Pope Francis’s recent Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia is, for the most part, a beautiful presentation of Catholic teaching on marriage and the family. But its eighth chapter strikes many readers as problematic. This chapter attempts to identify the patterns of reasoning by which a prudent and truthful person deals with particular manifestations of common human weakness. But does it, in its good intentions, “get ahead of God’s mercy” (in the phrase of philosopher Robert Spaemann)—that is, presume to license acts that God, for all His mercy, counts as sin?
If it does, it does so most of all in the footnotes. Footnote 351 is already notorious for arguably authorizing pastors, between the lines, to admit divorced-and-remarried Catholics to communion. Less noticed so far, but equally troublesome, is footnote 329. This footnote evinces what looks suspiciously like the deliberately subversive work of an editor. In it, an unsound theology is made plausible by inaccurate translations of Church documents. The effect, presumably intended, is to provide pastors with a basis to recommend that divorced and civilly remarried couples need not refrain from sexual relations in order to be readmitted to communion.
Footnote 329 appears during the presentation of a “hard case” example of a divorced and civilly remarried couple: Imagine “a second union consolidated over time, with new children, proven fidelity, generous self-giving, [and] Christian commitment.” Put aside for now your questions as to the difference between a “Christian” commitment and a “Catholic” one; or how fidelity may be “proven” in any relationship, apart from the willingness to make and keep an irrevocable vow; or how anyone may make such a vow while consciously betraying a previous one. We are to envision a storybook second marriage.
Must this storybook couple separate, or may they stay together? On this question, Amoris Laetitia invokes John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, article 84, which establishes that a couple in a second marriage may find, for serious reasons, “such as the children’s upbringing,” that they “cannot satisfy the obligation to separate.” A certain kind of reader may extrapolate a precedent: According to Familiaris Consortio, a consideration of strict morality (the rule that the couple must separate) can be overridden by a consideration of mercy (here, the children’s welfare).
That precedent then gets applied in footnote 329, which extends Familiaris Consortio’s concern for the children’s welfare:
In [second marriages], many people, knowing and accepting the possibility of living “as brothers and sisters” which the Church offers them, point out that if certain expressions of intimacy [i.e. sexual intercourse] are lacking, “it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of the children suffers” (SECOND VATICAN ECUMENICAL COUNCIL, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 51).
Thus, not only may a concern for “the good of the children” override a remarried couple’s obligation to separate, it may also override their obligation to abstain from sexual relations. For the latter exception, the authority of a Vatican II Constitution, Gaudium et Spes, is cited. A second authority was needed here because mercy cannot be extended this far on the basis of Familiaris Consortio alone: That document explicitly reaffirms that divorced and remarried couples must abstain from sex, whether they live together or apart. So footnote 329 attempts to trump John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation with the higher authority of a Council document. In this way it is able to argue, in effect, that Familiaris Consortio 84 is not consistent with its own merciful purposes, and that it should have imposed no general restriction on sexual relations.
Footnote 329 fails in its purpose, however—because to use Gaudium et Spes in this way, it must distort and misquote that document’s teaching.
Accurately construed, the quoted line from article 51 of Gaudium et Spes never mentions children’s welfare. The phrase at issue, in its authoritative Latin version, is bonum prolis, “the good of children”—that is, the good of marriage which is children, one of the traditional goods of the marriage bond. Here the Council Fathers are teaching that if a married couple (and they are concerned with married couples; they are not addressing the particular case of the divorced and remarried) abstain from intimacy for too long, they may lose their zest for having more children, and thus may fail to enjoy this particular good of the marriage bond as fully as they might.
Not that the mistranslation was crafted specially for this footnote. It comes from Fr. Austin Flannery’s English translation of the conciliar documents. But the choice of the Flannery translation seems deliberate. A different option, conspicuously not chosen, was the Vatican website English translation, which runs: “[W]here the intimacy of married life is broken off, its faithfulness can sometimes be imperiled and its quality of fruitfulness ruined, for then the upbringing of the children and the courage to accept new ones are both endangered.” This translation is more literally correct, and to that extent it is less useful to the argument of footnote 329.
Interestingly, the German version of footnote 329 does not simply mistranslate the conciliar document. It deliberately, shockingly misquotes.
The Vatican website’s German translation of Gaudium et Spes 51 states that, in marriages lacking intimacy, “fidelity as a good of marriage” (die Treue als Ehegut) may be endangered and “the child as a good of marriage” (das Kind als Ehegut) may be negatively affected. But footnote 329 in German leaves out “as a good of marriage” (als Ehegut) in both instances. In doing so, it changes the literal sense from “the bonum prolis can be negatively affected” to “the welfare of the child” can be negatively affected.
Footnote 329, then, is based on a misconstrual of Gaudium et Spes 51, and simply as such should be negated or withdrawn as a mistake. One might add, however, that its view of sex seems disastrously wrong as well.
The Council Fathers view abstention from sex as harmful in the manner of a hindrance to goods of marriage already possessed by the couple, and already flowing for them, in virtue of their being married. Footnote 329 presupposes the very different view that the goods come from sex itself, not from the bond. The notion that sex has some sort of magical power is at odds with the general teaching of Amoris Laetitia, which is noteworthy for its constant demythologizing of romantic love and its reluctance to follow some presentations of the Theology of the Body in attributing a quasi-sacramental role to sex.
Fortunately, it seems likely that footnote 329 is the work of an editor—call him The Redactor—rather than the Holy Father. And by attending closely, we can get a sense of The Redactor's mindset. Note, for instance, his striking supposition that couples who “know and accept” that they must live “as brothers and sisters,” in accordance with Familiaris Consortio, nonetheless are still thinking about their prospects for sexual intimacy. Not very much like brothers and sisters, after all: Clearly they have not transformed their sexual desire into familial friendliness. Indeed, the precise wording of the footnote allows that the couples know and accept only “the possibility of” living together as brothers and sisters. This is a turn of phrase that only a specialist would use, to indicate that he regards living chastely as admirable and heroic, but not as binding.
Another striking feature of footnote 329 is how it articulates the thoughts of “many” divorced and remarried couples in the form of a quotation from a conciliar document. Obviously most people do not think in quotations from conciliar documents. Theologians, however, do—and not a few have been found to construe the thoughts of others in the same way. So we may speculate that The Redactor is a theologian, and more precisely, a theologian of the school of thought wherein the quoted portion of Gaudium et Spes 51 expresses the Council’s putative endorsement of what I have called the “magical” view of sex.
We may even venture—though this is admittedly speculative—that The Redactor is German but has a familiarity with English: German, because he likely would not have bothered to distort the German text of Gaudium et Spes 51 if German had not been his “first language” in composing the footnote; and familiar with English, because he took pains to find an English translation of the Council documents that matched his intended argument.
Whoever The Redactor is—and whether he speaks German or English, whether he is a single figure or a committee—he surely hoped to use Familiaris Consortio against itself, getting ahead of God's mercy and the Council's. But “truth cannot be contrary to truth,” as Newman wrote, and The Redactor's plan cannot stand.
Michael Pakaluk is Professor of Philosophy at Ave Maria University.