There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. (…) [The Church] of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.

— Pope Benedict XVI, “Light of the World

In 2017, the prominent anti-Francis site One Peter Five featured a small article by Prof. Seifert, a notorious philosopher and former member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, who had been dismissed from his teaching position by the Archbishop of Granada on account of his critical writings about Amoris Laetitia (AL).

In this article, Seifert described Amoris Laetitia’s affirmations regarding sacramental discipline as a “moral theological atomic bomb that threatens to tear down the whole moral edifice of the 10 commandments and of Catholic Moral Teaching”. The issue of divorce and remarriage would be just the “first few buildings destroyed” by that atomic bomb. A slippery slope would ensue which would eventually encompass homosexuality, contraception and all other sins.

From that point on, the term “moral theological atomic bomb” has gained traction in the dissenting community, being wielded from time to time to describe AL.

Now, let me say that, unlike many people, I do not view “slippery slope” logic as inherently fallacious, as long as the rationale for each step remains the same. On this point, I agree with Prof. Rocco Buttiglione (who is alluded in Seifert’s article): the logic from AL can be widely applicable to a myriad of other sins, not just the divorced and remarried (even though it would be abusive to extend AL beyond the boundaries of the sins described there without the Church’s approval, since the Church’s prudential judgment, prompted by the guiding of the Holy Spirit, should be free to make the distinctions it finds best).

My contention with Seifert’s article is different. I argue that, if we are to apply such a nasty analogy as a weapon of mass destruction to an official, magisterial, papal document, then AL is not the nuclear bomb destroying the first few houses. No. AL, in that analogy, is the nuclear fallout.

And I think the real deflagration of this moral theological atomic bomb happened, in fact, during St. John Paul II’s pontificate.


 

Before we proceed, let us examine Seifert’s objection. His main point of contention in the 2017 article rests on this passage from AL #303:

Yet conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God (Relatio Finalis 2015, 85) and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal”. — AL #303

From this quote, Seifert argues: “it is clear that this “will of God” here refers to continuing to live in what constitutes objectively a grave sin.” All of his argumentation rests on this point.

Trouble is, it is not clear to *me* that this “will of God” here refers to continuing to live in objectively grave sin. At least, not directly.

For me it is clear, on the other hand, from the paragraph cited, that the term “will of God” refers, not to the situation of objectively grave sin *but rather* to “the most generous response which can be give to God” “for now”.

In other words, the will of God is not for the sin to continue, but for the sinner to give a response to God, even if said response is imperfect. This means the sinner won’t get there instantly, but initiate a progressive path toward the Christian ideal. If this path is progressive, then the objective situation of sin may persist for some time… however, it’s obviously the will of God for the sinner to begin this path rather than stay where he is.

This is what is clear from a plain reading of the text. There is more, however. If we read the contended quote, we see the subject is “conscience”. This is not the first time “conscience” is mentioned in that AL paragraph. In fact, AL #303 starts as follows:

Recognizing the influence of such con­crete factors, we can add that individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the Church’s praxis in certain situations which do not objectively embody our understanding of marriage.” — AL #303

This seems to fit very nicely with the context of the quote provided by Seifert before. But please note: The paragraph starts with “recognizing the influence of such concrete factors”.

Which factors are these? Well, those factors are listed in the preceding paragraph, namely: “ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors” as well as “affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors” (AL #302).


Having then established the proper context and meaning for the “atomic bomb” quote, we must then try to find if there is any precedent for it. And in fact there is. And this precedent exists precisely in the pontificate of St. John Paul II (JP2), which dissenters often pit against Francis on account of his teachings on objectively evil acts (i.e. acts which are evil in any situation and can never be justified, no matter the reasoning) on Evangelium Vitae and Veritatis Splendor.

It is interesting that what prompted Seifert to write his 2017 article was an alleged revision from Pope Francis on Humanae Vitae (HV). Seifert fears that, by applying AL’s logic to the pastoral care of couples using artificial means of contraception, the whole edifice of HV will come crumbling down.

There is one problem with this interpretation: The major principles from AL have already been applied pastorally to HV! And no one has ever claimed HV has been revoked!

In 1997, the Pontifical Council for the Family, instituted by none other than JP2, issued a Vademecum for Confessors concerning some aspects of the morality of conjugal life. Many of the directives on section 3 of this document (“Pastoral Guidelines for Confessors”) mirror the polemic passages from AL very nicely. Let me just point out the most flagrant examples:

8. The principle according to which it is preferable to let penitents remain in good faith in cases of error due to subjectively invincible ignorance, is certainly to be considered always valid, even in matters of conjugal chastity. And this applies whenever it is foreseen that the penitent, although oriented towards living within the bounds of a life of faith, would not be prepared to change his own conduct, but rather would begin formally to sin.” — Vademecum

Please note that this seems to allow for some penitents who are not yet mature to change their own conduct, but who are certainly oriented on a path to do so later on, to remain in sin while the pastor keeps trying to nudge the person into the right direction. Otherwise, by losing their subjectively invincible ignorance, this sinner would begin to sin, not only in an objective way, but also in a *formal* way. This mirrors yet another polemic passage on AL #301, also hated by dissenters, which states: “A subject may know full well the rule, yet have great diffi­culty in understanding its inherent values”, or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide other­wise without further sin.

“9. The pastoral “law of gradualness”, not to be confused with the “gradualness of the law which would tend to diminish the demands it places on us, consists of requiring a decisive break with sin together with a progressive path towards total union with the will of God and with his loving demands.” — Vademecum

This bit about “law of gradualness” not being confused by “gradualness of the law” is expressed very clearly in AL #295. Also note that there is no contradiction between requiring a “decisive break with sin” and a “progressive path towards total union with the will of God”. Those go hand in hand together. But the path, while decisive, is still progressive. If it is progressive towards total union with the will of God, then that means the total union is not instantaneously achieved.

“11. Sacramental absolution is not to be denied to those who, repentant after having gravely sinned against conjugal chastity, demonstrate the desire to strive to abstain from sinning again, notwithstanding relapses. In accordance with the approved doctrine and practice followed by the holy Doctors and confessors with regard to habitual penitents, the confessor is to avoid demonstrating lack of trust either in the grace of God or in the dispositions of the penitent, by exacting humanly impossible absolute guarantees of an irreproachable future conduct.” — Vademecum

If we took the rigid interpretation of Trent that the dissenters use, then the bold part is heretic, since it talks about demanding “humanly impossible guarantees of an irreproachable future conduct”. If the dissenter’s version of Trent is right, it would *always* be possible for a sinner to change his conduct, and therefore, to demand such change of conduct as a part of the perfect contrition necessary for frequenting the sacraments.

“13. Special difficulties are presented by cases of cooperation in the sin of a spouse who voluntarily renders the unitive act infecund. In the first place, it is necessary to distinguish cooperation in the proper sense, from violence or unjust imposition on the part of one of the spouses, which the other spouse in fact cannot resist. This cooperation can be licit when the three following conditions are jointly met:
1. when the action of the cooperating spouse is not already illicit in itself;
2. when proportionally grave reasons exist for cooperating in the sin of the other spouse;
3. when one is seeking to help the other spouse to desist from such conduct (patiently, with prayer, charity and dialogue; although not necessarily in that moment, nor on every single occasion)”
— Vademecum

Dissenters usually shoot down the AL parts which deal with how following the Church’s doctrine would impact on the “upbringing of children”. They postulate this means putting the children before God. And yet, the Vademecum states that cooperation with an objectively evil act may be licit on account of an uncooperative spouse.

Is it not possible that Pope Francis also had these cases in mind, whereby only one of the spouses is interested in Church teaching, when he issued AL? Some apologists think so.


But the JP2 atomic bomb goes even further than that. When AL #302 enumerates the mitigating factors, it is referencing two quotes from the same document: The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC)… which was promulgated by Pope St. John Paul II himself!

To form an equitable judgment about the subjects’ moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability.” — CCC #2352

This is relative to another sin, objectively disordered, intrinsically evil and sexual in nature: masturbation.

As we can see, these mitigating factors should be taken into account to form an equitable judgment about the subject’s moral responsibility. Contrary to what Seifert asserts, forming such a judgment about the subjective culpability of the concrete person doesn’t seem to lay a great burden on the pastor who is accompanying the sinner, otherwise the outcry in the field would have been heard years ago.

Nor can we say that this judgment is a completely theoretical discussion, a “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” abstraction, without any practical application. Quite the contrary, these mitigating circumstances should “guide pastoral action”. The precedent has been set.

However, the other quote from the Catechism is even more enlightening:

Imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors.” — CCC #1735

Mind you, this paragraph from the Catechism deals with *all* human actions, without any other qualifier. So, the divorced and remarried living more uxorio are also included here. The slippery slope has reached its bottom level now, long before AL saw the light of day.

Yes. I know. Seifert claims in his article that his investigation doesn’t “invoke subjective conscience at all, but claims a totally objective divine will for us to commit, in certain situations, acts that are intrinsically wrong”.

However, this would only stick if he didn’t misinterpreted AL #303 by saying the “will of God” applies to the objective situation of sin and not to the imperfect response from the sinner. We have already dealt with that earlier.

But since the “moral theological atomic bomb” is (allegedly) AL #303…

… and since AL #303 applies the “will of God” to the “most generous response which can be given to God”…

… and this response is discerned by the “individual conscience”…

… and this conscience recognizes the “influence of concrete factors” which mitigate subjective responsibility…

… then logic follows that the moral theological atomic bomb, if such thing exists, and if AL is properly understood, comes from the existence of mitigating factors on subjective responsibility. And these mitigating factors are already acknowledged for all sins in the Catechism that Pope St. John Paul II promulgated decades ago. QED.


But now, the dissenter may counter: “Sure, JP2 wrote about mitigating circumstances, but he always tempered writing about those with clear teachings about objective sin”.

And the dissenter would be right about that. Both the Vademecum and the CCC also emphasize the traditional Church teaching on how intrinsically evils cannot ever be justified for whatever reason. And about how mitigating factors on subjective culpability do not make objective sins any less evil (only less culpable).

However, this begs the question: if Pope JP2 didn’t find any contradiction between the objectivity of sin and the subjectivity of mitigating circumstances, going so far as to fit both into the same document… why do dissenters say those two aspects are contradictory when it comes to advancing dissent against AL?

Also, this argument just assumes Francis hasn’t emphasized the doctrine on the objectivity of sin in AL. It overlooks how Francis reaffirms Church doctrine on the indissolubility of marriage on AL #123, 124 and 147. Particularly, I bring to your attention, on this regard, this excerpt:

The Synod Fathers stated that, although the Church realizes that any breach of the mar­riage bond “is against the will of God”, she is also “conscious of the frailty of many of her chil­dren”.” — AL #291

It seems that also here, the two aspects of doctrine (objectivity of sin and frailty of the sinner) are held up together, dovetailing perfectly without contradiction.

There is indeed an unsolvable contradiction though: Seifert’s thesis. For how can Francis state in AL #291 that “any breach of the marriage bond is against the will of God” and then, in AL #303 postulate (per Seifert) that it can be the “will of God” for people to remain on said breach of marriage? It’s doesn’t make any sense.

The only logical explanation is that Seifert misinterpreted the text about the “will of God” from the beginning. Thereby proving my point. And since all his thesis unfolds from there, then all his article is nothing more than hitting on a poorly made strawman. The moral theological atomic bomb has, after all, been defused…

[Photo credit: FEMA; Source: Wikimedia Commons]

Pedro Gabriel

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.

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  1. Joel says:

    I think one change JP2 made to sacramental discipline that has been overlooked in this debate is opening communion to the Orthodox (even if they generally don’t want it). I’m not exactly sure what reasoning was given, but it seems at least partly analogous. From an objective perspective, schism is a serious sin after all.

    • Mike Lewis says:

      Agreed – One would think that being a member of a Church that is outside of communion with the Catholic Church is a state of life that “objectively contradicts” God’s plan, and would bar someone from the Eucharist (if the objective standard is to always take precedence). The important thing that is stressed by both Francis and John Paul II in these instances is proper disposition (being in a state of grace) before receiving communion.

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