Authentic confusion over Pope Francis’ ‘authentic magisterium’


December 19, 2017 (LifeSiteNews) – By now, most LifeSiteNews readers will be aware of the further troubling news announced in Rome earlier this month: Pope Francis dropped a veritable bombshell into the Church’s official record of papal teaching and acts of governance, the Acta Apostolicae Sedis (AAS). This was his letter from the previous year warmly commending a draft pastoral letter by a group of Argentinian bishops in which they interpreted Chapter 8 of the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia (AL) as opening up the sacraments of Penance and Eucharist to certain people living in illicit sexual relationships. The Pontiff’s letter notoriously asserted that “there are no other interpretations”. Although it was originally private, bearing the same date as the draft pastoral itself, September 5, 2016, this papal accolade was broadcast round the world shortly after that by appearing in the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano. Nevertheless, that still didn’t confer significant magisterial status on either Francis’ letter or that of these bishops of the Buenos Aires region.

That all changed on Saturday, December 2nd. Not only has the Pope’s letter now been enshrined in the AAS; but by heading it there with two capitalized Latin words in bold type – EPISTULA APOSTOLICA – Francis has thereby sought to raise the doctrinal content of the Argentinian document (published in the AAS directly beneath his epistula), to a quite high magisterial status.  A brief Rescript in Latin, signed by the Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, appears after the two aforesaid documents, stating that the Holy Father, in an audience of June 5, 2017, ordered them published in this form as “Magisterium authenticum“.

Most Catholics know little about the respective degrees of weight officially given to different types of papal pontificating. However, this ‘pecking order’ is important, for Vatican Council II teaches that the type of document a pope uses to enunciate any non-infallible teaching is one of three factors to be taken into account in discerning how strongly the Holy Father intends to inculcate his doctrinal decision (sententia). (Cf. Lumen Gentium, 25, which says the other two factors are the frequency with which he proposes it and his choice of words in doing so.)

Now, since epistula means what we now normally call a “letter”, most media translations (including the initial LifeSiteNews reports) have understandably translated “Epistula Apostolica” as “Apostolic Letter” – the same translation they give (correctly) to a much more common type of papal document called Litterae Apostolicae. And this obscures the fact that the former is of much higher rank, and should therefore be translated literally, as “Apostolic Epistle”. The official ranking of the different varieties of papal documents can be seen by looking at the order in which they’re listed in the annual Index to the AAS. Apostolic Epistles appear well above Apostolic Letters (even those issued Motu Proprio), and even above such important documents as Decretal Letters (recording canonizations of saints) and the Apostolic Constitution that promulgated the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  Indeed, when in 1994 Pope St. John Paul II ruled out women priests with “definitive”, binding language, he used an Apostolic Epistle, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, to do so. Many theologians (including myself) believe John Paul’s language manifestly marks this as a second-degree, but nonetheless infallible, ex cathedra definition. (Cf. CCC #2035, and the 1998 “Doctrinal Note” of Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith [CDF], ##8-9.)  The AAS indices show, in fact, that this class of document, per se, ranks third in magisterial authority after Encyclical Letters and Apostolic Exhortations.

So there’s no getting around the doctrinal upheaval now confronting us. Peter’s current Successor seems to have told all Catholics in no uncertain terms that as of December 2, 2017 we must accept as orthodox and true something that until the previous day we were always required to reject as unorthodox and false! That is, Pope Francis is apparently telling us all to start holding that some divorced and invalidly remarried people – people Jesus himself says are committing adultery – are to be given sacramental absolution and Holy Communion without any commitment to “go, and sin no more” (Jn. 8: 11).

However, the immediate fall-out from this new ‘authentic magisterium’ looks like ‘authentic confusion’. For starters, as the eminent canonist Dr. Ed Peters has pointed out, the Pope didn’t accompany his Apostolic Epistle with any corresponding legislative act. Therefore the Church’s ministers are still legally forbidden to give such folks Communion by c. 915 of the Code of Canon Law (as authentically interpreted by authority of John Paul II in a June 2000 Declaration of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts). Nor did the Holy Father amend the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in which access to Communion by those in question is excluded unambiguously in #1650 and even more bluntly in the last sentence of #2390.

Let’s digress for a moment to consider a closely related example of confusion. The promulgation of this Apostolic Epistle in early December appears to shed some light on the long, convoluted and jargon-laden article by Cardinal Marc Ouellet that appeared less than two weeks earlier (11/21/17) in the online edition of L’Osservatore Romano. In this essay the Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops performed a stunning acrobatic somersault, reversing his previous clear and staunch defense of the traditional doctrine enshrined by St. John Paul II in Familaris Consortio #84, the Catechism, and canon 915. Just months before the first Synod on the Family, in his article, “Marriage and the Family Within the Sacramentality of the Church: Challenges and Perspectives” (Communio 41, Summer 2014, pp. 226-244), His Eminence went so far as to say that admitting any invalidly remarried and sexually active Catholics to the sacraments would “betray” a fundamental truth taught by Christ:

“It is not a lack of mercy on the part of the Church if she does not authorize sacramental absolution and eucharistic Communion, even after an authentic conversion of the divorced and remarried person. What is at stake is Christ’s fidelity to his own witness, which the Church does not feel free to modify lest she betray the truth that is the foundation of the indissolubility of marriage” (p. 238).

Now, however, Ouellet sings a very different tune. But it’s in a minor key that reminded me of Mark Antony’s famous funeral oration in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. That of course is a classical example of rhetoric that ostensibly says one thing while effectively saying the opposite. Mark Antony announces that he comes at the behest of the “honorable” Brutus and his allies in order “to bury Caesar, not to praise him”. But in reality his speech praises Caesar very persuasively. Well, in this new essay Marc Ouellet announces that he comes (at the behest, perhaps, of the honorable Pope Francis?) to praise Amoris, not to bury it. But I think he does bury it.  That is, I suspect the papal exhortation may seem less credible than ever to many tradition-conscious Catholics as a result of the tortuous, implausible and even bizarre argumentation His Eminence has to resort to in trying to square it with the bimillennial teaching of previous popes. I mean, this distinguished prelate with a first-rate scholarly reputation now seriously suggests that in certain cases – only after much dialogical pastoral accompaniment and merciful discernment, mind you – adulterous Catholics should receive the sacraments (a nod here to Pope Francis) so they’ll receive the grace to realize they should not be receiving the sacraments (a nod to John Paul)! In the Cardinal’s own words, such discernment “may mean (as far as access to the sacraments is concerned) a ’yes’ at one point in time that becomes an ‘informed no’ later on according to the person’s maturity”.

I would be inclined to cry, rather than laugh, at such theological and pastoral nonsense, because I think that, unlike Shakespeare’s wily Mark Antony, Marc Ouellet is not deliberately trying to send his audience the opposite message to the one he ostensibly professes. To me he comes across as a painfully conflicted man, struggling to combine a genuine sense of loyalty owed to Peter’s current successor with that owed to all his predecessors who taught the contrary doctrine. And this inner conflict would probably have been felt even more acutely if, as seems highly likely, Ouellet had been told in advance that Francis was about to turn the Argentinian bishops’ deeply troubling (but accurate) interpretation of Amoris Laetitia into “authentic Magisterium”. Indeed, it would be consistent with what we’ve learned about Pope Francis’ style of governance if he had put Ouellet on the spot as a key prelate to publicly endorse and justify this novel “development” of doctrine. For, coming from the Prefect of Bishops, that would send out a clear, though unstated, message to all Successors of the Apostles – present and future – as to what would henceforth be expected from them.

We can return now to the doctrinal content of the Buenos Aires document. Even before the Pope decided to upgrade it to authentic-magisterium status, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller and one or two other commentators were reported as saying that this Argentinian draft pastoral is itself capable of a traditional, orthodox reading on the vital point.

But on looking closely at its key section 6, I can’t see any ambiguity or wiggle-room. The authors say that for some divorced and civilly remarried couples, “when it is not possible to obtain a declaration of nullity, the aforementioned option” – i.e., a commitment to practice continence – “may not, in fact, be feasible [Spanish factible]”. And the bishops go on to state that if, after “a journey of discernment, . . . one arrives at the recognition that, in a particular case, there are limitations that diminish responsibility and culpability (cf. AL, 301-302), particularly when a person considers that he/she would fall into a subsequent fault by damaging the children of the new union, Amoris Laetitia opens up the possibility of access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist (cf. notes 336 and 351)” (emphasis added). The whole context of the bold-face words above, and indeed, the very expression “opens up”, prove that the authors understand Pope Francis to be mitigating his predecessors’ absoluterequirement that all such couples must live in continence (cf. Familaris Consortio, #84). For those living in continence already had access to the sacraments; and it’s logically impossible to “open up” something that’s already open.

Given that Francis clearly wants to break new doctrinal ground by means of Amoris and his new Epistula Apostolica, what are faithful Catholics to make of this very confusing and disturbing fact? Is that new ground a harmonious and legitimate development of doctrine, or an unorthodox rupture? Both my head and my heart are telling me it’s the latter. But I say that with a certain ‘fear and trembling’, for this is clearly a question that will require more careful and prayerful study and mature theological analysis. I’m offering this initial opinion (on request) more quickly than I would really prefer, in the knowledge that countless deeply troubled Catholics – including some fellow priests whose seat in the confessional is now more than ever a ‘hot seat’ – are seeking right now some sort of light to be shed on how they should believe and act in this matter.

Thankfully, Pope Francis is not presenting his doctrinal novelty as infallible teaching, which would require our definitive, irrevocable assent. Nevertheless, all teachings of the “authentic magisterium” are proposed as requiring our “religious assent of mind and will”. That means we must accept them as almost certainly true, or morally certain, and so, if we’re priests and/or theologians and/or catechists, preach and teach them confidently to our people without fear of being in error. But this requirement of religious assent isn’t in fact absolute, for the Church has long recognized in her ‘fine print’ (cf., for instance, the 1990 CDF Instruction Donum Veritatis) that if a theologian has seriously difficulties of conscience with a given “authentic” teaching, he may suspend his assent to it while quietly explaining his difficulties to the competent Church authority. And, as I have argued in a recent LifeSiteNews interview about the recent and widely publicized “Filial Correction” of Pope Francis signed by scores of reputable Catholic scholars, the unprecedented doctrinal confusion arising from the present pontificate justifies a more public airing of such difficulties than was previously allowed.

One reason I’m suspending my own assent in this present case is the strangely anomalous character of the new Apostolic Epistle. Unlike all other documents in this category that I’m aware of, it not only lacks its own title; it lacks any doctrinal content whatsoever! It simply points down to a separate document (the Argentinian draft pastoral letter), and affirms generically that everything that document says – which would include its practical pastoral statements as well as its doctrinal ones – interprets a third document, Amoris Laetitia, correctly.

Well, as regards doctrine relevant to the current controversy, what parts of that apostolic exhortation are the Argentinian authors interpreting with such admirable accuracy? Nothing more than two notorious footnotes, nos. 336 and 351 (cf. my boldface citation several paragraphs up). But this brings us back to the query already raised by many commentators as soon as AL was published nine months ago: Are a couple of footnotes powerful enough to overturn an existing Catholic doctrine, even supposing the latter is “only” authentic, not infallible? Trying to inflate the magisterial status of those footnotes with the aid of a doctrine-free Apostolic Epistle whose actual text merely clarifies their meaning strikes me as a strange and confusing departure from customary Vatican procedures. It seems rather like a would-be balloonist who inflates his rubbery vehicle with more and more ground-temperature air in the hope that this will make it raise the attached passenger basket into the sky. But of course, the balloon will never get him off the ground until its contents are upgraded to hot air or helium. And I doubt that admitting incontinent divorced-and-remarrieds to the sacraments will ever get off the ground magisterially and canonicallyuntil such time as a pope upgrades the doctrinal content of footnotes 336 and 351 by: (a) affirming it directly and unambiguously in the main text of an honest-to-goodness teaching document (either one bearing own signature or a CDF Declaration stating that he has approved it and ordered its publication); and (b) amending the Catechism and the Code of Canon Law accordingly.

It would be quite easy for Pope Francis to carry out these procedures if his will is truly to inculcate this shocking, unheard-of doctrinal novelty clearly and unequivocally. But so far, in his new AAS intervention, the Holy Father is just telling us to accept, as “authentic magisterium”, that he does indeed teach this moral and sacramental novelty in two footnotes to Amoris Laetitia whose meaning had previously been disputed. But since that still leaves hanging the key question of whether the mouse can really roar – i.e., whether mere footnotes have the power to overturn an existing authentic doctrine – I would say we are under no obligation to answer that question affirmatively.

But supposing Francis or a future pope actually carries out steps (a)and (b) above. Would we then at last be obliged to switch our “religious assent of mind and will” over to this new teaching, accepting today as true and good what the Church had until yesterday taught us was false and evil? If it were a conflict between two non-infallible teachings, that is, if it were a case of an older merely ‘authentic’ teaching being contradicted by a new teaching of the same status, then it might be that we’d have to transfer our ‘religious assent’ to the latter, understanding it to correct, and therefore supersede, the former.

However, as regards the current proposal of sacramental access for some Catholics living in illicit sexual relationships, I think we are faced with a very different scenario. Even if that proposal were clearly and unequivocally upgraded to the status of ‘authentic magisterium’, I am convinced it would contradict not just an existing ‘authentic’ doctrine, but a doctrine that has been infallibly proposed over many centuries by the ordinary and universal magisterium. Therefore – and again, I say this with a certain ‘fear and trembling’ – I believe we would still be morally obliged to adhere firmly to the traditional doctrine and resist the innovative doctrine.  There is no space here to set out the evidence for this infallibility, so I will conclude by referring interested readers to my recent two-part article, “Divorced and Invalidly Remarried Catholics: The Magisterial Tradition”, in The Latin Mass, Summer 2017, pp. 20-25 (Part I) and Fall 2017, pp. 14-19 (Part II). I argue there that the following italicized proposition, while it has not so far been proposed by the Church as a revealed dogma to be accepted with divine and Catholic faith on pain of heresy (cf. canons 750, §1 and 751), has nevertheless been proposed “definitively” – that is, infallibly – as a Catholic doctrine “to be firmly embraced and retained” (c. 750, §2) on pain of grave sin and punishment by a “just penalty” (cf. c. 1371, §1):

Divorced Catholics practicing sexual intimacy in an invalid second marriage may never be granted sacramental absolution, and may never receive Holy Communion.

Those defending the admission of some of those Catholics to the aforesaid sacraments  are actually claiming that this novelty does not in fact contradict any existing doctrine, but rather, is a logical and harmonious “development” of the following two traditional doctrines: (i) venial sin does not exclude a person from the sacraments; and (ii)lack of full knowledge that one’s sin is objectively grave, or lack of full consent to it, reduces one’s guilt to the level of venial sin, or even no sin at all. I have rebutted these specious arguments in the following three articles: “Divorced and Remarried Catholics: Diminished Imputability?” The Latin Mass, Summer 2015, pp. 6-12; and Also, I would warmly recommend Professor Claudio Pierantoni’s new LifeSiteNews interview with Diane Montagna, in which he also convincingly refutes such arguments being made by philosopher Rocco Buttiglione and Cardinals Kasper and Schönborn:

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