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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  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Sep. 17, 2016 7:34 PM ET USA

    Irrelevant wrt absolute identity of Sacrament (e.g. Marriage), Virtue, Sin & teaching truth. Very relevant wrt intention & understanding. Does Pope intentionally mean to question the foundation of Christ's Church? He must know that making such statements will cause questioning. I don't have an answer but I can't believe he got to be Pope w/o the Holy Spirit knowing the probable future of how Francis will articulate the Gospel. Is this really "that bad" or are we being challenged? Don't know.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Sep. 17, 2016 10:58 AM ET USA

    To extreme Catholic: I understand that it could seem like splitting hairs, but it isn't really. We are not talking about ignoring the ordinary magisterium, which would indeed involve the hair-splitting you deplore. We are talking about the irrelevance of private, personal, non-magisterial comments when it comes to properly understanding the magisterial. In other words, the point is that Amoris Laetitia did NOT state that admission to the Eucharist is possible in some cases in dealing with the divorced and remarried, but Pope Francis speaking privately, has said that allowing Communion was the interpretation he wanted people to take from Amoris Laetitia. It is the private, personal, non-Magisterial comments of the Pope that are irrelevant. In this same way, Pope John XXII was able to maintain heretical propositions (that those who die do not behold the Beatific Vision until AFTER the final judgment) in private correspondence and sermons without in the least changing the interpretation of any Magisterial text, even his own. This created a huge controversy at the time (early 14th century).

  • Posted by: extremeCatholic - Sep. 16, 2016 9:57 PM ET USA

    This really is splitting hairs. Because if the Pope is not the definitive interpreter of how the Church is to understand his Magisterial statements, then who is? Conceding this is not an exercise of the extraordinary magisterium, matters like this still fall under "obsequium religiosum" or religious submission like a slave. Roma locuta est causa finita.

  • Posted by: Sharonand84353 - Sep. 16, 2016 11:00 AM ET USA

    The related doctrinal questions remain unsettled in reality, but the message that Catholics are getting is that Pope Francis explicitly intends to change the teaching in practice, because he has said so. We don't know what history will show, but we know what is happening right now. In an attempt to show kindness to some parties of divorce, the teaching on both marriage, which is a reflection of the Trinity, and on the Eucharist, are being diluted.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Sep. 14, 2016 6:16 PM ET USA

    Robert Royal has a sobering piece. His conclusions include even uses the term "schism" to describe concerns about possible repercussions. He contends: "The so-called 'Kasper Proposal' is, as it turns out, actually the Francis Proposal." The "obscure footnote" is no longer obscure. In reality when was it ever obscure? We don't worry about footnotes. But change in recent decades? Obscure exceptions made routine. Yes, the footnotes seem unimportant, but change is effected by the footnotes.