Pope Francis’s groundbreaking new document “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”) asks the church to meet people where they are, to consider the complexities of people’s lives and to respect people’s consciences when it comes to moral decisions. The apostolic exhortation is mainly a document that reflects on family life and encourages families. But it is also the pope’s reminder that the church should avoid simply judging people and imposing rules on them without considering their struggles.Details to follow, as pastoral methods are developed.
Using insights from the Synod of Bishops on the Family and from bishops’ conferences from around the world, Pope Francis affirms church teaching on family life and marriage, but strongly emphasizes the role of personal conscience and pastoral discernment. He urges the church to appreciate the context of people’s lives when helping them make good decisions. The goal is to help families—in fact, everyone—experience God’s love and know that they are welcome members of the church. All this may require what the pope calls “new pastoral methods” (199).
Additionally, the Pope affirms that
“Individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the church’s practice in certain situations which do not objectively embody our understanding of marriage” (303). That is, the traditional belief that individual conscience is the final arbiter of the moral life has been forgotten here. The church has been “called to form consciences, not to replace them” (37). Yes, it is true, the Pope says, that a conscience needs to be formed by church teaching. But conscience does more than to judge what does or does not agree with church teaching. Conscience can also recognize with “a certain moral security” what God is asking (303). Pastors, therefore, need to help people not simply follow rules, but to practice “discernment,” a word that implies prayerful decision making (304).Regrettably, this has already led traditionalists to denounce Pope Francis's alleged "cowardice and hubris" or to claim that the Exhortation "carries a distinctive late-Marxist odor — a sense that the church’s leadership is a little like the Soviet nomenklatura, bound to ideological precepts that they’re no longer confident can really, truly work."
But it's a third traditionalist reaction that really grabbed me; that of Rod Dreher, who converted to Catholicism as an adult, and subsequently left that communion to join the the Eastern Orthodox Church. Dreher explains his discomfort at the Catholic Church's moving closer to the position of his own denomination:
I have been an Orthodox Christian for ten years, and I have come to appreciate better the Orthodox approach to matters like contraception and divorce. In fact, I think Orthodoxy has a more realistic and merciful approach — and in the case of communion after divorce, Pope Francis’s recent teaching is closer to the Orthodox understanding. So why does Pope Francis’s teaching worry me on behalf of my Catholic friends?Later, in response to a comment on the post, Dreher is more blunt, writing:
A couple of reasons come to mind. First, Orthodoxy and Catholicism have fundamentally different approaches to understanding how marriage is understood in the sacramental economy.
More important, at least to me, is that the Pope is loosening a teaching that is rarely proclaimed in the first place. I can see that I was too legalistic as a Catholic, and certainly the experience of suffering helped me to understand more fully that the law was made for man, not man for the law. This is why I sympathize with Francis’s pastoral instincts in Amoris Laetitia. That said, I know perfectly well how most American Catholic parishes are going to interpret and implement this teaching: as an excuse to ignore the teaching in the first place (as if most of them needed an excuse). . . .I don’t believe that the Roman Catholic Church has never, ever changed its doctrine, and I know, it’s no longer my church, so not really my concern. But I live in this post-Christian culture too, and it bothers me a great deal to see any Christian church weaken its standards, precisely in the area of morality where the historic Christian teaching is the greatest sign of contradiction to the age.
If Catholics do violence to their own tradition for the sake of arriving at a position on marriage I believe to be more correct, they may end up undermining themselves more than they help themselves. This is why I am not optimistic about reunification of the Eastern and Western churches. A lot of theological water has gone under the bridge since the Great Schism. Orthodox don’t believe in the Immaculate Conception of Mary, which is defined dogma of the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman church simply cannot toss that dogma over the side. If it did, I would say that Rome’s position had moved closer to the truth, but in so doing the Roman church would have done extreme damage to its own authority. This kind of thing is why even though I generally agree with Francis’s impulse to be more merciful to divorced and remarried Catholics on the matter of receiving communion, it’s a big deal, and not because conservatives want to be mean to the divorced and remarried. There’s a much deeper issue in play here.(Emphasis added).
This approach is all too reminiscent of that of John Henry Newman's, as I sketched out in Command and Coercion:
yearning for divinely ordained hierarchical ordering was traced by Newman to the Apostolic Fathers, and translated easily into the Roman Catholic ecclesiology upon his conversion. In particular, Newman states that “[t]he Catholic Church claims, not only to judge infallibly on religious questions, but to animadvert on opinions in secular matters which bear upon religion, on matters of philosophy, of science, of literature, of history, and it demands our submission to her claim.” Newman acknowledges that in these claims, the Church is not speaking doctrinally, but “enforc[ing] measures of discipline,” and that “[i]t must of course be obeyed without a word, and perhaps in process of time will tacitly recede from its own injunctions.” He goes even further, saying that “in spite of all the that the most hostile critic may urge about the encroachments or severities of high ecclesiastics, . . . I think that the event has shown, after all, that they were in the right, and that those whom they were hard upon were mainly in the wrong,” and that one who speaks a truth, or seeks to reform an abuse, in defiance of authority “is just one of those persons whom the competent authority ought to silence.” Obedience to authority is a critical virtue for Newman; as he puts it “[t]he Church must denounce rebellion as of all possible evils the greatest.”As I note in Command and Coercion, I find Newman's willingness to subordinate the truth to clerical authority to be profoundly dangerous. Newman also explains and contextualizes the papal dread of scandal and the Church’s function to conceal facts which, although undeniably true, would erode the belief and trust of the faithful. Dreher hear follows Newman into very dangerous territory. And, with all respect, I think he’s wrong for the same reason Newman was: Christ taught that “the truth will set you free,” not the primacy of submission to authority. In fact, as Rudolph Bultmann's canvass of the New Testament shows, the numerous passages regarding freedom from the law in the NT strongly negate Newman's elevation of obedience to ecclesiastical authority to the supreme virtue. The NT leaves considerable scope for debate, as Bultmann also notes, to argue that the law, or at least the ethics undermining them, are not as simply dismissed as it may seem on the surface. I won't even get into Augustine's famous maxim, Love God and do what thou wilt--again, it's not as simple as it seems, and is in no way a carte blanche].
After Newman’s conversion, he republished his essay on Anglicanism, The Via Media, including in the preface to the revised edition defenses of the Catholic Church’s behavior countering his own previous indictment against it. These defenses, formed in reaction to witnessing what he saw as the Church of England’s sphere of sovereignty invaded by the state, sound notes that resonate in the defenses made by the Church and its apologists in the context of the sex abuse crisis.
Especially germane to that context is the defense of what Newman called the “regal function” of the Church, its ability to secure the obedience he deemed so critical to faith. Newman analogizes the roles of the Church to those of Christ:
These offices, which specially belong to Him as Mediator, are commonly considered to be three; He is Prophet, Priest, and King; and after His pattern, and in human measure, Holy Church has a triple office too; not the Prophetical alone and in isolation, as these Lectures [comprising volume 1 of The Via Media] virtually teach, but three offices, which are indivisible, though diverse, viz. teaching, rule, and sacred ministry.
Newman continues to explain that:
Christianity, then, is at once a philosophy, a political power, and a religious rite: as a religion, it is Holy; as a philosophy, it is Apostolic; as a political power, it is imperial, that is, One and Catholic. As a religion, its special centre of action is pastor and flock; as a philosophy, the Schools; as a rule, the Papacy and its Curia. . . .
Truth is the guiding principle of theology and theological inquiries; devotion and edification, of worship; and of government, expedience. The instrument of theology is reasoning; of worship, our emotional nature; of rule, command and coercion.
At various times, and in different situations, these functions of the Church must yield to the imperatives of the other functions. As an example of truth yielding to cohesion, Newman gives as an example the social shock and dislocation of faith that could have resulted from the discoveries of Galileo, and explains why the suppression of the scientific truth served a higher purpose:
All I say is, that not all knowledge is suited to all minds; a proposition may be ever so true, yet at a particular time and place may be “temerarious, offensive to pious ears, and scandalous,” though not “heretical” nor “erroneous.”
From here, Newman then goes on to explain that the use of “command and coercion,” as with suppression of information, can extend into other areas:
Apostolicity of doctrine and Sanctity of worship, as attributes of the Church, are differently circumstanced from her regal autocracy. . . . If the Church is to be regal, . . . she must be more than Holy and Apostolic; she must be Catholic. Hence it is that, first, she has ever from her beginning onwards had a hierarchy and a head, with a strict unity of polity, the claim of an exclusive divine authority and blessing, the trusteeship of the gospel gifts, and the exercise over her members of an absolute and almost despotic rule.
Notably, Newman insists that the Church must “protect the ignorant and the weak, to remove scandals.” Newman noted the respect for individual conscience, which marked the early church, including St. Augustine in his earlier writings, only to be replaced with a belief in forced conversion in Augustine’s later works. Finally, Newman reaches the culmination of this long train of reasoning:
Again: Acts simply unjustifiable, such as real betrayals of the truth on the part of Liberius and Honorius, become intelligible, and cease to be shocking, if we consider that those Popes felt themselves to be head rulers of Christendom and their first duty, as such, to be that of securing its peace, union and consolidation. . . . The principle . . . I conceive to be this,—that no act could be theologically an error, which was absolutely and undeniably necessary for the unity, sanctity, and peace of the Church; for falsehood never could be necessary for those blessings, and truth alone can be.(Blockquotes from Newman in italics; footnotes and citations omitted; all quotes from Apologia Pro Vita Sua or the Preface to the third edition of The Via Media)
So the Newman/Dreher position is unbiblical, but, even worse, it infantilizes the laity, and encourages the hierarchy to cling to untenable positions out of fear. Newman’s teaching in favor of suppressio veri to avoid scandal, and preserve the Church’s authority, legitimizes the very behavior that drove Rod (and many others) out of the Church: covering up the sex abuse crisis to avoid scandal.