Shortly after the May 29 announcement that San Diego Bishop Robert W. McElroy had been appointed to the college of cardinals, retired theologian Larry Chapp wrote a lengthy blog post criticizing the pope’s decision to give Bishop McElroy a red hat. In the same article, Chapp went on to claim that Amoris Laetitia contradicts Veritatis Splendor, thereby injecting new life into a very old argument against Pope Francis’s orthodoxy. In his post (excerpts from which were later repurposed and edited into articles for Catholic World Report and National Catholic Register), Chapp argues that Amoris Laetitia espoused proportionalism, an erroneous approach to moral theology that was condemned by Pope St. John Paul II in his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor.
Chapp was responding in part to an America Magazine report by Vatican correspondent Gerard O’Connell about a May conference held at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. In the article, O’Connell writes that keynote speaker Fr. Julio Martinez, a Jesuit professor of moral theology from Spain, spoke about how Amoris Laetitia “opened new ways of doing moral theology in the 21st century,” and that it will allow us “to untie the knots Veritatis Splendor made in Catholic morals.” Chapp was not the only papal critic to quote from this article about Fr. Martinez as evidence that Pope Francis’s approach to moral theology is a rupture from the teaching of John Paul II—George Weigel made a similar charge in his column, as did Richard A. Spinello in Crisis Magazine and Paul Murano in Church Militant.
Are they correct? Is Pope Francis’s exhortation “a repudiation of large parts of Veritatis Splendor,” as Larry Chapp claims? Although it is certainly true that Amoris Laetitia opens up new ways of doing moral theology, it is erroneous to assert that by doing so it contradicts Veritatis Splendor.
In fact, the opposite is true: those who do not want to implement new ways of doing moral theology are in open contradiction to the teachings of Veritatis Splendor. This is quite a tragic paradox, especially for those who think they are loyal defenders of the encyclical.
From the way some describe Veritatis Splendor, one might think the encyclical is little more than the condemnation of a litany of erroneous approaches to moral theology. Its purpose, then, would be to use it to analyze any subsequent statement in the field of moral theology—comparing it to each of the erroneous theories. If the statement seems to come close to one of the condemned schools of thought, it must be rejected. Among these erroneous approaches we can count situation ethics, consequentialism, relativism, fundamental option theory, and, of course, proportionalism.
But Veritatis Splendor is a long and richly nuanced document. Those who claim Veritatis Splendor is in contradiction with Amoris Laetitia are ignoring the main purpose of the encyclical, which is to lay out “the principles of a moral teaching based upon Sacred Scripture and the living Apostolic Tradition, and at the same time to shed light on the presuppositions and consequences of the dissent which that teaching has met” (VS 5).
Veritatis Splendor’s primary aim is to set the parameters and clarify the necessary elements of sound moral theology that is rooted in scripture and tradition. It also serves as a foundation for the principles that future moral theologians must accept and errors they should avoid. In the encyclical, John Paul explains that in all of the erroneous theological schools of thought, they ultimately fail for the same reason—they “end by detaching human freedom from its essential and constitutive relationship to truth” (VS 4).
In the first chapter of the encyclical, John Paul walks us step-by-step through the story of Jesus and the rich young man in Matthew’s Gospel (Mt 19:16-25). This young man—whom the pope says represents us all (VS 7)—asks Jesus the most essential and unavoidable question in the life of every person (VS 8): “Good teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?”
Jesus answers: “Keep the commandments.” But the young man replies: “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?” (VS 16).
John Paul goes on to teach that in the case of this “young man, the question is not so much about rules to be followed, but about the full meaning of life” (VS 7). The young man yearns “for something greater, which would transcend a legalistic interpretation of the commandments” (VS 16). Also, when Jesus asks him to sell all that he has and give it to the poor, the young man goes away sorrowful. This means that “love and life according to the gospel cannot be thought of first and foremost as a kind of precept, because what they demand is beyond man’s abilities” (VS 23).
These are quotes from Veritatis Splendor, yet I’d imagine that if Pope Francis had written those words, he would have been accused of contradicting Veritatis Splendor. Yet this is precisely the point of this first part of the encyclical.
John Paul II was recognizing an unmet demand from the Second Vatican Council: “a renewal of moral theology.” This phrase appears three times in Veritatis Splendor: in nos. 7 and 29, as well as in footnote 176. This renewal John Paul calls for is not merely a legalistic interpretation of the commandments or a set of precepts.
After establishing this call for a renewal of moral theology, John Paul sets the stage for the second chapter of the encyclical, in which he critiques the problematic tendencies common in contemporary moral theology. At the time, many scholars were promoting erroneous currents in moral theology—ideas that became fashionable in theological circles beginning in the 1960s—and could have potentially taken advantage of John Paul’s calls for renewal. Therefore, as a way of protecting the Church against these heterodox approaches, John Paul dedicates this part of the encyclical to explain what this renewal is not and cannot be. Yet other than when he expounds upon the principle of “intrinsically evil” sins, John Paul does not go into much detail about what this renewal is or can be.
And this is the knot that Veritatis Splendor has tied. It is, however, a knot that the Polish pontiff specifically asks to be untied in the encyclical.
Enter Amoris Laetitia. Hardly anyone—critics and supporters alike—disagree that this apostolic exhortation represents something new in the field of moral theology. But does it go beyond the borders delineated in Veritatis Splendor?
The answer is no. For one simple reason: every single one of the erroneous currents in moral theology that are condemned in Veritatis Splendor deny the existence of objective sin.
As I wrote in my book, The Orthodoxy of Amoris Laetitia, “If we pay close attention, we will see a common thread going through all of these erroneous currents of thought. They are all moral theories that deny the existence of one universal and immutable moral law as an objective standard to determine what is good and evil” (p. 145). In one way or another, each of the criticized theories says that the sinfulness of an act cannot be ascribed to the sin per se, but depends on other external factors, such as the circumstances or the conscience of the individual. For example, in proportionalism, the morality of a choice depends on the “proportion acknowledged between the good and bad effects of that choice, with a view to the ‘greater good’ or ‘lesser evil’ actually possible in a particular situation” (VS 75).
Such a position is not found in Amoris Laetitia. Amoris focuses on the very traditional fact that, for a sin to be a mortal sin, it needs to have three components: 1) grave matter; 2) full knowledge; and 3) full consent. The schools of moral theology condemned in Veritatis are erroneous because they advance the idea that grave matter does not exist in itself, even in intrinsically evil acts. Amoris Laetitia reaffirms the Church’s teaching on grave matter while focusing on the other two components of mortal sin. A person’s knowledge or consent can be diminished when committing an objectively grave sin. The act itself is always objectively grave, but the person’s guilt (their “subjective culpability”) can be reduced depending on the situation.
John Paul taught these three criteria for mortal sin a number of times during his papacy, notably in the Catechism (which is the foundation that Amoris Laetitia quotes to establish its sacramental discipline in AL 302). This basic principle is also affirmed in Veritatis Splendor:
The Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia reaffirmed the importance and permanent validity of the distinction between mortal and venial sins, in accordance with the Church’s tradition. And the 1983 Synod of Bishops, from which that Exhortation emerged, “not only reaffirmed the teaching of the Council of Trent concerning the existence and nature of mortal and venial sins, but it also recalled that mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.” The statement of the Council of Trent does not only consider the “grave matter” of mortal sin; it also recalls that its necessary condition is “full awareness and deliberate consent.” . . . In any event, both in moral theology and in pastoral practice one is familiar with cases in which an act which is grave by reason of its matter does not constitute a mortal sin because of a lack of full awareness or deliberate consent on the part of the person performing it. . . . Clearly, situations can occur which are very complex and obscure from a psychological viewpoint, and which influence the sinner’s subjective imputability (VS 70).
In Amoris Laetitia, by applying this traditional principle to the divorced and remarried in particular situations, Pope Francis makes his contribution to the “renewal of moral theology” that Veritatis Splendor asked for. And he did it without transgressing the limits Veritatis said not to cross.
Therefore, it is certainly reasonable to say that Amoris Laetitia untied the knots left by Veritatis Splendor. In fact, those knots were left by St. John Paul II to be untied. Veritatis Splendor was left incomplete, and knowingly so. Decades later, the Church finally received the answer that John Paul called for, in Amoris Laetitia. This is a great irony, that those who are still resisting Pope Francis’s renewal of moral theology are actually Veritatis Splendor’s greatest adversaries, no matter how much they might pretend to defend it.
Image: Adobe Stock. By Борис Бондарчук.
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.