Does Amoris Laetitia (297) Deny Hell?

(March 6, 2017 – Steven O’Reilly) For those who have followed this blog at all in its short span of existence up to this point- you know the following of me.

  • I do not believe Pope Francis intended to speak infallibly in Amoris Laetitia (cf AL 3) Chapter 8, either as exercise of his extraordinary magisterium, or with the intention of doing so through his ordinary magisterium (see my argument here).
  • I believe that AL paragraph 305 (n. 351), while it lends itself to erroneous interpretations (e.g., the recent communion directives issued in Malta, Germany, etc) because of its tortured ambiguity, it does not, strictly read, authorize a change in the constant and universal practice of the Church which denies communion to manifest adulterers (see my argument here).
  • I do believe that the silence of Pope Francis, who has not spoken with the authority of Peter on this issue, is creating division and confusion- as evidenced by bishops and bishops’ conferences issuing contradictory communion directives in such a  way that communion for adulterers living more uxurio (even if in exceptional cases) in one locale may be ‘compassionate’ while in another- a sacrilege.
  • In consideration of the above, as well other issues with Amoris Laetitia, I absolutely support the efforts of the four cardinals with regard to the dubia, up to and including any necessary ‘formal correction’ which I believe is imminent. I also support asking the pope to clarify the issues raised by the 45 theologians.

All the above said, it may then come as a surprise that I do not agree with some of what is written in a recent article in a Canada Free Press entitled “Did Francis Formally Profess Heresy” (by David Martin).

“Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetita appears to contain such heresy. Paragraph 297 states: “No one can be condemned forever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel! Here I am not speaking only of the divorced and remarried, but of everyone, in whatever situation they find themselves.”

According to Francis, unrepentant sinners of any kind, be they rapists, thieves, pedophiles, killers, abortionists, thugs, Mafia members, or apostates, will never be condemned eternally to the fires of hell.”

I do agree with the first paragraph, i.e., that Amoris Laetitia (297) appears to contain heresy. However, I disagree with the characterization of the second paragraph – “according to Francis”- that a closer reading of the above quoted text from Amoris Laetitia (297) actually demonstrates formal heresy on the part of Pope Francis. The above quoted statement from paragraph 297 is one of the statements that the 45 theologians examined and identified as problematic (to say the least). Clearly, on a natural reading of the statement, it is heretical- for all the reasons cited in Mr. Martin’s article. I do believe it is imperative for the pope to respond to the clarifications sought by the 45 theologians and the four cardinals. The particular statement above should be clarified by the pope, especially since we live in a time when too many clergymen follow Hans urs von Balthasar’s thesis that we might hope hell is empty, or nearly so (e.g., Bishop Barron). My point is, I do not intend by this article to dismiss out of hand the concerns over this statement in AL (297).

However, I do not believe that a reading of what Pope Francis actually said in paragraph 297- when read with 296 (n. 326) which precedes it- supports a case for formal heresy on the issue of hell and eternal damnation. I quote paragraphs AL 296 and 297 below (NB: all emphasis is mine):

296.  The Synod addressed various situations of weakness or imperfection. Here I would like to reiterate something I sought to make clear to the whole Church, lest we take the wrong path: “There are two ways of thinking which recur throughout the Church’s history: casting off and reinstating. The Church’s way, from the time of the Council of Jerusalem, has always always been the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and reinstatementThe way of the Church is not to condemn anyone for ever; it is to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart… For true charity is always unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous”.326 Consequently, there is a need “to avoid judgements which do not take into account the complexity of various situations” and “to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience distress because of their condition”.327

297. It is a matter of reaching out to everyone, of needing to help each person find his or her proper way of participating in the ecclesial community and thus to experience being touched by an “unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous” mercy. No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel! Here I am not speaking only of the divorced and remarried, but of everyone, in whatever situation they find themselves. Naturally, if someone flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal, or wants to impose something other than what the Church teaches, he or she can in no way presume to teach or preach to others; this is a case of something which separates from the community (cf. Mt 18:17). Such a person needs to listen once more to the Gospel message and its call to conversion. Yet even for that person there can be some way of taking part in the life of community, whether in social service, prayer meetings or another way that his or her own initiative, together with the discernment of the parish priest, may suggest. As for the way of dealing with different “irregular” situations, the Synod Fathers reached a general consensus, which I support: “In considering a pastoral approach towards people who have contracted a civil marriage, who are divorced and remarried, or simply living together, the Church has the responsibility of helping them understand the divine pedagogy of grace in their lives and offering them assistance so they can reach the fullness of God’s plan for them”,328 something which is always possible by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Reading the two paragraphs together- as presented, I do not believe it necessarily follows that the statement ‘no one can be condemned forever’- in context- is intended here by the pope-no matter what his true views are- to suggest a denial of the reality and or possibility of eternal damnation. Nor do I think formal heresy is a probable conclusion after one examines the whole context. Part of paragraph 296 draws directly from a papal homily as is indicated in the footnotes (cf AL 296 n. 326). If one reads the homily one finds the often repeated theme in which the pope beats up on “doctors of the law.” We need not (and I do not) agree with the pope that his homily is an accurate or fair representation of the traditional side of the debate between the pastoral vs. the doctrinal generally speaking, or in the treatment of the divorced and remarried specifically. His homily is something of a straw man, and it is no surprise this carries over into AL. But we may set that aside as we are only concerned here (in this article) with whether it can be said, or whether it is more probable than not, that the sentence found in AL 297, in context, constitutes formal heresy.

Picking up on themes in his homily, in paragraph 296 the pope contrasts “two ways of thinking” (‘due logiche‘ in the Italian language version of AL) in the history of the Church.  One way of thinking is of “casting off,” and the other way of thinking-the pope’s- is “reinstatement.” After establishing what are, in his mind, these “two ways of thinking” (due logiche), the pope rejects the first. In the footnoted homily (n. 326), it is clear the pope’s example of ‘casting off’ is that of the leper under the Mosaic Law who was cast out of the community for his uncleanness (cf Lev. 13).  The pope’s treatment of the issue and the analogy in his homily have obvious defects, ignored by him as well; for example that even the leper could be reinstated if declared clean by a levitical priest (cf Lev 13)- itself a figure or foreshadowing of the sacrament of Reconciliation (cf Jn 20:23). Regardless, Francis seems to have in mind the casting aside or condemning of a living someone without any hope of reinstatement back into the community of faith, the Church. This he rejects. The pope notes in his homily that Jesus healed a leper, and ‘restored him to God’s family.’

Though his analogy in the footnoted homily has its defects, the pope goes on in AL 296 to say “the way of the Church is not to condemn anyone for ever; it is to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart.”   Here Francis is speaking of the Church not “condemning anyone for ever.”  The pope neglects to mention that the Church historically has condemned with anathemas (e.g., heretics). But, even so, it is true there still remains the promise of God’s mercy for those who, while still living, repent with a “sincere heart.” When we move onto paragraph 297, Pope Francis continues the same discussion. He speaks of “reaching out to everyone” to make them a part of the “ecclesial community”- i.e., this hearkens back to his footnoted homily, where for Francis, the leper is ‘cast off’ from the community, as if without the hope of reinstatement- until Jesus reinstates a leper in a Gospel example. Here we get to the punch line of this whole discussion.  Francis says:

“No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel! Here I am not speaking only of the divorced and remarried, but of everyone, in whatever situation they find themselves.”

The pope’s statement that “no one can be condemned for ever (per sempre), because this is not the logic of the Gospel” refers back to the “logic”- i.e., the one of the two ways of thinking he advocated for the Church in paragraph 296- in which he says this is the Church’s way, which is “always the way of Jesus”.  That is to say: “The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone for ever (eternamente nessuno); it is to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart.”    This linkage seems clearer to me, at least, in reading the Italian where the same term-“logica”- is used in both places (i.e., paragraphs 296 and 297). While the pope has changed perspective from the Church (‘the Church is not to condemn anyone for ever’) to that of the individual (“no one can be condemned for ever), his thought appears the same, or is at least arguably so.  The text (cf AL 296, n. 326; 297) supports the case that the “logic” referenced by the pope points to the reinstatement of the repentant sinner into the ecclesial life of the Church-contrasted with the logic that would prohibit a sinner from that ecclesial life (e.g., like the leper imagined in his homily in n. 326). The pope’s intent is not to comment on hell or damnation at all.  If this is not clear enough, it appears so in the conclusion of the homily referenced in footnote 326:

“Dear new Cardinals, this is the “logic”, the mind of Jesus, and this is the way of the Church. Not only to welcome and reinstate with evangelical courage all those who knock at our door, but to go out and seek, fearlessly and without prejudice, those who are distant, freely sharing what we ourselves freely received.”

However, while this is as charitable read of his logic, one cannot escape the frustrating conclusion the pope presents a straw man. Where or when has the Church refused to take back a sincerely repentant sinner who has a firm purpose of amendment, when it is within the Church’s power to do so? Who are these “lepers” of our day that are denied access to ecclesial life?  Who are the ones that Francis tells us cannot be “condemned for always”? Francis tells us who he has in mind in the next sentence: “Here I am not speaking only of the divorced and remarried, but of everyone, in whatever situation they find themselves.” So, it seems clear enough the pope’s argument is that these classes of people are being “condemned forever,” in a manner of speech, as long as they are excluded from ecclesial life. I do not agree with his argument or conclusion, but that is the argument he is making. The pope is not saying  in AL 297 that unrepentant, mortal sinners will not be damned.

As an aside, in the English translation of Amoris Laetitia, “for ever” is used in both places in the paragraphs we are examining (i.e., “The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone for ever” (AL 296); and “No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel” (AL 297)). However, in the Italian, in the first instance (AL 296) the meaning is ‘the Church does not condemn anyone eternally (eternamente nessuno),” while the Italian “per sempre” (for always) is used in the second instance (i.e., AL 297). While it may seem like a distinction without a difference, it softens to some degree the second instance (i.e., AL 297) as “for ever” could conceivably refer to the temporal order in this world.  If “eternamente” had been used in the second instance (AL 297), the sentence  would have been inescapably heretical (even in its wider context), as it would have read “no one can be condemned eternally.”

In conclusion, while there are issues aplenty with Amoris Laetitia, I do not believe the pope’s statement in AL 297, taken in its wider context, was intended to deny the reality and possibility of damnation. Therefore, in the humble opinion of this lowly Catholic blogger, in response to the question posed by Mr. Martin: “Did Francis formally profess heresy?” I reply “no”- at least not in regard to AL 297.

 

Steven O’Reilly is a graduate of the University of Dallas and the Georgia Institute of Technology. He lives near Atlanta with his wife Margaret. He has four children. He  has written apologetic articles and is working on a historical-adventure trilogy, set during the time of the Arian crisis. Book one of the trilogy will be completed in 2017. He can be contacted at StevenOReilly@AOL.com.

 

 

 


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