In his recent article in L’Osservatore Romano, Rocco Buttiglione makes a valiant effort to explain the controversial chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia. He does not try to settle the controversy by saying that Pope Francis has not changed Church discipline on communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, nor does he say that the discipline as taught by Pope John Paul II remains unchanged in chapter 8 and is, at most, encumbered by ambiguity of expression. No, Buttiglione argues, the discipline has changed, though without any rupture with the teaching of John Paul on marriage. (Disclosure: Buttiglione is my colleague at the Hildebrand Project.)

Dan Hitchens, in a response for First Things, differs with Buttiglione on two points. He seems to think that Francis has not changed Church discipline at all. More importantly, he says that if Francis had changed Church discipline then he would have made himself guilty of a rupture with the teaching of John Paul. Let me focus my attention on this second point, which is what stands at the eye of this storm.

There is a significant “background fact” that we have to know before we can enter into this debate: We have to know that John Paul had already effected a huge change in the discipline of the Church regarding divorced and remarried Catholics when, in his 1983 reform of the Canon Law of the Church, he lifted the excommunication that had for centuries been automatically imposed on persons who remarry without having their first marriage annulled. All the language used by Francis of “integrating” the remarried into the Church originates in John Paul. The shift from excommunication to integration is a sea-change in discipline. And yet Hitchens and the other critics of Buttiglione do not think that John Paul departed from the faith of the Church on marriage. When then we are puzzled by the change in discipline proposed by Francis (as most readers take it to be), we should not assume that he has departed from the faith of the Church.

In some of his writings in defense of this shift, Buttiglione reflects on the case of Sonia in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Sonia is a prostitute, and so she is committing objectively wrong acts. But what is her subjective condition? Her alcoholic father cannot provide for her siblings and her step-mother, and so she feels desperately driven to make money for her family in the only way that seems open to her, by selling herself, even though she hates what she does and longs to be free from it. It is through his encounter with Sonia that the murderer Raskolnikov is moved to turn himself in and to convert—such is the power of the goodness that lives in her despite her selling herself. Subjectively, then, Sonia is not just another prostitute. Buttiglione does not at all mean to say that the objective wrongness of prostitution is suspended in her case; rather, he wants to show how large the discrepancy can be between a person’s subjective state and a person’s objectively sinful condition.

What follows for the pastoral care of the divorced and remarried? Buttiglione supposes the case of a poorly catechized Catholic woman who married with little awareness of the commitment she was making. After she gives birth to a few children, her husband abandons her. She remarries a man who is faithful to her and who cares for her and her children and with whom she has other children. But now something stirs in her and she undergoes a religious awakening. She wants to raise her children in the Catholic faith. She tries to persuade her husband to live with her in abstinence, but with no success. If she leaves him, she will lose her children. As she keeps struggling to bring her marital state into order without losing her children, the question arises whether she can receive the Eucharist as a source of strength for her on her way.

Is she subjectively committing the mortal sin of adultery, or is the trajectory of her life such that she is subjectively in a different position from that of a common adulteress? Is she perhaps as different from a common adulteress as Sonia is from a common prostitute? Can one apply to her the saying of Newman, that “in passing out of the country of sin we necessarily pass through it”? Is she perhaps in a sinful condition without being exactly a mortal sinner? John Paul had excluded from communion all divorced and remarried Catholics, but Francis (on Buttiglione’s reading) is willing at least to consider the possibility of communion in a case like this. Buttiglione argues that the two versions of Church discipline are not at odds with each other in any fundamental way. For in both of them adultery is regarded as a grave sin, but in the controversial instance particular attention is given to the way in which the adulterous act inheres in a person. If the woman in Buttiglione’s case is drawn in some sense unwillingly into the conjugal act, and is struggling to extricate herself from it without destroying other great goods in the process, then we can ask whether the adultery, bad though it is, inheres in her in such a way as to make her a mortal sinner who must not receive communion.

It is clear that Buttiglione is not lapsing into the “Anglican situation ethics” invoked by Hitchens. If one says that this woman can indeed receive communion, one does not say that adultery in her case is not wrong, but only that it does not corrupt her and compromise her to the point that she would necessarily commit sacrilege by receiving communion.

We have seen it happen before that a greater attention to the subjectivity of the human person leads to a shift in some Catholic practice. This is nowhere so clear as in the Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty. A deepened understanding of personal dignity, and especially of the vulnerability of the act of faith to subtle forms of coercion, led to the insight that some of the ways in which the Catholic religion was legally established in Catholic countries failed to show due respect to the consciences of non-Catholics. These forms of the legal establishment of Catholicism had to be abandoned. And so it is not surprising if a greater attention to the subjectivity of sinners leads to a shift in the pastoral care of them.

But I have to balance out my defense of Buttiglione’s position by acknowledging some serious deficiencies in Amoris Laetitia. Very troubling is the way in which Amoris Laetitia seems to drop the ancient requirement that the divorced and remarried, if they continue to lead a common life, have to aim at living as brother and sister. This requirement is in urgent need of being reaffirmed, as I think Buttiglione would agree. But Buttiglione would say that this deficiency in Amoris Laetitia is not fatal to the fundamental idea that many find in it, namely that the Church should give greater attention to the subjective condition of sinners, and should then draw from this the pastoral and disciplinary consequences.

Update:

On further reflection I realize that I have not yet responded to Hitchens’s argument that the proposal of Pope Francis in ch. 8 of Amoris Laetitia would make impossible demands on confessors. “Priests would have to judge the souls of their flock.” But don’t they even now have to judge souls? One penitent comes into confession afflicted with scrupulosity, and the priest assures her that the thing she did is not a matter of serious sin. Another comes with a lax conscience, and the priest confronts this penitent with some serious sin that he had brushed aside. This is what confessors do: they help the faithful to discern the true state of their souls. Or consider how deeply priests look into souls when they help young men and women discern their vocation. When then Pope Francis asks confessors to help divorced and remarried couples to discern where they are in their marriage, and how serious they are about coming into full conformity with Catholic teaching, he is not asking confessors to do the impossible; he is just asking them to extend to these couples the spiritual accompaniment that they are already providing for the faithful in many ways. This argument of Hitchens is nothing but a red herring; he is trying to conjure up for the Francis proposal an obstacle that does not really exist.

John F. Crosby is professor of philosophy at Franciscan University of Steubenville and senior fellow at the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project.

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