Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Back to Amoris Laetitia: When do we owe “religious submission of mind and will”?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 24, 2016

A Spanish ecclesiology professor, Fr. Salvador Pie-Ninot, has asserted in L’Osservatore Romano that Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia is an act of the ordinary Magisterium which requires religious submission of mind and will. Speaking very generally, he is right that Amoris Laetitia can be placed within this general class, but we must understand what this means.

Too many theologians over the years have tried to classify degrees of assent to Church documents solely by “document type”. Clearly a private letter has no magisterial weight, but one might argue that an encyclical requires one level of assent and an apostolic exhortation requires another level. Unfortunately, the various categories of documents (among those directed to the whole Church) do not determine our level of assent. The document type may provide clues to the Pope’s intention, but it is ultimately his manifest intention, in treating a matter of faith or morals, that determines whether we are obliged to assent.

Why and how the Holy Spirit protects Catholic teaching

Remember that the ecclesiological reason for the Holy Spirit’s protection of the Church’s magisterium is to prevent a pope or ecumenical council from binding the whole Church to error, which would violate Christ’s promise to be with us always, and his promise that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. That is the logic behind the doctrine of infallibility, and that is why this protection applies not to prudential matters, on which good Catholics can disagree, but to those issues which are necessary to salvation, namely faith and morals (which, after all, are the subject of Revelation).

To qualify for this protection, then, popes (or the bishops in union with the pope) must, in terms of matter, be speaking about faith or morals; and must, in terms of intention, purport to teach on this matter to the entire Church by virtue of the Petrine authority (see Lk 22:32). This intention may be expressed in various ways, but the four elements must always be present to require assent from all the faithful.

To further clarify this issue, I should also note that the term “magisterium” is frequently used in two different ways, only one of which is relevant to this discussion. When we speak of a “magisterial document” or a document which is “an act of the magisterium”, we are speaking rather loosely, calling attention to the fact that it was issued by (or with the express approval) of the pope and directed to the universal Church.

But this tells us nothing about which sentences actually require assent, that is, which precise statements in the document are what we call teachings of the Magisterium. For the “magisterium” or “teaching authority” does not belong to a document; it belongs to the pope. When we refer to the Church’s “magisterium”, we mean either the teaching authority of the pope or, by transference, all those teachings on faith and morals which have been guaranteed to be true over time by the authority of the pope.

When the pope (or a council in union with the pope) is discussing existing conditions, reviewing options, offering encouragement, recalling history, quoting saints, praising achievements and initiatives, aiming to deepen our spirituality, etc., the words may (or may not) be extraordinarily prescient, wise and helpful. But the pope exercises his “magisterium” in the full sense—the sense which requires assent—only when he is actually using his Petrine authority to teach (confirm the truth about) a matter of faith or morals.

The problem of intention

The problem with classifying such teachings is that the papal intention is not always clear. Obviously, when a pope formally and deliberately makes a self-identified, separate dogmatic pronouncement (take, for example, the proclamation of the Immaculate Conception or the Assumption), he is teaching on faith or morals to the whole Church by virtue of his Petrine authority. Such statements are clearly infallible and require the assent of Faith because they are matters of Divine Revelation.

The Pope may also very clearly and deliberately single out some question that is not actually revealed but is so strictly connected to Revelation that it is necessary to safeguard it. Thus he may pronounce on it to settle the matter. Pope John Paul II obviously did this when he issued Ordinatio Sacerdotalis in 1994. He devoted the entire document to the question he wished to treat—the ordination of women to the priesthood—and concluded with a very carefully-worded negative judgment which deliberately emphasized the four necessary aspects of his intention.

If some matter of faith and morals is not specifically revealed but is strictly connected to Revelation, we do not use the term “assent of faith”; rather we say it must be firmly accepted and held. It is no less certainly true. And this is exactly what Pope John Paul II spelled out in the wording he chose.

Now, when a statement clarifying Divine Revelation is formally declared to be such by the pope, we refer to it as an act of the extraordinary Magisterium. Such statements are very clearly ex cathedra (the expression from Vatican I, meaning “from the chair”, that is, “from the seat of authority”). But there are many cases in which popes or ecumenical councils issue wide-ranging discussions of particular issues which include teachings on faith or morals, but they do so without separating and identifying these specific teachings in a particularly dramatic or extraordinarily pointed manner. When this is the case, naturally, we are dealing with what we call the ordinary Magisterium.

Because many theologians (especially Modernists) had hedged their faith by insisting that assent was really owed only to “extraordinary” statements (such as dogmatic definitions), it became clear by the middle of the twentieth century that the papal Magisterium was not being properly received. In reality, the only problem with the ordinary Magisterium is not a lack of authority, but rather a lack of that verbal fanfare which may make us more certain of the pope’s intention.

Parsing the pope

We must rely on the universality of the document, the matter at hand, and the words used by the pope to make his intention clear. In an encyclical deliberately addressed to the whole Church, if the pope is settling a specific matter of faith and morals in the course of the text, then there can be no real doubt. Pope Paul VI’s clear conclusion in Humanae Vitae that artificial contraception is immoral is an excellent case in point. But the ordinary Magisterium is not perfectly clear in all cases, which is why the repetition of the same teaching by the ordinary Magisterium over time can be very important. With multiple examples, what the Magisterium is doing becomes crystal clear.

With all this in mind, the Second Vatican Council added an important clarification in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium). The Council declared that the ordinary Magisterium also enjoys the Petrine teaching authority, so that we must respond to it with “religious submission of mind and will”. This is the case simply because it is the intention of the pope that ensures the truth of the teaching, not any particular extraordinary form of wording.

Referring specifically, of course, to “matters of faith and morals”, the Council declared:

This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking. [Lumen Gentium, 25]

Back to Amoris Laetitia

To return to Amoris Laetitia, since it was clearly directed to the entire Church on a topic which has important points of intersection with Catholic faith and morals, then unless Pope Francis told us otherwise, we are bound to accept as true any obviously deliberate and clearly expressed teaching on faith and morals. But manifestly we are not bound to accept anything that is left unclear (which would then propose nothing specific for our assent). Nor are we bound to agree with everything in the Pope’s overall discussion of the relevant problems, however helpful it may be; nor with his prudential judgments, however incisive; nor with his preferred ecclesiastical strategies, even though we may benefit from a sincere effort to grasp the principles on which they are based.

Prudential judgments and strategies depend on human perceptions, human knowledge and human wisdom. They represent ways of approaching a desired goal. They are not “truths”, and so by their very nature they cannot (should they be badly conceived) bind the whole Church to any error in Faith. Accordingly, they enjoy no specific protection from the Holy Spirit.

There is one additional wrinkle in Amoris Laetitia, however, that may make the teaching intention of the Holy Father more difficult to interpret. Near the beginning, he makes a point which some have taken to be a disclaimer:

I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium. Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it…. Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs. [3]

As it turns out, the application of this statement is actually a point of disagreement between Cardinal Raymond Burke and the ecclesiologist, Fr. Salvador Pie-Ninot, with whom I began this essay. Cardinal Burke takes this passage to mean that Pope Francis is not intending in Amoris Laetitia to offer Magisterial teaching; Fr. Pie-Ninot, for his part, assumes that this refers only to the prudential judgments involved in dealing with doctrinal, moral and pastoral issues. The latter, it seems to me, is the better interpretation, since, strictly speaking, the passage simply states that not all doctrinal, moral and pastoral questions need to be settled by the Magisterium, and we are free to highlight, not falsehoods, but different aspects of such questions in attempting to minister most effectively in accordance with the cultural perceptions and needs of those we serve.

In truth, we do this all the time. We all choose to emphasize different aspects of central truths in the hope of more successfully addressing the particular weaknesses, needs and sensibilities of others, and it is certainly typical of Pope Francis to make this particular point. But just because he asserts that all discussions need not be settled does not mean he chooses not to settle any of them. So we may find in Amoris Laetitia some matters of faith and morals about which he apparently intended to teach.


Nonetheless, the Pope’s statement may reasonably tip our perception of his intentions. It at least makes it more likely that the Pope intended primarily to offer an extended and inspiring discussion of marriage, the family, the threats to both, and the need for effective ministry in our time. Getting back to “document type”, in fact, this is at least typically the dominant character of an apostolic exhortation. Either way, when it comes to priorities and ecclesiastical discipline, Pope Francis’ approach represents some change but, as far as teachings on faith or morals, I do not discern anything new.

In any case, as Vatican II put it, when it comes to the ordinary Magisterium: “[The Pope’s] mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking(emphasis added). His comments in the third paragraph, quoted above, are certainly part of “his manner of speaking”.

So, yes, we are bound to give “religious submission of mind and will” to the Holy Father when, despite the lack of a formal declaration of his intentions, we can discern that, on a matter of faith and morals, he intends to teach the whole Church by virtue of his Petrine authority. But this never applies to everything included in a complex text; it never applies to pastoral initiatives or strategies; it applies only to specific questions of faith and morals which the Pope intends—not just to mention or discuss or reference for some other purpose—but to teach clearly for all Catholics to know and accept.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Aug. 28, 2016 6:13 PM ET USA

    For those who would like an even more in-depth treatment of degrees of theological certitude, I recommend the following to my catechists: Cardinal Ratzinger's (CDF's) "Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian," Fr. Avery Dulles' "The Craft of Theology," Fr. John Hardon's catechism, Lumen Gentium (op. cit.), Fr. Most's instruction on the conditions infallibility (100 questions?), first 10 pages of "Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Fr. Ludwig Ott), and too many others to cite here.

  • Posted by: hitchs - Aug. 26, 2016 9:19 PM ET USA

    This is possibly the most complete and careful analysis of the topic of infallibility I have ever seen, yet it still leaves the application ambiguous, and Amoris Laetitia is certainly not the least ambiguous example. I agree with loumiamo below that it should logically be the Holy Father's responsibility to make the sense clear; but if he does not wish to do so, I don't see what we can do about it. Whatever happened to the days of "Anathema sit" when things were so simple?

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Aug. 26, 2016 5:48 PM ET USA

    Langton7139: This is a translation issue. The expression in the original language symbolizes the power of evil or the power of death. While I remember "gates of hell" as the translation used in my childhood, some translations now use something very similar, but which conveys a more aggressive image in English: "The jaws of death." The point is that the Church will always be under attack by all that is evil, but Satan cannot prevail because of the Church's strong foundation, her Divinely-guaranteed constitution.

  • Posted by: Langton7139 - Aug. 26, 2016 5:39 AM ET USA

    A helpful clarification. Thank you. Question, which I hope is not too tangential: when we quote the "gates of hell" Scripture, what do we mean? It puzzles me. Who is holding out against whom? If the gates cannot withstand the Church's attack, that is one thing. We always seem to quote this to mean the Church can resist the devils. But isn't it the case that Church should be smashing hell's gates? I'm a tad confused.

  • Posted by: loumiamo - Aug. 24, 2016 6:09 PM ET USA

    But is he the Pope, the shepherd we are to follow, or isn't he? And if he is, has he no obligation to be clear? You have the problem clearly stated in your last paragraph, "when...WE can discern..." I ain't the pope, and neither are you, nor Burke, nor anyone else but Francis. It's his job, his duty, to be understood, but he seems to be happy just to mess things up, as he himself has said.