Arguments for reduced culpability: A dialogue.

Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, general secretary of the Synod of Bishops, holds his copy of Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation on the family, "Amoris Laetitia" ("The Joy of Love"), during a news conference for the release of the document at the Vatican April 8. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Scott has responded to my post on his apologia for Amoris Laetitia.

I can't say I'm enjoying this much as I didn't do well in my moral theology exams! Anyway, back to the books to try and figure out what this new argument is about. I am finding it a little confusing at this point, which is one of my main gripes about Amoris Laetitia in the first place (it is overly long and convoluted).

I thought this was a dialogue well worth engaging in, because I hoped it would help me to understand more clearly what Amoris Laetitia argues, the value to that argument, or at least what Scott says it argues (by his own admission it is not explicit in the document itself). At this stage I would say that, the reading it is prompting me to do is doing nothing other than increase my concern about the document and affirm my instinct that it is error.

To the best of my understanding, Scott is saying the debate rests on one question which he frames: how culpability can then be reduced for the divorced and remarried, and Holy Communion be fruitfully received? 

His premise then, if I have understood it correctly, suggests that culpability for adultery can be reduced by a lack deliberate consent?

It would seem he is saying that you can have sexual congress with someone other than your husband or wife and not consent to it and that's not a sin? Surely that's rape? Scott goes into great detail in his original apologia about this, suggesting that there are situations where one partner can be under so much pressure to have sex with their partner that it would do more harm if they would refuse than if they didn't. But it honestly reads like sophistry to me; a convoluted argument to circumnavigate what the Church has always plainly taught about marriage. Yes people get themselves into messy situations, but speak to any priest, a big part of their work (an increasing part) is trying to regularise these difficult situations. Are we saying they have failed because more people are ignoring the Gospel and getting divorced and remarried?

Scott then quotes the 1975 CDF Document Persona Humana suggesting that it supports the idea that deliberate consent cannot be conflated with full knowledge. However the quote as cited states:
"...although prudence is recommended in judging the subjective seriousness of a particular sinful act, it in no way follows that one can hold the view that in the sexual field mortal sins are not committed”.
What am I missing? Doesn't this say that, notwithstanding subjective considerations, one can not say that mortal sins are not committed?

I'm probably just being thick here, please forgive me Scott, but it really seems to me at this point that you are deliberately misunderstanding Church documents. I just don't understand why?

Of course, this is the accusation which has been levelled at Amoris Laetitia itself by numerous scholars; that it cites Church documents to support conclusions the complete opposite of what was intended (for example footnote 329's misuse of Gaudium et spes, see here for a full exposition).

There's such a limited pool of supporters for Amoris Laetitia as well, as demonstrated by Scott's attempts to legitimise it (they're all cited and I know them all). And they all have a common vested interest, which makes me nervous and sceptical in equal measure. In my own diocese, I bet I could accurately identify the priests who support it, because they're all pushing for changes in Church teaching in other directions as well.

If there is a limited pool of supporters, there is a huge number of immensely faithful and devoted Catholics who I know and trust who have concerns about the document which echo my own. These fears cannot be dispelled as being illegitimate, because they are grounded in the Traditional teaching of the Church and come from such a broad selection of the faithful. I personally know priests, bishops and abbots who are dismayed, as well as laity, deacons, religious, etc.

After reading through this argument again and reflecting prayerfully, my instinct is still that this idea pushes in the opposite direction to the Magisterium. In fact the more I read and reflect, the more I am convinced of that, and feel disturbed by attempts to legitimise it.

My sympathy lies with the actual people who are involved in these difficult situations. It seems clear that many have refrained from the reception of the blessed sacrament because of an irregular situation. Are such faithful souls to be rewarded by an abrogation of the teaching which kept them, for love of the Saviour, from meeting Him in the Sacrament? How could such an abrogation be seen as anything other than a betrayal?

If this is the reality, and those who have been faithful are now being told their fidelity was, at worst meaningless and at best, unnecessary, how should individuals who are personally conflicted about other areas of Catholic teaching feel about their efforts to lead a holy life? Are they merely waiting for the Holy Father to get to them and address their own personal peccadillo with his brand of mercy?

In other words, surely the net result can only be to further undermine the moral authority of the Church?

In reality of course, the Church has been so bad in teaching the faith in recent years that few people would even know that they should abstain from receiving the blessed sacrament in a state of mortal sin. Or what mortal sin is. Or that they should go to confession. In reality, THESE are the issues that we had hoped the synod on the family should have addressed, these are the issues that it seems the fathers discussed, and these issues have been ignored by the Holy Father who has chosen to mercilessly pursue this direction irrespective of dubia, upset, pain and confusion it continues to cause.

As my moral theology professor stated on this matter (note: not a journalist, or a commentator, but someone who actually understands the issues fully. He is a professor of moral theology and bioethics at Rome's Regina Apostolorum university. A former director of the secretariat of the Pontifical Academy for Life, he is also an expert in Canon Law and has published many articles and books on moral theology and bioethics.):
Some people think that whatever a Pope says is right and must be followed, but the successor of Peter cannot do as he pleases. The Petrine office includes the power of the keys to bind and loose, but also specifically requires that he feed the Lord’s sheep and that he strengthen his brothers, not arbitrarily, but in the Catholic faith and in the moral life it demands of Our Lord’s disciples. Every Pope must hand on or transmit what Christ has revealed for us and for our salvation and so is bound by that revelation, by the Gospel in its broadest sense and by the living tradition of the Church, including its moral dimension. Although genuine development of doctrine is possible in the sense of confirming authentic new insights or new applications of moral truth to new situations, this can never include contradicting Christ’s revelation or previous dogmas or the constant teachings of the Church’s previous magisterium; by these every Pope is bound as a matter of fidelity to the Lord and to the living tradition and to the mission of the Church.
Pope Francis stated that the synod on the family of 2014-2015 was not intending to change doctrine, but only to examine matters of pastoral discipline. It must be accepted that he did not ‘change’ doctrine; hence, previous teaching remains fully in force. While pastoral discipline is not doctrine directly as such, it must express and be based upon doctrine; it must never undermine it. Thus, were a Pope to claim to introduce merely a new discipline, if that discipline appeared to contradict or to call into question the teaching of Jesus on the indissolubility of marriage, that of St. Paul that adultery excludes from the kingdom of God or the Church’s constant doctrine and practice that those intending to return to live in a state gravely at odds with those teachings cannot be absolved or receive communion, that Pope would be under a grave moral obligation to explain clearly to the faithful how, in his view, such a disciplinary change did not in fact do that.

2. Doctrine and fidelity to Christ
Suggestions in AL that doctrine is a question of adherence to arid rules, lacking in motivation, devoid of mercy, and that pastors wish to cast stones at people in real difficulties are generic; they are unjust to those genuinely concerned to remain faithful to Christ on the indissolubility of marriage. Benedict XVI, humble and compassionate, saw no way of changing discipline here without compromising fidelity to Jesus. From Pius XI to Benedict, doctrine on marriage was also positively and pastorally motivated; these Popes were not guilty of heartless, Pharisaic legalism.
3. The formation of conscience
Magisterial texts in AL are distorted when quoted selectively or ignored almost completely. Repeatedly presenting conscience as the sanctuary where man finds himself alone with God (Gaudium et spes, 16) suggests it is only a private matter between the individual and God, while references to invincible ignorance and to other factors reducing responsibility risk implying that people rarely sin or are rarely culpable. Grave misinterpretations of conciliar doctrine on conscience, corrected in Veritatis splendor, are basically ignored in AL. Conciliar and papal teaching that no one can act in good conscience who disregards magisterial teaching or who treats it as mere opinion (Dignitatis humanae, 14; John Paul II, Allocution, Nov., 1988) is not mentioned. Distinguishing right from wrong by dialogue and example in families and beyond does not occur automatically; it lacks the clarity, the coherence and the justification afforded by education also on the Decalogue and on the Church’s moral teaching, necessary for youngsters to be convinced and to defend objective moral truth before their peers.
4. Casuistry or discernment?
Ignatian discernment is no substitute for proper formation of conscience. AL rejects legalism and casuistry. St. Thomas’ statement that, applied concretely, moral law binds in the majority, but not in a minority, of cases is mis-represented. Thomas had excluded earlier all intrinsically immoral acts (murder, adultery, perjury, etc.); his axiom applies to choosing between different positive, morally good actions and to merely human laws when these do not preclude intrinsic or objective moral wrong. Love is incompatible with immorality. Morally good living demands the virtue of prudence (informing conscience through advice—and on the basis of magisterial teaching—, distinguishing common and exceptional features in different situations—asuistry). Ignatius knew this, as did Suarez and Vasquez, Jesuit moralists who helped form consciences of people in the midst of persecution, war and injustice. Later, priests advising kings often manipulated moral truth, inventing excuses to permit or condone immorality. Genuine Ignatian discernment excludes this.

AL, though, could well give the impression of something even worse, of privatising conscience, of encouraging or permitting persons to refer to priests ignorant of or dissenting from magisterial teaching. The risk of situation ethics, of laxism, of moral relativism and of widespread contradictory pastoral practice, despite the Pope not wishing anything like this, seems to be considerable.
Despite Scott's efforts, I remain firmly with Fr George.


  1. It seems to me that one of the uglier aspects of the support for Amoris Laetitia is that is puts the Church in the position of supporting abusive relationships. Surely the Church should not be saying: 'if your new partner threatens you with violence in order to make you have sex, then you should go along with that; and of course it is not a sin.' It seems the wrong way about: it's not a marriage, but we'll pretend it is; it is an abusive relationship, but we will pretend it is not. If that's mercy, I'm a Neo-Pelagian Rigorist...

    1. Yes it is the quick-fix mentality of a moral relativist who neither grasps the scope of the real problem, nor understands the essence of the truth we are supposed to defend. It is therefore deeply troubling.

  2. Further: one of the problems with Scott's argument, it seems to me, is that he states, in effect, that the purpose of AL is to facilitate the reception of Holy Communion by the Divorced and Remarried (in general); but he rests his case for support on the argument about lack of deliberate consent. Whilst that may apply in some (I would suggest few) cases, it is a long stretch to apply it to all cases.

    But as the document is so ambiguous in this regard, it is hard to know if Scott is on the right track anyway: is this what the Holy Father has in mind? If so, why does he not say so? I suspect because he knows it wouldn't stack up...

    1. Net result = utter confusion. Which is what we have, with different individuals free to introduce whatever solution they discern in isolation.

  3. Mark i agree with you.The whole mess of Vatican 11 needs draining from the swamp.These Prelates talking this crap,including Francis,need expelling to Devils Island-or they in it now?


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