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Is Amoris Laetitia a Thomistic Exhortation?

October 18, 2017

The remarks of Pope Francis on Amoris Laetitia, on September 10, 2017, during his journey to Colombia, and reported by the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica on September 28, have provoked several reactions from philosophers and theologians. At the time, the pope declared to a group of Jesuits: “Some maintain that there is no Catholic morality underlying Amoris Laetitia, or at least, no sure morality. I want to repeat clearly that the morality of Amoris Laetitia is Thomist, the morality of the great Thomas.”

Already on October 24, 2016, at the 36th General Congregation of the Jesuits in Rome, the pope had made a similar remark. At the time, the Dominican Basil Cole, professor of dogmatic and moral theology at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington (USA), responded to the “Thomism” claimed by a Francis. Here are a few particularly enlightening extracts from his study entitled “Is Amoris Laetitia Really Thomistic?”, published on the December 16, 2016, on the blog of Vaticanist Edward Pentin from the New Catholic Register.

“...Another tangle one can encounter is when quoting Aquinas piecemeal or without full advertence to his theological project. St. Thomas was nothing if not a complete and consistent thinker. To pick and choose his statements without considering their context and relation to his other relevant insights would be about as disastrous as proof-texting Sacred Scripture (quoting short passages from the Bible to back up a particular belief).

“One might suppose that a situationist ethic is supported by Aquinas when he states, ‘In matters of action, truth or practical rectitude is not the same for all, as to matters of detail, but only as to the general principles; and where there is the same rectitude in matters of detail, it is not equally known to all. […] The principle will be found to fail, according as we descend further into detail’ (Summa I-II, q. 94, a. 4; quoted in Amoris Laetitia n. 304). Isolated from Aquinas’s other statements, it could seem as if the doctor of the Church is saying that no moral rule is absolute, but that discernment is needed in each and every situation to know whether or not a general moral principle applies in a particular situation. However, this is not authentic Thomism.

“Situation ethics contradicts Aquinas’s firm affirmation that there are some moral norms that always hold for everyone: these are the precepts of the Decalogue (Summa I-II, q. 100, a. 8), and similar universal negative precepts, for they condemn acts that are ‘evil in themselves and cannot become good’ (Summa II-II, q. 33, a.2). He specifically says that ‘one may not commit adultery for any good’ (De Malo, q. 15, a.1, ad 5).

“In the same vein, Aquinas holds that some acts ‘have deformity inseparably attached to them, such as fornication, adultery, and others of this sort, which can in no way be done in a morally good way’ (Quodlibet 9, q. 7, a. 2). The reason for these exceptionless norms is that human nature does not change, nor does the Gospel and the Church’s mandate to transmit it unsullied through the centuries. Certain positive norms need to be adapted to the times, such as one’s relation to the environment. In such cases, Magisterial teaching adapts to changing conditions—but always without contradicting reason and the truths already articulated by the Church.

“Finally, with a Thomistic moral theology, one can embrace an authentic position of Thomas and benefit from the insights he offers to illuminate the truths of faith held perennially by the Church. For example, he explains the relation between the Holy Eucharist and the Sacrament of Penance. Aquinas builds on St. Paul’s teaching, ‘Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord’ (1 Co. 11:27). Aquinas says, ‘Holy Communion ought not to be given to open sinners when they ask for it. […] A priest who has knowledge of the crime can privately warn the secret sinner, or warn all openly in public, from approaching the Lord's table, until they have repented of their sins and have been reconciled to the Church’ (Summa III, q. 80, a. 6).

“Furthermore, Aquinas states that, whatever reasons a person may have for engaging in sex outside of marriage, ‘actions done for the sake of pleasure are simply voluntary,’ so one cannot rightly claim that exterior pressures cause him to sin (Summa II-II, q. 142, a. 3). Once a person regularly sins against marriage in this way and develops the vice of intemperance, his reason is darkened and he becomes enslaved by his passions (Summa II-II, q. 142, a. 4). Such a person is not capable of fruitfully receiving the sacraments until he repents of all his sin and makes a determinate effort to avoid the near occasions of sin: ‘it belongs to penance to detest one's past sins, and to purpose, at the same time, to change one's life for the better’ (Summa III, q. 90, a. 4). Aquinas’s teaching is clear: a person should not receive Holy Communion or absolution from sins who does not intend to change his life and forsake public sin—including being sexually active with another person who is not his sacramental spouse—a sin of scandal whereby one leads others into sin (Summa II-II, q. 43, a. 1).”