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A turning point in the Amoris debate

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

In the three months since its publication, the Pope’s exhortation Amoris Laetitia has been described as brilliant, erroneous, confusing, groundbreaking and unremarkable. It has opened up divisions – but what is at the heart of the divisions may be something deeper than the usual to-and-fro of Church politics.

Last week, a group of Catholic theologians and clergy made the most serious intervention yet. It isn’t quite right to call it a “challenge”, because the theologians wrote – in a letter to cardinals seen by the Catholic Herald – that they neither accused the Pope of teaching heresy, nor thought the document unambiguously contradicted Church teaching.

It’s the ambiguity that’s the question: the signatories of the letter – who include some distinguished names, including one of Britain’s best-known theologians – say that they fear a “natural reading” of the text will lead Catholics into error.

To take one of the 19 passages cited in the letter, this passage could be read in several different ways: “It … can no longer simply be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace. More is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule. A subject may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding ‘its inherent values’, or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin.”

“Irregular” is not defined – though the reader can be fairly sure this means “a sexual relationship which isn’t a valid marriage”. Also ambiguous is “More is involved here”: clearly in any human situation, there are many things “involved”, so what is the sentence adding? Is it dropping a hint? Again, “decide otherwise” – otherwise than what?

Such questions can go round and round. But the theologians’ letter, without claiming to have discerned one meaning in the text, simply explains what would be an untenable reading: “that a person with full knowledge of a divine law can sin by choosing to obey that law”.

As with the other passages, the theologians are asking cardinals to ask the Pope to rule out such an interpretation.

Joseph Shaw, the group’s spokesman, has said: “It is hardly controversial that the document is being read in widely different ways, some of them quite at odds with the perennial teaching of the Church.”

But others argue that we shouldn’t be picking over the document. The American theologian Pia de Solenni says that although the ambiguities are “problematic”, “we have a 2,000-year tradition that clarifies any ambiguity. In my opinion, our time would be better spent constructively working to strengthen marriage.” Isn’t the document already being misinterpreted, though? “Sure, some will use one opportunity to advance their own agenda,” says de Solenni. “But that’s when the Church (not just the hierarchy) needs all the more to articulate and live clearly Church teachings.”

The need to show Catholic truth in deeds as well as words is itself a major theme of Amoris Laetitia. The signatories, for their part, say the truth cannot properly emerge unless it is distinguished from false readings.

Is Pope Francis likely to respond by issuing a clarification? The Pope has previously backtracked after criticism: he removed a statement about invalid marriages from an official transcript, and said remarks about Ukraine, made in a joint statement with Patriarch Kirill, were “debatable”.

But Francis has not been inclined to discuss the exhortation in depth: asked about a much-debated phrase in the text, he said he couldn’t remember it. When pressed, Francis said that the best interpreter is Cardinal Christoph Schönborn. But Cardinal Schönborn’s remarks have themselves been subject to very different interpretations – so the ambiguity has not been resolved.

That is one great virtue of the theologians’ letter: it makes plain what is and isn’t at stake, and suggests that the real dividing line is not between pro-and anti-Francis, or rigorism and gentleness, but over Church teaching. Catholics may be misled about doctrine, the letter says – and these are the issues which need to be clarified.

Regardless of whether the cardinals do appeal to the Pope, and whether he issues the requested clarification, a new benchmark has been set for theological debate about the document.