On the Pope, the Argentine bishops, and the meaning of ‘magisterial authority’

On the Pope, the Argentine bishops, and the meaning of ‘magisterial authority’

By Phil Lawler | Dec 15, 2017

Several readers have written in recent days to question why this site has offered no editorial commentary on the Vatican announcement that the Pope’s letter to the Argentine bishops on the implementation of Amoris Laetitia should be regarded as magisterial teaching. Two or three readers, going further, have complained that we have given short shrift to a news story of enormous importance.

While I understand these readers’ concerns, I disagree. I did not—and still do not—see this story as particularly important. Not much was changed by the appearance of the Pope’s letter in Acta Apostolicae Sedis, or by Cardinal Parolin’s announcement that the papal statement was magisterial. I say this for three reasons:

First, a private letter from the Pope cannot be seen on the same level as a formal papal document, even if that letter is later made public. Insofar as Pope Francis made a magisterial statement on marriage, he made it in Amoris Laetitia. Keep in mind that the flurry of interest in the letter to the Argentine bishops involves the interpretation of that apostolic exhortation—that is, the proper understanding of a papal statement that has already been made. And Amoris Laetitia has certainly been given plenty of coverage on this site.

Second, the most controversial aspect of Amoris Laetitia is the suggestion—a suggestion, not a clear statement—that Catholics who are divorced and remarried may under some circumstances receive the Eucharist without making a commitment to live in abstinence. As canon-law expert Ed Peter has explained, the Code of Canon Law (specifically Canon 915) requires priests to withhold Communion from Catholics in those circumstances. No one disputes the authority of Pope Francis to change canon law, but he has not changed Canon 915, and so it remains in force, with its own “magisterial authority.”

The Roman Pontiff can speak with authority on questions of faith and morals, but he cannot overrule the laws of logic. In his letter to the Argentine bishops, applauding their understanding of his apostolic exhortation Pope Francis declared: “There are no other interpretations.” But there are other interpretations. Some bishops say that Amoris Laetitia upholds the traditional teaching of the Church; others say that the document changes those teachings. These interpretations are incompatible. The Argentine bishops’ document, like the Pope’s apostolic exhortation, leaves crucial questions unanswered. Until those questions are answered clearly, nothing much is accomplished by the claim that the reigning confusion has “magisterial authority.”

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8 comments on “On the Pope, the Argentine bishops, and the meaning of ‘magisterial authority’

  1. UPDATE: ‘Magisterial authority’ in Argentina but not in Rome?

    By Phil Lawler | Dec 18, 2017

    Credit Sandro Magister of L’Espresso with this observation:

    ~According to a Vatican announcement earlier this month, the Argentine bishops’ interpretation of Amoris Laetitia has “magisterial authority,” by virtue of the Pope’s endorsement and the document’s publication in the official Vatican gazette, Acta Apostolicae Sedis.

    ~But the Argentine bishops’ document itself is a set of guidelines for the implementation of the apostolic exhortation. And those guidelines do not match the guidelines that have been issued by—among other places—the Diocese of Rome. The difference between the Argentine and Roman documents is clearly evident in the handling of the much-debated question of Communion for divorced-and-remarried Catholics.

    ~So is the Pope’s own diocese interpreting and/or implementing his teaching improperly? If so, then the Pope can easily make a correction. If not, then it’s awfully difficult to understand the Pope’s assertion: “There are no other interpretations.”

  2. An opinion of a reigning pontiff, mentally disabled by long association with the heresy of progressive modernism and the dissembling ideology of situation ethics, does not become part of the Magisterium, the official catechetical teachings or doctrine of the Catholic Church automatically merely because he pronounces it orally or writes it down in a document with help from modernist consultants. That would be a very capricious understanding of Catholic teaching and papal authority. So, no, the opinions of Father Bergoglio, S.J. on remarriage without annulments and Communion for persistent adulterers are not part of the Magisterium or the official teachings of the Catholic Church, properly understood. What we have is an ecclesial crisis in moral theology within the hierarchy under modernist influence. Since progressive modernism is a heresy, just do the math.

    Likewise, if the Pope told us to all jump off a bridge or become New York Yankees fans, that would not automatically become part of the official Magisterium of the Catholic Church. This is the problem Evelyn Waugh addressed in Brideshead Revisited regarding papal authority where the character Rex Mottram asks about the Pope predicting rain. The Pope is not Carnac the Magnificent. He can’t perform magic tricks or change settled Catholic doctrine. Just consider how crazy that would be.

  3. Papal “infallibility” is not a revealed dogma of the Catholic Church, as anti-Catholic Protestants construe it. A papal candidate clearly suffering from mental defects or lapses into heresy presents a dilemma for the hierarchy, priests, and laity. Until there is a new Pope it looks as if this will be a serious problem for all those trying to make sense of the situation.

    • I’m still trying to get “not a revealed dogma.” Do you mean to reject that the pope’s some sort of infallible oracle? True infallibility, as defined at the Vatican Council, is revealed dogma; by Our Lord’s prayer that Peter’s faith not fail, and His command to confirm his brethren.

  4. Even a Yankees fan since the early 1950s, such as moi, would object to any pope compelling the staid, sober, ever composed and richly articulate denizens of Bean Town to root for my favorite team! And certainly not for dubious theological reasons.
    /
    It’s simple: We need targets! At whom could our more fervent fellow fans launch drained beer bottles? Upon whom would our puerile-but-patriotic regiments wreak drippy, sticky havoc-from-above by dumping 50 oz. plastic cups of brew on Sox fans, from the upper decks?
    /
    Life as we know it would collapse. The Borough would secede and youngsters already hard at work on their boxing and shoving skills in preparation for the 2018 playoffs, would turn into mere Snowflakes! Heaven forbid!
    /
    :-)

  5. Phil Lawler Still Doesn’t (or Won’t) Get It

    by Christopher A. Ferrara
    December 18, 2017

    Even as he prepares to launch his own book-length critique of what he himself calls “this disastrous papacy,” sensationally entitled “Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis is Misleading His Flock,” it seems Philip Lawler is still clinging to the last remaining shreds of the “normalist” narrative.

    Responding to criticism of catholiculture.org for its failure to offer any commentary on the publication of the Pope’s letter to the Argentine bishops on the implementation of Amoris Laetitia (AL) in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis (AAS), along with a papal rescript declaring the letter to be “authentic Magisterium,” Lawler denies that the development has any real importance. According to him, “Not much was changed by the appearance of the Pope’s letter in Acta Apostolicae Sedis, or by Cardinal Parolin’s announcement that the papal statement was magisterial.”

    Lawler continues to maintain that “a private letter from the Pope cannot be seen on the same level as a formal papal document, even if that letter is later made public.” Come on, now. Pope Francis has done more than merely making a private letter public, and Lawler knows it. The papal rescript declares that the missive is now elevated to the status of an “apostolic letter” and that the “apostolic letter” along with the Argentinian guidelines it approves are “authentic Magisterium.”

    Of course, despite the label Francis applies to it, the letter is not “authentic Magisterium” — not because the letter is “private” but rather because it contradicts what the Magisterium has always taught respecting access to the sacraments by the divorced and “remarried.” But Lawler will not go there. Instead, Lawler insists that “Insofar as Pope Francis made a magisterial statement on marriage, he made it in Amoris Laetitia.”

    Seriously? Francis has expressly declared that his letter to the Argentine bishops is an “apostolic letter” and that his approval of their interpretation of ALis “authentic Magisterium.” Yet Lawler refuses to engage with the implications of the label Pope Francis slaps on his novelty in a transparent attempt to force us to accept it as authentic Catholic teaching on faith and morals.

    Citing the view of canonist Ed Peters, which I address here, Lawler next argues that despite Francis’ self-evident approval of a heterodox reading of AL as the only correct interpretation, “the Code of Canon Law (specifically Canon 915) requires priests to withhold Communion from Catholics in those circumstances. No one disputes the authority of Pope Francis to change canon law, but he has not changed [his emphasis] Canon 915, and so it remains in force, with its own ‘magisterial authority.’”

    Like Peters, then, Lawler simply assumes that so long as Francis does not “change canon law” by expressly “repealing” Canon 915, the divorced and “remarried” are still forbidden to receive Holy Communion without an amendment of life. But Pope Francis cannot simply “change canon law” in this regard, because, as John Paul II insisted, Canon 915 is rooted in the divine law and is not subject to change.

    Lawler concludes with the following argument:

    “The Roman Pontiff can speak with authority on questions of faith and morals, but he cannot overrule the laws of logic. In his letter to the Argentine bishops, applauding their understanding of his apostolic exhortation Pope Francis declared: ‘There are no other interpretations.’ But there are other interpretations. Some bishops say that Amoris Laetitia upholds the traditional teaching of the Church; others say that the document changes those teachings. These interpretations are incompatible. The Argentine bishops’ document, like the Pope’s apostolic exhortation, leaves crucial questions unanswered. Until those questions are answered clearly, nothing much is accomplished by the claim that the reigning confusion has ‘magisterial authority.”

    Excuse me, but now Lawler — contradicting the usual “normalist” line on papal authority — appears to be pitting some bishops against Pope Francis because they reject what Francis says is the only correct interpretation of AL, an interpretation he now “officially” declares to be “authentic Magisterium.” But how can some bishops reject the “authentic Magisterium” if it really is the authentic Magisterium?

    Lawler’s arguments are simply a dodge of the real issue: that Pope Francis has uttered a false teaching he is attempting to pass off as “authentic Magisterium” by falsely labelling it as such. This is not merely a question of “confusion” or dueling interpretations. Francis has made himself perfectly clear: he means to impose error on the Church, if that were possible. Lawler does not do the Church any good by pretending otherwise. And his stance in this regard is all the more puzzling in view of the subtitle of his upcoming book: “How Pope Francis is Misleading His Flock”.

    • Good points about Lawler’s inconsistencies.
      /
      But, just a reminder, Mr. Ferrara: ‘authentic’ does not = true. ‘Authentic magisterium’ just means ‘real magisterium’.
      Francis took the official steps to clarify his teaching on the disputed point in Amoralis Licentia. He explicitly stated that this clarification is magisterium.
      IF HE IS A REAL POPE, THEN THAT CLARIFICATION IS MAGISTERIUM.
      Conversely, of course
      IF THAT CLARIFICATION IS NOT MAGISTERIUM, THEN FRANCIS IS NOT THE POPE.
      /
      But you, Mr. Ferrara, unless I’m mistaken, believe that he is the pope.
      /
      You can believe that, no problem. (I do too).
      But only if you understand ‘authentic magisterium’ in the Traditional sense.
      The Pope is clearly not engaging the charism of infallibility; the Extraordinary Magisterium. The conditions defined by Vatican I are not present (Dz 1839).
      The pope is clearly speaking AGAINST the Infallible Ordinary Magisterium (i.e. Tradition).
      Therefore, what he says on this matter is both authentic magisterium (because he’s a real pope) AND it is FALSE.
      /
      it’s not really that hard. These distinctions have been used in the manuals of theology for a long time.

  6. Popes can’t just make church teachings and rules up out of thin air. There is an absurd notion being promoted in modernist circles, a kind of legal positivism, that the papacy has a capricious authority to make things up and assert them as Catholic teachings without any basis in reality. This is a false idea of modernist Ultramontanism. It doesn’t matter what type of letter or document it is if the opinion asserted by the reigning pontiff is heretical. It could be a formal document signed by all the bishops and cardinals at a synod but it doesn’t become official church teaching if it is heretical, contradicts established Catholic doctrine, or contradicts reason. The Holy Father merely asserting orally or in writing that an odd heretical opinion of his is now official church teaching does not make it so.

    The current whopper in modernist circles, that divorced and civilly remarried or cohabiting couples, persisting in ongoing conjugal relations without having obtained annulments of prior marriages and without the benefit of valid sacramental matrimony for such a union may be given Holy Communion while so persisting in obstinate adultery, is an opinion of progressive modernism and situation ethics. It is not a valid teaching of the Catholic Church regardless of what kind of document asserts it to be such in words, written or orally proclaimed by a progressive modernist heretic occupying the papal throne through fraud. Such an event presents a spiritual and doctrinal crisis for the hierarchy and the whole Church as long as the modernist heretic or lunatic persists in the public fraud of claiming to be both a Catholic priest and pope, empowered to change church teachings. Papal authority is not capricious or divorced from reality, reason, and established Catholic doctrine. No pope can be an absolute dictator or emperor making things up as he goes along, however he likes. The Pope’s opinions on marriage or on air conditioning do not automatically become Catholic teachings if they are rooted in error, heresy, or fantasy.

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