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Larger fears fuel cardinals' divorce beef



In the years after the Second Vatican Council many theologians gave public lectures to Melbourne audiences on renewal. Jesuit moral theologian Arnie Hogan encouraged the move from a command and control approach to Christian living, to an approach based on personal responsibility.

Cardinal Carlo CaffarraMany of his hearers thought he was not renewing but selling out faith. They flocked to his lectures to grill him. One evening someone asked him whether it was a mortal sin to miss Mass on Sundays. (Mortal sins were a ticket to hell, and in church teaching to miss Mass on Sunday was a mortal sin.)

In response he began to explain the importance of free consent, grave matter and mature decision etc. His questioner interrupted him, demanding a yes or no answer. Arnie again took the conversation to a broader level, only to be told, 'You are evading the question, Father. Is it, or is it not, a mortal sin to miss Mass on Sunday?'

Arnie paused for a moment and said, 'Well, for you, it would be!'

I was reminded of this story when reading that four cardinals had sent a letter to the Pope demanding yes or no answers as to whether his reflection Amoris Laetitia was faithful to Catholic tradition in its treatment of the reception by divorced Catholics of communion. On not receiving a reply they published their letter, and one cardinal followed it up with murmurs about impeachment.

The incident prompts reflection on the propriety of cardinals questioning a pope in this way and on the reasons why discussion of communion for the divorced should raise such passion.

I am in two minds about the cardinals' action. Those who consider it inappropriate argue that cardinals are chosen to act as a pope's consultants. They cannot exercise this role effectively if they are involved in public disagreement with him.

They also argue that it is vital for any community organisation to focus on what matters: the cause it represents and the people it serves. The cardinals' action switches the focus to politics as politics — the disagreements and power relationships between its leaders — to the detriment of the Catholic Church.


"In moral decision making, Francis may resonate with St Augustine's aphorism: 'love, and do what you will'."


The four cardinals argued that they were merely accepting the Pope's invitation to open discussion of the issues raised in Amoris Laetitia. Certainly, an open exchange of views can allow the truth to appear. It also allows people to assess which of the participants in the debate are trustworthy in their pursuit of truth. Demanding yes or no answers to complex questions may put lead in your saddlebags in that respect.

The second question raised by the cardinals' letter is why making space for some married and divorced couples to receive communion should arouse such anxiety. The fact that space already exists in much catholic pastoral practice may suggest that the concern is symbolic of a more general anxiety.

I find illuminating a 17th century precedent for this kind of passionate debate. It concerned the conditions under which it might be lawful to act contrary to a law. Some argued that any judgment that the law does not apply may be based on probable evidence, even if it is less probable than the opposing evidence. Others claimed that the evidence must be more probable than that for observing the law. Others insisted you must follow the safest course of action and so obey the law regardless of probability.

This fairly abstract debate, which however had large consequences, raged strongly, with all sides demanding that the Pope adjudicate in their favour. Perhaps the most revealing contribution was that of the French polymath Blaise Pascal in his satirical Lettres Provinciales. He portrayed the Jesuit backed probabilist case as lax and worldly — a rent-an-opinion-and-you-can-justify-anything job.

Pascal was a recent convert to a rigorist Catholic group, influenced by a reading of St Augustine, which opposed frequent communion. This suggests that underneath the debate about moral decision making was the anxiety that if personal responsibility were not put under strong restraint it would lead to licence and to the dilution of Catholic faith.

Pascal's rigorism reflects two aspects of the inheritance that St Augustine left to the church. First, Augustine emphasised the extent of the corruption of human minds and hearts as a result of the sin of Adam. This generated fear that left to themselves, people will not make trustworthy judgments about right and wrong.

The second aspect of Augustine's inheritance derives from his portrayal of the church as a school within which people can learn to live just and ethical lives. This image can lead people to make paramount obedience to church teaching, and so can engender in them fear of moral collapse if it is disregarded.

Large fears of this kind fuelled the passion evident in the 17th century debates. They may also underlie the peremptory demands made of Pope Francis by the four cardinals.

Ironically the Pope also draws on Augustine's heritage. When he speaks of the great joy and energy that comes from knowing yourself to be a sinner who is loved by God and chosen to share that joy with others, he echoes Augustine's experience. In moral decision making, too, he may resonate with Augustine's aphorism: 'love, and do what you will'.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Second Vatican Council, Arnie Hogan, divorce



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Existing comments

Was it a mortal sin when women were excluded from being present at the Last Supper? Or were they in fact present at the Last Supper? Was it a mortal sin that the Gospel writers did not supply us with the marital status of the Twelve Apostles?

Conundrum | 23 November 2016  

I think it was Cardinal Montini, once tipped to be Pope until ill-health rendered him unsuitable, who said that communion should not be used as a form of discipline in the Church. I agree! Jesus didn't even exclude Judas from the Last Supper. All should be welcome at the Table of the Lord!

George Allen | 23 November 2016  

I have a joke I sometimes share with my husband. It goes like this: I say to him "you're stuck with me" and he replies "what have I done to deserve that". This levity covers a deep, and very personal, commitment. I wouldn't like to gauge how other couples relate to each other about the possibility of divorce, other than to understand the very personal and private nature of what divorce may entail, for the couple and for any children in the family. The church is just one place amongst others where people can learn to live ethical lives. Primarily, though, our relationship to our creator falls into the personal category.

Pam | 23 November 2016  

The four cardinals in question include Raymond Burke who the Pope recently demoted from his position of Cardinal Prefect of Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura - an important post at the Vatican - to patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta - basically a nominal office. I fear Burke is one of those Catholics who feel that many of Pope Francis' moves - made after great thought, sincere prayer, and, I believe, in full conformity with Church teaching - are 'wrong'. Psychologically I think they are set in the 1950s in the Pre-Vatican Two Church. That authoritarian approach gave us the worldwide paedophilia scandal we didn't need to have. Both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis took this matter extremely seriously. Burke, I believe, is one of those who wants business to go back to the 'normal' of the 1950s and 1960s before Vatican Two. He has his supporters. Some hold important office. I fear their influence is detrimental to what I see as the working of the Holy Spirit through the current Pope for the renewal of the Church and the world.

Edward Fido | 23 November 2016  

I am in full support of your article regarding Beef and Marriage/Divorce. I add one additional perspective...though it may be ideal and not realistic. Catholic Wishlist: If practicing Catholics encounter a dilemma regarding either of the topics; It would be great to seek out their pastor to gain a clearer decision. Again, with the caveat that "Personal Decision is of Crucial Value." I say that in addition to your article.

David Maurice, BA Theology | 24 November 2016  

If something like this happened in Australian politics, we would want to know the names and backgrounds of the four - Bernardi, Christensen etc, say. But, apart from Edward's comment, we have no hint of who the cardinals are. That's a pity, because the whole thing smacks of petty, schoolyard bullying. What a trivial, banal thing to make an issue of; is it any wonder that the church is rapidly descending into irrelevance.

Frank | 24 November 2016  

"..switches the focus to politics as politics — the disagreements and power relationships between its leaders — to the detriment of the Catholic Church..."

Marianne McLean | 24 November 2016  

"..switches the focus to politics as politics — the disagreements and power relationships between its leaders — to the detriment of the Catholic Church..." Perhaps the politics of the Catholic church also need to be focused on; they seem very disturbing and not Christ-like at all to me.

Marianne | 24 November 2016  

'Eat my flesh and drink my blood' was the directive of Jesus at his Last Supper. Surely he did not mean the church to withhold this sacrament for those who are most worthy. It is a medicine for those who are unworthy and these are the ones invited to his supper ( e.g. Judas), because without the bread of life one is cut off from the most powerful symbol of belonging to the universal body of Christ. Pope Francis has the Holy Spirit on his side with this one.

Trish Martin | 24 November 2016  

Thank you Andrew for another very thoughtful and insightful commentary. I also appreciated the comment below by Edward Fido, except to differ with his reference to that horrific scandal, which we are still enduring, as one "we didn't need to have". I would have used the words "which still clouds our lives". Thankfully, the Holy Spirit calls on each of us to lead and respond in our different ways towards the absolute eradication of that plague and a much more pastoral Church.

Michael Kennedy | 24 November 2016  

Why is it that such loud and powerful leaders in the Church seek to limit God? I am reminded of a long ago Marist theologian who put forward the "likely, notey , morey principle: God is like love, but God is not love, God is more than love." Just substitute whatever attribute of God is under discussion and contemplate.

Anne Chang | 24 November 2016  

I have experienced the Jesuit approach to philosophy and theology. It treats neither as if they were a branch of mathematics where a theorem is proposed and proved. If we accept Pythagoras' theorem "In a right angled triangle the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides." then in any particular physical situation e.g. in architecture, carpentry, etc., we can deduce the length of the hypotenuse of a right angled piece of wood if we know the length of the other two sides. This is physical truth and we can live comfortable lives by accepting it. Metaphysical truth is not easily come by. The most we can hope for is the joy in pursuing it.. Amoris Laetitia is such a joy.

Uncle Pat | 24 November 2016  

Nowhere in their letter did the 4 cardinals demand YES/NO answers to their questions. On the contrary, in the letter the cardinals go into some detail about the reasoning behind the questions. The only YES/NO requirement comes from people (e.g., journalists) who are pushing a specific agenda.

David Healy | 24 November 2016  

I am a little surprised by David Healy's assertion that the Cardinals did not demand yes or no answers. They certainly do make arguments in their letter. But in their explanatory notes they describe their questions as dubia in the following paragraphs: "Dubia" (from the Latin: “doubts”) are formal questions brought before the Pope and to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith asking for clarifications on particular issues concerning doctrine or practice. What is peculiar about these inquiries is that they are worded in a way that requires a “yes” or “no” answer, without theological argumentation. This way of addressing the Apostolic See is not an invention of our own; it is an age-old practice.

Andy Hamilton | 24 November 2016  

If Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, is who the Catholic Church says he is and, if the Catholic Church is indeed what it proclaims to be, then Catholics have to believe, have faith in and follow the teachings of the Pope. Otherwise we might as well all pack up our tents and leave along with the 80% who have done so after some of the damaging "reforms and renewals" of Vatican II.

john frawley | 24 November 2016  

We are told that the transformed bread and wine are medicine. The same authority also tells us we can consume them to our condemnation. Where is our authority to parse what we are told into commands and optional recommendations unless the same authority tells us what is a command and what is (as it tells us quite often) only an optional recommendation? Is the situation all that different from pharmacological medicine which can be taken incorrectly to our detriment? Do we have an authority to parse what our physician or pharmacist tells us as to how we should take that kind of medicine? There are felt consequences, sometimes immediately felt, when we take our medical medicines incorrectly. And so material reality acts as a police to tell us how we should take them. That spiritual reality (ie. the long rope of God) is lenient when it comes to policing immediate behaviour means that we don't or cannot feel the spiritual consequences of taking our spiritual medicine incorrectly. Is that proof that there are no consequences? When the consequences, like the medicine, are of the invisible realm, is it love for the Church with its spiritual eyes not to warn us?

Roy Chen Yee | 24 November 2016  

The article above suggests a certain superficial flippancy["Beef" reductionisms] that belies a well mapped out planned Cardinalatial canonico/magisterial operation that is inexorably underway. Here lies no whim nay rather iron-clad strategy being carried forward daily with seismic but initially quiet reverberations. Don't trivialise what is underway such has been brewing for some time, now moving with finely honed perennial resolve [both fortiter et suaviter] and squeaky-clean romanita*** Moreover the Pope is most painfully aware of this Vatican version of a Coup d'état wrapped in polite veneer and urbanity ***"Romanita rests upon one basic principle: Cunctando regitur mundus. If you can outwait all, you can rule all. The hallmark of romanita is understatement in action and in all forms of expression. It is, in a way, a power in whispers. Essential to it are a sense of timing reamed with patience, a ruthlessness that excludes the hesitation of emotions, and an almost messianic conviction of ultimate success. Few are born with it. Most genuine 'Romans' who flourish must learn it over time."

Father John George | 24 November 2016  

I give thanks in great measure for all of Andrew Hamilton's articles, giving individuals of thinking minds some perspective on love and mercy for the times we live in

Noreen Riordan | 24 November 2016  

What we see most clearly and love most dearly are ideals. But what exists in the material world are merely material approximations of ideals. If we idealise them, we are in danger of idolising them. Examples of these are religions and marriages. They should not be regarded as structures reflecting the definitive set-in-stone Will of God, but rather as stepping stones to help us to live in tune with God.

Robert Liddy | 24 November 2016  

The questions of the four Cardinals ask, in summary, whether Amoris Laetitia doesn’t contradict Catholic teaching as per Pope John Paul II’s “Veritatis Splendor”, that “circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object, into an act ‘subjectively’ good….” Amoris Laetitia seems to say that people in adulterous relationships can receive Holy Communion. The Pope hasn’t formally acknowledged or answered the questions. He reportedly says the challenge is “not making me lose any sleep…sometimes criticisms are merely aimed at vindicating already fixed opinions. They are not honest; they are driven by a mean spirit to incite divisions.” Not honest? Mean spirit? Is name-calling really a good enough response? Are we to let the Ten Commandments be reduced to Nine without somebody lodging a complaint on our behalf?

Arnold Jago | 24 November 2016  

It is not the complexity and suavity of arguments in Andrew's article about the four cardinals, nor in the responses here which seem notable to me. The astonishing thing is that it is even matter for serious consideration among thinking adult Christians. Even using Canon Law there is or used be a canon stating that if there was more pain and difficulty in observing a man-made law than the good intended to be preserved by the law; then the law could be sidestepped (My summary from memory). A not bad kind of examination is to ask what Christ would do? He told the Scribes and Pharisees that they were 'whitened sepulchers' for messing around with such obstacles between the divinity and people. But obviously the 'gnat straining' still tickles some fancies.

Michael D. Breen | 24 November 2016  

It seems to me that, as in many other areas, Pope Francis is doing no more than implementing Vatican II. The primacy of an informed conscience and the responsibility for making moral choices are not inventions by Pope Francis. Now it seems to me that he has issued the challenge to the episcopacy and indeed to every priest to make the merciful love of God real by urging them to model their pastoral approach on that of Jesus. Who needs the empowerment of the Eucharist most if not the sinner? Love given freely and generously transforms lives: is not this the message of Jesus who came to seek out and save the lost? Woe to Ye judgmental "Pharisees."

Ern Azzopardi | 24 November 2016  

I am surprised at the lack of compassion from those whose Catholic Church is about rules and ruthlessly shutting out those who don't keep them. Sounds a bit like the Pharisees to me. Especially with communion. Who loses out if divorced couples are allowed to have communion? One comment given here about Christ letting Judas have communion was insightful. Would Jesus cut divorced couples from communion? Only He knows what is in each person's heart.

Vineta | 24 November 2016  

Back in the 1980s, the then Archbishop of Birmingham, UK, hauled in a priest who, it was reported, distributed Holy Communion to the divorced and remarried. As the Archbishop had a short fuse, the priest tried to avoid a "yes" answer for as long as he could. "I distribute communion to all who come forward, maybe ..." "I am a pastor at the altar, not a judge" etc. etc. His final defense was, "What would Jesus do?" To which the Archbishop exploded, "I could care a damn what Jesus might do, follow Cannon Law!"

John Prior | 24 November 2016  

In practical terms, who is going to physically prevent someone from receiving Communion? No one would bother approaching the altar unless they had a clear need for the Sacrament, and if they have reached a conscientious decision themselves, surely there is no problem here.

Peter Downie | 24 November 2016  

With respect, and on a side issue, (admittedly C.of E.) I have to ask did Jesus say "Drink my blood" ? That language comes from the late Fourth Gospel and many scholars, Christian as well as Jewish, think that this concept would have horrified the Jewish Jesus. (More generally there are diverse views regarding the "words of institution" or "words of interpretation" in the Synoptic Gospels and in St Paul.) On the main subject being discussed here,I wonder what Jesus would think of divorced people - or Anglicans or Protestants receiving Holy Communion in a Roman Catholic church - officially. (In practice it is not uncommon for such folk to receive - or indeed to be offered - Holy Communion.) Would he really be dismayed ?

John Bunyan | 25 November 2016  

Thank you Fr Andrew for yet another commentary, insightful and compassionate - as expected. I appreciated your reference to Pascal and suspect the four cardinals may willingly identify with him when he wrote to the Jesuits: 'Leave the Church in peace and I will readily and heartily leave you alone; but while you are aiming to stir up trouble... there will be found children of peace who will think themselves obliged to use the utmost exertion to preserve its tranquillity'. Anything for a 'tranquil' Church! Pascal had many talents and virtues - modesty was not one of them.

John Nicholson | 25 November 2016  

If the person, who is psychologically unable to make the commitment to marriage, does not want an annulment then their partner cannot get one. They should not be excluded from communion. My marriage was only annulled because my ex released his medical history. Other people knew of the annulment before i did..

Name | 25 November 2016  

“When he speaks of the great joy and energy that comes from knowing yourself to be a sinner who is loved by God and chosen to share that joy with others…” – sharing that joy while still being a sinner or, in that moment of sharing, as a repentant ex-sinner? “… he echoes Augustine's experience. In moral decision making, too, he may resonate with Augustine's aphorism: 'love, and do what you will'.” Love whom while doing what you will, God (with the panoply of requirement to love “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”) or your neighbour (with the somewhat lesser requirement to love as yourself)? Why can’t you love God as yourself? Why is it that you, apparently, have to stretch your mind to love God? Are the dubia of the cardinals mind-stretchers in the process of loving God?

Roy Chen Yee | 25 November 2016  

It seems to me that these clarifications and debates should have been undertaken prior to release of Amoris Laetitia. Unity have been lost somewhere and both sides are concerned with pastoral care. Would someone take responsibility...please!

Gabriel Mafi | 30 January 2017  

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