You’ve read it again and again. Finnis and Grisez asserted it. Joseph Seifert said the same thing in his critique. So did the forty-five theologians. It’s implicit in the cardinals’ dubia.

What am I getting at? Namely, that there are statements in Amoris Laetitia which, although they admit of a true interpretation, more easily suggest a false one, and are likely to be used to subvert the teachings of the Church. Thus, these people say, the pope as the guardian of the faith should clarify, and rule out explicitly those false interpretations.

The worry can seem abstract. Who exactly is plotting to subvert Church teaching? Some might say the Maltese, Argentine, and German bishops have already taken initial false steps. But put this idea aside. Can we find some other concrete example?

Yes, I’ll give you one, which has played out before our eyes. In a Catechesis on May 6, 2015, Pope Francis said this, about the passage in Ephesians 5:21 (where Paul speaks about the great mystery that is marriage): “Here he introduces an analogy between husband-wife and Christ-Church. It is clear that this is an imperfect analogy, but we must take it in the spiritual sense which is very lofty and revolutionary, and at the same time simple, available to every man and woman who entrusts him and herself to the grace of God.”

That husband and wife constitute an imperfect image is repeated twice in Amoris: “Marriage is a vocation, inasmuch as it is a response to a specific call to experience conjugal love as an imperfect sign of the love between Christ and the Church.” Again, “Even though the analogy between the human couple of husband and wife, and that of Christ and his Church, is ‘imperfect’, it inspires us to beg the Lord to bestow on every married couple an outpouring of his divine love.”

But a natural interpretation of these statements is false and contradicts the magisterium of the Church.

Casti Connubii of Pius XI says the opposite: “If we wish with all reverence to inquire into the intimate reason of this divine decree [of indissolubility], Venerable Brethren, we shall easily see it in the mystical signification of Christian marriage which is fully and perfectly verified in consummated marriage between Christians” (my emphasis).

This perfect signification, Pius says, implies a sharp difference in kind between “true marriage” and every other relationship: “And so, whatever marriage is said to be contracted, either it is so contracted that it is really a true marriage, in which case it carries with it that enduring bond which by divine right is inherent in every true marriage; or it is thought to be contracted without that perpetual bond, and in that case there is no marriage, but an illicit union opposed of its very nature to the divine law, which therefore cannot be entered into or maintained.”

In Familiaris Consortio, Pope St. John Paul II refers to the sign as “solid” and “true”: “the marriage of baptized persons thus becomes a real symbol [solidum signum] of that new and eternal covenant sanctioned in the blood of Christ.” “Their belonging to each other,” he says, “is the real [revera] representation, by means of the sacramental sign, of the very relationship of Christ with the Church.” A solidus was a thick Roman coin of pure gold, and so “solid” came to mean “genuine” and “whole”—and if genuine and whole, then presumably perfect.

Now of course it is possible to interpret Amoris so that there is no contradiction. One can take Francis to mean that marriage is perfect as a sacrament, but imperfect as lived out by sinful human beings—just as the Church is holy, but its members not necessarily so. As he says later in the document, “We should not however confuse different levels: there is no need to lay upon two limited persons the tremendous burden of having to reproduce perfectly the union existing between Christ and his Church”—which implies the existence of another “level,” at which there could be a perfect reproduction.

One might also note that a main theme of Amoris is human imperfection. Francis sounds this theme in over twenty places (e.g., “it is much healthier to be realistic about our limits, defects, and imperfections”). Given this theme, we should expect emphasis to be placed on what is imperfect, not perfect, about marriage. (Casti Connubii and Familiaris each use the word “imperfect” only once.)

The upshot, then, is that in its teaching on the sacramental bond, Amoris is incomplete rather than flat-out false.

But note the uses to which this incompleteness gets turned, right before our eyes.

The misuse has perhaps been encouraged, unfortunately, by authoritative expositions of Amoris. For instance, there was this remark of Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, at the initial roll-out of Amoris: “My great joy as a result of this document resides in the fact that it coherently overcomes that artificial, superficial, clear division between ‘regular’ and ‘irregular’ [marital situations].”

Of course, if the sign is perfect, then that “division” remains, as Pius XI emphasized, no matter how great our human weaknesses. The “division” is indeed clear, but hardly artificial or superficial.

In our current culture it is a short step from this view to tearing down the “regular,” in order to lift up the “irregular.” And so Austen Ivereigh, quite explicitly, in a recent Crux essay:

The danger of not grasping that the Christ-Church covenant is an “imperfect analogy” is that it leads logically to a rigorist position. Those who have placed themselves outside marriage are outside the covenant of Christ’s love—they are not in Communion, and are therefore barred from the Eucharist.

But if the analogy is imperfect, that simple division between those inside and those outside no longer holds. Those who have broken the covenant of marriage are not outside Christ’s love, which extends to all those who have failed to attain it.

You may consider what follows “logically” from this incomplete view run riot.

Michael Pakaluk is professor of ethics at the Catholic University of America.

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