PORTLAND, Ore. (ChurchMilitant.com) - Archbishop Alexander Sample is defusing the papal exhortation "Amoris Laetitia" (AL) by noting that constant Catholic teaching coupled with consistent Church practice can't be set aside because of a poorly formed conscience, difficult circumstances or human frailty.
The archbishop wrote to his flock in Portland, Oregon on October 7 clarifying, "The text cannot and ought not be misused in support of the following three errors." He then enumerated three misuses of AL as follows:
Conscience Legitimizes Actions Contravening Divine Commandments
Under Certain Conditions Divine Prohibitions Admit of Exceptions
Human Frailty Exempts from Divine Command
Regarding the conscience, Sample refutes the mistaken notion that AL supports "the claim that conscience supersedes an objective moral law." In reference to paragraph 302 of AL, which speaks of circumstances that may mitigate a person's moral culpability, Sample writes: "Conscience is not a law unto itself, nor may conscience rightly disregard or supplant the commands of God as taught by the Church."
Like Cdl. Raymond Burke, former prefect of the Church's highest court, and Cdl. Gerhard Müller, current prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Abp. Sample emphasizes that AL must be read in light of Catholic teaching. "So constant is the deposit of faith, that the Magisterium itself 'is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it.'"
The archbishop notes, in reference to paragraph 56 of the encyclical "Veritatis Splendor," "Saint John Paul II explicitly rejected the possibility that private judgments of conscience could 'legitimize so-called pastoral solutions contrary to the teaching of the Magisterium' or allow individuals to violate exceptionless moral norms."
Sample highlights that Catholics have a free will with which to follow God's law. "No one is trapped within a permanently erroneous conscience, and by God's grace and moral education can cooperate in attaining a well-formed conscience."
He also warns pastors of their "grave obligation to assist in the formation of conscience" with all clarity. The archbishop turns to Pope John Paul II's own apostolic exhortation on the family, "Familiaris Consortio," specifically paragraph 33, where the Pope teaches, "To diminish in no way the saving teaching of Christ constitutes an eminent form of charity for souls."
In alignment with this directive, the archbishop condemns clerics who purposely obfuscate, water down or confuse Church teaching instead of helping laity to form a Catholic conscience. "Encouraging or silently accepting an erroneous judgment of conscience is neither mercy nor charity," he explained.
Passing on from the topic of conscience, Abp. Sample focuses on the second abuse of AL by those who incorrectly claim that God's absolute prohibitions can be set aside "when weakness of will or the complexity of a situation makes living up to the rule extremely difficult."
The problem here, Abp. Sample says, stems from Paragraph 305 of AL, which holds that "a pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in 'irregular' situations, as if they were stones to throw at people's lives."
Sample affirms the actions commanded by God are not the problem but rather the intention with which the action is done "when one's intentions and character are indifferent or hostile to their purposes."
In other words, one can keep the letter of the law but with a bad heart. But what's never justified, Sample clarifies, is the setting aside of God's commandments and doing evil merely because one's intentions aren't perfect. "But it remains the case that certain actions are absolutely prohibited, for in no instance is it possible to choose them with a good will."
"Veritatis Splendor" is again invoked by Sample to prove this point. "There are negative commandments, or prohibitions, on the other hand, which are universally binding in each and every circumstance. They admit of no exceptions whatsoever and can never be chosen, in any way or for any reason, in "conformity with the dignity of the person" or with the "goodness of the will."
The third misuse of AL fostered by the "media and elsewhere" Abp. Sample identifies is the mistake that AL claims human frailty exempts one from keeping divine commands. "[S]ome have misused the Exhortation's rightful insistence on the logic of mercy to claim that objectively wrong acts can be accepted, even perhaps sanctified, if a person judges he or she cannot do differently."
The archbishop lambasts the abuse of Church teaching. "Not only does this misapply mitigating factors for subjective responsibility with determinations of objective rightness, but it empties the cross of its power," he comments. "Claiming that individuals cannot change their ways is tantamount to denying the efficacy and power of grace, of denying that God can do what he promises."
Archbishop Sample promises that this pastoral letter is not the "final word" on AL but "clarifies several troublesome misuses of the text" in preparation for the forthcoming pastoral guidelines, which "will help us apply the Exhortation in pastoral support of marriage and family life."