Spoiling for a Fight

How Not to Read 'Amoris Laetitia'

In a recent First Things article, Jessica M. Murdoch offers a detailed reading and critique of the Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia (AL). Murdoch challenges Cardinal Christoph Schönborn’s assertion that AL is a “binding document of magisterial authority.” She offers three arguments for why this isn’t so. First, she claims, the document lacks the language of formal definition. Second, it lacks the semantic precision of binding ecclesial documents. And third, “if, in fact, the document does contradict either natural or divine positive law, then it simply cannot bind the faithful to the obsequium religiosum, that is, the assent of mind and will… .”

I will not address Murdoch’s first two arguments in this article. As for the third, though, Murdoch appears to think that AL contradicts church teaching, or at least comes close to doing so. On her way to this conclusion, she engages in some rather dubious “negative proof-texting,” pulling statements out of their immediate context or simply imposing upon them an implausible interpretation.

I am not naïve to Murdoch’s concerns. One would have to have one’s head stuck in theological sand not to recognize the anxiety that pervades much of the reception of Amoris laetitia—some of which is legitimate. One may fairly ask whether the document gives adequate attention to the formation of conscience, or to the possibility of sacrilege in reception of the Eucharist. Unfortunately, Murdoch’s misconstruals of the text dwarf whatever legitimate worries she may have, some of which I might be inclined to share. So let’s get down to brass tacks.


AS AN EXAMPLE of ambiguity in AL, Murdoch quotes from footnote 329: “In such situations [those in which a couple in an irregular marriage cannot separate out of obligation to the children], many people, knowing and accepting the possibility of living as brothers and sisters which the Church offers them, point out that if certain expressions of intimacy are lacking, ‘it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of the children suffers.’” Murdoch then asks: “Does the document maintain that the virtue of sexual continence leads to sin and to the endangerment of children, or does it merely underscore the difficulty of living in conformity to the Gospel in difficult situations?” But there is a third interpretation that Murdoch does not even consider. Notice that the quote from AL refers to couples who know and accept the possibility of living as brother and sister offered by the church. If a couple has really accepted this teaching, then the phrase “certain expressions of intimacy” would not refer to sexual incontinence. Perhaps other expressions of intimacy are meant, expressions which one would not expect between a brother and sister but which might not fall into the usual categories of sexual incontinence. In that case, the meaning of the footnote is that couples in such a situation will find the life of discipleship complex and difficult and that some pastoral flexibility is required.

Murdoch also quotes from paragraph 299, which asserts that the divorced and remarried “need to feel not as excommunicated members of the church, but instead as living members, able to live and grow in the church.” She then asks: “Does this statement merely admonish censorious pew-sitters concerning the divorced and remarried, criticizing those who may treat them with judgment or disdain? Or does it suggest that one can be spiritually alive while in a state of continued objective mortal sin? Obviously, the latter interpretation, which has been expressly drawn by many, is more than problematic.” It is highly plausible that the first possibility is precisely what AL is suggesting. In any case, it should be obvious that the second interpretation Murdoch proposes is not at all what AL teaches. AL never refers to the divorced and remarried as in “continued objective mortal sin.” In fact, it is plausible to argue that one of the most important pastoral developments of AL is to overturn the commonly held assumption that divorced and remarried couples are thereby living in a state of mortal sin. The church can never know if someone is in “continued objective mortal sin.” The church can know that a couple is living in a dangerous situation that constitutes grave matter, and for the protection of the faithful and the avoidance of scandal, it can ask people in such situations to abstain from communion. But precisely because the church can never know for certain if someone is in “objective mortal sin,” AL asserts that such a person might be able to “live and grow in the church.”

Murdoch assumes that the irregular situation of divorced and remarried couples constitutes “objective mortal sin.” If her assumption were correct, then the teaching of AL would indeed be dangerous. But because AL never makes such a claim—and explicitly teaches the possibility of the opposite in paragraph 301—for Murdoch to claim that this is what AL actually asserts is completely disingenuous. AL does not propose to change the church’s teaching on mortal sin. It simply insists that people in irregular situations should not feel excommunicated—because they, in fact, are not. Nor should it be assumed that they are living in “objective mortal sin.” In fact, that is the whole point of paragraph 301—but more on this unsettling paragraph later.

Next Murdoch takes on paragraph 297, which states that “no one is condemned forever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel!” She claims that this statement is “not ambiguous” and “implies the non-existence of hell and even suggests dissimulation on the part of Christ, who preached about hell almost as much as heaven.” But she reads the line entirely out of context. In the preceding paragraph (296), Pope Francis writes that “the way of the church is not to condemn anyone forever; it is to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart.” Paragraph 297 then continues: “It is a matter of reaching out to everyone, of needing to help each person find his or her proper way of participating in the ecclesial community and thus to experience being touched by an ‘unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous’ mercy. No one can be condemned forever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel!” In other words, the line “no one can be condemned forever” has to be understood in terms of who is doing the condemning. The point is clearly that the church cannot condemn anyone forever. Only God and the person him or herself can do that. Murdoch is right: there is no real ambiguity here, unless one ignores the context.

And so on to paragraph 301. According to Murdoch, this paragraph implies that “that those who act with full knowledge of grave matter are not necessarily in a state of mortal sin” which appears “to contradict longstanding church doctrine.” But here she is wrong again. Paragraph 301 implies no such thing. Instead, it clarifies what “full knowledge” really means. Here is the actual text: “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 deprived of sanctifying grace. 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.’” The reference here is to Familiaris consortio, in which John Paul II writes, “She [the church] knows that many couples encounter difficulties not only in the concrete fulfillment of the moral norm but even in understanding its inherent values.”

So full knowledge involves more than simple awareness of the rule. It requires a full understanding of the “inherent values” safeguarded and proposed by the rule. If a couple is not yet capable of grasping on a personal level the inherent value of what the church proposes, then they do not possess the “full knowledge” required to satisfy the conditions for mortal sin. If Pope Francis were indeed teaching that “those who act with full knowledge of grave matter are not necessarily in a state of mortal sin,” then we would have a problem. But this is precisely why he clarifies his point in light of the teaching of John Paul II. I cannot understand why Murdoch insists on reading Pope Francis against the tradition when he clearly situates himself within it.


FINALLY, MURDOCH TAKES ISSUE with paragraph 159, which she offers as a second example of a teaching in AL that appears “to contradict longstanding church doctrine.” According to Murdoch, paragraph 159 “rejects the privileged status of perpetual continence.” Let’s look at the text: “Reflecting on this [1 Corinthians 7:7], Saint John Paul II noted that the biblical texts ‘give no reason to assert the “inferiority” of marriage, nor the “superiority” of virginity or celibacy’ based on sexual abstinence. Rather than speak absolutely of the superiority of virginity, it should be enough to point out that the different states of life complement one another, and consequently that some can be more perfect in one way and others in another.” Here Francis is citing John Paul II’s 1982 catechesis on marriage and continence, in which he makes it clear that the superiority of the continent state has nothing to do with “sexual abstinence.” Its superiority flows solely from it being “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” In paragraph 160, Francis makes it clear that he means exactly the same thing. The perfection of the state of virginity, he continues, “has not to do with continence in itself, but with the entirety of a life based on the evangelical counsels.” There is no reason to play the two states off of each other. Both vocations can lead a person to perfection.

In making this claim, Francis is doing no more than repeating what John Paul II points out in Veritatis splendor 19: that all people are included in the call to perfection directed at the rich man in Matthew 19:21: “This vocation to perfect love is not restricted to a small group of individuals. The invitation, ‘go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor,’ and the promise ‘you will have treasure in heaven,’ are meant for everyone, because they bring out the full meaning of the commandment of love for neighbor, just as the invitation which follows, ‘Come, follow me,’ is the new, specific form of the commandment of love of God” (my emphasis). Pope Francis’s whole point here is, first, to highlight the complementarity of the vocations and, second, to emphasize (with John Paul II), that both states of life can lead to perfection in their own distinctive ways.

Ironically, in her essay Murdoch makes appeal to both Veritatis splendor and Familiaris consortio as having priority over AL, the first because it is an encyclical, and the second “because it seems to be more harmonious with prior magisterial teaching, both extraordinary and ordinary.” Yet AL cites Familiaris consortio on a point that Murdoch refuses to acknowledge, and is in agreement with Veritatis splendor precisely where she claims to find heresy. My modest hope is to show that Murdoch has not actually found material in AL that contradicts traditional Catholic teaching, but has at most found a pastoral emphasis with which she is herself uncomfortable.

Nathan O’Halloran, SJ, is a second year doctoral student in systematic theology at the University of Notre Dame. 

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