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Theologians: Amoris Laetitia needs clarification against ‘heretical’ interpretations

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

Forty-five theologians and clergymen have written to cardinals asking them to request a clarification from Pope Francis that Amoris Laetitia doesn’t contradict Church teaching.

The letter, which has been seen by the Catholic Herald, stresses that it “does not deny or question the personal faith of Pope Francis”. It also praises “valuable elements” in Amoris Laetitia which “make an important contribution to the defence and preaching of the faith”.

The signatories say that, in order for these passages to be truly effective, there should be a clarification of other passages which could mislead some readers. These are given a close theological reading.

The letter has been signed by several distinguished figures, including one of Britain’s best-known theologians and the founder of a French religious community. It has been sent to all 218 cardinals and patriarchs of the Church.

The letter is intended as an appeal to the cardinals rather than a public campaign. Possibly for this reason, the signatories have not yet disclosed their names, though they may do at a future date. The only signatory to have come forward publicly is Dr Joseph Shaw, who teaches philosophy at the University of Oxford and is chairman of the Latin Mass Society.

Dr Shaw, who is acting as spokesman for the group, said last week: “All we are asking is that Pope Francis make clear that putative heretical implications of the document are just that: heretical.”

The letter asks the cardinals and patriarchs to make a request to the Pope to issue a declaration. The declaration would address some false interpretations of the text, to clarify that Amoris Laetitia “does not require any of them to be believed or considered as possibly true”. It asks that the condemnation be made “in a definitive and final manner”.

The letter says that the exhortation does not authoritatively teach anything false, because the Pope does not have authority to do so.

But the signatories say that the “lack of precision” in some passages could lead readers “to interpret them as contradicting the real teachings of the Catholic Church and of divine revelation, and as justifying or requiring the abandonment of these teachings by Catholics in theory and in practice.

“Some cardinals, bishops, and priests, betraying their duty to Jesus Christ and to the care of souls, are already offering interpretations of this sort.”

The letter focuses on 19 statements “whose vagueness or ambiguity permit interpretations that are contrary to faith or morals, or that suggest a claim that is contrary to faith and morals without actually stating it. It also contains statements whose natural meaning would seem to be contrary to faith or morals.”

It points out theological censures which could be applied to these statements: not statements in the document itself, but propositions which might be inferred by a reader.

For instance, of the statement, “The Church… firmly rejects the death penalty”, the letter asks the Pope to clarify that this does not mean “that the death penalty is always and everywhere unjust in itself and therefore cannot ever be rightly inflicted by the State”.

The letter says that such an interpretation – as distinct from Amoris Laetitia’s actual words – should be classed as heretical. It says that an absolute and total ban on the death penalty contradicts the words of Scripture, as well as several instances of authoritative Church teaching. These include St Innocent I’s Letter to Exsuperius, St Pius V’s Catechism of the Council of Trent, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church issued by St John Paul II.

Here, as elsewhere, the letter does not accuse Amoris Laetitia of directly teaching heresy, but rather claims that a natural reading of the words “The Church…firmly rejects the death penalty” could lead people astray from Church teaching.

Many of the letter’s censures relate to Al’s eighth chapter, which has already provoked criticism. The philosopher Robert Spaemann argued that its words on Communion contradicted Church teaching, while Bishop Athanasius Schneider said it could lead to “a fast and easy spreading of heterodox doctrines concerning marriage and moral law”.

The letter addresses similar concerns. It mentions Amoris Laetitia’s claim that someone could “be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin”.

The letter asks the Pope to clarify that this does not mean “that a justified person has not the strength with God’s grace to carry out the objective demands of the divine law, as though any of the commandments of God are impossible for the justified; or as meaning that God’s grace, when it produces justification in an individual, does not invariably and of its nature produce conversion from all serious sin, or is not sufficient for conversion from all serious sin.”

It quotes several statements on this, including the Council of Trent: “If anyone says that the commandments of God are impossible to observe even for a man who is justified and established in grace, let him be anathema”.

On the much-debated question of Communion for the divorced and remarried, the letter says that Amoris Laetitia could lead to false conclusions. It asks the Pope to clarify that the Church should not “abandon her perennial discipline”, which is that the remarried should not receive Communion unless they live as brother and sister.

It cites not only St John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio but also several Bible verses, and statements from the Council of Trent, Paul V, Benedict XIV, Benedict XV, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The letter asks for a condemnation of several other interpretations of Amoris Laetitia. The propositions which it asks to be condemned include: that the sexually active divorced and remarried, if they choose their situation with full knowledge and full consent, can receive sanctifying grace; that it could be morally right for the civilly remarried to have sex with each other; that nobody can go to hell for ever; and that the moral law does not “include negative prohibitions that absolutely forbid particular kinds of action under any and all circumstances”.

Dr Shaw said that Amoris Laetitia had caused “confusion” among “pastors and the lay faithful”, which could only be resolved by “an unambiguous affirmation of authentic Catholic teaching by the Successor of Peter”.