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The other day I came across an article entitled: “Ethicist says ghostwriter’s role in ‘Amoris’ is troubling”, in which an ethicist is troubled by Pope Francis having had the help of others when drafting his encyclicals and where one of these others, Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández, has used passages from his previous writings. Not only is this “material plagiarism” but it also undermines whether the encyclical is “magisterial” in the opinion of the aforementioned ethicist. While this line of inquiry does not hold much appeal (or water, in my opinion), it has lead to a response by Archbishop Fernández, who takes issue with how his views are presented in the article and who points to one of his papers for clarification.
Having read - and enjoyed - that paper, entitled “Trinitarian life, ethical norms and human fragility,” I would like to offer a partial translation and summary of its content next.
The paper starts with an enumeration of various flavors of relativism, from the theological, via the humanist, the mystical, the cultural, to the fragmentary, all of which are dismissed with reference to St. John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor, which defends objectivity and which affirms the existence of “intrinsically evil” acts.
Fernández then goes on to recognizing that even these erroneous approaches to morality may contain “fragments of truth” and “legitimate aspirations”, but he points to a need for persisting with an integral Gospel world-view where, as the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church affirms that ethical questions: “must be considered as a whole, since they are characterized by an ever greater interconnectedness, influencing one another mutually” (CSDC, 9).
At the same time, the Church has, for some time now, recognized that there exist circumstances that may reduce, “or under exceptional circumstances even annul” the moral responsibility of subjects and Fernández quotes from St. John Paul II’s 1995 Evangelium Vitae to back up his claim:
“Decisions that go against life sometimes arise from difficult or even tragic situations of profound suffering, loneliness, a total lack of economic prospects, depression and anxiety about the future. Such circumstances can mitigate even to a notable degree subjective responsibility and the consequent culpability of those who make these choices which in themselves are evil.” (§18b)Fernández then points to three examples of the Church’s response to moral questions, where responsibility and culpability have recently been addressed: euthanasia, divorce and remarriage and same-sex sexual relations.
First, the 1980 declaration on euthanasia by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, entitled Iura et Bona, recognizes that under some circumstances people may no longer be truly responsible for what they do:
“by reason of prolonged and barely tolerable pain, for deeply personal or other reasons, people may be led to believe that they can legitimately ask for death or obtain it for others. Although in these cases the guilt of the individual may be reduced or completely absent, nevertheless the error of judgment into which the conscience falls, perhaps in good faith, does not change the nature of this act of killing, which will always be in itself something to be rejected.” (Part II.)Second, a declaration by the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts from 24th June 2000 stated that, even though the situation of the divorced and remarried is a matter of “grave sin, understood objectively, [a] minister of Communion would not be able to judge [its] subjective imputability” (2a.).
Third, as regards same-sex sexual relations, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith stated in 2001 that “there is a precise and well-founded evaluation of the objective morality of sexual relations between persons of the same sex. The degree of subjective moral culpability in individual cases is not the issue here.” (§2b) Again, drawing a clear distinction between the objectivity of an act’s moral goodness and the responsibility that a person bears for it.
Against this background, Fernández then proceeds to introduce grace into the picture, by arguing that:
“If an action of a subject who is strongly conditioned can be objectively evil but not imputable - and therefore not culpable - then, consequently, it does not deprive this person of the life of sanctifying grace. When this action does not stem from responsible freedom, but is enormously conditioned instead, it cannot be imputed to the subject as a sin that deprives them of supernatural life with its trinitarian dynamics.”Next, Fernández is careful to point out that the result here is not a change to the objective evil of such actions - they do not become virtuous or of merit to the subjects who perform them. Instead, it is in the good intentions of the subject in which “the love of God and trinitarian life can shine forth” and not in what remain objectively evil actions. “No matter how much a person acts in good faith, and no matter how good their intentions may be, this does not alter the moral qualification of an objectively evil act and neither does it convert it into an expression of love.” What Fernández therefore means by “in” when he says that “trinitarian dynamics can also come about in an objective situation of sin” is an “in the context of” or an “in the midst of” and not a “through.”
In fact, Fernández later proceeds to underlining the effects of the presence of grace in good intentions that may lead to objectively evil actions, which is that:
“Grace itself provokes an interior desire to please God more with one’s own life or to follow more perfectly one’s own internal impulses. In grace itself - even when its dynamics may be conditioned by inculpable deficiencies - there is a tendency to wake up the desire for overcoming such conditioning. Because of this, the person who has been conditioned continues to experience a certain “this cannot be” in their own way of living.”Following a reflection on St. Thomas Aquinas’ distinguishing between external and internal acts when it comes to morality, Fernández argues that while love cannot coexist with mortal sin, it can “coexist with inculpable evil acts, where some of the conditions required for grave sin are not met.” Turning to the Gospel, Fernández then points to its call to the correction of persons based on the evil of their actions (cf. Matthew 18:15) but without judging their responsibility and culpability (cf. Matthew 7:1; Luke 6:37). In summary, Fernández underlines that fraternal correction, including sanctions that the Church may legitimately impose, do not imply the emission of judgment about the interior situation and the life of grace of the corrected brother: “de internis non iudicat pretor,” as the Roman juridical maxim goes (“the judge does not judge what is on the inside”).
The above context leads Fernández to spelling out his understanding of the key to Gospel morality:
“At the same time as focusing on a subject’s full compliance with moral laws, they always have to be encouraged also to grow in love with their own acts, which will never stop being the most important of the virtues and “the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:10). Without it there is no merit whatsoever and neither is there any authentically evangelical growth.”Fernández concludes the article with putting his cards on the table and spelling out the motivation for his enquiry into the workings of grace. After rejecting the suggestion that it is a result of responding to secular prejudices or to theological progress, Fernández traces his thought to his time as a parish priest in a poor neighborhood in Argentina, because of which he desires to show two things at the same time:
“the immense mercy of God in the face of the limited and conditioned response of human beings, and the inescapable call to a generous surrender that may ever more perfectly respond to the objective proposal of the Gospel that the Church offers to the world.”