Intervista: Only a blind man can deny that there’s now in the Church great confusion

“I believe many things need to be clarified. The letter ó and the dubia attached to it ó has been the object of our reflection for a very long time, for months, and we have discussed it at length. As for me, I have also spent a long time praying before the Most Blessed Sacrament.”
This is Cardinal Carlo Caffarra’s introduction before the long conversation with Il Foglio regarding the well-known letter “from the four Cardinals,” sent to the Pope to ask him for clarifications on Amoris Laetitia, the conclusive exhortation of the double Synod on the Family that has triggered ó not always with courtesy and elegance ó so much debate inside and outside Vatican walls.
“We were aware that the gesture we were carrying out was very serious. Our worries were two. The first was not to scandalize the little ones in the Faith. For us pastors this is a fundamental duty. The second one was that no person, believer or non-believer, could find in our letter expressions that could even remotely sound as a minimal lack of respect towards the Pope. The final text is then the fruit of many revisions: texts revised, dismissed, corrected.”
Once the introductions were made, Caffarra broaches the matter.
What has pushed us to do this? A general-structural consideration and a contingent-conjectural consideration. Let’s start by the first one. We cardinals have the grave duty to give counsel to the Pope in the rule of the Church. It’s a duty, and with duties come obligations. The contingent character of the matter is the fact that only a blind man can deny that there’s now in the Church great confusion, uncertainty and insecurity caused by a few paragraphs of Amoris Laetitia. Over the last few months, regarding fundamental matters of sacramental economy (matrimony, confession and the Eucharist) and Christian life, a few bishops have said A, while others have said the contrary of A, with the intention of interpreting well the same texts. And this is a fact, undeniable, because facts are stubborn, as David Hume used to say. The way out of this “conflict of interpretation” was to go back to the fundamental theological interpretative criteria, and using these I think it’s possible to reasonably show that Amoris Laetitia doesn’t contradict Familiaris Consortio. Personally, in public meetings with the laity and priests, this is the method I have always followed.
But that wasn’t enough, the Archbishop Emeritus of Bologna observes: “We realized that this epistemological model wasn’t enough. The contrast between the two interpretations remained. There was only one way to find a solution: to ask the author of the text interpreted in two contradicting ways which one is the right interpretation. There isn’t any other way. The following problem was then how to address the Pontiff. We chose a very traditional path in the Church, the so-called dubia.”
Because it is an instrument, in case the Holy Father, according to his sovereign judgment, decided to answer, that wouldn’t occupy him with long and elaborate responses. He should only answer “Yes” or “No.” And then send it back to the approved authors (probati auctores), as other Popes have often done, or ask the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to release a conjoint declaration to explain the “Yes” or the “No.” It seemed the simpler way, to us. The other question was if it should be done privately or publicly. We reflected and agreed that it would’ve been disrespectful to make it public from the beginning. So we proceeded privately, and only when we were sure the Holy Father wouldn’t have answered us that we decided to publish it.
This is one of the main discussion points, with various controversies. Lately it has been Cdl. Gerhard Ludwig M¸ller, prefect of what was formerly the Holy Office, who considered it a mistake to publish the letter. Caffarra explains:
We have interpreted the silence as an authorization to continue with the theological confrontation. And besides, the problem involves the Magisterium of the Bishops so deeply (who, let us not forget, exercise it not as delegates of the Pope but in virtue of the sacrament they have received), as well as the life of the faithful. Both have the right to know. Many faithful and priests said: “But you cardinals, in a situation like this, you have the obligation to intervene with the Holy Father. Otherwise, for what reason do you exist if not to support the Pope in such grave questions?” Scandal was entering the community of the faithful, almost as if we behaved as the dogs unable to bark of whom the Prophet speaks. This is what is behind those two pages.
And a lot of criticism came from this, also from fellow brother bishops and Monsignors from the Curia.
“Some people say that we are not obedient to the Magisterium of the pope. This is false and calumnious. Especially because we do not want to be disobedient, that we have written to the Pope. I can be docile to the Magisterium of the Pope if I know what the Pope teaches in matters of Faith and the Christian Life. But the problem is exactly this: that in fundamental points one does not understand well what the Pope teaches, as demonstrated by the conflict of interpretation among bishops. We want to be docile to the Magisterium of the Pope, but the Magisterium of the Pope must be clear.
“None of us,” the Archbishop Emeritus of Bologna adds, “wanted to ‘force’ the Holy Father to answer; in the letter we spoke of sovereign judgment. We simply and respectfully asked questions. The accusations that we want to ‘divide the Church’ don’t deserve attention. The division, which already exists in Church, is the cause of this letter, not its effect. What is really shameful inside the Church are, especially in this context, the insults and threats of canonical sanctions.”
In the foreword to the letter, it’s noted that “a grave disorientation and great confusion of many faithful regarding extremely important matters for the life of the Church.” What exactly constitutes the confusion and the disorientation? Caffarra answers:
I received a letter from a priest that is a perfect portrait of what is going on. He wrote: “In spiritual direction and in Confession I don’t know what to say anymore. To the penitent that tells me: “I live like a husband to a woman who is divorced and now I approach the Eucharist,” I propose an itinerary in order to correct the situation. But the penitent stops me and immediately replies, ‘Father, you see, the Pope has said I can receive the Eucharist without the purpose of living in continence.’ I can’t take this situation anymore. The Church can ask me anything, but not to betray my conscience. And my conscience objects to a supposed pontifical teaching that allows the reception of the Eucharist, in certain circumstances, by people who live more uxorio when they are not married.”
This is what this priest wrote. The situation of many pastors of souls, especially parish priests, is this: They find themselves with a burden on their shoulders that they are not able to carry. And this is what I think of when I talk about disorientation. And we’re speaking of priests, but the faithful remain even more disoriented. We are talking of issues that are not secondary. We are not discussing if eating fish breaks or doesn’t break the fast. These are very serious issues concerning the life of the Church and concerning the eternal salvation of the faithful. Let us never forget: This is the supreme law of the Church, the eternal salvation of the faithful. There are no other worries. Jesus founded His Church so that the faithful may have eternal life, and may have it abundantly.
The division Cdl. Carlo Caffarra makes reference to above all originates from the interpretation of paragraphs 300ñ305 of Amoris Laetitia. For many people, bishops included, this is confirmation of a change, not only a pastoral one, but also a doctrinal one. According to others, everything is perfectly in accord with previous teaching. How to get out of this misunderstanding?
I’ll establish two very important premises. To think of a pastoral practice that isn’t founded and rooted in doctrine means the pastoral practice is founded and rooted arbitrarily. A Church that doesn’t pay enough attention to doctrine isn’t a more pastoral Church, but a more ignorant Church. The Truth we speak of is not a formal truth, but a Truth that gives eternal salvation: Veritas salutaris, in theological terms. Let me explain. There’s a formal truth. For example, I want to know if the longest river on earth is the Amazon River or the Nile rRver. It’s the Amazon River. This is a formal truth. Formal means that this knowledge has no relation at all with my way of being free. Even if the answer was the opposite, it wouldn’t change anything in my way of being free. But there are truths that I call essential truths. If it’s true, as Socrates taught, that it’s better to be the victim of injustice than to commit an injustice, I’m enunciating a truth that will compel my freedom to act differently if the opposite were true. When the Church speaks of truth, the Church is speaking of the second type of truth, the one that when obeyed freely will generate true life. When I hear this is simply a pastoral and not a doctrinal change, we’re either considering that the commandment that forbids adultery is a purely positive law that can be modified (and I don’t think any person with integrity would hold this to be true), or we’re saying that in general a triangle has three sides, but there’s the possibility it can have four. That is to say, it’s absurd. The medieval thinkers, after everything, would say: theoria sine pratii, currus sine ati; pratis sine tÏieoria, caecus in via.
The second premise established by the archbishop of Bologna is regarding “the great theme of evolution of doctrine, which has always accompanied Christian thought. And that we know to have been splendidly reclaimed by Blessed John Henry Newman.”
A very clear point is that there’s no evolution where there’s contradiction. If I am affirming that S is P and then I affirm that S isn’t P, the second proposition can’t develop from the first one, only contradict it. Aristotle rightfully taught that when you enunciate a universal proposition (for instance, all adulteries are unjust) and at the same time a particular negative proposition with the same subject and predicate (some adulteries aren’t unjust), you’re not making an exception to the first one. You’re contradicting it. In the end, if I wanted to define the logic of Christian life, I’d use this Kierkegaardian expression: to move always remaining ever still in the same place.
“The problem,” adds Caffarra, “is to see if the famous paragraphs 300ñ305 of Amoris Laetitia and the famous footnote 351 are or are not in contradiction with the previous Magisterium of Pontiffs who have confronted the same issue. According to many bishops, there’s contradiction. According to many other bishops, it’s not about contradiction, but about development. And this is why we asked for an answer from the Pope.”
This is where we get to the most debated point, the one that has so vigorously livened up the synodal discussions: the possibility of giving the divorced and civilly remarried the opportunity to approach the Eucharist. This isn’t explicitly written in Amoris Laetitia, but according to many is an implicit fact that represents nothing more than an evolution in respect to n. 84 of exhortation Familiaris Consortio of Saint John Paul II.
The heart of the problem is this: May the minister of the Eucharist (usually the priest) give the Eucharist to a person who lives more uxorio with a woman or a man that is not their wife or husband and has no intention to live in continence? The answers can be only two: “Yes” or “No.” No one ever questions that the answer of Familiaris Consortio, Sacramentum Caritatis, the Code of Canon Law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, to the aforementioned question, is “No” ó a valid “No” until the believer decides to abandon the more uxorio state of cohabitation. Has Amoris Laetitia taught that in certain circumstances and after a certain itinerary, the faithful could receive Communion even without the intention of living in continence? A few bishops are teaching that it’s possible. Simply as a matter of logic, then it should also be taught that adultery isn’t, in itself and by itself, evil. It’s not appropriate to appeal to the ignorance or the error concerning the indissolubility of marriage ó a widespread fact. This appeal has a value of interpretation, but not of orientation. It must be used as a method to discern the liability of completed actions, but it can’t be the principle for the actions still to be carried out. The priest has the duty to enlighten the ignorant and to correct the wrongdoer.
What is new in Amoris Laetitia is the recall for the pastors of souls to not settle for a simple “No” (not settling doesn’t mean to answer “Yes”), but to grab people by the hand and help them grow to the point in which they are able to understand why they are not in conditions of receiving Communion if they don’t cease to engage in sexual intimacy limited only to spouses. But the priest can’t say, “I’m helping them by giving them the sacraments.” This is ambiguous in note 351. If I tell someone they can’t have sexual relations with a person that is not their husband or wife, but for now, because they find it so hard, they can … but only once instead of three times a week … It makes no sense, and I am not being merciful towards this person. Because in order to end a habitual behavior ó a habitus, as theologians put it ó there must be the determined purpose not to commit any act pertaining to that behavior anymore. In the good there’s a progress, but between leaving evil and starting doing good, there’s an instant choice, even if it’s a choice that has been prepared for a long time. For a certain period Augustine used to pray, “Lord, give me chastity, but not yet!”
When browsing the dubia, it feels as if, more than Familiaris Consortio, what’s really at stake is Veritatis Splendor. Is that so?
Yes. What’s at stake here is what Veritatis Splendor teaches. This encyclical (August 6, 1993) is a highly doctrinal document, in the intention of Pope St. John Paul II, to the point where ó something exceptional to the encyclicals ó it’s directed only to bishops, responsible for the Faith that one should live and believe (cf. n. 5). To these the Pope recommends vigilance regarding the doctrines taught or condemned in the encyclical itself. The first because they need to be taught, and the second because those shouldn’t spread in Christian communities (cf n. 116). One of the most fundamental teachings of the document is the existence of acts that can, by and in themselves, despite the circumstances and the purpose of the agent, be qualified as dishonest. And denial of this fact can lead to the denial of the sense to martyrdom (cf. nn. 90ñ94). Every martyr in fact could have said: “But I find myself in these circumstances … in a situation where the grave duty to profess my Faith, or of affirming the intangibility of a moral good, is not my obligation anymore.” If you think about the difficulties brought upon Thomas More by his wife when he was already in prison: “You have duties towards your family, towards your children.” It’s not just a matter of faith. Even if you only make use of reason, I can see that denying resistance to intrinsically dishonest acts, I deny that there’s a line that the powerful of this world cannot and must not cross. Socrates was the first in the West to understand that. This is therefore a grave matter, and we can’t allow uncertainties on this. That’s why we have asked the Pope to make things clear, because there are bishops denying such a fact, supporting their positions by Amoris Laetitia. Adultery has always been regarded as an intrinsically evil act. It suffices to read what Jesus says about it, what St. Paul says about it, and the commandments given to Moses by the Lord.
But there’s still room today for so-called “intrinsically evil” acts ó or perhaps, is it time to look a bit more to the other side of the scale, to the fact that everything, before God, can be forgiven?
“Watch out,” warns Caffarra. “Here there’s always great confusion. Every sin and every dishonest choice can be forgiven. ‘Intrinsically evil’ does not mean ‘unforgivable’. Jesus however was not satisfied to simply say ‘Neither do I condemn you’ to the adulterous woman. He also tells her ‘Go and sin no more’ (John 8:10).”
Saint Thomas Aquinas, inspired by St. Augustine, makes a very beautiful comment when he writes that Jesus “could have given her license to sin, saying: ‘Go, live as you wish, and put your hope in my freeing you. No matter how much you sin, I will free you even from Gehenna and from the tortures of Hell.’ But Our Lord does not love sin, and does not favor wrongdoing, and so He condemned her sin but not her nature, saying, ‘Go, and do not sin again.’ We see here how kind Our Lord is because of His gentleness, and how just He is because of His truth” (cf. Commentary on the Gospel of St. John, 1139). We really are, not just in a manner of speaking, free before the Lord. Therefore the Lord doesn’t deny us His forgiveness. There has to be an amazing and mysterious matrimony between God’s infinite mercy and the freedom of man, who must convert if he wants to be forgiven.
We asked Cdl. Caffarra if a certain confusion doesn’t originate in the conviction, rooted in so many pastors, that the conscience is a faculty that decides autonomously what is good and what is evil, and that ultimately the decisive word is up to the individual’s conscience.
I consider this the most important point of all. This is where we come together and where we crash with the main pillar of modernity. Let’s begin by making the language clear. Conscience does not decide because this is an act of reason; the decision is an act of liberty, of will. The conscience is a judgment, in which the subject of the proposition that expresses it is the choice that I am about to make, or have already made, and the predicate is the moral qualification of the choice. It’s then a judgment, not a decision. Naturally, every rational judgment is exercised under the light of certain criteria, or else it is not a judgment, but something else. Criterion is the basis of why I affirm what I affirm and of why I deny what I deny. At this point it’s particularly enlightening a passage from the Trattato sulla coscienza morale (Treaty on Moral Conscience) of Bd. Rosmini: “There’s a light that is in man, and there’s a light that is man. The light in man is the Law of Truth and Grace. The light that is man is the righteous conscience, as man becomes light when taking part in the light of the Law of Truth through the consciousness of that confirmed light.” Well, opposite to this concept of moral conscience there’s the concept that places our own subjectivity as the irrevocable tribunal of the goodness or evil of our own choices. This is, for me, the decisive confrontation between the Church’s vision of life (which is the one from Divine Revelation) and the concept of conscience typical of modernity.
The person who understood this in an extremely lucid way was Bd. [John Henry] Newman. In his famous “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk,” he says, “Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ, a prophet in its information, a monarch in its peremptoriness, a priest in its blessings and anathemas, and, even though the eternal priesthood throughout the Church could cease to be, in it the sacerdotal principle would remain and would hold sway. Words such as these are idle empty verbiage to the great world of philosophy now. All through my day there has been a resolute warfare, I had almost said conspiracy, against the rights of conscience, as I have described it.” He then later adds that, “In the name of conscience, true conscience is destroyed.” And this is why dubium no. five is the most important of all dubia. There’s a passage in Amoris Laetitia, on n. 303, that is not very clear; it seems (I repeat: it seems!) to acknowledge the possibility that there is a true judgment of the conscience (not invincibly erroneous, and the Church has always granted that) in contradiction to what is taught by the Church as pertaining to the deposit of Divine Revelation. It seems. And for this reason we presented the dubium to the Pope.
“Newman,” remembers Caffarra, “says that ‘did the Pope speak against conscience in the true sense of the word, he would commit a suicidal act. He would be cutting the ground from under his feet.’ These are matters of a disturbing gravity. Private judgment would be elevated to the ultimate criterion of moral truth. Never say to anyone ‘Always follow your conscience,’ without always immediately adding: ‘Love and seek truth concerning the Good.’ Otherwise you’d put in his hands the most destructive weapon for humanity.”

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