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Charity for Francis!


I am not a Roman Catholic — I am not even what is usually called an Anglo-Catholic — but I do think of myself as a Catholic Christian in the Anglican tradition. And if you can’t figure that one out …my apologies. One day I’ll explain myself. I mention all this now only in order to explain that while I am not an insider to the kerfuffle over Pope Francis’s new apostolic exhortation, I am not altogether an outsider either. I think what the Pope says matters, in one way or another, to all Christians, especially in the Western world, and even more especially to me; so it’s worth taking the time and trouble to understand him as well as we can.

Many — not all but many — of the conservative responses to Amoris Laetitia are exercises in uncharitable interpretation. For instance, Father Raymond J. De Souza: “From the first pages of Amoris Laetitia to the last, the exhortation evidently yearns to declare what it never declares: that the teaching on marriage and holy Communion can change.” Antonio Socci goes further, claiming that Francis is engaged in a “continuous demolition of Catholic doctrine” and is doing so by “cancelling the notion of ‘mortal sin.’”

Indeed, not only does Pope Francis not demolish Church teaching, or declare that such teaching can change, he insists upon the opposite:

In order to avoid all misunderstanding, I would point out that in no way must the Church desist from proposing the full ideal of marriage, God’s plan in all its grandeur: “Young people who are baptized should be encouraged to understand that the sacrament of marriage can enrich their prospects of love and that they can be sustained by the grace of Christ in the sacrament and by the possibility of participating fully in the life of the Church”. A lukewarm attitude, any kind of relativism, or an undue reticence in proposing that ideal, would be a lack of fidelity to the Gospel and also of love on the part of the Church for young people themselves. To show understanding in the face of exceptional situations never implies dimming the light of the fuller ideal, or proposing less than what Jesus offers to the human being. [p. 238 in the English version of Amoris Laetitia]

It turns out that you cannot avoid misunderstanding when people are determined to misunderstand — or rather, are insistent that they have read your heart and know what you truly intend, even if it’s the precise opposite of what you say. There’s no defense against that kind of reading.

Now, I suspect that conservative critics of Francis will say that they are reading a passage such as the above in light of what he says elsewhere, including elsewhere in the same document — as when he quotes with approval the Relatio Finalis of the recent Synod:

Under certain circumstances people find it very difficult to act differently. Therefore, while upholding a general rule, it is necessary to recognize that responsibility with respect to certain actions or decisions is not the same in all cases. Pastoral discernment, while taking into account a person’s properly formed conscience, must take responsibility for these situations. Even the consequences of actions taken are not necessarily the same in all cases. [quoted on p. 234]

The argument here relies on two principles.

The first is the principle of equity, which goes all the way back to Aristotle’s Politics. Aristotle points out that it is in the nature of law, and of any particular law, to be deficient insofar as it is general. Equity lies in the discerning, prudential application of a general law to particular cases. Thomas Aquinas agrees with Aristotle on this, and in a passage that Francis quotes (p. 235), says

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.

From this principle follows a second one: subsidiarity, which requires that issues that can be dealt with locally should be dealt with locally. Now, in Catholic teaching — see the Catechism, citing Pius XI’s Quadragesimo anno — this principle is usually applied to governmental matters, but it seems, certainly in Francis’s view, to have relevance to the Church as well. The relevant passage from Quadragesimo anno: “A community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.” So for Francis, doctrine (in this case moral doctrine) is established by the Magisterium, where within Catholicism is the only place it can be established, but the pastoral application of discipline in light of that doctrine belongs to a subsidiary realm, usually the parish.

Francis is simply declining the (inevitably fruitless) attempt to settle at the level of the Papal office, and by further specification of law, issues that can better be settled at the local level by pastors who, knowing the people they serve, can apply prudential, equitable judgment. The principles he recommends are, when they’re invoked in other contexts, universally recognized as classically Catholic and classically conservative.

So why the hostility from so many conservative Catholics? I am not certain, but from what I have heard over the years, I don’t think many conservative Catholics have much trust in the average parish priest, especially here in America. But then, they don’t seem to have much trust in bishops, taken as a class, either. And from these responses to Amoris Laetitia they clearly don’t trust the Pope. So I find myself wondering in whom, or in what, they do place their trust.

I crave clarification or correction on all these matters.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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