08 July 2017

Dubious dubia, or, when you make smoke and claim fire...

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about the dubia again, not least following Stephen Walford’s most recent article — which I’ve liked a lot, and I thought I’d get some thoughts down. I might be wildly wrong here, of course.

Looking at the dubia letter, the quartet starts with what they deem ‘A Necessary Foreword’:
‘The great Tradition of the Church teaches us that the way out of situations like this is recourse to the Holy Father, asking the Apostolic See to resolve those doubts, which are the cause of disorientation and confusion.’
Are the cardinals really saying that the doubts are the cause of disorientation and confusion? Because that makes sense to me. Mueller, for instance, has denied that Amoris Laetitia itself causing confusion, and said that insofar as there is confusion around the exhortation, it was confused interpreters who were producing confused interpretations.

In that same interview, Mueller also advised that those talking too much about Amoris, including those bishops who he says were interpreting the Pope’s teaching in their own fashion and those who were taking individual tiny passages from the exhortation and looking at them out of context, to start by looking at what the Church itself teaches about the papacy and the episcopacy.

From the first dubium, then:
‘It is asked whether, following the affirmations of Amoris Laetitia (300-305), it has now become possible to grant absolution in the sacrament of penance and thus to admit to holy Communion a person who, while bound by a valid marital bond, lives together with a different person more uxorio without fulfilling the conditions provided for by Familiaris Consortio, 84, and subsequently reaffirmed by Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 34, and Sacramentum Caritatis, 29.
‘Can the expression “in certain cases” found in Note 351 (305) of the exhortation Amoris Laetitia be applied to divorced persons who are in a new union and who continue to live more uxorio?’
I’m deeply uneasy with how this question has been phrased and framed, as in ways it looks like two questions rather than one, and it seems to contain a numerical shift that’s hugely important when it comes to addressing it.

If this is one question, and I’m not sure it is, the question must be the second part, in which case I think the first bit should be treated as a kind of explanatory note, intended to set up a question where we think of an individual in what might be deemed a hard case – a woman or man has remarried and can’t realistically promise abstention from the marital bed without alienating their spouse in such a way that could lead to violence or to children suffering.

On this basis, if we had to answer this ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as per the conventions of dubia, such that we can’t qualify it by emphasising ‘in some cases’ I think the answer would then have to be ‘yes’.

The thing is, I’d be very uneasy with this kind of answer, not least because the question contains a numerical shift. The introductory statement pertains to individuals, and is explicitly singular in nature, whereas the question is a plural question, and pertains to couples, inviting the question of why a couple who both wanted to come fully into the Church couldn’t jointly strive to live as brother and sister?

Saving the kind of precise exception spelled out in my Aquinas, Trent, and Amoris piece in The Irish Catholic, I’m not really sure that couples where either party is divorced-and-remarried could as couples be granted absolution and receive Communion without doing this. And, as such, I think the answer would have to be ‘no’.

In general, I think a lot of confusion around Amoris surrounds people who persist in reading as plural terms that are meant as singular. In this case the issue seems actively blurred. I don’t blame Francis for not answering this one. My answer, if I were him, might well have been ‘define your terms’.

Then there’s the second dubium.
‘After the publication of the post-synodal exhortation Amoris Laetitia (304), does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor, 79, based on sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, on the existence of absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts and that are binding without exceptions?’
I don’t think St John Paul said at that point in Veritatis Splendor that certain absolute moral norms prohibit intrinsically evil acts without exceptions. Rather, as far as I can see, he said it was wrong to claim that the immorality of acts can only be considered in connection with intentions and foreseeable consequences, with the key thing being whether acts are capable of being ordered towards the good and indeed towards God himself. And I don’t think that’s at odds with Francis’ point at all. In fact, and maybe I’m missing something massive, I don’t see how it could be.

So I can see that this would have put Francis in an awkward spot.

Again, if I were him I’d have been tempted to answer, ‘Well, if you’re asking whether we should regard St John Paul’s teaching in Veritatis Splendor as still valid, then yes, of course, but if you’re asking whether we should regard your take on it as valid, well, then we might need to have a chat. Also, what’s with the whole “based on sacred Scripture and the Tradition of the Church”? That sounds to me as though you’re daring me to say “no”, as though by doing so I’d break with the Church. Was that kind of snarky threat intended?’

Anyway, then we’ve a third dubium, as follows:
‘After Amoris Laetitia (301) is it still possible to affirm that a person who habitually lives in contradiction to a commandment of God’s law, as for instance the one that prohibits adultery (Matthew 19:3-9), finds him or herself in an objective situation of grave habitual sin (Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, “Declaration,” June 24, 2000)?’
I genuinely can’t even see where this question comes from. They seem to be asking whether Amoris gives a blanket excuse such that it would be impossible to say that habitual behaviour is ever a mortal sin.

The Church already teaches that habit can be a mitigating factor – essentially one’s will is less one’s own that it should be – but not that it’s a blanket excuse for all people in all situations, and I don’t see that Amoris even touches that for a second. Nor, for what it’s worth, do I think the Maltese bishops or the bishops of Buenos Aires or anyone else has ever suggested that.

I think the answer here, surely, is ‘Of course it’s possible. Yes. Why on earth wouldn’t it be? Yes!’

And so to the fourth dubium:

‘After the affirmations of Amoris Laetitia (302) on “circumstances which mitigate moral responsibility,” does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor, 81, based on sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, according to which “circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act ‘subjectively’ good or defensible as a choice”?’
Right, once again, what’s with this ‘based on sacred Scripture and the Tradition of the Church’ malarkey? If I was Francis, I’d kick furniture on reading this. It’s so obviously a snarky comment which sets the whole question up for the paraphrase ‘Are you rejecting Church teaching?’

Offensive implications aside, it seems to me that what’s going on here is that the lads are comparing apples with oranges. They’re saying ‘Given what Amoris says about responsibility for acts, is the Church’s teaching on the morality of the acts themselves still valid?’

The Church, of course, has long distinguished between such things as the morality of acts and the extent to which this morality can and should be imputed to the actor: if it did not, the Church would only have one criterion for considering whether a sin is mortal, that being ‘grave matter’; ‘full knowledge’ and ‘deliberate consent’ wouldn’t even be part of the discussion.

As such, my answer to this would be, ‘What? Of course John Paul’s teaching on this is still valid! Yes! Of course! Why on earth are you even asking this? You do know that acts and responsibility for acts are not the same thing, right? And seriously, what on earth are you playing at, asking whether I accept things that are based on Scripture and Tradition?’

Finally, there’s the fifth dubium.
‘After Amoris Laetitia (303) does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor, 56, based on sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, that excludes a creative interpretation of the role of conscience and that emphasises that conscience can never be authorised to legitimate exceptions to absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts by virtue of their object?’
I think this is probably a rather better question than the previous ones, but again it’s marred by the snarkily gratuitous reference to Scripture and Tradition and ultimately leaves me wondering why this would confuse people.

Veritatis Splendor talks of how conscience can’t be applied creatively so as to engineer exceptions to the moral law, allowing people to do things that are intrinsically evil. Are intrinsically evil acts also objectively evil acts? I’d have thought they are. I wouldn’t have thought intrinsically evil acts could be anything other than objectively evil ones. Yes?

Bearing this in mind, what Amoris Laetitia says is the following. Some situations are – objectively – not what the Church or indeed God wants of us, and our consciences can enable us to realise this. However, it says, our conscience is capable of doing more than identifying whether a certain state is good or bad: it can also identify whether a certain direction is good or bad. That is, it can do more than name a destination; it can show us the way, recognising that this way is God’s way towards the destination that God wishes us to reach.

I don’t see that this is wildly different from, for instance, Pope Benedict’s comment about how a prostitute starting to use condoms could ‘be a first step in the direction of a moralisation, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants’. In other words, I think, while we’re not talking about choosing lesser evils, we are saying that within objectively sinful scenarios God can lead people by stages towards a way out, and sometimes can write straight with crooked lines.

So, as an answer were I Francis I’d be very tempted, to respond as follows: ‘Do we still need to regard as valid the teaching of the pope who had me consecrated as bishop and who appointed me as a cardinal, and indeed who I canonised as a saint? Yes, yes I think we do. I really can’t see why you’d ask me otherwise. And I can’t see why you’re pointing out that his teaching is based on Scripture and Tradition unless you’re somehow trying to suggest that mine might not be. But anyway, I’m tired. Leave your hats at the door on your way out, please.’

I’m really not surprised that Cardinal Mueller said he thought confused interpreters were provoking confused interpretations and how the dubia cardinals have said their doubts are causing confusion. Given how dodgy these dubia are, these seem fair observations.

Originally published at Mark Shea's blog.

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