Action Alert!

Is Pope Francis deliberately subverting papal teaching authority?

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 15, 2016

Today the greatest threat to the teaching authority of the Pope is the Pope himself.

Pope Francis specializes in unsettling remarks-- most frequently, it seems, during in-flight interviews. But the responsibility of the Roman Pontiff is to settle questions: something that Pope Francis seems reluctant to do. Now another informal statement-- addressing a pressing question, but without giving an authoritative answer-- makes me question whether the Holy Father is deliberately undermining his own teaching office.

Robert Royal has persuasively explained why he regards the latest Vatican surprise as “A Bizarre Papal Move.” For more than two years, the Catholic world has been debating the “Kasper proposal” that divorced and remarried Catholics might sometimes be admitted to Communion, and until this week there has been no clear, definitive answer to that question. Now at last that answer has emerged: not in a formal document or public statement, but in a leaked private letter that was belatedly confirmed as authentic.

As Royal remarks, both before and during the two meetings of the Synod of Bishops on the family, Pope Francis gave every indication that he wanted the bishops to endorse the Kasper proposal. They did not. Nevertheless, their final statement was ambiguous enough so that the Pope himself, in his apostolic exhortation concluding the Synod’s work, could have taken the plunge. He did not. Amoris Laetitia avoided giving a direct answer to the question that everyone was asking.

Why this silence, on an issue that was clearly so important to the Pontiff? All during the Synod meetings, reporters had bombarded Vatican officials with the same question: Would the Church change her policy regarding the reception of Communion by divorced/remarried Catholics? (This obsessive focus on the topic was itself bizarre, in light of the many more immediate threats to family life.) Yet Amoris Laetitia addressed the question only indirectly, inconclusively. The key to discerning the Pope’s true intentions, readers generally agreed, was lodged in an obscure footnote—a footnote that the Pontiff himself, in another airplane interview, said he could not clearly recall!

Yet now, blithely ignoring the confusion that he has created, Pope Francis announces that his intent is quite clear, that it is accurately conveyed in a document by a group of Argentine bishops, and that “there can be no other interpretation.” And he makes this remarkable announcement in a letter that was leaked to the press (by whom?), so that reporters were scrambling to verify the papal letterhead, until Vatican Radio finally confirmed that the letter was authentic. Wouldn’t it have been more sensible, on an issue of such public interest, to resolve the question with a formal statement from the Vatican press office?

Yet Pope Francis had deliberately avoided putting any such statement on the record. Just a few months ago, responding to the same old question from reporters during an in-flight interview, he declined to give a direct answer. Vatican-watcher Andrea Tornielli of La Stampa recalls:

He was asked whether there were any real new possibilities for access to the sacraments that did not exist prior to the publication of the “Amoris Laetitia” encyclical. “I could say “yes” and leave it at that”, Francis had replied. “But that would be too brief a response. I recommend that all of you read the presentation made by Cardinal Schönborn, a great theologian.”

(Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, who is indeed a distinguished theologian, had suggested that the Kasper proposal had been accepted. But there was some ambiguity in the Austrian cardinal’s statement, too. More importantly, Cardinal Schönborn is not the Pope; his interpretation of a papal statement does not carry the same authority as the statement itself.)

As my colleague Jeff Mirus has pointed out, the leaked letter from Pope Francis also does not carry the same authority as a papal statement. A private letter is not a formal pronouncement: not an exercise of the Pope’s teaching office. And it seems clear the Pope Francis did not want to use his magisterial authority to settle the question, since he had passed up several opportunities to do so.

If he had stated clearly, in a formal document, that divorced and remarried Catholics might receive Communion, Pope Francis would have been ignoring the strong resistance that he had encountered at the Synod, and thus undermining his claim to be speaking on behalf of the world’s bishops. He would also have been contradicting the teaching of St. John Paul II, who was quite clear in stating, in Familiaris Consortio (#84), that divorced and remarried Catholics must live as brothers and sisters if they wish to approach the Eucharist, because "if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church's teaching about the indissolubility of marriage." The logic of that magisterial statement is compelling. And if Pope Francis reversed the policy set by Pope John Paul II, it would seem clear that a future Pontiff could reverse the policy set by Pope Francis, so that no papal statement would be regarded as conclusive.

Instead, as Royal observes, Pope Francis has chosen to “finesse this process, through accompaniment, discernment, all those words that have no clear limits.” He says that the matter is clear, but does not provide clarity. With his approval, the Argentine bishops say that divorced/remarried Catholics may only receive Communion under certain limited circumstances, but do not specify what those circumstances might be. Everything is left to the discretion of the pastor; the guidance from Rome is that there will be no guidance.

What does this mean, in practical pastoral terms? Virtually every divorced and remarried Catholic will argue that his case falls into that special category—whatever it is—and he should be allowed to receive the Eucharist. If his pastor disagrees, he will probably move on to another parish, until he finds a pastor who accepts his argument.

Is that the Pope’s intent: to leave every parish priest free to make his own interpretations of Church teaching? He has spoken frequently about decentralization of Church authority; does he really mean to go that far? The Pope has playfully encouraged young Catholics to “make a mess;” is he trying to set an example, to deconstruct the teaching office?

The Code of Canon Law (#915) puts priests under a solemn obligation to avoid scandal by withholding the Eucharist from those who persist in manifest grave sin. An adulterous relationship is a condition of manifest grave sin. Yet now the Argentine bishops appear to say—again, with papal approval—that in some circumstances priests should administer Communion to people who are living in objectively adulterous relationships. Has Canon #915 been amended or abrogated, then? No, it has not. Pope Francis is the supreme legislator of the Church; he has the unquestioned power to modify canon law. But he has chosen not to do so; again he has deliberately avoided the use of his authority. Again the net effect is to convey the impression that formal Church teachings and laws do not really matter, that they can safely be ignored.

Unfortunately this “bizarre papal move” is not an isolated case. The most memorable statements of this pontificate have been made off the cuff, during airplane interviews, rather than in written documents and prepared statements. How many times have Vatican officials been forced to "clarify" a shocking papal statement, to explain away an apparent contradiction? Again and again Pope Francis has spread confusion among the faithful. But never before has it been quite so evident that he deliberately sought ambiguity, to avoid the proper use of his teaching office-- which is to resolve questions and to unify the brethren.

If the Pope’s conscious intention is to diminish the authority of the papal magisterium, he is succeeding. If that is not his intention, I am at a loss to explain him.

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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