The Amoris debate: Is it really a matter of confusion? (Part II)

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jan 15, 2018

Last week in this space I argued that Amoris Laetitia definitely has caused confusion (claims to the contrary notwithstanding), and that actually to call the situation “confusing” should be recognized as a display of respect for the Pope’s authority.

In closing that short essay, I promised to turn my attention next to the question of how other Church leaders could ease the confusion. Here goes:

A few bishops from Kazakhstan opened the new year with a statement observing that the reigning confusion is, as a practical matter, “spreading the plague of divorce.” In light of this pastoral disaster, they concluded that, in their role as successors to the apostles, they were “not allowed to be silent.” So they made a new plea for clarity. They added that the widespread notion that divorced-and-remarried Catholics may now receive the Eucharist—a notion undeniably made popular by the fallout from Amoris Laetitia, whatever one might conclude that the text says—is “alien to the entire tradition of the Catholic and apostolic faith.”

Only a bare handful of the world’s bishops have joined their Kazakh colleagues in that public statement. For that matter only four cardinals signed the dubia, the original public plea for papal clarification. Why have so few prelates joined in this necessary call for an end to the general confusion?

Today’s CWN news headlines point to a statement by Archbishop Luigi Negri, one of those few prelates who has signed the plea for clarification. The Italian archbishop indicates that he is open to the possibility that some divorced-and-remarried Catholics might receive the Eucharist under some circumstances. What he cannot accept, the archbishop says, is the current uncertainty. “I am against confusion,” he explains simply. How can anyone who is responsible for the integrity of Church teaching think otherwise?

Under different circumstances I might conclude that the silence of the world’s bishops could reflect the general popularity of Pope Francis. But only recently we saw clear evidence that quite a few bishops lack enthusiasm for the current pontificate. When I first called attention to that evidence, I’m afraid I made my point in a way that struck some readers as flippant, and for that I am sorry. But the point is important; let me try again.

In the past, seminarians who wanted to serve as acolytes at the Pope’s Christmas Mass were asked to enter their names in a lottery. This year there was no lottery; every seminarian who asked for a place on the altar was accepted. Maybe I am overanalyzing this incident, jumping hastily to unwarranted conclusions. But unless human nature has suddenly changed, it is striking that young men training for the priesthood would not seize an opportunity to be seen alongside the Pope. What does that fact tell us?

First, we know that as a group the seminarians studying at the various national colleges in Rome (generally speaking the most promising candidates for the priesthood) are not as enthusiastic today as their predecessors were in past years about celebrating Christmas with the Pope. Next, we can safely assume that the seminarians were under no pressure to volunteer for the acolytes’ roles, and that in turn suggests that the directors of the national colleges were less enthusiastic. Finally—and most important, in terms of my present argument—since prudent seminarians usually do what they know their bishops want done, we can infer that these young men did not think that their bishops back home would be delighted to see them standing next to the Roman Pontiff. So it would not be a stretch to conclude that quite a few bishops are unenthusiastic, too.

But if bishops have reservations about Pope Francis, isn’t it also likely that they have reservations about the single most controversial aspect of his pontificate? And if they have such reservations—that is, if they recognize the damage to the faith caused by the current confusion—why are they silent?

Here I am raising questions that do not allow for definitive answers. So let me end this admittedly speculative post by making the questions explicit:

  • Am I wrong to conclude that the shortage of seminarians interested in serving as acolytes testifies to a general lack of enthusiasm about this pontificate, among seminarians from all around the world and presumably also among their bishops?
  • If the world’s bishops are not particularly happy about this pontificate, is it unreasonable to assume that the confusion caused by Amoris Laetitia is one major reason for their dissatisfaction?
  • If many of the world’s bishops are troubled by the confusion, why don’t they join in the effort to restore clarity?

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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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Retired01 - Jan. 19, 2018 2:27 PM ET USA

    Maybe the reason many bishops do not say anything is that they are waiting to see which way is the wind finally going to blow. If this is true, it says something very disturbing about these bishops.

  • Posted by: rjbennett1294 - Jan. 16, 2018 6:34 PM ET USA

    Phil Lawler asks, "If many of the world’s bishops are troubled by the confusion, why don’t they join in the effort to restore clarity?" Why? Because they've seen what happens to anyone who joins in such an effort. In other words, they've seen the punishment such a person incurs.

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Jan. 16, 2018 5:49 PM ET USA

    The despicable silence of most of our bishops and cardinals ranks right up there with the "silence" of the German people who just sang louder when the trains headed to the death camps went past their churches.

  • Posted by: feedback - Jan. 16, 2018 9:04 AM ET USA

    I'm noticing that the Bishops' stance on Amoris (or the related 'Kasper Proposal') appears to propel or hinder their careers on the hierarchical ladder under Pope Francis. It doesn't look good when those who rise to prominence while praising Amoris for its "clarity," do not bother to explain, or even discuss, any particulars of that "clarity." The Holy Spirit needs to intervene.