It’s fairly evident that the debate over Amoris Laetitia has mostly stayed within the domain of a very small subset of Catholics: those who follow Vatican affairs closely, those who consume EWTN and other Catholic media, and those who enjoy reading papal encyclicals and theological writing.
The typical practicing Catholic, thankfully, is quite unaware of the civil war that’s raging in academia, within the walls of the Vatican, and (perhaps most intensely) on social media. In many ways, these Catholics are the lifeblood of the Church: they are prayerful, receptive, generous, humble, and joyful. Their experience of the faith is personal and communal, and they trust the Holy Spirit and the hierarchy to work out the finer points of Church doctrine and discipline.
These are the Catholics who Pope Francis is clearly most concerned with, especially the poor and those on the margins, the hungry and hurting, the questioning but open, the good-hearted and sincere disciples who paradoxically extend to the margins of our society but are closest to the heart of Christ.
The Church is made up of many different types, however. Diversity is a good thing, and it’s how the Church has always been. For every hundred Catholics who follow the “little way” of St. Therese, there might be one who dives deeply and seriously into the vast theological and intellectual tradition of the Church, studying the intricacies of moral theology or scripture or canon law.
From these intellectual (for lack of a better word) Catholics come our clergy, our theologians, our writers, and many of the leaders in our parishes and other Catholic organizations. Without such Christians we would not have the body of teaching that has nourished and sustained the Church for centuries, beginning with St. Paul and the Early Church Fathers and continuing through the Scholastic tradition, all the way up to the theologians of today. Their work is vital.
Few will argue, however, that the most effective of the intellectually-inclined Catholics are those whose virtues and holiness exceed the quality of their writing. St. Thomas Aquinas wasn’t called the “Angelic Doctor” because he was a great theologian, but because of his great holiness and spiritual life. When a follower of Christ is close to those in the peripheries, he or she can see truth more clearly because the Light of Christ is illuminated in the poor, suffering, and wounded. Mercy and Truth must always grow together.
Pope Francis spoke to this, and I wrote about it, when he laid out his vision of the priesthood at the Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday of this year:
“Closeness, dear brothers, is crucial for an evangelizer because it is a key attitude in the Gospel (the Lord uses it to describe his Kingdom). We can be certain that closeness is the key to mercy, for mercy would not be mercy unless, like a Good Samaritan, it finds ways to shorten distances. But I also think we need to realize even more that closeness is also the key to truth; not just the key to mercy, but the key to truth.”
Also remember, Aquinas wasn’t always right. The most famous example was his denial of the Immaculate Conception, which wasn’t defined dogmatically until 1854. For centuries, his order, the Dominicans held to his teaching that Mary was not free of original sin from the moment of her conception. Nevertheless, at the news of the promulgation of the dogma that Mary was conceived without sin, the Dominicans rang their church bells in thanksgiving and immediately accepted the newly defined doctrine.
Indeed, it takes a great deal of humility to accept that at times our reasoning is wrong, or that the Church actually knows better than we do. All of our minds have been corrupted by sin, and the most intelligent and rational among us can come to faulty conclusions. It’s not a matter of intelligence or research or good will. Sometimes we make bad calls.
This brings us to today’s debate over Amoris Laetitia. It appears that most of those who have an opinion on the matter have staked out what they believe is the most well-reasoned conclusion.
For some of those skeptical of Pope Francis’s position, this is a great doctrinal crisis on par with the Reformation or the Arian heresy, and the Church is on the verge of collapse over what they perceive as a violation of foundational moral principles by Pope Francis.
This brings me back to the typical devout Catholic. Let’s call him Joe. “Joe Catholic.” Joe Catholic is a dedicated, prayerful, orthodox, faithful follower of Christ. He goes to Mass several times a week, prays a daily rosary, teaches his children their faith, is a good husband and father, gives back to his community, and has a strong prayer life. He doesn’t watch EWTN or read the Catholic blogs.
One day, the debate over communion for the divorced and remarried in Amoris Laetitia comes to his attention. He does some research, and is bombarded with the talking points from both sides. Both sides have strong arguments, both claim to be orthodox. Where should he turn?
Papal critics say he should turn to the “unchanging tradition of the Church.” The problem is, which part of the Tradition should he turn to? The part that says, “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” (Lumen Gentium 25), or the part that says, “the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist” (Familiaris Consortio 84)?
Is Joe Catholic to believe those who say that Amoris Laetitia is a rupture in tradition, or a development in continuity with it? Prominent prelates and theologians have become cemented in their opinions. There are people he admires and respects on both sides of the divide.
Fortunately, Joe knows where to turn when there is a division in the Church. He knows his Catechism:
“The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor, ‘is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful.’ ‘For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 882)
He also knows that, “The college or body of bishops has no authority unless united with the Roman Pontiff, Peter’s successor, as its head” (CCC, 883). Therefore, a bishop in opposition to the pope has no authority in the matter. If a bishop has no authority, then certainly a lay writer or theologian doesn’t either.
How is Joe to receive a teaching such as that contained in Amoris, even if it’s not an infallible act of the Magisterium? Well, the Catechism has this to say:
“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.” (CCC, 892)
Joe Catholic is assured, in essence, that he can turn to the officially promulgated teachings of the Church and be assured he will not find error. He’s not obliged to obtain a doctorate in theology and come to his own conclusions about the question. Even if he did, there’s no guarantee that he’d come to the correct conclusion. When left to our own devices, we humans can come up with some pretty unusual beliefs.
In short, Joe Catholic can be assured that the ordinary magisterium is orthodox. He doesn’t have to worry about whether Church teachings are, in fact, Church teaching.
The doctrine of Papal Primacy liberates the faithful. The Vicar of Christ offers us assurance that the Church will never defect from the truth, and that the gates of hell will never prevail against it. Christ did not found a Church so that we can worry and argue over whether it’s deviated from the Truth. Christ founded a Church to bring us all to eternal salvation, and fidelity to His Church, in communion with His Vicar, is what will lead us there.