Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

The Amoris debate: Is it really a matter of confusion? (Part I)

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 11, 2018

Critics of Amoris Laetitia say that it is confusing. Defenders of the papal document say that there is no cause for confusion. This state of affairs is, I’m sorry to say, confusing.

Stepping back from the substance of this particular controversy, let’s take a few minutes to examine the form of the argument. Suppose that you present me with a statement, and I tell you that it confuses me. If you want to continue the conversation, what are your options?

  1. You might try to explain your statement to me. That is the first, clear, and obvious response, isn’t it?
  2. You might gently (or not so gently, depending on the circumstances) suggest that my confusion is understandable, because I’m not intelligent enough to understand your statement. That’s a possibility, I suppose. But if you choose this option, you can’t very well claim to be sensitive and caring. Nor—unless you’re prepared to make even more insulting remarks about my intelligence—can you claim that your statement is easy to understand. In which case perhaps you should consider clarifying. (See #1 above.)
  3. You might remark that nobody else is confused. But that’s not really an answer; it doesn’t bring me any greater clarity. Anyway, that avenue is closed to you if many other people have already said they, too, are confused by the same statement.
  4. You might insist that the statement itself is perfectly clear. But again that’s not really a response. And you’ll have trouble defending that position if other people have made public claims that your statement supports their views, when those views clearly contradict each other on a key point.
  5. You might raise the suspicion that I’m not really having trouble understanding your statement—that by claiming to be confused, I’m actually showing that I’m opposed to your statement. That’s an undeniable possibility. But once you invoke that possibility, our discussion takes on a very different, less friendly tone. You are making an ad hominem argument; you are questioning my good faith.
  6. But here’s what you cannot do: You cannot order me to stop being confused. If you have authority over me, you may have the right to command that I obey your statement. But if I don’t understand the statement, I can’t be expected to obey it.

In the Amoris Laetitia debate, option #1 has been taken off the table; the Pope apparently will not respond to the dubia, nor he will explain why he declines to respond. Options 2, 3, and 4 are available, and all have been tried, but they are not convincing, for the reasons cited above.

In practice, the most vocal supporters of the papal document have used options 4 and 5. They have argued that the critics of Amoris Laetitia are dissembling; that the arguments against the document are in reality criticisms of the Holy Father. Then they go on to say that such criticism is unseemly, because all Catholics are under an obligation to respect the authoritative teachings of the Roman Pontiff. Notice that the latter argument applies only if the former is true. I cannot be under an obligation to follow instructions that I do not understand. So when the Pope’s supporters tell us, in effect, to shut up and obey, they imply that we actually understand the Pope’s teaching—which is the very point in dispute.

Moreover, by employing this odd combination of arguments, the defenders of Amoris (or, if you prefer, the critics of the critics of the document) are transforming a debate on the contents of the apostolic exhortation into a debate about the bona fides of their adversaries. Such ad hominem arguments are never attractive, but they are particularly unfortunate when they are used against respected theologians and princes of the Church. Nor are the ad hominem arguments persuasive, since the confusion caused by Amoris is now so clearly illustrated by the public record. (See #3 and #4 above.) When one prelate applauds the document for saying X, and another applauds the same document for not saying X, that’s confusing—or at a bare minimum, the burden of proof is on those who don’t see a contradiction.

But let us suppose, just for the sake of the argument, that the Pope’s supporters have good reasons for their suspicions. Let us suppose that critics of Amoris Laetitia aren’t really confused by the document, but in fact disagree with its teaching. If that were the case, then how would honest, loyal Catholics express their disagreement with the Holy Father? Again I can see a couple of possibilities:

  • The critics might say: “I disagree with the Pope. He is wrong; his argument contradicts the permanent teaching of the Church. I will not accept his authority.”
  • Or they might say: “I cannot believe that the Holy Father really means what he seems to be saying, since his argument appears to contradict previous Church teaching. I am confused. I wish he would clarify.”

Which of those two approaches would show greater respect for the Petrine office and the teaching magisterium?

The next question—to be addressed in my next post: What can Church leaders do to ease the confusion?

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 See full bio.

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