What should the layman do about Amoris Laetitia?

To this point I have stayed out of the conversation about Amoris Laetitia.  But within the past few weeks, multiple people have approached me, as a guy who teaches theology, with questions about the uproar.  Voices not only of confusion but of alarm and even panic fill the Internet.  Should we be running around and shouting?  Or should we duck under the Catechism and wait for the storm to pass?  What should lay Catholics do?  That to me is the most pressing question:  Not what the Pope should do, not what the Cardinals should do, but what I, as a lay Catholic, should do.

The general rule, it seems to me, is that I should tackle those things that I can control in some degree, the things that are relevant to me.  So for example, the Pope has spoken to the faithful, and as a member of the faithful I have an obligation to think about what he has said and whether it changes what I should believe as a Catholic.  If I am a pastor or a teacher or in some other similar role, then I also have an obligation to think about the confusions people will bring to me.  (Hence this blog post.)

I should not, however, spend my energy on the things outside of my control.  So for example, unless I have some particular apostolate connecting me to the Vatican I should not sink my emotional resources into following what the Pope has done with the Pontifical Council for Life or whom he has appointed as Cardinal or whatever.  And it would in fact be sinful to follow and spread news articles openly billed as rumors:  “Rumor has it the Pope is FURIOUS about the dubia!”  “EXPLOSIVE:  new scandal in the Vatican!”  This is outright gossip.  Some Catholic websites have lately taken on the appearance of Catholic tabloids, the kinds of things you would see at the check-out counter in a Catholic grocery store.

So turning to the things we can most of all change, namely our own minds and hearts, we should consider what Amoris Laetia has done to our obligations.  Lumen Gentium 25 offers some guidance for reading the Magisterium:

This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, 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.

Let’s look at the dubia in light of (1) the character of the documents that have addressed these issues, (2) the frequency of repetition of the points in question, and (3) the manner of speaking used.  Thinking of both moral doctrine and the sacramental issue of communion for the divorced and remarried, here’s what I see:

  1. Veritatis Splendor is an encyclical and so outweighs an Apostolic Exhortation.  The documents of JPII and BXVI and the CDF that addressed the issue of communion for divorced and remarried Catholics are of equal or greater weight.  On this criterion, the Church’s teaching has not changed on any of the points raised.
  1. The occasions when JPII and BXVI and the CDF asserted the older view on communion for divorced and remarried Catholics are numerous, while Pope Francis has only taught the newer view once.  On this criterion, the Church’s teaching has not changed.
  1. When JPII and BXVI and the CDF asserted the older view, they did so clearly, in the body of their text, spent several paragraphs on the issue, and claimed the unchanging tradition of the Church as a ground.  Pope Francis offered his view in wording obscure enough that people are still disputing what it means.  The most controversial statement was made in a footnote. On this criterion, the Church’s teaching has not changed.

Putting all of that together, one can only conclude that the Church’s teaching is the same as it was.  We do not have a new teaching.  Moreover, we do not have a contradiction in Church teaching, because that could only happen if the Church taught yes and no to the same question in documents of equal character, frequency, and phrasing.

Now let’s get one thing straight:  if Pope Francis wants to put his weight behind a newer view, then he is no doubt aware that he will need to do so in a more authoritative form, with more frequency, and with more clarity.  As Pope, he is free to choose his own documents and wording, and we have to allow him the freedom to say something with less authority if he wants to.  It is a mistake to refuse religious submission of mind and will to the teachings of the Holy Father, but it is also a mistake to insist that his every magisterial utterance must deploy the full force of his authority; that is to put handcuffs on him, to limit his ability to adjust the authority of his utterances to the situation.

Why would a Pope ever say something new in a way that he knows will not carry enough magisterial clout to change what we are obliged to believe?  There could be several reasons.  Let me stick to the obvious one:  the Pope has taught with less-than-maximal magisterial clout because he wants us to think something over, to start a conversation.  This would fit with what he says in his introduction:  “I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium.” (Amoris Laetitia 3)

In an interview which I can’t locate now, Bishop Athanasius Schneider used that line from AL 3 to conclude that Amoris Laetitia is “non-magisterial.”  I think he must have been speaking loosely, since elsewhere he appealed to the principle that all magisterial texts have to be read in continuity as a reason for agreeing with those who read Amoris Laetitia in continuity with Familiaris Consortio and other such documents.  It seems obvious to me that “magisterial” does not equal “settles the issue.”  The Pope can intend to issue a magisterial document without intending to settle every issue.

More astonishing to me is Raymond Cardinal Burke’s statement:  “My position is that Amoris Laetitia is not magisterial because it contains serious ambiguities that confuse people and can lead them into error and grave sin.”  If we have to know whether a document contains errors in order to decide whether it is magisterial, then the magisterium cannot possibly function as our guide to what is true and false.  The criteria for deciding whether a document is magisterial are clear:  Who wrote it, in what format, and to whom.  When the Pope speaks as the Pope to all the faithful in a document that has “apostolic” in its very title, then we’re looking at a magisterial document.

So why am I banging on this “magisterial” point if I don’t think Amoris Laetitia actually obliges us to believe anything new?  For two reasons:

First, we can’t get sloppy about calling things “non-magisterial.”  That way of dodging the Amoris Laetitia problem will cause a lot of grief in the long run.

Second, I think Amoris Laetitia does impose something on us:  the Holy Father has not told us what to think, but he has asked that we think.  We should take that seriously.  In my next post, I’ll offer my own simple contribution to the topic he has put on the table.

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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John Harrison
John Harrison
7 years ago

Well said, Dr. Holmes, well said. I’ve been searching for a better voice than mine to bring clarity to the “test” this document has brought to both the lay faithful, and the clergy “on-the-ground”, so to speak – the priest in the parish. There is much confusion and concern with this document, and not much is being said about what Papal documents “mean” for the ordinary life of the Church.