Reading Amoris Laetitia: The Structure and Meaning of the Post-Synod Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Francis

The exhortation incorporates from the synodal document the path of discernment of individual cases without putting limits on integration, as appeared in the past. It declares, moreover, that it cannot be denied that in some circumstances “imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified” (Amoris Lætitia 302; cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 1735) because of various influences. [. . .]

• Therefore, the pontiff concludes, if one takes into account the innumerable variety of concrete situations, “it is understandable that neither the Synod nor this Exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases. What is possible is simply a renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases, one which would recognize that, since ‘the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases,’ the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same” (AL 300). [. . .]


• So the consequences or effects of a norm do not necessarily have to be the same, which “is also the case with regard to sacramental discipline, since discernment can recognize that in a particular situation no grave fault exists” (AL 3000, footnote 336). “Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end” (AL 305).

And — it is specified — this help “in certain cases can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy. I would also point out that the Eucharist ‘is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak’” (AL 305, footnote 351).

From John Paul II to Francis

If we go back to Familiaris Consortio, we can verify that the conditions it set up 35 years ago were already a concretization more open and attentive, with respect to the previous time, to personal experience.

On the civilly divorced and remarried, the apostolic exhortation of St. John Paul II (1981) affirmed: “I earnestly call upon pastors and the whole community of the faithful to help the divorced, and with solicitous care to make sure that they do not consider themselves as separated from the Church, for as baptized persons they can, and indeed must, share in her life” (FC 84).

On access to the sacraments, John Paul II reiterates the previous norm, and nonetheless affirms that the civilly divorced and remarried who are living their conjugal life together, raising their children together and sharing in everyday life, can receive Communion. But he sets up a “condition” (which is at another level with respect to the norm): that of taking on “the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples” (ibid.).

So in Familiaris Consortio the de facto norm does not apply always and in all cases. In the situation described there is already an “epieikeia” concerning the application of the law in a concrete case, because if continence eliminates the sin of adultery, it nevertheless does not suppress the contradiction between the conjugal rupture with the formation of a new couple — who nonetheless live bonds of an affective character and of coexistence — and the Eucharist.

With regard to sexual relations, the formulation of St. John Paul II required that the couple “take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence.” In Sacramentum Caritatis Benedict XVI had incorporated this concept, but with a different formulation: “The Church encourages these members of the faithful to commit themselves to living their relationship in fidelity to the demands of God’s law, as friends, as brother and sister” (SC 29). The “encouragement to commit themselves” implies a journey and places the accent better and in a more adequate way on the personal dimension of conscience…

Not a “Church of the Pure”

“Recognizing the influence of such concrete factors,” the pontiff writes, “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” (AL 303). This is a culminating point of the apostolic exhortation, in that it attributes to conscience — “the most secret core and sanctuary of a man, where he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths” (GS 16; AL 222) — a fundamental and irreplaceable spot in the evaluation of moral action. [. . .]

• The 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” (AL 303). This passage of the exhortation opens the door to a more positive, welcoming, and fully “Catholic” pastoral practice…

• In other words, it does not say here at all that one’s weakness should be taken as a criterion for establishing what is good and what is evil (this would be what is called the “gradualness of the law”). Nonetheless there is affirmed a “law of gradualness,” meaning a progressiveness in knowing, in desiring, and in doing the good: “Reaching for the fullness of Christian life does not mean doing that which abstractly is most perfect, but that which is concretely possible.” [. . .]

• With the humility of its realism, the exhortation Amoris Lætitia situates itself within the great tradition of the Church, reconnecting with an old Roman tradition of ecclesial mercy for sinners.

The Church of Rome, which since the 2nd century had inaugurated the practice of penance for sins committed after baptism, in the 3rd century was just about to provoke a schism on the part of the Church of northern Africa, led by St. Cyprian, because it did not accept reconciliation with the “lapsi,” those who had become apostates during the persecution, who were in fact much more numerous than the martyrs.

In the face of the rigidity of the Donatists in the 4th and 5th centuries, as later in the face of the Jansenists, the Church of Rome always rejected a “Church of the poor” in favor of the “reticulum mixtum,” the “composite net” of just and sinners of which Saint Augustine speaks in “Psalmus contra partem Donati.”

The pastoral practice of “all or nothing” seems more sure to the “rigorist” theologians, but it inevitably leads to a “Church of the pure.” Giving value to formal perfection before all else and as an end in itself brings the risk of unfortunately covering up many behaviors that are in fact hypocritical and pharisaical.

Bernard-Fellay messa 145895510

Bishop Bernard Fellay

“The Supreme Pontiff has made a hole in the keel of the boat”

On April 10, the Superior General of the Priestly Society of St. Pius X celebrated a Pontifical Mass attended by 4,000. During his homily, he spoke on Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation

An Apostolic Exhortation which bears the title “The Joy of Love,” but that makes us cry: this exhortation is a summary of the two Synods on marriage. It is very long and contains many things that are right, that are beautiful, and after building a beautiful building, a beautiful boat, the Supreme Pontiff has made a hole in the keel of the boat, along the waterline. You all know what is happening.

Needless to say, the hole was made, taking all possible precautions, thus it is needless to say that the hole is small: but the boat sinks! Our Lord himself said that not even an iota, not a single iota will be taken away from the law of God. When God speaks, his words do not admit exceptions; when God commands, he is of infinite wisdom that has provided for all possible cases. There is no exception to the law of God. And now, suddenly, it is claimed that this law of marriage, which keeps saying that “marriage is indissoluble” (he repeats this sentence, it must be said), then it says you can, despite everything, have exceptions in the sense that these so-called divorced and remarried, in this state of mortal sin, may be in a state of grace, and therefore could receive Communion.

It is very serious! Very serious! I think they do not sufficiently measure the seriousness of what has been said. Needless to say, there are small exceptions put there in the corner; that’s how it went for Communion in the hand, and as I explained, with the little hole in the vessel, appropriately, the boat sinks!” —

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