John Finnis – Germain Grisez
Published by First Things as a web exclusive on 9 December 2016, this letter had been dispatched for delivery to Pope Francis on 21 November. In it, we request him to condemn eight positions against the Catholic faith that are being supported, or likely will be, by the misuse of his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia. We ask all bishops to join in this request and to issue their own condemnations of the erroneous positions we identify, while reaffirming the Catholic teachings these positions contradict.
The following considerations make it clear why appeals to Amoris Laetitia in support of these positions are correctly described as misuse of the Pope’s document.
When a bishop acts in persona Christi, fulfilling his duty to teach on matters of faith and morals by identifying propositions to which he calls upon the faithful to assent, he presumably means to state truths that belong to one and the same body of truths: primarily, those entrusted by Jesus to his Church and, secondarily, those necessary to preserve the primary truths as inviolable and/or to expound them with fidelity. Since truths like these cannot supersede or annul one another, papal or other episcopal statements made while teaching in persona Christi must be presumed to be consistent with one another when carefully interpreted. Thus it is a misuse of such a teaching statement to claim its support without having first sought so to interpret it.
Furthermore, if an apparent inconsistency emerges after careful interpretation, a teaching statement that is not definitive is misused unless it is understood with qualifications and delimitations sufficient to make it consistent with Scripture and teachings that definitively pertain to Tradition, each interpreted in the other’s light.
In our letter we deal only with the misuse of Amoris Laetitia to support positions held by theologians and pastors who are not teaching in persona Christ. We neither assert nor deny that Amoris Laetitia contains teachings needing qualification or delimitation, nor do we make any suggestions about how to do that, supposing it necessary.
The letter explains how proponents of the eight positions we identify can find support in statements by or omissions from the Apostolic Exhortation, and indicates how these positions are or include errors against the Catholic faith. In each case we explain briefly how the position has emerged among Catholic theologians or pastors and show how certain statements or omissions from Amoris Laetitia are being used, or likely will be used, to support it. We then set out grounds for judging the position to be contrary to Catholic faith, that is, to Scripture and teachings that definitively pertain to Tradition, each interpreted in the other’s light.
The eight positions are these.
A priest administering the Sacrament of Reconciliation may sometimes absolve a penitent who lacks a purpose of amendment with respect to a sin in grave matter that either pertains to his or her ongoing form of life or is habitually repetitive.
Some of the faithful are too weak to keep God’s commandments; though resigned to committing ongoing and habitual sins in grave matter, they can live in grace.
No general moral rule is exceptionless. Even divine commandments forbidding specific kinds of actions are subject to exceptions in some situations.
While some of God’s commandments or precepts seem to require that one never choose an act of one of the kinds to which they refer, those commandments and precepts actually are rules that express ideals and identify goods that one should always serve and strive after as best one can, given one’s weaknesses and one’s complex, concrete situation, which may require one to choose an act at odds with the letter of the rule.
If one bears in mind one’s concrete situation and personal limitations, one’s conscience may at times discern that doing an act of a kind contrary even to divine commandment will be doing one’s best to respond to God, which is all that he asks, and then one ought to choose to do that act but also be ready to conform fully to the divine commandment if and when one can do so.
Choosing to bring about one’s own, another’s, or others’ sexual arousal and/or satisfaction is morally acceptable provided only that (1) no adult has bodily contact with a child; (2) no participant’s body is contacted without his or her free and clear consent to both the mode and the extent of contact; (3) nothing done knowingly brings about or unduly risks significant physical harm, disease transmission, or unwanted pregnancy; and (4) no moral norm governing behavior in general is violated.
A consummated, sacramental marriage is indissoluble in the sense that spouses ought always to foster marital love and ought never to choose to dissolve their marriage. But by causes beyond the spouses’ control and/or by grave faults of at least one of them, their human relationship as a married couple sometimes deteriorates until it ceases to exist. When a couple’s marriage relationship no longer exists, their marriage has dissolved, and at least one of the parties may rightly obtain a divorce and remarry.
A Catholic need not believe that many human beings will end in hell.
Our letter concludes by indicating how theologians and pastors who teach and put into practice any of these eight positions can thereby do grave harm to many souls, and pointing to some ways in which this may happen. It also notes the grave damage these errors do to marriage and to young people who otherwise might have entered into authentic married life with good hearts and been signs of Christ’s covenantal love for his Church.
Many theologians and pastors who champion positions contrary to the faith suppose themselves to be dealing realistically with Catholics influenced by secularized culture who are breaking with the Church or drifting away. But their strategy sets aside the Church’s tradition and primary mission—to preach the Gospel everywhere and always, and to teach believers all that Jesus has commanded.
The experience of Christian ecclesial communities that have adopted similar strategies in the past two centuries strongly suggests that those which compromised their Christian identity in one generation held little interest for subsequent generations. Those ordained to act in the person of Jesus do well to teach the truth as he did and went on doing even when many of his disciples said they found his word too hard and drifted away.
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