Stephen Walford has written an essay this week for La Stampa’s English-language magazine, Vatican Insider, titled “The Amoris Laetitia Dissenters: The Murky World of Distorting Facts, Creating False Arguments and Sowing Confusion”. Walford, who has now penned several pieces about Amoris Laetitia, is clearly impatient and annoyed. “If loyal Catholics around the world had hoped that the news of Pope Francis’ decision to raise the Buenos Aires Bishops’ Amoris laetitia guidelines to the level of ‘authentic magisterium’ would bring to an end the dissent,” Walford writes, “then they were sadly mistaken.” He goes on to say, “If anything, the dissenters have dug their heels in even more. Whereas at one time it was traditionalists and certain conservatives who looked accusingly at liberals for allowing the ‘smoke of Satan’ to enter the Church, the finger is firmly pointing in the opposite direction now.”
Walford is not the first to describe critics of the Holy Father and/or of his post-Synodal Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, as “dissenters” or their criticism as “dissent”. As far as I can tell, that honor goes to America Magazine, which applied the term to the participants in a very small conference about which America’s Rome correspondent, Gerard O’Connell, reported in a dispatch datelined April 22, 2017.
In any case, my query to Walford is the same one I posed to America and O’Connell at the time O’Connell’s piece appeared: from what, precisely, are the “dissenters” dissenting?
I ask the question because The Holy Father has claimed repeatedly – both in person and through his appointed mouthpieces – to be teaching nothing (new) in Amoris, but only offering a pastoral reflection that presupposes the integrity of the Church’s constant teaching on marriage.
At first, the claim was that there was no change whatsoever either to teaching or to discipline with regard to Communion. Slowly, however, the Holy Father’s mouthpieces began to broach the subject of discipline. Even persons well disposed to Francis but frustrated with the Exhortation defended its orthodoxy and its pastoral soundness.
Discussion of what Amoris did or did not, and of what Amoris called and did not call on bishops and bishops’ conferences to do, was well underway, when Francis Rocca of the Wall Street Journal asked Pope Francis (en route to Rome from Lesvos), whether there had been any change in the discipline concerning reception of the sacraments by the divorced and remarried – whether there are any “new concrete possibilities that did not exist before the publication of the Exhortation, or no?” Walford says the Pope answered with a flat, “Yes.”
That would have confused and complicated matters, indeed. What the Pope actually said in response to Rocca’s query arguably did even more to stoke the fire. “I could say ‘yes’ and leave it at that,” Pope Francis is quoted in the official transcript as having replied. The video of the in-flight presser clearly has him saying, “Posso dire, ‘Sì’, punto,” which translates literally, “I can say, ‘Yes,’ full stop.” Then, however, he did add, “but that would be too brief [It. piccola] a response.” The Holy Father went on to say, “I recommend that all of you read the presentation made by [Christoph] Cardinal Schönborn [of Vienna], a great theologian. He is a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and he knows the Church’s teaching very well. Your question will find its answer in that presentation. Thank you.”
At that point, the question became: which presentation by Cardinal Schönborn?
First of all, Amoris laetitia is a lengthy, difficult document. We are told that Pope Francis, himself, was unsure of its orthodoxy. According to a glowing review from Crux’s Austen Ivereigh on a pair of talks Cardinal Schönborn gave in Ireland last year, “Schönborn revealed that when he met the Pope shortly after the presentation of Amoris, Francis thanked him, and asked him if the document was orthodox.” Ivereigh went on in that piece to report Schönborn as responding, “Holy Father, it is fully orthodox,” and receiving a few days later a “little note” that said, “Thank you for that word. That gave me comfort.”
We are glad to know that Cardinal Schönborn was able to set the Holy Father’s mind at ease over the doctrinal soundness of his own pastoral reflection. Nevertheless, if the Pope could be unsure about its orthodoxy, surely the faithful will be allowed to have perplexities of various kinds regarding it?
I must confess I do not understand Amoris. As I’ve said elsewhere, my perplexity neither comes from, nor results in antipathy. Francis’ election thrilled me. I think his profoundly challenging pastoral approach has often been highly effective. Still, I do not understand Amoris.
Originally, I was inclined to read it as an attempt to encourage confessors to greater elasticity in determining that the condition ad validitatem of “firm purpose of amendment” had been met by penitents in irregular situations. Cardinal Schönborn seemed to confirm that reading in an interview with Vatican Radio on the day of the document’s release. Subsequently, Cardinal Schönborn made other statements to other people. Then there are the Holy Father’s own remarks, made in a not-so-private letter to the Bishops of Buenos Aires, the substance of which I need not rehearse here. Then there are the guidelines for implementation of Amoris, from the bishops of Malta, and those of Germany.
As Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke put it in a conversation with me on my podcast, Thinking with the Church: “The Holy Father says himself – in the document – that he’s not presenting the Magisterium – it’s a kind of reflection.” Burke goes on to say, “[T]he language is often times imprecise, and there aren’t a lot of citations of the tradition regarding the teaching regarding Holy Matrimony and on the Holy Eucharist.”
What Cardinal Burke describes as imprecise, Cardinal Schönborn hails – in an interview with La Civiltà Cattolica, the official English transcript of which was carried by America – as, “[A] positive pastoral style,” that is, “also a way of expounding doctrine in a gentle manner, linking it to the profound motivations of men and women.” Perhaps. In any case, as Burke says, “[T]he document is acceptable if the key to interpreting it is what the Church has always taught and practiced.”
In short: neither Cardinal Schönborn, nor the members of the Catholic chattering class who like Amoris, can have it both ways.
Either Amoris is not changing doctrine and discipline, or it is. Pope Francis tells us it is not changing doctrine, but literally will not say whether it is changing discipline, and instructs us to defer to Cardinal Schönborn, who says, also in the interview with La Civiltà Cattolica, “I believe that, with Pope Francis, the church’s teaching is making a further step forward, consolidating an approach to marriage and to the family no longer from above, but from below.” In fairness, I am not entirely sure that last even means anything. To the extent it does mean something, it may be fairly construed to mean that it is changing both.
In addition to the effort of parsing the Papal mouthpiece in these regards, there has been an enormous quantity of ink spilt in the effort to parse what the various bishops and bishops’ conferences are and are not saying and doing with their guidelines. All of that talk is necessary, perhaps, and much of it is helpful, but almost none of it speaks to the prior question, which is: why?
A post-Synodal Exhortation is neither a formal teaching document nor a governing instrument of any kind. The Pope has told us he is neither teaching anything new, nor has he said he is changing discipline – and anyone with five minutes’ training in law knows that changes in discipline must be promulgated, i.e. made generally and unambiguously known.
Proponents of what I will call a “strong” reading of Amoris will say that the appearance of Pope Francis’ letter to the Buenos Aires bishops in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis – a sort of “official gazette” – meets this requirement, insofar as the inclusion of the letter in the Acta was made in order to clarify its status as “official magisterium”.
That reading is, in a word, specious.
Nevertheless, there continues to be the matter of particular law. It isn’t that the bishops of Malta and Germany et aliorum locorum do not believe the Pope when he says he has not changed either doctrine or discipline, mind. They seem to believe, however, that he has left it up to them to change the discipline, at least, while ignoring or paying lip-service to the teaching.
While one might struggle to accept that the Successor to Peter should open the door to so significant a development of doctrine and so upsetting a change in sacramental discipline at all, let alone by means of implication, and then by way of implication to be drawn from a footnote, it is nevertheless true that, if those bishops, who have taken steps to implement Amoris have done so in a manner inconsistent with the Holy Father’s mind in their regards, the Holy Father has not said so.
So, there is plenty about which to be confused. There is more than enough cause for bemusement and befuddlement in all this. Saying, “It is perfectly clear!”—as Walford does several times in differing ways—does not make it so, any more than praising the Emperor’s avant-garde sartorial choices will cover his nakedness.
Even those, like the authors and signatories of the correctio, whose effort was presented with such self-aggrandizing sensationalism as to render it sophomoric, have nevertheless the right to be confused, and to express their confusion. From Walford and others bandying about terms like “dissenter”, I only wish to know how desire for clarity in these regards may be fairly described as dissent. They paint with a broad brush: some of their stain has got on me, and I do not like the color.