Over the Precipice

Two years ago, Ross Douthat wrote this:

TO grasp why events this month in Rome — publicly feuding cardinals, documents floated and then disavowed — were so remarkable in the context of modern Catholic history, it helps to understand certain practical aspects of the doctrine of papal infallibility.

On paper, that doctrine seems to grant extraordinary power to the pope — since he cannot err, the First Vatican Council declared in 1870, when he “defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church.”

In practice, though, it places profound effective limits on his power.

Those limits are set, in part, by normal human modesty: “I am only infallible if I speak infallibly, but I shall never do that,” John XXIII is reported to have said. But they’re also set by the binding power of existing teaching, which a pope cannot reverse or contradict without proving his own office, well, fallible — effectively dynamiting the very claim to authority on which his decisions rest.

Not surprisingly, then, popes are usually quite careful. On the two modern occasions when a pontiff defined a doctrine of the faith, it was on a subject — the holiness of the Virgin Mary — that few devout Catholics consider controversial. In the last era of major church reform, the Second Vatican Council, the popes were not the intellectual protagonists, and the council’s debates — while vigorous — were steered toward a (pope-approved) consensus: The documents that seemed most like developments in doctrine, on religious liberty and Judaism, passed with less than a hundred dissenting votes out of more than 2,300 cast.

But something very different is happening under Pope Francis. In his public words and gestures, through the men he’s elevated and the debates he’s encouraged, this pope has repeatedly signaled a desire to rethink issues where Catholic teaching is in clear tension with Western social life — sex and marriage, divorce and homosexuality.

As I will show later in this post, there is a closer relationship than Douthat seems to realize between what “is happening under Pope Francis” and the mentioned documents on religious liberty and Judaism, but he is also right, in another way, that it remains “something very different.”

Later in the article, Douthat continues:

And on communion for the remarried, the stakes are not debatable at all. The Catholic Church was willing to lose the kingdom of England, and by extension the entire English-speaking world, over the principle that when a first marriage is valid a second is adulterous, a position rooted in the specific words of Jesus of Nazareth. To change on that issue, no matter how it was couched, would not be development; it would be contradiction and reversal.

SUCH a reversal would put the church on the brink of a precipice. Of course it would be welcomed by some progressive Catholics and hailed by the secular press. But it would leave many of the church’s bishops and theologians in an untenable position, and it would sow confusion among the church’s orthodox adherents — encouraging doubt and defections, apocalypticism and paranoia (remember there is another pope still living!) and eventually even a real schism.

Much of Douthat’s prediction has already been fulfilled. It is easy enough to find example of the “doubt and defections, apocalypticism and paranoia.” A little over a week ago, Louie Verrecchio wrote,

The time is now at hand for “cardinals and bishops to make clear that the Pope is teaching error.” Francis has been given the opportunity, by way of a public challenge issued by senior cardinals, to confirm the true Faith in the face of the heresies that he himself disseminated throughout the Universal Church in Amoris Laetitia, and he has refused.

His unwillingness to formally address the dubia directly and plainly changes nothing of the objective reality that is staring us squarely in the face.

Even if others in Catholic media are afraid to say it aloud, at least thus far, I am not:

Francis has judged himself a formal heretic. He is, therefore, an antipope.

Verrechio was not, up to this time, a sedevacantist. The sedevacantist blog Novus Ordo Watch therefore responds,

Deo gratias! Another Semi-Traditionalist has finally had enough and publicly confessed the truth that is plain for all to see who are courageous enough to look: Francis is not the Pope of the Catholic Church. Mr. Louie Verrecchio, formerly a star pundit of the conservative wing of the Novus Ordo Sect who came to embrace a recognize-but-resist type of traditionalism, has just made the following declaration on his blog, AKA Catholic: “Francis has judged himself a formal heretic. He is, therefore, an antipope.”

Douthat noted that the fact that Pope Benedict XVI is still alive would contribute to “apocalypticism and paranoia.” This is evident in the claim made by a number of people that Pope Benedict’s resignation was invalid, and thus Pope Benedict remains Pope, and Pope Francis is therefore illegitimate. Ann Barnhardt, for example, adopted this position last June.

We have not seen any “real schism” yet, but there are people waiting and hoping for it, as for example Hilary White, who says in a post on The Remnant’s site:

If all factors remain steady – that is, if Francis Bergoglio does not repent and the cardinals do not get cold feet – what will happen, what has to happen, is this:

– Bergoglio will continue not to respond, allowing his proxies to speak for him as always. He will continue to attack as “enemies” and “detractors” anyone who tries to recall him to his duty.

– The cardinals, after an interval in which they may issue another warning, must do their duty and denounce his heresies for the good of the Church and the salvation of souls. This must happen if for no other reason than that the faithful are being led by this pope over the cliff of mortal sin.

– After the formal denunciation, therefore, the episcopate, clergy and laity will divide into two groups. The Catholic side will be very small, and will seem weak and powerless and foolish in the eyes of the world. They will have only the truth of the Faith as their weapon and shield.

– The second will have all the material institution of the Church, all its monetary resources, the psychological asset of its material patrimony of churches, schools, universities, hospitals etc. and the political power of recognition and support by the secular world, as well as the adherence of nearly all those who continue to call themselves Catholics.

– Bergoglio will demand the acquiescence of the Catholics with his usual threats and insults. He will empower his followers at the national level to punish priests, seminarians, teachers, university professors, et al, if they do not embrace the New Paradigm.

– The standoff can only possibly be broken by what canonists call a “declaratory sentence” that Bergoglio is a formal and obdurate or pertinacious heretic and has by his own actions lost the office of the papacy.

– Their duty then will be plain. The Catholic Church cannot function without a pope, and they will be obliged to call a conclave.

What will things look like after the schism is complete? We can easily extrapolate that from what things look like now. The vast majority of the Catholic world, lay and clerical, have no problem at all with Francis or with the entire New Paradigm of Vaticantwoism. The Church will consist, as it always has, of believers, but there will be no buildings. The reality, visible to the eyes of God, will be that the larger body will be what we might call the Bergoglian sect. They will have all the appearances of legitimacy and will be respected and at last embraced by the world, who will think that the tiny group of objectors are fools and “dissenters.”

What is all the fuss about? The theological issues at play are not ultimately all that complicated, and do not signify any substantial change in the Church’s teaching. Ross Douthat, however, suggested in the article discussed above that more was at stake. And now, writing just yesterday, he says,

“This is not normal” — so say Donald Trump’s critics as he prepares to assume the presidency. But the American republic is only the second-oldest institution facing a distinctively unusual situation at the moment. Pride of place goes to the Roman Catholic Church, which with less fanfare (perhaps because the papacy lacks a nuclear arsenal) has also entered terra incognita.

Two weeks ago, four cardinals published a so-called dubia — a set of questions, posed to Pope Francis, requesting that he clarify his apostolic exhortation on the family, “Amoris Laetitia.” In particular they asked him to clarify whether the church’s ban on communion for divorced Catholics in new (and, in the church’s eyes, adulterous) marriages remained in place, and whether the church’s traditional opposition to situation ethics had been “developed” into obsolescence.

The dubia began as a private letter, as is usual with such requests for doctrinal clarity. Francis offered no reply. It became public just before last week’s consistory in Rome, when the pope meets with the College of Cardinals and presents the newly-elevated members with red hats. The pope continued to ignore it, but took the unusual step of canceling a general meeting with the cardinals (not a few of whose members are quiet supporters of the questioners).

Francis canceled because the dubia had him “boiling with rage,” it was alleged. This was not true, tweeted his close collaborator, the Jesuit father Antonio Spadaro, though he had previously tweeted and then deleted a shot of the wizard Gandalf, from “Lord of the Rings,” growling his refusal to “bandy crooked words with a witless worm.”

Meanwhile one those four alleged “worms,” the combative traditionalist, Cardinal Raymond Burke, gave an interview suggesting that papal silence might require a “formal act of correction” from the cardinals — something without obvious precedent in Catholic history. (Popes have been condemned for flirting with heresy, but only after their deaths.) That was strong language; even stronger was the response from the head of Greece’s Catholic bishops, who accused the dubia authors of “heresy” and possibly “apostasy” for questioning the pope.

I would suggest that people are seeing something true, namely that the current situation is very unusual and has unusual implications, but they are mistaken in supposing that Pope Francis is calling into question the indissolubility of marriage or the existence of intrinsically evil actions, at least as particular claims. We can see this by considering the matter of Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia from a different point of view. Our responses to the dubia were framed as though it were a question of complex moral situations. And of course human life is complicated and there are in fact complex situations. But what is the real concern here? The four Cardinals explain:

It would seem that admitting to Communion those of the faithful who are separated or divorced from their rightful spouse and who have entered a new union in which they live with someone else as if they were husband and wife would mean for the Church to teach by her practice one of the following affirmations about marriage, human sexuality and the nature of the sacraments:

  • A divorce does not dissolve the marriage bond, and the partners to the new union are not married. However, people who are not married can under certain circumstances legitimately engage in acts of sexual intimacy.
  • A divorce dissolves the marriage bond. People who are not married cannot legitimately engage in sexual acts. The divorced and remarried are legitimate spouses and their sexual acts are lawful marital acts.
  • A divorce does not dissolve the marriage bond, and the partners to the new union are not married. People who are not married cannot legitimately engage in sexual acts, so that the divorced and civilly remarried live in a situation of habitual, public, objective and grave sin. However, admitting persons to the Eucharist does not mean for the Church to approve their public state of life; the faithful can approach the Eucharistic table even with consciousness of grave sin, and receiving absolution in the sacrament of penance does not always require the purpose of amending one’s life. The sacraments, therefore, are detached from life: Christian rites and worship are on a completely different sphere than the Christian moral life.  

But this does not exhaust the available options. We can see this by comparing another matter where the Church, not so long ago, began to admit to the Eucharist people who were formerly prohibited from receiving. Fr. Joseph Bolin compares the admission of Orthodox Christians to the Eucharist in the Catholic Church with the admission of divorced and remarried people:

Canon 844 § 3 requires that:

  • The non-Catholic members of the oriental Churches ask on their own for the sacraments
  • The non-Catholic members of the oriental Churches are properly disposed.

Since these Christians are in a public state of material schism or material heresy, why doesn’t canon 915 exclude them from Eucharistic Communion?

I’m not aware of any even semi-authoritative account, but suggest that the presumption is made that they are not culpable for their schism or heresy, and that this is a common and public presumption. Consequently:

  • they are not able at the time to cease from the public schism, as that would be contrary to their convictions in conscience
  • They are well-disposed, having confessed any grave sins they are aware of and intending to avoid them in the future, etc.
  • It is common knowledge that Orthodox are sincerely convinced of their position rather than moved by bad-will, so their receiving communion on their own request causes no great scandal with respect to the obligation to seek and adhere to the true Church.
  • There is no general invitation made to non-Catholics to receive, so it remains clear that it is not a normal, but an exception for them to receive

Would canon 915 require excluding from Eucharistic Communion a divorced and remarried Orthodox Christian who is permitted Communion in his own Church? Or would not the common and public presumption of good-will apply to them in this matter just as much as it does in regard to their schism, so that the objective disorder, the objective sin of adultery would not be an instance of “manifest grave sin” in the sense intended by canon 915?

Are there also particular circumstances in which there can be and is a de facto, common, and reasonable presumption of good-will on the part of divorced and remarried Catholics? If so, the objective disorder and sin as such would be per se no greater grounds for exclusion from Eucharistic Communion than the objective disorder and sin of the separated Orthodox Christians is.

Then, in a follow-up post, he says,

In the case of the Orthodox, it is clear enough to most people that there are reasons why an Orthodox Christian is not in a position to accept, e.g., the Church’s teaching on the authority of the pope — because he grew up learning to see the Church’s teaching as wrong, a human deviation, etc. — and that the Church’s acceptance that these persons can in good faith reject the pope’s authority does not imply any lessening of the doctrine itself. It does imply, however, this doctrine is not manifestly true to each and every person of good will.

If there are similar externally perceptible reasons why individual persons are not in a position to accept the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility and unity of marriage and/or the restriction of genital intercourse to marriage, and the Church accepts these, this similarly does not imply a lessening of the doctrine of indissolubility and unity of marriage itself. It does, however, imply, just as in the case of the Orthodox and the authority of the pope, that the Church’s doctrine on marriage is not manifestly true to all of good will, not even to all Catholics of good will.

There is, of course, a difference between the Orthodox who does not accept the Church’s teaching, and a Catholic who does not accept it, namely that the Catholic claims to be Catholic. This could be a reason to maintain a different practice in the two cases, not because of there being a difference in regard to whether one or the other is manifesting persevering in sin or not, but because one claims to be a Catholic, to be with and live with the Catholic Church, and the other does not.

Fr. Joseph has reached the heart of the matter here, both in explaining why such an admission to the Eucharist is consistent with Catholic doctrine, and in suggesting why it nonetheless involves a significant “precipice”, as Douthat put it.

In Amoris Laetitia itself, Pope Francis spoke of people who “may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding its inherent values.” This is just a way of speaking of people who know that the Church forbids divorce and remarriage, but who disagree with the prohibition. This roundabout reference to doctrinal disagreement is perhaps a way of shying away from the precipice, as is also the Pope’s statement,

Naturally, if someone flaunts 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. Mt 18:17). Such a person needs to listen once more to the Gospel message and its call to conversion.

This could be taken to imply that at least people who disagree with the Church about remarriage should not be admitted to the Eucharist, but this interpretation is unlikely. It is unlikely because of the above statement about people who do not understand the “inherent values” of the law, and it is also unlikely because there is no doubt about what the vast majority of divorced and remarried people believe. Questions about moral objects and about adultery and moral complexity and so on are merely academic here, because the persons involved do not believe they are having intercourse with a person with whom they are not married. They believe that they are having marital intercourse with their spouse. They believe they are married. This may be because they believe the Church is wrong about the facts, and that their first marriage was invalid. (Note that in fact according to canon law this would not be enough to make the second marriage valid, as long as invalidity of the first marriage was not a matter of public record, so they would have to believe that the Church is wrong about this as well.) Or they may believe that the Church is wrong about the possibility of divorce and a second union. Either way, they believe they are married.

What then is the Pope saying about people who flaunt an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal? It seems to be something like this: if someone publicly proclaims that the Church is wrong about divorce and remarriage, and says that its teaching needs to be corrected, and so on, then this is something that “separates from the community.” But if he merely believes this personally, without demanding that the Church change its teaching, this is a different situation. And in this situation the Pope is willing for the person to be treated like the Orthodox Christians, and to be admitted to the Eucharist.

Fr. Joseph points out the essential difference from the case of the Orthodox: “one claims to be a Catholic, to be with and live with the Catholic Church, and the other does not.” What difference does this make? This is related to what Fr. Joseph calls “the presumption of good will.” Good will implies at least that a person is following his conscience and trying to do what is right. The presumption of good will in the case of the Orthodox means that we would accept that they are probably trying to do what is right to the best of their ability. Now there are people who would not accept this presumption, even in the case of the Orthodox. Pope Leo XIII, for example, as we noted elsewhere, said that Catholicism is easily seen to be true, with the consequent suggestion that those who do not recognize that it is true are guilty.

A presumption of good will in the case of a dissenting Catholic is a different matter. On the one hand, it is an objectively reasonable presumption, just as in the case of the Orthodox. The majority of those who call themselves Catholics disagree with various teachings of the Church, and the reason they call themselves Catholics is not in order to adopt a set of intellectual positions, but in order to be members of a certain community. Thus “nearly everyone calling themselves Catholic is wicked for disagreeing with the Church” is nearly as outrageous as “the Orthodox are wicked for being outside the Church.”

On the other hand, the “precipice” results from the public acknowledgement of this situation, even though the situation is real whether it is acknowledged or not. If the Church openly says, “you can disagree with the Church even about important doctrines like the indissolubility of marriage without being in sin,” then many people, perhaps most people, will take this as permission to disagree with the Church about its definitive teachings. It would not be in fact such a permission, since the Church would still be maintaining that there is an objective obligation to accept its claims, but people would take it as such a permission in practice.

Pope Francis may also have chosen a singularly bad case in which to make this point. Human beings are not very reasonable in relation to sexuality, and it likely would not be rare to find someone who at first fully accepted the teaching of the Church on all matters, but later divorces and remarries, and from that point disagrees with the Church. Douthat himself raised the example of Henry VIII. Such a case looks suspiciously like a case of bad will.

Nonetheless, as a whole this situation is not simply a chance result of Pope Francis’s personal behavior, but a logical working out of the truth about the Church’s place in the world. I commented at the beginning of this post on the Second Vatican Council on “religious liberty and Judaism.” Douthat says that these are areas “seemed most like developments of doctrine.” But these developments too are harshly criticized by some. Thus for example the Society of St. Pius X, on a page devoted to rejecting religious liberty, says:

The saints have never hesitated to break idols, destroy their temples, or legislate against pagan or heretical practices. The Church—without ever forcing anyone to believe or be baptized—has always recognized its right and duty to protect the faith of her children and to impede, whenever possible, the public exercise and propagation of false cults. To accept the teaching of Vatican II is to grant that, for two millennia, the popes, saints, Fathers and Doctors of the Church, bishops, and Catholic kings have constantly violated the natural rights of men without anyone in the Church noticing. Such a thesis is as absurd as it is impious.

Regardless of what someone says on a theologically technical level in terms of the development of doctrine, there is surely some truth in their account of people’s past behavior, and of its contrast with more recent opinions. I noted the same thing in my own post on religious liberty.

The problem with the behavior described, of course, is that it presumes bad will on the part of the people who disagree with your religion, and this presumption is unreasonable. This is necessarily so, given the thesis of the “hidden God,” a thesis which is maintained by all religions, and which is necessary in order to suppose them to be true.

A tension however arises because the thesis of hiddenness is in obvious conflict with the thesis that a religion is easily seen to be true, openly stated by Leo XIII. The latter thesis is at least implicit in the whole former history of religious liberty. And it is most definitely implicit in modern traditionalism on the matter, as for example P. Edmund Waldstein’s explanation of integralism:

Catholic Integralism is a tradition of thought that rejects the liberal separation of politics from concern with the end of human life, holding that political rule must order man to his final goal. Since, however, man has both a temporal and an eternal end, integralism holds that there are two powers that rule him: a temporal power and a spiritual power. And since man’s temporal end is subordinated to his eternal end the temporal power must be subordinated to the spiritual power.

The problem here is that in order for the temporal power to accept this subordination, they must know about the higher end. If the truth is hidden, they will not know, and they will not accept the subordination, nor should they. And this is why integralism is false in practice, whatever one says about it in theory. (Brief summaries allow for brief refutations!)

It is not by chance that P. Edmund basically holds that the truth of Catholicism is supremely obvious. His integralism cannot be true, unless his “Catholicism is obvious” thesis is also true. Both are false.

One way or another, the thesis of hiddenness and the thesis of obviousness are in direct conflict and cannot both be accepted. P. Edmund rejects the hiddenness. Pope Francis, and most of the Catholic Church, rejects the obviousness. And ultimately Amoris Laetitia is simply drawing out consequences of this. If the truth of Catholicism is not obvious, it is not obvious even to Catholics, nor are particular doctrines, like the Church’s doctrine on marriage, obviously true.

One interesting result of all this is the situation of the Society of St. Pius X. There was speculation that Pope Francis would regularize the Society at the end of the Year of Mercy. This did not happen, although the Pope indefinitely extended the permission of the Society to hear confessions:

For the Jubilee Year I had also granted that those faithful who, for various reasons, attend churches officiated by the priests of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Pius X, can validly and licitly receive the sacramental absolution of their sins.[15] For the pastoral benefit of these faithful, and trusting in the good will of their priests to strive with God’s help for the recovery of full communion in the Catholic Church, I have personally decided to extend this faculty beyond the Jubilee Year, until further provisions are made, lest anyone ever be deprived of the sacramental sign of reconciliation through the Church’s pardon.

What is currently lacking for “full communion”? I do not believe that the answer lies in the acceptance of any doctrine or opinion. The problem (possibly more an impediment on the part of the CDF than on the part of Pope Francis) is that the Society maintains that the Church is wrong about religious liberty and other matters, and that the Church’s teaching should be corrected, and they maintain this publicly, as a community, as in the page linked on religious liberty. As Pope Francis said, such a position “separates from the community.” The irony is that apart from “flaunting” their views, the position they reject is the very reason Pope Francis would accept them, without having to change their view of religious liberty or anything else.

One might ask whether or not the Church can survive a fall from Douthat’s precipice. I think that it can, but we will all learn the truth of the matter from experience, because the top of the precipice is behind, not ahead.


On Behalf of Pope Francis

Four Cardinals, namely Walter Brandmüller, Raymond Burke, Carlo Caffarra, and Joachim Meisner, have raised questions about Pope Francis’s document Amoris Laetitia. Pope Francis has not responded. I do not expect him to respond, and most likely he believes such a response to be outside his personal theological competence. Thus I respond here on his behalf to the five questions asked by the Cardinals:

1. It is asked whether, following the affirmations of Amoris Laetitia (300-305), it has now become possible to grant absolution in the sacrament of penance and thus to admit to holy Communion a person who, while bound by a valid marital bond, lives together with a different person more uxorio without fulfilling the conditions provided for by Familiaris Consortio, 84, and subsequently reaffirmed by Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 34, and Sacramentum Caritatis, 29. Can the expression “in certain cases” found in Note 351 (305) of the exhortation Amoris Laetitia be applied to divorced persons who are in a new union and who continue to live more uxorio?

Response: Yes.

2. After the publication of the post-synodal exhortation Amoris Laetitia (304), does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor, 79, based on sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, on the existence of absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts and that are binding without exceptions?

Response: Yes. This however does not mean what you suppose. In particular, as explicitly noted in Veritatis Splendor, the moral object of an act can never be defined adequately by reference to the mere physical action alone, including, for example, the physical action of sexual intercourse.

3. After Amoris Laetitia (301) is it still possible to affirm that a person who habitually lives in contradiction to a commandment of God’s law, as for instance the one that prohibits adultery (Matthew 19:3-9), finds him or herself in an objective situation of grave habitual sin (Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, “Declaration,” June 24, 2000)?

Response: Yes. However, it is a mistake to believe that “objective situation of sin” implies “state of sin rather than state of grace.” Because of the danger of this misinterpretation, it might be better in the future, at least in most cases, to refrain from this manner of speech.

4. After the affirmations of Amoris Laetitia (302) on “circumstances which mitigate moral responsibility,” does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor, 81, based on sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, according to which “circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act ‘subjectively’ good or defensible as a choice”?

Response: Yes. This however does not mean what you suppose, as stated in the second response. In particular, circumstances and intentions can never make an action with an intrinsically evil object into a good act as long as the act continues to have the same evil object. A change of circumstances and intentions, however, can easily change the object of the act from an intrinsically evil object, to some good object.

5. After Amoris Laetitia (303) does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor, 56, based on sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, that excludes a creative interpretation of the role of conscience and that emphasizes that conscience can never be authorized to legitimate exceptions to absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts by virtue of their object?

Response: Yes. This however does not mean what you suppose, as stated in the second and fourth responses. In particular, while conscience is not authorized to judge that an intrinsically evil object is sometimes good, it is authorized to judge that some particular act does not have this intrinsically evil object.

Intrinsically Evil

Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, discusses actions which are always evil:

80. Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature “incapable of being ordered” to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image. These are the acts which, in the Church’s moral tradition, have been termed “intrinsically evil” (intrinsece malum): they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances. Consequently, without in the least denying the influence on morality exercised by circumstances and especially by intentions, the Church teaches that “there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object”.131 The Second Vatican Council itself, in discussing the respect due to the human person, gives a number of examples of such acts: “Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat labourers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free responsible persons: all these and the like are a disgrace, and so long as they infect human civilization they contaminate those who inflict them more than those who suffer injustice, and they are a negation of the honour due to the Creator”.132

With regard to intrinsically evil acts, and in reference to contraceptive practices whereby the conjugal act is intentionally rendered infertile, Pope Paul VI teaches: “Though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good, it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it (cf. Rom 3:8) — in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order, and which must therefore be judged unworthy of man, even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general”.133

81. In teaching the existence of intrinsically evil acts, the Church accepts the teaching of Sacred Scripture. The Apostle Paul emphatically states: “Do not be deceived: neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the Kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:9-10).

If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. They remain “irremediably” evil acts; per se and in themselves they are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person. “As for acts which are themselves sins (cum iam opera ipsa peccata sunt), Saint Augustine writes, like theft, fornication, blasphemy, who would dare affirm that, by doing them for good motives (causis bonis), they would no longer be sins, or, what is even more absurd, that they would be sins that are justified?”.134

Consequently, circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act “subjectively” good or defensible as a choice.

82. Furthermore, an intention is good when it has as its aim the true good of the person in view of his ultimate end. But acts whose object is “not capable of being ordered” to God and “unworthy of the human person” are always and in every case in conflict with that good. Consequently, respect for norms which prohibit such acts and oblige semper et pro semper, that is, without any exception, not only does not inhibit a good intention, but actually represents its basic expression.

The doctrine of the object as a source of morality represents an authentic explicitation of the Biblical morality of the Covenant and of the commandments, of charity and of the virtues. The moral quality of human acting is dependent on this fidelity to the commandments, as an expression of obedience and of love. For this reason — we repeat — the opinion must be rejected as erroneous which maintains that it is impossible to qualify as morally evil according to its species the deliberate choice of certain kinds of behaviour or specific acts, without taking into account the intention for which the choice was made or the totality of the foreseeable consequences of that act for all persons concerned. Without the rational determination of the morality of human acting as stated above, it would be impossible to affirm the existence of an “objective moral order”135 and to establish any particular norm the content of which would be binding without exception. This would be to the detriment of human fraternity and the truth about the good, and would be injurious to ecclesial communion as well.

The basic idea is that we can speak of certain actions, like murder, and say that they are always wrong. However, we need to carefully understand what it means to be an action of a certain kind such as murder. Several paragraphs earlier, the Pope states:

78. The morality of the human act depends primarily and fundamentally on the “object” rationally chosen by the deliberate will, as is borne out by the insightful analysis, still valid today, made by Saint Thomas.126 In order to be able to grasp the object of an act which specifies that act morally, it is therefore necessary to place oneself in the perspective of the acting person. The object of the act of willing is in fact a freely chosen kind of behaviour. To the extent that it is in conformity with the order of reason, it is the cause of the goodness of the will; it perfects us morally, and disposes us to recognize our ultimate end in the perfect good, primordial love. By the object of a given moral act, then, one cannot mean a process or an event of the merely physical order, to be assessed on the basis of its ability to bring about a given state of affairs in the outside world. Rather, that object is the proximate end of a deliberate decision which determines the act of willing on the part of the acting person. Consequently, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “there are certain specific kinds of behaviour that are always wrong to choose, because choosing them involves a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil”.127 And Saint Thomas observes that “it often happens that man acts with a good intention, but without spiritual gain, because he lacks a good will. Let us say that someone robs in order to feed the poor: in this case, even though the intention is good, the uprightness of the will is lacking. Consequently, no evil done with a good intention can be excused. ‘There are those who say: And why not do evil that good may come? Their condemnation is just’ (Rom 3:8)”.128

The moral object of an act is not “a process or an event of the merely physical order, to be assessed on the basis of its ability to bring about a given state of affairs in the outside world.” Instead, it is what a person is choosing to do, and this must be understood in relationship with reason and will.

We can say that killing an innocent person is always wrong, then, if we mean by “killing an innocent person,” making the choice to kill an innocent person. But we cannot say that it is always wrong, if we mean by killing an innocent person, any action which happens to have the effect of an innocent person’s death, when the person performing the action may be choosing to do something other than killing someone.

As a kind of example, we can look at St. Thomas’s explanation of self-defense:

I answer that, Nothing hinders one act from having two effects, only one of which is intended, while the other is beside the intention. Now moral acts take their species according to what is intended, and not according to what is beside the intention, since this is accidental as explained above (43, 3; I-II, 12, 1). Accordingly the act of self-defense may have two effects, one is the saving of one’s life, the other is the slaying of the aggressor. Therefore this act, since one’s intention is to save one’s own life, is not unlawful, seeing that it is natural to everything to keep itself in “being,” as far as possible. And yet, though proceeding from a good intention, an act may be rendered unlawful, if it be out of proportion to the end. Wherefore if a man, in self-defense, uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repel force with moderation his defense will be lawful, because according to the jurists [Cap. Significasti, De Homicid. volunt. vel casual.], “it is lawful to repel force by force, provided one does not exceed the limits of a blameless defense.” Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense in order to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s. But as it is unlawful to take a man’s life, except for the public authority acting for the common good, as stated above (Article 3), it is not lawful for a man to intend killing a man in self-defense, except for such as have public authority, who while intending to kill a man in self-defense, refer this to the public good, as in the case of a soldier fighting against the foe, and in the minister of the judge struggling with robbers, although even these sin if they be moved by private animosity.

In St. Thomas’s case, the attacker is presumably not innocent, but the situation would be the same if the attacker were insane or mistakenly believed that the person was engaged in a violent attack. In any case “one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s,” and consequently defense would be legitimate, even if the attacker is strictly speaking an innocent person.

Someone might object to St. Thomas’s account here. It seems that the man who defends himself is not merely seeking to defend himself and incidentally permitting the death of the attacker. Rather, he seems to be choosing to kill the attacker in order to preserve his own life. Thus, if the attacker were merely insane or mistaken, he would be choosing to kill an innocent in order to preserve his own life.

The problem here is resolved exactly by pointing to the distinction between the moral act and the physical act. The defender may be choosing to strike the attacker, but it is wrong to say that he is choosing to kill the attacker, since “killing the attacker” is not the act as perceived by his reason and will here. Rather, the fact that he is more bound to preserve his own life implies that the correct description of his action is something like, “striking an attacker in order to preserve my life.”

There is therefore something potentially misleading about Pope John Paul II’s affirmation that “circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act ‘subjectively’ good or defensible as a choice.” This would be true as long as the moral object remains the same. But as St. Thomas stated,

A circumstance is sometimes taken as the essential difference of the object, as compared to reason; and then it can specify a moral act. And it must needs be so whenever a circumstance transforms an action from good to evil; for a circumstance would not make an action evil, except through being repugnant to reason.

And in a similar way, a circumstance may transform an action from evil to good, when it changes the action from one kind of action to another kind of action. Thus striking the man with a lethal blow would be “killing an innocent,” when the man is simply standing there. But when the circumstances change, and the man is charging with a knife, a similar lethal blow constitutes a legitimate act of self-defense. This can happen due to the fact that the change in the circumstances, in this case, implies a change in the moral object as well; and this can happen without any change in the external physical act. The lethal blow may be physically the same.

The Pope’s statement can be understood to be consistent with this, since it can mean that an action always remains evil as long as the moral object is evil. Still, the repeated emphasis on the division between moral object and circumstances, in phrases such as “quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances,” and “independently of circumstances,” might suggest to someone that the moral object is complete in itself, due to the physical action or something similar, such that a change in circumstances cannot change the moral object. This seems even more strongly suggested by the claim in paragraph 77, “The foreseeable consequences are part of those circumstances of the act, which, while capable of lessening the gravity of an evil act, nonetheless cannot alter its moral species.” In other words, it sounds like he is saying that perhaps some circumstances can change a moral action from one kind to another, but that foreseeable consequences, at least, can never do this. Now it may be that the Pope is simply saying that given that an action is evil, changing the circumstances will never stop it from being evil without changing the moral object. And this would be true.

But if he is understood to be saying that an action that looked at locally would be a kind of action which is morally evil, cannot become a kind of action which is morally good, once certain foreseeable consequences are taken into account, this would be a mistake. Breaking into a person’s house and taking something, which looked at locally would be an example of theft, might cease to be a case of theft given certain foreseeable consequences of doing it and of failing to do it. The reader may doubtless find many other examples.

It is on account of these facts that I said earlier that the truth about ethics is more flexible than people suppose. This is not because people do not understand examples like the one about theft, or about self-defense, but because people generally fail to see the general principles involved, despite being able to see the truth about such particular cases when they are raised. There may even be an example of this failure to see the general principle in the text of St. Thomas, in objection 4 and its reply:

Objection 4. Further, murder is a more grievous sin than fornication or adultery. Now nobody may lawfully commit simple fornication or adultery or any other mortal sin in order to save his own life; since the spiritual life is to be preferred to the life of the body. Therefore no man may lawfully take another’s life in self-defense in order to save his own life.

Reply to Objection 4. The act of fornication or adultery is not necessarily directed to the preservation of one’s own life, as is the act whence sometimes results the taking of a man’s life.

It is not entirely clear what St. Thomas means by “necessarily directed.” If we are speaking of the physical actions involved, it could be true that “unless I do this, I will die,” just as much in the one case as in the other, even though such situations would be much rarer than cases in which self-defense is necessary in order to preserve one’s life. Such cases come up from time to time in hostage situations.

Because of the difficulty of seeing the kind of moral action involved in such cases, someone might be tempted to assert that the persons involved are morally obliged to become martyrs: they should refuse, even if this results in their deaths. But this is probably a mistake. Even fornication and adultery cannot be defined by the mere physical actions involved, and the relationships with reason and will that would typically identify such activities are not present in such cases.

It should also be considered that if one says that there is such an obligation, it would apply equally to the case of a woman attacked by a rapist. If she were to cooperate physically in the slightest degree, in order to avoid death, she would be doing evil. This seems unlikely. One should not say, “Well, she is objectively doing evil, but she is not fully responsible, due to force and fear.” Rather, she is not doing evil at all, but behaving prudently, even if it is possible for someone laudably to behave otherwise.

There are other, possibly even stronger, examples of the same point, but I will leave this issue as it stands, at least for the present.

Some Catholic traditionalists such as John Vennari say that Pope Francis, in Amoris Laetitia, contradicts the traditional teaching of the Church on morality. He says,

What is a key problem with the document?

Amidst great drifts of verbiage – some not bad, some remarkably tedious – Francis effectively canonizes situation ethics. He furtively opens the door for Communion to the divorced and remarried on a ‘case-by-case’ basis, which destroys key elements of Catholic Moral Theology. In particular, his approach undermines recognition of intrinsically disordered acts, and once this is undermined in one area, it is undermined in all areas. Progressivists immediately celebrated Amoris Laetitia as a “radical shift.”

Among other texts, Vennari cites paragraph 304 of Amoris Laetitia as an example. We can look at the text of Pope Francis:

304. It is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being. I earnestly ask that we always recall a teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas and learn to incorporate it in our pastoral discernment: “Although there is necessity in the general principles, the more we descend to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter defects… In matters of action, truth or practical rectitude is not the same for all, as to matters of detail, but only as to the general principles; and where there is the same rectitude in matters of detail, it is not equally known to all… The principle will be found to fail, according as we descend further into detail”. It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations. At the same time, it must be said that, precisely for that reason, what is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances cannot be elevated to the level of a rule. That would not only lead to an intolerable casuistry, but would endanger the very values which must be preserved with special care.

It is true that one could interpret this to contradict Pope John Paul II’s claims about intrinsically evil actions. But this would mainly happen if one were to understand Pope John Paul II’s statements to be asserting something false, namely that a morally evil action is self-contained in such a way that the addition of circumstances cannot change it into a different kind of action by changing its moral object. I have no doubt that this is in fact exactly how John Vennari would understand Pope John Paul II.

Leaving aside Veritatis Splendor, Pope Francis’s claim here is true, understood in the sense that one cannot determine the moral truth about all particular cases by means of general rules which refer to physical activities and circumstances. Whenever we say that something is always wrong, we already include some reference which labels the action in a moral way. Thus for example, both “murder is always wrong,” and “adultery is always wrong,” refer to the idea of injustice, namely something which is undue, because murder is unjustified killing, and adultery is sexual intercourse which is unjust towards the spouse of the person. One cannot describe these in merely physical ways and get things which are always wrong. Neither “a physical action which results in the death of a person,” nor “a physical action which results in sexual union with the spouse of another person” are names of something intrinsically evil.

In this sense, it is possible to reconcile the opinions of Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis. Nonetheless, it may well be the case that Pope Francis does not understand the relationship of his teaching with the previous moral teaching of the Church.

Good Will

St. Thomas explains what it means to call someone a good person:

He who has a will is said to be good, so far as he has a good will; because it is by our will that we employ whatever powers we may have. Hence a man is said to be good, not by his good understanding; but by his good will.

This is primarily a recognition that this is how people actually speak. When we talk about a good person, we do not mean someone who understands things well, or someone who plays the piano well, or someone who is good at driving a car, but someone who has a good will: someone who loves, wishes for, and chooses good things. But in addition to recognizing how we normally speak, St. Thomas is trying to explain why we speak this way. A good piano is a piano that functions well as a piano, and in a similar way, a good person would be someone who functions well as a person. And since the will guides all human activities, a person functions well who has a good will, and a person functions badly who has a bad will.

Pope Benedict XVI, in his encylical Spe Salvi, speaks of such conditions of the human will:

Our choice, which in the course of an entire life takes on a certain shape, can have a variety of forms. There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves. This is a terrifying thought, but alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history. In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell. On the other hand there can be people who are utterly pure, completely permeated by God, and thus fully open to their neighbours—people for whom communion with God even now gives direction to their entire being and whose journey towards God only brings to fulfilment what they already are.

Yet we know from experience that neither case is normal in human life. For the great majority of people—we may suppose—there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul.

The implication here is that most people are basically good at a fundamental level. They have a good will simply speaking, even if not in every respect. Some Catholics might object to Pope Benedict’s position, saying that it is not easily reconciled with previous Catholic teaching, much in the way that James Larson condemns Amoris Laetitia. If people remain fundamentally good as long as they have not “lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves,” it is not easy to see how this can be reconciled with Pope John Paul II’s teaching in Veritatis Splendor when he condemns theories that separate a fundamental option from particular acts:

67. These tendencies are therefore contrary to the teaching of Scripture itself, which sees the fundamental option as a genuine choice of freedom and links that choice profoundly to particular acts. By his fundamental choice, man is capable of giving his life direction and of progressing, with the help of grace, towards his end, following God’s call. But this capacity is actually exercised in the particular choices of specific actions, through which man deliberately conforms himself to God’s will, wisdom and law. It thus needs to be stated that the so-called fundamental option, to the extent that it is distinct from a generic intention and hence one not yet determined in such a way that freedom is obligated, is always brought into play through conscious and free decisions. Precisely for this reason, it is revoked when man engages his freedom in conscious decisions to the contrary, with regard to morally grave matter.

The idea here is that if someone does something seriously wrong, even in an individual case, the person becomes a bad person simply speaking. This does not seem to fit very well with Pope Benedict’s suggestion, which seems to imply that someone can become truly evil only through a long process which eliminates love and goodness from their life.

The tension here is real. I have touched on this issue elsewhere, as for example while discussing the human tendency to divide people into “good people” and “bad people.” Nonetheless, it is presumably possible to reconcile these statements at least in a technical sense, much as I showed that Pope Francis does not contradict Catholic doctrine in Amoris Laetitia

In any case, common sense is enough to tell us that being a “good person” is to some extent a matter of degree. Most people care about doing good to some extent, even if some care more than others, and most people wish to avoid evil, even if they do not avoid every evil, and even if they have no wish to avoid certain particular evils.


Let’s Draw a Line

James Larson, in the note currently at the beginning of his website, accuses Pope Francis of heresy:

Note (April 16, 2016): In order to add clarity as to the nature of the explicit heresy taught in Amoris Laetitia, I have added one paragraph approximately 2/3 of the way through the article below. It reads:

Herein resides the essence of this heresy. It lies specifically in teaching that there is a “gradualness” applicable to the possession of charity and sanctifying grace. It is Catholic dogma that possession of supernatural charity is an ontological state created by sanctifying grace added to the soul, that one cannot possess this charity unless living in this substantial state, and that it is this state of being which is absolutely necessary for receiving the Eucharist and other sacraments. It cannot be possessed by a person living in objective mortal sin, or by any person who is in some process of pastoral effort working towards the attainment of some “ideal”.

Larson is saying that sanctifying grace is a binary state, that it cannot be possessed by someone “living in objective mortal sin,” that these items are Catholic dogmas, and that Pope Francis contradicts them. The text in which he supposedly does this is paragraph 305 of Amoris Laetitia:

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, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.

Larson is mistaken on almost every point. It is true that sanctifying grace would normally be considered a binary condition, where either you have it or you do not. But the Catholic Church does not typically create doctrines concerning deep matters of ontology. If someone were to assert that some people are in a vague condition where it is unclear whether or not they are in a state of grace, just as it is unclear whether some people are actually bald or just almost bald, this would not be a heresy. Nowhere does the Church condemn such a view.

But this is beside the point. It is entirely obvious that Pope Francis makes no such assertion in the text under consideration. Nor does he assert this, or anything like it, anywhere else in Amoris Laetitia.

“Living in objective mortal sin” refers to the “objective situation of sin” in the text of Pope Francis, and refers to the general idea of living a life where one regularly performs acts which the Church considers to be objectively grave sins. Larson asserts that the Church teaches that such a person cannot be in a state of grace.

This too is mistaken. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

1857 For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.”

1858 Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments, corresponding to the answer of Jesus to the rich young man: “Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and your mother.” The gravity of sins is more or less great: murder is graver than theft. One must also take into account who is wronged: violence against parents is in itself graver than violence against a stranger.

1859 Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice. Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin.

1860 Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense. But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man. The promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders. Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the gravest.

The Catechism is clear that doing something objectively wrong is not enough for a sin to be mortal, or to exclude someone from the state of grace. In order for this to happen, there also needs to be “full knowledge” and “complete consent.”

The text does not explicitly address the kind of “objective situation of sin” that Pope Francis and James Larson discuss. Much less, therefore, does it assert that a person in such a situation cannot be in a state of grace. However, it is not difficult to see from the above text that a person could be in such a situation without mortal sin. One of the factors that can “diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense” is “external pressures.” The situations under discussion are precisely situations where there are external pressures. That is why they are considered “situations” as opposed to an arbitrarily repeated series of actions. Since the consent must be “complete” and since it can be diminished by these pressures, a person might very well fail to sin mortally in such a situation, even if the situation lasts for a long time.

We can see that Larson’s positions do not correspond very well with anything that the Church actually teaches. Why then does he make these assertions?

I suggest that we have here a case of highly motivated thinking. Larson wants to believe that sanctifying grace is a binary condition, he wants to believe that a divorced and remarried person could not be in that condition, he wants to believe that these are teachings of the Church, and he wants to believe that Pope Francis contradicts these things.

Why would someone have such desires? Larson says in article 25:

Since Pope Francis’ recent interviews and his letter to the editor of La Civilta Cattolica, I have received emails from traditional Catholics which speak of a new level of despair. It is as though they are desperately seeking some explanation of what is happening with the Papacy and the Church which will allow them to escape from coming to some dreadful conclusion.

The situation reminds me of a passage from Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons. In the face of all the forces of evil moving in to ensnare and destroy him, Sir Thomas More offers the following impassioned words to his beloved daughter:

“Listen, Meg, God made the angels to show Him splendor, as He made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man He made to serve Him wittily, in the tangle of his mind. If He suffers us to come to such a case that there is no escaping, then we may stand to our tackle as best we can, and, yes, Meg, then we can clamor like champions, if we have the spittle for it. But it’s God’s part, not our own, to bring ourselves to such a pass. Our natural business lies in escaping. If I can take the oath, I will.”

It seems evident that the “tangle of the mind” from which traditional Catholics are now desperately trying to escape is the apparent overwhelming evidence that their Church is being destroyed from within. They dread that they are being irresistibly backed into a corner where they will be forced to conclude that the Church, in what they always considered to be her inviolable nature (if she is to be considered real at all) has contradicted this nature, and has therefore been proved to be a human invention, and not the work of God. In other words, they fear the loss of their faith.

I think this is a correct description of how many people feel. I think it is also a correct description of the way Larson himself feels, and I think it can explain why he desires to hold the above opinions concerning Pope Francis and Amoris Laetitia. This might seem a bit paradoxical. He accuses Pope Francis of heresy. Would not this be a very good example of the kind of thing he should be hoping to avoid?

Yes, in one way, but in another way it is an advantage to him if Pope Francis explicitly falls into heresy. This is important to him. In the first quoted passage, he mentions the “nature of the explicit heresy” taught by Pope Francis. It is not only heresy, but “explicit heresy.”

When people change their minds, they often do so gradually, and by degrees, and in such a way that sometimes they do not even notice that they have changed their minds. It follows that if someone does not want to change their mind, they have a reason to be cautious about gradual changes of opinion. Such changes not only could lead to what they do not want, namely changing their mind, but they could lead to this without the person even noticing it has happened.

Another point should be made about this. I pointed out here that despite the fact that it would be unreasonable to say that getting one year older makes you pass from “not being old” to “being old”, this does not prevent you from growing up. In the same way, if someone changes his mind gradually, at each point he may be able to say, “this change is too small to constitute a passage from not having changed my mind to having changed my mind.” He may be quite right. But this will not prevent it from being true at the end that he has changed his mind in comparison with his original position.

And just as individual human beings change their minds, so the Church changes its mind, gradually and by degrees, and sometimes without saying that a change has occurred. So just as someone who wishes to avoid changing his mind should be cautious about gradual changes, so someone who does not want the Church to change its mind will wish it to be cautious about gradual changes. This is what is happening here with Larson’s argument. It is an advantage to him if Amoris Laetita is explicitly heretical, because in that case it can be completely rejected, preventing the process of gradual change. If the document is not heretical (and it is not) it will be bound to cause gradual changes of various kinds, and there is no way to predict the end results in advance.

In a certain way, traditionalist Catholics are often more reasonable in this regard than others who would be considered “conservative” rather than traditionalist. Thus for example Jimmy Akin says:

11. Does the document foresee any possibility for sacramentally absolving and giving Communion to people who are civilly remarried if they are not living as brother and sister?

It does. In the main text of the document, it begins by noting certain principles to be taken into account, stating:

For an adequate understanding of the possibility and need of special discernment in certain “irregular” situations, one thing must always be taken into account, lest anyone think that the demands of the gospel are in any way being compromised.

The Church possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations.

Hence it 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.

More is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule. A subject may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding “its inherent values,” or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin. . . .

The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly mentions these factors: “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).

In another paragraph, the Catechism refers once again to circumstances which mitigate moral responsibility, and mentions at length “affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen or even extenuate moral culpability” (CCC 2352).

For this reason, a negative judgment about an objective situation does not imply a judgment about the imputability or culpability of the person involved. (AL 301-302).

The document thus envisions the case of a person who may be living in an objectively sinful situation but who is not mortally culpable because of a variety of factors of a cognitive or psychological nature.

Nothing in this is new. The Church has long recognized that people living in objectively grave sin may not be in a state of mortal sin.

Akin is right that “the Church has long recognized that people living in objectively grave sin may not be in a state of mortal sin.” This was discussed above. But “nothing in this is new” is simply not true, if it is understood in relation to the question about communion for the divorced and remarried. The Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts stated in 2000:

Any interpretation of can. 915 that would set itself against the canon’s substantial content, as declared uninterruptedly by the Magisterium and by the discipline of the Church throughout the centuries, is clearly misleading. One cannot confuse respect for the wording of the law (cfr. can. 17) with the improper use of the very same wording as an instrument for relativizing the precepts or emptying them of their substance.

The phrase “and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin” is clear and must be understood in a manner that does not distort its sense so as to render the norm inapplicable. The three required conditions are:

a) grave sin, understood objectively, being that the minister of Communion would not be able to judge from subjective imputability;

b) obstinate persistence, which means the existence of an objective situation of sin that endures in time and which the will of the individual member of the faithful does not bring to an end, no other requirements (attitude of defiance, prior warning, etc.) being necessary to establish the fundamental gravity of the situation in the Church.

c) the manifest character of the situation of grave habitual sin.

The text is clear: people in the situation under discussion are not to be given communion, whether or not they are in the state of grace. It is true that they do not assert that such people are necessarily in a state of sin, as James Larson does, but the prohibition does not depend on their subjective condition. And thus when asked whether he intended to change anything, Pope Francis said that he did intend such a change:

Rocca: Thank you Holy Father. I see that the questions on immigration I had thought of have already been asked, and you have responded very well. So, if you will permit me to ask a question on another event of the last few days, which was your Apostolic Exhortation.

As you know well, there was much discussion on one of many points – I know we have concentrated a lot on it – but there has been much discussion after the publication…Some maintain that nothing has changed with respect to the discipline that governs the access to the Sacraments for the divorced and remarried, and that the law and the pastoral practice and obviously the doctrine remains the same; others maintain instead that much has changed and that there are many new openings and possibilities.

And the question for a person, a Catholic, that wants to know: Are there new concrete possibilities that did not exist before the publication of the Exhortation or not?

Pope Francis: I can say yes. Period. But that would be too small an answer.

Akin’s way of thinking goes, “This does not contradict the Church’s current teaching. So it’s nothing new.” Larson, far more reasonably, recognizes in practice (although probably not in principle) that “this does not contradict the Church’s current teaching” can be true at every point in time, without this preventing the Church from changing its teaching in the end. By asserting that Amoris Laetitia is heretical, he hopes to draw a line, in order to remove the possibility of gradual change ultimately resulting in substantial change.

James Chastek, talking about disagreement on philosophical topics, says:

We care too much about philosophical topics ever to agree about them, and we achieve widespread successful consensus on scientific matters because we care very little which theory turns out to be true. The beauty and utility of math and science are there for anyone to see, but it’s not as if any one would kill, die, be celibate, or riot over them. Math and science of themselves, cut off from any reference to the mytho-philosophical (like the praise or the defiance of the gods) are not the sort of thing that one would think to praise in epic poetry, polyphonic splendor à la a Gounod Mass, or even a pop song.

We have discussed much the same issue here, although we pointed out that caring too much is only one part of the cause of such disagreement. Something else can be seen in the case of Larson’s disagreement with Amoris Laetita. It is not merely that he cares about the position he holds. He cares about agreement and disagreement, directly. For the reasons stated, he wants to disagree with Pope Francis. Thus in order to be sure that he does, he needs to describe the Pope’s position in various ways.

This is not uncommon. People frequently care not only about their positions, but also about the fact that they agree with certain people, and that they disagree with others. People often draw lines exactly for this reason, namely in order to disagree with someone else.