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Why Amoris Laetitia is radical and revolutionary – but does not change doctrine

Louis Roy - Tablet - Wed, May 2nd 2018

As John Henry Newman wrote, 'to be perfect is to have changed often'. 

Wedding rings in a stained glass window symbolising the sacrament of marriage
At the heart of the opposition to Amoris Laetitia is the fear that, in opening the door to the readmission of divorced and remarried Catholics to Holy Communion in some circumstances, the Pope is changing traditional Church teaching.

I don’t think that, strictly speaking, this does amount to a development of doctrine. Rather, it is a case, as an editorial in The Tablet put it last year, of “Church teaching” that “has not changed even if the rules have”. In other words, the doctrinal essentials are understood to be non-negotiable, but they must be applied according to many concrete and varied factors. Consequently, the applications are not endowed with an entirely universal value.

Thomas Aquinas wrote: “The teaching on matters of morals even in their general aspects is uncertain and variable. But still more uncertainty is found when we come down to the solution of particular cases” (Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Book Two, lecture 2, no. 259).

Throughout his 2015 book Pope Francis’ Revolution of Tenderness and Love Cardinal Walter Kasper demonstrates that this pope’s pastoral – not doctrinal – practice involves “a paradigm shift” (a phrase later adopted by Cardinals Parolin and Cupich) which consists in no longer maintaining a rigid, static attitude to sinners, adopting instead an inductive, dynamic approach that begins with particular situations and asks how best to respond. The Church then redefines the practical rules susceptible of guiding the way that she can and must mediate mercy to sinners.

This is the meaning of the “paradigm shift”; something profound is happening in this papacy, but, rather than involving a change in the Church’s teaching that Christian marriage is indissoluble, it is a process that is helping bishops, priests and lay catechists more deeply to interiorise the Church’s traditional doctrines on marriage.

As Kasper points out, “That is not a liberal programme; it is a radical programme, radical because it goes to the root and is a revolution of tenderness and love”.

It not a change in doctrine; but it is a “revolution” based on the whole message of God the Father’s “tenderness and love”, proclaimed by Jesus. And he cautions: “One could almost pervert mercy into its opposite and make the appeal to mercy a kind of metaphorical “fabric softener” for the Christian ethos”. It would be a huge mistake to construe either Kasper’s or Pope Francis’ position as a watering down of the Gospel’s radicalness, or as condoning a superficial adaptation to Western permissiveness.

Another distinguished theologian, the Canadian Jesuit Bernard Lonergan (who died in 1984), offers a compelling diagnosis of this  issue. He does so by placing a moderate pluralism between two extreme positions: classicism and relativism, which Pope Francis has deplored with as much vehemence as his predecessor. In his homily for the opening of the Conclave of Cardinals on 18 April 2005, just days before being elected pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger warned against “the dictatorship of relativism”.

Pope Francis echoed this denunciation in his first address to the Diplomatic Corps barely a week after his own election: “The tyranny of relativism,” he told them, “makes everyone his own criterion and endangers the coexistence of peoples.”

The other extreme, classicism, is the idea that there is only one culture. This view predominated among the ancient Greeks as well as in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (justifying the Europeans’ colonial ideology,  sometimes dubbed their “civilising mission”). Classicism leads to the belief that there can be only one authentic theology. It ignores the difference, for example, between the theology of Bonaventure and that of Thomas Aquinas, each of which faithfully and creatively reflects Christian revelation. Both Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI have used the phrase: “One faith, several theologies”.

Since nothing significant is permitted to change within a classicist framework, theologians and Church leaders who are mentally imprisoned in it reject any significant modification of pastoral rules. And they have little patience with the meanings and values that characterise any new epoch. I cannot detect in their declarations a real openness to judicious changes of pastoral rules, which they wrongly identify with changes in doctrine.

Lonergan insisted on a moderate pluralism, that is, on the plurality of cultures, whose manifestations are to be acknowledged and understood. In his Method in Theology (1971), he wrote: “Besides the classicist, there also is the empirical notion of culture. It is the set of meanings and values that informs a way of life. It may remain unchanged for ages. It may be in process of slow development or rapid dissolution.” He highlighted the importance of “historical mindedness”, or the modern sense of history. He maintained that in Catholic theology we must be attentive to various perspectives while maintaining our quest for consensus – an unending quest guided by the magisterium.

There are some Catholics – as well as some Orthodox, Anglicans and Protestants – who are disoriented because they mistakenly think that much of what they were taught no longer applies. In our multicultural Church, the introduction of different perspectives can sound confusing. But initial puzzlement need not be an entirely negative experience. It can lead to insights that enrich our faith. We might consider the immature Peter, who rejected Jesus’ view of messiahship (Matthew 16:22-25) and later, in the light of the Resurrection, gave up his dream of a powerful Messiah and came to praise the significance of Jesus’ and his followers’ suffering (1 Peter 2:19-24).

Some Catholics have always found it difficult to renounce the dream of a Church whose robustness, power and credibility would consist in never changing. But as John Henry Newman wrote in An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine: “Here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

Louis Roy OP was professor of theology at Boston College for 21 years. He now teaches at the Dominican University College in Ottawa. His books include Engaging the Thought of Bernard Lonergan.

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