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Having recently returned to Utopia from a scholarly visit to Cambridge (England), Basilides Melchischyros, of the Academia Moriae in Amaurote, offers these tentative thoughts as a reflective accompaniment to the cardinal archbishop of Chicago’s recent elucidation of Amoris Laetitia, which he was privileged to hear at the Von Hügel Institute. He argues that, widespread criticism notwithstanding, the cardinal’s pronouncements are, when properly interpreted, not only consistent with traditional Catholic teachings but a ringing endorsement of them. Of course he submits all that he proposes here to the judgment of Holy Mother Church.

In a recent lecture on the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (not to be confused with the rather older treatise by the Doctor Consolatorius, De coitus gaudio), His Eminence Cardinal Blase Cupich explained the document as an endeavor to help families face up to the problems posed by the realities of life in the modern world. In the lecture, which would perhaps have been more timely had it been given on February 14, he analyzed this papal initiative in terms of six hermeneutical principles for the “decipherment” of the experiences of the faithful in contemporary family life, principles which together constitute a “paradigm shift” in the Church’s pastoral ministry.

Now in some ways, the cardinal’s use of the term “paradigm shift” might be thought problematic. Its primary sense, according to the online Cambridge English Dictionary, is “when the usual or accepted way of doing or thinking about something changes completely.” The Oxford English Dictionary, more laconically, regards it as a “major change in technology, outlook, etc.” The scholar who coined the phrase, Thomas Kuhn, used it to explain “scientific revolutions” such as the Copernican, the Newtonian, or the Einsteinian, and interpreted it as the rejection of one paradigm in favor of another.[1] It is not surprising, then, if some of the audience (as became apparent in the questions) balked at the suggestion that the Catholic Church had been led by the pope into some process of radical doctrinal change. Fortunately, the cardinal was swift to correct this misapprehension:

I reject the idea that a paradigm shift is a rupture and is not part of organic development. . . . The premise that “paradigm shift” means a break from the past is unfounded.

With these words, of course, he implicitly proclaimed his intellectual affiliation with that Victorian pioneer of the “linguistic turn,” the eminent Oxonian Dr. H. D’Umpty.[2] Armed with this realization, the astute reader is in a much better position to interpret the cardinal’s words, and indeed those of the pope as well. For the pope’s achievement in Amoris Laetitia (not to be confused with “Plaisir d’amour,” the well-known French song)[3]  was to pursue doctrinal development only by way of “retrieving a way of thinking” which had “deep roots in tradition.”

One of the major thrusts of the lecture was to emphasize that Catholics should not advocate or impose an unrealistic ideal of the family. This was indicated by the first hermeneutical principle of the pope’s new paradigm, that “the family is a privileged site of God’s self-revelation.” This stood, the cardinal explained, in helpful contrast to an “abstract and idealized presentation of marriage.” It would of course be a travesty to infer that the pope intended thereby to dismiss or dilute the concept of Christian marriage as a sacramental institution ordained by God as the origin and basis of human society, for the mutual support of spouses and the upbringing of children. For, knowing as we do that the papal teaching has “deep roots in tradition,” it goes without saying (and in the lecture did go without saying) that, as the Council of Trent put it, the Church has not erred in teaching that marriage cannot be dissolved even by adultery, that not even the innocent party in such a situation can validly contract another marriage during the lifetime of their first spouse, and that those taking second wives or husbands in that situation are committing adultery.

At the heart of the new paradigm, the cardinal explained, lies conscience, that “secret core and sanctuary,” as Vatican II described it, where the human person “is alone with God.” By “fully embracing the understanding of conscience” set forth in Gaudium et Spes, he emphasized, the pope had established both the possibility and the necessity of the kind of pastoral “accompaniment” commended to us in Amoris Laetitia. In drawing attention to Gaudium et Spes, the cardinal thus encourages the laity also to take its teaching fully into account, as no doubt the pope himself intends. For it affirms that the human person finds “in the depth of conscience a law which they do not give unto themselves, but to which obedience is owed,” and that “the more right conscience prevails, the more persons and communities shun blind choice and seek conformity with objective norms of morality” (Gaudium et Spes, ch. 15). Evidently, then, the intention of the pope and the bishops, in conformity with the clearly stated teaching of the universal Church, is that the married laity should carry out what Vatican II describes as their paramount task, namely to manifest in their lives the holy and indissoluble nature of the marital union (Apostolicam actuositatem, ch. 11). The task of accompaniment imposed upon pastors by the apostolic exhortation can hardly be anything less or other than to assist them in fulfilling the obligation enjoined upon them by the Second Vatican Council.

The cardinal was equally insistent on aligning this doctrine of conscience with that of the great Victorian cardinal, John Henry Newman, and his insistence is again useful in saving the judicious reader from slipping into the kind of casual misunderstanding that might arise from a lazy exegesis of the cardinal’s words. The pope’s analysis of conscience, he observed, was prospective as well as retrospective:

Rather than limiting the function of conscience to knowing moral truth about actions in the past and objective truth in the present, conscience also discerns the future, asking “What is God asking of me now?”

By means of the hermeneutic that the cardinal mandates, we can accompany him and the pope on the path to answering this question. For Newman taught that the Christian conscience—unlike the human conscience in the state of nature—was guided and formed by revelation:

Revelation consists in the manifestation of the Invisible Divine Power, or in the substitution of the voice of a Lawgiver for the voice of conscience.

Through the mystery of revelation, communicated to Christians by the Church, the human person is thus able to identify what God requires at any moment by means of conscience, which “acts as a messenger from above, and says that there is a right and a wrong, and that the right must be followed.”[4]

Aware that the preaching of the gospel is among the principal duties of bishops, Cardinal Cupich reminded us, in one of his few quotations from the gospels that evening, that Jesus said, “I came not to teach you things, I came to give you life.” The diligent research assistants here at the Academia Moriae have not thus far been able to trace the precise source for this text, which he quoted in reply to a question, although they may seek further advice on this matter from the experts of the Jesus Seminar. The cardinal perhaps had in mind not Rev. 22:18 but John 10:10, “I came so that they might have life, and have it in abundance.” For someone who apparently did not come to teach, of course, Jesus did quite a lot of teaching, around the synagogues of Galilee, in the Temple at Jerusalem, and elsewhere, and was regarded by some of his hearers as teaching with an unusual manner of authority. On one occasion, he even seems to have introduced a note of humor, though this has sadly been missed in some exegetical traditions. His observation that “whoever divorces his wife, except on account of her fornication, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries her that is divorced commits adultery” (Matt. 5:32 and 19:9) has been misinterpreted outside the Catholic Church as permitting divorce on account of adultery. But Our Lord’s ironic exception evidently applies not to the prohibition on divorce, but to the responsibility of the man (in this case) for the woman’s sin.

In the wake of Vatican II’s evocation of the apostolate of the laity, it was particularly heartening to hear the cardinal emphasize the need for the clergy, in the modern world, to listen to the voices of the laity. He was certainly given plenty of opportunity to do this during the questions that followed his lecture.[5] Several questioners were plainly exercised about some of the perceived implications of Amoris Laetitia, and about the reported convolutions of Vatican politics surrounding its composition and adoption. Critics of the pope and of his document, the cardinal replied, should ask themselves some questions “in conscience”: “Do you really believe that the Holy Spirit was not present at the synods? That the Holy Father is not inspired by the Holy Spirit in writing this document?”[6] Once more, it is important to forewarn the reader against a hasty misinterpretation. Comments such as these might very easily be mistaken for the sort of simplistic misrepresentation that used to be flung at the Church by those ill-informed polemicists who somehow mistook the doctrine of ecclesiastical and papal infallibility for the childish claim that popes and bishops are directly inspired by the Holy Spirit in their thoughts, speech, and writings. But of course, as Lumen Gentium stated very clearly, the specific and active assistance of the Holy Spirit is assured only when the pope, or the pope together with the bishops in an ecumenical council, exercise supreme teaching authority in a formal definition regarding faith or morals—such as those of the Council of Trent on the subject of marriage. Of course one may affirm the general assistance of the Holy Spirit to the pope and bishops in their teaching ministry, but the cardinal cannot have intended anyone to confuse such “inspiration” with infallibility, still less with what the Council repudiated as the notion of some “new public revelation” (Lumen Gentium, ch. 25).

It was now “up to all in the Church,” the cardinal suggested, to “respond in a spirit of affective and effective collegiality” to the papal initiative. This invitation to the laity to participate collegially with the bishops in the process of doctrinal and pastoral discernment was perhaps the most important point he made. For the laity, as well as the clergy, participate in the tradition of the Church and have their part to play in the preservation and transmission of revealed truth. It is indeed the case, as he observed, that “not all discussions of doctrinal, moral, or pastoral issues need to be settled by the interventions of the magisterium”—particularly not when they have long been settled in times past. This is all of a piece with the cardinal’s further elaboration in response to a question from the floor:

Because the pope has now said this is official Church teaching, as crafted by the bishops of Buenos Aires,[7] there is a demand for all of us to embrace with mind and will, as Lumen Gentium says, what that official Church teaching is.[8]

As this rightly indicates, we are “all of us” obliged to embrace “official Church teaching.” It is for us all to “hold onto the teachings” which have been handed down to us (2 Thess. 2:15), to guard that deposit of the faith embodied and developed in the teachings of the Fathers and the decrees of the Councils across twenty centuries. And it is for us all, in appropriately paternal, fraternal, or filial spirit, to play our part in encouraging others to do likewise. In the words of the pope’s third hermeneutical principle, as expounded by the cardinal, “The consciences of the faithful are essential in the task of discernment.”

Basilides Melchischyros is Philarch of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities of the Academia Moriae.

[1] Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (2nd enl. edn. Chicago, 1970), pp. 66 and 77.

[2] For more on the ill-fated though celebrated Dr. D’Umpty, see the early study by L. Carroll, Through the Looking Glass (London: Macmillan, 1872): “When I use a word . . . it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” References here from the critical edition by Martin Gardner, The Annotated Alice (London: A. Blond, 1960), pp. 261-76, esp. p. 269.

[3] ‘Plaisir d’amour ne dure qu’un moment. . ’.

[4] J. H. Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (London: James Toovey, 1845), pp. 124 and 348.

[5] In Dr. D’Umpty’s words, “I told them once, I told them twice: They would not listen to advice.” The Annotated Alice, p. 274.

[6] “I sent to them again to say ‘It will be better to obey.’” The Annotated Alice, p. 274.

[7] For nothing could ever be ultra vires if done by the bishops of Buenos Aires. Note that, as the poet says, the “pronunciation varies: some people call it Bu-enos Airés.” And I myself observe that there’s a school that makes it “Bwenos Airs.”

[8] As Dr. D’Umpty put it, “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you.” The Annotated Alice, p. 269.

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