Pope makes liberal interpretation of Amoris Laetitia the official one

Acta Apostolicae Sedis (AAS) is the Vatican's organ for promulgating the Official Acts of the Apostolic See. Rotate Caeli reports that this month's edition contains Pope Francis' infamous Letter to the Buenos Aires Bishops. AAS not only published this letter, declaring that there are "no other interpretations" ("No hay otras interpretaciones") of Amoris Laetitia other than those of the Buenos Aires bishops, but it also published the full Buenos Aires guidelines themselves, which permit Holy Communion in some cases for couples in a state of permanent and public adultery who are not committed to living in complete continence.

Most significantly, AAS upgrades Pope Francis' private letter to the Buenos Aires bishops to the official magisterial status of an "Apostolic Letter" ("Epistola Apostolica") - AND it includes a special rescript as an addendum by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State. This rescript declares that Pope Francis expressly intends that BOTH documents - the pope's letter and the Buenos Aires guidelines themselves- bear the character of his "authentic Magisterium", and that the pope personally ordered their publication in AAS and on the Vatican website.

What this means is that it can no longer be argued that the problem with Amoris Laetitia is merely with "liberal bishops" who interpret it in contradiction to the Magisterium, but with the pope whose manifest interpretation of his own document is impossible to square with the perennial doctrine and discipline of the Catholic faith.

Vatican journalist Marco Tosatti had this to say yesterday:

"[T]he “private” letter of Pope Francis to the Argentine bishops was published in the October 2016 edition of Acta Apostolicae Sedis, after they had issued directives for the application of chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia (the chapter with the famous footnotes on giving communion to the divorced and remarried). Directives which, as has been noted and emphasized here, are anything but clear.

The publication of this letter in the Acta is accompanied by a brief note from the Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, together with an official rescript from a papal audience in June 2017, announcing that the Pope himself wanted the two documents — the guidelines and the letter — published on the website of Acta Apostolicae Sedis.

The announcement can only serve to further fuel the confusion and uncertainty surrounding the controversial apostolic exhortation as well as the Pope’s way of doing things, which yet again appears to be a far cry from the clarity and straightforwardness that many of the faithful would expect [from the Holy Father]. He has given no response to the dubia Cardinals, no response to the letters, petitions and other initiatives written by scholars, theologians, and ordinary faithful people who have been confused by the deliberate ambiguity of the document. Yet, at the same time, he has given a veneer of officiality to one letter sent to one member of one bishops’ conference.

To what end? To obligate all to give religiosum obsequium [religious assent] to a magisterium expressed in oblique and ambiguous forms, or to respond without committing himself in a direct response which would express the mind of the Pope in an unequivocal manner to the doubtful and perplexed? One is given the feeling that the only thing this does is cause the simple believer annoyance with the Pope’s comportment, which may be defined as a “pretext” in the worst sense of that term."

Up to this point, many have argued that any characterisation of Pope Francis as trying to undermine the Magisterium is false. "Doctrine has not changed!" they insist. This is admirable loyalty up to a point. Surely that point has been reached? The trajectory of this papacy has been clear every step of the way:

  • The posturing of the German Church since the 70's, lead by Cardinal Kasper, in an attempt to modify the pastoral practice of the Church.
  • Pope Francis' consistent promotion of Cardinal Kasper.
  • Pope Francis' displeasure at the outcome of the synod process.
  • The rushed publication of an overly long & complex document.
  • The startling omission of Veritas Splendor.
  • The fact that, over the Summer, the German bishops said that those in “irregular” situations could approach the sacraments. The Polish bishops said they couldn’t. The Vatican did not step in to clarify. 
  • The Buenos Aires guidelines & the Pope's speedy affirmation of such.
  • The dubia & the Pope's refusal to respond to them.
  • The fact that the dubia asked for clarity about a document that was deliberately written to be ambiguous.
  • The utter silence in defence of the document:
The usual voices that one might expect to further explicate the argument of Amoris Laetitia have not done so. The congregations for the faith and for liturgy — most relevant to the doctrinal and sacramental questions involved — have not offered a word in support of Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia.
  • Antonio Spadaro's social media attacks on critics of the document.
Why is everyone so powerless to do anything about this? Pope Francis is like some sort of juggernaut with no brakes.

These are people's lives he is playing with. What of all those faithful who have suffered to keep to Church teaching on these issues despite great personal difficulty, staying single rebuffing suitors, bringing up children on their own sometimes under great hardship? Who can now interpret what the Church teaches on this issue?

I'm sure we'll hear all the usual stuff from the Canon Lawyers about how the Pope needs to change this and dot that if he wants to make it a reality and that will never happen, but popular piety rarely follows the mainstream of theology in any case. People think he has changed this already and, anecdotally at least, we have thousands of examples of divorced and remarried Catholics coming forward to receive the blessed sacrament. More profaning of the Sacrament, another blow to the sacred reverence due to this great gift, a further erosion of faith in the real presence and ultimately the Church as a whole.

But we should remember that the Argentinian guidelines are not the Kasper proposal, as Fr de Souza points out in this article. Fr de Souza says:

"First, it is not news that Pope Francis does not hold to the tradition on this point. That was first indicated in April 2014, when he phoned a woman in Argentina who claimed — quite plausibly, as there was no correction in Rome — the Holy Father told her that, despite being divorced and living with a man outside of marriage, she should go to Communion and switch parishes if her pastor would not permit her to do so. The Holy Father’s position was confirmed at the conclusion of the 2015 synod, when he spoke of those who favored the tradition as desiring to throw “dead stones” at the suffering.

Second, the continuing news is that the Holy Father does not teach what he apparently believes, as neither a private phone call to a lady in Argentina nor a private letter, no matter how conveniently leaked, constitutes an exercise of the magisterium.

It is more than interesting to know what the Holy Father thinks, and certainly newsworthy if it appears to be at odds with settled teaching. But that Pope Francis expresses himself in unofficial ways that are difficult to square with the Catholic tradition — well, that is not news either.

Third, and most important, the Buenos Aires bishops did not, in fact, teach what the headlines said that they had taught.

The bishops first speak about leading couples to live their whole lives in “the light of the Gospel.” That is not pious boilerplate, for on the question of divorce and remarriage, the Kasper proposal is the position of the Pharisees, corrected explicitly by Jesus in the Gospels. The guidelines explicitly state that, for many such couples, their path will not lead to reception of the sacraments. In cases where “both partners are Christians walking the path of faith,” the Buenos Aires bishops state that they should follow the traditional teaching and refrain from conjugal relations if they wish to receive the sacraments.

Only then do the guidelines speak about the situation — presumably for couples where one party is not a Christian or is not practicing the faith — where abstaining from conjugal relations is “not feasible.” The situation foreseen here is apparently that of one party desiring such abstinence, but the other refusing and threatening dire consequences in the absence of conjugal life. The first party then agrees to sexual relations against his or her will, for example, to preserve the welfare of the children.

In such cases, the practicing Catholic party may not be guilty of serious sin and could therefore, in some cases, be admitted to the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist. This case, it should be noted, could be treated in such a manner even before Amoris Laetitia, according to application of the standard principles of moral theology and confessional practice, analogous to the determination of the moral culpability of contraception when the spouses do not agree.

The Buenos Aires bishops then immediately warn that any such admission to the sacraments is not “unlimited” and that in some of these cases such admission would be “particularly outrageous.” Further, they hasten to add that in practice admission to Communion may be best done secretly, so as to avoid the scandal warned against, for example, in Familiaris Consortio, St. John Paul II’s 1991 apostolic exhortation on the role of the Christian family in the modern world. Administering holy Communion in secret is a rather clear indication that the Buenos Aires guidelines consider even this complex and unusual case to be on shaky ground.

The guidelines of the Buenos Aires bishops would not permit the approach of the Holy Father himself in the April 2014 phone call to Argentina. They would not permit the Kasper proposal. They, in fact, may not permit anything new at all, despite the clear desire to frame such things in such a way as not to hand their former archbishop another apparent defeat, this time is his own city.

The real news from Buenos Aires is that, in the very city where one presumes Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio had been privately advising such couples to go to Communion during his years as archbishop, the bishops did not endorse the Kasper proposal and offered guidelines that are far less permissive than reported.

Indeed, it is possible to read the Buenos Aires guidelines as consistent with the Church’s traditional teaching — not without some difficulty, to be sure, but that is true about Amoris Laetitia as a whole.

Far from breathing new life into the Kasper proposal, the Buenos Aires guidelines may well be where the proposal definitively died — and the Holy Father finally accepted it."

It is arguable whether the Buenos Aires guidelines permit Holy Communion for those in a state of mortal sin, I think they do, in No.6. But as I state here, the pope's inclusion of this in the AAS holds no authority as it does not address Canon 915, although this is a legal rather than a theological approach to the question. Equally one could say that it cannot be binding on Catholics because it is either unclear or contradicts what we are already bound to believe.


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