I love Bishop Robert Barron. I just listened to his talk from the World Meeting of Families last month in Ireland where he spoke on chapters seven, eight, and nine of Amoris Laetitia and I noticed two things.
First of all, in an hour long talk he spends all of five minutes on chapter eight because he sees it as obviously non-controversial. Bishop Barron explains the most contentious teaching in Amoris in his book, “To Light a Fire on the Earth.” There he says:
“I read [what Pope Francis said about the divorced and remarried receiving Communion] in terms of what I learned in the seminary years ago, which is that there’s a difference between the objective assessment of a situation and the subjective assessment of guilt and responsibility. Those are two different moves, epistemologically. One is relatively easy, in that you can look [at a situation] and say, ‘Yes, that state of affairs is objectively wrong.’ The other move is much more complicated. It’s the sort of thing a confessor has to do. The question is, To what degree are you responsible for this situation? The pope says, quite rightly it seems to me, you can’t simply look out and say any such situation is necessarily a mortal sin. I can say it’s less than the moral ideal the Church calls for, but I can’t say ipso facto that the person involved is in a state of mortal sin. I’ve got to do a much more thorough assessment of knowledge, engagement of both mind and will, and mitigating factors. I think that’s what he’s saying, and to me that’s classical Catholic moral theology” (Pages 228-229).
Second, in his talk he made this comment about the John Paul II generation that I thought was insightful:
“I taught in seminary for many years….I love the John Paul II generation. A lot of the kids that I taught for many years were inspired by John Paul II. They came to the seminary because of his heroic ideal. And he’s my hero, I’ve got a picture of John Paul in my chapel in California.
But if I can say this, the shadow side of the John Paul II generation of seminarians was they often got deeply frustrated when they fell short of the ideal. You know because he was such a heroic figure (indeed he was) and held out such a heroic ideal (indeed he did), and they properly were called to follow it. But then what do you do when you fail? I think they struggled with that. And I read Francis as being sensitive to that fact, that part of our pastoral experience. What do we do when people fail? And he prefers the path of mercy and reinstatement to the path of exclusion. And I think that strikes me as right.”
Now, I am not a part of the John Paul II generation. He died when I was 15 years old and I didn’t really start caring about my faith until I was 18. However, this commentary resonates with my experience of people from that generation who struggle with Pope Francis’ teaching because Francis, while not diminishing the moral law, is concerned about weakness and drawing those who are weak into the Community where they will find strength. As Where Peter Is writer, Brian Killian, said a few months ago:
“Amoris Laetitia is about weakness….St. Paul, in describing the dilemma of the weak, said that they do the evil that they do not want to do, not that they do the evil that they really want to do. The problem of the weak is a problem of power, not rectitude of the will. If a person is given an exception to do the evil that they really want to do, then that it is a real exception and a true setting aside the law. However, it is simply wrong to describe someone who does the evil that they do not want to do as enjoying an exception. They cannot ‘set aside’ the law because they never possessed it to begin with.”
I think perhaps the heroism of John Paul II that inspired that generation subtly turned into a Pelagianism that denies the existence of real weakness, that denies the existence of people who cannot always follow the moral law. This turn doesn’t come from John Paul II himself, but rather from a distorted understanding of his teaching. In Veritatis Splendor the saintly pontiff comments on the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee saying:
“Here we encounter two different attitudes of the moral conscience of man in every age. The tax collector represents a ‘repentant’ conscience, fully aware of the frailty of its own nature and seeing in its own failings, whatever their subjective justifications, a confirmation of its need for redemption. The Pharisee represents a ‘self-satisfied’ conscience, under the illusion that it is able to observe the law without the help of grace and convinced that it does not need mercy.” (104)
The attitude of the Pharisee is the Pelagianism that Pope Francis speaks of in Gaudete et Exsultate:
“They fail to realize that ‘not everyone can do everything’, and that in this life human weaknesses are not healed completely and once for all by grace….Unless we can acknowledge our concrete and limited situation, we will not be able to see the real and possible steps that the Lord demands of us at every moment, once we are attracted and empowered by his gift. Grace acts in history; ordinarily it takes hold of us and transforms us progressively. If we reject this historical and progressive reality, we can actually refuse and block grace, even as we extol it by our words.” (49-50)
Bishop Barron continues to show himself as a great teacher and insightful observer. I encourage you to go listen to his talk from the World Meeting of Families on his podcast, The Word on Fire Show (the talk is divided into two episodes titled “The Gospel of the Family”).
[Image Credit: Frank Licorice via Wikimedia Commons]
Paul Fahey is a husband, father of four, parish director of religious education, and co-founder of Where Peter Is. He can be found at his website, Rejoice and be Glad: Catholicism in the Pope Francis Generation.