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The Rex Mottram approach to Amoris Laetitia and the dubia

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Nov 22, 2016

“I believe that the pope has spoken,” said Cardinal Kevin Farrell, regarding the question of whether Amoris Laetitia has changed Church teaching on the admission of divorced/remarried Catholics to Communion. But to be fair, Cardinal Farrell made that remark more than a month ago, before four cardinals raised their dubia about that interpretation.

Well, actually Cardinal Farrell was speaking a month after those dubia were raised. But it was still a month before the cardinals made their questions public, since Pope Francis had chosen not to answer them. In any event, the Irish-born cardinal was not reacting to the latest controversy.

Cardinal Blase Cupich was addressing the dubia, however, when he spoke to Edward Pentin of the National Catholic Register:

All I know is that the doubts that are there, that are expressed, aren’t my doubts, and I think they’re not the doubts of the universal Church. The document that they’re having doubts about is the fruit of two synods, and the fruit of propositions that were voted on by two-thirds of the bishops who were there. It is a post-synodal apostolic exhortation and so it stands on the same level as all the other post-synodal apostolic exhortations as a magisterial document. I think that if you begin to question the legitimacy of what is being said in such a document, do you then throw into question then all of the other documents that have been issued before by the other popes?

Actually, as Pentin shows, the propositions at the heart of this debate were not approved by the Synod of Bishops. But that’s almost beside the point, because the four cardinals are not expressing doubts about what the Synod says. They’re not even directly questioning the Pope’s summary of the Synod’s findings. They are questioning the way some people interpret the Pope’s document summarizing the Synod, and asking whether that interpretation is correct. But there’s more.

Cardinal Cupich suggests that if you start asking questions about Amoris Laetitia—even questions about how it should be understood—you call into question all previous papal statements. Yet in raising their dubia, the four cardinals observe that some interpretations of Amoris Laetitia appear to conflict directly with Veritatis Splendor, the magisterial work of St. John Paul II. If one papal document appears to contradict another, the conflict cannot be resolved by saying that all good Catholics should accept the authority of papal documents.

Cardinal Joseph Tobin, the third of the three American prelates (with Farrell and Cupich) who received their red hats from Pope Francis last Saturday, admits that he is not fully caught up on the dubia debate. But his instinct is that “rather than each individual bishop or cardinal demanding that the Pope pronounce on every concrete application of the magisterium, that we as bishops suck it up and do what we’re supposed to do.”

Which might make sense if the bishops knew what they’re supposed to do. But the dubia address the point that many bishops don’t know what they’re supposed to do. For that matter, some bishops who are quite confident they do know are at odds with others, equally confident, who think they should do something different. There is widespread confusion.

There are two ways to address confusion. One is by answering questions. The other is by asking the faithful to imitate Rex Mottram*.

There is a third possible approach, I suppose. You might actually welcome the confusion, if it serves your purposes. But if you do, please don’t ask me to believe that in doing so, you are trying to preserve the authority of the Catholic magisterium.


* For the benefit of those who have not yet read Brideshead Revisited (and should do so immediately), Rex Mottram’s approach to ecclesiastical authority is best illustrated by this passage, in which the narrator is the priest who has undertaken the task of instructing Mottram in the faith:

“Yesterday I asked him whether Our Lord had more than one nature. He said: ‘Just as many as you say, Father.’ Then again I asked him: ‘Supposing the Pope looked up and saw a cloud and said ‘It’s going to rain’, would that be bound to happen?’ ‘Oh, yes, Father.’ ‘But supposing it didn’t?’ He thought a moment and said, “I suppose it would be sort of raining spiritually, only we were too sinful to see it.’”

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: bill129 - Nov. 28, 2016 6:33 PM ET USA

    Thanks you so much for your usual clarity. This is very unsettling to see a faction behaving more like politicians that people who are seeking to find and elucidate truth for the Church.

  • Posted by: TheJournalist64 - Nov. 24, 2016 8:35 AM ET USA

    I hope that Amoris Laetitia is just a long, long, long reflection on the application of epikeia in marriage "cases." That means we ask when interpreting a law what the lawgiver was trying to tell us to do to remain human and become divine. So there will be gray areas where a cleric knows the circumstances of a couple, is morally certain that there was no marriage in the first place, and helps the petitioners to work through it even though a canonical declaration is not possible. And rarely.

  • Posted by: garedawg - Nov. 23, 2016 11:18 AM ET USA

    Well, Jesus didn't always spell everything out. On the question of circumcision, he could have saved everyone a lot of trouble by saying, "Guys, you don't need to be circumcised in order to follow me". But for some reason, we wanted them to all travel back to Jerusalem later on to hash it out with the Holy Spirit.