Sunday, 1 October 2017

Correcting the correction .....

There is a thought that I came to adopt quite some time ago now, prompted I think by an observation of Hans Urs von Balthasar in his study Therese of Lisieux: The Story of a Mission. Von Balthasar suggested that Therese was reduced in her experience of Christian life, in particular the mystery of confession, by an early confessor who said to her that she had never committed a mortal sin. The thought prompted by this is that the person who has experienced sin has a deeper experience of the Christian mystery, because that mystery is one of redemption from sin rather than being one of perfection originally achieved. Perhaps those who try to live in the Church with the greatest experience of sin are also those with the greatest experience of the Christian life. In any case, we can say that, both at the level of the individual Christian life and at the level of the community of the Church as a whole, there co-exists that which is sin and that which is grace, this co-existence characterised by the wish that it is the latter that will be in the ascendant over the former.

By analogy, watching the lives of marriages that I have encountered, I wonder if those marriages that experience the most difficulty (and difficulty arising from a whole range of different causes), and the lack of both financial and emotional security that result from difficulty, might have a deeper experience of the Christian life than other, more stable marriages. There can be among those difficulties a very radical experience of poverty - of not knowing what the next day, or week, or month will bring. The Christian in these kinds of circumstances has an experience of poverty that may not be readily experienced by others; they may not advert to it consciously as a Christian vocation, but they might nevertheless live it in a profoundly existential way.

There can, of course, be causes for a marriage break up that are a result of choices that go against the teaching of the Catholic Church with regard to marriage. This might be an extra-marital affair, where one spouse betrays the other. But then, later, both of the spouses involved might enter into a second marriage through a close friendship that comes about through the every day circumstances of life. Both of those second marriages are choices that are not morally just according to Catholic teaching. In both cases, the "objective state of sin", to use the term of Amoris Laetitia, means that they cannot receive Holy Communion should they still wish to practice their Catholic faith. The second is, however, perhaps more understandable in human terms than the first.

The situation that Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia tries to address does not primarily appear to me to be the situation at the time of the entering in to the second marriages, or of first embarking on a cohabitation. Instead, it appears to me to address a situation much later in time, when the immediacy of the decisions that created the "objective state of sin" has been moderated with the passage of time (cf n.298).

At this point, I am prompted to reflect on the  requirements set for the admission of a person to the monastery set out in chapter 58 of the Rule of St Benedict. It is not a requirement of any particular perfection but instead a requirement that the aspirant should "truly seek God", with provision for the testing of the integrity of that seeking of God:
A senior, skilled in conversion, should supervise him to see if he truly seeks God and eagerly hopes for the Divine Office, obedience and humiliations. He must be told of the difficulties and austerities ahead of him on the pathway to God.
At this later point in time, there might well emerge for the re-married person through a conversion, experienced in all probability in some limited way, a wish to "truly seek God". Equally, for some, no such wish may exist and the people involved will move away from the practice of the faith altogether; these would take the view that there is nothing wrong with being in a second marriage or with cohabiting. Chapter 8, however, faces up to the question of how, in practical terms, the Church approaches the situation of those who do have an at least latent wish to "seek God" (ie fidelity to Catholic teaching and life with regard to marriage) in their irregular situation.

[Whilst it is less easy to see how it might occur, it is also possible that those who are living together without marrying, or who contract a civil marriage only, might also reach this point of conversion that represents a wish to "seek God" through fidelity to Catholic teaching. Though some of these situations might be readily resolved through a marriage, one might think, for example, of a couple co-habiting when one of the couple is prevented from marriage by a previous marriage, or where one might wish to move to marriage and the other not.]

In this light, I propose the following theses.

1. The person who, even in a limited way, wishes to "seek God" in the sense suggested above, already knows that there is something (morally) wrong with their situation. They do not need to be told it. "Doctrinal clarity" is neither here nor there for them. I recall the parable of the ship's captain and the lighthouse that Mgr Paul Watson was wont to tell when he was at Maryvale Institute - once the captain of the large ship realises that he is heading towards a lighthouse on land instead of a smaller ship that can move out of his way, he does not need to be told that he needs to change direction. And this is where the logic of the dubia and the clamour for clarification runs up against the pastoral approach proposed in Chapter 8. None of the doctrine being "defended" by the dubia and the calls for clarification have ever been put into question by Chapter 8 or by any other passage in Amoris Laetitia. There is no objective need for Pope Francis to clarify that teaching. There is every need, in the pastoral intention of Amoris Laetitia, to maintain the sense of welcome to those whose conversion leads them to "seek God" in their marital situation. The need for clarification has arisen because of the activity of those who call for it, and not because of the manner of Pope Francis' exercise of the office of the Successor of Peter.

2. If the pastoral programme of Chapter 8 is followed, there is a certain testing of the desire to "seek God" and of the conversion giving rise to it. An examination of conscience and moments of reflection and repentance are proposed by Amoris Laetitia n.300; and the discernment is against the bench mark of "truth and charity as proposed by the Church", humility and discretion, and love for the Church and her teaching. If priests and bishops fulfil their responsibility in respect of this part of the pastoral programme of Chapter 8, it is difficult to see how a person in a second marriage could embark on the process of discernment and integration without a genuine wish to "seek God". Indeed, the one who "flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal ... needs to listen once more to the Gospel message and its call to conversion" in the words of Amoris Laetitia n.297. There is no question here of accepting as morally just the "objective state of sin" with regard to a second marriage or cohabitation.

3. A key point of both pastoral and theological importance in Chapter 8 is the suggestion that, though a couple might be in an objective state of manifest sin (ie a state of sin that is openly visible), there are circumstances where the element of consent in particular, but also of knowledge, that are necessary for that sin to be mortal may be lacking or compromised. In other words, it is possible for someone living in an irregular marital situation, with that desire to "seek God", to still share in the life of grace that is the common spiritual life of the Church. This is the discussion that extends across nn.301 - 305 of Amoris Laetitia, with reference to both St Thomas and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It seems to me that this discussion reflects what one might call traditional teaching with regard to the requirements of mortal sin - full knowledge, full consent and grave matter. It does not question that the irregular marriage situations represent grave matter, and leaves intact the provision of Canon 915 that persistence in manifest sin in grave matter means that a person should not be admitted to Holy Communion. It also reflects what is said above about the Christian life being one that shares in sin and grace, with the effort always that grace should become the ascendant. If one can summarise the discussion, it is in this sentence from n.305:
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, and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church's help to this end.
4. The discernment expected by the pastoral programme of Chapter 8 is not a discernment with regard to admission to the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist. That aspect is relegated to a footnote to n.305 just quoted (or it was until the critics raised it to a kind of canonical status that is entirely sui generis), the essence of which is to say that the process of discernment does not rule out an eventual access to the sacraments and neither does it rule it in. The admission to these sacraments is not itself the subject of the discernment. It should also be absolutely clear that recognising that an objective state of sin can exist alongside grace does not represent a kind of acceptance as a status quo of the objective state of sin, and to suggest so is a very serious misrepresentation of the teaching of Chapter 8. Amoris Laetitia is not suggesting a standing still in that objective state of sin. Instead, it is presenting a discernment of a way forward enabling a growth in the life of grace and charity, "so they can reach the fullness of God's plan for them, something which is always possible by the power of the Holy Spirit" (Amoris Laetitia n.297).

5. When I look at the manner of Pope Francis' exercise of the ministry of the Successor Peter, its most striking feature appears to be the raising of the status of the act of charity in terms of the living of the Christian life. For Pope Francis, it is a central focus of the bringing of grace into ascendancy over sin in the life of the individual Christian and in the life of the Church as a whole. The promotion of the corporal works of mercy - exemplified by Pope Francis himself in his Friday "visits of mercy" - was perhaps an underestimated intention of the recent Year of Mercy. It is n.306 of Amoris Laetitia which is crucial to recognising the part to be played by engagement with the Church's mission of charity in the process of discernment intended by Chapter 8:
In every situation, when dealing with those who have difficulties in living God's law to the full, the invitation to pursue the via caritatis must be clearly heard. Fraternal charity is the first law of Christians (cf Jn 15:12; Gal 5:14). Let us not forget the reassuring words of Scripture: "Maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins" (1 Pet 4:8); "Atone for your sins with righteousness, and your iniquities with mercy to the oppressed, so that your prosperity may be prolonged" (Dan 4:24[27]); "As water extinguishes a blazing fire, so almsgiving atones for sins" (Sir 3:30). This is also what Saint Augustine teaches: "Just as, at the threat of a fire, we would run for water to extinguish it… so too, if the flame of sin rises from our chaff and we are troubled, if the chance to perform a work of mercy is offered us, let us rejoice in it, as if it were a fountain offered us to extinguish the blaze".
It is the discernment, and accompaniment, of how a person might engage in this activity of charity that is seen by Pope Francis as the manner of an approach that integrates them in the life of the Church rather than rejecting them from it. Its spiritual, and therefore redemptive, value derives from the possibility that the person has participation in the life of grace of the Church. For the one who "seeks God" whilst in an objectively sinful marital situation, it offers a way of moving forward, of growing towards perfection. There is no reason why such a person should not be active in an SVP conference, engaged in hospital visiting or engaged in ship visiting (to give examples with relevance to my own locality), though they are not able to receive Holy Communion.

6. Pope Francis' answer to the dubia and to the correction is already there in Amoris Laetitia n.308:
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'".

According to one of its signatories, the real claim of the correction is that Pope Francis has left  little doubt about how he wants Amoris Laetitia to be understood and applied, and this understanding is in the last analysis incompatible with the Catholic Faith. I think this claim is in the realm of speculation. Several of the cited instances of actions by Pope Francis that are claimed to indicate how he wishes us to understand and apply Amoris Laetitia do not in reality do any such thing unless a speculative interpretation is placed on them; and in so far as there is any indication of how Amoris Laetitia might be understood and applied, it is as  I indicate above. The Argentine bishops guidelines referred to, for example, do not say anything other than what is already in Amoris Laetitia itself, so Pope Francis' endorsement of them has no content in addition to Amoris Laetitia in any case.

Perhaps the authors of the correction would have better spent their time in promoting an understanding and application of Amoris Laetitia that is faithful to its text.

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