Six scholars gave talks on aspects of Amoris Laetitia and its aftermath

Alberto Melloni, an influential Church historian, has derided the four cardinals who queried Pope Francis about his exhortation Amoris Laetitia (AL), calling them “merely four cherries who think they are half the cherry tree.” But at an international conference on Saturday in Rome, lay scholars deepened the queries. Not just four cherries, but experts from four continents, discussed the document and its aftermath.

At the conference in the Columbus Hotel, only a stone’s throw from the Vatican, six speakers raised concerns about AL, some saying the document has caused damaging confusion within the Church and could eventually split it. The conference was attended by a predominantly lay audience of about 100.

A year ago four cardinals asked for papal answers to five queries, particularly about AL’s Chapter 8 and its footnotes. This chapter has been interpreted in various ways: some have said divorced and remarried Catholics, even if they do not live as brother and sister, can receive the Eucharist in some circumstances. The Pope did not respond to the cardinals; they made the queries public, and were criticised for creating discord. Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, the former archbishop of Bologna and one of the four, replied: “The queries are the result of the discord, not the cause of it”.

Some bishops have welcomed AL as encouraging a process of discernment for “irregular couples”. Some bishops have denied it raises any doctrinal problems. But many Catholics are concerned that it could be interpreted as contradicting Church teaching, including John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio and Veritatis Splendor. They also claim that opening the possibility of Communion for those who have remarried while their original spouse is still alive contradicts its affirmations of the indissolubility of marriage.

Riccardo Cascioli, director of the online Catholic daily La Bussola Nuova (The New Compass), which organised the Conference along with the monthly Il Timone (The Helm), said they did not intend to be hostile to the Pope or issue ultimatums. Douglas Farrow, professor of Christian Thought at McGill University in Canada, said in his address: “How can we fail to show proper love for, and deference to, the successor of Peter, through whom God has moved people on every continent to begin (or begin again) to pay heed to the Gospel of Christ, especially as it concerns the poor?”

But some of the speakers were more trenchant. Anna Silvas from Australia, an expert on the early Church Fathers, argued that Francis wanted “to achieve revolution by stealth”, via “an incremental change of praxis, played to the siren song of plausible persuasions, until the praxis is sufficiently built up over time to a point of no return”. She referred to reports that Archbishop Bruno Forte, who worked with Pope Francis on the family synods, had quoted the Pope as telling him: “If we speak explicitly about communion for the divorced and remarried,You don’t know what a lot of trouble these will create for us. So we won’t speak plainly, do it in a way that the premises are there, then I will draw out the conclusions.” In her conclusion, Silvas adapted a dictum of Thomas Aquinas, saying: “Mercy without truth is the mother of dissolution.”

Claudio Pierantoni, an Italian who teaches medieval philosophy at the University of Chile, said AL could “undermine the very notion of divine law”, by emphasizing subjectivity to an excessive degree. Pierantoni also inspired applause from the audience when he ridiculed an American Jesuit, Fr Thomas Reese, who has recently argued for a new interpretation of Jesus’ words about divorce: “Does he think the Incarnate Word has not been able to communicate to the Church before?”

Other speakers took a different tack: Jürgen Liminski, who heads a demographic think tank in Germany, asserted that marital indissolubility is good for society as a whole. John-Paul Messina, a historian of the Church from Cameroon, placed Amoris Laetitia in the context of the African churches, and said there was a danger of different national Churches taking different approaches to polygamy – which he described as an “intrinsically evil” practice which degrades woman. Thibaud Collin,a French philosopher, claimed that making indissolubility simply an “ideal”, as AL seems to do, renders it optional. He noted Jesus’ teaching that “with God, all things are possible”.

There was no speaker to put the case that AL is in continuity with previous doctrine and only designed to help the increasing proportion whose first marriage has broken down.

There were many references to similar situations in the past: from two early popes, Honorius I and Liberius, who endorsed doctrinal errors but were corrected, to the Protestant Reformation and Modernist crisis. But the most frequent reference was to John Paul II’s encyclicals, which defend objective truth against situation ethics.

Claudio Pierantoni looked back at history and forward to action. He said there was presently a movement “not only against particular dogmas like the indissolubility of marriage and the objectivity of the moral law, but even against the very concept of right doctrine.” According to Pierantoni, “In such a serious situation of danger for the faith and of generalised scandal, it is not only licit but even obligatory to frankly address a fraternal correction to Peter, for his good and that of the whole Church.” This would not be disobedience or disrespect, he said, but simply a declaration of the truth in love.

He added that those bishops who keep to traditional doctrine in their dioceses should follow the example of St Athanasius, who, during the Arian crisis, did not simply preserve orthodox doctrine in his diocese of Alexandria, but courageously denounced the heresy – for which he was exiled five times.

For Pierantoni, bishops, priest, religious and laity have a duty to speak out against the current doctrinal deviation, which weakens the fundamental sacramental basis of the Church. He was one of the 45 theologians who wrote to the College of Cardinals last summer, requesting that the cardinals ask for a clarification of AL.

Riccardo Cascioli, organiser of the conference, said other events would be organised.

Should all this bring a response from Francis? Even this has divided Catholics: Fr Timothy Radcliffe, former head of the Dominicans, and Fr Gerald O’Collins, an Australian Jesuit theologian, who are generally supportive of Francis, give different answers: O’Collins says No, Radcliffe Yes.

It seems Francis is responding indirectly by endorsing the bishops’ conferences, such as Malta, which have approved of Communion for the remarried. Moreover some close to him have supported it: in a booklet published in February, Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio said it meant that the Church, motivated by mercy, could provide the Eucharist to divorced and remarried Catholics even if they were not living as brother and sister. He is president of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts.

Will continued silence from Francis make the pleas for a response ineffectual? “If the pleas remain unanswered but do not peter out,” said a Roman curialist who asked not to be named, “they could dog Francis for the rest of his pontificate. And they could also influence the next papal election.”

Desmond O’Grady is a Rome-based journalist and author. His latest book is Tuscan Places