By Judie Brown
Did Pope Francis really change Catholic teaching on Holy Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics? On homosexual marriage? On divorce? These sorts of questions are common these days. The short answer is no. What follows is the longer one.
I am not a Catholic theologian, but I do have immense admiration for those who are and those who, in particular, understand the nuances of what goes on in the Vatican. From my outside view it seems that politics is certainly not reserved to the Washington, DC crowd here at home.
For example, the recent tumult over Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia gives me pause to consider what it means when something a pope writes creates confusion among the faithful.
Amoris Laetitia (On Love in the Family) is an apostolic exhortation that was written by Pope Francis following the 2014 and 2015 Synods on the Family. An apostolic exhortation is a letter written by a pope after considering the recommendations of a synod or for some other circumstance that the pope concludes invites the people of God to a deeper evangelical life. However, in this particular case, at least one group of noted theologians has explained that Amoris Laetitia is not an infallible teaching of the Church, writing: “There is no obstacle as such to the pope’s using an apostolic exhortation to teach infallibly on faith and morals, but no infallible teaching is contained in Amoris laetitia, since none of its statements satisfy the strict requirements for an infallible definition. It is thus a non-infallible exercise of the papal magisterium.”
Having reviewed AL and finding the document to lack what they perceive as clarity, four cardinals of the Church filed a document on November 14 addressed to Pope Francis that presents a list of five questions, or “dubia” for the pope’s consideration. The document, Seeking Clarity: A Plea to Untie the Knots of ‘Amoris Laetitia’ is carefully written and prepared in such a way that one hopes the Holy Father will find it worthy of his attention.
In an interview explaining the reasoning behind the document, Cardinal Raymond Burke explained: “My fellow cardinals and I are publicizing a plea that we have made to the Holy Father, Pope Francis, regarding his recent Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia. Portions of the document contain ambiguities and statements that are like knots that cannot be easily untied and are causing great confusion. Sharing the pope’s devotion to Our Lady, Untier of Knots, we are asking him to clarify these ambiguous statements and, with the help of God, to untie some of the knotty statements of the document for the good of souls.”
So far, Pope Francis has not responded to the cardinals, at least not to the best of our knowledge. And that brings us to the best explanation of this current situation that I have read. It is found in an article by Phil Lawler and says: “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.” Lawler then explains that no matter how many may say that they “know” what the pope had in mind when he wrote AL, “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.”
Finally, I am reminded of what Cardinal Raymond Burke wrote in an article this past April: “The only key to the correct interpretation of Amoris Laetitia is the constant teaching of the Church and her discipline that safeguards and fosters this teaching. Pope Francis makes clear, from the beginning, that the post-synodal apostolic exhortation is not an act of the magisterium.”
Ever the consummate teacher, Cardinal Burke helps us move forward, out of the era of confusion and into the light of reason and faith. Clarity is, after all, what the Lord Himself provided in his teachings and so we are thankful to the cardinal and his collaborators for being such articulate guides during these trying times.