The division among certain Catholics that began with the election of Pope Francis and became pronounced upon the public release of the four cardinals’ dubia continues to widen.
Catholics, many of whom were close allies during the pontificates of St John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, find themselves looking across an unbridgeable and widening canyon between two dramatically different ways of how to understand the Church.
What appeared at first to be a debate over questions of moral theology related to some passages of the eighth chapter of the exhortation has become a division over the issues of the role of the papacy, doctrinal authority, and the nature of the Magisterium in the Church.
I have long held that the orthodoxy of Amoris Laetitia can be defended on two fronts: both on the merits of the document itself and from authority.
If you are reading this piece, it is likely that you are familiar with some of the back-and-forth over whether a divorced and remarried person might be able to receive communion in certain cases when the sin of adultery is mitigated – that is, when due to difficult circumstances, the person’s level of guilt only rises to venial (or they are not guilty at all).
Both sides of the argument have strong and well thought-out arguments to justify their position, both logically and using evidence from scripture and Tradition. And, when pushed against the wall, both sides will appeal to authority.
This is where the most significant division arises.
Those who support the position of Pope Francis, and accept his authority on matters of faith and morals to be binding take what can be called an ecclesial approach to Church teaching. In this context, ecclesial is defined as someone who gives a pride of place to the Magisterium: the teaching authority of the pope and the bishops in communion with him. The ecclesial Catholic assents to the teachings on faith and morals handed down by legitimate authority in the Church, and trusts — based on Christ’s promise and with the help of the Holy Spirit — that the Church and the see of Peter will remain faithful to Christ in perpetuity. Along those lines, the ecclesial Catholic respects the pope’s role as guarantor of obedience to the Word of God, and the authentic interpreter of Holy Scripture and Tradition. In addition, the ecclesial Catholic attempts to think with the Church, rather than to criticize the Church.
The ecclesial Catholic is receptive to the official teachings of the Successor of Peter, and trusts the living Magisterium to faithfully teach and explain the doctrines of the Church. The ecclesial Catholic does not reject the understanding that the faith must always correspond to reason, or that new reforms or disciplines must conform to Tradition, but the ecclesial Catholic recognizes that human reason is corrupted by sin. Instead, they operate with the understanding that the pope and the bishops in communion with him are provided with divine assistance to make the final determination in such questions.
Many of those who reject Francis’s position, and instead appeal to earlier teachings or scriptural understandings as the higher authority can be said to have a fundamentalist approach. For the fundamentalist Catholic, the highest Magisterial authority is the Tradition itself, as understood by the Church as handed down from the Apostles. The fundamentalist will reject Petrine authority or new doctrinal developments promulgated by the Holy See, if, in light of their understanding of Tradition, they determine that the new teaching does not conform to it. If the teaching of the current pope does not appear to them to align with the traditional understanding, they will appeal to the teachings of prior popes that they believe contradicts the new teaching.
Pedro Gabriel provided a comprehensive discussion of the “Sola Traditio” approach in an earlier blog post, so I won’t delve much more deeply here, only to stress that the Fundamentalist does not see his understanding of doctrine as a private judgement, but as an objective, plain reading of the Tradition, which should be self-evident to anyone with the ability to think logically.
The ecclesial Catholic recognizes that it is human nature for one to insist on the truth of their position. Every Christian denomination is filled with some who believe with complete sincerity that their interpretation of scripture is reasonable and logically sound. They believe that their arguments are airtight and irrefutable, and those who disagree with them are either unintelligent, stubborn, or irrational. The key to unity in the Catholic Church, however, is the Primacy of the Successor of Peter.
When Catholics recognize this primacy, they admit to themselves that their own authority is not supreme. They acknowledge that their strongly-held views are not always going to be consistent with the Magisterium. They also know that in order to be faithful, they must defer to the judgement and authority of the Pope in matters of faith and morals.
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.