Much of the content of this website has been dedicated to the defense of Pope Francis and his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. We’ve striven to demonstrate how both Pope Francis and his teaching are consistent with Catholic tradition. We’ve responded to various arguments and critiques of the document, as well as clarified what it contains. We’ve defended papal primacy and authority, and have argued in favor of the orthodoxy of both Francis and his teachings.
One of the peculiarities of the debate over the exhortation Amoris Laetitia is the fact that many of those who oppose Pope Francis’s teaching are also Catholics who pride themselves on their orthodoxy, who openly advertise that they accept all the teachings of the Catholic Church, and insist that their beliefs are completely in line with Catholic teaching. Many of these Catholics assert that their adherence to Church teaching is what makes them unable to accept Amoris Laetitia’s allowance for some people in irregular marriages to receive the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist in certain cases. They believe that it is their unflappable orthodoxy that has set them in opposition of the pope, and that while the Church has officially taught one thing, the true Catholic teaching aligns with their understanding.
In their opposition to parts of Pope Francis’s exhortation on marriage and the family, many of these Catholics focus on the perceived incompatibility of the document with prior papal teaching. They reject every attempt to reconcile Francis’s change in sacramental discipline with traditional doctrine. They ignore Pope Francis’s insistence that Amoris Laetitia is doctrinally sound and represents a reform in perfect continuity with Church teachings.
In fairness, many of these arguments are persuasive on the surface. It’s clear that allowing some divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments when not committing to live as brother and sister (but only when they are not fully culpable for the sin of adultery) represents a change in sacramental discipline, and was a practice deemed impossible by St. John Paul II during his pontificate. Pope Francis reevaluated the issue from a pastoral context, and the outcome was Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia. While the chapter presents numerous justifications and explanations for the change in approach, many have not been persuaded by the arguments that defend it.
Of course, insisting on their conclusion — that there is no possible exception to the ban on divorced and remarried Catholics from receiving communion (unless there is a commitment by the couple to live as brother and sister) — leads to some potential problems for those who also claim to have complete fidelity to Church teachings. After all, Amoris Laetitia is an official Church document promulgated by the Vicar of Christ to the entire Church. By placing themselves in opposition to the teachings of the document, this puts them in an awkward position.
A simple solution to this conundrum might be to just state, “I disagree with the Church on this issue.” Indeed, most Catholics who disagree with the Church on various doctrines freely admit this. Most of us have Catholic friends and family members who simply state, “I disagree with the Church on that.” Whether the issue is divorce and remarriage, women’s ordination, homosexuality, the need for confession, the infallibility of the pope, or contraception, many Catholics are content to resign themselves to holding a position that does not correspond to official Catholic teachings.
For many conservative and traditional Catholics, however, dissent from the Magisterium is something to be strictly avoided. Judging from social media and the Catholic blogosphere, these champions of “orthodoxy” are swift to harshly condemn any position that does not coincide with their vision of pure, untainted Catholic teaching. For such Catholics, there is hardly a greater sin than straying from orthodoxy. The possibility that they might themselves be dissenters is simply unimaginable. To them, dissenting from a Church teaching isn’t something that good, moral, faithful people do. It’s a failure: a compromise with sin and moral laxity, a character defect or an irrational decision. Dissent, according to this group, is conformity with the world — an attempt to make religion more easy to swallow in the modern age.
For this reason, it’s clear why critics of Amoris Laetitia are determined to insist that they are not dissenting from Catholic teachings. And they have put forth several theories to argue that they are the true upholders of orthodoxy.
In my next piece I will explore and critique the arguments that some Catholics use to justify their belief that their rejection of Amoris Laetitia is orthodox (rather than dissenting), and why these arguments are ultimately unconvincing.
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.