Sunday, June 30, 2019

The Buenos Aires Guidelines Revisited: To Propose or not to Propose

The Buenos Aires guidelines remain the most explicit interpretation of Chapter Eight of Amoris Laetitia that has been formally approved by Pope Francis.  Critics believe the guidelines are, at best, ambiguously worded and can be interpreted in a way that would permit a divorced and remarried person to receive absolution in the Sacrament of Penance even if the person does not have a firm purpose of amendment.  Given that some time has passed since the initial controversy following the publication of the Buenos Aires guidelines, it is worth examining them again in order to better understand the mind and will of the Holy Father.

The relevant paragraphs of the guidelines are as follows:
5) When the concrete circumstances of a couple make it feasible, especially when both are Christians with a path of faith, the commitment to live in continence can be proposed. Amoris laetitia does not ignore the difficulties of this option (see note 329 ) and leaves open the possibility of accessing the sacrament of Reconciliation when it fails in that purpose (see note 364 , according to the teaching of St. John Paul II to Cardinal W Baum, of 03/22/1996).

6) In other more complex circumstances, and when a declaration of nullity could not be obtained, the aforementioned option may not be in fact feasible. However, a path of discernment is also possible. If it is recognized that, in a specific case, there are limitations that mitigate liability and guilt (see 301 - 302 ), particularly when a person considers that he would fall on a further fault damaging the children of the new union, Amoris laetitia opens the possibility of access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist (see notes 336 and 351 ). These, in turn, dispose the person to continue to mature and grow with the strength of grace.
Critics of the guidelines tend to focus on the statement in Paragraph 6 that a commitment to continence may not be feasible.  Much has been written on that question already, so it is worth reading deeper into the text to understand the consequences of whether or not the commitment is feasible.  The primary consequence is stated at the start of Paragraph 5:  If the concrete circumstances of a couple make a commitment to continence feasible, then the commitment to continence can be proposed.  

To many Catholics, this is a confusing statement.  The commitment to continence is the Catholic Church's teaching for divorced and remarried Catholics.  Why wouldn't it always be proposed?  And what does it mean to "propose" a teaching anyway?  Shouldn't the Church simply teach its doctrine, rather than "propose" it?

The Meaning of "Propose"

Saint John Paul II explained the meaning of "propose" in Redemptoris Missio:
On her part, the Church addresses people with full respect for their freedom. Her mission does not restrict freedom but rather promotes it. The Church proposes; she imposes nothing. She respects individuals and cultures, and she honors the sanctuary of conscience.
Pope Francis uses the word "propose" 18 times in Amoris Laetitia, in one section echoing the thought of Saint John Paul II:
Parents desirous of nurturing the faith of their children are sensitive to their patterns of growth, for they know that spiritual experience is not imposed but freely proposed.  
I have seen some critics grumble at the notion that Church teaching is proposed rather than imposed.  The word "propose" is used throughout the documents of the Second Vatican Council, but its use goes back much further than that.  The First Vatican Council used the word "propose" twice to convey the sense in which the Church teaches the faith, as did the Council of Florence in 1444:
Moreover he declared that he would accept, in the name of the aforesaid patriarch and of the whole nation and of himself, the whole faith and all the teaching which we, with the approval of this sacred council, would propose to him.
Thus, "propose" is not some innovative terminology for watering down Church teaching invented by Pope Francis or Vatican II, but is the historic Catholic term for conveying the "mildness and mercy" with which the Church teaches the faith.

"Propose" as used in the Buenos Aires Guidelines

Paragraph 5 of the Buenos Aires guidelines invokes the traditional Catholic term for teaching Church doctrine when it states that the commitment to continence can be "proposed".  Since the guidelines are written by the bishops of the Buenos Aires region to their priests, Paragraph 5 is instructing priests on the circumstances in which they can propose the commitment to continence.  It is implied but not explicitly stated that a priest should not propose the commitment to continence if it is not feasible.

Since it is the priest making the determination of whether or not to propose Church teaching, it is the priest making the determination of whether or not the commitment to continence is feasible.  This is pastoral discernment by the priest rather than personal discernment by the divorced and remarried person, a distinction made in both Familiaris Consortio and Amoris Laetitia.  The priest looks at the person's situation using all the information he has and discerns whether or not it would be feasible for the person to implement Church teaching if it were proposed.

Nothing in the Buenos Aires guidelines authorizes a priest to propose something other than Church teaching.  The guidelines do not allow a priest to "give permission" for a person to continue to have sexual relations with a person other than their validly married spouse, or to absolve a person who manifests an intent to continue in grave sin.  The option given by the Buenos Aires guidelines is simply whether the priest should propose Church teaching or not propose it. 

Invincible Ignorance vs Feasibility

Saint Alphonsus Liguori famously taught that confessors should not propose a Church teaching if the penitent is invincibly ignorant of the teaching and would begin to sin formally if he or she became aware of the teaching.  This practice was approved by the Pontifical Council for the Family in its 1997 Vademecum for Confessors.  The Buenos Aires guidelines, however, make no mention of invincible ignorance.  The only explicit condition for whether or not to propose Church teaching is whether it will be feasible for the penitent to follow it.

It may be the case that invincible ignorance is intended to be implied by Paragraphs 5 and 6 of the Buenos Aires guidelines.  In all likelihood every priest on the planet is familiar with the practice and the bishops saw no need to explicitly mention what every priest in their dioceses already knows.

But even if that is not the intent, there is nothing heretical about the Buenos Aires guidelines. The advice for confessors taught by Liguori and the Vademecum is not an infallible dogma.  It has never been formally addressed by a Pope or church council.  I have not seen any commentator in the years-long debate over Amoris Laetitia cite any dogma of the Church that requires a priest to propose a Church teaching in all circumstances in which the penitent is not invincibly ignorant.  Thus, Pope Francis has complete freedom in this area to loosen or tighten Church discipline as he sees fit.

Moreover, Saint Alphonsus Liguori's Guide for Confessors is far more strict than even the most conservative commentators today would require of confessors.  For example, Liguori advises that absolution should be deferred when a penitent is in a necessary proximate occasion of sin in order to make the penitent more conscientious of his duty to use suitable means to render the occasion of sin remote.  In contrast, 20th Century Servant of God Father John Hardon, whose canonization is championed by Cardinal Raymond Burke, teaches in Catholic Dictionary that living in a necessary proximate occasion of sin is not an impediment to receving absolution in confession.  Catholic Encyclopedia teaches the same.

And for many divorced and remarried Catholics, the key question affecting both their culpability and the feasibility of a commitment to continence is whether they are living in a necessary proximate occasion of sin.  Sharing the same dwelling space is a proximate occasion of sin for two people who are attracted to each other, but it may be a necessary occasion of sin when they are morally compelled to do so, especially when, as the Buenos Aires guidelines say, the couple are raising children together.  In such a case, even Saint Alphonsus Liguori (and Father Hardon) acknowledge that the sacraments (including Penance and the Eucharist) are suitable means for rendering the occasion of sin remote. 

Thus, assuming that invincible ignorance was not intended to be implied by the Buenos Aires guidelines, Pope Francis is asking priests to make feasibility rather than invincible ignorance the key criteria for determining whether or not to propose the commitment to continence to divorced and remarried Catholics.  He has good reasons for doing so.  A priest can much more readily assess from the external circumstances whether a commitment to continence is feasible than he can whether the penitent may be invincibly ignorant.  If a Catholic shares a small living space with an atheist who would not agree to live in continence, and they cannot afford to move into separate living spaces, then the priest can readily discern that a commitment to continence is not feasible, whereas the priest would need to undertake a careful examination of the penitent's mind to discern whether or not the penitent is invincibly ignorant.  Many priests today simply may not have the time to do the latter, and therefore trust in the penitent's good faith when discerning the former.  

There is also the added complexity of whether or not a prior marriage was really valid, and whether the current couple may in fact truly be married.  A marriage is valid when the man and the woman express their mutual consent, but in an age when people marry in the Church for cultural rather than spiritual reasons, the Church is coming to recognize that many purported marriages may not in fact be valid.  As Pope Benedict XVI said, it is a complex question.  Given that the potential disruption of a truly married couple and their family may be at stake, it is understandable why Pope Francis has placed relatively strict conditions on priests before they can propose the commitment to continence.

Peter Faber vs Peter Canisius

Finally, we should all know from personal experience that priests do not propose every Church teaching that may be relevant to a person who is likely falling into a particular sin.  I have only rarely heard a priest at a wealthy parish admonish the parishioners of their duty to give their excess wealth to the poor (and then it was in the gentlest of terms).  And to use the most famous example, I doubt many of us have heard a priest tell a parish full of families with zero or few children of their obligation not to use birth control.  

This is the recurring complaint from critics of the post-Vatican II Church:  Why aren't pastors condemning the obvious and overt sins in present-day society?  It is the complaint that is constantly made against Father James Martin:  Why doesn't he tell people with same-sex attraction that they must live chastely?  And it is the complaint made against Pope Francis: Why doesn't he tell people of other religions that they must convert to Catholicism?  

The answer again is that there is no dogma that requires a priest to propose each and every Church teaching in any and all circumstances.  It is a matter of prudential judgment for how to reach people who feel estranged from the Church.  Catholics who enthusiastically study doctrine and want to devoutly apply it to their own lives are left feeling bitter when people who seemingly have no desire to obey Church teaching are given a free pass by the Pope and bishops.  Catholics who feel this way would prefer that the Church followed the style of Saint Peter Canisius, who was famous for his excellence at disputing against Protestant polemics following the Reformation.  However, I would recommend that Catholics who feel this way consider the alternative approach of Saint Peter Faber, as Pope Francis recently explained:
We know that we must proceed with parrhesia and courage. They’re important. However, there are times when you can’t go too far and then you have to be patient and sweet. This is what Peter Faber did, the man of dialogue, of listening, of closeness, of the journey.

Today is a time more for Faber than for Canisius, who was the man of the dispute. In times of criticism and tension we must do as Faber did, working with the help of the angels: he begged his angel to speak to the angels of others so that they might do with them what we cannot do. And then you really need proximity, a meek proximity. We must first of all be close to the Lord with prayer, with time spent in front of the tabernacle. And then the closeness to the people of God in daily life with works of charity to heal the wounds.


Catholic Encyclopedia, Occasions of Sin:

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