Fascinating exchanges over the meaning of ‘Amoris laetitia’ – Is some clarity emerging?

square_cricleIf you haven’t been following this, you might tune in.

Pope Francis’ document Amoris laetitia has sparked sharp divisions and debates.  The sides have drawn up pretty much into two camps… well… three if you count the uninformed, which is pretty large.

For the 1st anniversary of Amoris, Washington DC’s Archbishop Card. Wuerl said:

He notes that the pastoral guidance of Amoris Laetitia, found in chapter 8, has been controversial, but explains why there is no cause for alarm:

“The hermeneutic required for a fruitful appropriation of the document’s teaching on this point is based on the understanding that none of the teaching of the Church has been changed: This includes the doctrine on the indissolubility of marriage, the directives of the Code of Canon Law, and also the role of individual conscience in the determination of personal culpability…..

“The exhortation does not create some sort of internal forum process in which a marriage can be annulled, or in which the objective moral order can be changed…. Instead, the exhortation places greater emphasis on the role of the individual conscience in appropriating those moral norms in the person’s actual circumstances.”

Fr Raymond de Souza then made the sound point at the ever iffy Crux that the bishops of Malta, in their guidelines for applying Chapter 8 issued a while back (aka “The Maltese Fiasco”), the bishops of Germany and curial Cardinal Coccopalmerio think that something has changed.  Whereas Card. Wuerl tries to uphold John Paul II’s teaching in Familiaris consortio, the others say Amoris revises it.

So, in simple terms within this complicated debate, there are a couple camps.  One camp holds that doctrine and discipline haven’t changed, and the other holds that it has.  De Souza  rightly concludes that they can’t both be right.

Then, again at iffy Crux  – and this is another example of why Crux is iffy – the former editor of the ultra-liberal Pill (aka The Tablet), Austen Ivereigh, and now an editor for Crux – wrote a condescending rebuttal of Fr. de Souza stating:

The hermeneutic of interpretation of Pope Francis’s document on the joy of love, says Wuerl, is that the Church’s teaching on marriage has not changed. Questioning that idea, de Souza responds that Wuerl can only be right if the German and Maltese bishops are wrong.

This is a classic maneuver of those whom the cardinal accurately describes as “challenging the integrity” of Amoris. De Souza says he hopes Wuerl is right, that “nothing has changed”; but if it hasn’t, then how can the Maltese bishops say “something has changed?”

But Wuerl never says nothing has changed. He says church teaching and laws on marriage haven’t changed.

Something has changed, not in church law or doctrine, but in moral theology and the pastoral application of sacramental discipline.

This shouldn’t be necessary to say, but for the record, Amoris Laetitia throughout its nine chapters upholds, promotes and passionately seeks to restore lifelong, faithful, stable, indissoluble unions.

In response to Ivereigh’s patronizing response to de Souza comes the deft canonist Ed Peters.

Peters published simultaneously at the Catholic World Report and his own blog In The Light Of The Law a post which reveals the fatal flaw in Ivereigh’s snooty piece.  Peters writes (with my emphases and comments):

Sever ‘canon law’ from ‘pastoral pratice’ and lots of things make sense

I am tempted to address at length Austen Ivereigh’s commentary onFr. Raymond de Souza’s observations on Cdl. Wuerl’s statementon Francis’ document Amoris laetitia, but at a certain point the law of diminishing returns sets leaving such an exercise tedious.

So let me just say: Ivereigh is free to argue that Amoris does not undermine Church teaching on sin, but he needs to respond to those who disagree with his claim with something more than paternalistic tsk-tsk’ing [Peters also noted Ivereigh’s condescension] and, before anything else, he needs to face the simple fact that Wuerl can’t be right (as I think he is, if narrowly read) and the bishops of Malta also be right (as I think they certainly are not)—which is de Souza’s main point.

The reason Ivereigh misses de Souza’s point is, I suspect, that, deep down, Ivereigh thinks that “canon law” and ‘approved pastoral practice’ are two fundamentally different things. [This error has infected a great many people today, churchmen, newsies, etc.  It is dangerous.] Thus Ivereigh could logically hold that canon law (including the barring of divorced-and-remarried Catholics from holy Communion) has remained the same, while at the same time holding that pastors may admit such persons to holy Communion under conditions other than those already recognized by the Church (namely, separation of abodes, or a commitment to live as brother-sister where the irregular marriage is not known). Ivereigh would be right, if canon law has little or nothing to do with what pastors should really do.

At some point I hope that Ivereigh et al will sit down, look at the text of Canon 915 and the numerous ecclesial values behind it, and recognize, among other things, that degrees of personal culpability (which Ivereigh and others go on and on and on about, as if that were the central insight his adversaries lack) have nothing to do with the operation of the objectively oriented Canon 915, the main law that controls pastoral practice in this area—whereupon they will do one of two things: (1) accept that tradition and promote it, or (2) acknowledge that tradition and honestly call for changing it.  [!] At which point all sides would be talking about the same, and the dispositive, issue.

What I fear is that, instead, Ivereigh et al, ignoring the connection that must, and usually does, exist between law and practice, will simply keep on repeating that canon law has not changed but good pastoral practice has. Which is a huge waste of time.

Peters got this exactly right.

I am reminded of the exchange in Aristophanes The Birds between Meton and Pisthetaerus.

Let’s be honest about what Amoris says and doesn’t say without verbose fan-dances which attempt to square the circle.

The ongoing debate about Amoris Ch. 8 reveals a possible approach of Pope Francis, who, so far at least, has declined to offer any clarifications.  He has not, for example, responded to the Five Dubia of the Four Cardinals.

As Tracy Rowand points out in her terrific new book Catholic Theology (HERE), …

If Pope Francis has sympathy for any particular approach to Catholic theology, it is that of ‘People’s Theology’. One of the most extensive articles on this subject is Juan Carlos Scannone’s ‘El papa Francisco y la teologia del pueblo’ published in the journal Razón y Fe. In this paper Scannone claims that not only is Pope Francis a practitioner of ‘People’s Theology’ but also that Francis extracted his favourite four principles – time is greater than space, unity prevails over conflict, reality is more important than ideas, and the whole is greater than the parts – from a letter of the nineteenth-century Argentinian dictator, Juan Manuel de Rosas (1793– 1877) sent to another Argentinian caudillo, Facundo Quiroga (1788– 1835), in 1834. These four principles, which are said to govern the decision-making processes of Pope Francis, have their own section in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium and references to one or other of them can be found scattered throughout his other papal documents. Pope Francis calls them principles for ‘building a people’.

A common thread running through each of these principles is the tendency to give priority to praxis over theory. [NOTA BENE…] There is also a sense that conflict in itself is not a bad thing, that ‘unity will prevail’ somehow and that time will remove at least some of the protagonists in any conflict. The underlying metaphysics is quite strongly Hegelian, and the approach to praxis itself resembles what Lamb classified as ‘cultural-historical’ activity and is associated primarily with Luther and Kant rather than Marx. (Kindle Locations 4226-4252)

The ongoing conflicts between the camps which have sharply divided over Amoris laetitia may reveal a kind of “Hegelian” approach to doing theology favored by the Holy Father: let the positions clash and, over time, things will settle down and there will have emerged a new approach, changes in doctrine, revised laws, etc.

In the meantime, Ed Peters got it right and Ivereigh got it wrong.  De Souza is right to point out that both Card. Wuerl (in what De Souza cites) and the bishops of German and Malta, etc., can’t both be right about Amoris.

Lastly, I renewed my serious questions about why the Knights of Columbus would bankroll Crux if this is what Crux is determined to produce. This is the second time that Crux – with the Knights’ money – has published something troubling by Ivereigh, whom Crux employees an editor.

Perhaps it is time for Knights to think about shedding their KC insurance.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. St. Irenaeus says:

    Who would we contact at the K of C about this bankrolling of Crux?

  2. chantgirl says:

    Allowing two camps to clash over this does appear to be the plan. However, I think that the end goal is already selected. Pope Francis clearly placed his lot with the Kasper proposal in the very beginning of this debate. Then the two synods were manipulated to achieve an appearance of consensus. However, when Amoris hit the public eye, an informed minority of the laity were not falling for the new pastoral approach. So, now the Hegelian approach is shifted to the court of the laity. A majority of people will take the easier, less painful answer to any problem. If Pope Francis has decided to let the Communion-for-adulterers debate proceed to the court of the laity, the battle is already lost. Public opinion will heavily side with the “merciful” solution, the dissenters will be painted as hard-hearted schismatics, and the Pope will be able to have the cover of saying that the People of God, the sense of the faithful, had discerned a new way to live out the gospel of mercy. Then it will be open season on any other hard teachings of Jesus.

    If this is the Pope’s approach, I can hope that he is counting on the majority siding with his pre-selected decision, and that he is not trying to drive the faithful from the church or fundamentally change the Church. The first scenario is bad, but the second apocalyptic. Either way, the only signs of encouragement we are seeing from him right now are directed toward the Kasperites.

  3. Mike says:

    Fascinating exchange. Thank you, Father, for posting/commenting on it.

    Ivereigh also misquotes Gaudium et spes: “Familiaris Consortio considered the possibility of admitting such couples to the sacraments –  a far bigger break with the past, incidentally, than Amoris –  but asked them to abstain from sex as the price of that admission. But Amoris quotes Gaudium et Spes 51 and Paul VI in noting that this can often lead to greater ills.”

    Yes, “greater ills” for VALIDLY married couples. Of course, AL also does the same thing. Which is why I am tempted to judge intentions here–I mean, these guys are smart enough to know they are clearly, manifestly, and persistently misquoting lots of Church documents. Again, on Veritatis Splendor, Ivereigh says AL is consistent with JPII’s encyclical, all the while knowing there is not a single reference in AL to VS!
    And another thing, as others have pointed out, “reduced culpability” only works “backwards”, ie, the priest says to the poorly formed couple living in sin, “well, the teaching of Christ and His Church means you are living in an adulterous relationship, and both lovingly want you to set things right, and received as many graces as possible, which means either get an annulment or live as brother and sister.” Now they know. They don’t have that mitigating condition of ignorance. (I won’t even deal with the idea that God wants someone to keep sinning gravely because that’s all they can do, or the consequences will be horrible…see VS on that, Austen!)
    Not that’s it’s easy, but to say it’s impossible to fulfill the Commandments with grace is simply heretical.

  4. Rich says:

    But..but…how could this be happening? I’m confused. Why are Ivereigh, de Souza, or Peters even going on about all of this at all, because…because….Michael Sean Winters said the debate over Amoris Laetitia is over. And, he said this on Feb 9 2017, over two months ago. Why can’t people just get that?

  5. Papabile says:

    You should have seen Ivereigh’s response to Peters on twitter. He is an ass .

  6. LeeF says:

    Re Crux, John Allen recently wrote about their anniversary and the details behind finding new backers after the Boston Globe dumped them. Besides the KofC, he noted the support of the archdioceses of LA and NY, which are not run by liberal archbishops. He also noted that the KofC and others promised editorial independence.

    Allen is the only writer bringing real gravitas to Crux, and the only reason to stop by there. While a liberal for sure, he is fair minded. He mentioned protests from friends varying from accusing Crux of being too liberal or too conservative. So he thinks this is good and no doubt believes Crux has “balance” or something. The problem is that he does not realize that the Truth needs no balance or counterpoint.

    Let’s face it, the KofC is composed of mostly middle-of-the-road Catholics who while ardently defending Church teachings on abortion, mostly don’t care or get involved in other important theological and liturgical debates. They and others probably view Crux as positive because it brings a Catholic presence to the internet that is mostly hostile to the Church. What they should do instead is promote EWTN and the NCR instead of looking for newer organizations with so many writers of suspect orthodoxy and origins (Fishwrap).

  7. stuartal79 says:

    Cardinal Wuerl, who is on the wrong side of the A.L. debate, is fairly orthodox. In terms of labels, I would say he is definitely more orthodox than progressive ( I suppose heterodox is a better word to use than progressive). His strong opinions on A.L. have surprised me.

    I am a Knight and have been heavily involved with the order over the past 10 years. I will be calling the order’s headquarters in New Haven on Monday to express my displeasure over their funding of the Crux. The Crux has noticeably improved since the Knights began supporting it, but not enough.

  8. Justalurkingfool says:

    I see no value in marital vows when living as brother and sister with a lover, but no sex, suspends the other obligations involved.

    Amoris Laetitia is superfluous.


    I wish that Monsignor William Smith, who long ago taught at Dunwoodie, NY, was still alive. I would drive down to ask him there, like I did a couple of times when he was alive. He made the time to see me.

  9. Danteewoo says:

    Thank you for chastising the Knights of Columbus. I wonder how many of their members know the views of Crux and that the Knights are bankrolling it.

  10. Fr. Vincent Fitzpatrick says:

    The only thing interesting in Wuerl’s writings is how many pirouettes he can make around the subject while saying absolutely nothing.

    Wuerl says the requirements of canon law will be observed.

    This is obscene coming from the world’s leading nullifier of canon 915.

    If Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, Patrick Leahy, John Kerry, etc., are given Communion, then ANYONE–adulterers, fornicators, gay couples–can and will be given Communion. As, in fact, they are, in Washington, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, and virtually everywhere else.

  11. boxerpaws63 says:

    Mike wrote, “Not that’s it’s easy, but to say it’s impossible to fulfill the Commandments with grace is simply heretical.”
    a simple truth cuts to the chase.Or as Father Mitch Pacwa says,he colors inside the lines.

  12. Eugene says:

    Thank you stuartal79 for doing your duty

  13. BarefootPilgrim says:

    Yikes! Are we entering into the ‘working of error’ in 2nd Thessalonians 2?

    “…because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this cause God sendeth them a working of error, that they should believe a lie: that they all might be judged who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.”

    Sure feels that way. Yikes!

  14. albizzi says:

    One would happily continue the controversy about AL for years if the matter wasn’t so serious. Since AL was issued, many divorced remarried people are believing that they are legitimately allowed to be given communion without sinning which unti now is nothing but a desecration of the Body of Jesus.
    Every day since months, thousands of desecrations are perpetrated while the confusion in minds never was so wide spread.
    The one who can stop this scandal in a few minutes is the Pope who, in opposition to all the duties of his charge, has chosen to stay silent though a lot of catholic faithfuls besides the Four Cardinals are beseeching him to say where is the Truth.
    If he is the Pope I cannot imagine for one second that he is satisfied of the mess AL has sowed in the RCC.
    If I am wrong, then whe have to pray inceasingly that the Holy Spirit will enlighten him soon. Otherwise I am afraid about his soul’s fate the day he will die.

  15. Mike says:

    What’s clear is that many clerics, journalists, and hangers-on—whether out of misshapen fidelity, peer pressure, or a pathological need to maintain cool-kid cred—have decided to back Amoris, doctrinal waywardness and all.

    Many others, accurately, have decided they’ll be damned if they will.

  16. robtbrown says:


    1. The simple truth is that most clerics don’t have the theological horsepower to deal with Amoris Laetitia.

    2. And it also must be kept in mind that clerics have more than once been subjected to “pastoral” solutions that pull the rug out from under them.

    -When JPII took over, he was very strict about Communion in the hand. By the end of his papacy, it was introduced in Poland.

    -JPII was also very strongly opposed to altar girls. When I was in Rome, a friend told me that altar girls were going to be permitted. I protested, noting JPII’s strong written opposition. He then told me that a priest friend had seen the document in the office of the Sec of State.

    He was right. After it was made public, I called a friend who worked in the Cong of Clergy. He was livid.

  17. Sconnius says:

    The Board of Directors and the Supreme Knight would be the guys to write to. Address is 1 Columbus Plaza New Haven, CT 06510.

  18. stuartal79 says:

    Eugene, what duty did I do?

  19. Justalurkingfool says:


    When one decides they are on the right path, even when they know they are sowing destruction among many, it is rare that such a person corrects themselves. They have convinced themselves that their particular course is good and far more of value than the known destruction their choices are causing. Excuses, rationalizations and justifications make sense to them and they believe that the problems their behaviors are causing are the consequences of the behaviors of those they are harming, rather than the consequences of their behaviors. Objectivity is lost/silenced, internally. Reason/other perspective(s), regardless of the truth/facts/reality they reflect/represent, cease to have value to those, already self-convinced, of their perfect righteousness.

    The results are never good, but those on these paths, see only what they want to see and they disregard the rest(Paul Simon- The Boxer).

    I wish it was different.

    It rarely is.


  20. Justalurkingfool says:


    What theological horsepower is necessary to discern that marital vows
    do not entail, solely, not sleeping with someone else?

    Why then can marriages be found null for other reasons, if the only thing that really matters is not sleeping with someone else?

    Why are we ignoring the complete marginalization of the totality of the marital relationship, reducing the reception of communion to simply ceasing to sleep with your lover, while you give everything else of yourself to them as you deny it to your true spouse?

    Why, why, why is this not being addressed in public and in painstaking detail?

    Are there no competent Moral Theologians willing to discuss this?


  21. St. Irenaeus says:

    Sconnius: Thanks!

  22. stuartal79 says:

    Eugene, sorry, it occurred to me that you were referencing the 2nd paragraph I wrote, not the 1st. Thank you for the encouragement.

  23. doncamillo says:

    I totally concur with Karl’s dubia.

  24. Robert of Rome says:

    I want to thank Fr. Z for the massive work he put into preparing this hugely helpful, if complicated, post! I also thank you commentators for an intelligent exchange of views. Keep it up, everyone. Happy Easter! Surrexit vere!

  25. robtbrown says:

    Justalurkingfool says:

    What theological horsepower is necessary to discern that marital vows
    do not entail, solely, not sleeping with someone else?

    The horsepower that understands how they attempt to justify conscience determining whether a marriage is null.

  26. Mike says:

    Yes I agree about the lack of theological horsepower in regard to many parish priests, sadly. It’s not that certain truths aren’t simple enough—don’t do evil so good may come about–it’s frankly the BS screen of pseudo–sophistication AL uses.

  27. Sconnius says:

    Just to let everyone know, it’s not like Crux speaks for the Knights.

    Columbia is the official publication, and Catholic Information Services is the official media outlet of the order.

  28. Justalurkingfool says:


    It seems much more than simply odd, that these topics have not been thoroughly hashed out, Moral Theologically, long ago and well discussed to
    discern all possibilities from different perspectives and to eliminate error.

    I have found no thorough treatment of this/these issues.

    I am not one who simply accepts isolated opinions. Certainly, not ANY longer. I need to study all circumstances/aspects/possibilities/interactions.

    I wish that I could learn/be informed of an extant, thorough(really, not simply satisfying to some) treatment of these circumstances, in clear, accurate, English.

    To my thinking, any opinion at a high level of authority, without a public, published, exhaustively thorough consideration from numerous perspectives of the brother and sister and related issues, is seriously harmful and should never occur(or have occurred), even if such an opinion is objectively correct. These are far too weighty and consequential issues to be handled cursorily, or less than exhaustively.


  29. Justalurkingfool says:




  30. Gratias says:

    For regular Catholics the infamous footnote 351 of Amoris Lætitia, Joy of Sex in the vernacular, simply means that Pope Francis is OK with sacraments for cohabitants, divorced and Gay couples. It is not that complicated, he is just implementing the spirit Vatican Council II. We Catholics are being brought 200 years forward to 1964. Kinda cool, no?

  31. JPK says:

    I think that at the end of the day the danger lies not in changing doctrine, but making it a dead letter. The prohibition against using artificial birth control remains intact. However, most couples ignore it.

  32. Dave N. says:

    I’ve often wondered how John Allen suckered the K of C into bankrolling him.

  33. Oneros says:

    They can all be (mostly) right if what has changed is the interpretation of the concept of “manifest” sin in canon law.

    To me it has always seemed that that is the most straightforward reading of Francis’s intentions. He isn’t trying to change objective moral teaching, nor the objective teaching about state of grace and reception of communion.

    He, really, was just trying to eliminate the double-standards that have plagued the church in the culture-war years surrounding private versus “public” sin, and the very public response to the latter.

    He’s not revoking 915, but he does seem to be trying to place civil marriage (or, more precisely, the sex within it) under the purview of 916 more than 915.

    No one, after all, is saying 915 applies to *private* adultery. If a divorced man has a secret sexually-active girlfriend he isn’t married to, no one is saying 915 is to be applied.

    But if a civil marriage isn’t in itself ipso fact “manifest” sin (ie, if the couple lives as brother and sister), it’s unclear why it has to be treated as public sin otherwise given that whether a couple is living as brother and sister or not…is often a private fact.

  34. dallenl says:

    Short answer to the title question is “No” for those of us in the pews where it matters. For the celibate clergy, not so much.

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