The controverted section of Amoris Laetitia is Chapter 8, which deals with the pastoral care of those who are in “irregular” situations, most specifically those Catholics who have been sacramentally married, civilly divorced and now are living in a new conjugal union, either common-law cohabitation or civil marriage. They are living conjugal lives while being validly married to someone else. The traditional pastoral practice of the Church has been that such couples may not receive absolution in the sacrament of confession unless they are willing to cease that conjugal relationship — either by separation, or, if that is considered impossible, by abstaining from conjugal relations. Without at least an intention to do so, there would be lacking the required purpose of amendment, and perhaps even contrition.

Without sacramental absolution, the person would not be able to receive Communion, being guilty of extra-marital sexual relations, which are always objectively grave sins. In addition, given that receiving holy Communion has a nuptial dimension — Christ the Bridegroom offering himself to his Bride, the Church, in total and indissoluble fidelity — the divorced and civilly remarried present a counter sign to the communion of Christ and the Church.

Synods on the Family, 2014-2015

Pope Francis held up Cardinal Kasper as a model theologian at his very first Angelus address on March 17, 2013, four days after his election. In February 2014, he invited Cardinal Kasper to address the College of Cardinals, wherein Cardinal Kasper argued for a change in the Church’s practice. When the cardinals emphatically rejected Cardinal Kasper’s proposal as contrary to the Catholic faith, the Holy Father himself came to the embattled cardinal’s defense, indicating that the subject would be on the agenda for two synods on the family in October 2014 and October 2015. In August 2015, Pope Francis indicated in an elliptical way that he did not hold to the clear teaching of St. John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio (1981) and Reconciliatio et Paenitencia (1984), along with Pope Benedict’s Sacramentum Caritatis (2007). He quoted the relevant texts, but deliberately omitted their conclusive teaching on the points in question.

Supporters of Cardinal Kasper’s position attempted to get the synod of 2015 to endorse a modification of the settled teaching. The synod fathers refused to do so. They were not permitted the opportunity to vote clearly on whether the teaching of St. John Paul II was to be upheld in its entirety. They voted instead on a more ambiguous desire to include such couples in “fuller participation in the life of the Church.” In the relevant sections of the synod’s final report, the words “sacrament” and “holy Communion” do not appear.

Pope Francis was not pleased at the synod’s outcome, concluding the gathering with a blistering address that characterized those who opposed Cardinal Kasper’s proposal as desiring to throw “stones” at the suffering and vulnerable. The seeds of rancor and division that would flower in the subsequent year were sown in that fierce denunciation by the Holy Father of those who disagreed with him.

Marriage is the key issue. Is it possible to be in a conjugal relationship with someone other than a validly married spouse that would be pleasing in the eyes of God? Is it possible to know 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,” as Amoris Laetitia puts it (303)?

If that were to be the case, then the inseparable link between marriage and sexual relations — such that only in a valid marriage are such relations morally licit — would be split asunder in principle. The opponents of Cardinal Kasper’s proposal see that the heart of the sexual revolution is the separating of those things that the Christian tradition has always insisted God intended to be kept together — sex and love, sex and marriage, sex and procreation.

If the Church were to teach that there were circumstances in which a couple who were not validly married to each other were morally permitted to engage in sexual relations, a great unraveling would begin. What, then, about couples who think that the “complexity of one’s limits” does not permit marriage in the first place?

A Rush to Nonjudgment

Dated for the feast of St. Joseph (March 19) and the anniversary of the installation of Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia was released on April 8. It came very quickly. Despite being the longest papal document ever published in the entire history of the Church, the first draft arrived at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) from the papal household in early December 2015, barely six weeks after the conclusion of the second synod. Given that such post-synodal apostolic exhortations often appear two years after the relevant synod, the rush to get such a long and complex document to press was remarkable. It meant that widespread consultation in the drafting was avoided.

What, then, does Amoris Laetitia say? Pope Francis strongly suggested that what the Church had taught in the past no longer held, but he did not explicitly teach that. Indeed, following the style of the synod’s final report, he did not explicitly mention holy Communion for “irregular” couples at all.

As I wrote then, “from the first pages of Amoris Laetitia to the last, the exhortation evidently yearns to declare what it never declares: that the teaching on marriage and holy Communion can change. Indeed, the most critical line on the question is buried in a footnote, almost as if the editors hoped no one would notice.”

Could it be that the explicit teaching of three previous apostolic exhortations and the Catechism could be overturned by an exhortation that never directly addresses the specific issue?

When the Holy Father and others insist that no discrete doctrine was changed in Amoris Laetitia, they are correct. That the Holy Father would like the teaching to change can be reasonably inferred from Amoris Laetitia, but he does not teach that, and reading the pontifical mind is not determinative for establishing a magisterial teaching.

Amoris Laetitia takes a curious editorial approach for a document of unprecedented length. It does not engage forthrightly the controverted issue at hand, but rather avoids a direct discussion. This is evident in the use of footnotes, which are both ambiguous and misleading. Several key footnotes do not in fact support the text where they appear, citing only portions of passages to pervert their plain meaning.

Yet the most astonishing editorial decision of Amoris Laetitia is not the deceptive footnotes that appear, but the encyclical that does not appear. There is not a single reference, in the main text or even in the footnotes, to Veritatis Splendor.

St. John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical on the foundations of Catholic moral teaching is the principal magisterial document on the moral life since the Council of Trent. Ignoring Veritatis Splendor is like writing about the nature of the Church and not making reference to the teaching of Vatican II’s dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium.

The reason for the startling omission is evident.

While it might be possible to square the general approach of Amoris Laetitia with the specific teaching of Familiaris Consortio (see Buenos Aires guidelines), the approach to the moral life proposed in Amoris Laetitia is at odds with the teaching of Veritatis Splendor.

Indeed, the third part of Veritatis Splendor, entitled “Lest the Cross of Christ Be Emptied of Its Power,” warns precisely against the view that the demands of the moral life are too difficult and cannot be lived with the help of God’s grace. Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia appears to be exactly what St. John Paul II had in mind in writing Veritatis Splendor. It does appear to empty the cross of Christ of its power.

The drafters of Amoris Laetitia persuaded Pope Francis that it was better to pretend that Veritatis Splendor had never been written. That was a mistake (see the following on the dubia of the four cardinals).

When official texts are unclear, there is a long-standing practice of submitting questions — dubia — to the competent authority for clarification. Often this is done for liturgical matters. Can a pastor mandate that his congregation receives holy Communion only on the tongue or only in the hand? (No.)

In September, four cardinals submitted five questions (dubia) to the Holy Father, asking him to clarify that the teaching of Familiaris Consortio and Veritatis Splendor had not been changed by Amoris Laetitia. Interestingly, only one of the five questions dealt with the former, while four dealt with what Amoris Laetitia refused to deal with, namely Veritatis Splendor. In November, after the Holy Father chose not to answer the dubia, the four cardinals released them publicly, creating a firestorm of attention.

Those who reasonably express concern that Amoris Laetitia seeks an accommodation with the sexual revolution that is contrary to the words of Christ in the Gospels are dismissed contemptuously: “But even as they insist that there is a debate to be had, a case to answer, a matter to be settled, the train is leaving the station, and they are left on the platform, waving their arms.”

Ivereigh argues that the Amoris Laetitia debate, surrounded though it is by ambiguities and contradictory interpretations, is over and the Church needs to move on.

Why the haste for a document that is less than a year old?

Because the longer Amoris Laetitia remains under examination and discussion, the more clear it will be that the arguments of the critics, well developed in the Tradition of the Church, require arguments in response, similarly grounded.

To date, the defenders of Amoris Laetitia have not offered arguments as much as undemonstrated assertions and appeals to authority. Without a convincing argument to demonstrate why Amoris Laetitia does not run afoul of Veritatis Splendor, which it prima facie does, attacking those who raise questions remains only a short-term political tactic.

The magisterium is not, over the long term, shaped by such tactics.