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Pope Francis’ ‘Buenos Aires’ letter posted on the Vatican website. Now what?

Acta Apostolicae Sedis is not a synonym for “Vatican Website” and it has not been designated as the vehicle for promulgating canon law or equivalent provisions.

(Screenshot: vatican.va)

Part of the turmoil engendered by Pope Francis’ exhortation Amoris laetitia regarding whether divorced-and-remarried Catholics (living in the manner of married couples) may be admitted to holy Communion turns on what authority should be accorded a private letter the pope sent to the bishops of Buenos Aires endorsing, supposedly as definitive, their interpretation of Amoris in regard to this crucial question.

For the reasons I suggested here*, however, the pope’s letter to the Buenos Aires bishops does not “settle” anything about the application of Amoris in this area, if for no other reason than that the Buenos Aires directives themselves, amid their copious platitudes and euphemisms, manage to avoid, if perhaps more narrowly than does Amoris, directly answering the key question raised by Amoris in this area. Thus, the near-universal conclusion, applauded by some and deplored by others, that the pope in Amoris, or at the very least in his endorsement of the Buenos Aires document, has indeed established that, ‘Yes, divorced-and-remarried Catholics, while living sexually active lives, may licitly approach for and be administered holy Communion’—as, I grant, the Maltese bishops plainly say and as the German episcopal committee effectively holds—is a source of consternation. Oh well.

In any event a few days ago the pope’s letter and the Argentine directives to which he was replying appeared on the Vatican’s website (SpanishEnglish), setting off a fresh tizzy of concerns about the level of authority to be accorded them in light of their now being posted at vatican.va.

In response to such concerns, here are, in my professional opinion, the three levels of canonical authority to be ascribed to Church documents in virtue of their being published on the Vatican’s website: None, Zero, or Zip.

Let’s back up.

As has been explained many times (and pace fact-patterns very rarely encountered) divorced-and-remarried Catholics living as if they were married should not approach for holy Communion per Canon916 and, if they do approach, ministers should not give them the Sacrament per Canon 915. Therefore, if the pope, immediately (in Amoris) or mediately (by endorsing the Buenos Aires directives), wished to authorize persons living in irregular unions to approach for holy Communion and/or to direct ministers of holy Communion to give the Sacrament to such persons, he would have had to modify or cancel the pontifically-authorized canons unquestionably prohibiting such actions found in his Code of Canon Law.

But canon law is barely a blip in Amoris and neither it, nor the Argentine directives, nor the pope’s endorsement letter so much as mentions Canons 915 or 916, meaning that these two canon laws remain in full force and must be understood and applied as the canonical and moral tradition has long understood and applied them. That, or Francis is the first pope in history to widely and expressly authorize what he plainly and comprehensively prohibits. Which I don’t think is the case.

But now, suppose under some result-driven, eisegetical reading of Amoris and/or the Buenos Aires document, someone argues that Canons 915 and 916 have been derogated from in the case of divorced-and-remarried Catholics, in other words, that Amoris or (even more fantastically) the endlessly malleable verbiage of the Buenos Aires document has the character of universally-applicable canon law. What then?

Enter Canon 8 § 1 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law which states: “Universal ecclesiastical laws are promulgated by publication in the official commentary Acta Apostolicae Sedis, unless some other manner of promulgation has been prescribed in particular cases.”

For over a century the Acta Apostolicae Sedis (Documents of the Apostolic See), a monthly journal subscribed to by few outside of arch/diocesan chanceries and ecclesiastical academe, has been the nearly-exclusive vehicle for publishing the official, binding documents of the Holy See. In just the last several years it has, Deo gratias, been posted on-line (warning: there are many maddening errors in the electronic texts not present in the printed versions). But the Acta Apostolicae Sedis is not a synonym for “Vatican Website” and, however useful that website might be to researchers, it has not been designated as the vehicle for promulgating canon law or equivalent provisions. As it is, moreover, self-evident that no “other manner of publication” was prescribed in this Amoris and the pope’s follow-up letter, the appearance of his endorsement letter on the Vatican’s website means canonically nothing.

There are, to be sure, many important publications coming out of the Holy See and/or the Vatican City State (L’Osservatore Romano,Communicationes, Enchiridion Vaticanum, the Insegnamenti of recent popes, and so on) some of which carry canonically and magisterially significant documents in a complex (and sometimes confusing) variety of formats. Sorting out these fontes essendi and fontes cognoscendi is stuff for professionals; our focus today is on key points of codified canon law, on some very important disciplinary provisions presented in that law, and specifically on where such laws and norms for pastoral activity are set out authoritatively.

That, folks, is not the Vatican website.

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* See also my article “The canonical position of Amoris laetitia” in Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly 40/1-2 (Spring-Summer 2017) 15-19.

Related thought: What if the pope’s Buenos Aires letter does eventually appear in the Acta, what then? Well, in this case, basically, nothing. Many, nay most, papal documents appearing in the Acta carry no canonical or disciplinary force, a fact demonstrable by understanding how to assess the various fontes mentioned above. We can talk about that if it happens (my guess is, it will), but my concern today is for those who, in this electronic age, think that the appearance of a papal document on the Vatican website carries some special canonical consequences. Well, it doesn’t.

About Edward N. Peters 81 Articles
Edward N. Peters, JD, JCD has doctoral degrees in canon and common law. Since 2005 he has held the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. His personal blog on canon law issues in the news may be accessed at the "In the Light of the Law" site.

8 Comments

  1. What a mess! Even worse, today the Pope gave a simple speech to some Liturgical group, and he announced that it was part of the Magisterium of the church that the Liturgical reforms can never be retracted! Well, I suppose then that they are absolutely, positively irrevocable, until some other Pope gives a speech that says they are revocable. What a mess.

    This is getting crazier and crazier. Now a speech is supposed to be an act of the Magisterium of the church? And exactly what liturgical reforms are irrevocable? The clown masses? Exactly which reforms are irrevocable and which are not?

    This Pope appears to be going off the deep end. Things are magisterial because he sends a private letter, or gives a speech? What the hell is going on in the Vatican? Have they let a band of screaming chimpanzees loose to run the place?

    I understand that Fernandez just wrote his pathetic defense of AL, in which he pretends that the private letter to the bishops of Argentina was some Magisterial declaration, so now they post the letter on the Vatican Web site to TRY and give something with NO magisterial effect some magisterial effect. Trying the sneaky, deceptive route again. But if every off the cuff Papal letter is magisterial, then everything is. Presumably the Pope’s burps are now magisterial too. Maybe it is Catholic doctrine that all pets go to heaven now. What a mess. What a mess.

    • If liturgical reforms can never be retracted, how then does one just do away with the reform of Pius V?

      So far, this pope has been a disaster. It is not hard to see evil dispositions at work behind the throne, using the same tactics they have used so often with such success in the past.

  2. What is now beyond dispute and what ought be very concerning for the Church is that no one can no longer doubt how Pope Francis wants Ch. 8. of his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia interpreted.
    ***
    Cf. In the Wake of #AmorisLaetitia, will ‘A Simple Prayer Book’ be Revised? (A Response to Dr. Edward Peters: ‘I do not think that Francis changed any doctrines in Amoris’)http://wp.me/p2Na5H-X3

  3. Some of my colleagues at Franciscan University tell me privately that they consider Bergoglio to be a heretic, and one is not even sure he is the real pope. I will give the man credit for this: he has helped open the eyes of a lot of people who went along with every disaster until the advent of “Pope” Francis.

    • The choices aren’t only orthodox/faithful vs. herectic. From Canon 751, [http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/_P2H.HTM] one can also be a schismatic or an apostate. Obviously Pope Francis cannot be is a schism [from himself].

      You have mentioned some of your colleagues at work. Faced with the overwhelming evidence before them, some non-Catholics and some non-Christians do not view positively the catholicity of the Pope.

    • I think it’s important to keep in mind that a Colombian professor has been excommunicated for publicly questioning the validity of Francis’s papacy. I honestly don’t think we should go there. My view of Francis is that it’s impossible to know what he thinks because he is so completely unclear. I think that most of what is going on is being orchestrated by his less-than-impressive team of advisers, such as Archbishop Fernandez, who has been called the ghost writer for Amoris. These advisers strike me again and again as highly unintelligent, in spite of their education (which didn’t seem to take) and high office. They come across as having no idea how magisterial teaching works, much less an understanding of canon law. They try to add weight to the unfortunate, yet thankfully unclear, teaching in Amoris by giving a press conference or writing a letter to Argentinian bishops or by posting something on the Vatican website. These cardinals and bishops who are advising Francis constantly remind me of Keystone Cops. They trip all over themselves in their foolish attempt to drastically but indirectly change Church teaching, having no understanding at all that indirect “change” is no change at all. The day when clowns like Fernandez leave positions of influence cannot come too soon.

  4. Thank you, Ed Peters. I think this Pope and his fans in AL are trying to enter a space where only God should enter….
    the sincere erroneous conscience. Just as Pope Nicholas V and three subsequent Popes wrongly affirmed a spatial imperialism in Romanus Pontifex, mid 4th large paragraph, ( and were partly corrected by Pope Paul III), these people are similarly trespassing into a spiritual space wherein only God knows if the invalidly remarrieds are sincere or guilty of self deception….especially wherein powerful self interested forces like sex are involved. It’s a bizarre turn in the Papal prescence. And intelligent converts of the last decade must be very shaken in their faith.

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