Three things the Pope can’t say

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Dec 05, 2016

Within the Catholic Church, the authority of the Roman Pontiff is considerable. But even papal authority—and especially papal infallibility—has its limits. The Pope speaks with authority when he sets forth the deposit of the Faith, explaining—in union with the college of bishops—what the Church has always and everywhere believed. Anyone who understands the nature of the Petrine power should recognize that, even when he speaks on questions of faith and morals, there are some things the Pope cannot say. For instance:

The Pope can’t say that 2+2=5. Nor can he repeal the laws of logic. So if the Pope makes two contradictory statements, they can’t both be right. And since every Pontiff enjoys the same teaching authority, if one Pope contradicts another Pope, something is wrong. Thus if Amoris Laetitia contradicts Veritatis Splendor and Casti Connubi—earlier papal encyclicals, which carry a higher level of teaching authority—the faithful cannot be obliged to swallow the contradiction.

The Pope can’t tell you what you think. He can, within certain limitations, tell you what you should think. But he cannot, simply by the force of his authority, change your mind. Father Anthony Spadaro, a close adviser to Pope Francis, insists that Amoris Laetitia is perfectly clear . “The Pope leaves no room for doubt about the teaching of the Church,” he claims. Even if that statement came directly from the Pope himself (which it does not, obviously), it could not be authoritative. If you have doubts, then evidently there is room for doubt; not even the Pope can gainsay that fact. Ideally the Pope and his surrogates would help you to remove those doubts, rather than suggesting that doubt implies disloyalty.

The Pope cannot teach authoritatively by dropping hints. On the most controversial issue discussed at the last two meetings of the Synod of Bishops, Amoris Laetitia is vague, allowing for radically different interpretations. Father Spadaro and Cardinal Schönborn and the Argentine bishops can all make a compelling argument that they know what Pope Francis had in mind—especially because the Holy Father himself has endorsed the Schönborn and Argentine interpretations. But what the Pope had in mind does not carry the same weight as what the Pope actually wrote. And that is especially true when there is such abundant evidence that the Holy Father deliberately left the question unresolved:

  • The Pope avoided addressing the question directly in his apostolic exhortation, left the clearest evidence of his intention in an obscure footnote, and then later told reporters that he didn’t remember that footnote.
  • He endorsed the Argentine bishops’ interpretation in a private letter, and the Schönborn interpretation in an airplane interview. Obviously neither was a formal statement of the teaching magisterium.
  • He declined to answer the dubia submitted by four cardinals.
  • And the Italian Archbishop Bruno Forte—a noted theologian, whose sympathies are generally with Pope Francis, and who played a key role in drafting the first report of the Synod on the Family— reported that Pope Francis had cautioned against clarity. The Pope, Archbishop Forte revealed, said: “If we speak explicitly Communion for the divorced and remarried, you do not know what a terrible mess we will make.”

By now it should be clear that in Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis carefully avoided making the sort of authoritative statement that would command the assent of the faithful. We cannot be expected—much less commanded—to accept a new “teaching” that the Pope has chosen, for his own reasons, not to make.

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 See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Dec. 10, 2016 1:58 AM ET USA

    From Donum Veritatis nn. 15-17: "The charism of infallibility [bestowed by Christ] in matters of faith and morals...can be exercised in various ways. ...One must therefore take into account the proper character of every exercise of the Magisterium, considering the extent to which its authority is engaged...Magisterial decisions in matters of discipline, even if they are not guaranteed by the charism of infallibility, are not without divine assistance and call for the adherence of the faithful."

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Dec. 07, 2016 2:14 PM ET USA

    For Mr. Spanier, a reference to the "hierarchy of doctrines," from LG n. 25: "This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence,...according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking."

  • Posted by: phil L - Dec. 07, 2016 9:54 AM ET USA

    In reply to Sharonand84353 (see below): From the Pope's statements and silences, I infer that he does not want to press the issue, knowing that if he said forthrightly what he now implies, the break with prior Church teaching would be evident. As things stand, if silence implies consent, then he has given his tacit consent to contradictory readings of AL.

  • Posted by: Sharonand84353 - Dec. 06, 2016 7:56 PM ET USA

    Mr. Lawler, do you have any opinion on why he has chosen to handle things this way? He clearly supports the Argentinian bishops' interpretation of AL. Do you think he also supports the interpretation of the bishop of San Diego? If silence implies consent, then is it reasonable to think that he does support such interpretations? Do you think it's possible that he doesn't really understand the importance of constant Church teaching? He certainly is a most unique Holy Father.

  • Posted by: phil L - Dec. 06, 2016 9:39 AM ET USA

    In reply to R. Spanier (see comment below): As a general rule, new statements from the magisterium should be read in the light of earlier statements, on the assumption that they are in continuity. Encyclicals generally carry a weightier teaching authority because they are often devoted to the exposition of questions of faith or morals, whereas apostolic exhortations are typically devoted to encouraging a deeper and more fruitful Christian life. Thus the type of document is one clue to the Pope’s intention: whether to teach a particular truth or to promote virtue based on what we already know.

  • Posted by: rickt26170 - Dec. 06, 2016 2:13 AM ET USA

    Well put. What is unsettling is that Francis could use the same tactic of "smoke and mirrors" to deflect criticism if he tries to expand his revolution in the Church. The way divorce for the remarried was handled, you could use exactly the same tactics to change almost anything that has 1900 years of tradition behind it. And there is good reason to think Francis has big plans for the future. Pray for the Church.

  • Posted by: feedback - Dec. 05, 2016 10:32 PM ET USA

    "The Pope cannot teach authoritatively by dropping hints." So obviously true! The four Cardinals did not challenge the authority of the Pope, or the respect due to his Office, but that style of teaching by "dropping hints" and then pointing to those few who "interpreted them right." The role of every Bishop is to present solid, orthodox, unambiguous teaching firmly grounded in the Deposit of the Faith of One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. All Bishops are to guard firmly that Deposit.

  • Posted by: R. Spanier (Catholic Canadian) - Dec. 05, 2016 9:22 PM ET USA

    Re. "earlier papal encyclicals, which carry a higher level of teaching authority..." Dear Mr. Lawler, Would you please tell where the Church teaches this? Thanks in advance.

  • Posted by: extremeCatholic - Dec. 05, 2016 9:09 PM ET USA

    Two words: weaponized ambiguity.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Dec. 05, 2016 7:46 PM ET USA

    Mr. Lawler's testimony is laudable. However, it is essential that we transcend the notion that Pope Francis is among few in all this. He is simply pushing an envelope in an era where the envelope has become the enemy rather than the friend. There's a new understanding. Clearly. The concept of vigilant guardian of the Deposit is something foreign to too many pastors. Thus we see such small numbers in raising a challenge. And thus "teaching" ultimately proves to be a matter of semantics.

  • Posted by: ALC - Dec. 05, 2016 4:45 PM ET USA

    This is the best article I have seen on the subject. Thank you for making it so clear. What I find most disturbing is that, as opposed to what we went through with the misinterpretation of Vatican II, this time the confusion and wrong interpretation is coming from the top. I have lived since Pius XII and this is the first time this happening I know of a Pope being the one to cause the confusion and misleading information to be promulgated.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Dec. 05, 2016 3:52 PM ET USA

    The cited article about Abp. Forte says: "Footnote 351 comes at paragraph 305, where the pope says that despite an 'objective situation of sin' it is possible that a person 'can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.'" This quote brings us once again to the question of doubt. Can a confessor who has a doubt about the species of a given sin (mortal or venial) counsel a penitent to continue in that sin?

  • Posted by: padrebill - Dec. 05, 2016 2:34 PM ET USA