Is Pope Francis a heretic, as some conservatives in the Church claim? To settle that question, or any other question, a reasonable approach for a layperson is to look for the most competent expert in the type of question. An expert has a comprehensive grasp of all issues, and can easily spot mistakes.
Since this is a theological question, who is the most intelligent, most competent theologian, with the grace of state of sacred episcopal powers? This person is, in my opinion, Benedict XVI.
When Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope and took the name Benedict, a cardinal quipped: He has the intellect of 20 German theologians and the simplicity of a child receiving first communion. Before he was elected, he was acknowledged as a towering expert in the history of theology.
And he is not just any bishop, with sacred powers to teach; he is pope emeritus.
Two months after the release of the bone of contention, “Amoris Laetitia,” Benedict told Francis: My true home is your goodness. There I feel safe. Thank you for everything. We hope that you will continue to go forward with all of us on this road of Divine Mercy, showing us the way of Jesus, toward Jesus, toward God.
By referring to Divine Mercy, Benedict was referring to the theological principle behind the new pastoral directions of “Amoris Laetitia.” (Just to be clear, when there was a misunderstanding of Benedict’s attitude, his closest aide, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, used very harsh words, “stupid people,” to correct those who “try to use the pope emeritus in an anti-Francis tone.”)
Undoubtedly, in declaring that he feels safe and thankful for everything Francis has done, and in encouraging Francis to go forward “with all of us” on his road of mercy after two months of reflecting on “Amoris,” Benedict is also telling the Church that we are safe in the boat captained by the Pope.
A widespread but false reading of “Amoris” says that even unrepentant divorcees and remarried people can take Communion. In “What if we’re wrong about ‘Amoris’ all along?” Fr. Matthew Schneider recalls the intent of the document of not creating new rules, which means it is in unity with tradition. It quotes texts, such as “discernment can never prescind from the Gospel demands as proposed by the Church” and “flaunting an objective sin ... separates from the community.” It concludes that “[c]ontrary to popular opinion, the text of ‘Amoris Laetitia’ does not allow those flagrantly or intentionally having marital-like relations in a ‘second marriage’ to receive absolution or Communion. However, Francis emphasizes mercy for those who are either ignorant, or who intend to abstain from sexual relations but occasionally fail.”
To further give light, we can also look for the greatest theologian of all time. Surely, St. Thomas is a key choice for this title.
One quote from St. Thomas, that Pope Francis “earnestly” pleaded to be included in all pastoral discernment, says: “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… The principle will be found to fail, according as we descend further into detail.”
Also, St. Thomas teaches: “What is most perfect in all nature—or in all reality—is the person.” Thus, the good of any person is worth dying for, and there are, as Benedict XVI quipped, as many ways to heaven as there are persons! As the first teacher, Jesus Christ, said: The Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath.
Clearly, a person has to be in the state of grace to be able to receive Communion, but to be in mortal sin requires that the act is on a grave matter, with full knowledge and full consent. And there are endless combinations of partial consent and partial knowledge based on the circumstances of each person.
Thus, when applying the truth of moral laws to the details of other persons, we have to be extremely understanding, to put ourselves in their shoes, as Pope Francis is helping us to do in “Amoris Laetitia.”
———— Raul Nidoy has a doctorate in theology from the University of Navarre. Heworks for Parents for Education Foundation and the University of Asia and the Pacific, and chairs Pro-Life Philippines.