving the union is not the only option: “she should practice continence” is the natural objection, which he is well aware of and notes. He goes on to quote Footnote 329 of AL, which quotes Gaudium et Spes 51. These passages from the Council speak about maintaining “intimacy” being important for the couple with respect to raising their children. The Cardinal explains:

“It is important to ask ourselves what the expression used by the Council exactly means: ‘the intimacy of married life’ (in the original Latin text: ‘intimata vita conjugalis’). Undoubtedly, this means the performance of conjugal acts. Beyond the meaning of the words, what is said above leads to this exegesis: ‘at least temporarily the size of their families should not be increased.’ At this point, the text states: ‘… where the intimacy of married life is broken off’ (Latin text ‘abrumpitur’), and so the performance of conjugal acts is interrupted, ‘it is not uncommon that fidelity is imperiled and the good of the children may be endangered… their upbringing… the courage to accept new ones.’ One may naturally note that the opportunity to not abstain from performing conjugal acts in order to prevent that ‘fidelity is imperiled and the good of the children may be endangered’ is a directive given by the Council for situations of marriage, in other words, for legitimate unions, while it is applied by the Apostolic Exhortation to cases of unions which are at least objectively illegitimate. I believe, however, that this difference is not relevant to the correctness of this application. Having considered the preceding texts, it seems to me that it may be held: a) if the commitment to live as brother and sister proves possible without difficulty for the couple’s relationship, then the two cohabiting may accept it willingly; b) if, however, this commitment creates difficulties, the two cohabiting seem not to be obligated in and of themselves, because they will meet the case of the subject of which n. 301 speaks with this clear expression: a subject ‘can be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin.’”

Let us suppose, with much lenience, that the Cardinal’s assertion about the meaning of the phrase “the intimacy of married life” in GS is correct in that it refers to conjugal relations, and let us suppose he is right to see AL applying this same criterion to illicit unions – even though these are not “conjugal” but merely sexual acts. (In the strict sense, the word “conjugal” implies “married.”) The direct implication is that a person who wants a good thing to happen, namely, the prevention of “further sin” (like the partner harming himself or the children), is justified in giving sexual favors to obtain it; in fact, one could easily argue that giving such favors is a duty because of the importance of maintaining a stable family environment for the sake of the children. (A similar argument, in favor of the duty to use contraception, has been recently made by an increasingly prominent Roman moralist, Father Maurizio Chiodi.) Ironically, Coccopalmerio suggests this adulterous act is part of the good of fidelity. It cannot be so.

After detailing the “concrete case” he has in mind, the Cardinal goes on to explain his opinion on the possibility of “mitigating factors” obtaining in this woman’s psychology.

The most generous reading of these passages gives us the following teaching from Cardinal Coccopalmerio: when one thinks or feels that it is impossible to fulfill the demands of the moral law due to the desire for future goods or due to present weakness of will, God does not demand that the moral law be fulfilled. There are two plain errors. On the one hand there is simple consequentialism or proportionalism – when a better good can be obtained by what is normally seen as wrong, that act stops being wrong. On the other hand there is the paradigmatic case of saying that temptation excuses from sin, seemingly proximate to heresy. (One is reminded of the famous 17th century laxist, Archbishop Caramuel, the “Lamb of God,” so named because he “took away the sins of the world.” St. Alphonsus also dubbed him the “Prince of the Laxists.” Caramuel made a similar argument about temptation removing guilt.) One could use the Cardinal’s method to justify practically any action whatsoever – “I can’t follow the moral law because I want this future good which is threatened by not violating it, and so God does not demand it,” or “I can’t follow the moral law because I am weak, and so God does not demand it,” or a combination of the two. We can and should notice that, coincidentally, that this argument is never applied for the “malefactor” in broken marriages – why could there not have been “mitigating factors” for a man who abandons his wife and children? Could it have been that he needed to do so in order to avoid some bad thing in the future? Such considerations are never made.

The less generous reading has the Cardinal falling directly into heresy regarding sufficient grace.

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