In December, in a letter directed to Pope Francis and the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, four cardinals cited dubia (literally, “doubts”) or questions about the post-synodal apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia.” The cardinals then made their letter available to the general public. Their concerns about the exhortation centered on what they felt it had provoked: “uncertainty, confusion, and disorientation among many of the faithful.”
Although they wanted to resolve uncertainty, it seems that their letter may have exacerbated it. In these reflections, I hope to offer some clarifications that will address the dubia as well as allow for a wider and more genuine appropriation of the pope’s message.
In summary, the five dubia suggest that “Amoris Laetitia” may have altered traditional Catholic teaching on the following matters:
- the indissolubility of the sacramental marriage bond;
- the existence of absolute moral norms prohibiting intrinsically evil acts;
- that one can find oneself in an objective situation of grave habitual sin by living in contradiction to a commandment of God’s law;
- that circumstances or intentions can never transform an intrinsically evil act into a subjectively good one or into a defensible choice;
- that there can be no “creative” role for conscience to authorize legitimate exceptions to absolute moral norms.
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” (1993).
Pope Francis has chosen not to respond to the cardinals and their dubia. Why? I would suggest that it is because the questions raised by the cardinals cannot be answered. What does this mean? The dubia suggest that “Amoris Laetitia” has brought change or novelty to traditional Catholic teaching. Repeatedly, whether in the context of “Amoris Laetitia” itself or other discourses, the pope has affirmed that there is no new teaching and no change in the teaching. If this is so, what would be the origin of the dubia?
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 and was fostered by John Paul II—including his encyclical “Veritatis Splendor.”
It is important to note that there were two synods devoted to family life in 2014 and 2015. Through a very wide consultation, the first synod identified the experience and challenges of marriage and family life today. The second synod explored the appropriate pastoral responses that the church might offer to families. In some quarters, the mention of a “pastoral response” provokes a negative reaction. For some, “pastoral” means an easier way or a more accommodating path without regard for the hard truth. In fact, a pastoral approach is not necessarily easier or more accommodating, but it does try to incorporate the truth of the Gospel into the lived experience of people. Ultimately, this response has its roots in the public ministry of Jesus. More recently, the Second Vatican Council underscored the pastoral task and responsibility of the church.
In his apostolic constitution, “Humanae Salutis,” convoking the council, St. John XXIII set the pastoral direction for the gathering: “Today, the Church is witnessing a crisis under way within society. While humanity is on the edge of a new era, tasks of immense gravity and amplitude await the Church, as in the most tragic periods of its history. It is a question in fact of bringing the modern world into contact with the vivifying and perennial energies of the gospel” [emphasis added].
And in his opening speech to the council, in words that could likewise be applied to “Amoris Laetitia,” he said:
The salient point of this Council is not…a discussion of one article or another of the fundamental doctrine of the Church which has repeatedly been taught by the Fathers and by ancient and modern theologians, and which is presumed to be well known and familiar to all. For this a Council was not necessary…the Christian, Catholic, and apostolic spirit of the whole world expects a step forward toward doctrinal penetration and a formation of consciousness in faith and perfect conformity to authentic doctrine…. The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another. And it is the latter that must be taken into great consideration with patience if necessary, everything being measured in the forms and proportions of a magisterium which is predominantly pastoral in character [emphases added].
Clearly, the pastoral program of renewal envisioned by John XXIII was designed to be a formational journey that would bring people to the truth that is, ultimately, Jesus Christ. This is the same pastoral program envisioned by “Amoris Laetitia.” The irony of the cardinal’s dubia is that they suggest the apostolic exhortation is unfaithful to the tradition, when, in fact, it means to bring people to greater fidelity and greater conformity with the truth in Jesus Christ.
The Gospel Journey
The real driving question of this process is this: How do you bring people forward to greater and greater conformity with the truth of the Gospel? Do you do this by arguing for objective truth? Yes, of course, objective truth is fundamental. The reality of the kingdom of God has an objectivity about it. It is not the stuff of our own construction or imagination. God gives us his kingdom and it has its own objectivity: “an eternal and universal kingdom, a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace” (Preface from the feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe).
But is “objective truth” the end of the story? By no means. In a telling statement, John Paul II reinforces the need for and distinctiveness of the pastoral and formational dimension of the church’s mission in bringing the truth of the Gospel to people. He writes:
The discernment which the Church carries out with regard to these [incorrect] ethical theories is not simply limited to denouncing and refuting them. In a positive way, the Church seeks, with great love, to help all the faithful to form a moral conscience which will make judgments and lead to decisions in accordance with the truth…. This effort by the Church finds its support—the ‘secret’ of its educative power—not so much in doctrinal statements and pastoral appeals to vigilance, as in constantly looking to the Lord Jesus (“Veritatis Splendor,” No. 85) [emphasis original].
Even more impressive than his words about moral formation is John Paul II’s phenomenology of formation that begins the encyclical (Nos. 6-21): the story of Jesus’ dialogue with the rich young man in Matthew (19:16-22). Jesus does not simply announce the truth and leave the young man to accept it or reject it. Rather, Jesus engages in a process to bring the young man forward. John Paul II says, “Jesus, as a patient and sensitive teacher, answers the young man by taking him, as it were, by the hand, and leading him step by step to the full truth” (No. 8). This example is consistent with the larger pattern of Jesus forming his disciples within the context of their limitations and even their failures. Jesus “brings his disciples along,” and, although this is true in all the Gospels, it is especially evident in the Gospel of Mark, the gospel of discipleship.
At this point in our reflections, it may be good to pause and identify what has emerged from our reflections. In the Christian life—and this is already evident in the Gospels—there are two connected and related yet distinct movements: the proclamation of the truth and the formation of people to embrace and live out that truth. The dubia presented by the four cardinals suggest that “Amoris Laetitia” does not proclaim the truth in an integral way. In fact, the teaching on marriage and family is clear and assumed (see Nos. 67-70).
The path of “Amoris Laetitia” follows a formational process. This is clear from the text:
This exhortation is especially timely in this jubilee Year of Mercy. First, because it represents an invitation to Christian families to value the gifts of marriage and the family, and to persevere in a love strengthened by the virtues of generosity, commitment, fidelity and patience. Second, because it seeks to encourage everyone to be a sign of mercy and closeness wherever family life remains imperfect or lacks peace and joy (No. 4).
This is the language of formation and pastoral accompaniment that is present throughout the document.
For some, this distinction between the proclamation of the truth and the pastoral accompaniment of people may seem forced or, perhaps, not even valid. To those who have problems with this distinction, I suggest that they turn to the Gospels and listen to Jesus in two instances in which he deals with irregular marital situations.
In the first instance (Mt 19:3-9; Mk 10:2-12), some Pharisees want to test Jesus, and they question him about divorce. He unequivocally affirms the exclusivity and indissolubility of the marriage bond. Even more, he affirms this as the original plan of God from the time of creation. He goes beyond the Mosaic accommodations that did allow for divorce in certain circumstances. His teaching is clear and definitive.
In the second instance (Jn 4:5-42), Jesus interacts with the Samaritan woman. This is not a conversation about general principles or truths. Jesus encounters a woman with a complex life story that involves five husbands and a current live-in boyfriend. He does not simply announce the truth of marriage and then challenge her to live it out. From the beginning, with his request for water, he engages her and draws her to himself. Then, at a certain point, he says to her: “‘Go, call your husband and come back.’ The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’” Perhaps embarrassed by this revelation, she seeks to divert the conversation, but Jesus stays with her and accompanies her. Eventually, she embraces faith in Jesus, and this is evident in her words to her fellow townsfolk: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”
These two very different instances and the different ways that Jesus acts suggest a template for the church mission and ministry, especially with regard to marriage. There is a place and a necessity to offer clear and sound teaching. There is also a need to accompany people whose lives are broken and burdened, so that they can embrace the life-giving truth of the Gospel. In a word, “Amoris Laetitia” assumes the teaching and takes up the challenge, task and responsibility of pastoral and spiritual formation that accompanies people along the path of discernment.
To suggest a lack of fidelity in “Amoris Laetitia” to the truth of Christian marriage is to miss the point and—even more—to neglect mission and ministry in the pattern of Jesus himself.