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The relevance of some reflections by Karol Wojtyła for understanding Amoris Laetitia:
creative fidelity

An important debate took place in Krakow on December 16th and 17th, 1970. Archbishop Karol Wojtyła had just finished a dense book that, among other things, sought to explain the underlying anthropology of Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern Word. The book was entitled The Acting Person (1969), and a large gathering of philosophers had been convened to discuss the intense speculative force of this book.

It is interesting to review the interventions published subsequent to the conference in a collection edited by Andrzej Szostek. On the one hand, there was considerable support for the book. Those, in fact, who had studied phenomenology and personalism understood that Wojtyła was going in a new direction by claiming that the objective recognition of subjectivity does not necessarily imply subjectivism. Rather, human action is a privileged moment for apprehending the truth of the human person. This intuition allowed the Polish archbishop to advance a hypothesis about how to overcome the one-sidedness of the Marxist theory about the primacy of revolutionary praxis by means of a renewed anthropology of action and communion. On the other hand, however, there were those who were hesitant or overtly distrustful of Wojtyła’s reflections. Some of these philosophers were of a certain Thomistic bent unaccustomed to returning to things in themselves. Some had fallen into the habit of merely repeating an accepted canon of orthodox philosophy. Rather than affirming truth as the adaequatio of the mind to reality, they seemed implicitly to maintain that truth is the adaequatio of the mind to Saint Thomas Aquinas. They found everything Wojtyła was up to unsatisfactory: the method, the terminology, and the proposals.

I wish to recall this episode to show that resistance is not infrequent when Christian thought takes a new step forward. This resistance generally arises from a suspicion of infidelity to an inherited patrimony of thought; the use of a new lexicon considered ambiguous and the many risks involved by apparently going off in a different direction based on some new point of view.

Rather than using Karol Wojtyła’s The Acting Person, we might turn to other examples. Above all, we can recall the controversy surrounding the notion of religious liberty, where the apparent opposition between the encyclical Libertas of Leo XIII and the Declaration Dignitatis Humanae of Vatican II led some to label the entire Council heretical. Or we can consider the introduction of the unitive and procreative meaning of the sexual act in Humanae Vitae that prevailed over the Thomistic theory of primary and secondary ends. Similarly, there was a novelty in recognizing that the human being is created in the image and likeness of God based on the “relational uni-duality” of man and woman as elaborated by John Paul II, who completed and expanded the traditional understanding of the image and likeness of God as based on higher human faculties such as intelligence, free will, and so on.

The list of examples would run the gamut of Christian doctrine. Natural reality and the deposit of faith undoubtedly have a definitive and objective structure. However, the comprehension of these truths allows for organic developments that explore new phenomena that need to be recognized in different historical periods. Hence an attentive reading of the signs of the times is not extraneous to the intellectual effort that needs to take place whenever we face a new philosophical, theological, or pastoral reflection.

I have the impression that this partially explains what is happening when the Pontiff offers the world an Exhortation like Amoris Laetitia. Pope Francis is not changing the Church’s fundamental teaching. He would not dare do so because he knows that the deposit of faith is not an arbitrary invention that can be changed according to chance discoveries.

The deposit of faith is a precious gift that needs to be guarded. But guarding it does not mean placing it in a freezer and letting it hibernate to suspend its metabolism. To the contrary, it is the dynamism of a living God who enters into and takes part in our history in order to redeem it. This can be seen every day in the pastoral activity of the Church and especially in the ministry of the successor of Peter. The Roman Pontiff would betray his vocation and his service to the People of God if he suffocated the real presence of God in history, in the very places where it is found most readily: in the Scriptures, the people, and in particular in those who suffer isolation and pain.

For this reason, some of the criticisms recently directed against the Pope seem to me unjust and unfounded. Amoris laetitia is an authentic act of the papal magisterium. It is very imprudent, besides theologically inaccurate, to suggest that this Apostolic Exhortation is a sort of personal, almost private, opinion. The Pope exercises his munus docendi in a variety of ways: in his messages, speeches, homilies and, undoubtedly, in his encyclicals and post-synodal exhortations. The latter of these is born from a broad exercise of synodality, a fact of no little importance.

Furthermore, Amoris Laetitia neither breaks from, nor is in discontinuity with, the Gospel, the natural law, or previous papal teaching. In particular, the much discussed eighth chapter of the Exhortation is a good example of what Benedict XVI taught in a general way during his speech to the Roman Curia on December 22nd, 2005. Mutatis mutandis, we could say that the teaching on the nature of the sacrament of marriage, the Eucharist, and the conditions for ascertaining mortal sin have not changed in recent magisterial teaching. But this true and immutable teaching, to which obedience is owed, needs to be deepened and handed on with due consideration for the changing times we are living in. This is precisely what Amoris Laetitia does: it is an organic development born out of creative fidelity.

To read it in a hermeneutic of rupture, as some critics of Pope Francis do, is, in my opinion, erroneous. Here are a few reasons why.

First of all, this reading is an inconsistent interpretation of Saint Thomas Aquinas. The Angelic Doctor knew how to understand and to love with unparalleled passion. All of the universal categories he uses, including those of the moral order, diminish in their necessity and increase in their contingency the more they are realized in concrete realities.

The misunderstanding of this point on the part of some Thomists reveals itself in several ways. Allow me to point out just one: the fairly common tendency to interpret reason as the faculty that regards the universal, overlooking important contributions Aquinas made to recognizing the ratio particularis and its role in theoretical and practical knowledge. The way to knowledge begins with the singular, passes to the universal, but returns again to the concrete. Methodologically overlooking this elementary ingredient has produced a sort of 'a-historicity' in much contemporary Thomistic reflection and a difficulty in understanding the level at which the Church’s pastoral concern is directed, as well as many comments, suggestions, and analyses offered by Pope Francis in the Exhortation.

A good example of this is how some equate – in a more or less univocal way – the complexities of the “irregular” situations in which many couples find themselves in and mortal sin, thus closing the door unequivocally to the Eucharist. To affirm, inexplicitly or explicitly, that every “irregular” situation is by definition a mortal sin and devoid of sanctifying grace seems to be in grave contradiction with the Gospel, the natural law, and the authentic teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas.

The Exhortation published by Pope Francis does not intend to dilute or dismiss the structure of a person’s ethical life by unilaterally accentuating certain moral absolutes; much less does it water down the universal dimension of norms into a purely factual, concrete, and contextual ethics. From this point of view, the Pope has written a profoundly Thomistic Exhortation that recovers in a healthy way the notions of participation and analogy that pave the way to a response, aside from theories, to the drama of the real person acting in real situations.

Second of all, the critiques against Pope Francis also lack an accurate understanding of John Paul II. Pope Wojtyła, first as philosopher and then as Roman Pontiff, opened an important door in the quest to reestablish a solid basis for anthropology and ethics. A purely objectivistic view of the human person is insufficient for appreciating that which is irreducible in him. It is necessary to look carefully at fundamental human experience to find the broad and rich world of subjectivity and consciousness that lies within.

Within this world, according to John Paul II, the natural law does not appear in a deductive way from a few inclinations. Rather, its normative foundation consists in practical reason understood as the capacity to recognize, step by step, the truth of the good. It is precisely in this that we find pastoral gradualness, or the patience with which we need to listen to and understand a person who has not fully understood a given moral value and its practical ramifications.

The pastoral gradualness elaborated in Familiaris Consortio acquires even more substance when we consider Amoris Laetitia in its entirety. Of course, interpreting this gradualness correctly requires not only that we not confuse it with a sort of doctrinal gradualness, but also that we take on the mindset that discernment is necessary in every concrete case. Any purely formal repetition of John Paul II’s teaching that fails to give space to the need to accompany the person, to help in his discernment, and to effect his eventual integration betrays the pastoral dimension of every magisterial act.

Finally, the critics of Pope Francis lack an adequate understanding of Benedict XVI. A lot can be said about this, but I would simply say that it is simplistic to point to Benedict XVI as a sort of pontifical justification of rigorism. There are those who would like to paint the Pope emeritus as a passionate defender of unchangeable truth, in contrast with the current Pope. But this is not the case. The reality is much more complex. Pope Francis is in continuity with Benedict XVI. One of the most moving examples I have found to demonstrate this is a passage in which Joseph Ratzinger clearly recognizes that even in the case of those who do not fully follow Jesus Christ it is possible to discover and cultivate the journey of the Christian life.

“A person continues to be a Christian,” Ratzinger wrote in Fede e futuro (Faith and Future), “as long as he makes the effort to give the central assent, as long as he tries to utter the fundamental Yes of trust, even if he doesn’t know how to situate or resolve many particular aspects. There will be moments in life when, among the many moments of faith’s darkness, we have to concentrate on the simple Yes: I believe in you, Jesus of Nazareth, I trust that in you the divine meaning has been revealed, for which I may live my life in confidence and peace, with patience and courage. If this center is still present, the human being still has faith, even if many of the concrete particulars of the confession of faith are obscure to him and perhaps not practicable. This is because at its core, faith – I will say it once again – is not a system of knowledge, but a trust. The Christian faith means ‘to find a You that sustains me and, notwithstanding the imperfection and intrinsically incomplete characteristic of every human encounter, gives me the promise of an indestructible love that not only aspires to eternity, but imparts it.’”

Therefore, in my opinion, there is no discontinuity in the teaching of the most recent Pontiffs. What we are witnessing is a creative fidelity that allows, in practical terms, to see how important it is to give primacy to time and space, as Pope Francis teaches. Only in this way is it possible to live patiently with those who are afflicted and wounded, only in this way is it possible to accompany one other without scandalizing ourselves with our weaknesses, and at the same to discover that in the Church, the presence of Jesus Christ in history, there is a journey full of tenderness for rebuilding lives, for healing all wounds, even the deepest ones.

by Rodrigo Guerra López, Teacher and Researcher

Centro de Investigación Social Avanzada (Querétaro, Messico)

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