Monday, June 4, 2018

Amoris Laetitia and the Public Reality of the Sacraments

A group of priests has contributed to the ongoing public dialogue of Amoris Laetitia with an appeal to the bishops of the Catholic Church to provide greater clarity on certain points of doctrine.  The priests ask for clarity on the central point of controversy surrounding Amoris Laetitia:  Whether a person living in an objective situation of sin can receive the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist on the basis that he or she is to some degree not subjectively culpable.

The priests respond to this question by pointing out that the sacraments are a public reality. Therefore, they say, persons living a life that publicly contradicts the moral law would present a public contradiction if they participated in the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist.  The priests explain this argument fully in paragraph 9 of their letter:
Reception of Holy Communion cannot be reduced to a private act based on a subjective judgment of innocence because it is a public witness to one’s embrace of the communal faith and life of the Church. Regardless of culpability, those who continue to embrace an objectively grave evil after learning that their belief or behavior is contrary to the Church’s apostolic witness may rightly be expected or, at times, required to refrain from Holy Communion. This ecclesial discipline is a pastoral means for bringing them to recognize and renounce the evil so that they can be freed of it and more fully share Christ’s abundant life. Such an approach reflects the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles, who based ecclesial discipline on the objective failure to accord with the Church’s life, not on a judgment of culpability (see Mt 18:17; I Cor 5:11-13; Gal 1:9; and I Jn 4:6). Holy Communion may also be withheld to avoid misleading others regarding the faith and life of the Gospel (i.e., causing scandal; see Mt 18:6).
The first point to note about the letter's argument is that it relies entirely on arguments from Scripture.  The letter does not cite any church council or papal decree that directly addresses this question.  Nor have any other critics of Amoris Laetitia.  Presumably, if such a magisterial authority existed, critics of Amoris Laetitia would have brought it to the center of public debate a long time ago.  Thus, we can only conclude that such an authority does not exist, and that the Magisterium of the Catholic Church has never ruled on this question previously.  Therefore, it is an open question on which the Roman Pontiff has complete freedom to decide. 

Pope Francis has quite clearly ruled on this question, both in Footnotes 336 and 351 of Amoris Laetitia and in his letter approving the guidelines published by the bishops of Buenos Aires, which he ordered published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis as his authentic magisterium.  Nevertheless, because this is an important development in sacramental discipline, it is understandable that some members of the Church want to be absolutely certain that this is what Pope Francis intends, so all Catholics have a duty of charity to respectfully discuss the issue with them.

The Visible and the Invisible

The argument in the priests' letter is straightforward:  the sacraments are a public reality.  Therefore, those who publicly receive the sacraments must live public lives that outwardly conform to the demands of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Setting aside the fact that the Magisterium has never taught the doctrine proposed by the priests, their argument should be rejected based on a fundamental principle of sacramental theology:  the sacraments are not a visible representation of the visible, but of the invisible.  The Seventh Session of the Council of Trent declared in Canon 6:
If any one saith, that the sacraments of the New Law do not contain the grace which they signify; or, that they do not confer that grace on those who do not place an obstacle thereunto; as though they were merely outward signs of grace or justice received through faith, and certain marks of the profession, whereby believers are distinguished amongst men from unbelievers: let him be anathema.
Canon 6 states quite clearly that the sacraments signify grace.  Grace is invisible.  It is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, who infuses Christians with faith, hope and charity.  The sacraments are a visible public reality that signifies this invisible grace. 

In contrast, the priests' letter suggests that the sacraments are visible signs of the visible.  The letter suggests that the sacraments are a place for people whose outward lives are in good order to come together and show each other that their lives are in good order.  Such a doctrine has never been taught by the Church, and it bears a certain similarity to the proposition condemned by Canon 6: that the sacraments are merely outward signs and certain marks of the profession that distinguish those in good public standing from those who are not.

The priests of course will say that the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist signify contrition for past sins and a firm resolve to sin no more, and that this is the sense in which the sacraments are a visible sign of the invisible.  But this is conflating two different arguments: whether the recipient has the proper disposition, and whether reception of the sacraments causes a public contradiction.  The disposition of every person receiving the sacraments is invisible.  No one in a parish knows anyone else's inner disposition.  When all of us go forward to receive Holy Communion, it is a public act signifying our invisible state of grace, not our outward good appearance.

The priests can and should discuss the necessary disposition of a recipient of the sacraments based on the Church's extensive teachings on that subject.  Those teachings, set forth in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Sessions of the Council of Trent and various papal rulings on disputes between Jansenists and Laxists, refer exclusively to the inner, invisible disposition of the recipient.  The Magisterium's rulings on this issue do not refer to the question of public contradiction.

The priests' final argument is the issue of scandal.  A Catholic parish might be scandalized if a divorced person living in a new union publicly received the sacraments.  But the parish might also not be scandalized.  It might be the case that no one in the parish knows whether the person is divorced and remarried.  Or it might be the case that the parish is well catechized and understands that the person has the proper invisible disposition necessary to receive the sacraments.  These are questions of practicality that can vary from parish to parish and are appropriately left for each bishop to decide for his own diocese.

The proper disposition is invisible

Whether a person has the proper disposition to receive the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist is invisible.  These sacraments will always be a public witness to that disposition.  Rather than worry about public contradictions and scandal, Amoris Laetitia is asking the Church to accompany persons in difficult situations so that they develop the proper disposition.  That is where the Church's efforts should be focused.


Cura Pasoralis (Priests' letter to the bishops)

Seventh Session of the Council of Trent

No comments:

Post a Comment