November 30, 2018 (Steven O’Reilly) – The most recent issue (November 30, 2018) of L’Osservatore Romano published an essay by Stephen Walford whose writings and opinions on doctrine and discipline are the subject of the ever expanding Summa Contra Stephen Walford. Prior writings by Mr. Walford have appeared in such outlets as La Stampa’s Vatican Insider and other publications. With due respect to such websites and publications, the Vatican’s L’Osservatore Romano is a major step up for Mr. Walford. What’s next for him, is anyone’s guess. Perhaps his essay or recent book (The Pope, The Family and Divorce) will be placed into the Acta Apostolicae Sedis – taking its place with the Buenos Aires guidelines. Or, perhaps Pope Francis will cite him as a “theologian” source in an upcoming Apostolic Exhortation or Encyclical. Who knows…one day Pope Francis might name him a Doctor of the Church at this rate!
Mr. Walford’s current essay, entitled In Defense of Truth and Mercy, briefly summarizes the main arguments in defense of Amoris Laetitia found in his book, The Pope, the Family and Divorce. Here in his essay, he says: “For the rigorist held in a straightjacket of
fear, this papal act of mercy cannot be possible for several reasons: 1) they reject the supreme authority of Christ’s Vicar to grant this, 2) they ignore or even reject authentic moral theology on sin and guilt as taught in the Catechism, and 3) they lack any nuance in the question of what constitutes a firm purpose of amendment.” I will not address all these statements in detail here, I have already done so in my three part rebuttal to Mr. Walford’s book (see The Errors of Mr. Walford’s ‘Pope Francis, The Family and Divorce’; Part II: The Development of Mr. Walford’s Errors; Part III: Mr. Walford and the Magisterium) which address his arguments from moral theology, doctrinal development, and the papal magisterium.
Mr. Walford’s recent essay breaks no new ground. He continues to describe those who oppose his interpretation of Amoris Laetitia as “rigid” and as “dissenters” — forgetting Cardinal Bergoglio was, if we are to believe various reports, a dissenter from Familiaris Consortio 84 (see here, here and here). Aside from the labeling, Mr. Walford also repeats things which are simply not true. For example, he states in his essay that “Pope Francis, we can say, marries three essential spiritual elements in his teaching on reintegrating the divorced and civilly remarried into the life of the Church” and among these three are “Thomistic doctrine on morality.”
Nothing can be further from the truth, as I argued in Part I of my rebuttal. Contrary to his assertions, St. Thomas Aquinas cannot be used to defend the distribution of Holy Communion to public adulterers, nor can he be used to suggest that hard situations or exceptions ever allow a public adulterer to receive sacramental absolution without the firm purpose to end their adultery. For example, St. Thomas taught adultery is always a mortal sin, without exception: “It is written (Tobit 4:13): ‘Take heed to keep thyself . . . from all fornication, and beside thy wife never endure to know a crime.’ Now crime denotes a mortal sin. Therefore fornication and all intercourse with other than one’s wife is a mortal sin” (Summa Theologica II-II, Q 154, A 2). He taught no exception or benefit could make it licit to commit an act of adultery: “We should not agree with the commentator on this point, since one ought not commit adultery for any benefit just as one ought not tell a lie for any benefit, as Augustine says in is work Against Lying.” (De Malo, Question 15, Article 1, Reply 5). And with regard for communion for all public sinners, thus public adulterers too, Aquinas taught “Therefore Holy Communion ought not to be given to open sinners when they ask for it” (Summa Theologica III, Q 80, A 6). But, these citations from St. Thomas Aquinas are neither found nor explained in Mr. Walfords book or essay.
Mr. Walford claims in his essay of the “rigorist” that “they ignore or even reject authentic moral theology on sin and guilt as taught in the Catechism.” This is a strange accusation coming from Mr. Walford who in his book and essay ignores that the Cathechism states (emphasis added): “It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it” (CCC 1756 – see here). But, what the Catechism expressly says one may never do of such sins like adultery, Mr. Walford suggests in his book (see my discussion in The Errors of Mr. Walford’s ‘Pope Francis, The Family and Divorce’) is possible given the right set of conditions. But, of such Catholics who believe the Faith says “do not commit adultery” and “one may not do evil so that good may result from it;” Mr. Walford in his essay dismissively says such Catholics (“rigorists”) “lack any nuance in the question of what constitutes a firm purpose of amendment.” (L’Osservatore Romano, p. 6, 7).
Mr. Walford’s essay also touches briefly on the question of doctrinal development (my article Part II: The Development of Mr. Walford’s Errors addresses the arguments he makes in his book). In his essay his comments are brief, stating in part of Pope Francis’ development of doctrine in Amoris Laetitia: “There is no doubt that this is an area that theologians need to explore more as a way of helping the laity appreciate how doctrines can mature through time, and why the magisterium is right to refine them, as a way of getting closer to how Jesus desires the Church to understand them. This is a process which mmust continue in the life of the Church until the Lord returns.” This is, of course, an understatement. The faithful have been waiting for a clear answer from this Pope regarding a good many things, including the Dubia, but somewhat like Pope Honorius before him–he is silent. It is difficult – really impossible – to see how a doctrine that taught “never X” can develop into “sometimes X” and still remain true or in any sense be faithful to the idea of doctrinal development as found in St. Vincent of Lerins. A developed doctrine cannot contradict what came before it. However, developing “never X” into “sometimes X” or “X in certain cases” is a contradiction. Yet, this is what we have with regard to Familiaris Consortio 84 which teaches no communion for individuals in a objective situation of adultery, and Amoris Laetitia which says–by the common interpretation–it is possible in “certain cases” (AL n. 351 (305)).
Mr. Walford perhaps realizes all the weaknesses of his argument in his heart of hearts. Or, so I would like to believe, because that would explain why in his essay, book and other writings he relies primarily on the doctrine of papal infallibility to declare victory in the debate over Amoris Laetitia, drop the microphone and walk away. However, as I argue in Part III of my rebuttal to Mr. Walford book “The Pope, The Family and Divorce” (see Part III: Mr. Walford and the Magisterium), Mr. Walford’s view seems to be everything a Pope says is infallible–or very nearly so, neglecting that even Pope Benedict XVI had said “The Pope is not an oracle; he is infallible in very rare situations, as we know” (see Zenit News). Thus, given the exaggerated position on papal infallibility that Mr. Walford apparently holds, it is understandable he is led to defend anything that Pope Francis has written or said–even to include, at least on one occasion, an answer to a reporter’s question on airplane.
Like Mr. Walford, I am a believer in papal infallibility–and it is precisely this belief that led me in my own little way on this wee, humble blog to comment on Amoris Laetitia and the events of our time (See About); and the difficulties certain interpretations of Amoris Laetitia pose. But, it must be said that the interpretation Mr. Walford asserts clearly has support at the highest levels of the Church, as is seen in the backing he received from several cardinals in writing his book (see intro to The Errors of Mr. Walford’s ‘Pope Francis, The Family and Divorce’) and the clear papal endorsement of it through the publication of his essay in the L’Osservatore Romano. However, I am not swayed. Mr. Walford’s repeated recourse to papal authority and infallibility to save Pope Francis from suspicion or shadow of error has only served to cast that shadow onto prior popes, Church councils, and a constant and universal practice of the Church. If Mr. Walford is correct, it seems to me Catholics would have to conclude a number of things, including (the following list is an illustrative one of the problem, but by no means comprehensive) [emphasis added]:
(1) That a “constant and universal practice of the Church” (cf Familiaris Consortio 84, Canon 915) denied Sacramental absolution and Holy Communion–and therefore the graces obtainable therefrom–to countless numbers of Catholics throughout the nearly two thousand year history of the Church, and did so unnecessarily in at least certain cases.
(2) That, under John Paul II, the Pontifical Council of Legislative Texts along with other Roman Congregations was in error when it declared “The prohibition found in the cited canon (i.e., Canon 915), by its nature, is derived from divine law and transcends the domain of positive ecclesiastical laws: the latter cannot introduce legislative changes which would oppose the doctrine of the Church” (see here) and “Any interpretation of can. 915 that would set itself against the canon’s substantial content, as declared uninterruptedly by the Magisterium and by the discipline of the Church throughout the centuries, is clearly misleading” (see here). As an aside, one must also conclude St. Thomas Aquinas was in error in teaching “Therefore Holy Communion ought not to be given to open sinners when they ask for it” (Summa Theologica III, Q 80, A 6) in so far as he did not make an allowance for exceptions.
(3) That John Paul II, basing himself on Sacred Scripture (cf Familiaris Consortio 84) , was in error when teaching of the divorced and remarried that “They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist” (FC 84) in so far as John Paul II did not admit exceptions. Furthermore, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in its letter of 1994–which was approved by John Paul II and thus participated in his magisterium–was in error in stating of the communion ban as reaffirmed in Familiaris 84 “The structure of the Exhortation and the tenor of its words give clearly to understand that this practice, which is presented as binding, cannot be modified because of different situations” (Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church Concerning the Reception of Holy Communion by the Divorced and Remarried Members of the Faithful. September 14, 1994).
(4) That the many popes, such as Paul VI , John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who reaffirmed this teaching, even claiming it was founded on Sacred Scripture and thus could not be changed, were in error.
(5) That John Paul II was in error when he taught that “Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage” (FC 84) in so far as John Paul II did not allow any exceptions.
(6) That John Paul II was in error in teaching that “…The other principle is that of truth and consistency, whereby the church does not agree to call good evil and evil good. Basing herself on these two complementary principles, the church can only invite her children who find themselves in these painful situations to approach the divine mercy by other ways, nothowever through the sacraments of penance and the eucharist until such time as they have attained the required dispositions” (Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 34) in so far as John Paul II rejected categorically the possibility any exceptions (per a Walfordian Amoris Laetitia) to approach the divine mercy through the sacraments of penance and the eucharist.
(7) So, too, Pope John Paul II was in error in teaching “For mortal sin exists also when a person knowingly and willingly, for whatever reason, chooses something gravely disordered” (Reconciliatio et Paenitentia 17) in as much as he excludes certain exceptions (i.e., “for whatever reason”) for such a choice. John Paul II, speaking of acts which are intrinsically evil such as adultery, was in error when he taught “…circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act “subjectively” good or defensible as a choice” (Veritatis Splendor 81) in as much as John Paul II did not allow that an adulterous couple under certain circumstance (e.g., to prevent a greater evil) could opt to continue sexual relations without sinning mortally, and thus, for all practical purposes, their choice may be considered either “subjectively good” or at least a “defensible choice.” St. Thomas Aquinas was also in error for not allowing any exceptions to adultery when he taught: “We should not agree with the commentator on this point, since one ought not commit adultery for any benefit just as one ought not tell a lie for any benefit, as Augustine says in is work Against Lying.” (De Malo, Question 15, Article 1, Reply 5). So too, St. Thomas Aquinas was in error in teaching adultery is always a mortal sin, without exception: “It is written (Tobit 4:13): ‘Take heed to keep thyself . . . from all fornication, and beside thy wife never endure to know a crime.’ Now crime denotes a mortal sin. Therefore fornication and all intercourse with other than one’s wife is a mortal sin” (Summa Theologica II-II, Q 154, A 2).
(8) The Catechism is in error when it teaches: “It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it (CCC 1756 – see here).” It is in error, it seems to me, following the logical consequences of Mr. Walford’s argument seen in Part I (see my comments on such circumstances, which he provides on p. 102-103 of his book), in so far as given sufficient grave circumstances, an individual in an adulterous second marriage could choose to continue sexual relations with someone not their valid spouse without sinning mortally. Therefore, it would seem to be true to say, “one may do evil that good may result from it.”
(9) The Council of Trent which teaches “But no one ought to think that, because he is justified he is released from obligation to keep the commandments; nor is that rash saying to be used, “that it is impossible for a justified man to keep God’s precepts”; for God does not enjoin impossibilities, but commands and admonishes us to do what we can, and to ask his help for what we cannot perform, and by his grace we are strengthened” (Council of Trent, “First Decree on Justification,” Ch. XI) should not be understood to apply to active adulterers in ‘second marriages’ in certain cases–“those in a second civil marriage who see a celibate life as not realistic for them and for whom it is impossible to refrain from sexual relations” per the seeming logic of Mr. Walford (see Part I)– in the sense that while not “released from the obligation to keep the commandments” they are not obliged under pain of mortal sin to keep the commandment “thou shalt not commit adultery.”
(10) John Paul II was in error when declaring that by “acting in this way“–i.e., requiring a firm purpose of amendment of the divorce and remarried not to continue sexual relations before reception of absolution and of Holy Communion–the “Church professes her own fidelity to Christ and to His truth” (FC 84) in as much a Walfordian Amoris Laetitia suggests the Church can act in the opposite way–i.e., by allowing exceptions–and still be said to “profess her own fidelity to Christ and to His Truth.”
These are just ten propositions that one would have to accept as true in order to accept a Walfordian interpretation of Amoris Laetitia–which seems endorsed by the Pope. There are other difficulties, but these suffice to illustrate my point that Mr. Walford’s attempt to spare Amoris Laetitia from any suggestion of error, has merely shifted the shadow of error onto other popes, councils, the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Church and even to St. Thomas Aquinas. Therefore, Mr. Walford has not resolved a problem. He has compounded it.
One answer to Mr. Walford’s defense of Amoris Laetitia, is to approach papal infallibility with more nuance than he does. In Part III of my rebuttal of Mr. Walford’s book (see Part III: Mr. Walford and the Magisterium) three cases from papal history were examined which suggest–without denying papal infallibility–a pope outside of certain limited conditions (1) can hold and express an erroneous opinion which, afterwards, is considered to be formally heretical (John XXII); (2) can “favor” heresy by his silence, negligence or by providing confusing doctrinal and or pastoral guidance (Honorius); (3) can issue a type of judgment which is of a non-definitive nature on matters of faith and morals which is erroneous (Celestine III), and (4) can–by the aforementioned errors, acts or omissions–lead or cause or contribute to others to fall into and or remain in error (John XXII) or heresy (Honorius) or some other objective situation of sin (Celestine III).
As I said in Part III….in these three cases, we certainly see the sort of confusion that might occur in doctrine, discipline or pastoral care when a pope’s words and judgments do not meet the limited conditions which govern the gift of infallibility. However, we tend to limit the hypothetical nightmare scenarios of what we believe possible with regard to potential papal error only to what we know to have happened in the past. This forgets that (1) to those who lived either before or through the times of Honorius or John XXII that some of their papal acts and or omissions might have seemed unimaginable–in the moment–with respect to the promises made by our Lord to Peter; and that (2) there might be even worse scenarios, in kind or degree, which are possible–even if previously not imagined. Therefore, one should take caution not to fall into one of the two extremes when living in times of such confusion and potential error; that is where either one begins to doubt the Lord’s promises to Peter, or one adopts such errors through an exaggerated understanding of papal infallibility.
It appears to me that Mr. Walford has fallen into the latter of the two errors above–i.e., adopting the errors of our time with regard to the divorced and civilly remarried. My opinion (see Part II and Part III of my rebuttal) is this: it is the tradition and constant teaching of the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Catholic Church that the divorced and remarried cannot receive Holy Communion–unless they first repent and are absolved of their sins, having a firm purpose of amendment not to commit acts of adultery again; and thus this teaching is infallibly true. However, to my knowledge, this teaching has not yet been explicitly defined as one “to be held definitively by all the faithful.”
Consequently, in a case–perhaps–remotely analogous to John XXII, Celestine III and Honorius but, admittedly, far more extreme and unprecedented–Pope Francis might be excused from what he has said and written, as far as an accusation of formal heresy is concerned, because ‘the whole matter was still being thought out‘ as St. Robert Bellarmine might put it. In any event, I fully expect that a future pope will define infallibly the Church’s doctrine contained in Familiaris Consortio 84, and that all contrary opinions will be anathematized.
However, we may still hope, however unlikely, that Pope Francis will be that Pope who makes this definition. Let us pray for Pope Francis that he remembers the Lord’s words to Peter: “Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you like wheat. But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou being once converted, confirm thy brethren” (Luke 22:31-32).
Steven O’Reilly is a graduate of the University of Dallas and the Georgia Institute of Technology. He and his wife, Margaret, live near Atlanta with their family. He has written apologetic articles and is working on a historical-adventure trilogy, set during the time of the Arian crisis. He asks for your prayers for his intentions. He can be contacted at StevenOReilly@AOL.com (or follow on Twitter: @S_OReilly_USA).
- See the blog site Where is Peter and its interview with Mr. Stephen Walford. In it, the writer and interviewer, Mr. Mike Lewis–who is more than favorably inclined towards Mr. Walford–makes this observation of Mr,Walford (emphasis added): “Catholic websites such as La Stampa and Crux often refer to him as a “theologian,” which immediately garners negative responses on social media, usually along the lines of “he’s a piano teacher, not a theologian.” Walford doesn’t refer to himself as a theologian, although he doesn’t seem to mind when others use that title to describe him.”
- St.Thomas Aquinas, on Evil, trans. Richard Egan, Q XV, A 1, R 5 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 421.
- My thanks to a blog article entitled “Four Times the Church has held her ground on communion for the divorced and remarried” by Mary Rezac, found on the Catholic News Agency website. Ms. Rezac’s article discussed and brought to my attention a Summer 2014 essay in Communio, entitled “The Merciful Gift of Indissolubility and the Question of Pastoral Care for Divorced and Remarried Catholics” by Nicholas J. Healy Jr. In his essay on p. 309, Mr. Healy writes: “A good place to begin is with Archbishop Elias Zoghby’s intervention during the fourth session of the Second Vatican Council. The patriarchal vicar of the Melkites in Egypt pleaded that special consideration be given to abandoned spouses, and he suggested that the Eastern practice of tolerating remarriage in certain cases should be considered. Zoghby’s remarks provoked a strong negative reaction at the Council.” Mr. Healy then footnotes this reaction as follows, n. 8 on the same page (emphasis added): “The following morning (30 September 1965), at the request of Pope Paul VI, the order of speeches was suspended and Cardinal Journet was asked to respond to Zoghby. Citing Mk 10:2 and 1 Cor 7:10–11, Journet said that “the teaching of the Catholic Church on the indissolubility of sacramental marriage is the very teaching of the Lord Jesus that has been revealed to us and has always been safeguarded and proclaimed in the Church . . . the Church has no authority to change what is of divine law” (Acta Synodalia IV/3, 58, cited in History of Vatican II, ed. Giuseppe Alberigo, vol. 5 [Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006], 159).