Shame and bitterness overcame me when the priest said that my parents were not married. They had spent thirty years together and had raised three children, but because my father was a Catholic who had married outside the church, the church held that he had never married at all. Or so this priest told me. I thought him a bastard—after all, he was saying I was one.
Truth can sting. Pope Francis wants to soften it, to minimize its assaults. In his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, he uses the euphemism “irregular unions” to describe relationships that Catholics consider objectively adulterous. He suggests that people living in a persistent state of sin may receive communion if certain conditions are met—not least, if they are “tactful.” Francis would like the church to be tactful, as well.
I have felt the Church’s teaching on marriage land like a blow, yet I take no encouragement from this shift. Amoris Laetitia suggests that an objective assessment of whether or not one is in a state of mortal sin can be replaced with a more subjective “discernment” of one’s “interior disposition.” While this may seem merciful, it leaves Catholics less sure of how they stand before God.
Francis writes: “We must make room for the conscience of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel.” This notion of conscience as a licensing agency for actions that otherwise would count as sins, is strange to me. Far from reassuring me that I am worthy to receive communion, my conscience has often reminded me that I am not. As Mary Geach said:
One way in which moral advisers may fail people who have doubts about whether to commit respectable sins, is telling them that they must follow their consciences . . . would you say “follow your conscience” to a man whose code of honour obliged him to kill his father’s killer?
Insofar as pastors accommodate “willful ignorance of the truth” among the Catholic faithful, conscience will cease to be a monitor and will degenerate into its opposite, a “carte blanche.” Elizabeth Anscombe invoked the Apostle Paul against this error:
The idea that “I am justified if my conscience doesn’t reproach me” . . . is directly contrary to what St. Paul says in one of his letters to the Corinthians (“True, my conscience does not reproach me at all, but that does not prove that I am acquitted; the Lord alone is my judge”). It is false; and so is the idea that somebody may be exonerated on the grounds that they are caring and conscientious people.
Anscombe foretells the oddest aspect of Amoris Laetitia. The document tends to place politeness above penitence, conscientiousness above contrition. For Francis, outward manners are a sign of a correct disposition. If someone “has not been trained by his elders to say ‘Please,’ ‘Thank you,’ and ‘Sorry,’ his good interior disposition will not easily come to the fore.” The pope commends being “a responsible and tactful person, who does not presume to put his or her own desires ahead of those of the common good of the Church.” One no longer asks, Am I in a state of grace? but rather, Am I a good and well-meaning person?
Francis says that the Eucharist is “not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” How well I know it. But the conclusions he draws from this great truth are strange. Who considers himself weak, if not the man who repents his sins and confesses them? Who thinks himself perfect, if not the man who believes he has no need of confession, but a right to the Eucharist? It is not possible to have a purely subjective assurance of our worthiness without the taint of pride.
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In a telling passage, Francis follows two quotations of Octavio Paz with one of Thomas Aquinas. The cocktail—two parts contemporary literature, one part Christian tradition—is quintessential Francis. So, too, is the approach to quotation, which is promiscuous rather than scrupulous:
Love abhors making others suffer. Courtesy “is a school of sensitivity and disinterestedness” which requires a person “to develop his or her mind and feelings, learning how to listen how to speak and, at certain times, to keep quiet.” It is not something a Christian may accept or reject. As an essential requirement of love, “every human being is bound to live agreeably with those around him.”
Something strange is going on here. Aquinas does say that, “every human being is bound to live agreeably with those around him.” But Francis has left off the second half of the sentence: “ ...unless it should be necessary for him for some reason to cause them profitable sadness at some time.” Francis’s politeness does not seem to have room for the profitable sadness known to Aquinas, that edifying state brought on by necessary rebukes and hard truths.
The half-quotation of Aquinas typifies Francis's procedure in Amoris Laetitia. Half of the Christian tradition is simply left out, and so the basic shape and essential tensions of the whole are lost. The love of God is present, but the fear of God—the terrible knowledge that we are responsible for our souls—is not. This omission is deliberate. Early in the document, Francis recalls Christ’s rebuke of those ready to stone a woman caught in adultery. This scene is one of the most powerful in all the gospels and a central inspiration for Amoris Laetitia. Yet Francis misdescribes it:
Love also bears fruit in mercy and forgiveness. We see this in a particular way in the scene of the woman caught in adultery; in front of the Temple, the woman is surrounded by her accusers, but later, alone with Jesus, she meets not condemnation but the admonition to lead a more worthy life (cf. Jn 8:1-11).
“Neither do I condemn thee”: Francis calls our attention to these beautiful words in the Gospel of John. As in the quotation of Aquinas, though, we lose the sense of what follows. Jesus did not then tell the woman to “lead a more worthy life,” as Francis suggests. He told her to “Go, and sin no more.”
This is no mere quibble. It brings into focus the controversy Francis has opened with this document. Traditionally, the church has taught that divorced and remarried couples must “live together as brother and sister”—that is, that they must go and sin no more. Is this directive tantamount to condemnation, to the throwing of stones? Francis appears to think so, but such a view must contend with the words of Christ himself.
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John Henry Newman was an unflagging opponent of what he called “the religion of the day.” Whereas a previous age may have stressed too much the fierce and grim aspects of Christianity, Newman believed that his own age cared only for “the brighter side of the Gospel,—its tidings of comfort, its precepts of love.” He saw that the God who is described as a consuming fire in the Letter to the Hebrews had been forgotten.
Newman viewed this as a fatal mistake. Christian love must be accompanied by fear: “Fear and love most go together; always fear, always love, until your dying day.” Without holy fear, Christianity is reduced to courtesy:
Our manners are courteous; we avoid giving pain or offence; our words become correct . . . Thus elegance is gradually made the test and standard of virtue, which is no longer thought to possess an intrinsic claim on our hearts, or to exist, further than it leads to the quiet and comfort of others.
Francis likewise asks us to practice “discretion,” to be “responsible and tactful,” to “avoid giving offense.” Our “words should be carefully chosen,” he says. He has pastoral reasons for this emphasis, I know. But even pastorally, the strategy fails. I am a straying sheep, prone to wander. What I need from my pastor are words that direct me away from the religion of the day and toward an encounter with a Christ both loving and awesome.
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A friend once asked me why I hadn’t warned her. She had fallen in love with a man who had worked with her on a political campaign. When their candidate lost, they packed up their disappointment and took a road trip through Mexico. Yes, he was twice her age, and yes, they weren’t married, but he seemed decent and she was certainly an adult. I assumed that she knew my moral views, which I have enough trouble imposing on myself, let alone anyone else. So I thought it best to show my solidarity by listening to her without any trace of judgment. A word of warning might risk her anger, reveal that our friendship was weaker than we wanted it to be.
Yet here she was, months later, asking me why I hadn’t spoken up. She knew that she would not have listened to me even if I had said something. Her point was that I had failed to show concern for her and faith in our friendship. I made some joke to dispel the tension, and she asked me again: Why didn’t you say anything? Did you really think this was a good idea? I had no answer. I had been courteous, perhaps, but I had not been loving. I had been agreeable, but not a friend. At that moment I learned that we will be reproached for failing to warn those to whom we have duties in love.
Matthew Schmitz is literary editor of First Things.