Will the Real St. Matthew Please Stand Up?

Fr. Peter Gruber

“That finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew. That’s me. I feel like him. Like Matthew.” Pope Francis remarked in his 2013 interview with Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J.

“It is the gesture of Matthew that strikes me: he holds on to his money as if to say, ‘No, not me! No, this money is mine.’ Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze. And this is what I said when they asked me if I would accept my election as pontiff.”

In Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew, Pope Francis found the perfect image to express his own surprise at being uniquely called by Christ to serve the Church as supreme pontiff.

But, we have a problem. Which figure in the painting is St. Matthew?

(If you haven’t already done so, take a moment to give the painting a good look and try to figure it out for yourself.)

Besides the faintest loop over Christ’s head, there are no halos in this painting. Nor should there be – St. Matthew was only Matthew the tax-collector at this point. Here he is, in the midst of his sin and in corrupt company. Matthew has just as much chance of being called out of this situation as any of the five guys in the tax office.

But which one is he?


Option 1: The Bearded Man

At first glance, Matthew appears to be the man with long beard. His eyes show surprise, his face is illuminated, his finger seems to point toward his breast. And, maybe just to help us out, he has a distinguishing coin in his hat and a right hand fingering money on the table. If there is anyone in this painting who is reacting as the one who is called, it’s this guy.

bearded-guy

There are two other reasons why the bearded man is the best candidate for Matthew.

First, Caravaggio did not paint The Calling by itself. With this painting in the Contarelli Chapel in the San Luigi dei Francesi Church in Rome, Caravaggio painted two other scenes from the life of St. Matthew: The Inspiration of St. Matthew and The Martyrdom of St. MatthewIn both of these adjacent paintings, Matthew is depicted as a man with a sizable beard.

The second reason concerns some of the interesting history going on at that point. Before this was painted, there was a passing fear that France might go the way of the Church of England. This fear partially subsided when the Huguenot (Protestant) Henry IV converted back to Catholicism upon taking the French throne in 1593. Caravaggio was commissioned six years later to paint three works for the church of San Luigi dei Francesi (St. Louis of the French). To flatter the now-Catholic king of France (and appease his patron), Caravaggio painted St. Matthew to resemble Henry IV. (You can see the bearded resemblance here.)

But that might not be the whole story.


Option 2: The Hunched-Over Man

People make a big deal about Christ’s pointing gesture just below the window in the painting. His hand is unusually relaxed for a definitive signaling of direction. The reason for this is very likely that Caravaggio is alluding to a more famous painting: The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo.

finger-edited

fingers

Michelangelo’s Adam is depicted in the Sistine Chapel fresco in the moment just before his animation, with his finger less than an inch from that of God. Michelangelo, instead of showing an Adam already filled with life, depicts the precise moment prior to his ensoulment with all the drama of a limp wrist.

Like Michelangelo, Caravaggio may not be capturing the moment of the calling of Matthew; he might very well be capturing the precise moment before the calling of Matthew. The finger of Christ the New Adam has yet to be fully extended, the call is only just about to happen. The whole painting is in that dramatic tension of the moment before the call.

In that case, Matthew is not the bearded man whose face is fully illuminated; Matthew is the man whose face is about to be illuminated – the smooth-faced hunched-over man.

hunched-over-guy

And here, before the call reaches him – before the light reaches his face – Matthew is still a sinner, still a tax-collector, still fingering his coins and gripping his money bag. The bearded figure to his left anticipates the perceived direction of Christ’s soon-to-be-extended finger, pointing perhaps not to his own breast but to the hunched over man next to him. This man’s face, only half-illuminated by the light that comes from Christ’s entrance, still intently looks down to the table; he has but to lift his head an inch to make eye contact with Christ. Will his eyes meet the gaze that tests mortal men and will he remain the same? Will he respond to the call?

 

So, which one is Matthew?

It’s still not entirely clear. It can go either way.

But that’s probably how Caravaggio wants it to be. Caravaggio’s art was at the cutting edge of the subjective turn of modern thought. As a controversial artist of his time, he departed from the idea that art is exclusively at the service of the true, good, and beautiful, and turned instead toward an innovative realism. (See our earlier post on what makes art good.)

Part of Caravaggio’s goal is to pull the viewer into the painting. He wants this ambiguity; he wants you to be asking these questions. And he knows that things are not so cut and dry. Christ entered a world in chaos, a world engulfed in sin. He calls us out of that darkness and into His light.

Turning again to the painting, if we go to the source of Christ’s call and look above His not-yet-fully-outstretched right hand, we find ourselves at the base of a cross (the fourfold window pane forms a cross). Here we are meant to ponder Christ’s own cross. And at the cross, darkness appears to triumph over light, chaos over order, death over life. It is precisely at that moment when Christ conquers. It is from that cross that Christ calls His disciples, and it is to that cross that Christ calls His disciples. Like Matthew (whoever he is), we are drawn up while we are still sinners into the cross, into the central mystery of our faith.

Pope Francis (himself seeming to weigh in on Matthew as the bearded man) hits on what our response should be to Christ’s call: “I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I accept in a spirit of penance.”

Independent of who we decide Matthew to be in this painting, our response to Christ should be the same as that of Pope Francis. We are that sinner uniquely called by Christ.

How will we respond to His call?

 

Main image: “The Calling of St. Matthew,” Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1599-1600

In Defense of Bad Priests

Eamonn Clark

I recently prepared third graders for their First Holy Communion. Going through the story of the Last Supper several times, I noticed that they had a fascination with a certain Apostle… You guessed it – Judas. A fascination with such a character is understandable, as it seems rather out of place in a story which one would think is supposed to be exclusively upholding models of virtue. This is not unlike the very grown-up temptation to expect moral perfection from Catholic clergy. After all, they are supposed to be models of virtue, right?

Yes, they certainly are, and extra scrutiny is rightly deserved because we do indeed have the fullness of truth and grace available to us. But here are the facts. Our Lord chose losers, dummies, and wicked sinners as the foundation of His Church. Of the original Twelve, ten were ambitious cowards. One of those ten was also arrogant (Peter). The eleventh was just ambitious (John). And the twelfth one was a greedy traitor. (Later on He would also call a terrorist to this elite group.)

The place to start looking at the failure of any priesthood is a comparison with the first four failed priesthoods, and the first successful one: Adam, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and Melchizedek, respectively.

Adam was the high priest of nature, called to guard and serve the Garden of Eden and his wife Eve at his own expense. He ought to have put himself in front of her and the serpent, but he shrinks away from his duty. He stands next to her (as Eve “turned to her husband” to give him the fruit) and watches this calamity take place. The serpent goes after Eve first, because he knows that she is easier to trick and that she might be able to trick her husband. When confronted by God, Eve blames the serpent, and Adam blames Eve: there is no responsibility taken.

The Devil often seeks to harm God’s priests through the very people they are called to protect. In this case, Adam’s own fear and self-interest allow his beloved to fall, and then she takes him with her – for what husband would want to have a wife estranged from him, as Eve surely would have been without Adam following her into sin? And yet they become estranged from each other anyway, needing to hide themselves with the flesh of animals… The first time blood is shed in Scripture, it is to cover up the sins of our first parents. A sign of things to come, for sure.

The next failed priesthood is Aaron’s. While Moses is busy with spiritual matters on Mount Sinai, the people grumble against him. The patience required to receive the Covenant is too spiritual for them, and so they threaten to leave the mountain in protest. Aaron is concerned about such a loss of numbers – he is afraid of what Moses will think. He has the people give him their gold, and he makes for them an idol which provides them with the experience of God they wanted: an unchallenging, unspiritual, ungodly experience. But the people are happy, and they stay put for a while, high on their own erroneous ideas about the worship of God. Aaron saved the day. When Moses returns with righteous fury, Aaron explains, like Adam did before God, that it was not his fault – it was the people’s and the furnace’s. More shirking of responsibility. (Moses gives them the proper experience of the god Aaron made for them when he ground it down, threw it in the water, and made the people drink. Like a good priest, he teaches them that a dead god gives even less life than water: it cannot save.)

Unlike Adam, Aaron’s ambitions were totally worldly. Instead of trying to become like God as a direct opponent, he simply wants to be the hero of God’s chosen people. Aaron wants just a little bit too much of their attention… He is not really after the gold, but what lies behind the gold – the esteem of men. That is what gives gold its value, after all.

Nadab and Abihu were Aaron’s sons. They violated the code of the Lord’s sanctuary by bringing unholy fire into the Tent of Meeting. This strange fire was deeply repugnant to the Lord, and so He slew them where they stood. Our Lord will only have sacred heat and light dwell within His holy place. Though profane fire may sustain bodily life, only sacred fire can sustain the life of grace.

The first successful priesthood is that of Melchizedek, whom Abraham meets after his battles. His is a totally spiritual and eternal priesthood, offering bread and wine and accepting the tithes owed to him for his work. He does not ask for money, he simply receives it. He is a priest not because of his family stock, like the Levites, but because of his charity. He gives to God first, then he receives what is rightfully his from men. He does not go looking for greatness: he simply is great.

Judas wraps up all of the failures of earlier priests in himself and makes them even worse. He is unwilling to do the work of a priest, putting himself in the place of Christ over and over again for the salvation of souls, standing in the way of the Devil’s reach of the weak, even though he would not have been alone in this task, unlike Adam. He trades the incarnate Lord not for the esteem of men, but for money itself. The purifying fires of the grace welling up in the Eucharistic Lord are traded for the fires of the foundry which purified the silver he would take as payment for his betrayal and would later throw into the Temple to try to buy back that grace. He takes into his body the blessed fruits of that very first celebration of Holy Mass which he was simultaneously endowed with the awesome power himself to perpetuate, as a recapitulation and elevation of Melchizedek’s priesthood, and then invites in the Devil to contradict it all. Though the accidents of bread and wine sustained Judas’ bodily life, the spirit within him died because of the rejection of the grace within the Lord’s Body and Blood – true food and true drink which preserve from everlasting death.

What greater human evil is there than the evil found in Judas on Holy Thursday? And yet that very night, Our Lord bowed before him to wash his feet, and He even personally called him “friend.” It is not unfair to say that, in a way, God loved Judas more than anyone else in human history, for there has never been a fouler human being to love. In the midst of this supreme wretchedness, Christ left us a memorial of His own greatness.

We know how the human story turns out. Judas despairs of the very mercy he was shortly supposed to be empowered to bring to others in the sacrament of confession. He attempts to slay himself (though perhaps did not succeed, and received even more time to repent), as if the death of the Lord had not been enough payment for his sin… No, Judas saw himself as so great that he believed his sin was unforgivable. “What a fool I have been,” he uttered. Yet this foolish failure brought about the culmination of our very redemption. Without Judas, there is no Passion, Death, or Resurrection. There is also not the greatest condescension of love ever shown by God. Deicide is not therefore justified, but God’s choice to allow a bad priest to exist in the Church is.

Meanwhile, Peter weeps in contrition and makes amends with “the man” he denied knowing, within earshot and within hours of having heard this prophesied. He left that “strange fire” in the courtyard, from where he watched the Lord shiver in the cold and dark of the prison cell, and he leaves the slave girl before whom he cowered in fear. Behold, the Prince of Apostles, who would eventually learn that taking up the sword is better left to those who persecute Christ than those who defend Him, and who would finally end his life as a willing victim upon a cross. The priesthood of Peter was in as sorry a state as the priesthood of Judas; the difference was repentance. Yet again, Our Lord shows his greatness through the failures of one of His hand-picked dispensers of grace.

The Church on Earth is institutional and hierarchical by nature, because human beings require such an order so as to avoid repeating the tragic error of the men of Babel who tried by their own powers to cooperate to reach up to Heaven. The Church on Earth is also sinful by nature, because it is populated by human beings – even in its hierarchy. It has been so from the moment of its inception, and this is by design. No, God does not want bad clergy in the same way He wants good clergy, but He does want to permit them to exist for now. He knew Judas would betray Him, and He knew all the clerical pedophiles, heretics, and antinomians of our own day would do the same. While they betray the Lord by selling Him for popularity or money, as they shrink from their duty to stand in front of Satan and then blame the weak or the natural insufficiency of their means, as they profane the Eucharist through indifference toward it, they repeatedly show the power of Christ in His Church: even through all this, there is victory waiting.

There has always been a crack in the foundation, there has always been chaff in the wheat, and yet there has always been grace available through these men nonetheless, as it is God’s own power which is the source of their priesthood and thus the source of their power to give grace – “ex opere operato.” God shows His majesty in the midst of this weakness and wretchedness. And sometimes He even brings these men out of their shameful disgrace and elevates them to the profoundest heights of sanctity, a feat which must be marveled at. There is true hope of Heaven for every bad priest in this world. Christ calls each of them “friend.”

Perspective is important. “There is nothing new under the sun,” as Qoheleth reminds us. We would do well to recall more frequently the beginnings of the Church to understand Her challenges today. (A reading of the disturbing history of ancient Israel would help too.) Whatever cleric is the object of concern – parish priest, celebrity priest, local bishop, curial official, pope… If there really is sin there, realize that it is just business as usual. The Barque of Peter has always leaked in the storm while the inept crew runs about helplessly, and yet it continues to float safely toward the harbor. Our Lord can guide it even in His sleep.

Let’s pray and fast for all priests, especially those who need it most.

Our Lady, Queen of the Clergy, pray for us!

 

Main image: Pope John XII, who was killed in the act of adultery by a vengeful husband

Sancti Obscuri – St. Porphyrius (September 15)

Jacob Gruber

​If you were asked off the top of your head to name five saints of the Catholic Church, who would come to mind? St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Padre Pio, or St. Francis of Assisi? Perhaps St. John Paul II or Mother Teresa? But what about St. Euphemia or St Paphnutius? Surely St. Iphigenia made it somewhere on the list?

​If these latter names don’t ring any Church bells for you, this new column may be right for you. It’s no secret that we have “saint celebrities.” If you’ve lost an item, you think to pray to St. Anthony, not St. Abundantius. If you want help in discernment, you probably prefer St. Therese’s roses to St. Rosalia’s. But what about these other saints? Don’t they have something to teach us, to inspire us with, to remind us?

​This new column, “Sancti Obscuri,” will look at different saints who, for one reason or another, have become obscure to the modern Catholic imagination. The posts won’t be exhaustive, considering how historical obscurity tends to coincide with a paucity of source material. But if these forgotten men and women have received the crown of sainthood, then they have a story worth hearing. (They know something of Thomas Jefferson’s exasperation in this old “Simpsons” episode, “Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington.”)

Our first “sanctus obscurus,” St. Porphyrius, shares a feast day with Our Lady of Sorrows on September 15. In his life, however, he would not have known what to do with a celebration of a “Lady of Sorrows.” By profession, he was a comedian, a mimic, a famous jester. He was a prevailing voice of the remnant of paganism in the post-Constantine Roman Empire, offering to those who hadn’t accepted Christianity a sufficient mockery of its tenets. People expected comedy and corruption from him, certainly not conversion. Yet, as we will see, he was a man who, within a day, went from mimicry to martyrdom, profanation to profession. Before we tell his story, some background is in line.

His story begins best with the story of Julian the Apostate, who, given the spoiler alert in his name, didn’t care for Christianity very much. In the years following the death of Constantine the Great in 337AD, a barrage of complicated politics had plagued the leadership of the vast Roman Empire. Fast forward a couple of decades, and in 361AD one “Flavius Claudius Julianus,” a nephew of Constantine, arose as sole emperor. His reign was to be short (only 20 months), but not without activity.

Although Christianity for almost 50 years had enjoyed political freedom and support from the emperor, the rule of Julian loomed as a serious threat. Though he was a Christian for the first 20 years of his life, he came to reject the Lord and choose instead the “way of Helios” (see his Letter 47). Julian the Apostate envisioned a return to the Roman paganism of old, a religious atmosphere marked by highly syncretistic polytheism, unified, as it were, under the banner of being ‘not Christian.’

When Julian heard of the fame of Porphyrius the Mimic whose specialty was mocking Christians, he had him brought in to entertain the royal court. Everything was set up for a successful show. The audience was eager to be entertained at Christianity’s expense, and Porphyrius had put together a special play; he was going to mock the Mystery of Baptism.

The show was a riot, eliciting raucous laughter to be sure. Things seemed to be lining up perfectly. The climax of the action involved a mock-baptism scene with fake clergy dressed in liturgical garb immersing the “catechumen,” Porphyrius, into some water.

He ceremoniously pronounced that he would now be a follower of Jesus Christ, “in the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” before being immersed. But something happened when Porphyrius entered the water. Submerged in that moment, Porphyrius felt the summons of actual grace, a call to serious conversion. Coming out of the water, he announced his decision to all present that he wished to be a Christian and would no longer mock the Living God. But, while he had his metanoia, the emperor was simply annoyed. The Roman Martyrology sums up best what happened next:

“Forthwith, by order of the emperor, he was struck with an axe, and thus crowned with martyrdom.”

​Struck with the extraordinary work of divine grace, he managed to get struck also by the work of human anger. Having given over his heart to Jesus, he gave his head to the emperor. Thus is the story of the great Martyr Porphyrius. Once a jester before secular courts, he was to become a martyr in the heavenly courts.

​As for Julian the Apostate, his hopes for a revival of Roman paganism would not find widespread success. In 363AD, following Julian’s military death, Emperor Jovian took the emperor’s throne and restored the faith of the Roman Empire to Christianity.

​Suppose St. Porphyrius hadn’t slipped into obscurity in modern spirituality. Comedians and performers would have a ready patron, and the whole Church would have a better sense of God’s poetic justice. As it is, let us at least take the lesson to have sincere reverence for the truth and all holy things even when it puts us in rather difficult situations. Don’t forget to invoke his intercession every September 15!

May St. Porphyrius pray for us, and teach us true reverence for the Lord!

On the Fernández Document: PART III

Eamonn Clark

PART I, PART II

THE LEGITIMACY OF A CHANGE IN DISCIPLINE

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.

RECENT CHANGES OF DISCIPLINE REGARDING NEW UNIONS

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.

RECOGNITION OF LIMITS AND GOOD THAT IS POSSIBLE

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.

CONSCIENCE

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.

A SECONDARY QUESTION

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) 

On the Fernández Document: PART II

Eamonn Clark

PART I

WHEN ONE CANNOT

Francis considers that even knowing the norm, a person “may be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin. As the Synod Fathers put it, ‘factors may exist which limit the ability to make a decision’” (AL 301). He speaks of subjects who “are not in a position to understand, value or fully practice the objective requirements of the law” (AL 295). In another paragraph he reaffirms: “Under certain circumstances people find it very difficult to act differently.” (AL 302).

Here, the Archbishop begins to violate his earlier commitment to looking beyond the possibility that one could be ignorant of the “norm” itself. This is its own mistake, as it tends toward emptying the meaning of Christian conscience. But what is more important, and indeed, in my opinion, the most important point to consider in the article, is the apparent suggestion of an impossibility of following the 6th Commandment. Trent condemned such opinions in the strongest terms: “If anyone says that the commandments of God are, even for one that is justified and constituted in grace, impossible to keep; let him be anathema.” (Canon XVIII, Session 6) Of course, a person who is not justified by grace (and therefore might not be able to follow the Commandments) is in mortal sin, and that sin is due to his or her own fault (along with the sins which result), as he or she resists God’s free gift of sanctifying grace. (The Buenos Aires guidelines also could be read as contradicting this anathema when they speak about continence not being “feasible.”) Nobody argues that such choices are easy to make and live out, but to say that they are impossible or that failing to make them is without guilt due to mere temptation is to contradict the clear teaching of the Church. Let us recall the sobering words of the Lord: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – yes, even their own life – such a person cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26) If one must be ready to make these persons and one’s own life second to the Lord – goods which have frequently been used in the Amoris debate as foils for the choice to live “more uxorio” with a non-spouse – what of the sexual goods themselves which are being provided by an illegitimate lover? What of the distant possibility that that person might withdraw some financial and/or emotional support? Sometimes doing the right thing requires enormously difficult sacrifices, and it may also occasion sin in others – the witness of the martyrs demonstrates this.

He also recalls that John Paul II recognized that in certain cases “for serious reasons, such as for example the children’s upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate” (FC 84; AL 298). Let us note that St. John Paul II recognized that “they cannot“. Benedict XVI was even more forceful in saying that in some cases “objective circumstances are present which make the cohabitation irreversible, in fact.” (SC 29b).

A couple definitely may find themselves unable to separate physically or even according to civil law. Persisting in such a state does not of itself constitute sin. (While it is fitting for civil status to correspond to ecclesiastical and sacramental status, it is not absolutely necessary. In fact, one must change his or her civil status through divorce before changing his or her ecclesiastical status through annulment. To contract a second civil marriage while still ecclesiastically bound to another does indeed constitute a more serious act, but it could be justified, so long as the rights of the divorced party are not violated.) What should be evident, however, is that remaining together physically and civilly is distinct from living “more uxorio.”

This becomes particularly complex, for example, when the man is not a practicing Catholic. The woman is not in a position to oblige someone to live in perfect continence who does not share all her Catholic convictions. In that case, it is not easy for an honest and devout woman to make the decision to abandon the man she loves, who protected her from a violent husband and who freed her from falling into prostitution or suicide. The “serious reasons” mentioned by Pope John Paul II, or the “objective circumstances” indicated by Benedict XVI are amplified. But most important of all is the fact that, by abandoning this man, she would leave the small children of the new union without a father and without a family environment. There is no doubt that, in this case, the decision-making power with respect to sexual continence, at least for now, has serious forms of conditioning that diminish guilt and imputability. Therefore, they demand great care when making judgments only from a general norm. Francis thinks especially of “the situation of families in dire poverty, punished in so many ways, where the limits of life are lived in an excruciating way” (AL 49). In the face of these families, it is necessary to avoid “imposing straightaway a set of rules that only lead people to feel judged and abandoned” (ibid.).

The Archbishop’s points about the difficulty of such situations is granted. What requires much caution, however, is examining how mitigating factors work in the act of forming a habitual intention to continue “more uxorio.” If it is not a matter of a persistent acute fear or a mental illness, what must be shown is that some particular external temptation has become an internal force which has rendered the will unable to carry out its proper function – in other words, a true addiction. Sexual addiction is, I suggest, possible but extremely rare, given the fact that the vast majority of such couples may go a long time without intimacy for some other reason, such as a health condition or even simply the mundane distractions of daily life, quite unlike a real addiction. (We should also note that it is especially egregious for any person willfully to use as license to commit a sin those factors which would mitigate that sin’s culpability. This surely only adds guilt, even hardening a person’s heart in the vice.) 

BEYOND SITUATIONALISM

The Pope, faithful to the real and limited possibilities which the Synod opened – and even against the proposals of progressive moralists – has preferred to maintain the distinction between objective sin and subjective guilt. Therefore, although it can be held with all clarity and forcefulness that sexual relations for the divorced in a new union constitute an objective situation of habitual grave sin, this does not imply that there necessarily exists grave sin in a subjective sense, that is to say, grave guilt that takes away the life of the sanctifying grace:

There has long been a distinction between “formal sin” and “material sin,” which seems to be what the Pope means by “subjective guilt” and “objective sin.” If there are factors which sufficiently mitigate or remove the guilt for what would otherwise be mortal sin, there remains “grave matter” but there is not mortal sin. This is not what is at stake in c. 915, however, as that canon refers to sin in a distinctly legal sense, which is related to but different from the moral sense… For example, a gullible and innocent person who is otherwise free to receive Holy Communion in public might have to be denied if he or she were tricked into wearing a rainbow sash under the pretext of celebrating the Noahic covenant. Onlookers would take scandal at the knowledge of an objective situation (“rainbow sash-wearing”) which would be reasonably assumed to mean that this individual is a committed LGBT activist, which itself is reasonably assumed to mean obstinate and persistent grave sin. That the soul of this individual is in grace is not a consideration in this situation.

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. (AL 301).

One is left wondering when and where this was ever said with any universality. There are no documents cited to support the thought that there has been a true development here. If the Archbishop’s text is taken in its plain meaning, the possibility of an irregular couple living in continence is included, rendering his claim without the kind of significance he seems to envision it having. The apparently implied meaning is that irregular couples living “more uxorio” may not be in mortal sin due to mitigating factors impinging on their culpability for such acts. This, I submit, is not a development at all, just a theoretical possibility which has always existed – and is unlikely to exist in reality with much frequency.

It is already widely accepted – even in the Catechism – that “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” (CCC 1735).

The paragraph cited is only directly and fully applied in the Catechism in its treatment of self-abuse (#2352), a sin which lends itself to conditioning and inadvertent commission in a way that relations with another human being do not.

For Francis, however, it is not the concrete circumstances that determine objective morality. That forms of conditioning can diminish culpability does not mean that what is objectively evil may become objectively good. Suffice it to read the following sentence: “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” (AL 305). That is to say, it remains an “objective situation of sin”, because there remains the Gospel’s clear proposal on marriage, and this concrete situation does not objectively reflect that. Francis, like the Synod, maintains the existence of objective truths and universal norms, and has never defended subjectivism or relativism. God’s plan is a marriage understood as an indissoluble union, and this point was not placed in doubt either in the Synod or in his pontificate.

There is some rhetoric in this paragraph, but we should notice that the Archbishop points out “that what is objectively evil [cannot] become objectively good.” Could this be a way to leave one with the impression that what is objectively evil could become “subjectively” good? Whatever the case, while there has perhaps not been subjectivism or relativism or “situationalism,” in some circles there has been some consequentialism insofar as the possible good outcome of some adulterous act (or some bad outcome of failing to commit some adulterous act) has been suggested as rendering that act less objectively grave in itself, but the Archbishop seems to have avoided this by implying that such a consequence rather inhibits freedom and therefore mitigates culpability. While the former is condemned, the latter is at least questionable. The mere existence of external or even internal temptation does not mitigate culpability, and it is a stretch to say that in these difficult cases a person faced with such consequences is necessarily overcome by them in a way that inhibits the natural operation of the intellect and will in a way that would eliminate grave guilt for an objectively grave sin.

THE POWER OF DISCERNMENT

On the other hand, Francis has never claimed that anyone can receive communion if he is not in the grace of God. But, as we have just seen, for someone to be deprived of sanctifying grace, it is not always enough that a serious objective fault exists. Therefore, there can be a path of discernment, open to the possibility of receiving the nourishment of the Eucharist.

So far, the Archbishop has neglected to cite the governing canons (c. 18, c. 213, c. 915, and c. 916). It is now a serious problem: c. 915 does not preclude from public access to Holy Communion those known with moral certainty by the minister to be in personal grave sin – c. 916 does precisely this, but it does so only in private administration. This distinction is absolutely essential to a coherent discussion of the entire issue.

This is only possible if a different way of thinking about the consequences of the norm is accepted. This does not admit exceptions with regard to the objective evaluation starting from an absolute moral precept, but he allows a discernment with regard to its disciplinary derivations. Although the norm is universal, however, “since the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases, the consequences or effects of a norm need not always be the same” (AL 300). “This is also the case with regard to sacramental discipline, since discernment can recognize that in a particular situation no grave fault exists” (AL footnote 336).

This could be possible for private reception of Holy Communion, but it is not possible for public reception. But this would not constitute a new discipline at all, for it has always been the case that private reception is allowed given the minister has no reasonable certainty that the communicant is in mortal sin.

The question that arises is the following: Can this be discerned in pastoral dialogue? The Pope says yes, and that is what opens the way to a change in discipline. Francis’ great novelty is in allowing that a pastoral discernment in the realm of the “internal forum” can have practical consequences in the manner of applying the discipline. The general canonical norm is maintained (cf. AL 300), although it cannot be applied in some cases as a consequence of a path of discernment. In this discernment, the conscience of the concrete person plays a central role with regard to his real situation before God, his real possibilities, and his limits. That conscience, accompanied by a pastor and enlightened by the guidelines of the Church, is capable of an assessment that gives rise to a judgment, sufficient to discern regarding the possibility of access to communion.

Surely, determining personal culpability for past actions could be helped by a dialogue with a priest or other learned individual. Once again though, in such a setting, away from the distressing and mitigating factors which would encroach on a person’s freedom in an acute way sufficient for rendering that person less responsible than what mortal sin requires, it is not possible to choose to continue habitually in a “more uxorio” relationship with the non-spouse without mortal sin. Intending to continue choosing such acts, even if only because one foresees the impinging of one’s freedom, cannot be rendered less culpable merely on account of the difficulty of refraining from those acts or the goods which might be lost due to their omission – a person must really intend to try to avoid these acts. (Such a decision might be without grave guilt if the person has a mental illness, such as PTSD or split-personality disorder which would be carried into every situation, thus rendering the habitual presumption to continue “more uxorio” insufficiently free to constitute mortal sin.) What is even more inadmissible is the usurpation of a tribunal’s proper role or a contradiction of the judgment of a tribunal. This would undermine the judicial system of the Church, such that we would have a kind of canonical vigilantism.

Does this imply that a judgment can be given about one’s own state of grace? St. John Paul II stated that “the judgment of one’s state of grace obviously belongs only to the person involved, since it is a question of examining one’s conscience.” (“De gratiae statu, ut patet, iudicium solum ad singulos homines spectat, cum de conscientiae aestimatione agatur”: EdE 37b.) But it must be clarified that it is only a certain moral security, the only thing which someone can obtain before approaching to receive communion. It is never a certainty, however much one may be unaware of having violated a commandment. The Council of Trent defined that, looking at ourselves, we cannot be certain about our state of grace (cf. Session VI, chapter 9). We speak, then, of that minimal “moral security” that the person can obtain after a process of personal and pastoral discernment, which should not be based only on a single general norm.

To reiterate, this would only be relevant for private reception, not public reception.

Up to now, discernment about an attenuated culpability did not allow for removing consequences at the external or disciplinary level. The disciplinary consequences of the norm remained unaltered, because they were based only on an objective fault against an absolute norm. Francis proposes to go one step further. It is true that the general norm is not purely a discipline, but it is related to a theological truth, such as the union between Christ and the Church which is reflected in marriage. But sometimes “undue conclusions from particular theological considerations” (AL 2) are derived when they are translated into a rigid discipline that admits no discernment whatsoever. This is the point where Francis makes a change with respect to the previous praxis.

It must be asked: what specific change is being made? There is no change in law on this point, either in Amoris Laetitia, Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus (where he actually did reform canon law on marriage), or any document of Pope Francis, nor is there a clear and authentic interpretation of canon law (such as would allow for a different application of c. 915, as St. John Paul II did with respect to allowing the divorced and civilly remarried publicly receiving Holy Communion if they were living in continence and were reasonably sure there could not be scandal taken), as has already been argued. I submit that until such is done, nothing can be presumed to have changed, either in legislation or its authentic interpretation.

PART III

On the Fernández Document: PART I

Eamonn Clark

The Rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina, Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernández, has published a summary defense of the apostolic exchortation Amoris Laetitia, which he helped draft. (English) The Archbishop is widely believed to be a close confidant of the Holy Father.

Though I had said in a former post that CRM would not be engaging further in debate on Amoris Laetitia, given that we have gone through some internal changes, and given the extremely significant defense which has been written by Abp. Fernández and the dearth of exhaustive and substantial counterarguments launched at this document specifically thus far, I publish here a commentary and exploration of this article in 3 parts, using the English translation linked to above (courtesy of Andrew Guernsey – used with permission).

–CHAPTER VIII OF AMORIS LAETITIA: WHAT IS LEFT AFTER THE STORM–

After several months of intense activity by sectors that oppose the novelties of the eighth chapter of Amoris Laetitia – minorities, but hyperactive ones – or of strong attempts to disguise them, the war seems to have reached a stalemate. It is now worth pausing to acknowledge that which is concretely what Francis leaves to us as an irreversible novelty.

The claim about who is really the majority is debatable, but it should be remembered that in any case truth is not at the service of democracy. On we go then, into the body of the article to examine the “irreversible novelty.”

“THERE ARE NO OTHER INTERPRETATIONS”

If one is interested to know how the Pope himself interprets what he wrote, the answer is very explicit in his commentary on the guidelines of the Bishops of the Buenos Aires Region. After discussing the possibility that the divorced in a new union live in continence, they say that “in other, more complex circumstances, and when it is not possible to obtain a declaration of nullity, the aforementioned option may not, in fact, be feasible.” They then add that

“nonetheless, it is equally possible to undertake a journey of discernment. If one arrives at the recognition that, in a particular case, there are limitations that diminish responsibility and culpability (cf. AL 301-302), particularly when a person judges that he would fall into a subsequent fault by damaging the children of the new union, Amoris Laetitia opens up the possibility of access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist (cf. footnotes 336 and 351) (Bishops of the Pastoral Region of Buenos Aires, “Criterios básicos para la aplicación del capítulo VIII de Amoris laetitia” [Basic criteria for the application of chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia], Buenos Aires, September 5, 2016, 6)).”

It is not clear what the Buenos Aires guidelines intend from the text. What do they mean with regard to a declaration of nullity not being possible to obtain? If they are speaking about so-called “conflict marriages,” which a tribunal is not really built to investigate (albeit some progress is being made on the point), or where some situation makes approaching a tribunal literally impossible or extremely difficult due to external factors like distance or danger, that could be stated easily enough (and would surely make for an interesting conversation). If they are speaking about someone who petitioned a tribunal and received a denial of his or her request for a declaration of nullity, then the entire authority of the law and court is undermined and the rights of the other party in the prior union are trampled. How do mitigating factors for objectively wrong acts change the application of c. 915, which is not about subjective guilt? Do the bishops only have in mind private reception? How would the good intention of protecting children change the adulterous act itself, without falling into a consequentialist vision of normative ethics (condemned by the Church)? How would a person have firm purpose of amendment sufficient for absolution without at least formally intending to avoid adulterous acts, even though he or she sees the real possibility of failure, given the expectation of duress? What kind of complex circumstances do the bishops envision in their exceptions? Does “not feasible” mean “very difficult” or “impossible”? There are many questions and few answers in the Buenos Aires guidelines.

Francis immediately sent them a formal letter stating that “the document is very good and completely explains the meaning of chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia.” But it is important to note that he adds: “There are no other interpretations” (Letter from the Holy Father to Mons. Sergio Alfredo Fenoy, Delegate of the Pastoral Region of Buenos Aires, September 5, 2016). Therefore, it is unnecessary to expect another response from the Pope.

Because the Buenos Aires guidelines are ambiguous (and they themselves are interpreting the also ambiguous Footnote 351), it does not seem possible to make a reasonable claim that there is nothing left to discuss or explain.

It could be called into question that the pope would clarify his interpretation in a letter to a group of bishops. But, in fact, this has happened other times. To give an example, let us recall an incident about the interpretation of Vatican Council I. The German bishops responded to Chancellor Bismark, who argued that a Roman centralism had been defined that weakened episcopal authority. With their response, they rejected that interpretation of the Council. Pius IX endorsed the interpretation of those Bishops with a letter (March 12, 1875) and with the consistory of March 15, 1875 (DH 3112-3117). In a footnote to Lumen Gentium 27 the letter of Pius IX to the German Bishops is quoted, whereby its hermeneutical authority is confirmed.

Surely, nobody is questioning the competency of the pope to comment authoritatively on his own document. What is in question is whether this private letter legislates new law, or a binding and authoritative interpretation of existing law. I suggest that this has certainly not occurred – the Pope’s letter to the Buenos Aires region bishops has not even entered into the Acta, the normal place to promulgate such authoritative interpretations and legislation. But again, even if it were, there is such a lack of clarity in the Buenos Aires guidelines that it is impossible to draw a definitive conclusion about what the text actually means even if it were promulgated authoritatively. The Holy Father could indeed write such legislation or give a new authoritative interpretation of existing law which contradicts past authoritative interpretation, or he could answer the pending dubia (laden as they are with citations which would adequately settle the matter), which, for whatever reason, he has chosen not to do.

Obviously, a letter from the Pope does not have the same weight as an Encyclical, but, as we see, it can have a great practical, decisive importance to explain the correct interpretation of a text of greater weight. If the Pope has received a unique charism in the Church in the service of the correct interpretation of the divine Word – the charism given to Peter to bind and to loose and to confirm his brethren in faith – this cannot exclude his ability to interpret the documents he himself wrote.

Here, the Archbishop draws a comparison between “the divine Word” and “the documents [the Pope] himself wrote.” There is some analogy, insofar as the pope can indeed write infallible documents. The proper object, however, of papal infallibility is nothing other than what has already been at least implicitly revealed by God through Scripture or Tradition and is in the deposit of Faith. The charism is usually used because there is some controversy that requires an infallible definition for the good of the faithful. (Normally, this is done through an ecumenical council.) The proper object of infallibility would certainly not extend to interpreting the pope’s own documents except inasmuch as they are themselves expositions of the deposit of Faith. This means that a pope could fallibly interpret his own intentions, let alone produce fallible utterances when enunciating anything other than the deposit of Faith in a universally binding way which does not contradict past teaching. In short: no, the pope is not infallible here. 

“PERFECT CONTINENCE”

St. John Paul II’s proposal to the divorced in a new union to live in perfect continence, as a requirement to make access to Eucharistic communion possible, was already an important novelty. Many resisted this step. Still some today do not accept this proposal because they believe it leads to relativism. On the other hand, we must note a later novelty in the language of Benedict XVI. While Pope John Paul II asked them to “assume the commitment to live in full continence” (FC 84), Benedict XVI proposed to them, more delicately, “to commit themselves” to live “as brother and sister” (SC 29b).

In the judgment of Pope John Paul II, this was permissible only if the possibility of scandal was morally certain to be excluded, in accord with the true spirit of c. 915 which aims at preventing the sin of scandal (and only indirectly at the sin of sacrilege). It certainly may be unwise for a couple to separate civilly, though one or both remain in another bond according to Divine and ecclesiastical law. John Paul II was also insistent, as was Benedict XVI, on continence. One is led to some head scratching by the Archbishop’s implied dichotomy between continence and living as brother and sister. Surely, brothers and sisters ought to be continent in their relationship, yes?

Francis recognizes the possibility of proposing perfect continence to the divorced in a new union, but admits that there may be difficulties in practicing it (cf. footnote 329). Footnote 364 gives a place to administering the sacrament of Reconciliation to them even when new falls are foreseeable. There, Francis calls into question priests who “demand of penitents a purpose of amendment so lacking in nuance that it causes mercy to be obscured by the pursuit of a supposedly pure justice” (AL 312). And there he takes up an important statement of St. John Paul II, who held that even the anticipation of a new fall “should not prejudice the authenticity of the resolution” (Letter to Cardinal W. Baum, 03/22/1996, quoted in the footnote.). Against this cautious precision of St. John Paul II, some seem to demand a kind of strict control of what others do in intimacy. We must heartily congratulate those who manage to live in perfect continence, enriching their daily cohabitation in various ways. But that does not imply ignoring that others have serious difficulties in achieving this.

There is nothing wrong with this except the implication that there is any opposition between the firm purpose of amendment necessary for absolution and “strict control of what others do in intimacy.” A confessor would indeed be bound to “control strictly” that a person not be “intimate” with someone other than his or her spouse according to Divine and ecclesiastical law. If there is not an intention to try to avoid this sin, there can be no absolution – the penitent does not have true purpose of amendment.

When the need to avoid scandal is spoken about, we must note that this only happens when people “flaunt” their situation as if it were correct (cf. AL 297). Otherwise, scandal would also be given when the first marriage has been declared null, since probably many who see them go to confession and communion do not know about the annulment. For that matter, neither could they know whether they live as brother and sister or not. The objective fault is not “manifest” insofar as it cannot be confirmed from the outside, and all deserve the benefit of the doubt. Let us leave this matter – in fact, unverifiable – to the intimacy of the discernment of the member of the faithful with his pastor.

The Archbishop’s argument is difficult to see through if one does not understand this key principle behind c. 915: the reasonable suspicion of obstinate perseverance in grave sin based on a reality which is generically publicly available knowledge. The primary concern of c. 915 is to prevent scandal, and its object, apart from those under some penalty, is those persons whose sufficiently manifest and exterior (or “objective”) conditions would be reasonably assumed to imply obstinate perseverance in grave sin if those conditions were actually known. To be sure, “good faith” ought to be applied in the distribution of the Sacraments. A priest ought not barrel into a litany of questions about the personal lives of every individual in his parish, confessional, or Communion line, but when an irregularity becomes known it must be addressed in a certain way which will indeed depend on the reality of what occurs in private – if they are continent, then they must be ministered to privately, or provision must be made to preclude scandal. If they are living “more uxorio,” then they must be helped to understand that they cannot present themselves for Holy Communion, for, if their irregular status were to become known (even if known only independently of their activity), which is certainly possible given human nature and the public character of civil marriage, then there would be grave scandal given and likely taken. If the couple has obtained an annulment, and they have a convalidation to regularize their union, then they have publicly removed the possibility for giving scandal in this way. That scandal may still be taken is possible, and adequate provision can and should be made, but there is no longer an irregular situation to discover or actually know: they are indeed not irregular, so no revelation or knowledge is possible to the contrary. The couple who practice continence in an irregular union have themselves the obligation at least to be sure that the possibility of scandal is excluded before their public reception, lest it become known that they are in an irregular union; people would have the reasonable assumption that they would indeed be living as married people, and scandal would be taken. It is the reasonable assumption of the grave sin that generally goes with such adultery, contingent upon the reasonable possibility of revelation of irregularity, which c. 915 aims at avoiding here – “flaunting” as the Archbishop envisions it need not occur for either to happen in most parish settings. (I have never been to Argentina, and so perhaps there is some unique situation there which allows for what the Archbishop says to make some practical sense.) Publicly civilly remarrying after a divorce without an annulment, and publicly receiving Holy Communion, certainly do seem to be “flaunting” in a way that is sufficient to cause plenty of gossip, loss of respect for the Sacraments and their ministers, and even imitation, should part or all of the truth come out.

The great resistance that this issue provokes in some groups indicates that this question, beyond its importance in itself, breaks a rigid mental structure, very concentrated in issues of sexuality, and it forces them to broaden their perspectives. This is why Francis asks pastors to help the faithful “to treat the weak with the logic of compassion, avoiding aggravation or unduly harsh or hasty judgements.” (AL 308).

The claim that the “conservative” approach has a concentration on sexuality is easily dismissed on account of the consistency of that approach with respect to other sorts of sins. On the contrary, the “liberal” approach seems fixated – it is only the sexual sins which warrant this special exemption from the timeless understanding of c. 915 and its predecessors. Why, for instance, does the secretive abortionist who has no other means of feeding his family not qualify for the same kind of exception as the divorced and remarried? He may indeed be faced with much pressure, have no easy options, and see a great good to be obtained by doing abortions, such as feeding his family. It would be immensely difficult for him to stop, and he could probably get away with nobody finding out that this is his business, if he doesn’t “flaunt” it… If he explains his situation to Father, could he too discern that he can go to Holy Communion, despite intending to continue performing abortions? Hopefully, it is clear that this would be totally inadmissible, not only because of the grave sin which is likely on his soul, but also because of the risk of someone discovering what has occurred – and that scandal being both taken and given due to the reality of such a decision by the parish priest who decided to give him a pass and implicitly confirmed him in his wicked practice. How much damage could be done! Further, we can ask if the abortionist could receive absolution without a firm purpose of amendment, viz., a real intention not to perform any more abortions? No. Presumably, the Archbishop would agree, but why then is there such a fixation on the 6th Commandment? In fact, the Archbishop will soon go on to argue that there are exceptions to the 5th Commandment (and the 7th), in addition to implying that there is one for the 6th. Why, then, can distressed abortionists not discern on the internal forum that they can present themselves publicly for Holy Communion? If we are going to be looser on c. 915, then we ought not be fixated on the sexual sins, right?

ABSOLUTE MORAL STANDARDS AND HUMAN LIMITS

Amoris Laetitia brings back a teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas on the application of the general principles: “The more we descend to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter uncertainty” (AL 304). Francis does not affirm that general moral laws cannot provide for all situations, nor that they are incapable of impeding the decision of conscience. On the contrary, he says that “[they] set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected.” However, “in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations” (AL 304). It is the formulation of the norm that cannot provide for everything, not the norm itself. And this applies not only to positive laws, but even to our way of formulating the natural law in its various expressions. In this line, the International Theological Commission, within the Pontificate of Benedict XVI, stated: “Natural law could not be presented as an already established set of rules that impose themselves a priori on the moral subject; rather, it is a source of objective inspiration for the deeply personal process of making a decision” (International Theological Committee, “In Search of a Universal Ethic: A New Look at Natural Law,” Rome, 2009, 59.).

The teaching of St. Thomas being applied here is found in the Summa Theologica II-I, q. 94, a 4. In this Article Thomas is explaining, among other things, that the natural law is not always easily formulated in general principles which can account for every case. His example is the placing of goods in trust, which would normally require the holder to return those goods upon demand, though some wicked intention of the retriever might render the relinquishment of the goods unjust (cf. II-II q. 120 a. 1). The general formula “return entrusted property when asked to by the depositor,” does not account for the murderous intentions of one retrieving an entrusted sword. Needless to say, it would be quite easy to misapply this idea to suit one’s own purposes: one can simply claim, “The law doesn’t apply to this case.” The burden of proof, then, is upon the one who would claim that some widely accepted general formulation of natural law would not apply in a particular case. One situation which the general formulation against adultery would not seem to obtain would be the reasonably presumed but not entirely certain death of a spouse. Is it really a requirement of justice and chastity that one be absolutely sure that his or her spouse is dead? The Church does not seem to think so (see c. 1707), and attempting to remarry and living “more uxorio” while one’s spouse is hopelessly stranded on a desert island would not be the sin of adultery except in a material sense, with no guilt whatsoever. It remains to be shown, however, how the general principle fails in what seems to be its clearest application by Our Lord and by the Church throughout 2,000 years of legislation and moral theology, namely, to divorce and live “more uxorio” without proper certainty of nullity or dissolution (Pauline and Petrine privilege, etc.). One must also wonder if St. Thomas would agree with this application, given his brief and uncompromising treatment of adultery in the same text.

The absolute norm in itself does not admit exceptions, but that does not imply that its succinct formulation must be applied in every sense and without nuances in all situations. “Thou shalt not kill” does not admit exceptions. However, it raises this question: should taking life in self-defense be included within the term “killing” prohibited by the norm? Should taking food from others to feed a hungry child be included within the term “stealing” prohibited by the norm? No one would doubt that it is legitimate to ask whether these concrete cases are actually included within the narrow formulations of the negative precepts “Thou shalt not kill” or “Thou shalt not steal.”

While there are cases where killing becomes legitimate, the 5th Commandment, despite popular translations, is definitely not simply about “killing” (“matar”), but about a specific kind of killing. The Hebrew “ratsach” does not mean to execute lawfully, nor does it mean to kill in moderate self-defense. It means, roughly, “to slay,” which is done through malice or negligence. Even if not fully clear in the text of the Decalogue itself, it is clear in its interpretation within Scripture and the constant authoritative interpretive tradition surrounding it. As for the 7th Commandment, there is no possibility of theft when the principle of the universal destination of goods makes into momentarily common property some object which is another’s property according to human law. We understand that taking a ladder from a hardware store without paying is not stealing if it is urgently needed to save a child from a burning building – even if there is no possibility of returning the ladder or making reparation. So these analogies do not seem to work so well… As John Paul II taught in Veritatis Splendor, the negative precepts of Divine law, when properly understood, do not admit of exceptions (see par. 52 and 56).

For this reason, it is also licit to ask if the acts of a more uxorio cohabitation should always fall, in its integral meaning, within the negative precept of “fornication”. I say, “in its integral meaning,” because it is not possible to hold that those acts in each and every case are gravely immoral in a subjective sense. In the complexity of particular situations is where, according to St. Thomas, ‘uncertainty increases.’ Indeed, it is not easy to describe as an ‘adulteress’ a woman who has been beaten and treated with contempt by her Catholic husband, and who received shelter, economic and psychological help from another man who helped her raise the children of the previous union, and with whom she had new children and cohabitates for many years.

It is certainly odd that the Archbishop uses the word “fornication” (“fornicar”) rather than “adultery,” seeing as we are presumably not speaking of a couple with both partners being free of other presumed marital bonds (which, by the way, would not come under c. 915’s scope unless the fornicative cohabitation were sufficiently notorious or “manifest” and there was obstinate perseverance). The difficulty of the situation the Archbishop describes is granted – but one must wonder why such a woman did not approach a tribunal for a declaration of nullity so that she might marry the second man. In any case, the Archbishop is now walking back the proposition that there is an “exception” as for the 5th and 7th Commandments – now he is simply saying that there might not be sufficient culpability for grave guilt. So, which is it? Is there an exception to the rule, or is the rule simply not broken in a grave way?

The question is not whether that woman does not know that cohabitation with that man does not correspond with objective moral norms. It is more than that. Some claim to simplify the matter in this way, by saying that, according to Francis, “The subject may not be able to be in mortal sin because, for various reasons, he is not fully aware that his situation constitutes adultery.” (This is what Claudio Pierantoni stated in a recent conference, very critical of Amoris Laetitia in Rome on April 22, 2017.) And they question him that it makes no sense to speak about discernment if “the subject remains indefinitely unaware of his situation” (Ibid.). But Francis explicitly said that “more is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule” (AL 301). The issue is much more complex and includes at least two basic considerations. First, if a woman who knows the existence of the norm can really understand that not abandoning that man – of whom she cannot now demand a total and permanent continence – is truly a very grave fault against the will of God. Second, if she truly can, at this point, make the decision to abandon that man. This is where the limited formulation of the norm is incapable of stating everything.

Surely, it is difficult to imagine a baptized, sane adult not having internal access to the moral law against divorce and remarriage, as set down in all four Gospels, though perhaps a seriously deficient moral education could cause a Christian to be invincibly ignorant. A coherent explanation of such ignorance would have to be harmonious with the clear sense of, among other important texts, Romans 1(On the other hand, a person certainly could be invincibly ignorant of ecclesiastical law or matters of fact; for example, if an individual was unaware of his/her baptism and subsequently violated canonical form in attempting marriage, this would render the marriage invalid but not morally problematic in a subjective sense.) Instead of developing this point, he seeks to introduce a conflict of obligations – a situation which sometimes, it is true, can only be solved by recourse to one’s own practical wisdom. It remains to be shown, however, that there is not an objective hierarchy of obligations which can be appealed to; it seems that there is, as adultery comes under a negative Divine prescript, while care of children comes under a positive Divine prescript. This means that the former must never be done, while the latter should be done as far as possible without violating other more serious duties – like not committing adultery, which is itself contrary to the welfare of children in a variety of ways, lest we forget.

In any event, the specific and principal proposal of Francis, in line with the Synod, is not concerning the considerations on the formulation of the norm. Why then is this question part of his proposal? Because he calls for much attention to the language that is used to describe weak persons. For him, offensive expressions such as “adulterer” or “fornicator” should not necessarily be deduced from the general norms when referring to concrete persons.

The prudence of this is at least questionable in light of the uncompromising and “offensive” language of Our Lord. Nobody, of course, would suggest that “name calling” is an effective approach to saving souls, but delicate euphemisms are not always appropriate either.

But his emphasis is rather on the question of the possible diminution of responsibility and culpability. Forms of conditioning can attenuate or nullify responsibility and culpability against any norm, even against negative precepts and absolute moral norms. This makes it possible not always to lose the life of sanctifying grace in a “more uxorio”cohabitation.

That there is a possibility of mitigation of culpability for individual adulterous acts has not come under serious criticism as far as I know, although one should certainly be wary of overextending this possibility (which is surely not hard to do). What is different from individual instances of such behavior, however, is the intention to continue in it. When that intention occurs apart from some grave duress (or other mitigating factor), it seems that this would always constitute mortal sin (excepting those cases of invincible ignorance). It should also be noted that mere temptation does not constitute a mitigating factor, and the loss of some good (like financial support) is itself merely an external temptation until it actually damages the soul’s ability to function properly in decision-making. Further, we should recall that “subjective guilt” for such acts is not matter for c. 915, only for c. 916. Finally, we should at this point draw the distinction between a person choosing to do an act and tolerating an act being done on oneself. A woman may tolerate the sexual advances of a man in a non-marital union for some serious reason, but she may not internally consent. (It is more difficult to imagine this situation obtaining for a man.) These distinctions must be made in order to have a coherent discussion of the issue at hand.

PART II

“Shallow Entry Point” – The Youth Dilemma

I recall quite clearly an encounter I had shortly after having been accepted as a diocesan seminarian at the tender age of 18. One of the older brethren was describing to me our upcoming annual retreat and convocation. He noted it would be pretty laid back, not too intense, and that there would be “more serious retreats” in seminary. “Okay,” I thought, “that should be no problem. I’ve been on plenty of retreats before.”

What I experienced was something quite at odds with what I was expecting… Sure, there was plenty of recreation, but every day also had Morning Prayer, Mass, Day Prayer, Holy Hour, Evening Prayer, Night Prayer, conferences, private meditation, and sometimes a rosary or extra Holy Hour… All that was a bit overwhelming at the time, as the retreats I’d been on in high school contained very little prayer by comparison, and yet this was “not too intense,” etc. “What then,” I wondered, “will the serious retreats be like? And do priests really have to pray this whole breviary thing every day? Oh my goodness!”

Well, I survived, and looking back I can definitely agree with the older seminarian’s description. For the average man in formation or clerical ministry, basically all those disciplines should constitute a normal day. Mass, rosary, the breviary, maybe some study, Holy Hour… In fact, it is not realistic to expect oneself to persist in celibacy or to be effective as a physician of souls without such a regimen. A “serious retreat” then, should consist of mostly silence, prayer, and possibly some extra mortification. It should be a time to focus exclusively on fellowship with God and the improvement of one’s spiritual life, not strengthening your volleyball serve, learning to play the guitar, or finally making a move on your crush, as good as these goals might be.

This brings me to the issue at hand: the amount of prayer and silence at many, or even most, youth retreats and conferences, or even regular events at the parish. Some are so incredibly noisy and chaotic one must wonder if the point is to traumatize kids into practicing the Faith, as if the louder the keynote speaker says something, the more the Holy Spirit is there. This is not really what is going on, of course; the point is to make the Gospel and prayer accessible by providing a “shallow entry point” to largely unchurched kids coming from a noisy and hostile culture, and “breaking in” can be done effectively with such means.

Okay. There is merit to this. But how shallow is too shallow? And how do you gently push the “big kids” into the deep end?

I suppose I am, to some extent, a product of “shallow entry-point” praxis, and I have known it to reap lasting fruit in others as well. On the other hand, I have also seen the growth spring up and wither away with the sun. (Matthew 13:6, 20-21)

It might be helpful to take a look at St. John of the Cross for a moment.  A few tidbits from the beginning pages of Dark Night will be enough to get a clear sense of the problems which inevitably come with a one-size-fits-all shallow entry-point praxis.

“Sometimes they are anxious that others shall realize how spiritual and devout they are, to which end they occasionally give outward evidence thereof in movements, sighs and other ceremonies; and at times they are apt to fall into certain ecstasies, in public rather than in secret, wherein the devil aids them, and they are pleased that this should be noticed, and are often eager that it should be noticed more.”

“Furthermore, they burden themselves with images and rosaries which are very curious; now they put down one, now take up another; now they change about, now change back again; now they want this kind of thing, now that, preferring one kind of cross to another, because it is more curious.”

“These persons, in [receiving Holy Communion], strive with every nerve to obtain some kind of sensible sweetness and pleasure, instead of humbly doing reverence and giving praise within themselves to God. And in such wise do they devote themselves to this that, when they have received no pleasure or sweetness in the senses, they think that they have accomplished nothing at all. This is to judge God very unworthily; they have not realized that the least of the benefits which come from this Most Holy Sacrament is that which concerns the senses; and that the invisible part of the grace that it bestows is much greater; for, in order that they may look at it with the eyes of faith, God oftentimes withholds from them these other consolations and sweetnesses of sense. And thus they desire to feel and taste God as though He were comprehensible by them and accessible to them, not only in this, but likewise in other spiritual practices.”

One can only imagine what this great Doctor of the Church would say about the average American youth conference – surely, his tongue would be as a whip. In fact, John would argue that the violent noise and flashy lights are exactly the opposite of the way out of the beginning stages of spirituality for someone already accustomed to such things. What the beginner needs is a calm introduction and encouragement into small mortifications and deprivations of the senses which their charity is already prompting them to make. Staying up all night in Adoration is certainly a good thing – on a retreat. But such an experience might prove rather fruitless without some firm resolution to grow in a reasonable way in the practice of daily prayer, mortification, detachment from some creature or even from some sin. So-called “retreat highs” constitute a serious obstacle to such discipline, as they soothe one’s senses and trick the soul into thinking itself to have grown on account of feeling consoled, while there has often been no earnest commitment made to rise higher in the spiritual life. In fact, a person who allows himself to be satisfied with feeling holy and therefore does not seek to purge himself of sin and vice is actually likely to be regressing. In other words:

Sincere and interested kids might be allowing themselves to be fooled by their own emotions. (Would it really be a surprise that this happens in the spiritual life as well as in natural affairs?) Teens (and adults, by the way,) who are already intrigued and present a modicum of commitment ought to be led away from self-serving spirituality into a more disciplined and moderate spirituality ordered toward a careful generosity. (I say the generosity should be “careful” because all too often a person moving out of the early stages of the spiritual life will want to make big commitments which are often the product of an earnest explicit desire to be generous with the Lord but which rest upon a secret pride or simple ignorance of what the sacrifice they are making actually entails. This sets the person up for bitterness, despair, or, worst of all, hubristic pride in their spiritual disciplines. Unlike a normal, merely human relationship, we must never give the Lord more than what He wants.)

On the other hand, many kids showing up for retreats or youth group are not being prompted by charity to move forward because, tragically, they do not have charity: they are in mortal sin and are often attached to it. They are there because their parents made them go, and they want to leave as soon as possible. They have not even really begun the spiritual life in earnest. Trying to lead them into silence, solitude, and mortification would likely be a total overload and utterly repel them. Even kids who have made a break with grave sin are often still so overwhelmed by the frantic quest of the senses for satiation that the thought of a whole day without human communication or any entertainment would be enough to crush their spirit to the point of making the whole exercise a waste or even a damaging experience. This reality shows the sense of Paul’s approach with the Corinthians: “I gave you milk to drink, not solid food, for you were not ready for it…” (1 Cor. 3:2) It seems that the quickest way to “hook” such kids might be to use the pleasant things they are already familiar with – loud noise, novelty, emotion, etc. There are, however, plenty of kids who will be even more repelled by such an attempt, especially if some imitation of the world is a bad imitation. They sense the lack of authenticity and figure that there couldn’t be something so great behind the mask, otherwise whatever it really is wouldn’t be pretending to be something it’s not. And these kids are on to something, aren’t they…

What to do? Here are some options which present themselves, arranged (in my opinion) from the most challenging to the least, though they are not mutually exclusive.

  1. Separate the kids who are more advanced, and give them more “solid food.” But how to go about this… What criteria would be used? Where are the human and economic resources for this? What social tension could be caused? What temptation would there be to “get into the holy group?” Etc. Perhaps something like this could be done informally and/or discreetly.
  2. Provide more variety at retreats and conferences. This is often difficult because of resources… Time, money, space, chaperones (!), etc. However, it might sometimes also be a function of a lack of expressed interest. Might there be some designated “quiet areas” at some larger youth conferences? Options for talks on more “difficult” subjects, like mortification? Perhaps…
  3. Provide different voluntary opportunities for more serious spiritual experiences throughout the year. Some high school kids really could benefit, for example, from an 8 day silent retreat, doing the Ignatian Exercises. Perhaps this number is small, and these things can be expensive, but the option ought to be there periodically. A lot of kids don’t even know that such opportunities exist – why are they not being informed? Even something communal could be done in a more seriously contemplative mode.
  4. Teach more about the spiritual life throughout the course of the year. This is practical, but those responsible for youth would have to put in the effort to learn and teach the basics of ascetical theology (in addition to other relevant things, like Scripture, fundamental morals, Sacraments, and so on). For the fringe kids who are only showing up to check the box to make Confirmation, this education would need to be extremely tactful but also assertive and frequent. Having a teen a grade higher give a talk before everyone goes on a Confirmation retreat is good; a series of letters to parents and those preparing for Confirmation which then are followed up with a one-on-one meeting with the pastor about their understanding of those letters and the spiritual life both in general and as it relates to their preparation for Confirmation might be better.
  5. Actively and tirelessly encourage kids to go to confession on a regular basis. Get Father to come by youth group once a month just for this reason. Seeing as not every kid could have a real spiritual director, as there are not enough clergy for the task (at least in America), this is the next best thing. Oh and they will have their sins forgiven too, making sure they are in grace and ready to make the most of whatever else is going on in youth group that day.
  6. Increase the use of neutral methods of attracting kids which lend themselves more easily to showing and providing the depth of the spiritual treasures of the Church, and decrease the use of other methods. For example, take the youth group hiking… This is basically what Our Lord did for three years with the Twelve. Get the kids involved with service to their own community (maybe not some far off land where their perceived use will far exceed their actual use)… Feed the homeless, visit the sick, etc. Have them step up to help with the parish’s broader life, especially liturgy. And so on. These are all activities that would satisfy a Borromeo or a Vianney but would also not be too much for the average 9th grader. In the meantime, try to strip away some of the kitsch and imitation of secular life that tend to deter (in the short term and in the long term) more than they attract.

Shepherding teenagers from various backgrounds and with differing levels of interest, maturity, and sensibility is undoubtedly a massive challenge which only grows with the numbers, and youth ministers are often under appreciated for all the work they do. But we ought to be able to admit that a monolithic (and therefore less work-intensive) “no child left behind” policy, where the lowest common spiritual denominators are always catered to, tends to stunt the growth of kids who are looking to go further but find no exterior means to do so; and this can sometimes result in their own eventual drifting away, as they see nothing beyond what they have already experienced and realize one day that what they have experienced is not as great as they once thought. Who wants to stay in the shallows forever? People will eventually look for a deep end to swim in, whether those waters are safe or not. There need not be a “youth dilemma” – we are a both/and kind of Church, after all. The pool should have a shallow end, but it can and should have a deep end too.

These are my thoughts and suggestions from my limited perspective. Please add your own in the comments!

 

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image source: http://www.sparhawk.info

The Grotesqueness of the Mass and the Problem of Evil

Dali_Crucifixion_hypercube.jpg

I would like you to imagine the classic love story. You know the one: The daring knight rescues the damsel in distress from the fiery dragon. The details really don’t matter. All the story needs, seemingly, is a knight, a dragon, and a princess. However, it seems that there is one other element needed in the story, and that is the element of danger. For the story to work, the knight must triumph in the end, but only after a battle in which he might have lost. And this seems to be true, not just from our perspective, but from the perspective of the princess as well.

I mean, if the story is to be believed, the princess loves her knight, and love seems to include a desire for the beloved to be safe from harm. Yet, imagine how the princess would feel if the daring knight, instead of facing the dragon in hand to hand combat, camped a mile away from the castle with a sniper rifle, killed the dragon from a safe distance, and then waltzed in to pick up the princess. A bit anticlimactic isn’t it? Don’t we all feel, as much as we might not like to admit it, that if we were the princess, we’d prefer our beloved risking it all to save us? Don’t we, in a secret place in our heart, want our knight to be scarred?

Now, I’m not going to try to understand the motivation for this desire. I don’t know where it comes from, I only know that it seems true that we have it. But, I do think it has to do with what comes after the knight’s daring rescue. While the knight and princess gallop away on a snow white stallion, isn’t there already a natural bond forged by their shared experience of the dragon? If the knight had faced no danger and suffered no injury in his battle with the dragon, wouldn’t the princess, as much as she loves her knight, feel estranged from him? Wouldn’t she ask herself, “Does he understand what the dragon did to me?”

I have often had that question about my relationship with God. Knowing how much my sin has hurt me and made me despicable to myself, and reflecting on the glory and perfection of God, I sometimes have asked myself, “Does He understand what sin did to me?” The answer God gave me at the cross, and continues to give me every day in the Mass is, “Yes, because sin has done it to me too.” There seems to be a deep psychological reason that the bread and wine are consecrated separately in the mass: We want a God who knows what it feels like to have his blood separated from his body, in the same way that we have spilled our blood living in a broken world. Of course, we want a God who is all-powerful, who triumphs over sin and death, no denying that, but we also want a God who bleeds in the process. We want our God to carry the same scars we do.

That is “the grotesqueness of the mass.” In the mass, as a continuation of the eternal sacrifice of Christ on the cross, God makes himself vulnerable to us, so that He can share in our weakness. Our suffering becomes the point of encounter with God. In the mass, God enters our brokenness, our loneliness, our anger, our numbness. That is the horrible beauty of the Mass and the cross: that the hour of good’s triumph over evil is when good is weakest. It is when God looks most like a man. God suffers with us, in order to make Himself capable of being understood by His creatures who have so long suffered under sin, that they are unable to comprehend a life of love without suffering.

the_body_of_the_dead_christ_in_the_tomb-copy-300x45.jpg

And yet, we know that this is not the end. God chose to suffer not just to meet us in our suffering, but to bring us out of it. We have hope that there is a love that transcends suffering, and though, in our broken human condition, we can’t experience it now, (or at least, our experience of it is limited,) our hope in God is that some day we will. That is why the problem of evil (Why does a good God allow suffering in the world) is not so much a problem as it is a recognition of our broken selves. As fallen men and women, our experience of our own brokenness makes us want others to have experienced our suffering. This is not because we are evil and sadistically want others to suffer, but because we want to know we are not alone. The cross not only gives us that reality, but also the hope for something more: something we cannot fully comprehend now, but something we know we’ve been missing. Evil exists because in our broken state, we need evil to help us recognize the good. In the evil of the cross, we see the ultimate good, and that ultimate good gives us hope for a good without evil, a love without pain, a final victory over sin.

jesus_returns-300x225.jpg

Post by: Niko Wentworth

Main image: The Deposition from the Cross, Bl. Francis Angelico, 1434

Adventures in Liturgy: Funeral, or Celebration of Life?

Recently, I was distributing Holy Communion during a Mass of Christian Burial. The coffin was to my immediate right, and the family of the deceased to my immediate left. The Communion Procession was moving in an orderly fashion, when suddenly there was a bottleneck. When I looked up to see what was happening, I couldn’t believe my eyes: having just received Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, people were greeting members of the immediate family who were sitting in the front row. I was stunned! I whispered quietly, “Please keep moving, you are blocking the other communicants.”

How did we get here? Answering this question is simultaneously simple, and equally complex. While one may say people no longer know how to act properly in public, I propose that there are other realities at work as well.

The General Introduction to the Order of Christian Funerals states, Christians celebrate the funeral rites to offer worship, praise, and thanksgiving to God for the gift of a life which has now returned to God, the author of life and the hope of the just.[1] Our worship, whether at a funeral or many regular parish Masses, has become so anthropocentric, that we have lost a grip on the reality that we gather to worship, praise, and thank God; instead we often make ourselves the source, center, and end of our liturgical celebration. At a funeral, we gather not for a celebration of life, but to encounter the mercy of God and the promise of eternal life found only in Christ.

Secondly, we live in a world without sin. To admit that there is sin in the world and that we are sinners does not mean that we are bad people. To admit that we are sinners and that there are acts that are objectively right or wrong, proclaims that we are human beings who need to be redeemed through the Paschal Mystery of Christ. Death is a consequence of sin. The Church through its funeral rites commends the dead to God’s merciful love and pleads for the forgiveness of their sin.[2] To admit that we are sinners is to acknowledge that the deceased, and all those present, is truly human, and that God alone is the healer of our pain, and the source of forgiveness.

Death is very hard, and the reality of separation from those we love most dearly is heart wrenching. At the rite of final commendation and farewell, the community acknowledges the reality of separation and commends the deceased to God. In this way it recognizes the spiritual bond that still exists between the living and the dead and proclaims its belief that all the faithful will be raised up and reunited in the new heavens and a new earth, where death will be no more. [3]We have come from God and we are returning to God: our origin is a reality, and to return to God our goal. Is this basic reality present to the minds and hearts of believers today? While life is to be lived and lived to the fullest of the potential God has given us, do we keep before us that our time on earth is not what gives us meaning, but rather that we are destined for God? The preaching, life, liturgy, and catechesis of the Church needs to proclaim loudly that our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.[4] A celebration of life fails to lead us to embrace our true citizenship.

If the Liturgy truly forms our faith and shapes our living, our approach to death and the Rites of Christian burial may reflect more accurately that we believe that all the ties of friendship and affection which knit us one throughout our lives do not unravel in death.[5]

Post by: Fr. Jordan Kelly, O.P.

Main image: A Funeral at Ornans, Gustave Courbet, 1850

[1] Order of Christian Funerals, hereafter OCF, #5.

[2] OCF, #6.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Philippians, 3:20.

[5] OCF, # 71.

A Forgotten Sin

There is a strange and subtle fault that plagues human hearts. It is strange because it is committed only with other sins, and it is subtle because one already has forgiveness on his mind when he commits it and so is likely not to think it needs repenting from. What is this sin?

Presumption.

Presumption is opposed to the virtue of hope, whereby we desire and expect God’s forgiveness and help in obtaining Heaven. It is the contrary of despair… The presumptuous person throws aside the moral law on account of the excessive character of his hope. He expects too much from God: he expects a thing not promised. Salvation has not been promised to those who merely fulfill a formula (viz., announcing one’s sins in sacramental confession, for example) but rather to those who exhibit perfect contrition, which is the rejection of all to do with sin – its evil effects, its evil content, and its evil motivation – out of love for God (with the assumption of making confession soon, if not presently making one), and to those who at least have true “attrition” (fear of punishment) within the sacrament of confession itself. Presumption is a special kind of motivation… a “meta-sin” if you will. One is in danger of not having adequate repentance for the sacrament of confession to receive absolution if he fails to mention presumption, as he brings his lack of the fear of God into the confessional with him. For a valid confession, one must at least have true attrition – fear of punishment. The presumptuous person does not have this fear with regard to himself. (If you have just become aware of this sin in your life, you should assume that your prior confessions were valid unless you have a clear certainty that you were not really trying that hard to examine your conscience. Simply mention presumption in your next confession.)

To help understand this sin, here’s a natural, human form of presumption. Imagine a child who stays out well past his curfew. When he comes home, his parents are upset, but he apologizes for his lateness and they forgive him. Then, on their way to bed, they hear their son talking on the phone to a friend – “Yeah they were mad but they forgave me. I knew they would, that’s why I did it.”

Ouch. What parent wouldn’t then proceed with an even more severe punishment than what mere lateness merited?

Unlike an unsuspecting parent, God is wise to this game. A person has “too much hope” if he thinks that “God will forgive me” is an excuse for doing whatever he wants and then only confessing the faults he commits because of his expectation of forgiveness. He must also confess his motivation – presuming upon God’s mercy. In this sense, presumption is “an inordinate conversion to God,” as St. Thomas puts it. This is strange to our ears, but it is indeed what this sin is; a person hopes so much for forgiveness that his servile fear is entirely demolished and replaced not by filial fear but by disobedience.

Presumption is a daughter of pride. One who thinks he is so great as to deserve Heaven is likely to fall into halfhearted repentance, or even into no repentance at all. What a calamity! Pride can also lead to another kind of presumption, namely, the rash assumption that God has blessed one’s endeavors in such a way that failure will be impossible or at least improbable in the project one has undertaken. For example, a man decides to become a missionary in China. He prayed, but he did not seek the approval of any ecclesial authority nor take counsel with a prudent spiritual director. How does he know that this is really God’s will? He does not. He would be guilty of this secondary kind of presumption. So too would a person who thinks himself to have “the gift of healing” and so goes about laying hands on people without authentic discretion. This is presumptuous of God’s grace and also exposes the Gospel to ridicule.

Knowing you have committed this sin is not always so easy. There is a difference between the hope of forgiveness motivating a sin and the hope of forgiveness occasioning a sin… I have given an example of the former in the context of human relationships. An example of the latter would be something more like a child who has become used to his parents forgiving him and so loses some respect and fear of punishment. He does not consciously choose to violate their legitimate demands on him because he knows they will forgive him, but a kind of vicious habit has been ingrained nonetheless. Where is the line between these two cases? It might not always be so clear. What we can say is that a person who consciously makes forgiveness a condition of his sinful action has certainly committed this sin, and a person who has lost respect and fear of punishment is in serious danger of committing this sin.

To reiterate, presumption requires its own mention in confession, as it is its own distinct sin. Often a person will know he has done something seriously wrong by using “God will forgive me” as a motivation for sin but will not have the vocabulary to explain himself in confession. The word is “presumption.”

 

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image: Pope Francis goes to confession – via Catholic News Agency