Misunderstanding Veritatis Splendor: A reply to E. Christian Brugger

Misunderstanding Veritatis Splendor: A reply to E. Christian Brugger

Veritatis Splendor has always been the favorite encyclical of those who are unhappy with the theological direction of Pope Francis.  It is their source of authority for their condemnations of Amoris Laetitia especially. In one recent example, E. Christian Brugger pits Pope John Paul’s Veritatis Splendor against Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia in an article published and hosted by National Catholic Register called ‘Amoris Laetitia’ vs. ‘Veritatis Splendor’: You Say You Want a Revolution?.

The subtitle is: ‘The Joy of Love’ threatens the moral foundation of the Church.

Goodness, the foundation itself of the Church? That’s quite the claim!

But Brugger, like Joseph Seifert before him, can’t back it up. Instead, he manages to completely misunderstand the real target of Veritatis Splendor and mangles the theology of Amoris Laetitia. Here’s how.

Brugger cites four errors lifted from Veritatis Splendor and then attempts to show that Amoris Laetitia is guilty of those same errors. The four errors are these.

  1. Consequentialist reasoning
  2. Flawed notion of conscience
  3. Moral absolutes are merely ideals
  4. Sets the pastoral against the doctrinal

Let’s look at these point by point.

1. Consequentialist Reasoning

Brugger’s accusation is this:

The “new paradigm” proposes that on the basis of the “immense variety of concrete situations” or, as the Argentinian bishops call them, “complex circumstances,” some Catholics cannot be expected to conform their behavior to the general rule prohibiting engaging in sexual behavior with anyone other than one’s valid spouse; and so proponents support exceptions to the “general rule”; and in these cases, the people are free to receive the Holy Eucharist without changing their sexual behavior.

Brugger appeals to Veritatis Splendor 56 as support for most of his claims about Pope Francis’ theology. Brugger oddly classifies the errors being discussed in this section as ‘consequentilism’, but what the pope was really targeting was “a kind of double status of moral truth”. In the broader section where 56 occurs, Pope John Paul is considering the various ways in which freedom and the law are set in opposition to each other. He says:

The way in which one conceives the relationship between freedom and law is thus intimately bound up with one’s understanding of the moral conscience. Here the cultural tendencies referred to above — in which freedom and law are set in opposition to each other and kept apart, and freedom is exalted almost to the point of idolatry — lead to a “creative” understanding of moral conscience, which diverges from the teaching of the Church’s tradition and her Magisterium.

This is the key to understanding why Amoris Laetitia can never be the target of Veritatis Splendor. These creative notions of conscience that are the result of the exaltation of human freedom have nothing to do with the theology of Amoris Laetitia for the simple reason that Amoris Laetitia isn’t theorizing about freedom at all. Its subject matter is weakness, which is the absence of freedom.

Brugger lumps Amoris Laetitia in with these other theories because he thinks they are proposing exceptions to the law. But Amoris Laetitia and the theologians of the so called ‘new paradigm’ have never claimed or implied that those who are weak or coerced have some sort of ‘exception’ to the law. The distinctions they make are exactly the same distinctions that the Church has always made, from the catechism to Trent to Aquinas and beyond. That distinction is between objectively grave matter and subjective culpability.

We might truthfully say about some of our weak Catholic brethren that they “cannot be expected to conform their behavior to the general rule” under certain circumstances, but that would not be presuming them to have an exception to the rule. It would only be acknowledging that “appropriate allowance is made…for the understanding of human weakness” (Veritatis Splendor 104).

The Church’s understanding of human weakness is that, as Aquinas taught, it can make mortal sins to become venial ones due to the imperfection of the act. Grave matter is always grave, but not every action involving grave matter is a mortal sin.

2. Flawed notion of conscience

Brugger says:

Amoris Laetitia states, consistent with Catholic moral tradition, that conscience helps me to judge when an action of mine “does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel”; but then it goes on to teach, contrary to Catholic tradition, that conscience must also “recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God,” that is to say, conscience recognizes that I am not able to keep the Gospel’s objective demands here and now; and through this process, it says, we “come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits.”

In other words, conscience condemns my action by judging rightly that it is contrary to the Gospel; and then it acquits me from my obligation to live by the Gospel by judging that I am too weak to carry out the Gospel’s command and even allegedly hears God telling me that this is the case.

The words being quoted here come from a section in Amoris Laetitia chapter eight that is titled: “Mitigating factors in pastoral discernment.” Pope Francis says it’s important to have an understanding of these mitigating factors “lest anyone think that the demands of the Gospel are in any way being compromised.” In other words, Pope Francis is certainly not setting in opposition the precepts of the law and the norm of the individual conscience such that conscience “would in fact make the final decision about what is good and what is evil.” Pope Francis also clarifies that “this discernment is dynamic; it must remain ever open to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realized.”

So Pope Francis is not talking about something which “acquits me from my obligation to live by the Gospel”. If that was the case then the goal of discernment would not be a greater realization of the law. Since Pope Francis is talking about a dynamic process that has as its goal and end-point an ever greater realization of the Gospel, it’s obvious that the context here is the law of gradualism. Pope John Paul II himself affirmed that this pastoral law consisted of a gradual, step by step, dynamic process working towards the full realization of the law on the part of a person who cannot meet its demands right from the start (due to one of those mitigating factors).

Does Brugger really think that God and grace are absent from the path of gradualism? That conscience has no light from above to help discern what is the next step? Are the souls on this path condemned to flounder around randomly in the dark? What can a person do in such circumstances but offer his or her most generous response possible? And was the council of Trent’s advice much different when it advised “to do what thou are able, and to pray for what thou art not able”?

3. Moral absolutes are merely ideals

Brugger complains that Amoris Laetitia constantly refers to the ‘objective and absolute demands of the Gospel for sex and marriage as merely an “ideal” or a “rule,” and it says that God knows not everyone can be expected to conform their lives “fully [to] the objective ideal.”’ In contrast to this he cites Veritatis Splendor that ‘“It would be a very serious error to conclude… that the Church’s teaching is essentially only an ”ideal” which must then be adapted, proportioned, graduated to the so-called concrete possibilities of man’ (VS 103).

There are two components here, the law as merely an “ideal” and the idea that the law can be proportioned to the possibilites of man. Regarding the latter, Veritatis Splendor goes on to say that “God’s command is of course proportioned to man’s capabilities; but to the capabilities of the man to whom the Holy Spirit has been given; of the man who, though he has fallen into sin, can always obtain pardon and enjoy the presence of the Holy Spirit”. In other words, we can say that God’s command is proportioned to man’s capabilities as long as we remember that the ‘man’ in question is redeemed man, not fallen man. The difference between redeemed humanity and fallen humanity is that the horizon of possibility is much different in the man redeemed by Christ – for a lot more is possible for man with sanctifying grace than with man still bound by the horizon of sin and death. The difference, therefore, is in the destination not in the journey. God accepts the fact of our weakness and will accomodate it but without allowing it to be the criterion of the truth about the good.

The ‘ideal’ which Veritatis Splendor is criticizing is God’s law considered as something that is unreal – an impossibility, something inspiring perhaps, but not achievable. The sense of ‘ideal’ being used by Pope Francis, on the other hand, is of the law as something that is possible and attainable, but not yet in reach. The ‘ideal’ in Amoris Laetitia is more like a final cause, it’s the motivating source of the dynamism of change towards the fullness of the law. It is not forever out of reach but neither is it yet in reach – it is that which is becoming reachable by God’s grace. Pope Francis’ “ideal” is the law considered as something that is always capable of being more fully realized in a person’s life, it is the not-yet realized perfection which is exemplified in the Father.

4. Pastoral solutions contra doctrine

Brugger faults Amoris Laetitia because ‘it teaches that what’s most needed is a kind of “pastoral discernment” that recognizes that the “concrete situation” sometimes does not permit conformity to the “rule … without [causing] further sin” and says that when such a situation arises, the individuals are, in fact, called by God to set the “rule” (i.e., “the overall demands of the Gospel”) aside’.

This is the weakest of Brugger’s accusations. Yes, Amoris Laetitia is guilty of proposing pastoral solutions to thorny life problems. The only way this could be an issue is if those solutions are contrary to Catholic moral principles, and it should be clear by now that they don’t.

Finally, Brugger accuses Pope Francis of breaking from the tradition of the church  by allowing the divorced/remarried to receive communion in some circumstances. The supreme irony though is that Brugger cites official documents from the past forty years to prove that the divorced/remarried cannot receive communion, and yet it was Pope John Paul II, not Pope Francis, that changed direction and did allow the divorced/remarried to receive communion under certain conditions. So what Brugger actually proved is that this ‘tradition’ is not as set in stone as people imagine it is.

Brugger’s blind spot

I hope that it is also becoming clear what is responsible for Brugger’s wildly off target interpretations of Pope Francis’ words in Amoris Laetitia. It’s because Brugger (and many others) cannot see from the perspective of weakness. Called by God to set aside the law? Exceptions to the law? Acquits us of our obligations? Again, Amoris Laetitia is about weakness and this is a rhetoric that presupposes freedom. The weak do not have the luxury of “setting aside” the law. Only someone who first enjoys freedom can be imagined receiving an “exception” to its.

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.

Brugger, because he cannot acknowledge the existence of the weak, slanders them by making them free. He cannot see their chains and their tormentors and so perceives their actions as the actions of free men. In doing so he makes the category error of conflating weakness and freedom and consequently misinterpreting everything Pope Francis says. He reframes the whole discussion of weakness in Amoris Laetitia as a handing out of exceptions to the free. If everything the weak do is motivated by free choice, then yes, maybe the pope is handing out ‘get out of jail free’ cards. But the pope is starting with the reality and the existence of the weak and laying out what the pastoral solution looks like for them. Everything Pope Francis says in Amoris Laetitia can be demonstrated to be a consequence of, or implied by the law of gradualism.

Let’s cut to the chase, this isn’t about the communion issue, this is about the theology of Amoris Laetitia, chapter eight. It’s always been about the theology. There is certainly a clash here, but it’s not between Veritatis Splendor and Amoris Laetitia. It is more like a clash between the two attitudes that Pope John Paul II described in Veritatis Splendor:

’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.’

Of this problem of the self-satisfied conscience, the two popes are in perfect agreement. Just as the Pharisee was scandalized by the tax collector, today’s Neo-Pelagians are scandalized by the “tax-collector” theology of Pope Francis.

Husband, father of six, idea-tinkerer, pianist non-theologian. Used to live amongst the Christmas trees, now lives surrounded by cacti.

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