Monday, April 18, 2016

Father James Martin and Thoughts on Amoris Laetitia

Father James Martin, SJ
Father James Martin recently published in America magazine the top ten “takeaways” from Amoris Laetitia.  I think they are worth considering and I want to make some comments on them here as Father Martin gives us some great insights into what really is a historic shift in the way we perceive the moral issues affecting contemporary family life.  Here is number one. 
1. The church needs to understand families and individuals in all their complexity. The church needs to meet people where they are. So pastors are to “avoid judgments which do not take into account the complexity of various situations” (296). People should not be “pigeonholed or fit into overly rigid classifications leaving no room for personal and pastoral discernment” (298). In other words, one size does not fit all. People are encouraged to live by the Gospel, but should also be welcomed into a church that appreciates their particular struggles and treats them with mercy. “Thinking that everything is black and white” is to be avoided (305). And the church cannot apply moral laws as if they were “stones to throw at people’s lives” (305). Overall, he calls for an approach of understanding, compassion and accompaniment.
There has been in the past, at least in American Catholic culture, too great an emphasis on the objective moral values without placing them in the context of the every-day-life situations in which real people find themselves.  Despite the admonitions of Saint Paul both in Romans and in Galatians, we seem determined to live under the law—or at least make our neighbor live under the law—rather than under grace.  The old catechism, for all its flaws, reminded us that circumstances qualified the sinfulness of our wrongdoings.  In addition to the act having to be gravely wrong to be a “mortal sin,” we had to know that it was wrong and we had to give full consent of the will to it.   We were conditioned to interpret “know it is wrong” and “full consent of the will” in the most narrow of senses.  In fact it is not enough for a priest or a parent or a nosy neighbor to tell us something is wrong for us to know it is wrong.  To know that it is wrong we must have, if not a full understanding that it is wrong at least that interior conviction of its wrongness.  And full consent of the will is even more complex as a variety of exterior circumstances can seriously affect our freedom to make the best possible choice.  Moral decisions are often not easy and they are even less often “black and white.”  This is not to condone “situation ethics.”  Wrong remains wrong; right remains right but the degree of moral culpability is not a steady quotient.  Even more to the point, however, is that it is not left to us to evaluate the state of another person’s soul and to throw the stones of judgment at those with whose moral decisions we disagree. 

In the first session of the Second Vatican Council Bishop Emil de Smedt of Brugge (Belgium) declared that the Church had to move away from “clericalism, legalism, and triumphalism.”  Some progress on this migration had been made before the long winter’s night of John Paul II and Benedict XVI set in and now Francis seems to be returning to the previous course.  I think it no coincidence that those most upset by the distinctly unjuridical tone of Amoris Laetitia are the same voices that decry the fully conscious and active  participation in the Liturgy and who just get goose-bumps at the thought of a Pontifical High Mass at the Throne in the Extraordinary Form.  In other words, it is all of a package.  Of course this can be interpreted a number of ways.  The contemporary liturgy might be watering down our moral sensibility and diminishing our sense of right and wrong whereas the rubrical rigor of the old Mass kept us all corralled into sinless lives. Or, on the other hand, perhaps the contemporary Liturgy is allowing us to perceive the Gospel in a new light:  one that shows us through the Good Samaritan, through the good thief, through the Pharisee and the Publican, through Jesus having table fellowship with sinners, through the woman in the house of Simon the Pharisee, and even through those gentile magi, that in God’s sight life is not lived in the black and white.  To whichever interpretation one is inclined, it is another clear indication that we have two Churches that are drifting further and further apart. 


  1. Unfortunately, history has shown that if you do NOT have clear YES or NOs or lines of demarcation, then ambiguity and dissent take off. This has been the experience of all religions and social structures which do not enforce their reasons for existence.

    Everything is black and white ? Maybe not, but is ANYTHING black-and-white ? Because that's what AL and Pope Francis are saying. And if you doubt me, check out the headlines here:

    That's right.....60,000 words...250 pages....and 1 footnote is what the secular press focuses on. And this is a surprise ?

    The Pope says he understands those of us who want a more clearly spelled-out approach as JP2 gave us in FC. But he thinks his way is best. Based on what ? The epxerience of what religion..what institution...what social structure ? When did 'liberalization' ever strengthen an institution by keeping the Faithful and bringing back the wayward ?

    The experience in this Church -- check out Mass attendance in the U.S., Europe, etc. -- has been the Faithful lose faith and the borderline or fallen-aways don't come back, or if they do temporarily, leave eventually. Who wants to belong to a religion that changes its values to accommodate the secular and modern ? Would you watch a baseball or football game if, after the game was concluded, both sides were declared the winner by fiat ?

    Nope, I'm afraid this is not going to bring back the wayward, at least not in any great numbers. But it will damage the Catholic Church and undermine her teachings. It already has. But I guess we can always get Cardinal Dolan to say we need to better teach the CCC. Sure, that will help, while we are being undermined from within by our own leaders, clergy, and professional Catholic social class.

    Isn't that Fatima secret supposed to be revealed soon ? :-)

    1. "Lines of demarcation"?
      But then there is this from just a few Sundays ago:
      “Teacher, this woman was caught
      in the very act of committing adultery.
      Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women.
      So what do you say?”
      They said this to test him,
      so that they could have some charge to bring against him.
      Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger.
      But when they continued asking him,
      he straightened up and said to them,
      “Let the one among you who is without sin
      be the first to throw a stone at her.”
      Again he bent down and wrote on the ground.
      And in response, they went away one by one,
      beginning with the elders.
      So he was left alone with the woman before him.
      Then Jesus straightened up and said to her,
      “Woman, where are they?
      Has no one condemned you?”
      She replied, “No one, sir.”
      Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.
      Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”

      Can you reconcile that?

    2. The fact you used as your source material an anti-Pope, Novus Ordo and Church hating website that commits grievous sins of slander and calumny, and as Pope Francis declared as infallible in matters of morals and faith, gossip as the devils work, of which the Devil is part of the Faith and gossip falls into both realms (sin in the faith,) your argument is poisoned and pretty much rendered moot.

      If you are going to prove your points, don't bother to use radical extremists to prove it.

    3. thank you, Julian, for your comments. I had published Anonymous of April 18, 11:20 AM as an example of the Krazies who get all out of shape over Francis and where he is taking the Church.

    4. Ollldude: Yes, I can reconcile it. Read the last sentence from the parable. "Go and sin no more."

      Jesus forgave the woman, but didn't say "It's OK if the IDEAL is too hard for you, just give it your best shot. Sin is OK. In fact, let's not call it sin, let's call it an 'irregular failing.'"

      Are there any rules you libs believe the Church should hold onto ? Tell us exactly how you are different from liberal Lutherans or Episcopalians - 'cause I can't see it.

      Or maybe that's it -- that's what you want the Catholic Church to become. If so, have the integrity and honesty to admit it.

      - Anonymous in NY

  2. I gather that the barque of Peter is a rough ride for you these days, but the best antidote for seasickness in the turmoil of the modern world is to immerse ourselves in the Gospel. Do that and you might get a clue of the course on which Pope Francis is steering us through the shoals of the third millenium.

  3. Some thoughts for "Anonymous" of 18 Apr 2016 at 11:20AM,

    I disagree with your observation about history showing that an absence of clear lines of demarcation between right and wrong. If anything, I think history demonstrates the opposite. In the history of religion, I think an (oversimplified) difference between the Catholics and Protestants is revealed in how they handle the dual threats of heresy and schism. Simply put, the Catholics will tolerate heresy more readily than schism; heresy is a problem but schism is the point of no return, in which you become dead. On the other hand, the Protestants insist on ideological purity, and any tolerations are met with a finger pointed towards the exit. Hence there is one bulky and ultimately unified Catholic Church in which there are different factions, while the Protestants boast thousands in independent entities, and there is probably a group out there for the personal moral and spiritual inclinations of any individuals. So the Church's relative flexibility in comparison to any one Protestant denomination's insistence on ideological purity has been to the Church's credit.

    In history, the most totalitarian regimes that allowed for the least amount of difference of thought and action were also so ossified that they were brittle. In the black-and-white world of the USSR, even a hairline crack was an existential threat to the entire edifice, and down it came. Glasnost and perestroika were not opportunities for growth, because built into the governing structure was the need for one monolithic voice, period. The same threats beset the Ancien Regime in France or the North Korea of today.

    Liberalization has frequently helped institutions across time and space. It's simply updating the interactive apparatus of the organization to the world as it is. The adage "change or die" is true, ultimately. Not in the sense of creating an aberration of one's DNA, as that usually plays out as a harmful mutation. However, there needs to be adaptations and evolutions over time in the *human organization of the Church* over time (not the eternal truths at which she grasps the hem of). You could indeed read Jesus as a massive liberalization of the gradual program of rehabilitation that God the Father embarked on after the Fall of Man. The transformation and tremendous liberalization (and perhaps even radicalization) of the Sinai Covenant in the person of Jesus is what allowed the God of Abraham become a global phenomenon with billions of followers. For convenient comparison, the Pre-Christian Judaism has still survived, but is only some millions worldwide, and has remained a small, ethnically-driven, and ultimately fringe way for some people in Israel, New York, and a few other cities in the world.

    Furthermore, it doesn't work to measure the Church's "success" or "failure" by mass attendance. That falls into the fallacy of scientism, by which all things must be reducible to some empirical measurement. The very idea that falling church attendance can be used to make a value judgment on the efficacy of the Church is essentially the same type of argument that "numbers/ratings/sales/investments=success/worth," which is patently false. Using demographic, monetary, or political statistics to comment on the direction of the Church in its mission is a form of epistemological imperialism. An economist could make that argument or a statistician, but not a person operating by faith.

    Third secret of Fatima? The contents thereof depend on what you'd like to smoke. If you get the stuff, I'll supply the ouija board, and we'll have a swinging time. Consolamini can interpret for us, perhaps. Ha ha.

    1. you are spot on about the Catholic Church tolerating heresy but not schism. I remember hearing Martin Marty make that same point almost fifty years ago. I think he was a bit overstated but he claimed that the Catholic Church will bear any and all doctrinal variations but will not bear a challenge to its authority. I Building on your comments, I think the problem is that many of those reacting to Francis are more influenced by the Protestant culture pervasive in our society and lack the Catholic sense of laissez faire. Catholics steeped in our Catholic Tradition know that the barque of Peter often gets tossed about on the seas of the world in which we live but all we have to do is to hold on and persevere.

  4. Not sure if you are updating comments on past articles, but if you see this, why would the Catholic Church be more tolerant of heresy than schism ? Doesn't heresy eventually LEAD to schism ? Thanks. - Anonymous in NY

    1. Well, perhaps it was a bit too quick of me to use the word "heresy" here but the Church has a long tradition--going back to the theological disputes in the medieval universities--to allow for dissenting opinions to be freely expressed and argued by competent scholars. It is part of the process by which doctrines are continuously refined to come to every more precise definition. Defined heresies--such as Arianism or Jansenism--are not tolerated, of course, but theologians continue to argue over the precise relationships of the two Natures in the one Man Jesus Christ. Modalities of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist are still argued and discussed to get to more precise articulations of the faith of the faithful in encountering Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar. What it means that Christ died for all as opposed to only those who are to be saved is still a lively question that divides Catholics from many evangelicals and even from neo-Jansenists in our own midst. What does it mean that Christ is sole and Universal Savior is yet another question that sparks a lot of lively debate when interfaced with the issue of salvation for those who have not had the Gospel preached to them. Some people see any new discussion, much less theological formulation, as "heresy" when it is in fact the process by which the Church continually polishes its teaching to let the Truth shine with more precision.