Theologians' Appeal for Clarification of Apparent Errors in Amoris laetitia, part 1

A few weeks ago 45 priests and theologians submitted a letter to all cardinals and patriarchs, appealing to them to ask Pope Francis to clarify a number of points in Amoris laetitia, which, it is said, could be understood in a manner that would be opposed to Catholic faith. E.g., the statement about marriage and virginity, "Rather than speak absolutely of the superiority of virginity, it should be enough to point out that the different states of life complement one another, and consequently that some can be more perfect in one way and others in another" (n. 150 of Amoris laetitia), if taken as denying that a virginal state of life consecrated to Christ "is superior considered in itself to the state of Christian marriage" would be contrary to the solemn teaching of the Council of Trent.

They do not accuse the pope of heresy or of teaching errors contrary to the Catholic faith, but criticize the text of the document on the grounds that it "contains many statements whose vagueness or ambiguity permit interpretations that are contrary to faith or morals," and indeed "contains statements whose natural meaning would seem to be contrary to faith or morals." They make an appeal for Pope Francis to clarify that Amoris laetitia does not teach these errors.

As the letter has now been leaked to the public, as not a few of the signatories have some kind of connection to the International Theological Institute, where I teach, and as I already previously began addressing some of the issues in Amoris laetitia that are addressed in the appeal, I intend to make a few comments and critiques here and in the following posts.

Noting that the Amoris laetitia does not speak with scientific accuracy, and that the problem with it lies more in the way the statements can or are likely to be taken, the letter suggest that moreover, it would be impossible for Amoris laetitia to teach anything contrary to the faith, as that would exceed the pope's authority.

"The problem with Amoris laetitia is not that it has imposed legally binding rules that are intrinsically unjust or authoritatively taught binding teachings that are false. The document does not have the authority to promulgate unjust laws or to require assent to false teachings, because the Pope does not have the power to do these things…. The document is formulated in terms that are not legally or theologically exact, but this does not matter for the evaluation of its contents, because the most precise formulation cannot give legal and doctrinal status to decrees that are contrary to divine law and divine revelation."

These statements seem to boil down, in effect, "Pope Francis is not teaching or requiring false statements or imposing immoral rules X, Y, and Z, because Pope Francis does not have the authority to teach what is false or impose what is wrong."

I see two problems here: first, the supposed truth or falsity of a statement or legitimacy or illegitimacy of a directive is being used as a principle of interpretation: "the document isn't actually teaching X, because X is false"; secondly, the authors put themselves in the position of privately judging that the statements declared problematic (if understood in a particular way) are, in fact, contrary to divine revelation or divine law.

This hermeneutical approach would be valid only if one took the pope to be unquestionably speaking infallibly in all of his statements in Amoris laetitia, which the authors explicitly deny, and if one supposed oneself to be infallible in one's opinion of what is compatible with or contrary to divine revelation or divine law.

If I am reading a document in order to learn from it rather than in order to impose my own views upon it, then the truth or falsity of a given position, in itself, has no direct hermeneutical value in determining the meaning of a statement the author makes. Only to the extent that (1) the author can be presumed to be intending to speak the truth, and (2) he can be presumed to know or to opine correctly what the truth of a given matter is, and (3) I can be presumed to know or to opine correctly what the truth of a given matter is, can I favor an interpretation of what he says that would make his statements be, in my opinion, true.

We can contrast three attitudes in reading a magisterial text, in which there are textual and other reasons in favor of reading the text to be saying "X", and at the same time, there are reasons to think that X is wrong.

(1) X is wrong, so the pope must not be saying it;
(2) X is wrong, and the Pope is saying X, so the pope is in error;
(3) The pope is probably saying X, and I see a problem with X; is it possible that my view of X is mistaken?… Or that I'm overlooking some reason why his statement should be read to mean something else? Or that the Pope is mistaken?

The third attitude, being ready in the first place to question one's own opinion on the basis of an authority's appearing to contradict one's own opinion, as well as to question one's own reading of his statement, before questioning whether the authority is right, is surely the appropriate attitude to take to someone, precisely as an authority, and in particular, to magisterial authority in the Church. As Lumen gentium 25 teaches, religious submission of mind and will is due even to non-infallible statements of the Magisterium, i.e., even to statements that could, in principle, be wrong. (The submission is due to them in a generic manner as statements of the authority; it does not follow that one must accept the statements as true even if one sees them to be false.)

By immediately using the perceived wrongness of various statements in Amoris laetitia as grounds to presume that the pope can't truly be teaching those things, one may avoid accusing the pope of error, but at the same time, avoid being challenged by the pope to rethink whether there might be some important truth that the pope is speaking which I don't myself clearly or fully perceive.

On this note, I close with a remark of Jeremy Holmes regarding the encyclical Laudato Si, but just as relevant to Amoris laetitia.

Everyone who finds the encyclical troubling should start by listing the “I like it” elements and the “This bothers me” elements. Then he should do one more thing: write down at least ONE element in the encyclical that genuinely challenges him, that is, one way in which he feels this encyclical may change his mind on something he has thought for a long time.

The Spirit leads the Church through weak human beings, and yet we have to be on the lookout for God in the midst of it all. As Fulton Sheen once remarked, Jesus Christ rode into Jerusalem on an ass. If we don’t make a real effort to find ONE element in an encyclical that changes our attitude or conviction, then we have failed as readers.

Rock climbing and judging people

To do one's best at rock climbing and remain safe, one should prepare for the worst, and think the best, and when deciding whether to climb a particular face under given circumstances, make an objective judgment of the difficulty and risk.

a. Prepare for the worst — when making preparations, assume the worst case scenario. If you can do something to increase safety in the event of a problem (e.g., a runner unexpectedly comes out), assume the problem will arise, and take action to ensure safety nonetheless.

b. Think the best — focus on the goal, rather than a potential fall. Being well prepared and attentive, so that you climb with care and will react rightly and quickly to any incidents, will help you climb well and increase your safety. But being afraid of falling won't help you climb well. Having done all you can to increase safety and decrease the risk of falling, and being attentive so that you can react quickly if a piece of stone breaks off, a runner comes out, a climbing starts falling, etc., it's better to focus on the intended goal of climbing successfully than the possibility of a failure and fall.

c. When deciding whether to make a climb, it's best to make an objective assessment of it. One shouldn't ignore the risks (assuming the best), but there is also no need to pretend they are worse than they are (assuming the worst).

I find these three ways of relating to risk in rock climbing a good analogy to three ways St. Thomas Aquinas gives of making judgment about things or persons. In a Summa article on whether doubtful matters should be decided in the more favorable/more charitable fashion, ST II-II, q. 60, a. 4, he makes a threefold distinction:

a. When making an assessment about a possible evil of a person in order to remedy it, one should in doubtful matters incline towards assuming the worst. (E.g., if you see signs of someone abusing alcohol, and if you can act in such a way as to help him if your suspicions are accurate (without harming him if your suspicions turn out to be inaccurate), than you should do so, rather than assuming the best, and failing to act.) (ad 3)

b. When making an assessment about a fault or vice of a person in himself, one should in doubtful matters assume the best, even if it is objectively less likely — it's much better to be wrong in assuming the best of someone, than to be wrong in assuming the worst of someone. (Again, in the situation where you see signs of someone abusing alcohol, you should, as regards your attitude toward that person, assume the best — should not think less of his character or virtue due to this suspicion) (ad 3)

c. When making an assessment about things, one should make a judgment according to what is most probable.


As in rock climbing, to the extent that you can hinder an evil by assuming the worst and preparing for it, you should do so, so also, to the extent that you can hinder a potential vice of someone by assuming the worst and acting to hinder it, you should do so.

Yet as, in regards to the possibility of falling, having taking all the steps to increase safety, and avoiding entering into an excessively risky situation, you should climb with confidence rather than fear, so also, in regards to the person's own character, your attitude should be positive, looking to the virtue you hope he has, rather than to a vice that he might have.

Remedies for Gossip and Slander – St. Josemaria Escriva

Gossip and slander are frequently found even among those who consider themselves good Christians. Few things, however, are more harmful to a community. It can start innocently enough. One person makes a comment to a third person about something someone else did or said. Perhaps this first person doesn't even intend the comment to be negative. The person hearing the comment, however, sees it as reflecting badly on the person being spoken about. Instead of clarifying the situation, he passes on this juicy tidbit of gossip, possibly distorting it even more in the process. The telling of this rumor ceases to be merely gossip and becomes slander, that is, the making of claims detrimental to a person's reputation with reckless disregard for the truth, disregard for the fact that one possesses no substantial evidence for these defamatory claims. The whole process is deeply opposed to charity and very harmful to the relationships between people. The slide below illustrates the origin and spread of such malicious rumors:

Gossip turning into slander, causing mistrust

Such things are, regrettably, all too real and all too common.

 The biblical rules for dealing with the faults people commit are aimed to avoid this culture of gossip and slander.

 "You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reprove him openly, lest you bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev 19:17-18)

When one sees or believes that someone has done something wrong, one normally must talk to that person, and tell him so; one ought, of course to be open to the possibility that one has misunderstood the situation, and that this person in fact did not do anything wrong, as well as to the possibility or even likelihood that even if he made a mistake, it was not out of malice. This open talk with the person whom one feels has done something wrong hinders the bearing of a grudge, a violation of fraternal charity. It also decreases the likelihood of seeking an outlet for one's grievance by unnecessarily making it known to third parties, gossiping about it.

Christ lays down a similar rule, and further clarifies the way to proceed in such cases:

"If your brother sins [against you], go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector." (Mat 18:15-17 — The words "against you" are not present in a number of manuscripts.)

 To go to the person in private, if the situation can be then resolved, keeps other people from getting involved who do not need to know about the fault. It also avoids the danger of falsely accusing a person. When one goes to the person concerned, one may find out that one has misunderstood the situation. By going directly to him, one has avoided slandering him by passing on this defamatory misunderstanding to others.

Only if the situation cannot be resolved between the two persons should one bring others into the situation. And then one should if possible not immediately involve everyone, but bring only a third party or two in, who may help to bring more objectivity to the situation, at any rate as witnesses. Only if all such efforts fail need the sin be brought to the attention of the larger community to deal with it.

 Unfortunately, this rule of Christ, this rule of christian charity, is widely ignored. For various reasons (to avoid a confrontation with the person, to pass it on to someone more “capable” of dealing with it, to pass it on to an “authority”, to feel better about one's own faults by talking about the faults of others, out of a pleasure in gossiping, etc.) most of the time people do not talk with the person they believe committed a fault, but talk about him to others. How can someone break this vicious circle of gossip? He can of course refuse to pass on such negative gossip himself, he can indicate disapproval of it, etc. But that often is not enough to stop the pervasive culture of gossip. Nor does it rectify the injustice (the damage to a person's reputation) of which he has become aware, at least not in most cases.

 St. Josemaria Escriva's advice

St. Josemaria Escriva proposes a radical method to counter malicious gossip: Tell the person who is spreading gossip that you will speak to the person concerned about it, and then go and do just that; and do not say “someone told me,” but name that person, so that the one about whom such statements were being made can, if necessary, talk to that person himself.

"This is how you should answer a backbiter: 'I shall tell the person concerned' or "I shall speak to him about it."  (Furrow, 916)

"I can see no Christian fraternity in a friend who warns you: 'I've been told some terrible things about you. You shouldn't trust some of your friends.' I think it is not Christian because that brother has not taken the honest approach of silencing the slanderer first, and then telling you his name out of loyalty. If that brother does not have the strength of character to demand such behavior of himself, he will end up making you live on your own, driving you to distrust everyone and to be uncharitable towards everyone." (Furrow, 743)

This is illustrated by the following slide:

Breaking the chain of gossip

Of course, at this point the problems caused by gossiping are still not yet all resolved. Further steps would be necessary, such as e.g.:

Jen and Pat go on to talk to James, to clarify/resolve things with him.

Jen talks again to Randall, telling him he seems to have misunderstood the situation, and suggests Randall correct the mistake by talking to James and Pat and then to Tom to clarify Tom's statement that Randall had previously uncritically received (and possibly misinterpreted).


What do you think about this suggested procedure of St. Josemaria Escriva?

Interpreting Religious Statistics

Check out this post by James Chastek on interpreting religious statistics. He makes three points: (1) An evaluation of religious statistics that looks only to the last 50 years is short-sighted in comparison with the long-term nature of movements in religious convictions; (2) people leaving the Church is an ambiguous statistic; it could be a sign of a spiritual good, namely a greater appreciation that belonging to the Church and church attendence should be connected with the truth–having previously accepted the Church not as true, but simply as a part of culture; (3) the statistics often rely on non-objective methods to determine the numbers of members of the Church; e.g., simply asking them whether they are "Catholic".

I have often made the second point in response to what I sometimes see as an exaggerated concern with statistics of church membership, expressed on the occasion of hearing the numbers of persons leaving the Church. While it is better to be a Catholic and live as one than not, it is also better to be honestly not a Catholic than to be dishonestly a Catholic.

One must admit, however, that while cultural christianity never saved anyone, it can be an occasion for a real encounter with Christ, who is the Savior of all men.

Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus

Pope Boniface VIII proclaimed in the Bull Unam Sanctam in 1302 that "Urged by faith, we are obliged to believe and to maintain that the Church is one, holy, catholic, and also apostolic. We believe in her firmly and we confess with simplicity that outside of her there is neither salvation nor the remission of sins… Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary to salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff."

One hundred and forty years later, 1442, the Council of Florence proclaimed in its Bull of Union with the Copts that the Church "firmly believes, professes and preaches that all those who are outside the catholic church, not only pagans but also Jews or heretics and schismatics, cannot share in eternal life and will go into the everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels, unless they are joined to the catholic church before the end of their lives."

Some recent free-thinking theologians have understood these decrees to mean that, as a matter of fact, no one is ultimately saved who is not a member of the Catholic Church at the time of his death. When one examines these decrees in their historic context, this interpretation is highly questionable. The Bull Unam Sanctam affirms that there is no "remission of sins" outside the Church, that is to say, it is not talking only about ultimate salvation, but about sanctifying grace. Examining the decrees prior to the Council of Florence, as well as noting that the Council of Florence's decree draws heavily upon Fulgentius (who held the necessity of being in the Church for grace as well as for salvation), it is probable that the Council of Florence intended to affirm the same: not only the necessity of being in the Church for ultimate salvation, but also for grace. Now, the common teaching at that time was that sanctifying grace can, as a matter of fact, be possessed by those who are, in fact, outside the Church, as in the case of persons baptized in a heretical or schismatic sect, or have not yet come to recognize the error of their sect, and are thus not culpable for their separation from the Church. Consequently, to do justice to these decrees, they have to be understood to mean that God presents man with no other alternative for grace and salvation than incorporation into Christ, in his Church, and yet, in his will for the salvation of all, he in fact saves men who are in invincible ignorance of the necessity of belonging to the Catholic Church for salvation.

To attain, by historical investigation, complete historical certainty regarding the meaning of the decrees may require more inquiry than has been done until now on this matter. However, even granting that the historical data leaves the matter ambiguous, granting that either the superficial interpretation or the context-based interpretation is a possible one, for the Catholic there is another, very important hermeneutic principle: "This dogma [outside the Church there is no salvation] must be understood in that sense in which the Church herself understands it. For, it was not to private judgments that our Savior gave for explanation those things that are contained in the deposit of faith, but to the teaching authority of the Church" (Letter of the Holy Office to the Archbishop of Boston, August 8, 1949).

How does the Church understand this dogma? Pius IX makes three statements that imply interpretations of it or of its consequences:

It must, of course, be held as a matter of faith that outside the apostolic Roman Church no one can be saved, that the Church is the only ark of salvation, and that whoever does not enter it will perish in the flood. On the other hand, it must likewise be held certain that those who are affected by ignorance of the true religion, if it is invincible ignorance, are not subject to any guilt in this matter before the eyes of the Lord. (Allocution Singulari quadam, December 9, 1854)

There is only one true, holy, Catholic church, which is the Apostolic Roman Church. There is only one See founded in Peter by the word of the Lord, outside of which we cannot find either true faith or eternal salvation…. The Church clearly declares that the only hope of salvation for mankind is placed in the Christian faith, which teaches the truth, scatters the darkness of ignorance by the splendor of its light, and works through love. This hope of salvation is placed in the Catholic Church which, in preserving the true worship, is the solid home of this faith and the temple of God. Outside of the Church, nobody can hope for life or salvation unless he is excused through invincible ignorance. (Encyclical Singulari quidem, March 17, 1856)

7. And here, beloved Sons and Venerable Brothers, We should mention again and censure a very grave error in which some Catholics are unhappily engaged, who believe that men living in error, and separated from the true faith and from Catholic unity, can attain eternal life. It is known to Us and to you that they who labor in invincible ignorance of our most holy religion and who, zealously keeping the natural law and its precepts engraved in the hearts of all by God, and being ready to obey God, live an honest and upright life, can, by the operating power of divine light and grace, attain eternal life, since God Who clearly beholds, searches, and knows the minds, souls, thoughts, and habits of all men, because of His great goodness and mercy, will by no means allow anyone to be punished with eternal torment who has not the guilt of deliberate sin.
8. But, the Catholic dogma that no one can be saved outside the Catholic Church is well-known; and also that those who are obstinate toward the authority and definitions of the same Church, and who stubbornly separate themselves from the unity of the Church, and from the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter, to whom "the guardianship of the vine has been entrusted by the Savior," cannot obtain eternal salvation. (Encyclical Quanto conficiamur moerore, August 10, 1863)

In the first text the Pope affirms that those who are in invincible ignorance of the fact that the Catholic Church is the Sacrament of Salvation established by God, are not subject to guilt on account of their not entering or not being in the Church. This does not directly imply that these persons can be saved. However, inasmuch as he is clearly making reference to the dogma "Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus", it gives a certain indication of how the dogma is to be understood, suggesting that in some sense it doesn't apply to those in invincible ignorance (a complete argument for this implication would, again, involve examining the historical meaning and application of the dogma.)

In the second text the pope, again in the context of the dogma Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus, qualifies the impossibility for life (sanctifying grace) or salvation outside the Church to apply to those who are not in invincible ignorance of the necessity of the Church.

In the third text the pope affirms positively that persons in invincible ignorance of the necessity of the Catholic Church for salvation "can be saved", and in recalling the dogma Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus, applies it to those who obstinately and stubbornly are separate from the Church.

Pope Pius XII in Mystici Corporis implies a slightly different, though related, interpretation of the dogma: the Church is necessary for salvation, not in such a way that everyone as a matter of fact must belong to the Church to be saved, but in such a way that also those can be saved who belong to the Church only by an implicit desire, inasmuch as they wish to be conformed to the will of God, though without knowing that God's will is for all to enter into the unity of the Catholic Church.

The Holy Office in its Letter to the Archbishop of Boston interprets the dogma in two senses: first as the implication of the command of Christ to be incorporated into the Church by baptism and to adhere to Christ and to his Vicar, so that "no one will be saved who, knowing the Church to have been divinely instituted by Christ, refuses to submit to the Church or withholds obedience to the Roman Pontiff"; secondly, as referring to the fact that the Church is a necessary means of salvation, where the qualification is made that "God, in his infinite mercy, willed that the effects, necessary for one to be saved, of those helps to salvation which are directed toward man’s final end, not by intrinsic necessity, but only by divine institution, can also be obtained in certain circumstances when those helps are used only in desire and longing;" the Council of Trent made this qualification with regard to baptism and penance, and the Holy Office declares that the same thing must be understood of the Church as well: "that one may obtain eternal salvation, it is not always required that he be incorporated into the Church actually as a member, but it is necessary that at least he be united to her by desire and longing." It cites Pius XII and Pius IX as magisterial confirmation of this view.

Vatican II in Lumen Gentium also takes up these two sense of the dogma:

14… Basing itself upon Sacred Scripture and Tradition, it teaches that the Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation. Christ, present to us in His Body, which is the Church, is the one Mediator and the unique way of salvation. In explicit terms He Himself affirmed the necessity of faith and baptism and thereby affirmed also the necessity of the Church, for through baptism as through a door men enter the Church. Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved.

15. The Church recognizes that in many ways she is linked with those who, being baptized, are honored with the name of Christian, though they do not profess the faith in its entirety or do not preserve unity of communion with the successor of Peter…. Likewise we can say that in some real way they are joined with us in the Holy Spirit, for to them too He gives His gifts and graces whereby He is operative among them with His sanctifying power.

16. Finally, those who have not yet received the Gospel are related in various ways to the people of God….Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. [Vatican II here footnotes the letter of the Holy Office.]

The Catechism of the Catholic Church formally takes up the question of how the doctrine Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus is to be understood: "How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers?" (CCC 846) It first states the positive meaning: "Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body." It cites Lumen Gentium 14 as an explication of this principle and the consequence of it, then rejects an interpretation of this affirmation as referring to those in invincible ignorance: "This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church," (CCC 847) and cites Lumen Gentium 16 in explication of how these persons can obtain salvation.

The same doctrine is taught by the Catechism in its section on baptism. An important principle is there articulated, "God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments" (CCC 1257), which is also relevant to the necessity of explicit faith in Christ and membership in the Church:

1260 "Since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers, in a way known to God, of the Paschal mystery" (GS 22 § 5). Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity.

The CDF's declaration Dominus Iesus, 2000, also referring to the Letter of the Holy Office to the Archbishop of Boston, explicitly declares that the formula "extra Ecclesiam nullus omnino salvatur" is to be interpreted in the sense that, for those who are not formally and visibly members of the Church, salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace that comes from Christ, and that has a mysterious relationship to the Church. (Dominus Iesus, n. 20, footnote 82).

The CDF's Doctrinal Note on some Aspects of Evangelization, 2007, implies the same interpretation:

Although non-Christians can be saved through the grace which God bestows in "ways known to him" (Second Vatican Council, Decree Ad gentes, 7; cf. Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium, 16; Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes, 22), the Church cannot fail to recognize that such persons are lacking a tremendous benefit in this world: to know the true face of God and the friendship of Jesus Christ, God-with-us…. The Kingdom of God is not – as some maintain today – a generic reality above all religious experiences and traditions, to which they tend as a universal and indistinct communion of all those who seek God, but it is, before all else, a person with a name and a face: Jesus of Nazareth, the image of the unseen God.[28] Therefore, every free movement of the human heart towards God and towards his kingdom cannot but by its very nature lead to Christ and be oriented towards entrance into his Church, the efficacious sign of that Kingdom.

The CDF affirms that non-Christians can be saved without (explicitly) "knowing the true face of God and the friendship of Jesus Christ", yet that the grace that is at work in them by its nature leads to Christ and is oriented towards entrance into his Church.

Judging, Part 3 (Therese of Lisieux)

To apply the principles mentioned in the previous posts, of judging doubtful cases positively or favorably, without being negligent to remedy problems (which presupposes at least a tentative judgment), it is helpful to bear several things in mind: (1) our knowledge of ourselves and of others is always limited; (2) there is always some good to be found in everything; (3) recognizing this good is good for ourselves and for others; St. Therese of Lisieux says “We should always judge others with love, for often what seems to us to be negligence, is an heroic deed in God's sight.” (CS 107) And again:

Yes, I know when I show charity to others, it is simply Jesus acting in me, and the more closely I am united to Him, the more dearly I love my Sisters. If I wish to increase this love in my heart, and the devil tries to bring before me the defects of a Sister, I hasten to look for her virtues, her good motives; I call to mind that though I may have seen her fall once, no doubt she has gained many victories over herself, which in her humility she conceals. It is even possible that what seems to me a fault, may very likely, on account of her good intention, be an act of virtue. I have no difficulty in persuading myself of this, because I have had the same experience. (MsC, 12v/13r)

Regarding the second and third point, the possibility of seeing good in things, and the value of doing so, St. Therese says, speaking about circumstances generally, “I always see the bright side of things. There are people who always take everything from the most painful point of view. I do just the opposite. If I am faced with pure suffering; when heaven is so black that there is no bright spot to be seen anywhere, I then make that itself a source of joy” (DE 215/27.5). And about persons, “There is nothing sweeter than to think well of one’s neighbor,” (CS 25) and “Charity consists in disregarding the faults of our neighbor, not being astonished at the sight of their weakness, but in being edified by the smallest acts of virtue we see them practice.”

Regarding the first point, the limitation of our knowledge, which never extends to a person's responsibility before God: “Even when there doesn't seem to be any excuse, we always have the possibility of saying: 'this person is obviously wrong, but she does not know it.'” (CS 107)

(4) A fourth point to keep in mind: love can be visible even in correcting, rebuking, etc., and we should strive to make it thus visible. St. Therese did not hesitate to speak the truth, even when it was not necessarily pleasant to hear: “I say the whole truth. If someone doesn't want to hear it, they shouldn't come to me.” (DE 203/18.4.3) Correcting in a loving manner does not mean that one does so in a “soft” manner, but that one does so not merely for the sake of abstract “rightness,” but of the person one corrects. St. Therese says:

In order that a reprimand bear fruit, we must give it dispassionately. When we have scolded a person, within the bounds of justice, let us stop there and not become soft-hearted, tormenting ourselves because we realize we have inflicted pain on someone. To run after the one we have thus afflicted, to console her, is to do her more harm than good. But when we leave her to herself, we force her to expect nothing from the human side, but to have recourse to the good Lord, recognize her faults, and humble herself. Otherwise we shall make her accustomed to being consoled after we have administered a deserved reproof, and she will then act like a spoiled child which jumps with rage and cries, knowing that this will make his mother come to him and wipe away his tears.I know, my Mother, that your little lambs consider me severe… The little lambs may say what they please. Fundamentally they feel that I love them with a genuine love.

This remark of St. Therese can be taken as complementary to the point mentioned in the previous post about St. Catherine, and the identification and sympathy with a person that helps us to form judgments in the appropriate loving manner. Love and correction are not contraries, as though love were the counterbalance to the correction of another person; rather love is to be shown in the very act of correction, and the act of correction is to be moved by and ordered to love. If that is not possible at a given moment, perhaps because we have strong feelings about an issue, we should if at all possible wait before speaking.

Judging, Part 2 (Aquinas)

This post continues the last one, which spoke of “judging” in Scripture and the inseparability of truth and love.

In this connection I would like to look at an article of St. Thomas Aquinas. St. Thomas in the Secunda Secundae of the Summa Theologiae, has an article on judgment in cases of doubt. The question as a whole (question 60) concerns judgment as an act of justice, as in a court, but in this article (the fourth article) he treats the more general question of judging, which concerns all people, not only judges. The question is whether we should interpret cases of doubt in the way that is more favorable to the person concerned. (Read the complete article of Aquinas: On Charitable or Favorable Judgment)

The first objection he raises against this concerns the truth of judgment. The objection is that we should judge in such a way as to be correct as often as possible. But since men are more often inclined to evil—according to Ecclesiastes 1:15 (Vulgate), “The number of fools is infinite”, and Genesis 8:21, “the imagination and thought of man's heart are prone to evil from his youth”—we will be more often right if we interpret doubtful cases on the worse side rather than on the better side.

The second objection similarly is that we should simply judge according to the truth, and not be more inclined to one side then another.

The third objection concerns love. As far as we are ourselves are concerned, we should suppose the worst (According to Job 9:28, Vulgate, “I feared all my works”). But we should love our neighbors as ourselves, and so we should also suppose the worst of them. Therefore in doubtful cases we should be more inclined to judge on the unfavorable side.

In his response to the question and these objections, Thomas sets forth two principles. First, a false judgment by which someone thinks something bad about someone else, is contrary to love of neighbor. Secondly, (and this becomes clear in his response to the objections), a false judgment by which one thinks something good about someone, which is not actually so—e.g., when someone thinks that a person has a good motivation when he does not—is not something very bad and that we definitely need to avoid, but is only a minor evil, very slight in comparison to a false judgment about someone's badness.

That all seems clear: easy to understand, even if not always easy to put into practice. But things get more complicated with Thomas's response to the third objection. There he says, on the one hand, insofar as a judgment is necessary or helpful in order to improve something bad, we should rather be inclined to imagine or suppose what is worse. On the other hand, insofar as a judgment does not lead to action, we should rather be inclined to imagine or suppose what is better about a person.

In both respects the judgment is to be made in favor of love, but in one respect in favor of love in itself, so to speak, and in the other respect in favor of love as effective, as a principle of action. Love, in order to be love, must also act against what is bad and evil. In a famous passage (In Tractate 7 on the First Letter of John), St. Augustine says, “A father beats his Son, a slave-dealer caresses him…. Many things can be done that seem good, but do not spring from the root of love, and in contrast, many seem hard, aggressive, which are done for the sake of discipline, at the command of love. Once for all, therefore, a short commandment is given: Love, and do what you will.”

I believe this is more or less the direction of the entire Christian tradition. To the extent a hypothetical judgment is necessary as principle of action, one should try to judge accurately, even when the judgment is in a certain sense “against” someone or his action. But insofar as a completely definitive judgment is not necessary for that, we should make no definitive negative judgment about someone or his action, unless we cannot avoid such a judgment, because the matter is perfectly evident, which as regards interior motivations, is never the case. In this sense St. Paul says, “Do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then every man will receive his commendation from God” (1 Cor 4:5).

But the question, to what extent negative judgments are necessary in order to act rightly, and how these negative judgments, which should never be definitive, are to be kept provisional, is a practical question, not one that can be solved purely theoretically, but is answered through experience, in community with others, and through the impulse of the Holy Spirit.

I made a few more comments on this, and then we discussed it. I will give some of these practical points in the next post.

Judging, Part 1 (Scripture)

The following is taken from notes for a talk I gave last week. I've divided into two parts for this blog.

The theme I've taken for today is that of judging, and the right attitude towards falsehood, bad things, etc. As the point of departure I take two seemingly incompatible demands: the first, the prohibition of judging, the other, the requirement to live according to the truth and to help others to life according to the truth.

The tension between these two demands is not a unique case in Christian teaching. There are a number of tensions in the teaching, tensions that cannot be simply overcome by a deeper understanding. They remain, and they should remain; they help us to keep to the correct mean. For example, St. Augustine is alleged to have said, “Pray as though everything depended on God. Act as though everything depended on you.” Whether or not St. Augustine actually said this, similar apparent contradictions can be found in Scripture itself; St. Paul says that Abraham was justified by faith rather than works, “If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God… to one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness” (Romans 4:2,5), while St. James says that he was justified by works: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar?” (James 2:21) While there is no real contradiction between the two–since everything we do is both from God, and from ourselves—this tension is necessary so that we may neither become negligent, nor try to live rightly on our own without God's grace, which is impossible.

In the case of judging, Christ says “Judge not, that you be not judged.” This saying is found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (Matthew 7:1, Luke 6:37). Also in the Gospel of John, Jesus says that he was not sent into the world to judge the world (John 3:17), that he judges no one (John 8:15); even when someone hears his words and does not follow them, he does not judge him (John 12:47). This may be seen as the biblical ground for “tolerance,” and in a certain sense is.

St. Paul lays down a similar rule. Regarding the decision to eat meat or not, he says, “How can you judge the servant of another?” (Romans 14:4). It is the Lord who judges (1 Cor 4:4), not we.

St. James says the same: “He that speaks evil against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you that you judge your neighbor?” (James 4:11-12) And again, “Do not grumble, brethren, against one another, that you may not be judged” (James 5:9).

Is the modern replacement or at least equation of the law of love with the love of tolerance therefore justified? That would be a precipitate claim. There are also many scripture texts which presuppose or require some form of judgment. Immediately before the commandment of love of neighbor in Leviticus is a prohibition of hate: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart”; and immediately following, “but you shall reprove (yakah, which can be translated “judge, rebuke, correct”) your neighbor, lest you bear sin because of him” (Leviticus 19:17).

Jesus says “Matthew 18:15-17 If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:15-17). In order to act when “your brother sins,” one must first make a judgment that he does.

And although Jesus gives as advice, “if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also,” (Matthew 5:39), when before the high priest “one of the officers standing by struck Jesus with his hand, saying, 'Is that how you answer the high priest?'” Jesus answered, “If I have spoken wrongly, bear witness to the wrong; but if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” (John 18:22-23). It is not, then, a matter of never defending oneself, but of being ready not to defend oneself, to be silent before accusation when that is helpful for charity's sake.

St. Paul, too, is not silent when unjustly struck, but says, “God shall strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting to judge me according to the law, and yet contrary to the law you order me to be struck?” (Acts 23:3) clearly speaking on the basis of the judgment that Ananias is acting unjustly. Again he says, “If a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Galatians 6:1). “Restoring him” requires first recognizing the trespass.

This tension arises from an important fundamental principle, the inseparability of love and truth. Love and truth must remain linked, for two reasons: first, a person, in contrast to a thing, is distinguished by the ability to attain truth and to act according to it. If love or a loving relationship is to be really personal, it must correspond to the nature and truth of the persons. In his homily for the beatification of Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Pope John Paul II paraphrases or cites her: “Accept nothing as truth, if it is without love. And accept nothing as love, if it is without truth. One without the other becomes a destructive lie.” And St. Paul says that love, “Does not rejoice at the wrong, but rejoices with the truth” (1 Cor 13:6).

The second, and deeper basis for the inseparability of truth and love, is their identity in one person, in Christ. As Christians we believe in a truth which is a person, which is the God who is love itself, and whose love we have the privilege of experience through his giving himself for us.

This necessary connection between love and truth is one of the main criteria by which the Church recognizes whether or not something is from God. St. John says expressly, on the side of truth and acknowledgment, “Every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God” (1 John 4:2), an on the side of love, “Everyone who loves, is from God and knows God” (1 John 4:7) As we heard in the reading for today, when we live in the darkness, i.e., in hate, we do not do the truth, and do not know where we go. When we live in love, we are in the light, i.e., in the truth, and know where we go.

But although love and truth are mutually complementary, and in Christ are identical, they possess different aspects, and it is not always easy to see in concrete cases how they are to be united. Hence arises the tension that we saw in the simultaneous prohibition of judging and the requirement of “correcting”

To be continued…

Favorable Interpretation

This post is a follow up to the previous post on judging favorably concerning other persons, the related video on seeing the best in them, and also occasioned by a discussion on another blog (platitudes in attitudes, no longer online).

The fact is, if we are inclined to the more favorable judgment in matters where the truth is unclear, or to the extent that the truth is not perfectly clear, we will also overall be more correct, not less. If someone says something that seems false, we are more likely to understand them correctly if we suppose that they have some reason for saying what they do. Similarly, if we see someone do something that seems bad, and don't know their intention, it is not only more charitable, but probably more truthful, to suppose that they have some good intention.

Generous or severe interpretation

In the book Paths of Love the question is touched upon about how to interpret the Fathers when they seem negative towards marriage. Here is another example of how we may interpret a theologian in two quite different ways, one positive and the other negative.

St. Alphonsus de Liguori, writing to a woman deliberating about whether or not to become a religious, gives a very stark response :

Live Jesus, Mary, Joseph

Arienzo, September 27, 1769.

I answer your letter.
A young person can save her soul by remaining in the world; but it cannot be denied, that in the world, especially at the present time, there are many more dangers of committing sin and losing one’s soul.
The rule then to follow is this. If any person loves chastity, she ought to choose what is more perfect, that is, she should consecrate her virginity to Jesus Christ. By acting thus, she will be much less exposed to damn herself; and this is the counsel that I give you…

Alfonso Maria,
Bishop of Sant’ Agata.

Advice like this is sometimes rejected out of hand, on the grounds that the reason St. Alphonsus thinks like this, is that he almost sees marriage as the lesser of two evils (being less bad than fornication), and doesn't appreciate the goodness of marriage.

But whatever true there is in the claim that St. Alphonsus doesn't appreciate the goodness of marriage (as indeed there is some truth to it), it is somewhat simplistic, and ultimately incorrect to suppose that his position derives from this lack of appreciation. Rather, he is doing nothing other than trying to express what Christ himself expresses, when speaking about voluntary and perpetual celibacy, he says "Him who can take it, let him take it!" And again St. Paul, saying, "Whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control," and resolves to remain single for the sake of the kingdom of God, "he will do well" (1 Cor 7:37).

Naturally when a theologian speaks about the superiority of celibacy or virginity to marriage, if he does have any kind of negative view of marriage, this view will probably become manifest. But it is erroneous to therefore think that his positive position, argument, or claim is based upon this negative view.

In all cases we should be inclined to a generous interpretation, rather than a critical one. It is not only more charitable, but also usually more accurate. This applies above all when it comes to the saints; when it is possible to interpret what they say so as to be true and good, we should generally do so.

Read more texts of St. Alphonsus – more balanced texts on vocation.