I feel certain that this book will be helpful to families. I pray for this.”

— Pope Francis
Preface, Pope Francis, the Family, and Divorce
from the Vatican, August 2017

Back in August, Where Peter Is published a two-part interview with our friend and British author Stephen Walford, as well as a review of his new book, Pope Francis, the Family, and Divorce: In Defense of Truth and Mercy (order directly from publisher here, Amazon currently on backorder).

In the days following our interview and review, it was revealed that Pope Francis himself provided the preface for the book, which also has a foreword by Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga and endorsements by Cardinals Donald Wuerl and Kevin Farrell. Cardinal Joseph Tobin — the local ordinary of the publisher, Paulist Press — provided the imprimatur and nihil obstat.

In the preface, taken from a personal letter from the Holy Father to Walford, written shortly after the two met in person in late July 2017, Pope Francis stresses the doctrinal continuity between Amoris and the magisterial teachings of his predecessors. He emphasizes that although there were “temptations” to stray from doctrinal fidelity, but in the end, the “Good Spirit prevailed.” On the entire synodal process that led to the promulgation of Amoris Laetitia, Francis wrote:

One of the things that most impressed me in this whole process was the desire to seek God’s will in order to better serve the Church. Seeking in order to serve. This was done through reflection, the exchange of views, prayer, and discernment. There were of course temptations during this journey but the Good Spirit prevailed. Witnessing this brought spiritual joy.

Francis goes on to explain the theological influences of the exhortation, as well as its hermeneutic. Francis describes the magisterium of the Church as, “always in continuity (without ruptures), yet always maturing.”

In his foreword, Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga stresses the firm theological foundations of Amoris Laetitia, and praises Walford’s in-depth explanation of the theological background and moral doctrine employed by Pope Francis in his exhortation. He writes,

We are given a reflection on moral theology and the famous chapter 8 that is inspired by “caritas in veritate.” Walford takes us on a solid journey through St. Thomas, St. Augustine, Vatican II, St. John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI. The author tells us that the Church of the twenty-first century is in the era of divine mercy, an era that has emerged as an antidote to the onslaught of evil. Many souls swim in the sea of ignorance of moral truths, or are crushed under the weight of the bondage of sin. The Holy Spirit has sent a Pope who understands these problems; who has spent his life in the trenches alongside his people. His teachings do not seek to undermine marriage or the great mystery of the Holy Eucharist.

On the contrary, he takes to heart the words of Jesus in the parable of the wedding banquet: “Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled” (Luke 14:23). Of course, these words do not refer to forcing people against their will, but commands us to go out to look for sinners, lost sheep, those considered unworthy. Pope Francis does not abandon anyone; and as a faithful disciple of Jesus, he does not give a superficial service, but touches the wounded and administers to them mercy.”

On the back cover, Cardinal Wuerl praises the book for its “Rigorous doctrinal integrity, rich pastoral accompaniment, and a profound understanding of the encroachment of secular culture.” Cardinal Farrell asserts that, “This is a book totally faithful to the Magisterium of the Church and inspired by the pastoral vision of Pope Francis. It expresses love and concern for suffering families, especially those in irregular situations, and it is an invitation for them to draw closer to the Lord.”

Rarely does a book on such a contentious and hotly debated subject come with a papal endorsement and the enthusiastic praise of three cardinals, but Walford’s book is unique in that he gives pride of place to doctrinal orthodoxy and adherence to the teachings of the Magisterium, while supporting and defending Pope Francis’s teachings in Amoris Laetitia. In a recent interview with Crux’s Christopher White, he said,

“For me, it’s always been about accepting the ordinary magisterium, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, and previous popes. The pope speaks with the authority of Christ, and it doesn’t have to be some infallible dogma for that to be the situation.”

Walford’s book aligns closely with our positions on Amoris Laetitia and Pope Francis, as we are also committed to defending the doctrinal fidelity of the exhortation and the Church’s teachings on papal primacy.

Pope Francis, the Family, and Divorce, however, promises to resonate more deeply within the heart of the current debate, not only because it presents a comprehensive, meticulously cited doctrinal justification for Amoris Laetitia; nor because it has received praise from the highest levels of Church authority; but because Stephen Walford himself has become such a compelling figure in the debate over Pope Francis and his papacy.

A pianist and teacher from Southampton, Walford has no formal theological training. Yet that has not stopped him from writing three books on theological topics. All three books have forewords written by cardinals; all three books have each received a nihil obstat and imprimatur for their fidelity to the Magisterium. His first book, Heralds of the Second Coming, received endorsements from many Catholic theologians and writers, including Fr. Donald Calloway and Ralph Martin. His second book, Communion of Saints, was praised by a well-known papal critic, the theologian Fr. Thomas Weinandy, who wrote:

“This is truly an inspired and inspiring work! Stephen Walford has authored a theologically reliable and beautifully written book. Using scripture, the teaching of the Church, and the writings of Saints, he provides not only an informative and moving account of the Saints in heaven, the souls in purgatory, and faithful upon earth, but also how all of the members marvelously interrelate with one another to form the one living and eternal Body of Christ, with Jesus as the Head. This book will transform hearts and quicken minds, for readers will glory in the fact that they are members of such a glorious reality–The Communion of Saints.”

Indeed, with accolades such as this for his prior work, it’s difficult to simply write Walford off as an amateur or a dissenter. Yet judging from his detractors on social media, that appears to be how they begin almost every attack on him. Catholic websites such as La Stampa and Crux often refer to him as a “theologian,” which immediately garners negative responses on social media, usually along the lines of “he’s a piano teacher, not a theologian.” Walford doesn’t refer to himself as a theologian, although he doesn’t seem to mind when others use that title to describe him.

Additionally, his orthodoxy is difficult to question. A daily massgoer with five children, Walford’s beliefs are based in official Church teachings. While some Catholics might question the doctrinal fidelity of Amoris Laetitia, they can’t question that it was an official Church document promulgated by the pope. As such, Walford simply acknowledges its Magisterial authority and attempts to interpret it accurately.

Still, that hasn’t stopped papal critics for getting in their digs. In First Things, Dan Hitchens wrote, “If this is the best defense of Communion for the remarried, the proposal is even more confused than I thought.” The review was widely shared on Twitter, with notable Dominican priest Fr. Thomas Petri adding, “Mr. Walford is not a theologian and so his errors are rather basic.”

A major problem with these assertions is that they ignore (or completely dismiss) a major point in this entire debate: Walford’s argument, whether you agree with it or not, seems to be identical to that of Pope Francis. For all their scholarship and rhetoric, these writers fail to acknowledge that Walford is presenting a rational justification for the licety of an official act of the Magisterium, while they are actively arguing against it.

These papal critics often use a two-pronged approach to attack Walford’s basic arguments. The first part is to express exasperation toward Pope Francis and his supporters and attempt to explain why Walford’s argument fails on theological grounds. Most of them use St. John Paul’s great encyclical on moral doctrine, Veritatis Splendor, as well as the canons of Trent to refute his justification for Amoris Laetitia chapter 8. The second prong in their approach is the insistence that Amoris Laetitia is unclear and confusing about whether (in certain cases) people in irregular situations may be admitted to the sacraments without committing to a life of continence. Some even suggest that the guidelines proposed by the bishops of Buenos Aires — endorsed by Francis and published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis (AAS) with an explicit instruction that they were to be regarded as “Authentic Magisterium” — are unclear about what they allow.

It’s fairly obvious that the second part is less about “confusion,” and more about their disagreement with what Amoris Laetitia quite clearly teaches. There’s an understandable tension here: they don’t believe that Amoris is doctrinally sound, but, as Catholics, they are taught to grant religious submission of intellect and will to even the non-infallible Magisterial teachings of the Pope. By claiming to be confused and saying they need “clarification,” they are buying themselves time before they have to decide whether to grant assent to Pope Francis’s teaching. The Holy Father, after all, is in his 80s, and won’t be pope forever. If they convince themselves that the text is unclear, perhaps another pope will come around and provide the “clarification” (in reality, reversal) of the teaching to which they are unwilling to give consent.

Additionally, many of these papal critics cling to the idea that Amoris Laetitia “can be given an orthodox reading.” In other words, by ignoring everything the pope and those close to him say about it, they can analyze the words by themselves and produce an interpretation more to their liking. This is clever, but it completely ignores what the Church teaches in Lumen Gentium 25. Here’s the key passage:

“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. His 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.”

Can it truly be said that these commentators are acknowledging his magisterium with reverence or sincerely adhering to his judgments, let alone attempting to understand his mind and will in the matter? Does his manner of speaking truly suggest that his mind and will aligns with the “orthodox” interpretations of Petri or Hitchens?

Stephen Walford is a threat to their position because he cuts through their attempts to obscure the meaning of the teaching and simply assents to what the Church teaches magisterially through Francis. Yes, there is a sound theological and doctrinal explanation that justifies Amoris Laetitia, and Walford presents it. Amoris can be defended on its own terms. Unfortunately, the explanation does not satisfy these critics, which leaves them in a difficult spot. I’m not going to rehash the various arguments here, it’s sufficient to point out that regardless of one’s position in the debate, Rome has spoken.

I have asked about papal critics’ end-game in the past. The feedback I received on social media seemed to imply that there is no real end-game — just a willingness to persist in their ongoing resistance against Pope Francis and his teaching, while insisting upon the orthodoxy of their position. If the next pope, and then the next pope, carry on his legacy, they intend to continue in their refusal to assent to what has been taught. Apparently this group does not believe that “What the Church teaches” and “Church Teaching” are synonyms.

Stephen Walford, through his book and his essays, has presented Catholics with a clear and digestible understanding of Amoris Laetitia. His work has been championed at the highest levels of the Church. His example of assent to Church teaching is commendable and should be reconsidered by those who think they know better than the Church.

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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.

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