On July 14, the retired theology professor Larry Chapp published a response in Catholic World Report to a recent article of mine about Pope Francis’s exhortation Amoris Laetitia. In it, I sought to refute a common argument levelled against Amoris Laetitia’s orthodoxy: that it espouses proportionalism, an erroneous current in moral theology that was condemned by St. John Paul II in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor.
Unfortunately, I was both surprised and saddened by Dr. Chapp’s critique and harsh tone. I was even more surprised and saddened when I attempted to respond to his article with a comment on his Facebook wall, only for him to delete it twice. However, there’s an additional fact that contributed to my disappointment. To better understand it, I’m going to have to go back about a year.
After Traditionis Custodes was published in July 2021, I was surprised by the reactions from traditionalists online (see here, here and here), many of which were published by well-known Catholic media outlets (for example here, here, and here).
Based on these reactions, it would appear that Traditionis Custodes was an unprovoked attack by Pope Francis against the pre-conciliar liturgy. The decision was portrayed as though many traditionalist commentators had not spent nearly eight years continuously attacking the Holy Father. Whenever anyone suggested that Francis may have been justified in issuing his motu proprio, they would be met with derision, if not open hostility.
It was clear for me that these reactions were counterproductive. If these traditionalists wanted to reverse this tide, they would have to at least acknowledge that Pope Francis made his decision for a reason. As a doctor, I know that the best way to solve a problem is to address its root causes. Yet every time I discussed Traditionis Custodes, most of my interlocutors would only ascribe the decision to the bitterness of a progressive pope, envious of the success of the movement to revive the old form of the Mass. Traditionalists, it would seem, had not negatively contributed to the situation in ways that warranted the Pope’s action.
Other times, my interlocutors will reply that these attacks came from fringe groups that do not represent the traditionalist movement as a whole. Be that as it may, one can see these moderate traditionalists vocally condemning Traditiones, whereas they did not seem to be as forceful when it came to defend the Holy Father from those who used traditionalism to undermine him. This seems to me to be another way of denying the root causes of the problem, by downplaying it.
Of course, not dealing with the root causes of the problem will inevitably lead to a vicious cycle. Traditionalists feel incrementally more disenfranchised, which then leads to bitterness against the Holy Father, which leads him to see traditionalism as an obstacle to the unity of the Church, so he imposes stricter measures against traditionalists.
Remember, Francis allowed Summorum Pontificum to stand for eight years. Leaving traditionalists alone had absolutely no effect in mitigating the attacks against him from traditionalist circles. I must only conclude that the way to break the vicious cycle falls on the traditionalist camp. I firmly believe that—had moderate traditionalists been as vocal in condemning the extremists in their midst as they were in condemning Traditionis Custodes—Pope Francis would not have been compelled to act. He wouldn’t have needed to.
In the middle of such a sight, a tiny, hopeful ray of light broke through. Professor Larry Chapp, along with a handful of other Catholics, issued a Manifesto of New Traditionalism. The very worthy goal of this manifesto was to relaunch the traditionalist movement, but this time in perfect allegiance and obedience to the Second Vatican Council.
I was very glad to see this. Someone had taken a step to break the vicious cycle. I was certain—if the New Traditionalist Manifesto was to catch on and become a rallying cry for traditionalists instead of the many websites and blogs that were relentlessly criticising the Holy Father—that sooner or later, the restrictions of Traditionis Custodes would no longer need to be as limiting.
Sadly, we seem to have taken a step backward following that step forward. We’re back at where we started.
In his two most recent articles, Dr. Chapp argues that Pope Francis promotes proportionalism and that Amoris Laetitia is proportionalist, or at least “proportionalist-adjacent,” contradicting Veritatis Splendor. My reply was an attempt to simply show that Amoris Laetitia does not espouse proportionalism, and that it is part of the renewal in moral theology called for in Veritatis Splendor.
For Dr. Chapp, this was apparently not enough. He wrote that my article “conveniently focuses on only a few parts of Amoris in isolation from other facts of this papacy that do indeed lend credence to the notion that Amoris is calling for a change in moral theology that goes well beyond a mere extension of Veritatis.”
In the comments section, Dr. Chapp replied to a comment by Dr. Robert Fastiggi, saying, “You can defend Amoris with a laser like focus and zero in on specific words and terms, but this risks losing sight of the bigger picture of how Amoris fits into these changes at the [St. John Paul II] Institute and the [Pontifical] Academy [for Life].”
If, as Dr. Chapp insists, looking at Amoris Laetitia itself is not enough, and if we need to look at the “bigger picture,” then the picture needs to be expanded far beyond the narrow window set by Dr. Chapp. Because he leaves out many important facts.
For example, Dr. Chapp does not address the fact that in 2016 four cardinals sent five dubia to the Pope and, violating the guidelines against appealing to mass media in Donum Veritatis, made those dubia public. Dubia 2, 4, and 5 explicitly set Amoris Laetitia against Veritatis Splendor. Additionally, the “explanatory note” published alongside the dubia created a false dichotomy intended to force the pope to either reject his intended meaning in Amoris or to say that he’s contradicting Veritatis (reminder that the dubia were meant to have a yes/no answer, with no “theological argumentation.”)
Even though Dr. Chapp respects and admires them, it is undeniable that faculty members from the John Paul II Institute have opposed the authentic interpretation of Amoris Laetitia from the start. Within a day of its release, they were insisting that Amoris Laetitia did not change sacramental discipline. Furthermore, they have promoted the dubia. For example, the Institute’s former president Msgr. Livio Melina, delivered a speech in 2018 in which he says the dubia “decisively distances itself from ambiguity and at the same time safeguards the dignity of conscience and absolute respect for human life and love.” Dr. Stanislaw Grygiel, another prominent former faculty member at the Institute, said that Amoris “does not bear a clear message about the gift of God.” Nicholas Healy, a professor at the Washington, DC branch of the Institute, published a paper criticizing prominent defenses of Amoris Laetitia last year, claiming that the dubia “will be remembered by future generations as an important witness to the unbroken apostolic faith of the Church, and a witness to the unbreakable connection between faith and the moral life.” David L. Schindler described the consequences of the correct interpretation of Amoris, as defended by Cardinal Marc Ouellet, would mean “that Catholics would be robbed of the true reality of Communion as an objective-sacramental sign of their unity in and as the Church actually founded by Jesus Christ.”
Dr. Chapp leaves all of this unaddressed.
For six years prior to the May 2022 conference criticized by Dr. Chapp—because he believed progressives were using Amoris Laetitia to promote proportionalism—conservative scholars and opinion-makers published countless articles in all sorts of Catholic media saying things like Amoris Laetitia echoes proportionalism, Amoris Laetitia contradicts Veritatis Splendor, Amoris Laetitia contradicts authoritative Church teaching, Amoris Laetitia destroys the entire moral doctrine of the Church—and those are just mild ones. Dr. Chapp leaves this unaddressed.
Dr. Chapp asks us to look at the bigger picture. In his mind, Pope Francis is to blame for progressives hijacking Amoris Laetitia to promote proportionalism. As with the traditionalist response to Traditionis Custodes, there seems to be little self-reflection on how papal critics may have contributed somewhat to the present situation. Are we to expect progressives to say that Amoris Laetitia does not contradict Veritatis Splendor, when conservatives have been insisting upon it for years? Is this not a case of self-fulfilling prophecy?
Let us examine Dr. Chapp’s stronger claim here. He says that Pope Francis praises proportionalist moral theologian Bernard Häring as a “great model for the renewal of moral theology.” But if we check the source Dr. Chapp links to, the word “model” is nowhere to be found. What Pope Francis says is (and I quote), “I think Bernard Häring was the first to start looking for a new way to help moral theology to flourish again.” That’s it. He doesn’t mention Häring again. In the very next paragraph, Pope Francis says: “In the field of morality we must advance without falling into situationalism.” Mind you, situationalism is another of the erroneous moral theology currents condemned by Veritatis Splendor, because it denies the existence of intrinsically evil acts.
According to Dr. Chapp, “a clearer endorsement from a Pope for a proportionalist approach cannot be found.” Apparently, we are to believe that a passing reference like this to Bernard Häring means the pope is undeniably guilty of causing our current woes, yet we are to ignore the impact from the explicit insistence of papal critics that Amoris Laetitia contains flawed moral theology.
It has been argued that progressive theologians wouldn’t listen to the papal critics across the ideological spectrum, so the fault must lie with Pope Francis’s enabling attitude. But if those papal critics spread these ideas, are we to think that they will be somewhat contained in more conservative media? Are we to ignore how ideas spread like wildfire once on the Internet, influencing our collective perceptions of events? Now that Dr. Chapp’s opinions on Amoris Laetitia are published on a mainstream Catholic news site, there’s no reason why actual proportionalists won’t use this opportunity to start spreading the idea that Pope Francis supports Häring as a model of moral theology.
This claim is already spreading. Dr. Chapp’s articles have already been quoted, at least in Catholic News Register and One Peter Five. But imagine if Dr. Chapp, instead of focusing on the supposed “clear endorsement” of Häring, had instead highlighted that Pope Francis says we should avoid the extremes of both manualism and situationalism. Maybe this would help attenuate the fears of those who think Amoris Laetitia and Veritatis Splendor stand in opposition, and thus would help their views to become more attuned (and therefore, more acceptable) to the Holy Father.
The vicious cycle is again in motion. If this starts a new backlash against Amoris Laetitia, it’s possible that Pope Francis will see another obstacle to the full flourishing and clarification of his document. He might be compelled to act yet again, which will make his critics feel more disenfranchised, which will make them even more bitter, which will lead them to criticize Pope Francis even more. Meanwhile, the root causes of the problem will still be left unaddressed and will continue to fester.
I can only imagine how different the discourse might be today if, from 2016 to 2022, all of these scholars and commentators had used their influence and clout to clarify Amoris, and to refute false claims that Amoris Laetitia is proportionalist, or that Amoris Laetitia contradicts Veritatis Splendor, or that Amoris Laetitia is heterodox—as I have done, as many here at Where Peter Is have done. They were in a privileged position to stop this narrative in its tracks, to block progressives from appropriating Amoris. They chose not to do so and to cast suspicion on Pope Francis’ manifest mind and will on his own document instead. A truly missed opportunity.
Once again, the vicious cycle must be broken and only the pope’s critics can break it. The first step must be taken in the same way I mentioned before as regards to traditionalists. I therefore appeal to the magnificent insights in the Manifesto of the New Traditionalism:
“The Catholic Church is the guardian of the Sacred Tradition passed onto the disciples by Jesus Christ . . . We stand for the living flame of a very different traditionalism, a beautiful, living thing, ever ancient and ever new! In the words of the Holy Father, “Here we see the authentic Tradition of the Church, which is not a static deposit or a museum piece, but the root of a constantly growing tree. This millennial Tradition bears witness to God’s work in the midst of his people and ‘is called to keep the flame alive rather than to guard its ashes’” (Querida Amazonia § 66). In every age, this living flame of Tradition has burned ever brighter by “scrutinizing the signs of the times and… interpreting them in the light of the Gospel” (Gaudium et Spes § 4).”
I agree. We should do this. But let’s apply this not only to the validity and primacy of the Second Vatican Council—as the Manifesto has done—but also to the validity of Amoris Laetitia and the primacy of Pope Francis.
We reject the rupturists on both the right and the left, who both assert that the Council taught modernism.
This is sensible. Yet I have been criticized for being a “partisan” of continuity in Pope Francis’s teachings, whereas both the pope’s critics and progressives insist that there is an alleged rupture between Francis and John Paul II. Dr. Chapp claims this is proof of rupture and that this can be pinned on Francis.
Just as the Council of Nicaea, the Second Vatican Council was, and remains, mired in an era of crisis. But an ecumenical council cannot be reduced to its imperfect participants nor to the corruption and chaos which persisted before, during, and after the council. We trust in the providence of the Almighty Father to work all things for good and in the promise of the Lord Jesus to Peter at Caesarea Philippi.
And yet, why is it “naivete” to trust the promise of the Lord Jesus when it comes to Pope Francis? Why is the meaning of Amoris Laetitia reduced to the opinions of its progressive supporters and to the corruption and chaos that persisted before, during, and after its publication?
Why is it that my words are “sophistry taken to new depths of silliness,” misrepresenting “the critics of Amoris without citing a shred of evidence, as hopeless legalists who misunderstand Veritatis as a purely ‘legalistic’ document”? Dr. Chapp has no problem saying this sort of thing about critics of the Second Vatican Council, and with much stronger language than I have ever used.
As Catholics, we hold fast to all that is good in the movement for the restoration of lost traditions and oppose all appearances of evil. It has become evident that the Devil’s tool to ruin the traditionalism of the 21st century is the spirit of the Pharisees, who opposed the renewal of the Spirit and the Good News of Our Lord Jesus Christ. We reject the white-washed tombs of this dead traditionalism.
Why is it that my defense of continuity seems to imply, for Dr. Chapp, that critics such as he “are just too obtuse to see it” … and not something like this?
But whenever the Spirit guides men to Truth, the Devil will strive to pervert their good intentions.
My admiration and respect for Dr. Chapp has not waivered, even after his harsh criticism. I pray he does not see this response as an attack on his person, but as a friendly response in the course of legitimate and reasoned discussion. I certainly don’t see him as “obtuse” in any way.
I do believe he is wrong on this. Many good, intelligent people throughout history have been wrong about many things.
I believe his interventions are counterproductive to the very aim he seeks to achieve. I too desire that proportionalism does not triumph in the Church. It’s hard to imagine how one can attain this goal by shrouding proportionalism under the mantle of papal and magisterial authority.
I’m not Larry Chapp’s enemy, I’m his ally. That’s why I must warn him and all likeminded people that they are being their own worst enemies. Dr. Chapp has enough discernment to understand where the solution lies as far as the Second Vatican Council goes. I pray that one day he will take the next step and apply the same logic to Pope Francis and Amoris Laetitia.
Photo by Jorge Zapata at Unsplash
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Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.