A conversation with Cardinal Schönborn on ‘Amoris Laetitia’

By Antonio Spadaro SJ, 29 August 2021
Image: Shutterstock.


Pope Francis launched the year of “Amoris Laetitia Family” in March 2021 to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the publication of Pope Francis’ post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetita. 

La Civiltà Cattolica, English Edition, provides this conversation with Cardinal Christoph Schönborn from March 2017.

When conversing with the Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, a space for calm and attentive reflection is created. Personifying lucidity of thought and spiritual depth, he follows the charism of the Order of Preachers, the Dominicans, and our conversation could be summarized in Aquinas’ motto, Contemplataaliistradere, “transmit to others the things that have been contemplated.” Our conversation was, in fact, a transmission and sharing of reasoning verified in prayer, anything but abstract intellectual or academic theses. The tone and the rhythm of the conversation reflected this contemplative dimension.

On April 8, 2016, the cardinal presented Amoris Laetitia (AL) during the official press conference at the Holy See’s Press Room. Soon after, on April 16, during a press conference on the return flight to Rome from Lesbos, Pope Francis himself affirmed that the archbishop of Vienna had fully understood and spoken correctly about the meaning of the exhortation. The pontiff repeated his judgment in public on a number of occasions, so we can say that the cardinal’s words concerning the document have a certain authority.

I had already interviewed him for La Civiltà Cattolica[1] just before the ordinary synod of October 2015, and on that occasion too our conversation developed during a series of encounters at the offices of the journal and over an exchange of texts.[2]


Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Austria. Image: Vatican News.

Your Eminence, what were your feelings when you read Amoris Laetitia? What was its effect on you?

The pope’s text struck me with its simplicity and how it tasted like the Gospel. Its freshness reminded me of that first “Buona sera!” he greeted the people with in St Peter’s Square when he was elected. The text is able to welcome. In reading it, I receive the goodness of the Good Shepherd who reaches out to families in their real life situations, aware that with all their hopes and imperfections, they are places of love, the door through which fraternity and friendship enter the world, a sign of the indestructible faithfulness of God to his covenant.


How can we judge the pope’s perspective, his gaze presented in these pages? How does it portray the reality of the family?

The language used in Amoris Laetitia is a language of engagement: it opens a vivid dialogue with the reader who feels understood and accepted. This is why it is easy to read, for a deep sense of joy and marvel is felt at the beauty of conjugal and family life. It is realist, and certainly does not give in to alarmism: there is no obsession with critical cases or complex situations. Francis writes about the things of our time, the risks, the challenges, the sufferings with a profound compassion for what is being lived out, without falling into rigorism or laxism. Here the pope is a trusting father and pushes us to trust: he is a pastor relying on grace and consciences.


Some have spoken of Amoris Laetitia as a minor document, almost the pope’s personal opinion without full magisterial value. What value does this exhortation have? Is it an act of the magisterium? It seems obvious, but today it is important to be precise, to avoid some voices creating confusion among the faithful …

It is evident this is an act of the magisterium: it is an apostolic exhortation. Clearly the pope is exercising his role of pastor, guide, and teacher of the faith, having benefited from the consultation of two synods. Without any doubt, I think that we are speaking of a pontifical document of great quality, an authentic lesson of sacred doctrine, taking us back to the relevance of the Word of God to the present. I have read it many times, and every time I encounter the fine quality of its composition and an ever-greater quantity of details that are full of teaching. There are passages of the exhortation that make clear their doctrinal value strongly and decisively. You can see it in the tone and the content of what is written, in relation to the intentionality of the text. For example, when the pope writes, “I ask with insistence… ,” “you can no longer say … ,” “I want to set out clearly for all the Church … ,” and so on. Amoris Laetitia is an act of the magisterium that makes the teaching of the Church present in the current time. Just as we read the Council of Nicaea in the light of the Council of Constantinople, and Vatican I in the light of Vatican II, so now we have to read the previous interventions of the magisterium on the family in light of this contribution. We are led to identify the continuity of doctrinal principles in the discontinuity of perspectives and historically conditioned expressions. This is the function proper to the living magisterium: interpret the Word of God authentically, as written or handed down.


Were there any surprises? Anything that made you reflect? Did you need to read some passages more than once?

I was happily surprised by the methodology. In this sphere of human realities, the Holy Father has fundamentally renewed the Church’s discourse, certainly in the line of Evangelii Gaudium, but also in that of Gaudium et Spes where the doctrinal principles and considerations of people today are continually evolving. There is a deep desire to accept reality.


Is this desire to accept reality a form of trust?

We dare to have a perspective that does not renounce the ideal or doctrinal heritage, but which has the courage to look at the families as they are, not as projections of an imaginary world. The certainty that God loves, seeks, attracts each person with tenderness and always offering new possibilities stimulates an enormous amount of trust. This is another feature of the document: love gives trust. Sometimes, Francis writes, the light lit by God is recognized beyond obscurity, as the embers that glow under the ashes.


This gaze that is so open to reality and its fragility, do you think it can damage the strength of doctrine?

Absolutely not. The pope’s great challenge is to demonstrate that this gaze – so able to appreciate, being permeated by benevolence and trust – does no damage to the strength of doctrine, but is a part of its very backbone. Francis perceives doctrine as the Word of God today, the Word incarnate in our history, and he shares this by listening to the questions that are asked along the way. And he rejects a gaze closed in on abstract enunciations, separated from the subject whose very life is testimony to the encounter with the Lord who changes life. An abstract, doctrinal gaze domesticates some enunciations to impose their generalizations onto an elite, forgetting that closing our eyes to our neighbors also makes us blind to God, as Benedict XVI wrote in Deus caritas est.


What, then, is the key to reading this exhortation?

Thinking about it, I have come to realize that the gaze of the Good Shepherd, which permeates the entire document, gives us one key of interpretation. It allows us to discover in the welcoming of the poorest, the most fragile, the paradigm of the way we welcome into the Church the fragilities and difficult situations. The attention dedicated as much to migrants as to people with disabilities in Amoris Laetitia is a sign of the Spirit. Both of these situations are paradigmatic: they bring into play the way we live the logic of merciful welcoming and integration of the fragile people and, in the same movement, speak of the dependence of the elderly and of the families oppressed by poverty. We find here Francis’ great admiration for all those virtues being lived daily in situations of grave difficulty. A gaze of living faith perceives the flesh of Jesus there. The poor, then, provide the key. This gaze takes nothing away from the clarity of ecclesial teaching, but, quite the opposite, gives it citizenship as a light on this path where Christ precedes us together with the frailest ones. As Francis remembers at the beginning, the Word of God is not present as a sequence of abstract theses, but as a travelling companion. This gaze of faith on the concrete realities and this attention to the weakest along the way are certainly the keys that allow us to open up the treasure of Amoris Laetitia.


Pope Francis reproaches those who, motivated by a defensive attitude, waste pastoral energy multiplying attacks against a decadent world, showing they have limited ability to propose pathways of happiness. We can say that some ministers of the Gospel and some pastors end up speaking more of the ugliness of sin than of the beauty of salvation. The pope seems to insist on a positive, welcoming pastoral approach …

This is true, the pope calls us to pastoral self-criticism and as we are going along he points out the great ideological temptations – Pelagian, as he said – that can make us lose our way in life. Before denouncing, you have to proclaim and accompany, stimulate growth and consolidate profoundness. The whole dynamic of Amoris Laetitia consists in showing that nothing encourages true love more than believing in love. This is a great pedagogical vein: attraction to the good motivates and gives strength to walk this road, where the Father attracts us and seeks us, whatever our situation. Therefore, we are a long way from a defensive pastoral style, where evil becomes an obsession that turns its back on the presence of “the faithful and true witness” (Rev 3:14).


This positive pastoral approach seems to me so important today. The pope insists a lot on growth, on maturing, on small steps forward …

A positive pastoral engagement is an accompaniment on the path of growth, the yeast that makes the bread rise. You feel this great joy of a father who, in those difficult situations, perceives the small steps that are possible, and that maybe have needed great effort, an effort that is bigger than that of someone who lives their own family situation in more favorable conditions. This is the meaning of the law of graduality, which St. John Paul evoked in affirming that the human being knows, loves and carries out the moral good according to stages of growth. You advance gradually with progressive integration of the gifts of God and the demands of his definitive and absolute love in your entire personal and social life. So, we must be “attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness” (AL 308).


And is a positive pastoral approach a way to show people doctrine?

Exactly. A positive pastoral approach is a way to show people doctrine in a sweet manner, connecting it to the profound motivations of women and men. The whole of the doctrine is expressed, but in a fresh and new way that the wider public can grasp. This is a beautiful example of what St. John XXIII had said at the opening of the Council: truths are unchangeable, but the way of telling them and proposing them must be renewed. This is a true renewal.


One thing that stands out in Amoris Laetitia is the insistence by which the pope affirms that no family is a perfect and pre–constituted family. So why then do we have the tendency to be excessively idealist when speaking of the relations between a couple? Is this not a romantic idealism that risks becoming a form of Platonism?

The Bible itself presents family life not as an abstract ideal but as “craftsmanship,” to use the Holy Father’s expression. The gaze of the Good Shepherd looks on people not on notions. These can be present to justify, subsequently, the reality of our hope. But by separating these notions from the world in which the Word becomes incarnate effectively means a risk we “develop a cold bureaucratic morality” (AL 312). Sometimes we have spoken of marriage in such an abstract way that there is nothing attractive about it. The pope is very clear: no family is a perfect reality; each one is made of sinners; each one is on a pathway. This is the foundation of the entire document. This way of seeing things does not belong to secularism, to Aristotelianism as opposed to Platonism. I think rather it is biblical realism, that gaze on the human person that Scripture gives us.


The language used in this exhortation is very surprising: a normal, daily, readable language. The text seems to be aimed at everyone. I am thinking, for example, of the phenomenology of eroticism …

Sexuality is not something that adapts well to abstractions. In the central chapters of the exhortation, dedicated to growth of love, Pope Francis speaks with great realism and freshness of the passions, of affectivity, eroticism and sexuality. The erotic dimension of love, the desire, the pleasure given, the pleasure received … are all elements of a phenomenology of eroticism that the exhortation integrates with many arguments in a Christian vision of marriage, which should not be reduced to its reproductive ends. The sexual union of the spouses is presented as a “path of growth in the life of grace” (AL 74).


Here, it seems, one step further is taken compared to the past …

John Paul II, with his theology of the body and vision of the family as image of the Trinity, had brought innovation with respect to an almost unanimous tradition that rejected seeing the image of God in the human person other than in the soul. With Pope Francis, I think the teaching of the Church goes one step more, furthering the approach to marriage and the family not from on high, but from below, with this loving gaze on reality which embraces all the joys and passions of the person, to show the opening to what God desires; to make as his image the couple and the family.


The chapter on the rearing of children seems to clarify the whole meaning of the exhortation. It speaks of the father and the mother, but also of mother Church and the spiritual paternity of its ministers. “Obsession, however, is not education. We cannot control every situation that a child may experience,” writes the pope. He himself had affirmed, back in the interview he gave me in 2013, that the Church should not become obsessed with moral themes at the expense of the Kerygma, the proclamation of the death and resurrection of Christ for me. And the pope continues, affirming that what is important is to lovingly generate processes “to help them grow in freedom, maturity, overall discipline and real autonomy.” By analogy, could you apply this principle to the concern that mother Church has for all her children whom she educates in the faith? In what way?

I admire Pope Francis’ fine choice of putting the chapter on the difficult pastoral situations immediately after the one on education. It sheds light on the pastoral praxis of the Church and the patient realism needed by love: propose small steps that can be understood, accepted and appreciated. We have the key of chapter 8. What Pope Francis says of the family, the small Church, he says of the whole Church. In the family, just as in the Church, neither laissez–faire nor obsession allows the stimulation of processes of maturation and growth, which are all processes of liberation, pulled toward the good that attracts, for which the Christian has a name. It is important, in this “gradual process of growth” that moves from imperfection to greater fullness, that “children can learn for themselves the importance of certain values, principles and norms, rather than by imposing these as absolute and unquestionable truths” (AL 264). Francis had stated this before in a magnificent quotation from St. Ignatius’ Exercises: “it is not great knowledge, but rather the ability to feel and relish things interiorly that contents and satisfies the soul” (AL 207). St. Thomas too says this about the new law, which is a law written in the heart.


There seems to be a synthesis between Ignatian spirituality and the Thomist tradition. You yourself said at the official presentation in the Vatican that Amoris Laetitia has two noble fathers: Ignatius of Loyola and Thomas Aquinas.

Yes, in my view the exhortation is rooted in Ignatius and Thomas. We have here the exposition of a morality that is inspired by the great Ignatian tradition (discernment of conscience) and the great Dominican one (the morality of virtues). We have turned our backs on the moralities of obligation, whose extrinsicism generates both laxism and rigorism. Instead, we reconnect to the great Catholic moral tradition and thereby integrate the offering of personality.


I ask you, as a Dominican: do we need the virtues?

We need them, for the good gathered by the spirit to put roots in us and be accepted as good for us … prudence, good judgment, common sense derive from a chain of elements that come together in the human person, at the heart of his or her freedom … the inadequate concepts that condition liberty … the tendencies and the wounds from childhood … Amoris Laetitiais the great moral text that we have been waiting for since the Second Vatican Council and develops the choices already made in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) and in Veritatis Splendor. Probably only a Jesuit could so wisely and brilliantly honor the alchemy of the singular and the universal, of conditioning and norms in the dynamic of the moral act. It is amazing to see to what extent Pope Francis has touched the heart of Thomist morals when speaking of the morality of friendship. It is a matter of two freedoms that meet each other. The entire dynamism of friendship cannot depend on external obligation, but from interior need. It is the need of love to orient the path of the Amoris Laetitia. Nothing is more demanding than love. You can follow a law on the outside without following it with your heart, doing so only out of obligation. But you cannot live the love of friendship without freedom coming fully into play.


Among the critical voices, some have said this exhortation seems to fall into “situation ethics” and the “graduality of the law.” I think the pope does not wish to assume our weakness as a criterion to establish what is good and what is evil. However, he does underline a progression in knowledge, desire and the making of the good: tending toward fullness of the Christian life does not mean doing abstractly what is more perfect, but doing what is really possible. What do you think? How do you respond to these accusations?

With clear objectivity of the good and the truth, the exhortation underlines the progress in knowledge and the commitment to carry out the good of the person “along the way.” The invitation to the sequela Christi in the daily life of family and marriage allows this rule to become the requirement of love as it grows piece by piece. This is the whole experience of Christian life. This is the opposite of a morality of the situation, where the norm is always perceived as extrinsic to the act carried out: the norm is located at the level of general principle to the exclusive advantage, in the hierarchy of values, of those of the person. In a morality of the situation, the subject ignores the objective norm, considered abstractly, for the sake of pragmatism in the circumstances. This is a system of double moral truth: ideal and existential. In a morality of virtue, underlined by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, morality and its principles are found in action under the influence of prudence, not theoretical knowledge. “The truth about the moral good, stated in the law of reason, is recognized practically and concretely by the prudent judgment of conscience” (CCC 1780). The moral rightness of such a concrete act inseparably includes the quest for the objective norm that is applied to the complexity of my case – which is never so simple as an abstract analysis of the external act would suppose – and the rooting of the virtues that lead to carrying out the good perceived. This is the nodal point of the clarification of the relations between objective and subjective that neither obligation morals nor situation morals are able to honor.


We are talking about the centrality of “prudence” that Thomas speaks of …

Unlike situation morals, where conscience adjusts to the autonomy of the person, and obligation morals, where conscience is a simple register of an abstract norm imposed from outside, in Catholic morals, as explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance” and it “immediately guides the judgment of conscience.” “With the help of this virtue we apply moral principles to particular cases without error and overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to avoid” (CCC1806). It is in light of what I am and the context in which I find myself that prudential discernment seeks, judges, and chooses what appears proper and right to it in a given case. This indeed is an objective norm, but one which corresponds to the specificity of my case in seeking and loving the true and the good. “When he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking” (n.1777).


In the dynamics of this quest and this rooting, hallmarks of our life of growth toward a “complete entire truth,” we can identify factors that can explain a non–guiltiness in relation to an objective non–respect of a norm, or at least a clear diminution of imputability …

Yes, that is correct. In this path of growth, there are factors that can explain that it is possible to be not subjectively guilty, if we do not objectively respect a norm. Or it is possible that the imputability be strongly diminished. Again, we read in the catechism: “Imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors” (CCC1735). All these things influence the “full knowledge” or “complete consent” (CCC 1859) and, then, can undermine the perception hic et nuncof the bearing and centrality of the norm.


So, in this sense Pope Francis responds to the tradition of the Church …

With what Pope Francis says on conscience, we find ourselves within the great ecclesial tradition, enriched by a personalist perception of the unicity of every free act.


I find it interesting that the pope speaks of “irregular” situations putting the adjective in quotation marks and using the expression “so–called.”  Does this have a special significance for you?

What is significant about this document is that it moves on from the categories of regular and irregular. In simple terms, there are not marriages and families that work, that go well, on one side while on the other, ones that go badly. Francis speaks of this reality as something that concerns all: we are all viatores, we are all on the way. We are all subject to sin and all in need of mercy. In the most orthodox situation, the appeal to conversion is as real as it is for irregular situations. Only in a second stage do we need to speak of sin, of failure, of wounds that affect the families. He often refers to “irregular” situations. But this is not at all relativism, it is quite the opposite; he is being clear about the reality of sin. Francis does not deny that there are regular or irregular situations, but he goes beyond this perspective to put the Gospel into practice: let whoever is among you who has not sinned cast the first stone.


What is the profound message present in this moving on from the regular and irregular categories?

It is not a matter of putting all situations on the same level without distinguishing between them, but of expressing a fundamental message: beyond what is regular or irregular, we are all beggars for grace. I know personally, out of my own family experience, how difficult this distinction is for those who come from a patchwork family. The Church’s language can hurt. With Amoris Laetitia, something changes in ecclesial speak. Pope Francis has placed his document under the sign of a guiding phrase: integrate everyone, for this is a fundamental compassion of the Gospel. “It is a matter of reaching out to everyone, of needing to help each person to find his or her own 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” (AL 297).


This continual principle of inclusion certainly concerns some. Does this exhortation not favor a certain laxism, a disregard for ecclesial teaching, the loss of points of reference?

The pope leaves no room for doubt about Church teaching and, to avoid any errant interpretation, he points out that “in no way must the Church desist from proposing the full ideal of marriage, God’s plan in all its grandeur” (AL 307). But he affirms too, using strong words, that “it is petty simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being.” (AL 304). Let us not be petty!


Especially not the pastors!

Pope Francis affirms that a pastor cannot be satisfied with just applying the moral laws to those who live in “irregular” situations, as though they were stones to be thrown at people’s lives. Sometimes, sadly, even Church teachings hide closed hearts and petty attitudes. This is why the Holy Father demands a “healthy dose of self-criticism” and pushes us all equally to pursue a via caritatis with sober realism, that incarnates the Gospel of the family step by step. On this path, doctrine becomes light, bit by bit, as we are captured, little by little, by the person of Jesus.


Listening to the synod fathers, the pontiff took to heart that we can no longer talk of abstract categories of people, such as of “divorced remarried” or others, nor enclose the praxis of integration in a general rule.

At the level of principles, the doctrine of marriage and the sacraments is clear. Pope Francis has expressed it anew with great communicative clarity. At the level of discipline, the pontiff keeps in mind the countless variety of concrete situations and affirms that there is no need to wait for a new general norm of a canonical kind that can be applied in all cases. At the level of praxis, faced with difficult situations and fragile families, the Holy Father has written that all that is possible is a new encouragement to a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases that should recognize that, “since ‘the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases,’ the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same” (AL 300). He adds with great clarity and without ambiguity that discernment has to do with “sacramental life, since discernment can recognize that in a particular situation no grave fault exists” (AL, footnote 336). He adds, moreover, that “individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the Church’s praxis,” (AL 303) in particular in dialogue with priests, “in the internal forum” (AL 300).


After this exhortation, then, there is no sense in the question whether, in general, all those who are divorced and remarried can accede to the sacraments …

We have the doctrine of the faith and customs, the discipline based on the sacred doctrine and the ecclesial life, and there are practices that are conditioned personally and by the community. Amoris Laetitia is found at this very concrete level of the life of each person. There is an evolution, clearly expressed by Pope Francis, in the perception by the Church of the elements that condition and attenuate, and that belong to our time. We read: “The Church possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations. Hence it can no longer simply be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace. More is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule. A subject may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding ‘its inherent values,’ or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin. As the synod fathers put it, factors may exist which limit the ability to make a decision” (AL301).


But this orientation was already contained in some way in the famous paragraph n.84 of Familiaris Consortio which Francis repeated several times, writing: “The pastors know that, for love of the truth, they are obliged to discern the situations” …

In fact, St. John Paul II distinguished certain situations. For him, there was a difference between those who strived sincerely to try to save their first marriage but were unjustly abandoned, and those who destroyed a canonically valid marriage with grave fault. Then he spoke of those who contracted a second union in view of educating children, and sometimes they are subjectively certain in conscience that their preceding marriage, irretrievably destroyed, was never valid. Each of these cases, then, constitutes the object of a differentiated moral evaluation. There are many different starting points in an ever-deeper participation in the life of the Church, to which all are called. St. John Paul II presupposed implicitly that you cannot simply say that every situation of someone divorced and remarried is the same as a life of mortal sin, separated from the communion of love between Christ and the Church. He opened, then, the door to a wider understanding by means of discernment of the different situations that are not objectively identical, and thanks to the consideration of the internal forum.


It seems, then, that this stage is an evolution in the understanding of the doctrine …

Today the complexity of family situations, which is far beyond what was customary in our Western societies just some decades ago, requires a more nuanced perspective on the complexity of these situations. The objective situation of a person does not tell us everything about that person’s relationship to God and to the Church. And today it tells us less. This evolution leads us vitally to think again about what we were aiming for when we spoke about objective situations of sin. And this implicitly brings a homogenous evolution in the understanding and expression of doctrine. Francis has taken an important step obliging us to clarify something that was implicit in Familiaris Consortio, of the bond between objectivity of a situation of sin and the life of grace before God and his Church and, as a logical consequence, the actual imputability of sin. Cardinal Ratzinger had explained this in the 1990s: we no longer speak automatically of situations of mortal sin in cases of new unions. I remember in 1994, when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published its document on those who are divorced and remarried, I asked Ratzinger: “Is the old, taken-for-granted praxis that I had known before the Second Vatican Council still valid, that of considering in the internal forum with your confessor the possibility of receiving the sacraments on condition of not creating scandal?” His response was very clear, just like the affirmations of Pope Francis: there is no general norm that can cover all the particular cases. As much as the general norm is clear, it is equally clear that it cannot cover all cases exhaustively.


So, the dynamic of integration now deepened by Francis was already present in Familiaris Consortio…

Francis has continued in this direction taking a step forward with respect to John Paul II. The evolution present in the exhortation is mainly the awareness of an objective evolution, that of the very conditioning of our societies. It gives greater space in discernment to elements that suppress or attenuate imputability and includes a pathway that is objectively meaningful toward the fullness of the Gospel. Even if this is not yet the objective ideal, such non-guiltiness, accompanied by small steps toward what it is we are called to, is not a small thing in the sight of the Good Shepherd. This is the very heart of the Christian life. This dynamic process objectively has a significant value that it is good to take into consideration in a discernment permeated by mercy when asking about the sacramental help of the Church.


The pope affirms that “in some cases” when we are in an objective situation of sin but without being subjectively guilty or without being so entirely, it is possible to live the grace of God, to love and equally be able to grow in the life of grace and charity, receiving for this aim the help of the Church, including that of the sacraments and also of the Eucharist, which “is not a prize destined for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” How do we integrate this affirmation within the classical doctrine of the Church? Is there a break with what had been affirmed in the past?

Keeping in mind the point of view of the document, I think it is fundamental in the development of Amoris Laetitia that – in whatever abstract category we can be classified – we are all called to beg for mercy to desire conversion: “I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof…” If Pope Francis has treated only in a footnote the sacramental help “in some cases” of irregular situations, he does so despite the issue, however important it is, being put badly when it is raised, and despite wanting to treat it in a general discourse and not through the singular discernment of the body of Christ, to which each and every one of us are debtors. With great perspicacity, Pope Francis asks us to meditate on 1 Cor. 11:17-34 (AL185). It is the main passage speaking of Eucharistic communion. A way of moving the problem, putting it there where St Paul puts it, and a subtle way of indicating another hermeneutic to respond to recurrent questions. There is a need to enter into the real dimensions of life to “discern the body,” begging for mercy. It is possible that those who act by the rule are not discerning and eat judgment against themselves. It is possible that, in some cases, those who are in an objective situation of sin can receive the help of the sacraments. We approach the sacraments as beggars, as the publican at the back of the temple who did not dare raise his eyes. The pope invites us to not look only at the external conditions, which have their own importance, but to ask ourselves if we have this thirst for merciful forgiveness, with the aim of responding better to the sanctifying dynamism of grace. The passage between the general rule and “some cases” cannot be done only through considerations of formal situations. So it is possible that, in some cases, those who are in an objective situation of sin can receive the help of the sacraments.


What does “in some cases” mean? Some people ask why there is not an inventory to explain them …

There would be the risk of falling into abstract casuistry and, something worse, we would create – also through the norm of exception – a right to receive the Eucharist in objective situations of sin. Here it seems to me that the pope is putting before us the obligation, for love of the truth, to discern individual cases in the internal forum and in the external forum.


Help me to understand: here Francis speaks of an “objective situation of sin.” So, obviously he is not referring to those who have received a declaration of the nullity of their first marriage and then remarried, nor those who follow the requirement to live as “brother and sister.” As much as there is an irregular situation, they are not living in an objective situation of sin. The pontiff is referring here to those who cannot objectively live out our conception of marriage, to transform their way of living to this requirement. Is that right?

Yes, certainly! In his vast experience of spiritual accompaniment, when the Holy Father speaks of “objective situations of sin,” he is not satisfied with the different types specified in Familiaris Consortio, n.84, but he refers more widely to those in situations which “do not objectively embody our understanding of marriage” and whose “conscience must be better incorporated” beginning with the recognition of the influence of concrete factors (AL303).


Conscience takes on a fundamental role …

Certainly, “conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel.” “It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal” (AL 303).


This is in effect very important. Amoris Laetitia in fact underlines not only the ability to understand the norm, but also the limit in the ability to decide diversely, to take a new decision, without new guilt …

The Holy Father widens his gaze. He does so beginning with a long and authentic tradition of theoretical morals and practice concerning the imputability of the subject. John Paul II did not take this directly into consideration, while neither ignoring it – in fact he spoke of the law of graduality – nor excluding it. Francis makes an appeal to the practice of the great tradition of spiritual directors whose role has always been to discern, keeping in mind at the same time the interior dispositions and the real possibility of transforming these life situations with the help of grace. Between all or nothing is the pathway of grace and growth: “a small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order, but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties” (Evangelii Gaudium 44; AL 305).


How does this insight of Francis integrate with the classical doctrine of the Church?

Perhaps there is an analogy in “the administration of the Eucharist under special circumstances, to individual persons belonging to Churches or Ecclesial Communities not in full communion with the Catholic Church. In this case, in fact, the intention is to meet a grave spiritual need for the eternal salvation of an individual believer, not to bring about an intercommunion which remains impossible until the visible bonds of ecclesial communion are fully re-established” (John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia 45). This is what the Second Vatican Council had indicated concerning the oriental brothers objectively separated from the Catholic communion who asked to receive the Eucharist with the necessary disposition (Orientalium Ecclesiarum 27). There is a tension between the objective separation and the Eucharist as sacrament of ecclesial communion. Yet we have found a way established on non-imputability, shared faith in the sacraments, spiritual need, and our common desire for unity. This is not how the question of communion between Catholics and our separated brethren is resolved, but it recognizes the existence of situations where access to communion is not excluded. It is neither a case of opening a navigable way within the Church’s structure, nor of privatizing the Eucharist, but, as John Paul II said to us, of “meeting a grave spiritual need for the eternal salvation of an individual believer.” Something similar concerning discernment of “some cases” can be seen in note 351: non-imputability, faith in the sacrament of marriage, quest for possible pathways to respond to the project of God in the reality of a process that is objectively meaningful. We are in the presence of a development through the adding of a complementary truth, as the “primacy” formulated in the First Vatican Council was undeniably developed with the adding of “collegiality” in Vatican II. Amoris Laetitia does not develop the objective requirements of the conjugal bond, already clearly formulated in Familaris Consortio, but adds a complementary consideration on the current conditions of the spouses in the exercise of their freedom.


The language of mercy incarnates the truth of life. The concern of the pontiff in this exhortation on family love is to re–contextualize the doctrine at the service of the pastoral mission of the Church. A way could be identified, a sort of relay–race between the pontiffs: John Paul II renewed our entry into hope, a true rock. Magisterially, Benedict XVI showed the organic nature of the faith not only around the abstract doctrinal corpus, but also the person of Jesus. Pope Francis showed us the logic of the Incarnation: God is love now, for each one of us, he seeks us, he attracts us to him thanks to limitless mercy that pushes the Church to open her doors. How do you see this baton being passed on, you who have lived it personally?

I was greatly impressed by the interview the emeritus pope gave to Fr Jacques Servais, published by L’Osservatore Romano just before the publication of Amoris Laetitia. Pope Benedict found there a deep continuity from St. John Paul II to Pope Francis in the reading of this authentic sign of the time, namely, the ever-more central dimension of mercy in the consciences of believers. John Paul II opened wide the doors to Christ. Pope Benedict founded anew the organic nature of faith in the person of Jesus. Pope Francis pushes us to step over the threshold, to go out toward the encounter with him in our poverty. All three of them, each in his own providential way, put into action this process of renewal in the faithfulness that characterizes the Council.


That interview is illuminating concerning the pastoral conversion about doctrine…

Yes, it is a precious illustration of this continual pastoral conversion that must follow the exercise of doctrine, expressing always salvific truth in a changing society, in a world where men and women no longer see themselves as before. This is what Amoris Laetitia does. Benedict XVI tells us, for example, that we can no longer talk of the salvation of non-believers as before: “There is no doubt that on this point we are facing a deep evolution of dogma … the discovery of the new world at the beginning of the modern era changed perspectives radically…” Here, we are touching on some of the deep questions that rotate around the “hermeneutic of reform in continuity.” To transmit doctrine, deepen it and present it in a manner that corresponds to the needs of our time, there is a great effort to contextualize it, distinguishing between the truths contained in the deposit of the faith and the way of enunciating them. This is particularly relevant in the field of anthropology and the relationship of the Church to the world of today, where, at first sight, some discontinuity might appear. Diverse examples can be found, such as loans with interest, religious liberty … where the Church has revisited and sometimes corrected some historical decisions to further understand, through this apparent discontinuity, the truth that is entrusted to her. “It is precisely in this togetherness of continuity and discontinuity at different levels that the nature of true reform is found,” Benedict XVI had said.


Evangelii Gaudium, Amoris Laetitia … it seems Pope Francis wants to insist strongly on the theme of joy. Why? Do we need to talk of joy today? Are we at risk of losing it? Why does mercy disturb us? Why does inclusion cause concern? What fears are raised in some people by the words of the pope? Can you explain this?

The appeal to mercy brings us back to the need to go out of ourselves to do mercy and obtain in exchange the mercy of the Father. This is the Church “going forth” of Evangelii Gaudium. This going out of ourselves is scary. We have to leave our safe places to become reunited to Christ. Pope Francis takes us by the hand to put us in the right direction of witness to the faith: demonstrating a meeting that changes life, a meeting of love that can only take place if we go to the meeting with others. Pastoral conversion continuously seeks this presence of God at work today. This presence provokes joy, the joy of love. Love is demanding, but there is no joy greater than love.


Reproduced with permission from La Civiltà Cattolica and Antonio Spadaro, SJ.


[1].See A. Spadaro, “Matrimonio e conversione pastorale. Intervista al cardinale Christoph Schonborn”, in Civ. Catt. 2015 III 494-510.

[2].I am grateful to Marc Larivé, a friend we share who facilitated this conversation. Larivé is the editor in chief of Parole et Silence which will publish an extended version of this interview.


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