The battle over Amoris Laetitia seemed to be joined anew by the guidelines, endorsed by Pope Francis himself, of the Buenos Aires bishops. That has been covered extensively in these pages, but it seems that the larger picture might have been missed. The Buenos Aires guidelines indicate that the magisterial impact of Amoris Laetitia is limited even in the present and unlikely to endure in the future.
A fortnight ago I suggested that the governance reforms of Pope Francis regarding finances and sexual abuse had been significantly rolled back by the same pope because, being improvised without consultation of all the relevant parties, they lacked a solid foundation. Magisterial teaching is a much more serious matter, but the same principle applies. While in theory a pope only need teach something for its impact to be felt, in practice the degree to which a teaching endures depends on the clarity of its expression, the persuasiveness of its argument, and the consultation that precedes its promulgation.
Leaving aside the substantive content of the letter to Buenos Aires, it represents a significant departure from the traditional exercise of the papal magisterium. Indeed, its improvisational character indicates that is magisterial impact will be as passing as the Holy Father’s now abandoned governance reforms.
The papal magisterium is a serious matter, which is why the Catholic tradition has developed a comprehensive taxonomy of the levels at which it is exercised. We have seen recent popes take great care to indicate when they were not exercising their magisterium. Benedict XVI did so in regard to his trilogy Jesus of Nazareth, and St John Paul II did so in relation to the historical analysis contained in the encyclical letter Centesimus Annus.
Amoris Laetitia itself was deliberately ambiguous on the most controverted question of whether the traditional teaching and practice related to marriage and the Eucharist remained. In the absence of any clear teaching to the contrary, the presumption would be that traditional teaching held. Ambiguity – all the more so when deliberately chosen – cannot be retroactively clarified by means of private letters, no matter how cleverly leaked. The magisterium is a public act; there is no magisterium by stealth.
The Buenos Aires guidelines are not, in fact, an endorsement of the Kasper proposal, but may only permit what was already permissible in very unusual circumstances. Indeed, even in such circumstances when reception of Holy Communion may be received, the guidelines speak of perhaps doing it in secret, so that people are not confused by an apparently suspect practice.
There is something of that in the Holy Father’s letter, written privately only to be leaked later. If something is genuinely believed to be true and good, it is not usually hidden, only to be glimpsed later in an unofficial manner. Whatever the letter to Buenos Aires regarding Amoris Laetitia is attempting to do will not endure, as its very character is unsuitable for an enduring magisterial act.
There is an instructive contrast between Amoris Laetitia and Veritatis Splendor, the 1993 encyclical on moral theology. The contrast is pertinent because, while Amoris Laetitia seeks to obscure the clarity of Familiaris Consortio and Sacramentum Caritatis, its analysis of the moral act is most difficult to square with the entire teaching of Veritatis Splendor. A hundred letters, private or otherwise, would not be sufficient to reconcile the two.
That there would be an encyclical on moral theology was announced in an apostolic letter, Spiritus Domini, in 1987. Written for the bicentennial of death of Alphonsus Liguori, that letter, written by St John Paul II, identifies the need to correct various moral analyses that are not consistent with the Catholic tradition.
“This Apostolic See, for its part, will not omit to make its contribution to this effort by treating the issues of the foundations of moral theology more fully and more deeply in a document, shortly to be released,” wrote John Paul.
“Shortly to be released” meant that Veritatis Splendor was published more than seven years later, in August 1993. There was a repeatedly extended consultation with bishops and scholars the world over, with numerous revised drafts. More than 20 years later, Veritatis Splendor remains foundational to any examination of Catholic moral teaching, both in speculative theology or pastoral practice.
Amoris Laetitia, in its drafting, deliberation and delivery, is simply not nearly as substantial as Veritatis Splendor. In a careful examination, therefore, of their competing moral visions, Amoris Laetitia’s long-term impact will be minimal.
The real news from Buenos Aires is that what the bishops proposed was very limited and perhaps not even new. Even in the Holy Father’s hometown, Amoris Laetitia lacked the heft to undo either Familiaris Consortio or Veritatis Splendor. Perhaps that is why Pope Francis thought it better to treat the matter privately, not calling attention to the reality that the limited impact of Amoris Laetitia is already passing away.
This article first appeared in the September 30 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.