The Acta Apostolicae Sedis is not an exercise of the Magisterium of the Church.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Dec 19, 2017

Recent claims that the publication of a papal letter in the Acts of the Apostolic See elevates that letter to the level of Magisterial teaching should not confuse anyone. When this claim was first made, I did not consider it worth comment. But since it has in fact caused confusion, a clarification is in order. So let me add to what Phil Lawler has already written in On the Pope, the Argentine bishops, and the meaning of ‘magisterial authority’.

The Acta Apostolicae Sedis is the official publication of the governing acts of the Holy See, but it is not a guide to Magisterial teaching. It is simply the current canonical means, established in 1908 by Pope St. Pius X, of determining whether something is an official act of governance or merely an unofficial statement that has not been implemented, or just a proposal, a draft, an idea, a piece of advice, or even a rumor.

Thus new ecclesiastical laws take effect when they are published in the Acta. This is the normal way in which bishops around the world know a particular law has been promulgated officially and is now to be obeyed.

But the Acta also contain many other things, such as decrees, encyclicals and other documents issued by the Pope, decisions of the various Roman congregations, ecclesiastical appointments, and anything else that that the Pope wishes to be considered an official act of his pontificate, or which the various congregations have the authority to include on the Pope’s behalf. These other documents simply are what they are. Their status is not changed by their inclusion in the Acta, except that if there were any doubt that something was intended as an official act, that doubt is removed by publication there.

In the case of Pope Francis’ famous letter to the Argentine bishops asserting that their interpretation of his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia was the only possible interpretation, publication in the Acta has only one effect: It makes it clear that Pope Francis regards this letter as an official act of his pontificate. It was not just a letter to a friend, for example, or a quick note in a Christmas card, or any other kind of unofficial, purely personal communication of Jorge Bergoglio.

But nobody ever thought it was. It was universally accepted that the Pope had written an official letter to the Argentine bishops commending their interpretation of Amoris Laetitia. Those who understand these matters also accepted that this letter should be taken as a guide to the Pope’s thinking on the subject in question—an inescapably logical deduction. And those who understand these matters also pointed out that while official letters to a group of bishops are a guide to the Pope’s thinking, they do not constitute Magisterial acts.

Separating opinion and Magisterium

There are, in fact, a great many things published in the Acta which, while they are official statements of the pope or the curia, or official acts such as laws or appointments, are not acts of the Magisterium of the Church. They do not, in other words, purport to teach something by virtue of the Petrine authority to the whole Church on a matter of faith or morals.

Again, publication in the Acta does not change the teaching character of a document. It simply removes doubt, if doubt existed, as to whether the document in question was officially intended as an act of ecclesiastical governance of the Holy See. If a document was a letter to a group of bishops expressing the opinion of Pope Francis before it was included in the Acta, then it is still a letter to a group of bishops expressing the opinion of Pope Francis after it has been included in the Acta. In the present case, this means that the letter is just what everyone always agreed that it was: An indication of the Pope’s thought on a particular question that was not clear in the text of Amoris Laetitia.

But to say that this same indication of the Pope’s thought is now somehow Magisterial, because it has been published in the Acta, is to confuse the personal opinions of a pope with an exercise of his Magisterium. Moreover, it is precisely this sort of confusion that the strict nature of the Magisterium is designed by God Himself to prevent. For an act of the Magisterium concerns not the Pope’s opinions but what the Pope actually teaches under strictly-defined Divinely-protected Magisterial conditions—conditions which constrain the Pope within the limits of what the Holy Spirit will guide and permit him to say, and what the Holy Spirit will prevent him from saying.

The upshot is that we have learned nothing new about the Pope’s letter to the Argentine bishops by its publication in the Acta. We already knew that the Pope was personally anxious to induce the Church’s ministers to discern situations in which those who are married without benefit of an annulment should receive Communion. And we already knew that, despite this manifest desire, the Pope has not taught Magisterially that any specific situations exist in which such reception is either desirable or even possible without sin—or, I should say, any new situation beyond that already stipulated by previous popes, namely the agreement of the man and woman involved, remaining in the same household for the sake of their children, to live as brother and sister.

It is precisely this schizophrenia in the current pontificate which creates such confusion throughout the Church. Sadly, each Catholic will have to discern what this tells us about Pope Francis and the state of the Church he currently governs. But one thing is sure:

Those who claim that publication in the Acta elevates the teaching authority of a document beyond what it possesses through its own essential character are really just playing with words. They merely confirm a desire that appears in our day to be extraordinarily widespread. I mean the desire to raise their own opinions to the status of Catholic faith and morals, whether their opinions are Magisterially justified or not.

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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: JDeFauw - Dec. 20, 2017 5:45 PM ET USA

    I needed that clarification as well. Prior to two weeks ago, I had never heard of the Acta Apostolicae Sedis. And during the past couple weeks, I hadn't come across anybody in Catholic media who gave any real clarification on whether the document of the Argentine bishops had in fact been elevated to magisterial teaching. Sometimes, we do need explanations of what was obvious to you.

  • Posted by: dougfuda6040 - Dec. 20, 2017 8:27 AM ET USA

    I feel that Dr. Mirus and Mr. Lawler are underestimating the seriousness of these latest developments regarding Amoris Laetitia. Today when I visited the California Catholic Daily website, their "most read" story listed at the top of the page is Cardinal Kasper's article alleging that the controversy over AL is over and its critics are guilty of "one-sided moral objectivism." The dissidents have the upper hand. They play chess while we play checkers. There is a "practical schism" in the Church.

  • Posted by: hitchs - Dec. 19, 2017 6:28 PM ET USA

    I would like to thank Dr. Mirus for clarifying this matter. I was certainly unaware of it, but now I am considerably (though not totally) relieved.

  • Posted by: Monserrat - Dec. 19, 2017 3:15 PM ET USA

    This is the best explanation that I personally have come across regarding the Acta and the claim of magisterial teaching. Most of the others focus on Canon 915, which is most important, but have not provided the detail on Acta, etc. that appears here. This essential service to readers is most welcome, though a bit delayed in seeing the light of day. Your faithful followers forgive you.