When Pope Francis published Amoris Laetitia five months ago, I predicted that the discussion of the document and its implications for Catholic teaching on marriage and the family would be lively and sometimes acrimonious.
So it has turned out.
The debate took a fresh
turn last week with the publication of theoretically private
correspondence between the Pope and the bishops of his native Argentina
concerning the interpretation of a central point.
Before looking at the contents of the leaked letters, it may be
useful to refresh our memories about Amoris Laetitia and why it is
controversial. Vatican documents rarely hold the public’s attention for
long – though the number of impassioned pundits seems to have increased
during the current papacy.
Early in his pontificate Pope Francis made clear that he wanted the
Synod of Bishops – a worldwide body which since Vatican II has met
periodically to discuss topical issues – to discuss the place of the
family in the world today and its repercussions for the Church.
sign of the importance of the issue, the debate would take place over
two synods in successive years.
It is usual for each synod to be followed by the publication of a
“post-synodal exhortation” where the Pope sums up the bishops’ findings
and adds reflections of his own.
Amoris Laetitia, the exhortation
following these two synods, was the longest papal document in history,
reflecting the complexity of the issues involved and the Church’s desire
to shed light on the crisis confronting the modern family.
But the issue which grabbed most attention was the possibility that
Pope Francis might change the discipline on Communion for the divorced
The Pope had given strong hints from the first months of
his pontificate that he wished to relax the traditional discipline,
which regards marriages contracted by Catholics after divorce and
without annulment of the first marriage as adulterous, constituting a
bar to reception of the Eucharist.
The synod debates proved inconclusive. There was fierce opposition
from many bishops to any relaxing of the discipline, which had been
reaffirmed energetically by Pope St John Paul II.
In the end, a
compromise formula was found, which spoke of re-integrating these
Catholics into the full life of the Church under the guidance of clergy
but did not specify whether this included Communion.
All eyes were on
Would he fling open the door which his favoured theologians had
managed to prise ajar?
When the Pope’s document came, it seemed to steer clear of giving an
unambiguous answer to the question which by now had eclipsed the wider
issues treated at such length in Amoris Laetitia.
But two footnotes in
the most controversial section, Chapter 8, seemed like a nudge and a
wink to those determined to overthrow traditional doctrine in the name
of pastoral openness.
They stressed that subjective factors may diminish
the guilt of objectively sinful situations and affirmed that in some
cases the Church could offer those involved the help of the sacraments.
The ambiguity seemed deliberate – and indeed, the Pope had declared
near the beginning of the document that the Church’s Magisterium could
not be expected to settle every controverted question.
A debate developed along predictable lines. Conservative pastors and
theologians maintained that the Pope was not changing Catholic doctrine.
Others hailed a development of practice, setting aside the letter of
the law in order to offer sinners the mercy which is, for Francis, the
very essence of the Gospel.
The correspondence with the Argentine bishops seems to settle the
argument decisively in favour of those who believe that Amoris
liberalises the practice, if not the doctrine.
The bishops sent a draft document to the Pope for comment. It said
that a process of discernment with pastors might recognise factors that
limit the culpability of divorced and remarried spouses who found
themselves incapable of sexual abstinence.
For such people, they wrote,
“Amoris Laetitia opens the possibility of access to the sacraments of
reconciliation and the Eucharist.”
The Pope responded that “The document
… completely explains the meaning of Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia.
There are no other interpretations.”
In a sequence of events we have become accustomed to under Pope
Francis, the document was leaked, then after a few days confirmed as
authentic by the Vatican.
From now on, it seems clear that the Pope
intends to legitimise a practice which is not only without official
precedent, but was also ruled out by a predecessor he himself has
St John Paul II’s 1981 post-synodal exhortation, Familiaris
Consortio, unambiguously makes continence a pre-condition for the
civilly remarried seeking access to the Eucharist.
The papal intervention presents a twofold difficulty for Catholics
who take seriously the teaching authority of the Church, and of the Pope
as the chief depository of that authority.
First, it is difficult not to see a contradiction between Francis’s
view and the previous teaching, not just of one pope but of his
predecessors as a whole.
This leads us to the second problem, which is even more serious
because it goes beyond any one teaching and touches upon the nature and
scope of papal authority in itself.
Much has been written about the difficulties of harmonising Amoris
Laetitia with previous teaching. The indissolubility of marriage is a
dogma which Francis has no wish to set aside.
But its practical
consequences are the inadmissibility of subsequent unions while a first
spouse still lives.
The prohibition on receiving the Eucharist in a
state of grave sin, and the necessity of a purpose of amendment for
absolution, are equally firm articles of the Catholic faith.
Pope’s implicit relaxation of the discipline not set these aside?
Concern has been so deep and widespread that a group of Catholic
academic theologians, along with some pastors of souls, many of them
based in Britain, have gone so far as to write to the College of
Once more, a letter meant to be private has been made public, and
this has created sufficient concern in the hierarchy to lead to some of
the signatories of the letter being subjected to pressure from their
superiors to distance themselves from its contents.
The authors have
been careful to point out that they are not saying that Pope Francis is a
heretic, but are asking for an official clarification and a
rectification of errors.
Most Catholics will be puzzled, and possibly outraged, at the notion
that a pope might be suspected of teaching error.
Pious repugnance at
the very notion may lie behind the discreet episcopal attempts to
silence the critics, which is otherwise hard to understand when the Pope
himself has called for parrhesia, or courageous frankness, in
discussing the issues.
Some knowledge of history and doctrine is necessary to enable us to
look at the situation calmly. Catholics believe that the Pope is
divinely preserved from error – that he is infallible – only in very
He must, whether presiding over a General
Council or acting on his own authority, make it clear that he intends to
deliver a teaching that will bind the conscience of the faithful and is
In modern times, only the teachings on the Immaculate Conception in
1854 and the Assumption in 1950 have been proclaimed in this manner, and
Francis has made it clear that he is not establishing binding norms –
on the contrary, he has said that he wishes to provoke debate.
The rest of the time the Pope, and the bishops in union with him, are
exercising what we call the Ordinary Magisterium. It is divinely
preserved from error only when it is constant and unanimous. John Paul
II affirmed that the impossibility of women’s ordination, for example,
is an example of this type of infallible teaching.
Sometimes a teaching is not derived from unanimous tradition, but
arises as a response to a contingent situation. Vatican II said that we
must accord the teachings of the Ordinary Magisterium a “religious
assent of mind and will”. This is not the same as the assent of faith,
but is essentially loyal obedience to the Church’s authority.
So what happens if there appears to be a contradiction in the
teaching of the Ordinary Magisterium? Essentially there are three
The first is that Pope Francis is right and his predecessors were
wrong. The difficulty is that he is one and they are many – and an
oft-repeated teaching carries more authority than one issued by only one
pope, and in a less solemn form.
The second is that Pope Francis is in error. It may happen that a
pope errs in a non-infallible teaching, and he himself or his successor
subsequently corrects it. In the 14th century, for example, John XXII
taught a doctrine on the destiny of souls after death which he later
recanted and which was judged heretical by his successor.
The third possibility is that the contradiction is only apparent and
that there has been a development of doctrine which opens up new
possibilities without repudiating what has been taught previously. This
is the answer favoured by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, seemingly Pope
Francis’s preferred spokesman on this issue.
The problem is that, according to the great exponent of the principle
of development, our own Blessed John Henry Newman, development is only
authentic if it preserves what has gone before and does not contradict
Cardinal Schönborn has affirmed that this is the case for Amoris
Laetitia, but I am not convinced that he has demonstrated it with
The First Vatican Council taught that “the Holy Spirit was promised
to the successors of Peter not so that they might … make known some new
doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and
faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the
The controversy surrounding Amoris Laetitia has made it
clear that there is work to be done in showing how its teaching may be
squared with that of previous popes, and also how the doctrine and
discipline surrounding marriage relates to the deposit of faith.
Pope Francis often appears impatient with theological debate and even
uninterested in setting out a coherent intellectual account of the
orthodoxy which must undergird orthopraxis (correct conduct).
as a whole, however, cannot long do without such an account if her
claims to teach authoritatively are to possess any real credibility.
The prerequisite for achieving that goal is an intellectually honest
recognition of the difficulties in the current exercise of the papal
Magisterium and an evenhanded recognition of the right to question and