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Let’s get this straight: Concern about Pope Francis is not rooted in dissent, but in dismay.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 17, 2017

One wonders where Pope Francis finds the people who provide articles to L’Osservatore Romano which attack those who raise questions about his leadership. The latest is Father Salvador Pié-Ninot, who has criticized what he calls “dissent in the form of public criticism” of the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. Of course, I do not know that the Pope actively recruited Fr. Pié-Ninot. As evidenced by the broadside released by Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, there are plenty of churchmen who are happy to preach tradition and orthodoxy when those who can promote them are traditional and orthodox, and to condemn those who value tradition and orthodoxy when those who can promote them are not.

This is nothing new, though I freely admit the uncertainty of assigning motives in particular cases. What I really do know, however, is that the arguments made by Fr. Pié-Ninot completely misrepresent the nature of the concerns of the faithful in this matter. Since Fr. Pié-Ninot is a theologian, one has little choice but to surmise that such misrepresentation is either deliberate or unwittingly driven by ideology—even if we grant that this is only a reasonable assumption, not a known fact.

I say this because Fr. Pié-Ninot’s criticism is based on the claim that some Catholics are guilty of “dissent in the form of public criticism”. But there are two glaring errors in this claim. First, criticism is not dissent unless it takes the form of denying the truth of something the Church has taught. Second—and this is the main point—as a general rule those who have criticized the Pope’s approach to divorce, remarriage and Communion have not denied the truth of anything Pope Francis has officially taught.

Two Issues

I regret that, even in some of our own commentary, we have used a kind of shorthand, talking about the controversy over Amoris Laetitia. But the controversy which is shaking the Church at present is not over what Amoris Laetitia actually says but how it is to be interpreted in practice. The questions arise precisely because Pope Francis himself has encouraged bishops and pastors to address these marriage questions in ways that (a) are forbidden in Canon Law; (b) violate both Catholic tradition and the clear magisterial teaching of Pope John Paul II; and (c) are not, in fact, taught in Amoris Laetitia.

The only problem which reasonable critics have discerned (to use one of Pope Francis’ favorite words) in Amoris Laetitia is an unfortunate (and perhaps tendentious) lack of clarity. This affects two particular issues:

  1. Gradualism:

    In section 8 of the document, Pope Francis repeats Pope John Paul II’s conclusion that gradualism in moral theology can be used to describe the subjective stages of moral growth but can never be understood as “gradualism of the law”. Though Francis does not say so, gradualism of the law would mean that different moral teachings apply to persons at different stages of moral growth: What is sinful for a saint will not be deemed sinful for a person who is less advanced spiritually. This, of course, would be nonsense. Sinful behaviors are objectively wrong. Only degrees of personal guilt can vary.

    Unfortunately, instead of clarifying this point, Pope Francis continues with a discussion that can be interpreted to lapse directly into what he has just denied, namely gradualism of the law. He suggests (but does not clearly teach) that it is possible to recognize that a sinner may be doing the best he can even though he has chosen to persist in his sin (as opposed to repenting of it but sometimes falling again). This leads to (unstated) speculation about whether the person should be judged to be actually sinning. The Pope suggests (but does not clearly teach) the idea that such a person may be pursuing a lesser good that simply falls short of the ideal. Insofar as this text can be taken to undermine the Church’s confidence in the liberating grace available through Christ, the discussion would be construed as drifting tacitly into gradualism of the law.

  2. Admission to Communion:

    On the question of changing the traditional Catholic teaching and discipline concerning the reception of the Eucharist, the text of Amoris Laetitia does not directly address it. Rather it offers two uncertain hints. First, in #300, the text states that since the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases, “the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same.” Footnote 336, attached to this sentence, is not much clearer: “This is also the case with regard to sacramental discipline…”.

    Second, in #305, the text reads: “Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin—which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such—a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.” But there is no clarification of what this might mean in marriage cases, and once again, footnote 351 (attached to this sentence), is not much clearer: “In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments.” The note then reminds readers of certain aspects of Penance and Eucharist, without specifying how and when they are to be used. Yet the use of both has been expressed clearly and consistently in the past, encouraging Penance in these cases, and prohibiting Communion.

Immediate Confusion

It is impossible to pretend (as some ecclesiastics have done) that there is no sincere confusion. As a matter of public record, the text of Amoris Laetitia as it affects these two issues has meant different things even to different bishops and cardinals. Some bishops (and episcopal conferences) have decided the text does not change the existing sacramental discipline of the Eucharist, especially since Canon Law has not been changed. Indeed, this is also the conclusion of the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller. Other bishops (and episcopal conferences) have decided the text intends to permit reception of Communion in some (or a few) cases by those who are divorced and remarried without benefit of an annulment, after a period of discernment with the help of their pastors.

Still other bishops have decided that reception of Communion for those in every sort of irregular marital situation is now left to the persons in question, who are to decide for themselves if they feel comfortable enough with their situation to receive the Eucharist. As far as we know, Pope Francis has never even unofficially favored this third view, but neither has he unofficially favored the first. The only interpretation the Pope has favored in interviews, conversations and personal letters is the second. Meanwhile, a number of bishops and theologians have proposed examples of cases which could justify reception of Communion under the second interpretation, but they have not agreed with each other on which cases qualify.

In other words, there are widely varying and mutually inconsistent interpretations all across the board, and it is precisely this that faithful Catholics throughout the Church have complained about. In addition, it is precisely this confusion that the cardinals who submitted “dubia” to Pope Francis hoped to remedy. They used the traditional method of seeking clarification by presenting a number of precise questions that can only be answered with a clear “yes” or “no”. For their pains, Pope Francis has not only refused to clarify what he means, but he has belittled all those who have such questions, including the cardinals. He has called them names, and he has launched a campaign of public criticism and demotion of critics, along with both publication and promotion for those who are willing to champion the uncertainty, pretending that only bad Catholics are confused.


The point of all this is to demonstrate that Father Salvador Pié-Ninot has completely missed the point by characterizing Catholics with legitimate questions as dissenters. The truth is that none of those who are confused by the Pope’s overall behavior in this matter have accused him of error in his exercise of the Ordinary Magisterium (such as in Amoris Laetitia). What has concerned them is the uncertainty of the text coupled with the Pope’s personal (non-magisterial) support of pastoral practices which, again, he has not officially taught. To review, these pastoral practices and the claims that justify them contradict the current Code of Canon Law, deviate from Catholic tradition, differ from the formally-taught conclusion on this very matter by Pope John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio (#84), and so have thrown the Church into conflict and confusion around the world.

It is critical to recognize that this is not a question of dissent. It is a request for the elimination of serious confusion which has been actively encouraged by the Pope. As I have stated several times before, Pope Francis is actively pursuing a pastoral and administrative program based on principles of faith and morals which the Holy Spirit appears to have prevented him from officially teaching. Under such circumstances, dissent does not enter into the issue at all. It is shamefully disingenuous to suggest that it does. Two things alone enter into this question: Dismay that this has come to pass in the Church, and deep concern for the care of souls.

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: dover beachcomber - Mar. 23, 2017 4:41 PM ET USA

    "The controversy which is shaking the Church at present is not over what Amoris Laetitia actually says but how it is to be interpreted in practice." Change "Amoris Laetitia" to "the Second Vatican Council" and you have a fine summary of the predicament of the last 50 years.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Mar. 22, 2017 10:12 AM ET USA

    bkmajer3729: You raise a good question, but once again we have a statement which the context protects from the necessity to understand it as an error in Faith. Paragrah 297 is about the human tendency to write people off. The emphasis is on "reaching out to everyone, of needing to help each person find his or her proper way of participating in the ecclesial community and thus to experience being touched by an 'unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous' mercy." It is in this sense that the Pope writes, in the very next sentence, that "No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel!" But he then goes on to say, "Naturally, if someone flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal, or wants to impose something other than what the Church teaches, he or she can in no way presume to teach or preach to others; this is a case of something which separates from the community (cf. Mt 18:17). Such a person needs to listen once more to the Gospel message and its call to conversion. Yet even for that person there can be some way of taking part in the life of community, whether in social service, prayer meetings or another way that his or her own initiative, together with the discernment of the parish priest, may suggest." In other words, there are questions of prudence here, including prudence of expression, but nothing that (considering the context) can be shown as intending to violate prior Catholic teaching.

  • Posted by: steve.grist2587 - Mar. 21, 2017 6:18 AM ET USA

    Your last paragraph offers a clear statement of what I have awkwardly tried to articulate regarding this controversy. Thank you. I would add that truth has a gravitational pull, confusion does not. Therefore, it is absurd to think the Church can attract souls by offering more of what the culture already offers in spades - more confusion. It appears that the Church is ashamed of the beauty of our faith.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Mar. 21, 2017 12:05 AM ET USA

    Dr. Mirus, Ok, I am still not ready to fully embrace your position. Did you comment on this before? In AL #297, there is a curious statement "No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel!" Hmmm, Hmmm. I am struggling with the doctrine of Predestination - especially Father Baker's SJ description in his Vol. 3. So, now I have to ask - Did the Pope say that; Am I missing the context-I really hope so. ...baffled, befuddled, and beleaguered... Thanks - I think.

  • Posted by: brenda22890 - Mar. 19, 2017 7:13 AM ET USA

    Thank you, Jeff. Perfectly expressed.

  • Posted by: feedback - Mar. 18, 2017 11:12 AM ET USA

    Concluding statement of the Council of Jerusalem began with the words, "It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us..." (Acts 15:28), which means that the Church is being assisted in important decisions with the help from the Holy Spirit. Next month it will be one full year since the release of Amoris Laetitia, and it becomes more and more clear to me that amidst all the discussion, "dissent," and dismay, the Holy Spirit does not allow it to gain a foothold in the Church. This gives me joy.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Mar. 18, 2017 10:19 AM ET USA

    “People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy.” -GK Chesterton. There is a carelessness at the heart of modernism and this is worthy of dismay. Pascendi communicated this dismay. Dismay should be nothing new in 2017. Much has changed on recent decades. "Careful" is not descriptive in the least. Chesterton added: "It is easy to be a madman. It is easy to be a heretic."

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Mar. 18, 2017 10:02 AM ET USA

    rghatt6599: We must parse such documents carefully. There can be various deficiencies, technical errors, ambiguities, errors of fact, mistaken assumptions, and so on, along with much discussion of various ideas, in papal documents. But the Magisterium (teaching authority) is actually excercised (and therefore protected by the Holy Spirit) ONLY in those statements for which the Pope makes clear that he intends (1) on a matter of faith and morals, (2) using his Petrine authority, (3) addressing the whole Church, (4) to teach how the matter in question is to be understood. While the first three can be assumed for an Apostolic Exhortation, given the very nature of the document, the last must be cautiously assessed, distinguishing general discussion from the deliberate intention to teach a particular point. There is very little, perhaps nothing, in Amoris Laetitia that meets the fourth test. Mostly it is a long and thorough exploration/discussion of the problems surrounding marriage today.

  • Posted by: MWCooney - Mar. 18, 2017 8:57 AM ET USA

    The final line says it all for me: "Dismay that this has come to pass in the Church, and deep concern for the care of souls."

  • Posted by: Bernadette - Mar. 18, 2017 3:25 AM ET USA

    Good summation. Right on!

  • Posted by: [email protected] - Mar. 17, 2017 11:26 PM ET USA

    All this talk about about what the Pope means or does not mean is the very gradual ism he supposedly does not support. Let's be clear from the pews. If he continues to refuse to clarify what is here then he will cause division in the Church and may indeed be the wolf in sheep's clothing.

  • Posted by: rghatt6599 - Mar. 17, 2017 6:05 PM ET USA

    Another Amoris laetitia's footnote no. 329 falsifies Vatican Council II’s Gaudium et spes no. 51 concerning temporary abstinence from marital relations. You mention St. JP's Familiaris consortio no. 84 but conveniently the pope does not quote that document in AL. Does Pope Francis exercise the ordinary magisterium without error, as you claim, when he deliberately misquotes previous magisterial documents and also omits others that clearly state the Church’s bi-millennial praxis?