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For those who are outraged: Even Pope Francis does not know the proper interpretation of Amoris Laetitia.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 14, 2016

Okay, so here’s a gift to all those who were indignant with yesterday’s defense of Pope Francis against the charge of heresy. The gift is this: Pope Francis, writing privately, is not a definitive interpreter of how the Church is to understand his Magisterial statements.

The Argentinian bishops have recently issued a document guiding their dioceses in ministering to divorced Catholics who have remarried without benefit of an annulment. Their document actually follows Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia very closely. Like Chapter 8, it is in nearly all respects an outstanding consideration of the problem. However, the bishops went one step farther than the apostolic exhortation. They elevated an obscure footnote about access to the “sacraments” into a statement that reception of the “Eucharist” can be appropriate in some cases.

In a letter to the Argentinian bishops, Pope Francis praised their accomplishment, writing that “there are no other interpretations” possible of Amoris Laetitia.

I’ve already made it clear that I believe it is within the authority of the Pope to change the discipline governing Communion in such circumstances. But, with many of my critics, I also believe that the state of the Church in the twenty-first century is such that this approach will inevitably occasion widespread abuses which are likely to make matters even worse than they are now.

Here is the key point

The important point today is that no pope is protected from error when, in private correspondence, he explains the proper interpretation of any Magisterial document, including those he has issued himself. Quite apart from the fact that disciplinary measures do not enjoy the protection of the Holy Spirit (which means that even popes can implement unfortunate pastoral policies), no light is shed on Magisterial teachings by the private remarks of a pope about what he meant to say at the time.

History provides striking examples of how the particular wording that ultimately made it into a Magisterial document actually admits of interpretations other than what the pope or council apparently had in mind, or other than what everybody presumed at the time. For example, many statements which surround the doctrine extra ecclesiam nulla salus have this character. On careful study, the continuing Magisterium of the Church has found that they do not actually require the conclusions which were very likely in the minds of the popes or councils that issued them, and which were widely thought proper at the time. When it comes to assessing a Magisterial teaching, the Church is guided by the actual text only—in conjunction with Scripture and all other relevant Magisterial statements—and not by a pope’s personal statement about what he “meant”. Such private utterances are unprotected by the Holy Spirit; therefore, they are totally irrelevant.

In fact, the text of Amoris Laetitia does not demand the interpretation that, in some cases, the divorced and remarried may be admitted to Communion without an annulment. So even if this were not a disciplinary matter but a matter of Faith, it is by no means established in this document. Again, there is a very brief footnote that refers to “sacraments” generally, and that’s as close as it comes. Some have assumed that the focus of that footnote is the sacrament of Penance, which is consistent with the long-standing practice of the Church, and with the current Code of Canon Law. We may find that, in the future, the Magisterium will side with this pope’s critics.

All I am saying is that, for those who oppose this change in discipline, the related doctrinal questions remain unsettled. Future popes and future generations of Catholics will make of Amoris Laetitia, not what Pope Francis says he was trying to do, but only what the text itself demands—which does not include admission to Communion for those who are divorced and remarried, without benefit of annulment.

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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