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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  • Posted by: feedback - Dec. 18, 2017 10:55 AM ET USA

    The successor of Pope Francis will be able to sort out quickly and dispel any doctrinal confusion. However, the new bishops and cardinals appointed by Francis will have to stay along with all the peculiar ideas which some of them represent. That is what I am more worried about. You can correct and clarify doctrine. But how do you correct and clarify a cardinal, or several cardinals?

  • Posted by: marksauser4128 - Dec. 17, 2017 6:28 PM ET USA

    Your logic makes perfect sense. Regardless, our Pope has kicked the level of confusion up another notch. For what purpose? I think back to his request to young people at world youth day in Rio shortly after he became pope: "Make a mess."

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Dec. 17, 2017 4:47 AM ET USA

    Right on the mark, Phil. Some crucial questions: 1) Can a man be condemned forever? 2) Is Christ's grace sufficient for all or only for some? 3) Is a binding faith possible for some, but impossible for others? 4) Are all the baptized bound by God's sacraments (cf. CCC n. 1257)? 5) Is it possible that a specific ("concrete") case can be articulated wherein "God himself" is asking a man to commit a moral evil which leads to a mortal sin (cf. AL n. 303)? 6) Do incongruities with faith exist in AL?

  • Posted by: DrJazz - Dec. 16, 2017 8:35 PM ET USA

    I've been wondering why you've had no editorial commentary on Pope Francis' comments about changing the wording of the Lord's Prayer. It feels as though, about every week or so, he casually decides to throw a bomb at faithful Catholics. Some of his statements ultimately may not be matters of grave concern, but the frequency of his pronouncements, combined with his natural ham-fistedness, make every issue feel as though it's a piece of lost territory for which to fight.