The Personalist Project

Accessed on April 20, 2019 - 12:42:38

Contra the Dubia, part 2

Katie van Schaijik, Dec 06, 2016

In my earlier post about the Dubia, I slid past the Cardinals' introductory claim that by publicizing their doubts they are acting on "a specific duty":

According to the Code of Canon Law (cc. 349) the cardinals, even taken individually, are entrusted with the task of helping the Pope to care for the universal Church.

I let that stand without looking into it, because what do I know of Canon Law? But, since several critics of my post claimed that the Cardinals were acting canonically, I followed up this morning. Reading the number they cite, I find that my impression of their disingenuousness is much increased. [Links in the original]

The cardinals of the Holy Roman Church constitute a special college which provides for the election of the Roman Pontiff according to the norm of special law. The cardinals assist the Roman Pontiff either collegially when they are convoked to deal with questions of major importance, or individually when they help the Roman Pontiff through the various offices they performespecially in the daily care of the universal Church

Nothing in this item of Canon Law indicates "a specific duty" of Cardinals to publicly challenge the Pope when they judge him to be teaching ambiguously. Nothing indicates even that it's okay for them to publicly challenge the Pope on any grounds whatsoever, or to take ecclesial initiative independently of him. Nothing indicates that he is in any way accountable to them. As I read this item, it becomes much clearer that the Cardinals answer to the Pope, not vice versa. Their prime duty is to elect Popes. Their secondary duty is to assist him when they are convoked by him in college, or individually, through their appointed offices in the daily care of the Church. They are deputies. 

These four Cardinals, in publicizing their doubts, are acting neither collegially in a convocation called by the Pope, nor individually through their appointed offices. Rather, they are acting as a faction.

And let me raise this question with the defenders of the Cardinals: Assuming for a moment (what in fact I doubt) that they are genuinely confused themselves as to the meaning of that footnote in Amoris Laetitia, what good do they imagine will come from publishing their doubt and confusion among the faithful, who (be they ever so highly educated) lack the competence to weigh such matters justly? What can they hope to achieve, beyond an increase in worry and mistrust of the Pope? The laity are not the Pope's constituents; we have no right of oversight in his exercise of the Petrine ministry.  

On to the text of the Cardinals' questions:

After the publication of the post-synodal exhortation Amoris Laetitia (cf. n. 304), does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II's encyclical Veritatis Splendor n. 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?

This is not an honest question. These Cardinals cannot seriously wonder whether it's now possible to consider a fundamental moral teaching "based on Sacred Scripture and the Tradition of the Church" invalid. They know very well it isn't. They know that the Pope cannot teach that there is no such thing as a moral absolute or an exceptionless moral norm. They know that the Pope knows this. They are not asking for information; they are setting a trap. The question is designed (consciously or not) to insinuate into the minds of readers that unless the Pope conforms to their demand for clarification and explicitly affirms (one more time) the intrinsic evil of adultery and the binding nature of the moral law, they will be justified in presuming him guilty of false teaching, discontinuity with the Tradition, and moral relativism.

After Amoris Laetitia (n. 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 (cf. Mt 19:3-9), finds him or herself in an objective situation of grave habitual sin (cf. Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, Declaration, June 24, 2000)?

On my reading, this question is either a meaningless tautology—Is it possible to affirm that someone who is habitually contradicting the moral law is habitually contradicting the moral law?—or it poses a false alternative: Either you must claim that adultery is sometimes okay, or you must disavow Amoris Laetitia n.301. Choose.

A genuine theological question would have read something more like, "Is it correct to interpret AL n. 301 as indicating that some who are in objectively irregular conjugal relationships might not be in a state of mortal sin and hence ineligible to receive Holy Communion?"

Framing it that way, though, would make that AL footnote seem much less dubious and problematic, wouldn't it?

I have the same objection to this question:

After the affirmations of Amoris Laetitia (n. 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 n. 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"?

The Cardinals know that the Pope cannot (and would not) teach that an intrinsically evil act can be justified by subjectivity. Since they know that, a more honest question might have been, "Could you clarify how pastors are to understand the distinction AL implicitly draws between 'objectively irregular' and 'intrinsically evil'?" Such a question, instead of stoking alarm, would have served to relieve the anxiety of the faithful by reminding them that there is such a distinction and that it is an all-important one in the context.

Ditto for the following paragraph:

After Amoris Laetitia (n. 303) does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II's encyclical Veritatis Splendor n. 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?

Some of my critics are pointing out that some priests and bishops are sure to interpret AL in just this way—as if individual consciences are free to authorize exemptions for themselves from absolute moral norms. (Some are already doing it. One friend told of a priest who has issued a blanket invitation to cohabiting and divorced and remarried couples in his parish to receive Communion.) To that I say that the Pope is not responsible for abuses of his teaching, just as the Vatican II Council fathers were not responsible for those who used its occasion to consider themselves free to abandon orthodoxy and moral precepts according to their personal imagination of the Council's "spirit."

Popes (and ecclesial councils) are bound to teach sound doctrine. They are not bound to ensure that their teaching cannot be misconstrued by bad actors, or even misunderstood by sincere members of the faithful. That would be impossible, even for the Vicar of Christ, since human beings are free.

You can say that Popes are bound in justice and charity to minimize the likelihood of abuses and misunderstandings to the best of their ability, and I wouldn't disagree. I would only point out that we have no grounds for believing that the Pope didn't do that. My supposition to the contrary is that the Pope convened the twin Synods exactly for the purpose of helping him find the mode and formulation for the change he wanted to institute that would be as little disruptive and susceptible to confusion as possible.

The reason that a lot of confusion has arisen even so is, in my view, threefold:

1) The matter at hand is objectively extremely complex and delicate.

2) Many liberals in the Church, who have a subjectivistic tendency, will be apt to read relativism into it and celebrate it as permitting what it doesn't permit.

3) Many conservatives in the Church, who have an "excessively objectivistic" tendency (in JP II's phrase), will also be apt to read relativism into it and denounce it as permitting what it doesn't permit.

The key to a right interpretation, I am persuaded, lies in a deeper penetration of the mystery of subjectivity and its relation to the objective moral law. 

But I'm not done with my critique of the text Dubia. More when I get a chance.