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Mark Shea: A Conversation About Amoris Laetitia

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Pope Francis pictured in St Peter’s Square on 8 June 2016. Photo: CNS/Paul Haring

A friend of mine writes from England, asking me for my take on Amoris Laetitia.

Here is my reply:

Unfortunately I’m really not much use here. I have more or less tuned out the many kerfuffles about Francis and this is one of them. What little I have gleaned is that this is controversy about a pastoral document that was deliberately intended to allow as much flexibility as possible to pastors and which presented to enemies of the pope their hoped-for shot at suggesting he is heterodox.

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His response has been classic Jesuit: ignore the dubia he regards as being asked in bad faith. I’m not saying you are asking in bad faith. I’m merely noting that Francis sees the cardinals as asking in bad faith. As somebody with no pastoral responsibilities myself, and seeing this as the basic contour of the situation, I have pretty much ignored the whole flap as “not addressed to my condition.” So I’m pretty useless here.

On, the other hand, as it happens, this intelligent take on the document came out from Fr Matthew Schneider last week and may be of interest.

Also, a rather more sinister take on the political forces driving some of the hostility to Francis is here.

Bannon is not creating those forces, but he is definitely tapping into and inflaming them against the pope and the Magisterium in pursuit of his drive to turn the American Church into a white ethno-nationalist blood and soil fertility cult. I regard him as the most dangerous man in the American Church (and in American political life).

(My English friend writes:)

I get what the article is saying and the whole “we can read this in a way that’s okay” thing but I can say “this is the correct way” and somebody else can say “no, this is the correct way” and it’s all down to individual interpretation which is nice and all but don’t we have a magisterium to avoid that situation?

Actually, very rarely do we have a Magisterium for the purpose of closing debate. Usually, we have one that helps us debate well and gives us a few ground rules to keep us from going out of bounds. There have been arguments in the Church that have lasted for centuries.

It’s this issue of interpretation that worries me.

Right now I can go to a Catholic Church in one part of town and get one ‘version’ of the faith and then I go to a Catholic Church in another part of town and get another ‘version’.

Depends on what you mean by “version”. Do either parish deny the creed or the dogmas of the Faith? I doubt that.

If I want to get at the “truth” then I have to make my own assessment of what the Magisterium has consistently said through the ages and if I do that I find myself facing inconsistencies, i.e. If I look at Amoris and say “hey, this only matches previous teaching if I read it this way” but I don’t do the same thing with other documents, I’m being inconsistent.

I can only answer for myself, but it seems to me that primary function of the Magisterium, through most of its history, has not been to conclude debates, but to make sure that no party to a debate and no partisan of a custom, school of philosophy, pastoral approach or political theory is allowed to tell everybody else “my way or the highway”. This is the norm in the Church’s history. Romans 14 in action.

You can say “well, James, actually you should read other documents that way” but in actual fact it’s very hard to do so.

For example, as you know, our understanding of statements like “outside the Church there is no salvation” have developed legitimately. Later documents appear to contradict Trent but in fact do not. So is it up to me personally to establish when and where those developments are legitimate? I hope not!

I rather think it’s our business to presume the good faith of people who read a document in ways which the Church has not condemned. Doesn’t mean we have to agree with them.

If it is my problem, then Catholicism suddenly sounds like the opening chapters of By What Authority?

For the first 15 centuries of the Church, you could hold your own opinion about the authority of the deuterocanonical books. You couldn’t chuck them out. But you could speculate about the nature of their inspiration, how authoritative they were, whether we really needed them, etc. After Florence and Trent, that issue was settled (though the status of some books used by the Eastern Churches is still open to debate). Thomists and Molinists battled it out over predestination for a century. We still don’t have (and probably never will have) a definitive statement from the Church on when a person comes into existence, nor what the nature of the glorified body of Jesus is. There are a ton of arguments in the Church that the Church carefully makes room for rather than moving to resolve them. She prefers not to define things unless she absolutely has to. This is emphatically one of those areas where the Church is completely in character. Of course, she’s not going to try to define things very tightly on a pastoral question like the care of the immense global complexity that is the family. It’s just not gonna happen.

It’s fair enough to say “James this isn’t your problem” but it really is because it affects everything. When my kids say “it’s okay to skip Mass sometimes, Fr X said so” and I pull up the relevant document, well, I’m just being rigid and we all know that “since Amoris” it’s more complicated than that and an individual pastoral response is required …

Except that’s not true. This is like saying Vatican II made everything permissible. It didn’t. You tell your kids, “Mass is a privilege. We have the chance to go hear and receive Jesus Christ. It’s not a minimum daily adult requirement thing. It’s an opportunity thing. If the kids are trying to jailhouse lawyer their way out of Mass, Amoris Laetitia is not the problem. The Faith should not be a matter of “I have to go. It’s the law.” Because if it is, they won’t be going for long, whatever the law is.

A claim is being made all over the place that since Amoris we can say in response to pretty much any rule/requirement/teaching of the Church that individual pastoral responses are required and while in the past that meant accounting for things like culpability, now it can include just ignoring culpability.

I repeat. If the reason for going to Mass is “It’s legally compulsory” then there are much deeper problems than the fine-grained reading of a document that only a tiny subculture of conservative Catholics is sweating about (or even aware of).

So my role as a father trying to bring my kids up in the faith is undermined. I’m automatically an old fashioned, rigid and lacking in Mercy every time I say “you know, you should really be doing X”.  Remember how “admonish the sinner” used to be a work of Mercy…

You can still make a perfectly legitimate case for going to Mass. Jesus Christ is there, fully present, ready to pour out his life and grace on you and call you to a life of meaning, purpose, and love as his disciple with an apostolic mission every bit as important as St Paul’s. Disciples don’t need to be wheedled and cajoled into going to Mass. If the problem is reluctance to go, the root is not Amoris Laetitia (which I will lay odds almost no kid on earth has ever heard of).

Anyway, I’ve gone on enough. Bannon, Trump and Brexit all worry me in equal and opposite measure to Hillary and the European Secular Super-state. They are all problematic. I don’t see how Bannon’s opposition to Francis somehow relieves the latter of his duty to provide clear teaching on matters of faith and morals.

I think Francis has been about as clear as he can be given the immense flexibility this particular topic requires in a postmodern global culture. But mostly my guess is that if you walked away from the matter tomorrow, nothing at all will change in your day to day life.

I hope you find some peace about this.

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