On February 1, 2017, the German Bishops’ Conference published a press release announcing their new document, “The Joy of Love Lived in Families Is Also the Joy of the Church,” which summarizes the implications of Amoris Laetitia for sacramental discipline and pastoral care in Germany. German psychiatrist Christian Spaemann replies to the bishops in the following article. –Ed.
The time has come. The German bishops have done something that altogether exceeds their authority: They have undermined the sacramental discipline of the Catholic Church.
Catholics in irregular situations, i.e. in ongoing sexual relations outside of a sacramental marriage, will have the ability to receive the sacraments. We are asked “to respect … their decision” to do so. Priests who hold onto the praxis that was heretofore valid must now, according to the text of the bishops, reject “hasty judgment” and “rigorist [and] extreme positions.” In this, the bishops follow the logic of a false concept of mercy and a distorted image of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church and its inner rationality.
In their document, the German bishops transgress clear norms which numerous popes—especially John Paul II and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in agreement with the entire doctrinal tradition of the Church—have unambiguously set down. The bishops’ reference to Amoris Laetitia, the post-synodal document by Pope Francis, does not justify this approach, since the pope’s text must be interpreted in the light of tradition. Otherwise it would be unnecessary to obey, since the pope does not stand above the doctrinal tradition of the Church.
The heart of the matter is that, according to the teaching of the Church, there are norms that are valid without exception and not subject to individual discernment, i.e. that cannot be decided differently from case to case. These norms follow from the dignity of human nature, which demands the observance of certain boundaries in contact between oneself and others. This includes sexual contact, which cannot be instrumentalized or permitted outside of certain contexts without wounding its dignity or incurring guilt, regardless of how the subjective circumstances and accompanying personal guilt are to be weighed. If, for example, someone has a cognitive disorder, as a result of which he is incapable of governing his emotions, so that he regularly abuses his wife, he thereby pollutes his relationship with her, even if he regularly repents—even if there is nothing or almost nothing he can do about it.
Human sexuality can be understood only on the basis of its meaning. According to a Christian understanding, it is the expression of the society between man and wife on biological, physical, spiritual, and personal levels, “a real symbol of the devotion of the whole person” (John Paul II, post-synodal document Familiaris Consortio 80). Both past and future belong to the whole person, and so the devotion of the whole person is only possible with the inclusion of its past and future, as is expressed in the wedding vows.
On this basis the Church has from time immemorial directed human sexuality to the context of marriage as the only place where its God-given dignity can be fittingly lived out. This is a commandment and not, as it is called again and again, an ideal. Every exercise of sexuality that does not accord with this commandment is objectively a severing of those involved from their proper end—a sin. In this there are no exceptions. In exactly the same way, artificial means of birth control always wound the dignity of the sexual act, because the partners in some measure thereby mutually make each other objects, even when there are difficult circumstances and the partners are certain they have good intentions toward each other. For the language of the body represents an objective reality, which cannot be glossed over by the right subjective attitude. It is a matter of the so-called actus intrinsice malus (intrinsically evil act). This phrase describes acts and contexts which can in no case be called good. Thomas Aquinas elaborated the notion, and John Paul II in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor (VS 79) defined it as binding doctrine of the Church.
According to him, “circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act ‘subjectively’ good or defensible as a choice” (VS 81). This principle is valid especially for human sexuality.
A decisive point with regard to the current obfuscation of the Church’s teaching in this area lies in the obvious and deliberate abridgment of the text of John Paul II in his encyclical Familiaris Consortio (FC 84)—an abridgment that was seen first in the Relatio of the German-speaking synod group of 21 October 2015, and that later found its way into the concluding document of the synod. It was repeated in numerous statements by bishops and cardinals, found its fallout in Amoris Laetitia, and lingers in the current press briefing of the German Bishops’ Conference.
What happened? In article 84 of Familiaris Consortio, with regard to the divorced and re-married, we find the statement that one should “distinguish well between various situations.” Then John Paul II gives a few understandable human reasons why married people enter into new bonds after a divorce. Clearly, for John Paul II, it was a matter of pointing to the subjective side of the people affected and the differently weighted moral value of their situations, in order to cultivate a pastoral sensitivity among those charged with the care of souls. But here is the decisive point: John Paul II does not say that in particular cases of reduced or negligible subjective guilt it would be possible to grant admission to the sacraments.
To the contrary, a few lines later, with a clear “Nihilominus…,” he establishes the limits appropriate to an objectively disordered situation, which are valid for anyone living in such a situation: “However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried.” Then comes a decisive clarification: Those who have divorced and remarried can only be admitted to the sacraments when “they commit themselves to live in complete continence, that is, to abstain from the acts proper to married couples.”
The language of the body in sexuality cannot therefore simply be glossed over on account of mitigating circumstances, nor can an objectively sinful situation be legitimized through the dispensation of the sacraments. Case-by-case discernment is not possible on this level. This teaching, and the consequent sacramental discipline, has been expressly reaffirmed in accord with the whole doctrinal tradition of the Church in successive documents—among others, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 1650) and in the post-synodal document of Benedict XVI Sacramentum Caritatis (29).
Instead of taking a position on the clear boundaries established by the “nihilominus,” these documents maintain a subjective perspective on irregular situations. Thus, they recommend a thorough examination of conscience, in which those involved examine the past and future of their relations in the so-called forum internum, the realm of individual conscience (inter alia AL 300). This gives the impression that the clarification and working-out of the moral and psychological consequences of a divorce and civil remarriage—as, for example, the guilt with respect to the previous partner or the relationship with the children from the first marriage—could be sufficient preparation for admission to the sacraments. According to the teaching of the Church, however, there is sufficient preparation only when the objective criteria of a Christian way of life have been satisfied, namely by either sexual abstinence or the declaration of nullity of the sacramental marriage. Precisely here lies the line of rupture with Church teaching, which on this point is not merely being developed or deepened (contrary to what is usually said).
The logic at work in a pastoral mercy oriented purely toward the subjectivity of the faithful extends far beyond the divorced and civilly remarried. In their documents and clarification, the German bishops speak again and again of “irregular situations.” Those who “as of yet cannot decide in favor of marriage” are mentioned in the same context. It is only logical that the LGBT community will now speak up and claim for itself the same accommodation.
How could they be excluded? Naturally this development is not impeded by the encyclical Humanae Vitae of Paul VI, which is being questioned on account of its crudeness (Cf. Instrumentum Laboris 2015, Art. 137). The consequences of the new concept of mercy are not limited to the realm of partnership and sexuality. Thus, a number of the Canadian bishops have concluded, invoking Amoris Laetitia, that people who intend to undergo euthanasia or assisted suicide should be accompanied in their deaths with the sacraments of the Church.
We are only at the beginning of the development that will follow from this understanding of mercy. On a slippery slope, one can as a rule rather precisely predict what will come next. Just follow the logic. What is happening here is for that reason fatal, because in the aforementioned church documents it is plain that no reasonable correction of the Church’s tradition is being sought. Rather, the inner unity of faith and reason is being called into question. For many of the faithful, this gives the impression of a sort of permissiveness in matters of faith, morals, and the pastoral. Naturally this encourages relativism.
According to the notion being advanced, Catholic Christianity can get by without any reference whatsoever to the natural law, anthropology, or internal doctrinal rigor. This fits with the tweet by Italian Jesuit Antonio Spadaro, member of the drafting committee for the final report of the Synod of Bishops: “Theology is not #Mathematics. 2 + 2 in #Theology can make 5….”
Now the question occurs whether priests who hold to the traditional sacramental discipline of the Church can be designated rigorist, extreme, and unmerciful. Does this verdict apply to St. John Paul II as well, and with him countless priests across the globe? Of course not. To maintain boundaries is not per se unmerciful. A priest would be a rigorist if, without even considering her context, he put pressure on a civilly remarried woman with three children and threatened her with hellfire if she did not immediately refuse relations with her husband. A priest would be a rigorist if he refused to offer general spiritual accompaniment and care to someone who had chosen to undergo lethal injection. One can hardly deny accompaniment, blessing, and prayer. But to explain to those involved why they cannot receive sacramental absolution in confession or take communion has nothing to do with rigorism. I know priests who maintain the best contact with people in irregular situations, treat them with respect and integrate them into their parishes, without dispensing the sacraments to them. The sociological concepts and catchphrases that are so gladly used in the Church today (“inclusion,” “no one should be turned away”) are often subject to a fundamental misunderstanding. If a patient seeks my help as a doctor, not even the most radical advocate of social psychiatry would demand that I give him whatever medications he asks for.
It has always been taken for granted, and is a part of the liturgy in both East and West, that the faithful should make a general confession of sins before they unite themselves with the Lord in communion. We turn away from our sins, turn toward the lord, and receive his forgiveness in communion. With grave sins the sacrament of confession must precede communion. It is thus also taken for granted that people living in objectively disordered sexual relations should not go to communion if they are, for whatever reasons, unable to abandon them.
That there are numerous situations in which sexual relations outside of a valid marriage are humanly understandable is not in question. But here there is an essential difference, whether one preserves one’s awe before the holiness of God and his commandments through Eucharistic abstinence and hopes in his mercy, or whether without a change in one’s living situation forbidden by the commandments one arrogates judgment to oneself, in that one thinks one can exculpate oneself through the confession of other sins and union with Christ in communion. The insistence on “mitigating circumstances,” i.e. the subjective judgment of the dispenser and the receiver of the sacraments, cannot simply override the objective situation. On this point the Church has no authority. The grace of God is not limited to the sacraments, but the judgment in these cases belongs only to him, and we cannot know it. “Your word is a lamp unto my feet” says the Psalmist (119:105). It is exactly in those cases in which it seems counterintuitive to the people involved, their neighbors, and their pastors to view something as a sin, that one should remind oneself that we do not know the absolute will of God and therefore should not go beyond the limits of the light given to us. It’s a question of humility, not of the distribution of the sacraments. God’s mercy is not for us to decree.
The statement of the German bishops that in the process of deciding in favor of receiving the sacraments in irregular situations “the demands of conscience of those involved [are] the highest measure,” the talk about “complex situations” among the supporters of the new concept of mercy, and the opinion that there are no “easy solutions”—all of these look like self-justifications fogging up matters that are, in themselves, simple.
How could it be difficult for those involved to determine whether they are living in abstinence or not? As for the clarification of whether a sacramentally sealed marriage was invalid, that can be accomplished with certainty (and without excessive strain on one’s conscience) by an experienced canonist. In one of his last interviews, the old and wise Konrad Adenauer, asked about his tendency to simplify things, said that one must look deep enough into things that they become simple. If one merely remains on the surface of things, they are not simple, but when one looks into the depths, then one sees the reality, which is always simple.
Those who want to undermine Catholic sacramental discipline cannot see themselves as invoking divine mercy. From all of this nothing good will come to the people affected. It is shameful to see how the diary of St. Faustina Kowalska is invoked. It was John Paul II who recognized the importance of the book, and who canonized this simple nun. I myself have studied the book intensively for years and have never discovered the slightest breath of presumption in it for violating the boundaries of the awe-inspiring mercy of God.
I call on all the faithful who live in irregular sexual relationships, and above all those who stand on the victim’s side, the wounded, abandoned, those who may have been abused, those who have already tried many times to live chastely, in short all who in a special way deserve the understanding of the Church, not to make use of the new possibilities for the reception of the sacraments. Through Eucharistic abstinence you give testament in your own way to the holiness of God and his commandments. In this way you may stand nearer to God than many of those who, in the name of a false concept of mercy, wish to give you the sacraments.
Christian Spaemann is a psychiatrist and columnist for kath.net.
This article was translated from the original German by Elliot Milco.