Does Pope Francis recognize the interpretation of Amoris Laetitia of the bishops of the pastoral region of Buenos Aires as his own?

The context of the dubia

On September 19, 2016, Cardinals Brandmüller, Burke, Caffarra, and Meisner sent Pope Francis the first dubia — 5 questions in which they demanded that he clarify Catholic doctrine in the post-synodal exhortation Amoris Laetitia. More recently, on July 10, 2023, Cardinals Brandmüller, Burke, Sandoval Íñiguez, Sarah, and Zen Ze-kiun submitted a second set of dubia with another 5 questions asking him to clarify some issues such as the blessing of same-sex unions, synodality as a constitutive dimension of the Church, and the priestly ordination of women, among others.

To this was added a final dubia with 10 questions that were sent by Cardinal Dominik Duka, Archbishop Emeritus of Prague, to the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith in a letter dated July 13, 2023. In it, he asks about the administration of the Eucharist to divorced couples in a new union. Cardinal Gerhard L. Müller sent an open letter to Cardinal Duka expressing his support and presenting, in turn, a critical response to Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez, Prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Dicastery’s responses to this dubia were approved by Pope Francis on September 25, 2023 and made public on Monday, October 2, 2023, two days before the beginning of the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on Synodality.

Cardinal Müller’s response is relevant for understanding the relationship between theology and the Magisterium. This brief and simple reflection does not pretend to exhaust all the answers, nor does it intend to deal with the doctrinal matters presented in these dubia, but to offer some criteria for discerning the authority of Pope Francis in recognizing as “authentic magisterium” the interpretation of chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia and maintaining that “there are no other interpretations.

The Amoris Laetitia case

The interpretation of some Argentine bishops and the response of Pope Francis

Beyond the doctrinal issues, the dubia cardinals question the Pope’s authority in recognizing as his own the interpretation of the bishops of the pastoral region of Buenos Aires in the document “Basic Criteria for the Application of Chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia.” The Pope had stated that the document of the Argentinean bishops “is very good and fully explains the meaning of chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia,” and concludes by affirming that “there are no other interpretations.”

In his response to Cardinal Duka, Müller describes the situation in these terms: “The ‘Risposta’ affirms that this text of Buenos Aires belongs to the ordinary papal magisterium, having been approved by the Pope himself. In fact, Francis has affirmed that the interpretation offered by the bishops of Buenos Aires is the only possible interpretation of Amoris Laetitia. Consequently, the ‘Risposta’ indicates that the text of Buenos Aires, like other texts of the ordinary Magisterium of the Pope, must be given a religious submission of mind and will.” Yet for Cardinal Müller, both Pope Francis and the Argentinean bishops issued “private opinions.” Consequently, he maintains that they “are expressly excluded from the Magisterium,” and that assenting to them could lead to a schism.

However, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium (25) teaches that: “t This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown 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.” That is to say that his “mind and will,” his intention, is “without a doubt” manifested. How can we recognize this explicit intention in the Pope? Here the three criteria affirmed by the Church Lumen Gentium itself are very important: “either by the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking” (LG 25). Looking at the third criterion, his manner of speaking, the mind and will of the pope is in this case manifested in the way he chose to say it (dicendi ratio). The words of Pope Francis leave no doubt that the “way of saying it” is fulfilled in a precise way. The expression “there are no other interpretations” demonstrates the pope’s mind and, moreover, makes explicit the obligatory nature and the type of adherence that is required of the recipients of his magisterium regarding the interpretation of Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia.

Finally, the very authority of the Pope’s Risposta has been called into question, under the argument — in the words of Cardinal Müller — that “the way in which the ‘Risposta’ bears the approval of the Holy Father, with a simple dated signature at the bottom of the page, is unusual. The usual formula has been: ‘The Holy Father approves the text and orders (or allows for) its publication,’ but none of this appears in this careless ‘Appunto.’ Here opens another window of doubt on the authority of the ‘Risposta.’” Even if arguments can be made against the form or style in which the document was presented, there is no room to doubt that it did not comply with the “formality” established, to this day, in Canon 8§1 of the current Code of Canon Law which states that “universal ecclesiastical laws are promulgated by publication in the official commentary, Acta Apostolicae Sedis, unless another manner of promulgation has been prescribed in particular cases.” The Acta Apostolicae Sedis is the most important instrument of government that the pope has to manifest his intention and will about the way to proceed, with an official and universal character, which does not only apply to strictly legal norms.

This was how Pope Francis proceeded when he wanted to carry out the formality of declaring that the document, “Basic criteria for the implementation of chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia” by the Bishops of the Pastoral Region of Buenos Aires, “be published through electronic means on the Vatican website and in the Acts of the Apostolic See, as authentic Magisterium.” (cf. Acta Apostolicae Sedis, September 5, 2016, pp.1071-1074). Thus there is no doubt that it is his will for this interpretation to become a “binding norm” that cannot be regarded as a private opinion. This is not the first time this has happened in the history of the Church. An analogous situation occurred with a letter of the German bishops in 1875 which was also declared as authentic Magisterium by the then Pope Pius IX, as we will see below.

The case of Vatican I

The interpretation of the German bishops and the reply of Pius IX

In the midst of the debates that flourished after Vatican I regarding the Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck sent a letter to other European rulers on May 14, 1872. The letter, written in the context of the Kulturkampf, stated, among other things, that: (a) “the Pope has appropriated to himself the power to arrogate episcopal rights in any diocese and to substitute papal power for the territorial power of the bishop”; (b) “episcopal jurisdiction has been absorbed by papal jurisdiction”; (c) and “the bishops are now mere instruments of his, without personal responsibility” (DZ 3112).

Faced with this situation, the German bishops wrote a clarification to the German chancellor (DZ 3113-14). Among the arguments they offered in response to Bismarck, three stand out. First, “according to these decisions the authority of ecclesiastical jurisdiction, possessed by the Pope, is a supreme, ordinary and immediate power.” Second, “according to such doctrine of the Catholic Church, the Pope is bishop of Rome, not bishop of some other diocese or city…. But as bishop of Rome he is also pope, namely, pastor and head of the universal Church, head of all the bishops and of all the faithful; and his papal authority does not have force only in some certain exceptional cases, but subsists and binds always, in every time and place.” Third, “in virtue of this office of his, the Pope has the duty to see to it that every bishop in the full extent of his mission fulfills his duties.” The argument of the German bishops was based on the principle of necessitas Ecclesiae so that the exercise of the power of the papacy, as “ordinary, immediate and truly episcopal,” was not equivalent to considering the permanent intervention of the Pope in the dioceses as normal.

In response to Chancellor Bismarck, Pope Pius IX assumed the interpretation offered by the German bishops as “authentic Catholic doctrine” and, to this end, published the Apostolic Letter Mirabilis illa constantia on March 4, 1875. There he denounced that “some of the media” of the time had spread the “misleading interpretation” of Chancellor Bismarck. Pius IX explains it as follows. First, “you set out to restore the genuine meaning of the definitions of the Vatican Council, distorted by a misleading dissertation spread by a certain circular letter.” Second, “the astute voice of certain newspapers … has tried to impugn the faith of your effort, insinuating that a doctrine of the conciliar definitions was approved by you and that, therefore, it did not respond in any way to the intention of this Holy See.” Third, “your declaration contains the authentic Catholic doctrine of the sacred Council and of this Holy See, defended with great finesse by means of magnificent and unsurpassable grounds of argumentation and explained so clearly as to be able to show any man” (DH 3117). Finally, Pius IX assumes as “authentic magisterium” the interpretation made by the German bishops.

In light of all this we can recognize how a pope can assume as his own doctrine the text of an Episcopal Conference or of a group of bishops, and thereby making his mind and will manifest.

Translated from the original Spanish with permission from the author.

Image: Vatican Media

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Rafael Luciani is a Lay Venezuelan theologian, appointed as Expert of the Theological Commission of the General Secretariat for the Synod of Bishops. He was among the Expert Theologians who took part in the October 2023 Synodal Assembly in the Vatican.

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