Understanding the Amoris Laetitia Controversy

Table of Contents

1. On Disagreeing with the Pope

2. Sacramental Theology and Moral Theology

3. Continuity, Renewal, and the Signs of the Times

4. Amoris Laetitia: Selections with Commentary

A. Section 298

B. Footnote 329

C. Section 299

D. Section 301

E. Section 301 (continued) 

F. Section 302

G. Section 304

H. Section 303

I. Section 305

J. Footnote 351

5. Four Cardinals, Five Dubia

The text of the dubia 


First dubium

Second dubium

Third dubium

Fourth dubium

Fifth dubium

6. The Sound of Silence


1. On Disagreeing with the Pope

As children of liberal democracies, we struggle to regard our leaders with anything other than the habitual skepticism with which experience has taught us to regard our own politicians. This pessimistic attitude toward authority presents a serious problem for Catholics, because as Catholics we owe the Church, and in particular the Holy Father, a degree of filial trust. Or, to use another term, we are obligated to show “docility” when it comes to the teachings of the Pope. This is something that is not optional. It is a matter of faith, because it is intrinsic to the nature and function of his office as successor of Peter.

Nor can this docility be treated, as with our modern politicians, as if it were a matter of personal preference, party platform, policy implementation, or our private judgment of his “performance” in office. We are bound as Catholics to accept the formulation of Pope Boniface VIII, even if we do not like it:

“We declare, say, define and pronounce, that it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.”[1]

This runs in direct opposition to the attitude we’ve been conditioned with through our citizenship in modern democracies, where our “agreement” with authority is always tentative, and where the rulers rule–in theory–only by the consent of the governed. Our submission to rule is therefore conditional, something we have granted and which we can revoke. No one considers obedience something they owe to the government simply because of what it is in itself.

Turning now to the Church, the reality is precisely the opposite. The authority of the Church and the obedience we owe to her are not derived in any way, shape, or form, from our “consent to be governed.” The right of the Church to proclaim the truth and our obligation to pay attention is derived from what the Church is. It does not depend on us. It is an authority conferred on her by Christ himself.

And so, while an American citizen might claim with some validity that Donald Trump is “not my President,” no Catholic can claim that Francis is “not my Pope” even privately. The only real result of such a statement would be to set oneself outside the Church. It would have no bearing on the legitimacy of the Pope, in theory or in practice.

If I appear to be dwelling on this point at length, it is only because of what I mentioned at the beginning of the section: as children of modern democracies, we have been conditioned by a very peculiar, very modern, attitude toward authority, and this view is diametrically opposed to that which must exist between Catholics and the pope.


Does this mean that there is no room for legitimate disagreement with the Holy Father? Are we to hang on every word as if it were infallible?

To answer this, we need to acknowledge that there are several levels of authoritative teaching which require different kinds of assent. It is not so simple as listing a few “required” teachings and then placing everything else in the “take it or leave it” bin. Edmund Waldstein[2] has demonstrated this by way of the Professio Fidei, which presents the following threefold division:

  1. With firm faith, I also believe everything contained in the word of God, whether written or handed down in Tradition, which the Church, either by a solemn judgment or by the ordinary and universal Magisterium, sets forth to be believed as divinely revealed.
  2. I also firmly accept and hold each and everything definitively proposed by the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals.
  3. Moreover, I adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman Pontiff or the College of Bishops enunciate when they exercise their authentic Magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act.

The first type of assent is one of absolute certainty, and depends on the veracity of God Himself. The second concerns the infallible teachings of Church, which is of a lower order than the former, but is still unconditional and certain. The third type is the more delicate, and although it requires submission of the will and intellect, this submission can be said to be “conditional.”

Citing Fr. Chad Ripperger:

“[In] the normal course of things one should simply follow the Magisterium. But the Church Herself recognizes by discussing the different kind of assent that there are occasion in which a particular member of the Magisterium will teach things contrary to the faith.”[3]

In this view, the only real “exception” to obedience occurs when the ecclesiastical authority teaches something that contradicts more authoritative teachings of the Church. Obviously that would be a very unusual circumstance.

We should also note how this exception does not allow for the rejection even of “non-infallible” teachings, simply because they happen to be displeasing or in contradiction to our own opinions. On the contrary, it implies submission to these non-infallible teachings as well. So again, the only exception is contradiction.

It is also necessary to emphasize that we should not be “at the ready” to discover contradiction in papal teaching, even if this or that document or statement could be construed as such. As a matter of piety, we are obliged to give a “reverential reading” to these teachings, interpreting them–if at all possible–in continuity with existing doctrine and practice:

“As a matter of piety, one ought to try to reconcile teachings of various popes. This does not require us to set aside reason when such statements are clearly contradictory and assert that they have continuity.”[4]

So yes, we do owe our assent to those few things which have been “infallibly declared,” such as the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. But it is incorrect to suggest that we are free to go our own way on anything else, or that everything else is therefore optional. Especially when it comes to those subjects we have learned to view as disconnected from dogma, we owe our assent. This includes teachings on the economy, for example.[5]

Borrowing again from Waldstein:

“The Church requires religious submission of will and intellect not only to the extraordinary magisterium but also to the ordinary magisterium…Moreover, the Pope and the other bishops (in their own dioceses) are not merely teachers; they are also rulers. Not only lawgivers and judges, but also executives. That is, it is their office to make prudential decisions which guide the rest of us.”[6]

And he continues by citing the example of Bl. John Henry Newman, who, even in the face of stark disagreement with what he believed were terrible policies, said:

“His yoke is the yoke of Christ, he has the responsibility of his own acts, not we; and to his Lord must he render account, not to us. Even in secular matters it is ever safe to be on his side, dangerous to be on the side of his enemies.”[7]

And again from Newman:

“[We] are in no doubt or trouble whatever, we have not a shadow of misgiving as to the permanence and the spiritual well-being either of Thy Church itself or of its rulers. Nor do we know what is best for Thy Church, and for the interests of the Catholic faith, and for the Pope, or the bishops throughout the world at this time. We leave the event entirely to Thee; we do so without any anxiety, knowing that everything must turn to the prosperity of Thy ransomed possession, even though things may look threatening for a season.”[8]


Before moving on, I should emphasize that my position here is that of Dr. Edward Peters, a canon lawyer who argues that the Pope has changed neither doctrine nor practice through the publication of Amoris Laetitia. Therefore, the issue of “disagreement” with him, at least on the present matter, needn’t have even entered the picture. But unfortunately it has entered the picture, along with so much confusion and conflict. The purpose of the exposition below is to ease the mind of the reader, and to demonstrate that there is nothing controversial in the document.

If anyone should object that such a reading is prejudiced in favor of Pope Francis, or that it approaches Amoris Laetitia with the a priori assumption that it is orthodox, I can only agree, although I must insist that this objection is actually a compliment.

2. Sacramental Theology and Moral Theology

One more observation, which is related to the above in that it explains why Pope Francis has not attempted to change sacramental discipline, and why it is likely that no one ever will. This is also important for those who see certain prohibitions as unnecessarily harsh condemnations aimed at those they affect.

When we are told we may not do a certain thing, we tend to interpret this as a statement about ourselves, or our personal worth. In some degree this is true, but in some cases the rejection is less about us than it is about the thing we wish to do. We are not excluded based on a judgement about our goodness, but based on the nature of the thing itself.

The may sound like a distinction without difference, but it is important because it tells us where the emphasis is placed in an argument. And sometimes, this emphasis is simply not placed on us.

With respect to our current subject, then, we need to acknowledge that when the Church concludes that certain couples cannot receive the Eucharist, it is true to say that this is a statement about them, but it is untrue to say that it is all about them, or that it is the result of a “moral absolutism” concerned with nothing but legal rigor. The Church has other things to consider, and in this case it is the nature of the Eucharist itself.

For example, look at the wording of the following passages and ask yourself if the focus is on condemnation of a sinner or, rather, on a profound awareness of the significance of the Eucharist:

“The Eucharist is the very source of Christian marriage. The Eucharistic Sacrifice, in fact, represents Christ’s covenant of love with the Church, sealed with His blood on the Cross. In this sacrifice of the New and Eternal Covenant, Christian spouses encounter the source from which their own marriage covenant flows, is interiorly structured and continuously renewed.”[9]

“If the Eucharist expresses the irrevocable nature of God’s love in Christ for his Church, we can then understand why it implies, with regard to the sacrament of Matrimony, that indissolubility to which all true love necessarily aspires.”[10]

What we can take from this is that the prohibitions against divorced and remarried persons receiving communion are not simply about their subjective state, but also concern the nature of the Eucharist itself, which is “the very source of Christian marriage” on account of the fact that it signifies and “realizes” the union between Christ and the Church, hence the insistence on referring to Christ’s relationship with the Church as “spousal.”

And so, when Cardinal Ratzinger, under instruction from St. John Paul II, affirmed the practice of denying divorced and remarried communicants, it was “from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and his church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist.”[11]

3. Continuity, Renewal, and the Signs of the Times

Most of the critics of Amoris Laetitia attack it on dialectic grounds. Dialectic, with its rigorous, linear application of reason, is appropriate for legal documents. It fails, however, when it comes to concrete circumstances–when it comes to lived reality. This is because the dialectical method presupposes a closed system, and cannot handle changes in its environment. Reality, though, is subject to constant change. It is a moving target. The dialectical method was excellent for Plato’s “Ideas.” It is less excellent when it comes to ministering to the human condition.

That is why, when we come to pastoral documents, a different approach is required, and this is synthesis. Only a synthetic approach is able to consider both the principle and the concrete reality in order to arrive at an appropriate prescription. Pope Francis is clearly a man of synthesis, and not of dialectic. Thus, Amoris Laetitia says at paragraph 79:

“Therefore, while clearly stating the Church’s teaching, pastors are to avoid judgements that do not take into account the complexity of various situations, and they are to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience and endure distress because of their condition.”

Only through synthesis can the Church accomplish its twofold task of continuity and renewal, as described by St. John Paul II:

“In effect, continuity and renewal are a proof of the perennial value of the teaching of the Church…This twofold dimension is typical of her teaching in the social sphere. On the one hand it is constant, for it remains identical in its fundamental inspiration, in its ‘principles of reflection,’ in its ‘criteria of judgment,’ in its basic ‘directives for action,’ and above all in its vital link with the Gospel of the Lord. On the other hand, it is ever new, because it is subject to the necessary and opportune adaptations suggested by the changes in historical conditions and by the unceasing flow of the events which are the setting of the life of people and society.”[12]

Those whose minds excel in the rigorous logical division and categorization of things will be thwarted and helpless when it comes to solving problems which have no precedent. They can only cover ground which has already been covered. They may cover it more rigorously, with greater precision at one time than at another, but if uncharted terrain unfolds before them, they become impotent.

Disciples of dialectic are, at their worst, much like the Pharisees, who had mastered the rigors of the Law but could not comprehend its fulfillment even when it stared them in the face and called them by name. The Law was the realm of dialectic. Christ is synthesis.

This Christ vs. Pharisee (synthesis vs. dialectic) tension has its recurrences throughout the history of the Church. We saw it at Vatican II, which set itself to the task, not of rigorously re-hashing and re-applying a set of codes, but of taking those codes and producing a new synthesis based on the guidance of the Holy Spirit and a careful reading of the signs of the times. And once again, those constrained by dialectic could not bear it. They still cannot bear it today.

Those who could not bear Vatican II will also not be able to bear Pope Francis, and this is illustrated most acutely in the reaction to Amoris Laetitia.

After all, everyone knows what the Church teaches about marriage and divorce, as we outlined above in this exposition. But we also know that sin itself is attached to conscience, and conscience is a socially formed thing. It cannot be described or judged “in the abstract.”

And in a culture of capitalism and contraception (and the two are not unrelated) it is impossible for most people to comprehend the moral law. We face a situation unprecedented in human history.

Yes, there were many times in history when immorality, sexual and otherwise, ruled the day. But the pagans (and too often the Christians) did what they did because they liked it. It was fun (until it wasn’t). But they never were in a position to redefine marriage, for example; they could never normalize the abnormal, despite how hard they might try. Sooner or later, biology alone was enough to call them back. But what do you do when even the chemical bonds between love and procreation are chemically dissolved?

What do you preach to a society where propaganda is the normative literature? Where people get messages, and get them 24/7, that are crafted with all the techniques of modern science at its most decadent, that decadence is the condition of freedom? In such conditions, they cannot help but experience the moral law as anything but external and arbitrary rules, contrary not only to freedom and happiness, but to reason itself.

And that is just a small part of the problem. In the past we were able to craft responses that were effective. The past, alas, is no longer a reliable guide since we have never faced this situation. How is the Church to fulfill its vital function as field hospital for sinners?

It is not unreasonable to suggest that for 300 years or more we have been in a long retreat. We have tried an index of forbidden books, a syllabus of errors, anti-modernist oath, and a dozen other such “remedies” that failed to make any impact, that hardly made a dent. Some would say that modernism finally overwhelmed the Church at Vatican II, and perhaps they are right. But it is also possible that something else took place, something that still has yet to be worked out. To return to the analogy of the field hospital, a new medicine was needed, because the old could not reckon with the new conditions of the patient.

That’s why Pope Francis has good reason to ask:

“How many of the young people who come to the premarital courses truly understand what ‘marriage’ means, the sign of the union of Christ and his Church. ‘Yes, yes’ – they say yes, but do they understand this?”[13]

It is more of a lamentation than a serious questions. It is not unreasonable to suggest that 95% of Americans–including American Catholics–are incapable of contracting a valid marriage; you cannot contract for something if you don’t know what it is. And they don’t. What does this mean for the Church and its mission?

In such conditions, it is not so much the private conscience that is the problem as the public conscience, formed as it is through a culture of ideology, of liberal individualism, of materialism, of capitalism that forms the minds of each citizen through the relentless application of sophisticated propaganda. We are the final product of a long process. And a response which doesn’t reckon with that fact isn’t really a response at all.

I believe these remarks are sufficient as preparation for an examination of the document itself. Following that examination, we will deal with the dubia submitted by the Cardinals, and conclude with a more direct discussion of Pope Francis, his approach,and his attitude toward the controversy.

4. Amoris Laetitia: Selections with Commentary

Having laid the groundwork for a proper approach to the document, let us proceed through some of the passages that have been the center of the most conflicting interpretations. Most of these will be found in chapter eight, which has been the focus of the controversy.

A. Section 298

No. 298 recognizes that there are,

“divorced who have entered a new union. . . consolidated over time, with new children, proven fidelity, generous self giving, Christian commitment, a consciousness of its irregularity and of the great difficulty of going back without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins,” and that “for serious reasons, such as the children’s upbringing, a man and woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate.”

Here Francis notes a very particular situation, specifying a number of conditions that specify the complex situation he has in mind. They are clearly meant to be taken together to describe one special situation that meets the various criteria, but I think it happens that the list is read as if he is taking a “shotgun approach” to specify a whole host of situations that merely meet one or more of the criteria. This is not what is actually said. This must be kept in mind as we unpack footnote 329, which has drawn so much attention of the wrong kind, both in scrutiny and in praise.

B. Footnote 329

This footnote reads:

“In such situations, 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’ (Gaudium et Spes, 51).”

Here several observations are warranted:

  1. The pope has already recalled the teaching of Familiaris Consortio, which prohibits such couples living more uxorio, prescribing instead chastity as brothers and sisters.
  1. The pope, although making reference to the Second Vatican Council document that speaks of conjugal intimacy, is referring only to intimacy. This intimacy will be neither conjugal nor sexual (taking into account the difference we noted above). In fact, it is not possible that he refers to conjugal love, since the two are not husband and wife.
  1. The pope is referring–as he clearly states–to people “knowing and accepting” the injunction to live “as brothers and sisters.” Thus, even if it happens that such persons go further in their expressions of intimacy, pastors must use patience, guiding them according to the counsel of Humanae Vitae, no. 25:

“If, however, sin still exercises its hold over them, they are not to lose heart. Rather must they, humble and persevering, have recourse to the mercy of God, abundantly bestowed in the Sacrament of Penance.”

Through this unstrained reading of the passage, we can see clear conformity with Veritatis Spendor, no. 52:

“The negative precepts of the natural law are universally valid. They oblige each and every individual, always and in every circumstance. It is a matter of prohibitions which forbid a given action semper et pro semper, without exception, because the choice of this kind of behaviour is in no case compatible with the goodness of the will of the acting person, with his vocation to life with God and to communion with his neighbour. It is prohibited — to everyone and in every case — to violate these precepts. They oblige everyone, regardless of the cost, never to offend in anyone, beginning with oneself, the personal dignity common to all.”

C. Section 299

Amoris Laetitia is, we must remember, a post-synodal apostolic exhortation. This means that it is the product, not of the Pope’s midnight musings, but of a planned and comprehensive convocation which was conducted for specific purposes. What proved to be the most controversial of those purposes is mentioned in no. 299:

“The baptized who are divorced and civilly remarried need to be more fully integrated into Christian communities in the variety of ways possible, while avoiding any occasion of scandal.”

As we proceed, this stated pastoral concern and the limits it explicitly places on acceptable range of action must be kept at the forefront. We must read this as an acknowledgement of Church teaching, which, to quote Familiaris Consortio, no. 84, is as follows:

“However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.

“Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage. This means, in practice, that when, for serious reasons, such as for example the children’s upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they “take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.”

What this means is that, even if a priest grants absolution to such persons, he or she may only receive communion where their condition is unknown, in order to avoid scandal among the faithful. In other words, communion may be in another city where the cohabitation is not public knowledge, or else a private communion may be requested. This is what the Church means when it says that communion is only available to such persons remoto scandolo.

We find this affirmed in the following declaration of the pontifical council for legislative texts, July 7, 2000:

“Those faithful who are divorced and remarried would not be considered to be within the situation of serious habitual sin who would not be able, for serious motives – such as, for example, the upbringing of the children – ‘to satisfy the obligation of separation, assuming the task of living in full continence, that is, abstaining from the acts proper to spouses’ (Familiaris Consortio, n. 84), and who on the basis of that intention have received the sacrament of Penance. Given that the fact that these faithful are not living ‘more uxorio’ is per se occult, while their condition as persons who are divorced and remarried is per se manifest, they will be able to receive Eucharistic Communion only ‘remoto scandalo’.”

D. Section 301

At no. 301 we are provided with more reassurance that Amoris Laetitia does not wish to depart from previous teachings:

“The Church possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations. Hence it is 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.”

This statement, straightforward as it seems, does deserve some comment. For example, we run into Pope Francis’ normal way of speaking, which assumes a general audience rather than experts in doctrine. I say this because, to an expert in doctrine, the phrase “it can no longer simply be said” would not make any sense, since what he refers to has never been said by the magisterium or any secondary authority.

Pope Francis must have known, for example, that the declaration of April 26, 1971, from the congregation for the clergy, stated:

“Particular circumstances surrounding an objectively evil human act, while they cannot make it objectively virtuous, can make it inculpable, diminished in guilt or subjectively

E. Section 301 (continued)

Referring back to no. 301, we find the following:

“Saint Thomas Aquinas himself recognized that someone may possess grace and charity, yet not be able to exercise any one of the virtues well (Summa Theologiae  I-II, 65, 3, ad 2); in other words, although someone may possess all the infused moral virtues, he does not clearly manifest the existence of one of them, because the outward practice of that virtue is rendered difficult: ‘Certain saints are said not to possess certain virtues, in so far as they experience difficulty in the acts of those virtues, even though they have the habits of all the virtues’ (ibid., ad 3).”

Here again, are we to take this to mean that if some couples in irregular situations engage in sexual intercourse, then they are still living in grace? That is possible, but that is not necessary, nor is it advisable if we have adopted an approach of in meliorem partem.

To show that Francis is technically correct, we may cite what St. Thomas Aquinas actually says:

“It happens sometimes that a man who has a habit finds it difficult to act in accordance with the habit, and consequently feels no pleasure and complacency in the act, on account of some impediment supervening from without: thus a man who has a habit of study finds it difficult to understand, through being sleepy or unwell. In like manner sometimes the habits of moral virtue experience difficulty in their works, by reason of certain ordinary dispositions remaining from previous acts. This difficulty does not occur in respect of acquired moral virtue, because the repeated acts by which they are acquired remove also the contrary dispositions.”[15]

And ad 3:

“Certain saints are said not to have certain virtues, in so far as they experience difficulty in the acts of those virtues, for the reason stated; although they have the habits of all the virtues.”

What is meant is that some practice a given virtue (such as devotion) badly, or not at all, on account of the dispositions left by the previous actions (illness or sleep deprivation).

But it is one thing to speak of practicing a virtue poorly or not at all. It is something entirely different to commit a grave sin against that virtue. The former does not imply offense against the Lord, while the latter always does.

Referring again to St. Thomas, if an individual act is contrary to an acquired virtue, this does not necessarily cause the loss of this virtue because, even if it contrasts the virtue, it does not contrasts the habit. For example, if one who is normally sober should get drunk, this does not result in the loss of the virtue of sobriety, since the habit of sobriety, even if diminished in some way, remains present.

Taking what we have just said into account, then, could it mean that couples with a habit of chastity remain chaste even if they should once or twice engage in intercourse? Again, no. St. Thomas actually points out that there is an exception in the case of lustfulness, since through this act chastity is intrinsically destroyed.[16]

Due to this, we can assume that when Pope Francis says that “someone may possess grace and charity, yet not be able to exercise any one of the virtues well,” he means precisely what he says. Those couples who have chosen not to separate but rather continue to live together, perhaps for the sake of children, but not more uxorio, are, according to what has just been said above, not practicing charity well. They are practicing it, but not in the best manner, due, as Francis continues, to the fact that “the outward practice of the virtue is rendered difficult.”

We must not put in his words another phrasing, such as that “someone may possess grace and charity, yet commit grave sins against it.” He does not say this, and if he did he would then contradict, not just St. Thomas Aquinas, but the Church herself.

F. Section 302

Earlier we made reference to the problem of dialectic, which obsesses over the rigourous, rational application of rules. Another problem with this mentality is that, operating in the ‘general,’ it is often unable to handle ‘the specific.’ That is to say, it insists on applying everywhere a general norm, and interprets any acknowledgement of individual cases as a deviation from right reason. Amoris Laetitia insists on correcting this, taking account of the fact that individual cases are always different, and it lists some of the factors that must be taken into account:

“The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly mentions these factors: ‘imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors’ (no. 1735). In another paragraph, the Catechism refers once again to circumstances which mitigate moral responsibility, and mentions at length ‘affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen or even extenuate moral culpability.’ (no. 2352) For this reason, a negative judgment about an objective situation does not imply a judgment about the imputability or culpability of the person involved (Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, Declaration Concerning the Admission to Holy Communion of Faithful Who are Divorced and Remarried (24 June 2000).”

Here again, he who insists on applying “the objective standard” and nothing else will run aground. The objective standard is always there, but these other factors must be accepted as well, for they are just as real.

Moreover, we should remind the reader that this is also the list of reasons why an ecclesiastical tribunal may grant an annulment of a contracted marriage.

This is a very important point, because here we see that Pope Francis does present the official path to annulment as the first choice for couples who find themselves in an “irregular marriage.” He does not skip over this and act as if annulment is no longer necessary, insisting instead that the process be reformed to reduce red tape, granting a sentence within a year.

Placing annulment procedure at the top of the list when it comes to reintegrating divorced and remarried decreases the chances of confusion among the faithful, which would naturally arise if things were simply left to the sometimes inconsistent discretion of a parish priest.

G. Section 304

Here the Pope claims:

“It is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being.”

As with the statements contained in no. 301, these ideas are not new, and have been part of the Catholic moral tradition since Aquinas. There are in fact three criteria to be taken into account in order to discern the morality of an act: object (finis operis), intention (finis operantis), and circumstance.[17]

Obviously the Pope is referring to those who would suggest that only the object of the act be taken into account, which would, as he says, be an oversimplified and superficial understanding of morality.

H. Section 303

In Amoris Laetitia, 303, we find an exhortation to acknowledge the complexity of the state and formation of the conscience:

“Recognizing the influence of such concrete factors, 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. Naturally, every effort should be made to encourage the development of an enlightened conscience, formed and guided by the responsible and serious discernment of one’s pastor, and to encourage an ever greater trust in God’s grace. Yet 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. In any event, let us recall that this discernment is dynamic; it must remain ever open to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realized.”

It has been suggested that this denies Veritatis Splendor no. 56, where it is explained why circumstance and situation, even if these are valid considerations when it comes to the guilt of the individual, cannot transform an objectively evil act into a good act:

“In order to justify these positions, some authors have proposed a kind of double status of moral truth. Beyond the doctrinal and abstract level, one would have to acknowledge the priority of a certain more concrete existential consideration. The latter, by taking account of circumstances and the situation, could legitimately be the basis of certain exceptions to the general rule and thus permit one to do in practice and in good conscience what is qualified as intrinsically evil by the moral law. A separation, or even an opposition, is thus established in some cases between the teaching of the precept, which is valid in general, and the norm of the individual conscience, which would in fact make the final decision about what is good and what is evil. On this basis, an attempt is made to legitimize so-called “pastoral” solutions contrary to the teaching of the Magisterium, and to justify a “creative” hermeneutic according to which the moral conscience is in no way obliged, in every case, by a particular negative precept.

“No one can fail to realize that these approaches pose a challenge to the very identity of the moral conscience in relation to human freedom and God’s law. Only the clarification made earlier with regard to the relationship, based on truth, between freedom and law makes possible a discernment concerning this “creative” understanding of conscience.”

Placing these passages side-by-side, it is clear that Pope Francis does not in any way deny the objective evil of a given question. In fact, to even suggest that this is what he is doing seems to convey a determination to miss his point. All Pope Francis has said here is that the sinner who wishes to improve his situation is doing something that is good, and is in a different state than the sinner who submits to his vice. And it is telling that, when he says this, his critics can only reply that vice is evil. And so it is. He never denied it. He just chose not to focus on it, because there are other things to talk about.

I. Section 305

No. 305 reads:

“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. Discernment must help to find possible ways of responding to God and growing in the midst of limits.”

A hermeneutic of discontinuity would have us read this as an attempt to sidestep requirements for communion. A hermeneutic of continuity and good faith, on the other hand, allows us to see that these words are a fairly obvious reiteration of the requirement that in order to receive holy communion it is necessary to be in the grace of God.

It could be nothing else, since this requirement is not a matter of discipline, or a human standard, but is a divine norm, taken directly from Scripture:

“Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let each one therefore examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why there are many sick among you, and a good number have died” (1 Cor 11:27-30).

J. Footnote 351

When we arrive at footnote 351, we find the following:

“In certain cases, this 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’ (Evangelii Gaudium, 44). I would also point out that the Eucharist ‘is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak’ (EG 47).”

First, we need to note what he did not say. He did not say that holy communion should be given to divorced and remarried persons without qualification. Second, and keeping in mind what was just said, he allows for “certain cases,” which are those in which the individual has repented and is living in grace–meaning without adulterous relations. Such a person may, according to existing teaching, participate in the Eucharist, provided, as was said above, this takes place remoto scandalo.

Much has been made of the reminder offered to priests, battling the idea of the confessional-as-torture-chamber, and presenting the Eucharist not as prize but as medicine for the weak. This is indeed a powerful insight and much needed. Still, we should only take this for what it says, and not put words in the Pope’s mouth. What he says is true, in that we are all weak and all who receive the Eucharist are strengthened by the Body of Christ. But we go too far if we extend this to mean that one who is truly in mortal sin can approach the Eucharist without confession. Just as certain medical treatments presuppose others, and would be harmful if the prerequisite treatment were not already administered, so also the Eucharist is poison and not medicine to those who’ve not been spiritually resuscitated” via confession.

To say otherwise would again be contrary to the Scripture cited above: “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor 11:27).

This is why St. John Paul II wrote in Ecclesia de Eucharistia, no. 36, that:

“The Apostle Paul appeals to this duty when he warns: ‘Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup’ (1 Cor 11:28). Saint John Chrysostom, with his stirring eloquence, exhorted the faithful: ‘I too raise my voice, I beseech, beg and implore that no one draw near to this sacred table with a sullied and corrupt conscience. Such an act, in fact, can never be called communion, not even were we to touch the Lord’s body a thousand times over, but condemnation, torment and increase of punishment.’ Along these same lines, the Catechism of the Catholic Church rightly stipulates that ‘anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to communion.’ I therefore desire to reaffirm that in the Church there remains in force, now and in the future, the rule by which the Council of Trent gave concrete expression to the Apostle Paul’s stern warning when it affirmed that, in order to receive the Eucharist in a worthy manner, ‘one must first confess one’s sins, when one is aware of mortal sin’.”


If we accept this reading of the most controversial passages from Amoris Laetitia, then we are left with a document that is free of contradiction, free of novelty, and certainly free of heresy. Now we may proceed to address the questions presented to Francis in response to the document–the five dubia.

5. Four Cardinals, Five Dubia

In September 19, 2016, Cardinals Brandmüller, Burke, Caffarra, and Meisner, submitted five dubia (‘doubts’) to His Holiness Pope Francis. When Pope Francis chose not to respond directly to this appeal, the Cardinals released their letter to the public. The text is reproduced below.

The text of the dubia

  1. 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, 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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)?
  4. 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”?
  5. 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 emphasizes that conscience can never be authorized to legitimate exceptions to absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts by virtue of their object?


First dubium

Response: No. This follows from the items examined above.

As Cardinal Müller has said in an interview:[18]

Amoris Laetitia must clearly be interpreted in the light of the whole doctrine of the Church…it is not right that so many bishops are interpreting Amoris Laetitia according to their way of understanding the pope’s teaching. This does not keep to the line of Catholic doctrine. The magisterium of the pope is interpreted only by him or through the congregation for the doctrine of the faith. The pope interprets the bishops, it is not the bishops who interpret the pope, this would constitute an inversion of the structure of the Catholic Church. To all these who are talking too much, I urge them to study first the doctrine [of the councils] on the papacy and the episcopate. The bishop, as teacher of the Word, must himself be the first to be well-formed so as not to fall into the risk of the blind leading the blind.”

And elsewhere in the same interview he was asked:

“The exhortation of Saint John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, stipulates that divorced and remarried couples that cannot separate, in order to receive the sacraments must commit to live in continence. Is this requirement still valid?”

To which Müller responded:

“Of course, it is not dispensable, because it is not only a positive law of John Paul II, but he expressed an essential element of Christian moral theology and the theology of the sacraments…For us marriage is the expression of participation in the unity between Christ the bridegroom and the Church his bride…This is the substance of the sacrament, and no power in heaven or on earth, neither an angel, nor the pope, nor a council, nor a law of the bishops, has the faculty to change it.”

Second dubium

Response: Yes. See 4-G above.

Third dubium

Response: Yes. See 4-D and 4-E above.

Fourth dubium

Response: Yes. See 4-F above.

Fifth dubium

Response: Yes. See 4-H above.

These responses are necessarily simplistic, but they suffice because the answer need not be complicated. We could complicate it. We can complicate anything through the rigorous application of the dialectic method. But we need not do that if the answer is simple.

6. The Sound of Silence

We have answered the dubia, but that is easy. And in fact the questions were designed to be easy to answer. So why weren’t they answered? This, I think, is the most interesting part of the whole controversy, because in fact Pope Francis has made an answer to the dubia. In fact, he answered it peremptorily, within the exhortation itself, when in paragraph 308 he said:

“I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion. But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a Mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, ‘always does what good she can, even if in the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street’”

He has since reiterated the point to everyone, on both sides of the aisle, even if they both seem to persist in refusing to accept it. Given a dozen times since publication of the document, it usually runs something like this:

“Jesus does not answer whether it is lawful or not lawful; He doesn’t enter into their casuistic logic. Because they thought of the faith only in terms of ‘Yes, you can,” or “No, you can’t” – to the limits of what you can do, the limits of what you can’t do. That logic of casuistry. And He asks a question: “But what did Moses command you? What is in your Law?” And they explained the permission Moses had given to put away the wife, and they themselves fall into the trap. Because Jesus qualifies them as ‘hard of heart’: ‘Because of the hardness of your hearts he wrote you this commandment,’ and He speaks the truth. Without casuistry. Without permissions. The truth…the path of Jesus – it’s quite clear – is the path from casuistry to truth and mercy. Jesus lays aside casuistry. Not here, but in other passages from the Gospel, He qualifies those who want to put Him to the test, those who think with this logic of ‘Yes, you can’ as hypocrites.”[19]

Pope Francis has a mission, and his objective is not legal clarity. It is encounter. His mission is to inject life and movement into the Church. As Edmund Waldstein has observed, he is more concerned with “initiating processes” than with “occupying spaces.”[20]

And besides, if he responded to the dubia with clear, yes-or-no answers. What would that accomplish? The problem would be dead. All concerned parties would then just go back to sleep. Why would he want that? That is not to say he is intentionally sowing scandal, but I think it is fair to say he is not concerned if certain groups are scandalized.

He wants us to become aware of the need to integrate the divorced and remarried into the life of the Church, and this is more important to him than legal clarity. For the Franciscan mission there is an insistence that the “spirit” is greater than “the letter.” He has not changed the letter, and I do not believe he has any interest in doing so, but he doesn’t want to talk about it either, nor is he interested in “putting at ease” the minds of those who get in an uproar at the thought that he might be too lax with sinners on his watch.

That is not to say that he does not have support. We must not forget that at the center of the controversy, out of more than two-hundred in the College of Cardinals, only four signed the dubia.

Thus, Cardinal Wuerl of Washington begins a recent article by observing that:

“A very small number of people, whose voices have been amplified by some of the Catholic media, have challenged the integrity of Pope Francis’ post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia.”

He then continues to describe the more general attitude he has encountered:

“At a recent meeting with a number of priests, when the topic of the pastoral implications of Amoris Laetitia and its pastoral application came up, most were explicit that they recognized an affirmation of their own pastoral concern and accompaniment in the apostolic exhortation.

“It seems that what is at issue is not what the exhortation says but rather where one chooses to place the emphasis.  Some seem much more comfortable emphasizing the teaching and the obligations of canon law.  While so many more, the  majority of bishops, including those who were a part of both synods on marriage, accept the canon law, but also see the Gospel value of accompaniment and the Church’s recognition of the state of an individual’s conscience in the whole process of judgment making.”

In an interview with America Magazine, Cardinal Wuerl suggested that the strength of Francis’ approach is that he has reconnected the Church with the spirit of Vatican II, emphasizing “a moral theology that rests on scripture and Jesus’ command to love and to the virtues that are the signs of a moral life, not the rigid following of the letter of the law.”

Here Wuerl affirms what we suggested earlier, that those who could not internalize or accept the spirit of the Second Vatican Council are the same who struggle with Amoris.

Rev. Louis J. Cameli of Chicago expresses the same thing:

“The dubia are not really expressions of doubt or questions but rather assertions that “Amoris Laetitia” appears to have abandoned or altered key teachings of Catholic tradition, especially as they have been expressed most recently by St. John Paul II in his encyclical letter “Veritatis Splendor”…I propose that the dubia stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of “Amoris Laetitia” and, indeed, of the renewal that began with the Second Vatican Council.”

Renewal, according to Wuerl and Cameli, and according to Francis himself, requires not so much a die-hard emphasis on the letter as it does a certain docility to the spirit which opens the way to growth:

“In days past, the Church has shown us how there can be a drama of resisting the Spirit: closed, hard, foolish hearts resisting the Spirit. We’ve seen things – the healing of the lame man by Peter and John at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple…but they were closed off to these signs of the Spirit and resisted the Spirit. They were seeking to justify this resistance with a so-called fidelity to the law, that is, to the letter of the law…the Church proposes the opposite: no resistance to the Spirit, but docility to the Spirit, which is precisely the attitude of the Christian.”

In pursuing this route, Pope Francis creates tension in the same way the Christ created tension. Or perhaps it is better to say that he exacerbates a tension that has existed for some time. He refuses straight answers to legalistic questions in the same way that Christ refused them. His mission, and he is dead set on accomplishing it, is to force the Church into a position of encounter, to force everyone to the front lines, where they are supposed to be anyway.

If he must tolerate a bit of tension, a bit of dissent in the hierarchy, a bit of chaos, this is necessary for the same reason that a bit of pain is necessary when pulling off a Band-Aid.

That is why, when the Pope has responded, he simply chastens his objectors for an obsession with what can and cannot be done, with a vision that insists on seeing the world as pure black and pure white.

Lastly, I feel compelled to remind the reader that this chastening applies not only to his critics, but also to those who stand opposite the four Cardinals–those who, equally obsessed with what can and cannot be permitted, try to construe his words as a change in the letter of the law, or an official modification of Church doctrine. Like it or not, Pope Francis is orthodox.



[1] Papal Bull of Pope Boniface VIII, Unam Sanctam,

[2] https://sancrucensis.wordpress.com/2016/05/17/amoris-laetitia/

[3] Ripperger, Magisterial Authority, p. 39.

[4] Ibid., p. 24.

[5] Quadragesimo Anno, 130.

[6] https://sancrucensis.wordpress.com/2013/03/28/on-legitimate-disagreements-with-the-successors-of-the-apostles-in-prudential-matters/

[7] http://newmanreader.org/works/occasions/sermon15.html

[8] https://books.google.at/books?id=_EademVQkeUC&lpg=PA270&dq=newman+prayer+holy+father&pg=PA270&hl=de#v=onepage&q&f=false

[9] Familiaris Consortio, 57.

[10] Sacramentum Caritatis, 29.

[11] Letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to the World’s Bishops.

[12] Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 3.

[13] http://www.lastampa.it/2017/02/26/vaticaninsider/eng/the-vatican/the-pope-priests-called-to-be-close-to-young-people-living-together-in-prematrimonial-situations-1tIwVmlBwWFUeq6qL3uC6I/pagina.html

[14] L’Osservatore Romano,

[15] Summa Theologica I-II, q. 65, 3, ad 2.

[16] Commentary on the Sentences II, d. 42, q. 1, a. 2, ad 4).

[17] Summa Theologica II-I, q. 18.

[18] http://magister.blogautore.espresso.repubblica.it/2017/02/01/the-pope-is-silent-but-cardinal-muller-speaks-who-responds-to-the-%E2%80%9Cdubia%E2%80%9D-this-way/

[19] http://en.radiovaticana.va/news/2017/02/24/pope_francis_in_god_there_is_both_justice_and_mercy/1294715

[20] https://sancrucensis.wordpress.com/2016/12/07/dubia-and-initiating-processes/

5 responses to Understanding the Amoris Laetitia Controversy

  1. Paul Fahey March 1st, 2017 at 10:33 am

    Minor correction to be made in the last paragraph of section 4H:

    “And it is telling that, when he says this, his critics can only reply that vice is evil. And so it. He never denied it. He just chose not to focus on it, because there are other things to talk about.”

    That shortest sentence should read, “And so it is.”


    • Daniel Schwindt March 1st, 2017 at 10:36 am

      Updated. Thank you!


  2. Robert Hill March 16th, 2017 at 7:42 pm

    So Henry VIII is still covered cause it was over 300 years ago? St Thomas More did not die for nothing?

    If Catholics were confused before, will this help? The bishops of Malta, San Diego, etc. don’t seem to have read the same document you did. But maybe they’re tightening up their pre-Cana classes even as we speak. Maybe they’re instructing their priests to turn off the TVs, and other fonts of evil propoganda. One can hope?

    God help us.


  3. Ichthus March 18th, 2017 at 9:00 am

    So am I to understand that Pope Francis’s point is simply that divorced and remarried members of the church can receive Communion if they have a general intention to abstain from conjugal relations with their current partner, even if from time to time they may succumb to temptation and engage in sexual intercourse with that current partner. As long as they go to confession before going to Communion. And as long as they don’t receive communion in their regular church but in a church where nobody knows them?


    • Daniel Schwindt March 18th, 2017 at 9:36 am

      That is correct, and is, in my opinion, the best way to embrace Pope Francis’ unique pastoral emphasis while at the same time not imputing to him any departure from doctrine.


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