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Reading the fine print in Amoris Laetitia

Copies of Pope Francis's apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (CNS)

There is a touch of farce about the furtive footnotes of Amoris Laetitia, which have left reporters puzzled and perplexed. In a document of unprecedented length, why would the apparently critical conclusion be relegated to the now famous footnote 351? When asked on the return flight from Greece about it, the Holy Father dismissed its importance, saying he couldn’t remember it. But he directed journalists to the comments introducing Amoris Laetitia by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, who specifically addressed the importance of footnote 351. So are the footnotes foundational or forgettable?

The footnote follies are important. Footnotes in magisterial documents are meant to show continuity with previous magisterial teaching, as well as help shed light on the current text. They are intended to strengthen the current teaching by demonstrating its lineage. But what if the footnotes don’t appear to mean what they are intended to mean?

Footnote 344 is one of several that illustrate the problem, and is perhaps most indicative. Pope Francis is pointing out that various subjective factors might mitigate or even extenuate moral culpability for objectively sinful acts. The footnote says: “John Paul II, in his critique of the category of ‘fundamental option’, recognised that ‘doubtless there can occur situations which are very complex and obscure from a psychological viewpoint, and which have an influence on the sinner’s subjective culpability’ (Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia 17 [December 2, 1984]).”

It appears straightforward, but it’s not. Much of the focus of the two synods was on whether John Paul’s Familiaris Consortio had to be upheld, or could be left aside. (Cardinal Schönborn said that Amoris Laetitia upheld Familiaris Consortio.) Yet the 1984 Reconciliatio et Paenitentia – the post-synodal apostolic exhortation on the Sacrament of Reconciliation – is equally relevant. In Reconciliatio et Paenitentia 17, John Paul treats at length the exact same material as Pope Francis does in Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia. So the editors evidently decided that they simply could not ignore what John Paul taught there, and should reference it.

What does the reader find when he goes back to check that paragraph? The teaching there does not appear, at first glance, to correspond to the teaching of Amoris Laetitia. A detailed textual comparison might make the case, but on its face the referenced text does not support what it is claimed to support.

This must be described as editorial mischief. I don’t expect the Holy Father himself waded through all 391 footnotes and followed them up. He already indicated on the plane that he could not remember the most important one. So the mischief here must be attributed to those who edited Amoris Laetitia. In footnote 344, the cited portion of Reconciliatio et Paenitentia 17 indicates that the subjective culpability can be reduced by various factors. Yet the very next line in that text states directly: “But from a consideration of the psychological sphere one cannot proceed to the construction of a theological category, which is what the ‘fundamental option’ precisely is, understanding it in such a way that it objectively changes or casts doubt upon the traditional concept of mortal sin.”

And the lines immediately after that would seem a very direct warning about the approach taken in Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia: “While every sincere and prudent attempt to clarify the psychological and theological mystery of sin is to be valued, the Church nevertheless has a duty to remind all scholars in this field of the need to be faithful to the word of God that teaches us also about sin. She likewise has to remind them of the risk of contributing to a further weakening of the sense of sin in the modern world.”

How then is the reader to interpret footnote 344? The citation is selective at best, not in keeping with the main thrust of the paragraph from which it is taken. Does the footnote therefore nullify Amoris Laetitia? That cannot be the intent of Pope Francis. Or does the footnote reinterpret the entire teaching of Reconciliatio et Paenitentia 17, which is equally implausible? Or is the footnote simply mischievous, presenting the illusion of continuity?

Even more striking is that, having referenced Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, Amoris Laetitia ignores its most relevant section, entitled “some more delicate cases”, in which John Paul writes: “On this matter, which also deeply torments our pastoral hearts, it seemed my precise duty to say clear words in the apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio, as regards the case of the divorced and remarried, and likewise the case of Christians living together in an irregular union.”

Amoris Laetitia suffers from selective citations throughout which, though apparently clever in the short term, will diminish the enduring value of this magisterial text by undermining its continuity with authoritative teaching in the recent past.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of Convivium magazine.

This article first appeared in the April 29 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To download the entire issue for free with our new app, go here.