(3) The moral law reduced to “general rules”; Saint Thomas abused (301-302).
In the already infamous paragraph 301, Francis next delivers an even broader revolutionary proclamation: “Hence it can no longer simply be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are depriv(ed of sanctifying grace.” This ipse dixit covers cohabiters, “remarried” divorcees and presumably even “partners” in the “same-sex unions” that Francis has already cited (53) as an example of the “great variety of family situations that can offer a certain stability” even if they may not “simply be equated” with marriage.
Note the key phrase “no longer”—that is, now that Francis is Pope, but not before him. Amazingly, Francis does not even care whether those who are living in sin know that the Church teaches they are sinning, which teaching he demotes to a “rule”: “More is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule. A subject may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding ‘its inherent values,’ or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin.” (301) It is rhetorically essential to call the moral law a “rule” because the phrase “he may know well the moral law yet have great difficulty in understanding its inherent values” connotes a sociopath, not a poor “abandoned” sinner whose “love” is “wounded.”
The Catholic mind staggers before the spectacle of Pope who, for rhetorical convenience, reduces the moral law to “rules” from which one can be excused if he does not appreciate their “value” or his “concrete situation” supposedly makes compliance impossible—as if the precepts of the natural law were a set of traffic regulations. Saint Paul infallibly teaches that “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it (1 Cor. 10:13).” Francis, however, apparently doesn’t agree with the word of God on this particular point. Neither did Martin Luther, whose launching of the “Reformation” Francis will be celebrating next year in Sweden, including a joint liturgy with Lutheran ministers whose churches reject the indissolubility of marriage, condone contraception and abortion, ordain women and practicing homosexuals as “priests” and “bishops,” and support the legalization of “same-sex unions” that Francis has consistently failed to oppose. Perhaps this is just a coincidence.
In support of this enormity, Francis argues that Saint Thomas Aquinas teaches that “someone may possess grace and charity, yet not be able to exercise any one of the virtues well; in other words, although someone may possess infused moral virtues, he does not clearly manifest the existence of one of them, because the outward practice of that virtue is rendered difficult.” Here Francis misleadingly quotes Saint Thomas’s observation, not his teaching, in the Summa Theologiae that “Certain saints are said not to possess certain virtues, in so far as they experience difficulty in the acts of those virtues, even though they have the habits of all the virtues.”
But this citation to the Summa is utter nonsense. Infused virtues, unlike the corresponding acquired ones, are animated by supernatural charity, not merely the habit of acting virtuously. Saint Thomas is not discussing sinners whose objective conduct—in this case, adultery, as Our Lord Himself calls it—contradicts the very existence of an infused virtue, or any virtue, of chastity. Rather, Thomas’s subject is saints who possess all the infused virtues, can exercise them, albeit with some difficulty, and do not act habitually in a manner that is even objectively sinful. What a shameful abuse of the Angelic Doctor! As a clearly aghast Fr. Murray observed during the EWTN panel discussion: “I can’t believe a good group of Thomists won’t have a response to that.”
Proceeding with his rules theory of the moral law, in paragraph 302 Francis cites two sections of the new Catechism (§§ 1735 and 2352) concerning factors that might diminish subjective culpability for particular sinful actions. But that principle of moral theology applies to individual sinful acts such as masturbation (§2352), not a continuing state of public immorality and consequent scandal without repentance or any firm purpose of amendment.
As to public adultery in particular, the two sections of the Catechism that Francis studiously fails to mention even once in 256 pages demolish his theory:
“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’… If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law [and] and cannot receive Eucharistic communion as long as this situation persists…. Reconciliation through the sacrament of Penance can be granted only to those who have repented for having violated the sign of the covenant and of fidelity to Christ, and who are committed to living in complete continence.” (§ 1651)
Divorce is a grave offense against the natural law. It claims to break the contract, to which the spouses freely consented, to live with each other till death. Divorce does injury to the covenant of salvation, of which sacramental marriage is the sign. Contracting a new union, even if it is recognized by civil law, adds to the gravity of the rupture: the remarried spouse is then in a situation of public and permanent adultery… (§ 2384)
Evidently hoping to forestall or mitigate what he knew was a coming disaster, the retired curial Cardinal Walter Brandmüller issued a statement only days prior to the publication of Amoris Laetitia (since repeated in substance) which, in keeping with the Catechism and the Church’s invariant teaching, declares that one “who, in spite of an existing marriage bond, enters after a divorce into a new civil union, is committing adultery” and “cannot receive either absolution in Confession nor the Eucharist (Holy Communion) [if he] is not willing to put an end this situation…” Obviously there can be no “exceptions” for certain individuals because “What is fundamentally impossible for reasons of Faith is also impossible in the individual case.” The Cardinal concluded: “The post-synodal document, Amoris Laetitia, is therefore to be interpreted in light of the above-presented principles, especially since a contradiction between a papal document and the Catechism of the Catholic Church would not be imaginable.”
For Francis, however, the contradiction is quite imaginable. He apparently believes he can make it a reality by his own fiat, without the least regard for the contrary teaching of his predecessors—indeed, without regard for truth itself, which the casuistic reasoning of Amoris Laetitia has already twisted repeatedly to get this far. Francis deems it sufficient that during his own minutely stage-managed sham of a Synod “many Synod Fathers”—including those with whom he stacked the proceeding—were of the view that “[u]nder certain circumstances people find it difficult to act differently,” so that “while upholding a general rule, it is necessary to recognize that responsibility with respect to certain actions or decisions is not the same in all cases.” (302)
According to Francis’s moral theory, then, every moral precept would be a “general rule” admitting of exceptions under “difficult” circumstances. The theory is founded on nothing more than his own opinion, quotations from his own documents and ad-libbed homilies, a misleading reference to the teaching of Saint Thomas, and whatever appreciation for situation ethics Francis might have imbibed during his studies and ecclesiastical career.
(4) Supremacy of the individual conscience over morality as “rules” (303).
Next, in paragraph 303, Francis decrees a new supremacy of the individual conscience over the Church’s “rules” on marriage and family. The Drudge Report trumpeted this development under the headline “Age of the Individual Conscience.” Quoth Francis: “Recognizing the influence of such concrete factors, we can add that individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the Church’s praxis in certain situations which do not objectively embody our understanding of marriage.”
Apparently, Francis seriously believes that all the Popes, saints, great theologians and doctors of the Church somehow overlooked this important task during the 2,000 years preceding his arrival from Buenos Aires.
Leaving no doubt of the magnitude of his theological coup attempt, Francis even declares that a well-formed conscience, which knows what the “general rule” requires, can still claim an exemption from the “rule” if it “honestly” decides God does not require full compliance at the moment. Believe it or not, the following is the opinion of a Roman Pontiff:
Naturally, every effort should be made to encourage the development of an enlightened conscience, formed and guided by the responsible and serious discernment of one’s pastor, and to encourage an ever-greater trust in God’s grace. Yet conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal.
It seems impossible to believe that a Roman Pontiff would promulgate a document declaring that even a well-formed conscience is excused from obedience to the moral law it knows if less than obedience is what the actor deems sufficient “for now,” and that God would approve this departure from “the ideal.” How is this passage alone anything other than a sign of an apocalyptic turn of events in the Church?
(5) The natural law undermined; Saint Thomas abused again (304-305).
In paragraph 304 Francis expands his idea that moral precepts are “general rules” not always applicable to particular situations: “It is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being.” This echoes the previous paragraph’s incredible assertion that even a well-formed conscience may inform an actor that, “for now,” God does not wish him to comply with the “general rule”—i.e., the moral law, which now joins marriage in a kind of Platonic realm of the “ideal.”
Here Francis perpetrates another shameful abuse of the teaching of Saint Thomas in the Summa, deceptively quoted out of context (like the teaching of John Paul II in Familiaris consortio) in order to attack the natural law itself:
Although there is necessity in the general principles, the more we descend to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter defects… In matters of action, truth or practical rectitude is not the same for all, as to matters of detail, but only as to the general principles; and where there is the same rectitude in matters of detail, it is not equally known to all… The principle will be found to fail, according as we descend further into detail. (ST, I-II, Q. 94, art. 4).
Based on this cropped quotation, Francis dares to enlist the Angelic Doctor in support of his claim that “It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations.”
This is simply outrageous. Saint Thomas is not discussing “formulation” of “rules” at all, as God inscribes the basic precepts of the natural law in human nature as “the first principles of human actions.” Rather, he is addressing the human failure to draw the right conclusions from application of universally applicable, always valid, natural law principles to more complicated factual scenarios. An example Thomas gives is whether goods in trust must be restored to their owner even if the owner intends to use them for an immoral purpose. Other examples would be what exactly constitutes usury or what forms of taking constitute theft. These detailed applications are often the subject of written law (such as laws against usury). And if the morally wrong conclusions are reached in these cases, which Thomas describes as “some few,” it is only because “reason is perverted by passion, or evil habit, or an evil disposition…” (I-II, Q. 94, Art. 4).
Thus, in context, when Saint Thomas says that a principle of the natural law “will be found to fail according as we descend further into detail” he means only that it fails in application to more complex matters because of defects in reason, not that the principle itself is some sort of inadequate “formulation” that cannot cover the situation if rightly applied. The failure lies with the actor, not with the underlying natural law principle. Moreover, the Church’s teaching authority is divinely commissioned to rectify just such failures by way of her moral theology. Francis implies a massive default in that task.
In any case, the universal moral precept forbidding adultery does not involve any complex application to divorce and “remarriage.” As noted above, the Catechism that Francis ignores states simply: “divorce is a grave offense against the natural law.” It was Our Lord himself who declared to all of humanity that whoever puts away his wife and marries another commits adultery. There are no “details” that permit “hardship exceptions” to this divinely expressed application of the natural law, binding all men. Neither, therefore, can there be any “exceptions” to the Church’s intrinsically connected sacramental discipline down through the centuries, as Cardinal Brandmüller observes. That discipline is “based on Sacred Scripture” as John Paul II teaches in the same apostolic exhortation from which Francis misleadingly quotes out of context. And it is Francis himself who has a divinely imposed duty to affirm this, rather than pretending that a life of continuing public adultery or fornication involves the kind of obscure matter Saint Thomas had in view.
This is the umpteenth instance of Francis “playing fast and loose” with sources over the past three years. A team of Spanish diocesan priests has demonstrated meticulously that this tendency pervades the entire pontificate. Even Nicole Winfield of the Associated Press is constrained to note that in Amoris Laetitia Francis is “selectively citing his predecessors” so as to navigate around key phrases that negate his position:
While Francis frequently cited John Paul, whose papacy was characterized by a hardline insistence on doctrine and sexual morals, he did so selectively. Francis referenced certain parts of John Paul’s 1981 ‘Familius [sic] Consortio,’ the guiding Vatican document on family life until Friday, but he omitted any reference to its most divisive paragraph 84, which explicitly forbids the sacraments for the divorced and civilly remarried.
Saint Thomas would be horrified at the abuse to which Francis is subjecting his teaching, twisting it into something that more closely resembles John Locke’s confused and incoherent attempt at a natural law philosophy, which I explore in my book on the rise and rapid fall of political modernity. Locke denied that the precepts of the natural law are inscribed in man’s rational soul and innately incline him to act rightly in the exercise of his reason despite the effects of Original Sin (which Locke also essentially denied). And what do we see in Amoris Laetetia but a kind of Lockean attack on the traditional Catholic understanding of the natural law as Saint Thomas expounds it. In paragraph 305 we read the following:
Along these same lines, the International Theological Commission has noted that “natural law could not be presented as an already established set of rules that impose themselves a priori on the moral subject; rather, it is a source of objective inspiration for the deeply personal process of making decisions.
In essence, Francis declares—contrary to all of Tradition and divine revelation itself (cf. Rom. 2:14-15)—that the natural law is no law at all, engraved in human nature and inclining reason toward the good, but merely a sort of externalized guideline to “inspire” our “deeply personal” decisions! For this astounding proposition Francis cites, at footnote 350, nothing more than a document of the International Theological Commission, which has no teaching authority whatsoever. The document is entitled “In Search of a Universal Ethic: A New Look at Natural Law.”
The audacity at work here is breathtaking. According to Francis’s “new look at natural law,” a moral precept disobeyed is now viewed, not only as a “general rule,” but merely an inspiring goal that may not be reachable “amid the concrete complexity” (303) of each individual’s situation. In short, a form of situation ethics Catholics cannot possibly accept as an authentic teaching of the Magisterium.