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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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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