Throughout the Church, there is intense debate over the new Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”). Some see it as a “rupture” with the Church’s doctrinal tradition, while others say that isn’t true…

Robert Moynihan

Robert Moynihan

“My great joy as a result of this document resides in the fact that it coherently overcomes that artificial, superficial, clear division between ‘regular’ and ‘irregular’ (marital relationships).” —Cardinal Chris­toph Schönborn, presenting Amoris Laetitia in Rome on April 8

“If we analyze certain statements of AL with intellectual honesty within their proper context, we find ourselves faced with difficulties when trying to interpret them in accordance with the traditional doctrine of the Church… All members of the Church… have a duty to report this and respectfully request an authentic interpretation.” —Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Astana, Kazakhstan, in mid-April

“Paragraph 305 together with footnote 351 – in which it is stated that believers can be admitted to the sacraments ‘in an objective situation of sin’ ‘because of mitigating factors’ – directly contradicts article 84 of Pope John Paul II’s exhortation Familiaris consortio… That this represents a rupture (with the doctrinal tradition of the Church) emerges without any doubt for every thinking person who knows the re­spective texts… Every single cardinal, but also every bishop and priest, is called upon to preserve uprightly the Catholic discipline of the sacraments.” —Prof. Robert Spaeman, German Catholic philosopher and friend of Pope Benedict XVI, in an April interview

“What has been taught by John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio and by Benedict XVI in Sacramentum Caritatis is still valid in an unchanged way… If Amoris Laetitia intended to rescind such a deeply-rooted and such a weighty discipline, it would have expressed itself in a clear manner and it would have given the reasons for it. However, such a statement with such a meaning is not to be found in it.” —Cardinal Gerhard Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in a talk in Spain in early May

“Anyone who thinks there is an opportunity to receive absolution and Communion in Amoris laetitia, they would have to seek it in footnote 351 in Chapter 8… But it must be asked whether a footnote of about three lines is sufficient to overthrow the entire teachings of Popes and Councils on this subject. Certainly not!” —Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, interview with the German news agency KNA, also in early May

Francis in The Joy of Love has stirred up a hornet’s nest. The Pope clearly wrote this document for two purposes: (1) to remind Cath­olics, and the whole world, that marriage and family are beautiful, precious gifts, in an age when fewer and fewer people are marrying; and (2) to reach out to men and women in “irregular” situations (in particular, men and women who have married, divorced, then “remarried” without annulments), in order to “integrate” these men and women more fully into the life of the Church, up to and including access to the sacrament of the Eucharist.

The reaction to this text has fallen into three main categories:

(1) Those who see no rupture. These have praised the Pope for his eloquence on behalf of marriage and family life, and for his opening to those in “irregular” situations in order to “reintegrate” them into the life of the Church; they find no break with the Church’s doctrinal tradition; Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, whom the Pope chose to present the text on April 8, is the principal exponent of this interpretation;

(2) Those who see a rupture. These have criticized the Pope sharply for an alleged “rupture” allowing divorced and “remarried” Catholics to receive Communion without ceasing to live together; a leader of this group, Prof. Robert Mattei, a conservative Italian Catholic scholar, writes: “Nothing changes in doctrine but everything is changed in praxis…. The circumstances and the situation, according to the new morality, dissolve the concept of intrinsic evil and public and permanent sin… The rule of the Church was that ‘the divorced, remarried civilly, who live together, cannot receive the Eucharist.’ Amoris Laetitia in contrast, establishes: ‘The divorced and remarried, in some cases, can receive Holy Communion’”;

(3) Those who believe a rupture has not yet occurred. This might be called “the party of the footnote,” in the sense that those holding this position believe Pope Francis, if he had intended to change doctrine (which in any case, according to Catholic belief, is something he cannot validly do), he would have done so in the body of his text, not in a footnote (referring to footnote #351); men like Cardinals Gerhard Müller, Walter Brandmüller, Raymond Burke and Bishop Athanasius Schneider, each in differing ways, seem to hold this third position.

The position of Bishop Bernard Fellay, head of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), the traditionalist group which has been separated from Rome since 1988, but still hopes to return to union with Rome in the near future, is especially complex, but also especially relevant.

“This is an apostolic exhortation entitled The Joy of Love,” Fellay said on April 10, “but it makes us weep.” On May 2 (Feast of St. Athan­asius), Fellay’s official statement said: “Objective rules are replaced, in Protestant fashion, by the individual’s conscience. This poison is in part attributable to personalism. We humbly but firmly implore the Holy Father to revise the exhortation Amoris Laetitia, and most especially Chapter 8.”

And yet, despite this fierce criticism, Fellay on May 1 gave a homily in which he stressed the need to remain… united with Pope Francis.

“Despite all human misery, despite the fact that even a Pope is now saying unbelievable things on morality and trying to tell us that sin is the state of grace — what we are hearing today is unbelievable, unheard of! — well, despite that, this Pope can still accomplish actions that sanctify and save,” Fellay said. “God has not taken from him his power to bind and to loosen (see Mt. 16:19). He can do good and he still does…

“It does not mean that we approve the evil that is done; far from it, we reject it and guard ourselves from it. But at the same time we recognize that in the Church there is something stronger and greater than the things we see: there is God, the infinite God, infinitely holy, infinitely good. There is one path that has been given to us for our salvation, for there is no other. We can try to invent whatever we want: it is all to no avail. It is the only path. So we must not leave the Church…”

Even as he criticizes Francis, Fellay clings to the Church. “There is no other path,” he says. Words all of us can well keep in mind.

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