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.

217 Shares

39 Responses

  1. Ralph says:

    It really seems like this might be a case of Protestantism influencing Catholics. I notice that the most vociferous opposition to Pope Francis seems to come from American Catholics and especially from Catholics who converted from Protestantism. Ross Douthat, a convert from Pentecostalism to Catholicism ,comes to mind.

    I don’t mean to insult converts but I honestly cannot think of any of the cradle Catholics I know having an issue with Amoris Laetitia and these are devout not lax cradle Catholics. I grant that this is just an anecdote but I do find it interesting .

    • LD says:

      Astute comment and a real phenomenon that has caused much division in the church. It seems that many converts never really assimilated and in my opinion were more attracted by the a perceived set of ‘right rules’ than by Roman Catholicism. Pope Francis is helping to right the ship in the American church.

      • Mike Lewis says:

        While it’s not wholly a convert phenomenon (nostalgia for ‘better’ times can be strong for cradle Catholics), there is a question of whether one simply became Catholic because they became convinced by Catholic claims or they really and truly embraced the Church and everything that comes with being Catholic.

        I know many converts who are confused by papal critics. There’s a strong sense of “I thought we signed on to follow the hierarchy and the teachings of the pope. What’s going on?”

        It’s been a shock to me to realize that for some, loyalty to the pope had actually been contingent on whether they agreed with him on particular issues.

  2. pat says:

    Are cardinal Burke and the others not in communion with the pope because they disagree, or does “not in communion with him” imply something more formal, like excommunication? ( I would suggest the latter, at least formal schism)

    Then are we just saying the pope and all the bishops who agree with him, or do we have to have a real consensus between all of the bishops before we can move something into the realm of authentic magisterium?

    • Mike Lewis says:

      The way I understand it is that if bishops teach something not in accord with the pope’s teaching on the matter, their teaching is not in communion.

      That would be different from the bishop himself being outside of formal communion, which is a canonical issue.

      • carn says:

        “The way I understand it is that if bishops teach something not in accord with the pope’s teaching on the matter, their teaching is not in communion.”

        A criteria prone to personal judgement and error.

        Because it requires to identify without error, what:
        a) a Bishop teaches in respect to some matter;
        b) the Pope teaches in respect to some matter;
        c) identifying any differences between a) and b);
        d) deciding whether the differences are sufficient to “judge” the bishop not being in communion with the Pope

        Any slight error on any point and one potentially just on personal whim “judges” what a bishop teaches to be no longer being part of the Magisterium.

        Cardinal Burke in communion with the Pope? Some people will decide one way, others another.

        Cardinal Kasper in communion with the Pope? Some people will decide one way, others another.

        And so on and so forth. Every Catholic then having his/her personal list of bishops supposedly in communion with the Pope/list of bishops supposedly not in communion with the Pope.

        Making the criteria completely useless.

        • Mike Lewis says:

          Not completely useless. If it’s not clear, look to the pope.

          • carn says:

            “If it’s not clear, look to the pope.”

            Thereby the question whether a bishop is “in communion with the Pope” can be discarded as then looking to the Pope would be the only sensible option.

            I would prefer that the Pope would simply excommunicate any Bishop teaching against what the Church teaches; that way i could trust that what a not excommunicated Bishop teaches is ok.

  3. Chris dorf says:

    Here is post from ‘Pints With Aquonas’ that illustrates how difficult and entrenched the division is and of course difficult to bridge:
    –Michael Linley
    “This is the exact point that is lost on the “Pope Francis can do no wrong” crowd, and I can’t figure out why. I’m not against Pope Francis, I’ve defended him many times, I’m not a sedevacantist, nor do I think he’s an anti-pope. That being said; a large part of his job as the Roman pontiff is to provide clarity on doctrinal matters to the laity. The dubia are 5 yes or no questions that would’ve taken him less than 30 minutes do deal with, yet here we are, 5 years into the pontificate and people are more confused than ever. I’m not sure how people can’t see that as an upsetting thing. “

    • Mike Lewis says:

      I am not certain what supporters of the dubia expect as a response. Question 1 is worded in such a way that a simple “yes” without a lengthy explanation and critique of the question would make the pope appear to be acting contrary to tradition. Questions 2-5 are downright insulting to the Holy Father because they are questioning him on his belief in natural law and objective morality. I wouldn’t answer them either, to be honest.

      But the fundamentalist view does not assume that a papal exhortation is orthodox. It is up to them to make the decision. And it doesn’t trouble them in the slightest to bypass all authority to make a judgment.

      • carn says:

        “Question 1 is worded in such a way that a simple “yes” without a lengthy explanation and critique of the question would make the pope appear to be acting contrary to tradition.”

        So the answer would be a “yes” to question 1. And nothing keeps the Pope from answering the dubia with something like “Yes, because … [lengthy text]”.

        “Questions 2-5 are downright insulting to the Holy Father because they are questioning him on his belief in natural law and objective morality.”

        And i think it is insulting to see anything unfriendly in dubia 2 to 5 if the answer to dubium 1 would be “yes”; dubia 2 to 5 are simply questions logically following if dubium 1 has “yes” as answer.

        • Pedro Gabriel Pedro Gabriel says:

          The dubia feature is intended for a simple “yes or no” answer, without lengthy explanations.

  4. Jason says:

    Thank you Mike! You are doing good work. God bless you.

  5. petey says:

    in my experience this did not begin with the election of Francis, it began with the election of GWB, who famously put aside pope Benedict’s letter about invading itaq. many “catholics” sold their name for the thrill of military invasion, and edited their image of Benedict to suit their politics. they and their descendants are now in antipope burke’s camp.

    • Mike Lewis says:

      I would go all the way back to Vatican II and Lefebvre, and even before, for examples of Catholics who have appealed to “Tradition” over the living Magisterium.

      I see the current resistance to Pope Francis as very similar in kind to Lefebvre’s, only the focus of the protest has shifted from an ecumenical council to a footnote. It is much more amplified today because of social media.

  6. Mark Chaplain says:

    Concerning Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, it’s hard to take seriously the statement:

    “the pope and the bishops in communion with him are provided with divine assistance to make the final determination in such questions.”

    when many of the (contentious) statements there were clearly written in 2005/2006 by Fr. Víctor Manuel Fernández:

    http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/1351303bdc4.html?eng=y

    “A double synod for a solution that had already been written”

    Not so much divine assistance as lazy cut-and-paste with a bit of paraphrasing.

    • Mike Lewis says:

      And yet, this is precisely what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

      “892 Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a “definitive manner,” they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful “are to adhere to it with religious assent” which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it.”

      http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p123a9p4.htm

      Herein lies my point. The “ecclesial” Catholic applies the teachings of the Church on primacy and authority to the official teachings of the pope and the bishops in communion with him.

      What is the basis for your assertion, other than “it’s hard to take seriously”?

      • Mark Chaplain says:

        My point is that key passages of Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia were already decided upon beforehand from the 2005/2006 works of Fr. Víctor Manuel Fernández and were not the fruit of discussions from the two synods and, in my opinion, were not the result of divine assistance.

        • Mike Lewis says:

          Encyclicals and exhortations have historically been written primarily by others than the pope. This has rarely ever been an issue. The key is the promulgation of the document by the pope. Basically what you are saying negates the majority of encyclicals written in the last 150 years.

        • carn says:

          That argument does not hold.

          Nothing keeps the holy spirit from guiding the Pope in the decision where to cut-and-paste text from.

          Same is of course true for a synod; the fruit of the discussion could be: Hey, people, why are we wasting time here? Here is some book written 10 years ago having everything as we need; just cut-and-paste instead of wasting time to do something twice.

          Maybe not that elegant; but the Holy Spirit is not always acting in way which can be perceived by us as elegant.

          • carn says:

            That was a reply to
            “My point is that key passages of Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia were already decided upon beforehand from the 2005/2006 works of Fr. Víctor Manuel Fernández and were not the fruit of discussions from the two synods and, in my opinion, were not the result of divine assistance.”

          • Mark Chaplain says:

            Point is not about the inspiration of the Holy Spirit or the degree of elegance of the inspiration, or the sources of inspiration for AL (of which there are many and most are cited/acknowledged explicitly) – it’s about not acknowledging/crediting primary sources for key paragraphs in Chapter 8 of AL and trying to pass these off as original text, which amounts to plagiarism (IMO). I don’t believe the Holy Spirit could ever be the inspiration behind plagiarism.

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plagiarism

          • carn says:

            “don’t believe the Holy Spirit could ever be the inspiration behind plagiarism.”

            As infallibility is only the case for teaching about faith and moral, the teaching of the Church is not guaranteed to be correct regarding correct citations.

            You are free to doubt whether AL is qualitatively good regarding correct citation; infallibility would not even exclude intentional criminal plagiarism; it just guarantees that the parts plagiarized regarding faith or morals is without error.

            Though of course it would be nice if papal documents would also be without error in that regard.

            Your initial claim was:
            “Not so much divine assistance as lazy cut-and-paste with a bit of paraphrasing.”

            that cut-and-paste was excluding divine assistance; it doesn’t.

            “it’s about not acknowledging/crediting primary sources for key paragraphs in Chapter 8 of AL and trying to pass these off as original text, which amounts to plagiarism (IMO).”

            What evidence is that there was deliberate plagiarism/intent to deceive?

            As far as i know much plagiarism is due to good old laziness and carelessness.

  7. Gannon says:

    Hi Mike: how would you characterize the current discussion between the Holy Father and the German prelates who wish to propose that non-Catholics receive the Eucharist after a private examination of conscience with a priest or parish official?

  8. Gannon says:

    Mike, I’m seeking further clarification between this distinction that you draw between (what you term as) the Ecclesial and the Fundamentalist approach to the primacy as Peter. If I understand you correctly: Fundamentalists reject the primacy of the pope when what the pope declares runs contrary to their own understanding of doctrine; whereas the Ecclesial(ists?) trust that the pope, in union with the bishops, speaks infallibly on faith and morals.

    If that is correct (because I don’t want to mis-represent you), I would say that seems generalization of those who take issue with what Pope Francis has proclaimed. Perhaps I live under a rock, but I’ve not encountered any opposition to Pope Francis that claims he has no authority to speak on faith and morals. In fact, quite the opposite. If Fundamentalists (as you term them) rejected the authority of the pope, I think we wouldn’t see a percentage of the conflict we’ve seen arisen in our Church today. There would be no need to counter someone who doesn’t have authority. You just simply ignore, condescend, or move on (perhaps simultaneously). The ferocity of the debate stems not from Pope Francis’ lack of authority, but precisely because he is the Vicar of Christ and has authority. Accepting the authority of the pope leads to a desire for understanding and obedience–and that involves challenging/asking questions when necessary.

    You have an interesting line near when you first describe the Ecclesialists in this way: “In addition, the ecclesial Catholic attempts to think with the Church, rather than to criticize the Church.”

    Does ‘thinking with the Church’ preclude challenging arguments? This is a red herring. The Church as an institution is not being challenged. Arguments–insofar as they are offered in order to further our relationship and intimacy with the Logos–are evaluated. By framing the statement in such a way, you suggest that criticisms of Pope Francis are criticisms of the Church, when in reality the criticisms of Pope Francis are aimed at what speaks (argues) or offers as ways to approach dogma and doctrine.

    Are you unfamiliar with Galatians 2:11-14 when St. Paul challenged St. Peter on his behavior with the Gentiles? St. Paul does so (calls him Cephas–recognizing him as Rock) and continues on his journey. He does not supplant St. Peter as the Pope; St. Paul witnesses to the truth which St. Peter had neglected. All of this is to say, that, as you acknowledge yourself, that we are fallen–we sin; we stray. We are none of us fallen–including the Holy Father. In our history of popes, there are quite a few bad eggs.

    We must respect the primacy of Peter; but we have a higher obligation to witness to the Truth–which the pope should be first and foremost among us in so doing.

    • Mike Lewis says:

      Sorry Gannon, I did not see this before.

      I agree that challenging a hard teaching is sometimes necessary, but should be done under the pretense of “I seek to understand and accept,” rather than, “this looks wrong and I am going to fight with you about it.”

      Now we do know that beginning in 1983, Protestants and Orthodox were permitted to receive sacraments from Roman Catholic priests in specific circumstances. To me, the key would be that one has to be both baptized and properly disposed to receive them, and the exact situations where it’s allowable are a prudential matter and can be determined by the pope or whomever he delegates.

      • Timbot2000 says:

        Hello Mike,

        It seems in this case you are eliding the clear distinction being made between the Protestant and Orthodox scenarios presented in the legislation in question:
        In the case of Orthodox persons, due to the similarity, congruence, and existence of parallel rites within the Catholic Church, the primary requirement for Orthodox believers to receive the Sacraments lies simply in being properly-disposed in the commonly-understood sense, and to not be in contemelious defiance of their own episcopal authorities in so doing. Due to the particular historical and theological parallelism between the Catholics and the Orthodox as “sister Churches”, this is a fairly unproblematic scenario.
        In the case of Protestants however, we run into a more serious ecclesiological problem in that their faithful are not members of a “Church” but rather “Ecclesial Communities” per canon law. As such administration of the Sacraments has generally been restricted to situations such as immanent danger of death, otherwise formal conversion has been, and normatively continues to be, required. Alas, while “the exact situations where it’s allowable are a prudential matter and can be determined by the pope or whomever he delegates” is not an incorrect statement in this matter, as it impinges on several critical theological and eccelsiological concepts, the possible scope of reform is considerably more circumscribed than is implied here.

        • Mike Lewis says:

          Tim, I am not overlooking those differences, in fact, those are precisely the reasons that John Paul II used to justify the new parameters he set. And they are perfectly sound.

          That said, the sacrament that precedes all of the others is baptism, and we share in one baptism with all baptized Christians.

          The admission of Protestants in grave situations to Penance, Communion, and Anointing of the Sick estabished that there is no absolute bar against them receiving communion, even though the previous teaching of the Church did not have any such exceptions.

          How are we to know with certainty that a future pope will not assess the situation and decide that there might be another licit approach?

          There are good reasons for restrictions and sound sacramental discipline. Potential for scandal, risk of sacrilege, or undermining the sacredness of the rites are all legitimate reasons to restrict certain practices.

          But regulations like this clearly fall under the Apostolic privilege of binding and loosing, and, if allowed, certainly don’t undermine doctrinal principles.

  9. Donna Z says:

    Sensus fidelium.

    And read Timothy Radcliffe OP’s “What is the Point of Being a Christian”. There are two lungs of the Church, communion Catholics and kin-dom Catholics. Both are necessary for a healthy Church. They will never be the same (the Church is not McDonalds), but they do need to learn how to live together separately, cf. Peter Phan. And the pendulum will arc back and forth AS the Spirit moves every person in via. Good luck resisting Her (cf. Fire of Love, by Donald Goergen, OP).

    • Mike Lewis says:

      This is somewhat different from Radcliffe’s dichotomy – I believe his was more about emphasis than this. Unfortunately, this dichotomy is more about conflicting fundamental understandings of Church authority. This division, if it persists, might lead to a schism in the Church.

  1. May 16, 2018

    […] is an essay this week by a fellow called Mike Lewis at a website called Where Peter Is which states that there are two kinds of Catholics now–“ecclesial” and […]

  2. May 18, 2018

    […] my strong disagreement with the argument of his recent blog post at “Where Peter Is” (see the link), I have to applaud the author, Mike Lewis, for articulating in clear fashion what is the basic […]

  3. May 22, 2018

    […] appears that my last post, Fundamentalist Catholics and Ecclesial Catholics, struck a […]

  4. May 27, 2018

    […] to fellow WPI blogger Mike Lewis’s use of the term “fundamentalist” in Fundamentalist Catholics and Ecclesial Catholics, Fr Dwight Longnecker […]

  5. June 2, 2018

    […] I wrote in a recent piece, those who oppose Pope Francis’s teachings appeal to their private reading of the Tradition as […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *