Nearly two years later, there are few signs of a resolution to the ongoing intra-Church dispute over Pope Francis’ 2016 Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia. Even prior to its release, going back to the preparations for the 2014-2015 Synods on the Family, segments of the Church and hierarchy have been locked in disagreement over the authority of the pope to change sacramental discipline for the divorced and civilly remarried.
The conflict continues to focus on the doctrinal licetity of footnote 351, with Catholics who were once allies passionately disagreeing over fundamental issues of moral theology, Tradition, the development of doctrine, papal primacy, and the ordinary Magisterium. There’s plenty of name-calling, insults, and condescension being hurled in all directions, and some of the most inflammatory has been reserved for the Holy Father. A rift has been open, and it might be years, even decades, before it has healed.
For a Catholic who believes in the indefectibility and inerrancy of the Church, it is difficult to imagine a scenario where the pope can promulgate doctrinal errors through the official channels of the magisterium. Yet, for some Catholics, Pope Francis has done – or has attempted to do – the unthinkable. Today, we have many insisting that what the Church has taught is not Church teaching, or that what the Pope has declared magisterial is not part of the Magisterium.
Many critics of Pope Francis insist that in order for a teaching to be magisterial, it must conform to the unchanging, traditional teaching of the Church. Yet – as Pedro Gabriel points out in “Sola Traditio” – they turn to their private interpretations of Tradition, and not to the authority designated for authentic interpretation. The Catechism states, “The task of interpreting the Word of God authentically has been entrusted solely to the Magisterium of the Church, that is, to the Pope and to the bishops in communion with him” (CCC 100, emphasis added).
It is extremely important to point out that supporters of Pope Francis and Amoris Laetitia also believe that Amoris is in line with Catholic Tradition. We believe that Amoris can be defended on its own merits, as a development in continuity with Tradition, completely orthodox and based on sound theological principles. (There are a number of excellent defenses on those grounds available, including those by Rocco Buttiglione and Stephen Walford, as well as many others.) Those who support the pope in this don’t believe he is overturning settled doctrine, but that he has carved out a doctrinally acceptable approach to the sacraments, one which can be carried out after a process of discernment in the context of pastoral accompaniment.
Yet, for the ordinary Catholic, it’s not necessary to study the theological and moral justifications for each and every Catholic teaching. It is enough to know that the teaching has been magisterially promulgated by the pope and is therefore owed our religious assent of intellect and will. Nowhere in Catholic tradition is there a teaching that the laity and clergy are to critically assess the official teachings of the pope, and then to discard the ones we find wanting. If that was the case, there would be no need for a pope because Catholic teaching would be a free-for-all.
It is clear for anyone with a correct understanding of Church teaching on the papacy that those who reject Amoris Laetitia are, despite good intentions, rejecting essential aspects of the doctrines of papal primacy and indefectibility and ignoring Christ’s words about Petrine authority. By claiming that the pope has promulgated doctrinal error through the exercise of his office, they invent a second, more powerful authority than the pope and the bishops that stand with him: an apparently self-evident understanding of Tradition that supersedes even the Rock upon which the Church was instituted and the visible foundation of unity for the bishops and the faithful. They have chosen the invisible over the visible and private interpretation over public.
They believe that those Catholics who defer to the Petrine Authority on disputed matters of doctrine are “papaloters” or “ultramontanists.” There is a higher authority, they claim: Jesus Christ himself, whose teachings they have properly interpreted, while the pope has spread error and created a crisis in the Church. They applaud every “brave” bishop and Cardinal who has dared to stand up against the regime of Pope Francis and every public letter or petition challenging the teaching of the pope.
Yet to insist that Pope Francis is promulgating doctrinal error through his official teachings is to essentially strip away any absolute assurance of the legitimacy of any Catholic teaching. It’s basically to suggest that the true teaching authority in the Catholic Church is one’s own private judgement of the Magisterium. We all know, however, that this is not what the Church teaches. It doesn’t matter how learned the critic is, or how pure his intentions, or how devoted he or she is to the truth; when one takes matters into one’s own hands and defies God-given authority, one is in error.
Very smart, very logical, very good people reach different conclusions all the time. Moral psychology has shown pretty conclusively that humans don’t form beliefs based on logic. We reach our conclusions based on feelings and cultural assumptions, and then those of us who are skilled at argumentation and logic use those skills to justify our pre-determined conclusions.
If the Church teaches that in some cases that individuals with no magisterial authority can correctly assert that the papal Magisterium is wrong, then the claims of the Catholic Church are invalidated, and we shouldn’t bother having this debate in the first place. It’s not the responsibility of the laity to investigate every papal statement for orthodoxy. That’s been entrusted to the pope and the bishops who are in communion with him.
The Church has a system in place to guide us to understand which teachings are authentic, and which will lead us astray. Much of the teaching on primacy and assent developed during the pontificates of St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict. It is amazing how many self-described devotees of the last two popes have so readily cast aside their teachings on the papacy as soon as they found a pope they didn’t like.
If history has taught us anything, it’s that healing and unity will only come from uniting with the Vicar of Christ. This is an important moment. By resisting and protesting the teachings of Pope Francis, Catholics are at risk of making the divisions even greater. By uniting behind the authentic Magisterium of the Church and extending mercy to one another, however, Catholics can move beyond this chapter and look forward to greater unity within the Church.
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.