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Leave The Debate Over Amoris Laetitia To The Theologians

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It’s almost enough to make a good Catholic want to become a hermit.

The Amoris Laetitia (AL) controversy – the dubia, the Maltese Fiasco, and the German Bishops’ AL guidelines – have all made for some riveting reading in recent months. And the controversy does not appear to have an end in sight.

Now a new concern regarding AL has been raised by Catholic philosopher Dr. Josef Seifert. In a paper entitled “Does pure Logic threaten to destroy the entire moral Doctrine of the Catholic Church?” Seifert questions the logical implications of passage 303 of AL.

But take heart, big theological/doctrinal issues, simply because they are important, always get resolved.

It was almost inevitable that something controversial would happen sooner or later. As a theologian, professor, and author Tracey Rowland pointed out recently, in an interview about her new book Catholic Theology, Vatican II resulted in a fairly major split in the approaches to principles of fundamental theology.

Differing Opinions

According to Rowland,

“By the early 1970s the academic theologians who attended the Council divided into two quite definite camps, known in academic short-hand by the names of their flagship journals: Concilium and Communio.  I agree with Philip Trower that these two groups have been engaged in a ‘theological star-wars’ over the heads of the faithful. The fall-out from the stellar battles lands in parishes but Catholics who have not studied theology are unable to identify the origins of the bits of “space-junk” they encounter.”

“As a caricature,” said Rowland,

“one could say that the Communio theologians look at contemporary cultural movements from the perspective of the magisterial teaching of the Church while the Concilium types look at the magisterial teaching of the Church from the perspective of contemporary cultural movements.”

But it doesn’t end there. Thomists comprise a third group of theologians, she says, and “within this branch, there are several significant sub-sections.”

And to complicate matters even more, there is also Liberation Theology, which Rowland categorizes as “a more radical form of the Concilium style theology.” And there’s also a People’s Theology group.  This is “a form of liberation theology which is Peronist rather than Marxist.”  According to Rowland, Pope Francis favors the People’s Theology approach in some of his teachings.

Foundational Fault Lines

And, as she states in the introduction of the book, it can get very confusing:

“This makes it somewhat harder for the average undergraduate or seminarian to understand why what they learn in the morning lectures may not, in fact, sound like anything they hear after lunch. The whole territory of Catholic theology is highly fragmented and there is little agreement about methodological principles and issues that are classified as central to the subject of ‘Fundamental Theology.’  The conflict at the Synods on the Family (2014 and 2015) was symptomatic of this.  Foundational fault lines include the understanding of the relationship between nature and grace, faith and reason, history and dogma, logos and ethos and the correct principles to be applied to biblical hermeneutics.”

Fr. D. Vincent Twomey, S.V.D., who holds both a Ph.D. in Theology and is Professor Emeritus of Moral Theology at the Pontifical University of St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Ireland, agrees with Rowland’s assessment. The former doctoral student under Joseph Ratzinger, in an article at Catholic World Report asks, “Can the Apostolic exhortation help bridge the chasm that, since 1968, has divided moral theologians in matters of sexual morality?”

Not Winning Converts

But instead of leaving theology and doctrine up to the Magisterium and the theologians, too many Catholic writers and reporters are busily writing articles questioning Pope Francis’ beliefs, or proclaiming that the Church is in a “religious civil war.” Phil Lawler at Catholic Culture says the church is rushing to a crisis because of “This Disastrous Papacy.”

It’s doubtful such articles are going to win over any converts. And they are certainly not doing the Catholic Church or the faithful any favors.  They could even be leading some Catholics to question the teachings of the Catholic Church, or even to abandon their faith altogether.  If so the writers of such articles may be culpable in leading people astray.  But still, they persist.

Life after Amoris Laetitia

According to many pundits, the tension in the Church today is palpable. Catholics everywhere are on pins and needles wondering if, when, or how Pope Francis will respond to the dubia.  But is this really the case?

Maybe some percentage of the 22% of Catholics who attend Mass every week and who try to stay informed about Church Doctrine are concerned. But for the 78% of Catholics who are not even attending mass with any regularity, AL, and the controversy is probably not even be a blip on their radar screens. For the majority of Catholics, life probably continues post-AL much the same as it was prior to AL.

There can be little doubt that far too many Catholics today are sadly ignorant about what the Church teaches and why. Confusion following Vatican II, poor Catechesis, the ideology of moral relativism that emerged following the 60s, or the anti-Catholic /anti-Christian secularism being espoused by so many in the media and in the education system, could all be contributing factors. But the bottom line is far too many Catholics today disagree with Church teaching on abortion, euthanasia, contraception, fornication, cohabitation, homosexuality and same-sex marriage, and the newest stupidity – transgenderism.

Moral Relativism

Tell some of these dissidents that sex before marriage, cohabitation or contraception is sinful and the response you’re liable to get is, ‘Well, that’s your opinion. I happen to disagree.’ That’s moral relativism at work.

One ‘Catholic’ I know has so bought into the LGBTQ activist claptrap that when I asked him if he realizes the Bible teaches that sodomy is a sin, he replied, ‘do you mean to say that you believe something that’s in a book that’s 2,000 years old is really relevant today?’ Apparently, he has forgotten that the Bible is the Word of God.

A State of Confusion

In 1981 Pope St. John Paul II wrote in paragraph 84 of Familiaris Consortio,

“. . . the 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 [emphasis added].”

Some have questioned the part of this statement that is in bold type, saying that it is neither very profound nor very pontifical. ‘Besides, if we let these people take Communion it might confuse the faithful’ is not exactly the kind of reasoning one would expect from someone as scholarly as Pope St. John Paul II.

Error and Confusion

But chances are that Pope St. John Paul’s fears had materialized even as he was writing. Too many of the faithful today are very much, and have been for many years, in “error” and in a state of “confusion” about the indissolubility of marriage – and a number of other doctrines as well.  At least 78% of Catholics are certainly confused about a very basic teaching: the importance of going to Mass on Sunday.

To put this into perspective, 57.9 million Catholics out of 74.2 million Catholics in the U.S. are not attending Mass on Sunday with any regularity. And it’s even worse in Europe.  But let’s not be overly concerned about this.  Instead, let’s nit-pick AL, an exhortation that may actually help some of the 11 million divorced and remarried Catholics in the U.S. find their way back to the Church. It may even get parishes to revitalize their Pre-Cana Marriage Prep counseling programs, which may help stop this number from increasing.

Ratzinger’s Concerns

As Robert Royal noted during a Panel Discussion on Amoris Laetitia held at Assumption College on Oct. 27, 2016,

“Look marriage is in a bad way, and we all know this.  One of the clear things that Francis is trying to do is to apply the medicine of mercy, particularly in the west.  I was very struck during the Synod at how different the problems were in Africa, in Asia, in Latin America.”

It’s possible that the much-discussed footnote #351 in AL is merely referencing the same concerns expressed by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in 1994.

As Dr. Robert Fastiggi, Professor of Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, points out, the controversial Footnote #351 in AL may be a reference to #3 c. in Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s 1994 essay, as then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Concerning some objections to the Church’s teaching on the reception of Holy Communion by Divorced and remarried members of the faithful:”

“Admittedly, it cannot be excluded that mistakes occur in marriage cases. In some parts of the Church, well-functioning marriage tribunals still do not exist. Occasionally, such cases last an excessive amount of time. Once in a while they conclude with questionable decisions. . . . “

Still, says Fastiggi, “If Pope Francis has these rare cases in mind it would be helpful if he could make this clear.”

How Do We Respond?

Canon Lawyer Ed Condon, in an article for the UK’s Catholic Herald, says the real message of AL has been obscured.

“Amoris Laetitia was intended, above all, as a document in praise and in defence of marriage. So Pope Francis must be frustrated that an ongoing row over the document could end up defining his pontificate.

. . .

“Unfortunately, this great pastoral message has been systematically obscured by those who want Amoris Laetitia to say something it simply doesn’t, and who are trying, with the zeal of medieval alchemists, to change the gold of Church teaching into the dross of the Kasper proposal.”

But while the theological/doctrinal debate goes on, how do we, as laypeople, respond to a divorced and civilly re-married loved one or individual who says, “The Pope said that I can receive the Eucharist, without the resolution to live in continence”?

It is certainly not wrong to point out that

“AL says that only in certain, very specific instances, can a divorced and civilly remarried or cohabitating individual be permitted to receive the Eucharist. Such instances have to take into many factors, including conscience, and in the case of a divorced and civilly remarried individual, the validity of the first marriage.  You should talk to a priest about your specific situation.”  And in the case of divorced and remarried person it would also not be inappropriate to ask, “Have you applied for a Declaration of Nullity, and if so, what’s the status of your application?”

The Bigger Picture

And until the controversy surrounding AL gets resolved, what are we as Catholics to believe?

The answer to this question is that we should believe what the Catholic Church teaches in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC). And maybe having a copy of YOUCAT (Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church) for our children and teenagers, and making sure they read it, is not a bad idea either.

Our job as lay people is not to nit-pick papal exhortations or weigh in on matters best left to moral theologians. Let the Magisterium and the theologians deal with questions of doctrine.  It’s what they do.  Our job is a lot simpler – live our faith, evangelize to the best of our abilities, and get ourselves and as many others as possible into heaven.