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A few days ago, in the Vatican's newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, Rocco Buttiglione entered the thorny debate over Pope Francis’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. Buttiglione, the former Italian minister of culture and an expert on the philosophy of Pope St. John Paul II, sought to defend Francis from conservative critics who claim that he has broken with John Paul’s teaching on divorce and remarriage. With a populist approach centered on the sensus fidei of Catholics unencumbered by theological theories, Buttiglione claims that a simple interpretation of Amoris Laetitia will be the most faithful one, the one best able to understand and appreciate the pastoral novelty proposed by the pope. Unfortunately, Buttiglione’s interpretation of the distinction between objective morality and subjective imputability, a distinction emphasized and developed in Amoris Laetitia, is misleading. When taken seriously with its full pastoral implications, it will encourage a merciless, rather than merciful, pastoral approach to repentant sinners.

Buttiglione addresses the especially controverted question raised by the more difficult passages in Amoris Laetitia: whether or not a person who is divorced and civilly remarried, or simply cohabiting, may receive Holy Communion. He leverages the objective-subjective distinction to note that a person who commits what is objectively a mortal sin might not be subjectively guilty of that sin, and therefore may be excused from full blame for it. Such a person may feel trapped and be sorry for what led to his or her predicament, without knowing how to resolve it.

All of this is true. But Buttiglione goes one step further and submits that the confessor should determine whether or not the penitent may be admitted to the sacraments, without being guided by predetermined principles. Predetermined principles would lead to casuistry, and besides, “the variety of situations and human circumstances is too vast” to be covered by them. Thus, the sin committed by one who continues to engage in sexual relations with someone to whom he or she is not (currently) married may not be grievously culpable. Buttiglione thereby implies that the confessor may open the door to the sacraments without securing full repentance from the penitent.

While Buttiglione is right that some past sins may not be subjectively culpable, his suggestion that the confessor can give the penitent “a pass” for such sins in the future cannot be reconciled with the tradition that holds that habitual sinners must repent to be forgiven and that their repentance must include a firm purpose of amendment (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1451 and Council of Trent, DS1676). Jesus told the woman caught in adultery, “Go and sin no more” (Jn 8,11). Good confessors know to guide their penitents toward full repentance by helping them reflect upon what they may do to free themselves from a difficult predicament or even an apparent dilemma. By helping the penitent to achieve a firm purpose of amendment, the shepherd does him or her a favor—instructing in the fullness of the truth of Jesus.

Pope Francis famously promotes pastoral accompaniment as a merciful process of encounter with the Savior. To confuse the law of gradualness whereby, as John Paul proposed, the sinner is gradually brought to face the fullness of the truth, with a gradualness of the law whereby some sheep are dispensed from the prohibitions of intrinsically evil acts, as Buttiglione seems to propose, would be to undermine the message of salvation and mistake the power of Jesus’s Redemption (See John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, n 34). Rather than helping sinners find redemption, subjectivist laxity locks them into their personal suffering. It denies the healing power of true repentance and the uplifting remedy of the Holy Eucharist to those who have responded to Jesus’s invitation to “sin no more.”

In an important interview in 2013, soon after his election, Francis warned of the dangers of both legalism and laxity in the pastoral approach to repentant sinners. Even as he denounced the legalism of binding people by rigid rules, he condemned false compassion:

The confessor . . . is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, “This is not a sin” or something like that. In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds.

To heal the wounds of the sheep, the shepherd must help them face the truth about their own sinfulness, so that they may embrace the fullness of redemptive mercy. Only then, with true repentance and a firm decision to sin no more, can one receive absolution and enjoy the graceful assistance of the Holy Eucharist.

Buttiglione is seeking what I like to call a “Catholic hermeneutic,” in contradistinction to a “progressivist” or “revisionist” hermeneutic from the left, or a “conservative” hermeneutic from the right. The Catholic hermeneutic is rooted in a superior epistemology of the faith, insofar as it presupposes a living Body of Christ, always the same Body, alive “yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13,8). This superior epistemology enjoys the firm foundation of divine revelation as treasured by Church Tradition and enlightened by faith and the prophetic inspiration of the Holy Spirit, as the Church, with all her members, engages the world in history. To use the terminology common to political analysis (and admittedly deficient when dealing with questions of theology), the Catholic hermeneutic avoids the pitfalls of the left and the right. On the left, the progressivist hermeneutic reads church teaching as though the magisterium must improve upon revelation in accord with the historical developments of our age. On the right, the conservative hermeneutic prefers a silent pope because, from the conservative perspective, we already have enough doctrine and it will always stay the same, like a petrified forest rather than a living body.

In these times of ecclesial controversy, Buttiglione's attempt to read Amoris Laetitia in continuity with the previous papal magisterium is commendable. But the details of his pastoral implementation lead to dangerous and irreconcilable deviations from the tradition, especially with respect to John Paul's important teaching documents Familiaris Consortio, The Catechism of the Catholic Church and Veritatis Splendor. Unfortunately, therefore, Buttiglione ends up undermining the very premise of his approach to reading Amoris Laetitia.

Robert A. Gahl, Jr. is Associate Professor of Ethics at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome.

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