Amoris Laetitia

Amoris Laetitia Deceptive use of Aquinas to support Situation Ethics

Since several articles have referenced Richard A. Spinello analysis of how Amoris Laetitia tries to use St. Thomas Aquinas to justify situation ethics of circumventing absolute moral commandments, so here is that article for reference. This is one of those footnotes where you have to consider the source (Francis and the ‘Art of Kissing’ Fernandez), that is you cannot trust that the reference actually supports the corresponding text in Amoris Laetitia.

Concerning the citation of Saint Thomas Aquinas in “Amoris Laetitia” no. 304

by Richard A. Spinello

In “Amoris Laetitia” n. 304, In order to fortify his overall argument, Pope Francis cites Question 94 (Part I-II) of St. Thomas Aquinas’s “Summa Theologiae”.

Aquinas would appear to concur with Pope Francis, since he asserts in the fourth article of this Question that general moral principles are subject to certain exceptions. Accordingly, the Pope invites readers to incorporate this Thomistic principle into their “pastoral discernment.”

Question 94 was also frequently cited by the revisionists to support their position that acts like adultery are not intrinsically evil. Aquinas declares here that since moral norms involve particular situations, they apply not universally but only generally, and so are subject to certain exceptions. Hence we can appreciate the appeal of this text for the contentions of “Amoris Laetitia”.

However, Aquinas’s argument is far more nuanced, and “Amoris Laetitia” fails to point out the critical distinction between different types of moral norms.

For Aquinas, norms fall into two broad classifications. There are negative moral norms that hold “semper et ad semper,” always and everywhere without exceptions, because they exclude acts that are “evil in themselves and cannot become good” (Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 33, a. 2).

But there are also affirmative moral precepts (such as honor your parents) that hold “semper sed non ad semper,” that is, they oblige always but not for every occasion.

The norms discussed in Question 94 (a. 4) unquestionably fall in the latter category. Aquinas’s example makes this quite clear. The affirmative norm that you should return what you have borrowed is subject to certain exceptions depending on the circumstances. Thus, arms entrusted to another should not be returned to their owner if he plans to use those arms to fight against his country.

Aquinas often affirms the existence of specific moral absolutes, these negative exceptionless norms that always forbid killing of the innocent, theft, lying, adultery, and fornication. In several texts he refers to the intrinsic evil of some acts as specified by their moral object. When Aquinas confronts an Aristotelian commentator who says that adultery is not intrinsically wrong, he replies: “We should not agree with the Commentator on this point, for one may not commit adultery for any good” (De Malo, q. 15, a.1, ad.5). In another treatise he describes some human acts that “have deformity inseparably attached to them, such as fornication, adultery, and others of this sort, which can in no way be done morally” (Quaestiones Quodlibetales, 9, q. 7, a. 2).

Thus, Pope Francis’s appeal to Aquinas in this exhortation doesn’t hold up because in Question 94 of the Summa Aquinas is referring only to affirmative norms, and not the universally binding negative norm that forbids adultery.

If Pope Francis wants to assert that the norms prohibiting the taking of innocent life, lying, adultery, and fornication, have exceptions when applied amidst the concrete complexities of life he cannot recruit St. Thomas Aquinas as an ally.

Also, such a position goes counter to a long Catholic tradition that includes the Church’s greatest theologians like Augustine and Aquinas, and extends from Trent to Vatican II.


Richard A. Spinello is a professor at Boston College and at the theological faculty of St. John’s Seminary in Boston. The complete text of his commentary appeared in Il “Crisis Magazine” on May 10 2016:

> Does “Amoris Laetitia” Retreat from Absolute Moral Norms?

And here is the paragraph from “Amoris Laetitia” with the improper citation of Saint Thomas:

304. It is reductive 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. I earnestly ask that we always recall a teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas and learn to incorporate it in our pastoral discernment: “Although there is necessity in the general principles, the more we descend to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter defects… 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; and where there is the same rectitude in matters of detail, it is not equally known to all… The principle will be found to fail, according as we descend further into detail” (Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 94, art. 4). It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations. At the same time, it must be said that, precisely for that reason, what is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances cannot be elevated to the level of a rule. That would not only lead to an intolerable casuistry, but would endanger the very values which must be preserved with special care.

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