Amoris Laetitia and the Hermeneutic of Continuity

Papal biographer Austen Ivereigh recently argued that certain objections to Amoris Laetitia — the published dubia of the four cardinals (Burke, Cafarra, Brandmüller, and Meisner), for example — have crossed the line into dissent, that is, into “question[ing] the legitimacy of a pope’s rule.” Putting “great store in their reason,” these “red hats” and their followers seek to confine the Holy Spirit to “arguments logically developed from absolute first principles.”

Ivereigh’s own view is that Amoris admits of “rare cases” in which a person living in an objective situation of sin (an adulterous second marriage) could be “admitted to Communion.” The articulation of this new permission, purported to be a “development” of “John Paul’s teaching on the discernment of situations,” does not, according to Ivereigh, reject the objective truth of the situation (that adultery is objectively adultery), but instead “shifts the focus away from the defense of truth to the defense of the way Grace works in a soul” (there may be an objective situation of sin, but there might not be subjective culpability).

On this view, dissent is a retreat to reason that interferes with the proper ecclesial “mechanisms of development, based on consultation and spiritual discernment.” But it is also the case that an ordinary Catholic reader (qua reader) finds the dubia much more straightforward and reasonable than the disputed portions of the text of Amoris. How is it possible to maintain a “hermeneutic of continuity” in this context?

(My purpose was to go through the several “hermeneutic of continuity” defenses of Amoris, but of course I only got to one, the Spadaro Hermeneutic. The others may appear later.)

The Spadaro Hermeneutic

Pope Francis’ unofficial spokesman, Fr. Antonio Spadaro (he who “nails the pope’s foes with tweets”), offered the following account a month or two after the publication of the exhortation:

1. In Familiaris Consortio, John Paul II “reaffirmed [the] practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried.” But he went on to introduce a condition according to which “a man and a woman [who] cannot satisfy the obligation to separate,” but who take upon themselves “the duty to live in complete continence,” could seek “reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist.”

Spadaro argues that this introduction of a “condition” into the “de facto norm” indicates, first, that “the de facto norm does not apply always and in all cases”; and second, that a new subjective dimension is opened within the norm by the concept of “duty.” This is nothing less than an affirmation “that the divorced and civilly remarried and who live their conjugal life together, raising together children and sharing daily life, can take communion,” that it is in principle potentially possible in each case.

2. In Sacramentum Caritatis, Benedict XVI further articulated this condition:

Finally, where the nullity of the marriage bond is not declared and objective circumstances make it impossible to cease cohabitation, the Church encourages these members of the faithful to commit themselves to living their relationship in fidelity to the demands of God's law, as friends, as brother and sister; in this way they will be able to return to the table of the Eucharist, taking care to observe the Church's established and approved practice in this regard.

Spadaro emphasizes the encouragement that the Church offers, suggesting that such language “implies a journey and focuses more and in a more adequate manner the accent placed on the personal dimension of conscience.” Encouragement implies the possibility, and even the likelihood of failure, and therefore countenances the relocation of the objective situation of sin into the moral dimension of subjective culpability.

3. In Amoris Laetitia, Francis, according to Spadaro, “moves forward on this line when he speaks of a ‘dynamic discernment’ that ‘must remain ever open to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realized.’”


In summary, not only is the original “de facto norm,” in the words of Francis, “a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage,” but the condition introduced by John Paul II (complete continence) almost immediately also becomes an unrealistic ideal that requires the subsequent “encouragement.” In Familiaris, one could approach the norm despite one’s objective situation by committing to live as brother and sister. In Sacramentum, the Church created an opening for the acknowledgement of the difficulty of that conditional approach by “encouraging” those in this irregular situation. Amoris merely broadens that emphasis on the subjectivity of the journey toward the ideal (first of the norm, then of the condition) by allowing a “dynamic of discernment” to permit the one in the objective situation of sin to receive the “powerful medicine” of the sacraments.


According to this hermeneutic, the distinction between subjective and objective culpability is, to use one of Voegelin’s terms, hypostatized, and becomes the site for a “dynamic” of discernment that is “ever open to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realized” (Amoris, 303). However, many have argued (persuasively) that this “dynamic of discernment” is also an unreachable ideal given the inadequate number of priests and the busyness of most parishes. Therefore . . .

Tony Sifert