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Is Pope Francis a Heretic? Part II

Tim Staples

Yesterday I outlined the controversy over Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. Now let’s break down what I have found to be the three key and most common objections to AL. The first two are closely related, so we’ll consider them together:

The objections

  1. Pope Francis is claimed to give tacit approval to adultery when he posits “extraordinary” cases where a Catholic is divorced from a presumably valid nuptial union, remarried outside of the Church, and yet be able to receive communion licitly in the Church.
  2. Pope Francis is claimed to contradict divine law as laid out plainly by our Lord himself in the Gospels: “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery” (Luke 16:18; see Mark 10:11-12, Matt. 19:9, I Cor. 7:10-11).

A Catholic response

The pope made quite clear that he is not giving any sort of approval to adultery. In paragraph 297, he says:

[I]f someone flaunts [flouts] an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal, or wants to impose something other than what the Church teaches, he or she can in no way presume to teach or preach to others; this is a case of something which separates from the community (cf. Matt. 18:17). Such a person needs to listen once more to the gospel message and its call to conversion.

Our Holy Father uses the language of excommunication here. I don’t know if he could have been any more forceful.

In paragraph 295, Pope Francis agrees with Pope St. John Paul II, from FC, that there can never be a change in the divine law of God. The moral law is given to us as a gift from God. He reminds us that it was St. John Paul II who:

. . . proposed the so-called “law of gradualness” in the knowledge that the human being “knows, loves and accomplishes moral good by different stages of growth” (FC 34). This is not a “gradualness of law” but rather a gradualness in the prudential exercise of free acts on the part of subjects who are not in a position to understand, appreciate, or fully carry out the objective demands of the law. The law is itself a gift of God that points out the way, a gift for everyone without exception; it can be followed with the help of grace, even though each human being “advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God and the demands of God’s definitive and absolute love in his or her entire personal and social life” (ibid., 9).

Pope Francis also made clear “in order to avoid all misunderstanding” that he is in opposition to any who would water down the gospel. He says the essential truth of the gospel must be proclaimed in its entirety, including the indissolubility of marriage:

In order to avoid all misunderstanding, I would point out that in no way must the Church desist from proposing the full ideal of marriage, God’s plan in all its grandeur: “Young people who are baptized should be encouraged to understand that the sacrament of marriage can enrich their prospects of love and that they can be sustained by the grace of Christ in the sacrament and by the possibility of participating fully in the life of the Church.” A lukewarm attitude, any kind of relativism, or an undue reticence in proposing that ideal would be a lack of fidelity to the Gospel and also of love on the part of the Church for young people themselves. To show understanding in the face of exceptional situations never implies dimming the light of the fuller ideal or proposing less than what Jesus offers to the human being. Today, more important than the pastoral care of failures is the pastoral effort to strengthen marriages and thus to prevent their breakdown (AL307).

Pope Francis is not talking about changing, or even making “exceptions” to, the sixth commandment or the Sermon on the Mount; he is talking about whether or not individuals can break a commandment while not being fully culpable for it. And the answer is: yes they can.

The third objection

  1. The claim is made that Pope Francis contradicts a doctrinal declaration of Pope St. John Paul II, in FC 84:

[T]he Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.

A Catholic response

The operative word here is “practice.” There is not even a question as to divine law here, as we said above. Pope Francis is not denying divine law. It is the “practice” of the Church that Pope Francis is changing. This is a matter of prudential judgment in a juridical matter, not doctrine.

It is interesting to note that in his decision making process Pope Francis is actually building upon principles laid out in FC. He refers to John Paul’s “law of gradualness” (FC34); and we could add here Pope St. John Paul II’s acknowledgment that there are levels of culpability in these cases of divorce and remarriage:

Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations. There is in fact a difference between those who have sincerely tried to save their first marriage and have been unjustly abandoned, and those who through their own grave fault have destroyed a canonically valid marriage. Finally, there are those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children’s upbringing, and who are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably destroyed marriage had never been valid (FC84).

John Paul II does makes clear that, even in these cases of reduced culpability, the divorced and remarried would not be permitted to receive Communion, and for two reasons. First, he mentions their “objective state,” and second because of the real possibility of scandal, as we saw above. These are both very strong reasons for the “practice” of Pope St. John Paul II. But these are both matters of prudential judgment, not doctrine.

Pope Francis, on the other hand, acknowledges that his judgment in this matter presents a danger of confusion in its application: “I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion” (AL308). He understands that there is a greater need for ongoing pastoral discernment in the lives of these who live in these “irregular” situations. For example, pastors must ensure that whatever mitigating factors there may be continue in their lives (AL301-302, 307). And he understands the pastoral need to ensure that the ninety-nine are not scandalized as a result of the shepherd’s concern for the one (AL299).

This is no small undertaking our Holy Father is advocating.

And to be frank with you, I do not think Pope Francis’s decision is the most prudent. I am inclined toward the wisdom of Pope St. John Paul II on this. At the same time, I fear that in making that statement I may be standing in opposition to the heart of the Good Shepherd. Could it be differing times require differing prudential judgments? Is it providential that this decision comes in the midst of this extraordinary year of divine mercy (see AL309)?

I don’t know. But I am intrigued by Pope Francis’s words echoing those of the Good Shepherd:

The Bride of Christ must pattern her behavior after the Son of God who goes out to everyone without exception. She knows that Jesus himself is the shepherd of the hundred, not just of the ninety-nine. He loves them all. On the basis of this realization, it will become possible for “the balm of mercy to reach everyone, believers and those far away, as a sign that the kingdom of God is already present in our midst” (ibid.).

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