“A lukewarm attitude, any kind of relativism, or an undue reticence in proposing that ideal, would be a lack of fidelity to the Gospel and also of love on the part of the Church for young people themselves. To show understanding in the face of exceptional situations never implies dimming the light of the fuller ideal, or proposing less than what Jesus offers to the human being“
— Pope Francis
Amoris Laetitia, #307
It has become common to hear Catholics who do not assent to various teachings of Pope Francis’s Ordinary Magisterium ask, “What about accompaniment and discernment towards dissenters?” This is typically in reference to Francis’s Amoris Laetitia and its call to accompany divorced and remarried couples, sometimes even allowing them to receive the sacraments.
By their reasoning, these dissenters try to turn the tables on Amoris. If divorce and remarriage is considered objectively and intrinsically evil in Catholic doctrine (and it is), then it would only be fair to cover dissenters from Amoris by the same provisions. If Francis and his defenders are not willing to extend the same courtesy towards dissenters, then they would be—so it is argued—hypocritical, and showing favoritism towards one group of sinners to the detriment of another. They think if Francis and his defenders apply the same logic to dissenters from the teaching, then they would be unable to enforce Amoris. This would allow dissenters from the exhortation to disregard it at will if they want to. They believe they are creating a no-win situation. That’s why they think this argument is effective.
The motives behind this argument are diverse, and that is a point I will address. It suffices for now just to assert that we can indeed apply the same principles of accompaniment and discernment to those who do not assent to Amoris Laetitia. This does not, however, make the exhortation incoherent or self-defeating.
The key lies in a passage from Amoris that has been often overlooked, even if it plays a crucial role in the document’s teaching (emphasis from now on is always mine):
“For this discernment to happen, the following conditions must necessarily be present: humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it”
— Amoris Laetitia, #300
To reiterate, for the discernment and accompaniment mentioned in Amoris Laetitia to take place, certain specific conditions must necessarily be present. If they are not present, these provisions do not apply, including the possibility of receiving the Eucharist (footnote 351, referring to #305). Understanding this simple sentence is vital for adequately interpreting the rest of the exhortation.
What conditions must “necessarily be present” for discernment to be possible? These are spelled out: humility, discretion, and love for the Church and her teaching. Here, many dissenters will sing victory, and will state without blinking an eye that they do love the Church’s teaching. In fact, they will claim that it is precisely their love for the Church and her teaching that leads them down the path of dissent, because Amoris Laetitia allegedly contradicts Church teaching.
This, of course, betrays one of the most serious misconceptions held by this community. It is not up to them to define what is Church teaching and what is not. Rather, the authority belongs to the Magisterium (i.e. the pope and the bishops in communion with him, cf. Catechism #100) to interpret Church teaching.
In other words, Amoris Laetitia is Church teaching. Pope Francis has even explicitly called it “Magisterium of the Church.“
By the same token, Francis also states that Laudato Si’ has “been added to the body of the Church’s social teaching” (cf. #15).
Francis’s revision of the Catechism on the death penalty was accompanied by a letter from the CDF, which stated that the change is an “authentic development of doctrine” (i.e. teaching).
All of Francis’s public interventions on immigration, war, and social justice are his authoritative interpretations of the principles of Church Social Teaching.
Also, if we want to speak more broadly about teachings that are often questioned by the same dissenters, it is important to point out that Vatican II’s pronouncements, even if not issued in an “extraordinarily dogmatic” way, contained “authoritative teaching on a number of questions.”
In other words, it is easy to proclaim love for the Church and her teaching if one defines Church teaching in a way that excludes anything that one does not accept in the first place. The faithful clearly do not have the authority to do that. So their dilemma remains, and so does their dissent.
Would we be justified if we said that those dissenters have no “love for the Church and her teaching” and are therefore excluded from Amoris‘ provisions, according to the document’s terms?
If we are to apply Amoris‘ criteria to dissenters, it’s impossible to provide a simple answer: Amoris itself does not provide a one-size-fits-all solution for divorced and remarried people. Amoris teaches that we should discern each situation on a case-by-case basis.
It may happen that a person asking for “accompaniment and discernment” is truly and honestly struggling with Amoris Laetitia. Such a plea would not be an argument, but a sincere cry from that person’s heart. By asking for accompaniment, this Catholic might actually be asking for the same mercy he has trouble understanding himself. Paradoxical, indeed, but Francis probably has no problem acknowledging the messiness that exists in people’s souls.
Even if such a person asks with a confrontational tone, that is no reason to summarily dismiss this plea. This hostility may stem, not from lack of love for Church teaching, but from a feeling that their love for the Church is unrequited, so much so that their love has become a love-hate relationship. The anger stems—not from antagonism—but from frustration. If we want to be faithful to Francis’s principles, we should show patience towards a dissenter who feels this way.
More often than not, however, this argument is not wielded as a cry for help, but as a way to score points in a debate. The aim is to entrap Francis and his defenders in a no-win situation. It is intended as a “gotcha.”
Unlike those who would actually benefit from discernment and accompaniment, such dissenters do not show any openness towards Church teachings with which they disagree. They have not attempted to assent and failed, they haven’t tried. They don’t think they need to. They do not ask because they want to be convinced the teaching is sound, they are already convinced that it is unsound. They are not struggling, they are trolling. The argument does not serve to elucidate the truth, but to obscure it. This is simply an excuse to dissent from Church teaching, a “get out of jail free” card. Such dissenters are often thrilled at their own intelligence for having devised such a maneuver.
“What about accompaniment and discernment for dissenters?” — This question betrays a misconception they have about Amoris Laetitia. They hate Amoris, precisely because they think it is an exercise for excuse-making for the divorced and remarried. They think they are turning the tables by using it to excuse their own behavior.
But Amoris Laetitia is not meant to excuse the sins of the divorced and remarried. Only those with love for the Church and her teaching can take part in the discernment process the document lays out. This is stressed in the same passage I highlighted above, which continues:
“These attitudes are essential for avoiding the grave danger of misunderstandings, such as the notion that any priest can quickly grant “exceptions,” or that some people can obtain sacramental privileges in exchange for favours.”
— Amoris Laetitia, #300
In other words, Amoris Laetitia is not about making excuses. Doing so would be a betrayal of the document on its own terms. This applies to divorced and remarried people. The same logic applies to those who dissent from the document as well.
Those who ask for “accompaniment” in order to subvert the very core of Amoris Laetitia do not show love for the teaching of the Church, of which Amoris is a part. They also do not show humility, since the reality is that they think they have found a way to shatter a papal document. When they make their arguments publicly on social media, they do not show discretion.
It is clear that they do not meet any of the three conditions that must “necessarily be present” for “this discernment to happen.”
These dissenters should be very wary of asking for the same treatment that divorced and remarried people receive in Amoris Laetitia. This exhortation also says:
“Naturally, if someone flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal, or wants to impose something other than what the Church teaches, he or she can in no way presume to teach or preach to others; this is a case of something which separates from the community (cf. Mt 18:17).”
— Amoris Laetita, #297
Amoris Laetitia, as interpreted according to the Pope’s manifest mind and will, is indeed Church teaching. Francis’s Ordinary Magisterium is Church teaching. By trying to weaken Amoris Laetitia by arguing that it is self-refuting, or by twisting Amoris to make excuses to undermine other parts of Francis’s Magisterium, they are clearly “trying to impose something other than what the Church teaches.”
In other words, according to Amoris, Catholics who do this “can in no way presume to teach or preach to others.” This is a blow to the “ministries” of those who partake in such in punditry and opinion-making. They are unquestionably doing “something which separates from the community.” Ironically, their insistence that divorced and remarried people must be excluded from Communion is actually very counterproductive for them.
What happens when we apply the same logic of Amoris Laetitia to its dissenters? For those who want to impose something other than what the Church teaches, Amoris asks that “such a person needs to listen once more to the Gospel message and its call to conversion” (#297). Thus, this is what we should offer them: A call to conversion from their errors.
[Photo credits: “Christ and His Disciples at Emmaus”; Master of the Prodigal Son; ca. 1530-60 d.C.]