Some thoughts about the Buenos Aires letter

Some thoughts about the Buenos Aires letter

Posted by Joseph Shaw on Tuesday, December 05, 2017

In this post I address two questions.

The first is: what does it mean for Pope Francis to promulgate his letter to the Bishops of Buenons Aires, on their guidlines for the application of Amoris laetitia, in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis (AAS), the official record of Papal acts?

The second question is: does this procedure create an obligation on Catholic to believe something they were not previously obliged to believe?

So, on the first question. The Pope can speak as Pope and as a private person. In the latter capacity what he says may be of interest as an indication of his thinking, but it wouldn’t bind the faithful to believe anything. Normally private letters wouldn’t be considered part of the magisterium. Putting something in the AAS is a way of making it part of the magisterium. It is a bit surprising to do this with a private letter but I think there are precedents. Certainly many things are in the AAS which were addressed in the first place to particular groups, such as Pius XII’s famous talk to midwives authorising NFP. Putting such things in the AAS is a way of directing them to the whole Faithful.

On the second question: There is, however, more to making something part of the magisterium, and therefore binding on the consciences of Catholics, than simply asserting that it is magisterial. The content of the document is also relevant. ‘Legal positivists’ claim that laws are valid just by virtue of a valid procedure approving them, but this is false and has never been accepted by the Church. Even in the case of human laws, a law will fail to bind in conscience if it is impossible to follow, for example if it is incomprehensible, retroactive, or totally unreasonable. In those cases it fails to be a binding law, or, really, a law at all. Law is by definition something which guides action, and such putative laws are incapable of doing that.

In a similar way, if we are to talk of a papal magisterial act binding Catholics to believe something, then it must be in accordance with the existing magisterium, and it must be possible to understand what it means. Pope Francis’ letter fails on both counts.

Let’s consider the content of the letter in more detail. The letter makes it clear that Pope Francis approves of the guidelines produced by the Bishops of Buenos Aires, but it does not say that these are doctrinally precise and binding on everyone, as opposed to being a reasonable local adaptation of general principles. The attitude of Pope Francis expressed on other occasions, in fact, points more to the latter interpretation. Cf. Amoris laetitia 3:

Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs.

So the most the letter says is that these guidelines are not in error.

The guidelines themselves are not entirely clear. They appear to say that a couple living in a state of objective sin may receive Holy Communion without repenting of their sin, since repentence would involve an intention not to return to the sin, and the guidlines’ key scenario is one in which the couple have no such intention. The guidlines do not, however, propose the theological presuppositions which would have to be true if this position were to be possible. For example, they do not say that unrepentant mortal sin is not an impediment to the fruitful reception of Holy Communion; nor that Canon 915 (forbidding the giving of Holy Communion to those in objective states of grave sin) is invalid or somehow innaplicable; nor that penitents can be sacramentally absolved of deliberate sins without expressing contrition; nor that the category of mortal sin does not exist; nor that genital sexuality outside marriage is not gravely sinful; nor that a civil union lacking the form necessary for a valid Catholic marriage (let alone: in the absence of the annullment of a previous marriage of one or more of the parties), is a ‘marriage’ in the sense that sex for the couple is not gravely sinful.

It wouldn’t, of course, have to say all of these things, but on the face of it one or more of them, or other equally impossible claims, would have to be true if it were to be true that couples in illicit unions should be allowed to receive Holy Communion.

On their most natural interpretation, the guidelines, in short, imply a contradiction with one or more of some very fundamental legal and moral principles, which Catholics are obliged to believe. Pope Francis has never attempted to deny these principles directly; on the contrary, Amoris laetitia implies strongly (in section 3) that it is not concerned with changing the teaching of the Church, and this has often been reiterated by the Pope’s supporters since then. In light of this, giving magisterial authority to this letter of approval of these guidelines seems besides the point.

It is also innacurate to say that this latest papal act ‘answers the dubia’, since the dubia were precisely about these underlying principles which, on the face of it, rule out the position which appears to be implied by a natural reading of Amoris (and, still more clearly, by the Buenos Aires guidlines). Pope Francis’ letter, and the guidlines themselves, steadfastly decline to say which, if any, of those principles are false, or how their truth might be compatible with the position which they appear to propose.

To summarise, there is no act this or any pope can perform which can free Catholics from the obligation to believe those truths of Faith and Morals which are taught infallibly by the Ordinary and Extraordinary Magisterium. Among those truths are many which appear to conflict with the Buenos Aires guidelines – though exactly which ones will depend on how those guidelines are defended. (Herein lies the unclarity.) Insofar as the guidlines are incompatible with those principles, including Canon 915, the publication of Pope Francis’ letter in the AAS does not make it any more possible for Catholics to accept them as doctrinally sound.

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