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Scholars divided over authority of Amoris Laetitia

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

The debate over Amoris Laetitia has continued, after an article in the Vatican newspaper said the document required “religious submission of will and intellect”.

The article in L’Osservatore Romano, by Spanish ecclesiology professor Fr Salvador Pié-Ninot, argued that Amoris Laetitia was part of the “ordinary magisterium” and that Catholics should respond with “the basic attitude of sincere acceptance and practical implementation.”

But Kurt Martens, a professor of canon law at the Catholic University of American in Washington D.C., told the Catholic Herald that different parts of a document may require different kind of reception.

Professor Pié-Ninot cited a 1990 instruction from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which says that popes can teach through the ordinary magisterium even when they do not definitively proclaim a teaching. Professor Martens said this had to be understood in the light of the CDF’s 1998 clarification. This “clearly says that one has to look at the nature of the documents, the frequent repetition of the same doctrine, and the tenor of the verbal expression”.

Professor Martens added: “Pope Francis has declared several times that he does not change Church teaching, and that his exhortation is merely pastoral in nature”. Therefore, he argued, Amoris Laetitia has to be interpreted in line with previous Church teaching.

Professor Martens said that, according to canon law, as updated in 1998, the correct interpretation was that given by Cardinal Raymond Burke: that Amoris Laetitia “by its very nature, does not propose new doctrine and discipline, but applies the perennial doctrine and discipline to the situation of the world at the time”.

Professor Martens said that Amoris Laetitia “is indeed a document that partially exercises the ordinary magisterium, in that it repeats the previously proposed teaching of the Church. Amoris Laetitia must therefore be interpreted within the tradition of the Church.”

Amoris Laetitia has caused conflicting interpretations. Last month a group of 45 priests and theologians wrote to the world’s cardinals asking them to request a clarification from the Pope.

The signatories said that some possible interpretations of Amoris Laetitia were contrary to Church teaching – for instance, on the death penalty, the possibility of keeping the moral law, and the reception of Communion by the divorced and remarried.

The spokesman for the signatories, Dr Joseph Shaw, said last month: “All we are asking is that Pope Francis make clear that putative heretical implications of the document are just that: heretical.”

Dr Anna Silvas of the University of New England, who has written a critique of Amoris Laetitia, said of Professor Pié-Ninot’s argument: “These solemn lectures on the necessity of obeying magisterial teaching which disobeys magisterial teaching do not very much impress.”