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As The Bard Might Say

FOUR CENTURIES AFTER his death, Shakespeare remains a peerless playwright because of his remarkable insight into the human condition. Love, ambition, fear, guilt, nobility, pomposity, patriotism, absurdity, sheer wickedness – you name it, Will grasped something of its essence. His work continues to help us understand ourselves better because whatever the changing of times and seasons, human nature changes very little.

Take, for example, the human propensity to dodge disagreeable arguments by way of evasion. In “As You Like It,” the Bard neatly dissected the anatomy of evasion through the words of a clown, Touchstone, who outlines “the degrees of the lie:”

“The first, the Retort Courteous; the second, the Quip Modest; the third, the Reply Churlish; the fourth, the Reproof Valiant; the fifth, the Countercheck Quarrelsome; the sixth, the Lie with Circumstance; the seventh, the Lie Direct.”

Some 20 years ago, Father David Beauregard, a literarily inclined Oblate of the Virgin Mary, used Touchstone’s taxonomy to challenge critics of John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical on the reform of Catholic moral theology, “Veritatis Splendor.”

Reading the priest’s Shakespearean take on theological controversy recently, I was struck by how closely Touchstone’s catalogue of evasion tracks the dodgeball played by those who criticize the critics of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on marriage, “Amoris Laetitia,” but who never engage the substance of the critics’ criticisms.

The Retort Courteous has come a little late to the game, but we now hear it from some shrewder and less edgy protagonists of “Amoris Laetitia”: Critics of the exhortation are well-meaning people, but a tad behind the curve theologically and pastorally.

As for the Quip Modest, well, that’s been in play for months: The critics, or so the line goes, misrepresent what the Holy Father was actually saying and what we, his defenders, were saying the Holy Father’s been saying; there’s nobody here but us doctrinally solid, pastorally sensitive folk.

The Reply Churlish has not been lacking, as evidenced by recent academic seminars: Why should we proponents of “Amoris Laetitia engage” its critics? We’re the future; the wind is in our sails; get used to it.

As for the Reproof Valiant, it comes in the familiar form of academic snark: “Amoris Laetitia,” its protagonists insist, is the Catholic tradition, and anyone who even suggests that elements of the exhortation may be in conflict with seemingly settled matters of tradition, or in conflict with revelation itself, is a dolt who doesn’t understand how to interpret Scripture or tradition.

The Countercheck Quarrelsome is rare in Rome, where bella figura remains prized. But one senior Vatican official, in an unguarded moment, let it be known that there are those who agree with and understand Pope Francis, and there are those who are stupid. Quarrelsome, indeed.

Then there are protagonists of the exhortation, including bishops, who claim that it leads the Catholic Church into a bright future because it jettisons the notion of intrinsically evil acts: actions that are always wrong, irrespective of circumstances. How would Touchstone categorize them? Here we are through the looking glass, for the claim itself might seem a defense, however porous, against the suggestion of an indulgence here in the Lie Circumstantial or the Lie Direct. Perhaps Shakespeare fails us at this point. I certainly hope so.

No doubt some criticisms of “Amoris Laetitia” have been crude and ill-tempered, assuming a malign intention on the pope’s part that no serious Catholic should assume. But to hint, suggest or assert that virtually all criticisms of the exhortation are stupid, malicious, or pastorally insensitive is a very strange position for the Party of Dialogue in the Church to take. In the debate over “Amoris Laetitia,” we are dealing with matters of considerable doctrinal and pastoral importance. What is at stake are not just arguments and academic egos but the happiness and beatitude that are the goal of the moral life. Surely sorting that out requires a spirit of tolerance.

Tolerance comes from the Latin verb tolerare, which means “to bear with.” So genuine tolerance does not avoid, evade or dismiss differences; it engages differences with charity and civility. Perhaps revisiting “As You Like It” will encourage protagonists of “Amoris Laetitia” who have been avoiding a real debate to reconsider.


Weigel is a distinguished senior fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

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2 thoughts on “As The Bard Might Say

  1. Criticism of a papal document is in and of itself a violation of the Code of Canon Law Section 752: “Although not an assent of faith, a religious submission of the intellect and will must be given to a doctrine which the Supreme Pontiff or the college of bishops declares concerning faith or morals when they exercise the authentic magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim it by definitive act; therefore, the Christian faithful are to take care to avoid those things which do not agree with it.”

    Therefore, it is appropriate to criticize critics of Amoris Laetitia for the very act of criticizing the document – that act is in and of itself inherently wrong. Maybe that comes as a surprise to Americans who feel entitled to criticize authority figures, but in the Catholic Church we respect the authority of our leaders because they speak in the name of Jesus Christ, who said of the Pope and bishops: “He who hears you, hears me.” Luke 10:16.

    Finally, many of the critics of Amoris Laetitia have been extremely disrespectful of the Vicar of Jesus Christ, going so far to accuse him of heresy. That is yet another violation of the Code of Canon Law Section 1373: “A person who publicly incites among subjects animosities or hatred against the Apostolic See or an ordinary because of some act of power or ecclesiastical ministry or provokes subjects to disobey them is to be punished by an interdict or other just penalties.”

    So yes, defending the Pope and his teachings, and rebuking his critics, is the good Catholic thing to do.

  2. Love, Conscience, Relationship to the Lord
    We only have one Judge & thank God
    The Father sent His Son Jesus to save us
    (From ourselves) Amen PTL