Although most Catholic bishops, pastors, and teachers commenting publicly on Pope Francis’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia have welcomed it, a small but persistent chorus of critics accuse the Holy Father of obscuring and even undermining the foundations of Catholic moral doctrine. In this article, we show that one contested passage in the document, when read in its original Latin, has a significantly different meaning than it does in the official English translation. We argue further that many of the critics of Amoris laetitia are basing their criticism of Amoris laetitia precisely upon what the Latin text does not say.
Among the most prominent critics of Amoris laetitia is the Catholic philosopher Dr. Josef Seifert, who on August 31 was compelled by the Archbishop of Granada, Most Rev. Javier Martínez Fernández, to retire from his chair at the University of Granada, Spain, because of an article he wrote against the apostolic exhortation.
Seifert’s article, “Does Pure Logic Threaten to Destroy the Entire Moral Doctrine of the Catholic Church?,” focuses on section 303 of the papal document. He claims this passage suggests that “we can know with a ‘certain moral security’ that God himself asks us to continue to commit intrinsically wrong acts such as adultery or active homosexuality.” On this interpretation, he takes the Pope to imply that actions such as “euthanasia, … lies, thefts, perjuries, … or murder” can be “good and praiseworthy” in “some circumstances and after proper ‘discernment’ because of the complexity of the concrete situation.” Seifert concludes that Amoris laetitia threatens to undermine the foundations of all Catholic moral teaching.
More recently, on September 23, a group of 62 Catholic scholars— including members of the clergy and SSPX Bishop Bernard Fellay—made public a letter of so-called “filial correction” accusing Pope Francis of directly or indirectly propagating seven false and heretical propositions “by words, deeds, and omissions.” As with Seifert, the letter’s signatories reserve special criticism for Amoris laetitia 303.
In fact, criticisms of Amoris Laetitia, 303 have been prominent ever since the exhortation appeared in April 2016. E. Christian Brugger, for example, maintains that Amoris laetitia 303 implies that God is “asking” some people “to live in a life-state in which they are objectively violating grave matter.” He also believes the reference to “the objective ideal” might undercut any motivation for people to change their objectively sinful behavior. This is “because an ideal is only an ideal” and “what is objectively applicable may not be subjectively applicable, i.e. applicable to me in my circumstances and state of will.” Eduardo Echeverria makes a similar argument.
We believe that all these critics misread and distort what Pope Francis actually says in Amoris laetitia 303. This becomes especially clear when reading the Latin text of the passage as published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis.
In Amoris laetitia 303, the Holy Father is speaking in a general way about the dynamics of conscience, and he clearly states that “every effort should be made to encourage the development of an enlightened conscience, formed and guided by the responsible and serious discernment of one’s pastor, and to encourage an ever greater trust in God’s grace.” He then makes another general statement, which the official English translation, available on the Vatican website, presents as follows:
Yet 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.
Here is the Latin of this passage as found in the Acta:
Haec autem conscientia agnoscere potest non modo statum quendam ab universali Evangelii mandato obiective dissidere; etiam sincere honesteque agnoscere poteste quod sit liberale responsum in praesenti Deo reddendum atque eadem conscientia firma quadam morali certitudine intellegere illam esse oblationem quam ipse Deus requirit inter rerum impedientium congeriem, quamvis perfectum nondum sit obiectivum exemplar.
We propose an alternative translation, based on the Latin, as follows:
This conscience, however, can not only recognize a given situation to be objectively at variance with the general mandate of the Gospel; it can also recognize sincerely and honestly what may be the generous response owed to God in the present circumstances; and this same firm conscience can come to understand with a certain moral certitude that this is the offering that God himself is asking amid the mass of impediments, although it may not yet be the perfect objective model.
The first thing to be noted is that the objection of Brugger and Echeverria to the language of “the objective ideal” fades when we read in the Latin that Pope Francis is speaking of “the objective exemplar” (obiectivum exemplar). The Latin term exemplar does not mean an unattainable ideal; it specifically means a pattern or model to follow.
More seriously, the critics are wrong when they argue Pope Francis is suggesting that intrinsically immoral actions can correspond to the will of God in certain circumstances. This is a complete misreading.
Our translation from the Latin shows that Pope Francis is clearly not saying that conscience may rightly discern that an objectively immoral act is not immoral. Instead, he is noting that in some complex and irregular situations a person’s conscience will recognize that God is asking for a generous response, indeed an oblationem, or offering, that moves in the right direction even though it does not completely rectify the objective irregularity of the situation.
The official English text of Amoris laetitia 303 fails to translate the important word oblationem. Other vernacular translations, however, do translate this word. The Italian renders oblationem as donazione (donation). The Spanish has entrega(an offering or handing over), the French has le don de soi (the gift of self), and the German has Hingabe, which in a liturgical context means something offered or surrendered. These translations show that Pope Francis is not talking about an offering of an objectively sinful action but a gift of self that moves toward God and the objective moral norm.
We believe the key to understanding what Pope Francis is saying in Amoris laetitia 303 is found in Amoris laetitia 305, where he quotes section 44 of his 2013 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii gaudium: “Let us remember that ‘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.’”
It is very clear from the Latin text of Amoris laetitia 303 that Pope Francis is describing how conscience can discern that God himself is asking for a small step in the right direction in the midst of a mass of impediments and limitations. The Holy Father is not saying that God himself is asking certain people “to continue to commit intrinsically wrong acts such as adultery or active homosexuality.” This is a most unfortunate reading of the text by Seifert. Instead Pope Francis is saying that in certain difficult situations God is asking for a “generous response” (liberale responsum), an offering (oblationem)—that is, a step in the right direction.
What might be an example that fits in with what Pope Francis says in Amoris laetitia 303? Here is one possibility:
Suppose there is a Catholic man who is civilly divorced from his wife in a marriage that produced no children. This man befriends an unmarried woman and sins sexually with her. He repents of his sin and does penance, but then learns that this unmarried woman is pregnant with his child. Realizing that he loves this woman, he offers to marry her to help care for the child. The woman also loves him, and she agrees to marry him. Being a Catholic, however, she realizes that she is not free to marry the man unless he receives a declaration of nullity (“an annulment”) from his prior putative marriage.
The man agrees to apply for “the annulment,” but believes it would be best to marry the woman civilly so they can share the same household and care for the child while waiting for a declaration of nullity from the prior bond. The woman agrees to marry him in a civil ceremony even though she knows this does not correspond to the objective model of the Gospel and the Church.
They therefore enter into a civil marriage, and they have sexual relations. Over time, they come to realize this is not correct, and their conscience tells them that they must live in continence until they may—after the hoped for declaration of nullity—enter into a true marriage. Living in continence is difficult, but they come to understand that this is the “generous response” and the offering (oblationem) God is asking of them in the midst of the concrete limitations of their present situation—even though their civil “marriage” does not correspond to the objective model of Christian marriage.
We believe that this example fits in perfectly with the actual words of Pope Francis in Amoris laetitia 303. Many other examples could surely be given; on this, we have the assurance of parish priests we have consulted, who can cite numerous examples from their pastoral experience. In Amoris laetitia 303, Pope Francis offers reflections that are compassionate, realistic, and absolutely faithful to the moral doctrine of the Church. We believe he wishes pastors to help people form their consciences correctly and rely on the grace of God to help them discern what is the offering God is asking of them—even in the midst of the impediments and limitations of their present situation.
Robert L. Fastiggi PhD is Professor of Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. Dawn Eden Goldstein STD is Assistant Professor of Dogmatic Theology at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut. This article has been republished from the Vatican Insider blog at La Stampa under a Creative Commons licence.
See “Nota del Arzobispado de Granada,”
https://www.archidiocesisgranada.es/index.php/noticias/nota-del-arzobispado-de-granada-2. In this statement, Archbishop Martínez mentions a German article published by Seifert in 2016 that was also very critical of Amoris laetitia. After that article, Seifert stopped teaching but retained his position until the second article was published.
 Josef Seifert, “Does Pure Logic Threaten to Destroy the Entire Moral Doctrine of the Catholic Church?,” Aemaet,
 The 25 page document entitled correctio filialis can be found at: http://www.correctiofilialis.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Correctio-filialis_English.pdf
 E. Christian Brugger, “Five Serious Problems with Chapter Eight of Amoris Laetitia” Catholic World Report (April 16, 2016):
 Eduardo Echeverria, “Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia and St. John Paul II” Catholic World Report (April 9, 2016):
 See Acta Apostolicae Sedis 108 (2016), 435.
 Even the term “ideal” in English can mean a standard of excellence or model to follow. Brugger and Echeverria, however, seem to limit “ideal” to only one meaning.