I am not confused

Cardinal-elect Farrell tweets

If you find Pope Francis “confusing”, you have not read or do not understand the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I quite agree, although not in the way he would like.  I’ve never found Pope Francis “confusing”.  Certainly, if one tries to parse individual sentences according to the rules of grammar and logic, one can often show them to be nonsense, but it’s always pretty clear what he’s getting at.  Namely, something completely inimical to the way of holiness preached by Jesus Christ.

Willed incomprehension is a Catholic hobby.  Once dissenters would say silly things such as that the real teaching of Catholicism on homosexuality is “unclear” and could only be unearthed by the esoteric arts of heterodox academics.  Today, it’s the conservatives who affect to be “confused” or who misunderstand statements of the Pope that are, in themselves, quite clear.  For example, Jeff Mirus and I have at various times tried to “explain” the Pope to be teaching that Catholics who commit adultery may be engaging in venial sin if the difficulties in abstaining are too great.  (Mirus refers to a woman having sex to keep a man around for their children.  I was willing to be even more indulgent and consider that giving into lust can be a venial sin if one is at least putting up a fight.)  In fact, Amoris laetitia says nothing of the sort.  Recall the key paragraph.

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, 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.

This is, in fact, admirably clear.  The couples engaging in adulterous sex are not sinning at all, not even venially, because God Himself does not ask that they comply with the 6th commandment, meaning it is in fact not a moral requirement at all in their case.  The text clearly claims that the human conscience possesses at least two capabilities.  First, it is able to come to a knowledge of the moral law, and above this of the “overall demands of the Gospel” and also to recognize the applicability of one of these “overall demands” to one’s own situation.  Second, conscience contains within itself some sort of faculty for recognizing that one is personally exempt from these demands in a particular case.  This is indeed an astounding claim.  I admit that I have never sensed in myself the operation of this faculty for knowing which of God’s universal rules do and don’t apply to me personally, as opposed to my well-honed sense of when a particular rule is going to be inconvenient for me and my imperfect will to obey.  One could argue that this position is philosophically confused, in that the norm against adultery is at once universal and not universal.  (If it is not universal, but adultery is only wrong under certain circumstances, then there would have been no need to posit this hitherto-never-noticed operation of the conscience.  One could simply say that conscience can refine its understanding of the demands of the gospel, and given the more precise demands see that one is not in violation, at least “for now”.)  However, whether it is defensible or not, His Holiness has stated his position clearly.

39 Responses

  1. Magisterial interpretation is basically textual. It does not matter what the Pope intended, if their is an orthodox interpretation of the words, then such simply is the meaning. It isn’t like interpreting private statements.

    For example, the section you quoted can be taken in a perfectly orthodox manner. To give a concert case, suppose that a woman has abandoned her husband (stipulate that he’s willing to take her back, and wishes for her to return) and run off with another man. The ideal to which she must strive is to return to her husband, but prudence may forbid that she do this immediately, because it would be contrary to her duties to her illegitimate children.

    This of course, is an entirely separate question from engaging in the act of adultery, which is always and everywhere wrong.

  2. The quote doesn’t explicitly talk about adultery, and I agree with ArkansasReactionary that the words are, in and of themselves, susceptible to an orthodox interpretation.

    “One could simply say that conscience can refine its understanding of the demands of the gospel, and given the more precise demands see that one is not in violation, at least ‘for now’.”
    But isn’t this just what Pope Francis is saying? Your conscience can recognize that God generally demands XYZ from you, but also that God doesn’t demand it from you in a particular exceptional situation.

    Unfortunately, you are right that Pope Francis’s personal beliefs about the Kasper proposal are pretty clear. What is less clear is what he intends to oblige us to believe, which is far more relevant: We don’t have to believe what the pope believes; we just have to believe what he commands us to believe.

  3. Doesn’t that de facto and de jure make him a formal heretic, and therefore not Pope?

  4. We do not have to believe what we are commanded to believe by a heretical pope. If Pope Francis explicitly commanded us to believe that, contrary to the words of Our Lord and the magisterial teaching of the Church since those words were uttered, adultery was not an intrinsic mortal sin, he would be susceptible to the charge of heresy, which is probably why he has not done so and has prefered to remain ambiguous. He cannot quite be pinned down which is to me, for one, confusing. Under these circumstances I have no option but to interpret his words in the light of the Gospel and the constant teaching of the Church, which clears my confusion. So Cardinal-elect Farrell is correct, although perhaps ‘not in the way he would like’. To be fair to Farrell, I have read reports that he is not a wild liberal. It could be that this type of right-on hippy is getting rare and that Pope Francis has to make do with a lukewarm bishop like Farrell. The Belgian seems wild enough, but his handling of sex abuse should sink him in a conclave.

  5. @Rhetocrates:

    St. Robert Bellarmine was probably right that a pope automatically loses his office though public heresy. However, even if we assume that Francis has publicly made a heretical statement, that doesn’t make him a public heretic. We would also have to show that he knew his statement to be heretical. Ignorance, even culpable ignorance, prevents you from being a heretic.

    I don’t see how we can currently exclude the possibility that Francis, perhaps though culpable blindness, really thinks his ideas are Catholic. People believe all sorts of silly things, especially if they want to believe them.

    Also, if Catholic bishops unanimously recognize someone as pope, that is an infallible sign that he is indeed the pope. The sedevacantist bishops that currently exist don’t count because they are schismatic and therefore not Catholic. That is proved by the fact they they claim Paul VI, if he ever was pope, lost his office in 1965 at the latest, when he was still unanimously recognized by all Catholic bishops. (The first sedevacantist bishops appeared in the 1970s.)

    Therefore, we know with infallible certainty that Francis is the pope, at least until some bishops who are currently in full communion with him become sedevacantists.

  6. There may be all sorts of theories and speculations about what the Church may eventually say about Francis. Some of those speculations may even turn out to be right. But theories about what the Church may eventually say – even ones that eventually turn out to be right – are not things that the Church has actually said.

    But these days we live in the age of the tyranny of hypotheticals.

  7. The validity of a particular claim to the papacy is what theologians call a “dogmatic fact” (see the article in the Catholic Encyclopedia) and can therefore be infallibly taught by the unanimity of Catholic bishops.

  8. David Konietzko:
    Just to be clear – even though the point you make is orthogonal to the one I made – you are asking me to consult a non-magisterial document in order to learn a non-infallible theological theory about infallible magisterial teaching?

  9. Zippy, if you want a magisterial statement about “dogmatic facts,” check out the “Doctrinal Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio fidei” by the CDF (June 29, 1998):

    “With regard to those truths connected to revelation by historical necessity and which are to be held definitively, but are not able to be declared as divinely revealed, the following examples can be given: the legitimacy of the election of the Supreme Pontiff or of the celebration of an ecumenical council, the canonizations of saints (dogmatic facts), the declaration of Pope Leo XIII in the Apostolic Letter Apostolicae Curae on the invalidity of Anglican ordinations.” (nr. 11)

    That means everybody who makes the Professio Fidei (i.e., basically every Catholic cleric or theologian) must accept dogmatic facts.

    Another point: Ex cathedra definitions would be pointless if we couldn’t know with infallible certainty that the popes who made them were true popes. But how can we know that, except based on their universal recognition as popes?

  10. When I want to scare myself, I don’t rent a horror movie; I try to make sense of the notion of infallibility.

  11. David Konietzko:

    That is better, but I would still have to do a lot more due diligence on e.g. the theology/ecclesiology of historical anti-popes and such to try to make sense of it, were I inclined to do so rather than just letting the Church work it out in Her own time.

    I do suspect that there is much less to infallibility – and therefore much more room for faith in Providence – than meets the eye. The main concomitant to the doctrine of infallibility is that very few acts of the Church are infallible. And even given an infallible doctrine it is always the case that we as interpreters are not infallible.

  12. Todor:
    I think a lot of it has to do with the very modern conception of the Church as an epistemic problem solver, a kind of computer for spitting out answers to theological questions, as opposed to an historical authority which most importantly brings us the ordinary means of grace, that is, the sacraments.

  13. Always keep in mind that the one constant in all of your confusion, is you.

  14. Arkansas Reactionary and David Konietzko,

    I appreciate your forthrightness in not claiming to present interpretations that plausibly reflect the author’s intention. You’re trying to re-state what the pope said to be that conscience can tell when one is engaging in an act that is usually illicit but not in one’s own circumstances. In other words, one can determine that one is in fact not in violation of the demands of the Gospel. This would be uncontroversial, but it’s not what the Pope said. He said conscience has two faculties: one to recognize the demands of the Gospel, and one to decide that one is exempt from them. You have trouble understanding this because you’re not thinking in terms of the pope’s own insane Kasperite metaphysics (See https://bonald.wordpress.com/2014/09/20/inside-the-mind-of-a-kasperite/.) He believes there is a tension between “ideas” and “realities”. “Ideas” like “Adultery is a sin” exist in a separate Platonic realm. Being ideal, they can never adequately capture any real situation or person. Making the ideas more precise or detailed doesn’t fundamentally change anything. How then to explain the relationship between the idea of adultery and actual sexual-relationships-to-someone-other-than-one’s-spouse? By raising the ideas to the status of a separate, antagonistic realm, they can’t be said to even resemble reality without inviting the question of in what this resemblance consists, prompting “third man” type paradoxes. Thus, the pope says that ideas and reality tend to become completely “detached”, but they can be forced into “dialogue”. For this dialogue, the pope lays out the “principle” that “realities are greater than ideas”, meaning real extramarital relations need not take correction from abstract moral ideas, but that we can consult adulterers’ feelings to adjust Church discipline. Of course, all of this is too stupid for words, but it is what the pope believes, it’s what he’s said, and it’s the only way to make sense of what he writes.

  15. I have no idea whether the pope really believes what you attribute to him, but I have read Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato Si’, and as far as I recall, he never explicitly expounds the absurd metaphysical theory you mentioned. What he means by slogans such as “realities are greater than ideas” is left a bit vague, but my impression was that he might simply mean that we shouldn’t be blinded by ideologies which are disconnected from reality.

    The term “overall demands of the Gospel” is a translation of the Italian phrase “proposta generale del Vangelo”; the German version says “generellen Anforderungen des Evangeliums.” So Francis is referring to the “general” demands of the Gospel, i.e., those which are valid in general, but not necessarily under all circumstances.

  16. There is nothing in the text which precludes interpreting it to refer to the distinction between general (but non-absolute) rules and particular obligations.

    It’s true that I haven’t considered this from the insane viewpoint of the Kasperites, but that’s not a bad thing.

  17. According to Veritatis Splendour the negative moral precepts (for example the prohibition of adultery, fornication, contraception, etc) apply necessarily always and everywhere, without exception. It is only positive moral precepts (e.g. feed the hungry) which may not apply in all circumstances.

    So it makes no sense to propose that Francis is talking about moral precepts which are ‘not necessarily valid under all circumstances’ when he is clearly talking about fornication, adultery and the like (sex in illicit unions).

  18. Where does that paragraph mention adultery or flrnication?

  19. According to Cardinal Ouellet, the Pope was only talking about remarried Catholics who have doubts about the validity of their first marriage. Anyway, he said that the new annulment process will put an end to all that.

  20. Sex between people not currently married to each other is indeed intrinsically evil. But Amoris Laetitia nr. 303 (which is where Bonald took his quote from) simply speaks of “certain situations which do not objectively embody our understanding of marriage,” which is a bit vague.

    The “overall demands of the Gospel” say you shouldn’t live together with your girlfriend. But suppose you temporarily let her live in your home because she would otherwise be homeless; you take all possible precautions to avoid fornication and scandal. Arguably, “amid the concrete complexity of” your “limits,” “God himself” isn’t “asking” that you should immediately throw her out on the street, although your situation doesn’t “objectively embody” the Catholic “understanding of marriage.” However, you must still strive for the “objective ideal” by either marrying her or helping her find a new home as soon as possible.

    Suppose you (as a Catholic) are in a civil “marriage” which is not recognized as valid under current canon law and therefore doesn’t “objectively embody” the Catholic “understanding of marriage.” You sincerely repent of the fornication you committed and are going to have a Church wedding in the near future; in the meantime, you firmly intend not to fornicate with your “wife.” In other words, you are striving for the “objective ideal.” According to the “overall demands of the Gospel,” you should not live together from now on till the wedding. But if it is financially impossible to temporarily find a new home for you or your “wife,” “God himself,” “amid the concrete complexity of” your “limits,” probably isn’t “asking” you to ruin yourself financially.

  21. “Willed incomprehension is a Catholic hobby.” – Bonald

  22. That doesn’t refute anything David or I have said.

  23. David Konietzko, no need to imagine these complex scenarios. Our friends in Christ the Argentine bishops have explained what it all means:

    The bishops’ directive called “Basic Criteria for the Application of Chapter Eight of Amoris Laetitia” says that in “complex circumstances” when the remarried couple could not “obtain a declaration of nullity,” the priests can nevertheless move forward to grant them access to Holy Communion. If the priest recognizes that “in a particular case there are limitations that diminish responsibility and culpability (cf. 301-302), particularly when a person judges that he would fall into a subsequent fault by damaging the children of the new union,” says the directive, “Amoris Laetitia opens the possibility of access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist (cf. notes 336 and 351).”

    Upon which Pope Francis comments:

    Pope Francis adds: “The document is very good and completely explains the meaning of chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia. There are no other interpretations.


    Case closed.

    Source, with links to the original documents:


  24. 1. That document also doesn’t say anything about adultery.

    2. The instructions given by an episcopal conference are not magisterial.

    3. The comments a Pope makes about the non-magisterial instructions of an episcopal conference, are not magisterial.

  25. As far as I know, that was a secret letter which was later leaked to the public. Therefore, it isn’t binding (except possibly on its intended recipients, but in this case not even on them since it contradicts divine law and Catholic doctrine).

    The fact that Pope Francis is so clear in his secret correspondence supports my view that the ambiguity of Amoris Laetitia is intentional.

  26. “certain situations which do not objectively embody our understanding of marriage” is extremely clear in context, even more so than the “overall demands of the Gospel”. If you want to be very literal, “situations…understanding of marriage” could refer to any non-sinful relationship other than marriage, but that would make no sense given the discussion that follows, and since the “do not objectively embody” follows close after a discussion of factors that mitigate culpability for objectively sinful acts, it clearly refers to sinful offenses against “our understanding of marriage”. That is, indeed, how everyone is understanding it.

  27. I described a way to interpret that in an orthodox manner in my first reply.

  28. Are you in denial because you feel it would harm your faith? It seems dishonest to intentionally interpret something differently than the writers intention. Usually those sort of mental gymnastics are left to the “progressives” who want to alter tradition and don’t really care about the meaning at all.

  29. Did you even bother to read my first comment in this thread?

  30. I did, but it doesn’t make much sense to me. You seem to be reading things in reverse. An honest reading of something entails trying to understand what the author means. Reading something with the purpose of seeing how to possibly understand the author other than their intent would not be a good path to go down. At the very least it is dishonest.

  31. Andrew, the assuming nature of your comment reminds me of liberals who suspect that I “want to impose my morality” on everyone because I am sexually arrested/frustrated or wish to have some kind of wholesale control over women.

  32. Andrew,

    Magesterial interpretation isn’t primarily about the personal intention of the author. As I explained.

  33. Bonald:

    Amoris Laetitia nr. 301 talks about “mitigating factors and situations” and explains:

    “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.”

    The first part seems to refer to objectively sinful situations without grave subjective culpability; that topic is further explored in nr. 302. The second part talks about behavior which is against a general moral rule but, because of extraordinary circumstances, is objectively permissible and even mandatory; that topic is further discussed in nr. 303.

    Note that the two examples I gave could be considered “situation[s] which [do] not allow [the person involved] to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin.”

    You may interpret the Holy Father as saying that sometimes every possible course of action is sinful, but I think we shouldn’t attribute an obviously nonsensical position to him unless he unequivocally endorses it. It is possible that he simply misclassifies the rule against fornication and adultery as a merely “general” one that has exceptions.

    You might object that the phrase “without further sin” indicates that the current situation must already be sinful. But consider my second example: The civil marriage without a Church wedding was the “first sin”; ruining yourself financially in order to live apart from your “wife” for a few weeks would (arguably) be a “further sin”; but continuing to live with your “wife” is (arguably) no sin at all.

  34. Andrew:

    An official teaching of the Church is akin to a law that you must believe such-and-such or that you mustn’t believe such-and-such. Interpreting laws is different from interpreting blog posts, where you try to find out what the author believes about a given topic.

    When a lawyer interprets a traffic law, he doesn’t try to find out what the politicians who passed the law personally believe about how you ought to drive; instead, he wants to find out what they intended to impose as an obligation on their fellow citizens. Sometimes, laws are written in a deliberately vague manner because the politicians involved want to avoid the controversy that would be caused by taking a clear stand.

  35. There is an easy way to determine the real meaning of a rule or a law: find people who seem to break it and see what happens to them.

  36. I’ll get it out of the way now and say I do agree with AR and David.


    Not really. Murder is still wrong even if nobody is punished for it.

  37. Even if God doesn’t punish the murderer?

  38. God will punish the murderer, even if certain pernicious theologians tell him otherwise.

  39. Don’t miss this new interview by the Vicar of Christ, guiding and enlightening the faithful as always.

    my response has always been that, if anything, it is the communists who think like Christians.


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