On request for clarification of Amoris Laetitia, the Pope’s silence speaks volumes

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Nov 16, 2016

We should not be surprised that the Pope has declined a request for clarification of Amoris Laetitia. Are faithful Catholics confused by that document? Absolutely. That is the Holy Father’s intent. The confusion is not a bug; it’s a feature.

The defenders of the papal document (and those defenders are becoming downright belligerent; see below) insist that the notorious 8th chapter is clear enough, and that the four cardinals who have raised questions about its meaning are merely being argumentative. But if that were the case, the Pontiff could have avoided this public embarrassment by answering the cardinals’ questions. He chose not to do so.

There are only two possible ways to interpret the Pope’s silence. Either he is being remarkably rude to the men who are his closest counselors, flatly refusing to answer their honest request, or he does not want to give a straight answer. Or both.

The one possibility that can be quickly excluded from our discussion is that the Pope believes the interpretation of Amoris Laetitia is already clear to the faithful. It is not. After two years of intense debate on the most controversial question involved—whether divorced and remarried Catholics may be admitted to Communion—intelligent and informed Catholics are still unsure as to what, exactly, Pope Francis has taught us.

If the papal teaching is clear, how can it mean one thing in Poland, and another in Germany? If the final answer to that vexed question is No in Philadelphia and Portland, how can it be Yes in Chicago and San Diego? If some bishops are interpreting the papal document incorrectly, why have they not been corrected?

Since the revelation that this massive confusion prompted four conscientious cardinals to press the Pope for clarification, several people have asked me how long it ordinarily takes for a Pope to respond to dubia of this sort. There is no good answer to that question, because there is no precedent for this query. Ordinarily, papal documents are clear. If any confusion arises from papal statements, a clarification usually follows quickly—long before any formal dubium could be raised—because the very point of papal teaching is to provide clarity. Usually. But this is a different case.

In any case, nearly two months have passed since the cardinals raised their questions. During that span the Pope has found time for at least two lengthy conversations with his friend Eugenio Scalfari, the leftist journalist. Is it unreasonable to suggest that he should have also found time to speak with four troubled members of the College of Cardinals?

Actually the Pontiff did meet with one of those prelates, Cardinal Raymond Burke, in a private audience on November 10: just a few days before the cardinals made their query public. I have no special knowledge about what took place during that audience, but it is inconceivable to me that Cardinal Burke, who is punctilious in his observance of ecclesiastical propriety, would have failed to raise the matter directly.

(The next day, the Pope met in another private audience with Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), who had also received the cardinals’ letter with its list of dubia. Was the topic raised again, I wonder? If so, what instructions did the Pontiff give Cardinal Müller? All we know is that the four cardinals did not receive a response to their questions.)

Cardinal Burke and his three confreres have interpreted the Pope’s silence as an invitation to further discussion of the questions among the faithful. That is, frankly, a charitable reading—especially since the topic has already been discussed so exhaustively for so many months.

John Allen of Crux has a different reading of the Pope’s intentions: “Maybe this is his version of Catholic R&D, letting things play out for a while on the ground before he says anything irreversible.” In other words, maybe the Pope is deliberately creating room for pastoral experimentation, to see what works. Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia seems comfortable with that approach. “Pastoral care moves within ambiguity,” he wrote on his Twitter account. In a bit of a slap at the four cardinals, he added: “We now need a pastoral patience not the quick-fix anxiety voiced here.”

(Speaking of quick-fix anxiety, could I digress for a moment, to ask why the leadership of the Catholic Church has been fixated on this question for the past two years? Where—outside of Germany—is the enormous demand for a change in Church discipline on this matter? Where are the outcries from the faithful? At a time when families are imploding, children are abandoned, and a steadily decreasing number of Catholics even bother with sacramental marriage, how can any rational cleric believe that this is the question most urgently in need of attention?)

However, if John Allen and Archbishop Coleridge believe that the Pope is encouraging experimentation by leaving matters unsettled, another observer—one much closer to the Pope—insists that the meaning of Amoris Laetitia has been settled. Father Antonio Spadaro, the editor of La Civilta Cattolica, reacted to the four cardinals’ public letter with a multi-lingual Tweet-storm of harsh statements.

“The Pope has ‘clarified.’ Those who don’t like what they hear pretend not to hear it!” Father Spadaro wrote. He attached a link to an informal letter the Pope wrote to bishops in Argentina, approving of their interpretation of the document. But of course a leaked letter, even from the Roman Pontiff, is not a magisterial document. And the Argentine bishops’ reading of Amoris Laetitia left plenty of questions unanswered; it did not, for instance, address the dubia raised by the four cardinals.

Later Father Spadaro tweeted again: “Amoris Laetitia is an act of the Magisterium (card. Schönborn) so don’t keep asking the same question until you get the answer *you* want...” Now, obviously, he was taunting the beleaguered cardinals. He was certainly not answering their questions about how this “act of the magisterium” should be understood; he was telling them to stop asking pesky questions.

Father Spadaro plays a special role here—indeed he might be accused of conflicts of interest when he responds to critics of the papal document. The Jesuit priest is widely acknowledged as one of the closest advisers to Pope Francis, and often credited with a major role in drafting Amoris Laetitia. So if he wants cardinals to stop asking difficult questions, it is not unreasonable to suspect that the Pope himself wants to bury those questions. And the Pope’s silence conveys the same message.

Why would the Pope avoid answering questions? Why would he allow the confusion to persist? Perhaps because he wants to allow something that goes beyond experimentation: a de facto change in Church discipline, which will entail a de facto change in Church teaching. Perhaps because he realizes that if he makes his intentions clear, loyal Catholics will not accept them.

Thank God for four stalwart princes of the Church who, without accusing the Pope of an attempt to change Catholic doctrine, have made it clear that if that is his intention, they will resist.

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.

Sound Off! CatholicCulture.org supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

Show 9 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: geoffreysmith1 - Nov. 19, 2016 8:35 AM ET USA

    "By the pope's own account, a substantial number of Catholic marriages are sacramentally defective..." Substantial? I would be most interested to learn how Pope Francis could possibly know this. The mind boggles at the degree of interrogation that would be necessary to arrive at such a deduction. Many thousands of Catholic spouses would have to be closely questioned about their circumstances and intentions before casting doubt on their nuptial vows. Totally unrealistic - not to say crazy.

  • Posted by: hitchs - Nov. 19, 2016 4:05 AM ET USA

    This is a masterly and courageous attempt to get inside the enigmas involved in the Amores-Laetitia-divorced-and-remarried problem. (I was about to call it a debate, but if anything it is an anti-debate, a series of delaying tactics designed to avoid a debate.) I still find it difficult to believe that this is happening in the Catholic Church, which for two millennia has upheld the truth - sometimes reluctantly, perhaps a little confusedly, but so often heroically and magnificently.

  • Posted by: Lucius49 - Nov. 18, 2016 10:18 PM ET USA

    Indeed a de facto change in discipine leads to a change in doctrine. This is the whole orthopraxis claim heavily promoted in Germany. Orthodoxy becomes an ideal especially in moral matters to which lip service is paid but that's about it. The human subject is the final arbiter and objective truth is denied. Doctrinal statements are provisional and time-bound. This is simply modernism and historicism. The Pope is on the wrong side of this and has rammed through this ambiguity and confusion in AL8

  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - Nov. 18, 2016 10:15 PM ET USA

    I think you've described a very likely explanation in your next-to-last paragraph: intentional ambiguity that will allow de facto change in discipline in so many places that pressure will build to change doctrine. It's nothing new; Cdl. Kasper himself confirmed (approvingly) that this technique is at the root of many of the ambiguities and internal contradictions in certain documents of Vatican II.

  • Posted by: mckmailbox5418 - Nov. 18, 2016 6:31 PM ET USA

    I thought that when a marriage was "sacramentally defective" the church offered her children the annulment process. It seems that a "careful forming of conscience" has often led to people doing whatever they please. Considering what our Lord said about divorce and remarriage it seems to me that the "four" may be more concerned with saving souls than our current pope.

  • Posted by: BCLX - Nov. 18, 2016 5:26 PM ET USA

    By the pope's own account, a substantial number of Catholic marriages are sacramentally defective. So it hardly seems that the best (and only) pastoral advice is to tell divorced and civilly remarried couples to live as brother and sister. A careful forming of conscience might lead to what many would call a "non-traditional" result but we as a church should be open to that possibility. The "four" seem to have something in common with the Pharisees of our Lord's time with their questions.

  • Posted by: bernie4871 - Nov. 18, 2016 4:55 PM ET USA

    Re your parenthetical statement, the Pope had taken on the role of provocateur. He is deliberately trying to draw the Church away from Orthodox teaching. Oh please , Dear Lord, may we have a faithful Pastor !!!

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Nov. 16, 2016 7:27 PM ET USA

    Father Spadaro is the proverbial fox in the chicken coop. Of course my own words and work are, undoubtedly, clear and without reproach too. If the cardinals' approach posed difficulties due to wording or what all, that might be a point but when it's laid out in such a straightforward easy to respond to manner, there is no excuse for Father Spadaro's uncharitable response. Guess he too is a member of the rigid crew.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Nov. 16, 2016 12:30 PM ET USA

    It's not easy to be among the baptized in these days. At least if one hopes to adhere to the catechism. We're learning in a difficult manner that to be Catholic inevitably means to be traditional. The Christian is a witness. This involves courage and honesty. The Catholic willfully faces reality with courage. He suffers most when his testimony incurs the displeasure of those in authority whom he loves as a child loves his father. Fortitude invloves many things. Easy ain't one of them.