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Tug of war over Amoris

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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. As a 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 and remarried. 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 Francis. 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 canonised. 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. Does the 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 Cardinals.

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 specific circumstances. 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 irrevocable.

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 possibilities.

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 it. Cardinal Schönborn has affirmed that this is the case for Amoris Laetitia, but I am not convinced that he has demonstrated it with compelling argument.

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 Apostles.” 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). The Church 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 debate.

This article first appeared in the September 23 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.