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On September 10, we published “An Appeal,” endorsed by a long list of fellow scholars. The Appeal sharply criticized paragraph 137 of the Instrumentum laboris for the upcoming Synod on the family. In her “A Benign Reading of a Confusing Paragraph,” Janet Smith offered a thoughtful response.

It is true, of course, that 137, like many other passages in the Instrumentum, is ambiguous. For this very reason, it is open to differing interpretations. This is why we generously sprinkled our Appeal with qualifications, such as “suggests that,” or “leaves the impression that,” or “fails to clarify that.”

That being said, some interpretations of even deeply ambiguous texts will be more natural or plausible than others.

Smith acknowledges this. Indeed, she grants that it “is difficult to extract” her “benign reading” from 137’s actual text. She also grants that the paragraph “lends itself” to the Appeal’s reading. Yet she feels that the Appeal offers a “misreading.”

This is puzzling. Her concessions suggest that the Appeal’s reading is in fact the natural one. What other criteria would there be? She cannot divine the intentions of the Instrumentum’s authors any more than we can. All we have is the paragraph’s actual language and context. It is therefore unclear why she would characterize our interpretation as a “misreading.”

In any case, Smith is correct in pointing to the difficulty of her own reading: Indeed, it seems rather implausible.

Our Appeal focuses less on 137’s threat to Humanae Vitae than on its depiction of the relationship between conscience and God’s moral law. Because Smith focuses on Humanae Vitae, she misses our larger point: 137 effectively nullifies central teachings of Saint John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor and Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes. It presents conscience and law as “two poles” (Italian=due poli), which then must be “constantly brought together.” Hence, as explained in greater depth by the Appeal, 137 presents well-formed conscience and law as externally related, while Church doctrine insists that well-formed conscience is by nature the moral subject’s awareness of God’s law, written on the heart as moral truth. Conscience is essentially the capacity to judge one’s actions in the light of that moral truth, not the ability to judge the law or truth in the light of one’s particular situation. A subtle distinction perhaps, but one that makes all the difference in the world.

Smith’s “benign reading,” then, only makes sense if we suppose that 137 in fact seeks to criticize the false understanding of conscience and law described by the Appeal. But if so, why would it begin by depicting them as “two poles” which for that very reason are subtly in tension? When describing the first pole, it does not speak of badly formed conscience. It instead depicts conscience “as the voice of God that resounds in the human heart that is educated to listen to it.” Yet, it suggests that conscience so conceived sometimes wrongly “prevails.” The same is suggested of God’s law, which is characterized as “the divine design.” According to the Church’s actual teaching, well-formed conscience’s judgment always “prevails” in good moral choice precisely because conscience is essentially the knowledge of moral truth.

Our reading is strengthened by other inaccurate or ambiguous passages in the Instrumentum, such as its references to Familiaris Consortio’s teaching concerning “the law of gradualness.” 

In fact, 137 appears to reflect a view both common over the years among detractors of the Church’s moral teachings and decisively rejected by Veritatis Splendor.

As written, 137 threatens not just Humanae Vitae but also many other controverted teachings, such as those concerning abortion, euthanasia, reproductive technologies, same-sex unions, and so on.

Why would Professor Smith present an interpretation that is “difficult to extract” as correct, while characterizing the one to which the text “lends itself” as a “misreading”?

Perhaps she is worried that our sharp criticism contravenes the Church’s teaching authority. Yet, an Instrumentum laboris is only, as its name suggests, a working document. It is not a finished teaching or even a teaching at all. It is not an expression of the Church’s judgment but provides language and conceptualizations on which judgment is to be made. The Appeal’s critique therefore offers a service to the Synod fathers, who are certainly receiving advice from many quarters and from all perspectives.

Of course, to say that the Instrumentum is “only” a working document is not to say that it is unimportant. Such documents provide the starting point for conversation, and as everyone knows starting points have great bearing on outcomes. It is therefore crucial that the issues at the very least be adequately framed.

David S. Crawford is the Associate Professor of Moral Theology and Family Law, and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family in Washington, DC.

Stephan Kampowski is the Professor of Philosophical Anthropology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome, Italy.

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