In yesterday’s piece, I explored why most of those who reject Pope Francis’s teaching about sacraments for divorced and remarried Catholics in Amoris Laetitia are resistant to the idea that they are dissenting from Magisterial teaching, and why it’s vital for them to see themselves as orthodox.
Most of their argumentation centers on the content of the teaching, its possible interpretations, and comparisons of Amoris Laetitia with prior teaching and discipline of the Church. I do not doubt that much of this is done sincerely, with the best intentions, and in good faith. While I disagree with them — I believe Amoris Laetitia can be justified on its own terms and reconciled as a legitimate development in continuity — I do not doubt that other Catholics have great difficulty accepting it. I do not question that many of them are convicted that it is absolutely impossible.
This piece, like yesterday’s, does not attempt to present a challenge their arguments against the content of Amoris Laetitia. That’s the subject of another discussion. The purpose of this piece is to address the implications of their position in light of what Amoris Laetitia actually says, its magisterial status, and what our response should be, according to Church teaching.
Put simply, this is what I am asserting:
- Pope Francis, through Amoris Laetitia, has clearly taught that in certain cases, in the context of pastoral accompaniment, those who are divorced and civilly remarried (and have not made a commitment to live as brother and sister) may receive the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist.
- Amoris Laetitia is a magisterial document, as are the guidelines of the bishops of Buenos Aires and the response letter from Pope Francis (text of the guidelines and letter here).
- As official acts of the Authentic Magisterium, even though they are not infallible or ex cathedra teachings, these teachings of the pope require the religious submission of the intellect and will, “in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will.” (Lumen Gentium 25)
- Many Catholics, in an attempt to avoid their obligation as stated in #3 above, have tried to undermine and twist facts #1 and #2. The Catholic Church has set out clear guidelines for the faithful with regard to the reception of the teachings of the pope, so some Catholics have presented arguments that the pope has not taught what he’s clearly taught, or that his magisterial teaching is not magisterial.
Regarding my first assertion, the typical argument is that the actual meaning of Amoris Laetitia is unclear. Some claim that Amoris Laetitia can be read in a way that allows no change at all. This reading, they say, corresponds completely with the earlier teaching. Since the document can be read either way, they say, it is essential that it’s read in continuity with the prior teaching. The document is ambiguous, and it’s impossible to understand it’s real meaning. They often bring up that the confusion could be settled if Francis would only respond to the dubia, or clarify what he meant.
This argument might be persuasive if Francis had simply released Amoris Laetitia and made no further comment. It might hold water if the gestures and words of Francis and those close to him gave us no clue about his intent, or supported the more traditional reading.
Unfortunately for them, claiming that it’s ambiguous is wishful thinking. The plain reading of the chapter in question — especially when read in correlation with the guidelines of the Buenos Aires bishops and Francis’s letter in response to them — is not unclear.
Those close to Francis, including Cardinals Schoenborn and Ouellet, Archbishops Fernandez and Scicluna (the former widely believe to be the principle ghostwriter of the exhortation), Cardinal Coccopalmerio (who wrote a book on the subject, originally published by the Vatican Press), and numerous others have interpreted it with the understanding that the sacraments can be given in certain cases. And of course, we can’t forget the preface by Francis himself to Stephen Walford’s book (the book also has an imprimatur by Cardinal Tobin and the endorsements of three other Cardinals, in which each attests to the magisterial fidelity of the book).
Lumen Gentium teaches that the pope’s “mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.”
If you need more evidence, Pedro Gabriel presented a convincing case in a piece a few months ago that it’s impossible to read Amoris Laetitia in a way that does not allow for the change in discipline towards some who are divorced and remarried.
Does an honest reading really suggest that Pope Francis’s mind and will in the matter is unknown or unknowable? How many more times will Francis have to demote Cardinal Burke before it becomes unclear that his reading does not align with the will of Pope Francis?
My second and third assertions, that Amoris Laetitia is magisterial and therefore demands the religious submission of the mind and will by the faithful, should be self-evident. It is an official teaching document, promulgated by the pontiff, in an exercise of his role as Vicar of Christ, to the Universal Church, on matters of faith and morals. To make matters even more clear, the directives of the Buenos Aires bishops were explicitly designated as “Authentic Magisterium” by Pope Francis. The letter to the Buenos Aires bishops was raised to the magisterial status of an “apostolic letter.”
As we’re taught by Lumen Gentium, the magisterial weight of a teaching corresponds to the “manifest mind and will” of the pope. Disagreeing with an act of the magisterium, even when you believe you have an airtight case against the teaching, does not make it unmagisterial. Yet, incomprehensibly, many have attempted to argue against its status just the same.
The Catechism makes very clear the authority of the pope on these matters:
100 The task of interpreting the Word of God authentically has been entrusted solely to the Magisterium of the Church, that is, to the Pope and to the bishops in communion with him.
There are no asterisks or escape clauses here. No one, not even a cardinal, has any authority to challenge what the pope teaches is an authentic interpretation of God’s Word. If a bishop is not teaching in communion with the pope, then his teaching is not authentic.
There is no Church teaching that allows for non-popes to override or render null the doctrinal and disciplinary authority of the pope.
Of course, this follows logically from what the Catechism teaches about papal primacy:
882 The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor, “is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful.” “For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.”
“Full, supreme, and universal power … unhindered.” Not ambiguous. No escape clauses. This of course is built on the biblical principle laid out in the sixteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. Peter is the Rock upon which Christ built his Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.
The CDF taught in 1998 that the pope is the guarantor of “a rigorous fidelity to the Word of God against arbitrariness and conformism.” There’s no “unless” or “until” behind this principle. The Church teaches that we are to look to the pope for assurance of doctrinal orthodoxy.
Pope Leo XIII expresses this teaching clearly in an 1890 encyclical:
“What we are bound to believe and what we are obliged to do, are laid down, as we have stated, by the Church using her divine right, and in the Church by the supreme Pontiff. Wherefore it belongs to the Pope to judge authoritatively what things the sacred oracles contain, as well as what doctrines are in harmony, and what in disagreement, with them; and also, for the same reason, to show forth what things are to be accepted as right, and what to be rejected as worthless; what it is necessary to do and what to avoid doing, in order to attain eternal salvation. For, otherwise, there would be no sure interpreter of the commands of God, nor would there be any safe guide showing man the way he should live.”
What those who reject Francis’s teaching are essentially saying is, “Don’t trust what the Church says about the pope’s authority to teach on these matters, trust me instead.” They’re undermining the ecclesial unity of the Church even before they’ve begun to undermine a single teaching.
Which brings us to the fourth assertion.
As I said before, I am not challenging the reasons that a Catholic might have to reject a teaching. Consciences are to be respected. Rather, the purpose of this piece is to clarify what such a response means with respect to Church teachings about the magisterium. It is clear what Amoris Laetitia teaches, the status it has as a magisterial document, and the obligations of the faithful in response to it.
In summary, what the Church teaches and its authoritative weight is beyond our control. Amoris Laetitia says what it says and it is what it is. What we can control is how we respond to the teaching. This leaves Catholics with two options with regard to Amoris Laetitia:
1) Accept that the Church has spoken and do your best to submit your mind and will to this teaching of the Church, or
2) Be honest about your inability to accept a teaching that the Church has promulgated magisterially. It’s not the first time a good, faithful, and devout person has dissented from an act of the magisterium, and it will certainly not be the last. But it does nobody any favors to imagine that the Church has not officially taught something when it has.
Mike Lewis is a writer and graphic designer from Maryland, having worked for many years in Catholic publishing. He’s a husband, father of four, and a lifelong Catholic. He’s active in his parish and community. He is a founding editor for Where Peter Is.