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Aristotle Would Not Agree With This Commentary on Amoris Laetitia

November 27, AD2017

(Disclaimer: I in no way intend to criticize here any of the actual content of Amoris Laetitia, only the commentary of Archbishop Fernández as noted below.)

One day while perusing the National Catholic Register, I came across this article: “Archbishop Fernández Defends ‘Amoris Laetitia’ From Its Critics.”

While Edward Pentin, the blog author, mentions in paraphrase several different elements that Fernández uses to argue for his own personal interpretation of Amoris Laetitia, it was a direct quote from Fernández that really caught my attention, and not in a good way. His remarks as noted in the blog are (clarifications are Pentin’s):

It is also licit to ask if acts of living together more uxorio [i.e. having sexual relations] should always fall, in its integral meaning, within the negative precept of ‘fornication.’ I say ‘in its integral meaning’ because one cannot maintain those acts in each and every case are gravely dishonest in a subjective sense. In the complexity of particular situations is where, according to St. Thomas [Aquinas], ‘the indetermination increases.’ Indeed, it is not easy to describe as an ‘adulterer’ 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 has lived and had new children for many years.

An Aristotelian Refutation

The first thing this paragraph brought to mind was a passage from Aristotle’s Nicomachaen Ethics, which I studied in college three years ago. Now Aristotle’s purpose in writing the Ethics was to provide a foundation for how to live a good and moral life, helping his readers to grow in character. In my opinion he accomplished this quite well, given he was lacking Christianity and monotheism.

In his discussion of the virtues and vices, he advances the idea of the golden mean, neither too much nor too little of a particular feeling or action. For example, in the case of courage he argues that a person should neither be foolishly reckless nor a coward, which makes sense. However, in the case of certain actions he has this to say:

But not every action nor every passion admits of a mean; for some have names that already imply badness, e.g. spite, shamelessness, envy, and in the case of actions adultery, theft, murder; for all of these and suchlike things imply by their names that they are themselves bad, and not the excesses or deficiencies of them. It is not possible, then, ever to be right with regard to them; one must always be wrong. Nor does goodness or badness with regard to such things depend on committing adultery with the right woman, at the right time, and in the right way, but simply to do any of them is to go wrong. Ethics II.vi 9-16

And there you have it. It appears to me as though Fernández is arguing that a woman can, in fact, commit a good kind of adultery, if with the right type of man, at the right time, in the right way. If that is true, then Fernández’s statement seems to go against what most major ethicists held as right before Christianity. But, a dissenter could argue, that is only what people believed back then.  Catholicism improved on natural morality and brought it to fulfillment. There is no need for a pre-dater of the Faith to decide morality for those who do have the Faith.

By itself, saying that Catholicism fulfilled natural morality is certainly true. It seems somewhat odd, however, to say that the morality that, according to the Bible, is “written on our hearts,” thus we can reach it even without God, would actually be too strict, and that we would actually require more from ourselves than He would.

Is Aristotle Correct? Well, According to the Catechism…

However, if that were the only argument against Fernández’s statement, it would not matter much—perhaps I, as a fallible human, would simply be giving Aristotle more credit than he merits. But this is not the case. Consider what that most vital of books, the Catechism, offers as teaching on well intentioned acts (emphasis original):

The object of the choice can by itself vitiate an act in its entirety. There are some concrete acts – such as fornication – that it is always wrong to choose, because choosing them entails a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil.

It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it. (CCC 1755-1756)

Adultery or Not?

There is, however, the further point that Fernández is not arguing that actual adultery is permitted; rather, he is arguing that the sort of living arrangement he describes is not adultery. In this regard, the Catechism is explicit: “It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances which supply their context.” That is certainly enough of a refutation for me.

I might also venture to guess that because Thomas Aquinas was himself a serious Catholic and Doctor of the Church, Fernández probably took his original remark about increased indetermination out of context. But, just to a provide a more complete refutation myself, I will temporarily disregard the Catechism and address the ways Fernández thinks the situation should not be considered adulterous.

How Often are Serious Catholics Abusive?

First, before I discuss the actual points he makes, I wish to question the viability of his example. Note that he designates the scenario as where the “Catholic husband” would “beat and treat with contempt” his wife. There are plausible points to this; a wife beater could easily claim to profess any faith, including Catholicism, and nobody would actively monitor the regularity of his church attendance. However, as an archbishop should know, if someone is actively and earnestly practicing Catholicism, that then makes him all the less likely to be seriously harmful and destructive to others.

The reasoning behind this is very simple, as corroborated by the lives of the saints.  When people make a concerted effort to grow closer to God and become holier, they desire more or more to please Him and less and less to offend. Then, too, everyone can understand that harming another innocent person is wrong according to the natural law, and thus also evil in the Lord’s eyes. Thus, while it is not impossible that a practicing Catholic could also be abusive, it is highly unlikely.

It is then far more likely that someone who is only nominally Catholic could be abusive, but the same applies to people who claim to be Baptist or Sikh or Mormon but do not practice. If the religion is perceived as little more than a label, then it need not impact behavior, which is why the distinction between the nominal and the practicing is so important, but Fernández provides no allowance for that.

Furthermore, the Church would still consider it adulterous if a Catholic left his or her Catholic spouse in order to have a relationship with another Catholic, but for some reason Fernández chooses to discuss a Catholic husband and presumably non-Catholic lover.

Recourse to Relationships?

He next describes an extenuating circumstance of the “adulterous” union, beyond abuse, as the way the woman has been assisted by the other man. The problem here is that there is no need for women or men in bad situations to have exclusive recourse to forming a romantic relationship with someone in order to gain assistance. Most people have family members or friends willing to help them, or if not, there are battered women’s shelters and charities such as the St. Vincent DePaul Society. Although gaining material aid and help with children from a would-be “spouse” is probably easiest, that in no way makes it moral.

First Comes Children, Which Makes it a Marriage

The last major point Fernández makes is that such a woman could have lived with her lover for many years and had new children with him. That one is easy: if living with someone and having or fathering children with him or her were all it took to make a marriage considered valid in the Church, there would be no need whatsoever for a ceremony, vows, and witnesses. Catholics could just start living together when they liked, buy rings, have kids, and call themselves married.

Is It Adultery? Yes.

However—and thanks be to God for it—the Church does not and will not ever recognize such a “union” as a sacramental marriage. For women or men whose home situations are unsafe and wish to remain in the Church, they should seek shelter with friends or a charity.  Assuming grounds are present, they can then apply for an annulment.  Once it has been granted (if it is) then and only then may they look for a new significant other. Anyone who does otherwise while still calling himself Catholic is in a state of blatant disobedience.

Overall, is there legitimate commentary on Amoris Laetitia out there? Surely so. But, will this Catholic be relying on Archbishop Fernández to provide it? Not a chance.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Cecily G. Lowe received her B.A. in History in 2016 from a faithful Catholic college, which she credits as having a great impact on her faith. (Her least favorite thing about her college career was that it ended after four years.) She now has hopes of one day earning an M.A. if God wills. She began at CS in 2015, and greatly appreciates the opportunity it has given her. Though having been physically disabled from birth, she does not let that limit her, and counts interpretative dance among her hobbies along with singing, reading, and maintaining a mental encyclopedia of eclectic quotes.

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  • Pueblo Southwest

    Any teaching or posit that lacks clarity misses the mark from the beginning. One hopes this shortcoming will be ameliorated in the future for the benefit of all. I doubt either Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas would be on board with those who would look at today’s thought process as an improvement over their own.

  • Guy McClung

    Dear Cecily, Unlike Amoris Laetitia, this is so clear. You unwittingly make the case that a true shepherd must reply to the Dubia from some cardinals, and must reply to all the confused laity – and make no mistake, the confusion is caused solely by the words of AL itself and Jorge Bergoglio’s words and actions, and inactions, since AL was published.

    Still praying for your education future, etc.

    Thanks for this clear writing.

    Guy McClung, Texas