Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis, and Mercy

Dominic Lynch has written a balanced reaction to Pope Francis’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia that deserves a response and some clarification.

First, we need a clearer understanding of terms. When we talk about Catholicism, labels like “conservative,” “liberal,” “traditionalist,” etc. get bandied about as shorthand, though often we are not talking about the same sets of Catholics at all.  For many, there is no such thing as liberal or conservative Catholics, there are just Catholics. But if one is going to discuss groups in favor of and in opposition to certain ideas and movements within the Church, it can be useful to have some shorthand way to reference them. Lynch’s piece frequently references “traditionalists” as a group and explains them to be “conservative,” and it may be helpful to clarify what precisely these terms mean.

Generally, we might describe traditionalists as those Catholics who have a special devotion to and reverence for the longstanding traditions and customs of the Church. Traditionalists’ approach to Church traditions, particularly the liturgy, is better understood in contrast to the dismissive attitude many Catholics took toward longstanding Church practices in the wake of Vatican II. One can be an “orthodox” Catholic, in the sense that one adheres devoutly to Church doctrine, without being a traditionalist, though most if not all traditionalists would also consider themselves orthodox.

These terms – traditionalist and orthodox – are different from what one might consider “conservative” or “liberal.” Liberal Catholics might generally be described as those who are in some way dissatisfied with the Church’s teaching on one or more issues and would support the Church changing her doctrine or discipline related to those issues. Pinning down the many ways people use “conservative” when describing Catholics is more difficult, though one might say that conservatives are defined in contrast to liberals – in opposing change in Church doctrine and practice, though not necessarily traditionalist in devotion. So while conservatives and traditionalists may have much in common, they are not necessarily the same groups of Catholics, as Lynch seems to indicate.

Lynch calls Francis’s view of Catholicism refreshing and describes a hierarchy dominated by traditionalists, but there are two problems with this. First, if the Church’s hierarchy is dominated by traditionalists, we are seeing two different hierarchies. To be sure there are those in the hierarchy who have stood against Cardinal Kasper and his band of liberals, such as Cardinals Muller, Pell, and Sarah. But Muller and Pell can hardly be classified as traditionalists. Meanwhile, prelates dear to traditionalists such as Cardinal Burke have been removed from the hierarchy by Francis. Traditionalists are not used to a friendly hierarchy, it’s the exact opposite. Traditionalists have spent years in the shadows of the Church at best ignored, at worst denied what should be a fundamental right – to worship as the Church has done for centuries. And while there are more conservatives in the hierarchy than traditionalists, they by no means dominate the Curia.

Second, we are left wondering: what exactly is refreshing about Francis’s approach to Catholicism? It is nothing more or less than standard issue post-Vatican II Catholicism. Go to your average Sunday mass in America and you will not hear homilies on abortion, divorce, receiving the Eucharist in a state of grave sin, or the four last things. You are more likely to hear about how much Jesus loves you, some generalized spiritual self-improvement tips, God’s mercy, and perhaps a simplified recap of the readings that involves exegesis at a fifth grade level. It is the traditionalist (and to a lesser extent conservative) view of the Church that has been nearly extinct in average Catholic parishes for a half century. And while traditionalism is having a resurgence, it is not anywhere near breaking in on the standard experience of most Catholics.  Ross Douthat’s recent column lists some of the dramatic changes that have dominated mainstream Catholicism against the wishes of traditionalists:

“A transformation in the church’s attitude toward liberal democracy and religious freedom. A transformation in the church’s attitude toward other Christian churches and non-Christian religions. A total renovation of the church’s liturgy, one with inevitable implications for sacramental life, theology, biblical interpretation, the works, that was staggering in hindsight but accepted at the time by everyone except a tiny minority. A revolution in sacred architecture, albeit one that stalled out once it became apparent that it was, you know, kind of terrible. Massive shifts in church rhetoric around issues of personal morality (sexual morality very much included) even where the formal teaching remained intact. Stark changes in the way the church talks about sin, hell and damnation, and openings (again, including among conservative Catholics) to theological perspectives once considered flatly heterodox. Clear changes, slow-moving or swift, in the Vatican’s public stance on hot-button issues like the death penalty and torture (and perhaps soon just war theory as well). The purging or diminution of a host of Catholic distinctives, from meatless Fridays to communion on the tongue to the ban on cremation to … well, like I said, it’s a partial list, so I’ll stop there.”

Lynch contends that “Francis has ultimately been healthy for the church, even at the cost of frustrating traditionalist Catholics” and cites Francis’s emphasis on mercy as evidence. But it is unclear why traditionalist or conservative Catholics, including Douthat, Michael Brendan Dougherty, and R.R. Reno, whom Lynch names, have any problem with Francis’s focus on mercy. Instead, the problem many such Catholics have with Francis is that implicit in his thought is the idea that mercy conflicts with fundamental truths relating to marriage and the Eucharist. The issue is not with mercy itself, but with the idea of mercy in conflict with truth. The Church has always taught that truth is essential to mercy. We cannot love our neighbor fully without being honest with him. We cannot receive the mercy of the confessional without truthfully and contritely owning up to our sins.

What conservative and traditional Catholics are left wondering after each new Francis media storm is how any of this really is “healthy” for the Church. Does it help the Church to be seen as confused on its own doctrine and practice? Does it help the Church if pastors pretend that the truths of marriage and the Eucharist don’t matter as much as some misguided sense of mercy, in which accommodation is made for objective states of sin rather than attempting to convert Catholics to the difficult teachings of Christ?

Far from Amoris Laetitia being necessary, it begs the question of its relevance at all. Had there been no synod to summarize, there would be no need for such a document. There is nothing substantively new in the document itself. It is interesting in the sense that Francis appears to deliberately address controversial issues at points, without either clearly reaffirming doctrine or explicitly endorsing the current widespread practice of ignoring Church teaching. But it does not effect changes one way or another; indeed, it endorses the uneasy truce that exists, as Douthat explains.

Matthew Schmitz’s moving response to Amoris Laetitia makes more sense:

“Francis says that the Eucharist is “not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” How well I know it. But the conclusions he draws from this great truth are strange. Who considers himself weak, if not the man who repents his sins and confesses them? Who thinks himself perfect, if not the man who believes he has no need of confession, but a right to the Eucharist? It is not possible to have a purely subjective assurance of our worthiness without the taint of pride.”

It is not Francis’s focus on mercy that is problematic to some Catholics. It is the implicit assumption that mercy can be divorced from the truth of the sacraments. 

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