[D]ivine obedience never prevents us from obedience to the Holy Father. Nay, the more perfect the one, the more perfect is the other. And we ought always to be subject to his commands and obedient unto death. However indiscreet obedience to him might seem, and however it should deprive us of mental peace and consolation, we ought to obey…. – St. Catherine of Siena
Father Thomas Weinandy is the former executive director of the USCCB’s Secretariat on Doctrine and, up until a few months ago, a consultant to that same committee. However, back in November of last year, Fr. Weinandy said he was prompted by a sign from God to write a public letter to Pope Francis where he, as summarized by Crux, accused the Holy Father of:
- Fostering “chronic confusion.”
- “Demeaning” the importance of doctrine.
- Appointing bishops who “scandalize” believers with dubious “teaching and pastoral practice.”
- Giving prelates who object [to Pope Francis] the impression they’ll be “marginalized or worse” if they speak out.
- Causing faithful Catholics to “lose confidence in their supreme shepherd.”
After publishing that letter, Fr. Weinandy was asked to resign from his consulting position at the USCCB. And in an interview with Crux, “Weinandy said his decision to write the letter was not easy, and resulted from what he regards as a moment of inspiration…[and] he has no plans to promote his criticism of Francis beyond the letter.”
His plans apparently changed because during a talk he gave on February 24th at the University of Notre Dame in Sydney, Father Weinandy once again offered public criticism of the Holy Father. I hope to address some of the major errors in that speech that concern Amoris Laetita and Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics.
The focus of his talk was on the four marks of the Church, that is, Her one, holy, catholic, and apostolic nature. After presenting what St. Ignatius of Antioch and the Second Vatican Council have to say about these four marks, Fr. Weinandy then addressed what he sees as the “Contemporary Challenge to the Four Marks of the Church and its Eucharistic Impact.” That challenge, he will admit, is Pope Francis, specifically Amoris Laetitia and the teaching concerning Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics.
Let’s take a look at paragraph 305 (including footnote 351) of Amoris Laetitia and see what Pope Francis says:
“Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin—which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such—a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end. (Footnote 351: In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments….I would also point out that the Eucharist ‘is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.’) Discernment must help to find possible ways of responding to God and growing in the midst of limits.”
While a plain reading of this text would imply that the Holy Father includes Communion in the list of Sacraments that could help such an individual, he doesn’t explicitly spell that out…yet.
As I said in my defense of Amoris Laetitia, after this exhortation was released, the bishops in Buenos Aires released their own document, Basic criteria for the implementation of chapter VIII of Amoris laetitia, implementing the changes Pope Francis made into their area. Paragraph six of that document states:
“If it comes to be recognized that, in a specific case, there are limitations that mitigate responsibility and culpability (cf. 301-302), especially when a person believes they would incur a subsequent wrong by harming the children of the new union, Amoris Laetitia offers the possibility of access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist (cf. footnotes 336 and 351). These sacraments, in turn, dispose the person to continue maturing and growing with the power of grace” [emphasis mine].
Now, these guidelines were sent to Pope Francis and on September 5th, 2016, he replied back saying, “The document is very good and completely explains the meaning of chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia. There are no other interpretations. And I am certain that it will do much good” [emphasis mine]. This letter to the Buenos Aires Bishops and the Buenos Aires document were later published in the Official Acts of the Apostolic See (AAS), and Cardinal Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, said, “The Supreme Pontiff decrees that the two preceding documents be promulgated through publication on the Vatican website and in Acta Apostolicae Sedis, as authentic Magisterium.”
Thus, the manifest mind and will of the Holy Father has been made explicitly clear. There is no ambiguity. Pope Francis has taught that individuals in objective situations of sin (being divorced and remarried), but who are not subjectively culpable because of mitigating factors (insufficient knowledge and/or consent) may, in certain cases, and with proper discernment, receive “the help of the sacraments,” including Holy Communion. So with that in mind, let’s take a look at what Fr. Weinandy says about Amoris Laetitia.
First, he presents the perennial teaching of the Church that persons guilty of mortal sin cannot receive Holy Communion. Then he references Pope Saint John Paul II’s encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, saying:
“In accordance with the doctrinal tradition of the Church, John Paul, therefore, insists that the sacrament of Penance is ‘necessary for full participation in the Eucharistic Sacrifice’ when mortal sin is present. While he acknowledges that only the person can judge his or her state of grace, he asserts that ‘in cases of outward conduct which is seriously, clearly and steadfastly contrary to the moral norm, the Church, in her pastoral concern for the good order of the community and out of respect for the sacrament, cannot fail to feel directly involved.’ John Paul intensifies his admonition by quoting Canon Law. Where there is ‘a manifest lack of proper moral disposition,’ that is, according to Canon Law, when persons ‘obstinately persist in manifest grave sin,’ they are ‘not to be permitted to Eucharistic communion.’”
Note that nothing in that passage contradicts what Pope Francis has taught. The Holy Father is not allowing persons who are guilty of mortal sin to receive Communion. Amoris speaks explicitly about persons who are not guilty of mortal sin because of mitigating factors. Further, these persons are not judging their culpability by themselves, rather the Church, through the pastor/confessor, is directly involved (AL 300). Finally, while the Holy Father does speak of those who “flaunt an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal,” and says that through their actions they are separated from the community (AL 297), the persons he is allowing to receive the Sacraments are not “obstinate” in their sin. Amoris is referring to persons who wish to change but who find themselves prevented from changing because of their circumstances.
Fr. Weinandy then laments that Amoris will causes moral peril in the Church:
“Nonetheless, the ambiguous manner in which Pope Francis proposes this pastoral accompaniment permits a pastoral situation to evolve whereby the common practice will swiftly ensue that almost every divorced and remarried couple will judge themselves free to receive Holy Communion. This pastoral situation will develop because moral negative commands, such as, ‘one shall not commit adultery,’ are no longer recognized as absolute moral norms that can never be trespassed, but as moral ideals—goals that may be achieved over a period of time, or may never be realized in one’s lifetime. In this indefinite interim people can continue, with the Church’s blessing, to strive, as best as they are able, to live “holy” lives, and so receive communion.”
However, Amoris does not question the “absolute moral norms” that guide marriage and sexuality. Rather, quoting John Paul II’s exhortation Familiaris Consortio, Francis reaffirms both the objective nature of the moral law and the teaching that anyone can follow this law with God’s help:
“Along these lines, Saint John Paul II proposed the so-called ‘law of gradualness’ in the knowledge that the human being ‘knows, loves and accomplishes moral good by different stages of growth’. This is not a “gradualness of law” but rather a gradualness in the prudential exercise of free acts on the part of subjects who are not in a position to understand, appreciate, or fully carry out the objective demands of the law. For the law is itself a gift of God which points out the way, a gift for everyone without exception; it can be followed with the help of grace, even though each human being ‘advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God and the demands of God’s definitive and absolute love in his or her entire personal and social life’” (AL 295).
In other words, rather than questioning absolute moral norms or trying to justify objective moral evils, Amoris recognizes that the moral law is a gift from God that all people can follow it with the help of His grace.
Fr. Weinandy then lists three “detrimental doctrinal and moral consequences” that will arise from Pope Francis’ teaching. First, he doubles down on his assertion that Pope Francis is allowing persons guilty of mortal sin to receive Communion. Second, he states that the Holy Father is allowing such person to receive Communion because of a misguided sense of mercy. Third, is the risk of scandal that comes with persons guilty of mortal sin receiving Communion. However, because all of these “detrimental consequences” are rooted on the false premise that Amoris allows those guilty of grave sin to receive Communion, they are not only unfounded, but presenting them as real concerns borders on calumny against the Holy Father.
Now we get to the conclusion of Fr. Weinandy’s speech. There he says:
“As stated earlier there is much in the character of Pope Francis to admire, and we owe him our daily prayers for strength in facing the burdens of his ministry. However, that cannot excuse us from speaking the truth in love. Anyone experienced in religious life—or for that matter, in a marriage – will understand that sometimes the truth must be spoken bluntly – not out of bitterness, but out of fidelity to the persons involved and to safeguard the purpose they share.”
While I am sure that Fr. Weinandy is sincere in his conviction that he is doing the Church a service by publicly criticizing the Holy Father, Cardinal Ratzinger would disagree with his public denunciation of pope. In the 1990 CDF document, Donum Veritatis, the Cardinal said that those who publicly disagree with the pope are at risk of breeding dissent and contempt for legitimate authority by creating a “parallel magisterium” (DV34).
When a theologian disagrees in some way with the Magisterium they have “the duty to make known to the Magisterial authorities the problems raised by the teaching in itself.” However, “the theologian should avoid turning to the ‘mass media’, but have recourse to the responsible authority, for it is not by seeking to exert the pressure of public opinion that one contributes to the clarification of doctrinal issues and renders servite to the truth” (DV 30). This is because “public opposition to the Magisterium of the Church,” otherwise called “dissent,” can cause “serious harm” to the “community of the Church” (DV 32).
Fr. Weinandy readily criticized the pope as being an “agent of division,” but it is his public criticism of Francis’ authentic magisterium that is harming the Church by creating division and breeding contempt for the Holy Father among the faithful. Fr. Weinandy truly believes that he being obedient to God, but as St. Catherine said in the passage at the beginning of this article, obedience to God and obedience to the Holy Father are one and the same thing. “However indiscreet obedience to him might seem, and however it should deprive us of mental peace and consolation, we ought to obey….”
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Paul Fahey lives in Michigan with his wife and four kids. For the past eight years, he has worked as a professional catechist. He has an undergraduate degree in Theology and is currently working toward a Masters Degree in Pastoral Counseling. He is a retreat leader, catechist formator, writer, and a co-founder of Where Peter Is. He is also the founder and co-host of the Pope Francis Generation podcast. His long-term goal is to provide pastoral counseling for Catholics who have been spiritually abused, counseling for Catholic ministers, and counseling education so that ministers are more equipped to help others in their ministry.