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On the Pope, the Argentine bishops, and the meaning of ‘magisterial authority’

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Dec 15, 2017

Several readers have written in recent days to question why this site has offered no editorial commentary on the Vatican announcement that the Pope’s letter to the Argentine bishops on the implementation of Amoris Laetitia should be regarded as magisterial teaching. Two or three readers, going further, have complained that we have given short shrift to a news story of enormous importance.

While I understand these readers’ concerns, I disagree. I did not—and still do not—see this story as particularly important. Not much was changed by the appearance of the Pope’s letter in Acta Apostolicae Sedis, or by Cardinal Parolin’s announcement that the papal statement was magisterial. I say this for three reasons:

First, a private letter from the Pope cannot be seen on the same level as a formal papal document, even if that letter is later made public. Insofar as Pope Francis made a magisterial statement on marriage, he made it in Amoris Laetitia. Keep in mind that the flurry of interest in the letter to the Argentine bishops involves the interpretation of that apostolic exhortation—that is, the proper understanding of a papal statement that has already been made. And Amoris Laetitia has certainly been given plenty of coverage on this site.

Second, the most controversial aspect of Amoris Laetitia is the suggestion—a suggestion, not a clear statement—that Catholics who are divorced and remarried may under some circumstances receive the Eucharist without making a commitment to live in abstinence. As canon-law expert Ed Peter has explained, the Code of Canon Law (specifically Canon 915) requires priests to withhold Communion from Catholics in those circumstances. No one disputes the authority of Pope Francis to change canon law, but he has not changed Canon 915, and so it remains in force, with its own “magisterial authority.”

The Roman Pontiff can speak with authority on questions of faith and morals, but he cannot overrule the laws of logic. In his letter to the Argentine bishops, applauding their understanding of his apostolic exhortation Pope Francis declared: “There are no other interpretations.” But there are other interpretations. Some bishops say that Amoris Laetitia upholds the traditional teaching of the Church; others say that the document changes those teachings. These interpretations are incompatible. The Argentine bishops’ document, like the Pope’s apostolic exhortation, leaves crucial questions unanswered. Until those questions are answered clearly, nothing much is accomplished by the claim that the reigning confusion has “magisterial authority.”

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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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