Pope Francis says the Synod fathers “approved” everything in Amoris Laetitia. Is that true?

More thoughts, observations, and questions about the ongoing debate…

• A week ago I posted a piece titled “CRUX author: ‘Dissenters’ from AL are predominantly wealthy lay people fixated on ‘reason'”. The CRUX author in question, Austen Ivereigh, helpfully pointed out (via his Twitter acount) that, “I never say anti-AL critics are wealthy; many aren’t.” He is correct; he had actually written, as I quoted in the piece:

What they [those “dissenting” from “the synod and its major fruit, Amoris Laetitia“] have in common is that they are almost always lay, educated and from the wealthy world or the wealthy parts of the developing world. They are mostly intellectuals and lawyers and teachers and writers who put great store in their reason.

He is correct, also, because most of the so-called “dissenters” that I know personally—as well as myself—are certainly not wealthy, or close to it. And then there is the fact that many of the supporters of the more progressive or liberal interpretation of AL 8 are from the wealthy churches in northern Europe, notably Germany. While the issue of German money has come up from time to time, it’s worth noting again that “German church members must pay an additional 8% to 9% of their gross annual income tax and capital gains tax bills to the church,” as the Wall Street Journal reported in 2014. “The Roman Catholic archdiocese of Cologne in Germany,” Business Insider reported last year, “has disclosed it is worth 3.35 billion euros ($3.82 billion), making it richer than the Vatican.”

As one Catholic writer in Germany noted back in February 2014:

Money is pivotal to this discussion. In 2013, the German Catholic Church collected a whopping 5.2 billion euro in church tax, in addition to 100-200 million euros per year in State subsidies from a still-valid 1803 agreement. Other income was derived from multiple sources, including Church ownership of no less than ten banks, several breweries, a mineral water company, and multiple insurance companies.

Unlike the beleaguered German taxpayer, the Church does not pay tax on Church property. Nor does it pay corporate or capital gains taxes.  Everything it does as a public corporation in Germany is considered charitable and tax-exempt and guaranteed by the German constitution.

Also, unlike other public corporations like universities, the Church is not subject to any state supervision of its finances.

As for German bishops, “Most Americans would be a bit shocked to learn that German bishops make between €8000 ($10,965) and €11,500 ($15,763) a month, depending upon their seniority. That comes to between $131,000 and $189,000 a year…. In short, the German clergy may have a real financial interest in keeping the flock happy so they continue to pay that tax and not drop out.”

So, if Ivereigh is going to mention that some critics of AL 8 (and related matters) are “from the wealthy world or the wealthy parts of the developing world”, it’s only right to highlight the money on the other side of the table, so to speak. And to also acknowledge that the Church in Germany is in decline—serious decline.

• Ivereigh also stated something that demands far more attention, especially since he takes it directly from Pope Francis. Ivereigh wrote:

Francis cannot answer the cardinals directly  – although he has done indirectly countless times – without undermining that action of the Holy Spirit present in the most thorough process of ecclesial discernment since Vatican II. As he last week told the Belgian Christian weekly Tertio, everything in Amoris Laetitia – including the controversial Chapter 8 – received a two-thirds majority in a synod that was notoriously frank, open and drawn out.

Francis, in the mentioned interview (available on the Vatican website), stated:

The “Synodal Church”, let me take this word. The Church is born from the community, it is born from the foundation, it is born from Baptism, and it is organised around a bishop, who brings it together and gives it strength; the bishop who is the successor of the Apostles. This is the Church. But in all the world there are many bishops, many organised Churches, and there is Peter. Therefore either there is a pyramidal Church, in which what Peter says is done, or there is a synodal Church, in which Peter is Peter but he accompanies the Church, he lets her grow, he listens to her, he learns from this reality and goes about harmonising it, discerning what comes from the Church and restoring it to her. The richest experience of all this was that of the last two Synods. There all the bishops of the world were heard, during preparation; all the Churches of the world, the dioceses, worked. All this material was worked on during the first Synod, which gave its results to the Church, and then we returned a second time – the second Synod – to complete all this. And from there Amoris Laetitia emerged. It is interesting to see the rich variety of nuances, typical of the Church. It is unity in diversity. This is synodality.

Do not descend from high to low, but listen to the Churches, harmonise them, discern. And so there is a post-Synodal exhortation, which is Amoris Laetitia, which is the result of two Synods, in which all the Church worked, and which the Pope made his own. It is expressed in a harmonious way. It is interesting that all that it contains [Amoris Laetitia], in the Synod it was approved by more than two thirds of the fathers. And this is a guarantee. A synodal Church means that there is this movement from high to low, high to love. And the same in the dioceses. But there is a Latin phrase, that says that the Churches are always cum Petro et sub Petro. Peter is the guarantor of the unity of the Church. He is the guarantor. [emphasis added]

That assertion is misleading. The simple reason is because the Synod fathers did not vote on the contents of Amoris Laetitia. They voted at the 2014 Extraordinary Synod on the Relatio Synodi and on the Final Report of the 2015 Synod. Consider this simple fact: the Relatio Synodi contains around 8,800 words, while the Final Report of 2015 contains just over 24,000 words; Amoris Laetitia contains nearly 60,000 words. So, even if Francis quoted both texts in their entirety (which he didn’t), there would still be nearly 30,000 words that bishops did not vote on. And, of course, the contested and debated sections in AL 8 are really only a few hundred words, if one counts the broader context.

I had not seen anyone address this and planned to write on it last week—but then we lost power for four days due to an ice storm. In the meantime, this past Saturday, Rev. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D. wrote a piece at The Catholic Thing about this very matter. He notes that the two paragraphs of the Relatio Synodi that were the most hotly contested were #52-53, which addressed “the possibility of giving the divorced and remarried access to the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist”, and stated: “Others proposed a more individualized approach, permitting access in certain situations and with certain well-defined conditions, primarily in irreversible situations and those involving moral obligations towards children who would have to endure unjust suffering.” Fr. Murray points out the following, essential fact:

Paragraph 52 received 104 “yes” (“placet”) votes, and 74 “no” (“non placet) votes. Paragraph 53 received 112 “yes” and 64 “no” votes. They did not receive the required two-thirds approval and thus were excluded from the final report according to the rules of the synod.

Pope Francis, however, gave instructions that the two paragraphs should be included. They were not published as an addendum with a note that Francis had ordered their publication. The only way a reader would know what really happened is by consulting the paragraph-by-paragraph vote tallies; but even then, there is no note specifying that a two-thirds majority of the voting synod fathers was needed for approval. The votes clearly showed that two-thirds of the 2014 Synod Fathers did not choose to continue discussing the matter of Holy Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics at the Ordinary Synod of 2015.

Meanwhile, paragraphs 84-86 of the Final Report states: “The baptized who are divorced and civilly remarried need to be more integrated into Christian communities in a variety of possible ways, while avoiding any chance of scandal. … It is therefore the duty of priests to accompany such people in helping them understand their situation according to the teaching of the Church and the guidelines of the Bishop. … Given that gradualness is not in the law itself (cf. FC 34), this discernment can never prescind from the Gospel demands of truth and charity as proposed by the Church.”  Fr. Murray writes:

In the Final Report of the 2015 Ordinary Synod, the third chapter (“Family and Pastoral Accompaniment”) paragraphs 84-86, bear the subtitle “Discernment and Integration.” They touch upon divorced and remarried Catholics, particularly paragraph 86, which speaks of an “internal forum discussion with a priest,” and “fuller participation in the life of the Church.” There is, however, no mention here of giving Holy Communion to divorced and remarried Catholics. The words “sacrament” or “Holy Communion” do not appear anywhere in these paragraphs.

A two-thirds majority approved these three paragraphs. Even so, there were many votes against: paragraph 84 was approved by a vote of 187-72; paragraph 85 was approved by a vote of 178-80; paragraph 86 was approved by a vote of 190-64.

In other words, the Holy Father is insisting—in strong, uncertain terms—that everything in Amoris Laetitia was approved by two-thirds of the Synod Fathers, when in fact that is not the case. But this has clearly become a key part of the strategy to push back against the critics and “dissenters”.

To be clear: I understand, of course, that Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortations are going to contain the pope’s observations, thoughts, and analysis; it’s pointless for the document to be a summary of the document or documents produced by by the bishops. But saying that the bishops voted on something, and thus approved it, when they did not is quite another matter.  

• I highly recommend a new post by Dr. Edward Feser, titled “Denial flows into the Tiber” (Dec 18), which addresses a wide range of issues related to this controversy. Here are couple of excerpts:

Similarly, the critics of Pope Francis mentioned above are not or need not be accusing him of intending to contradict past teaching.  Indeed, doctrine does not seem to be something the pope is especially interested in.  When making statements having theological import, Francis often seems less concerned with how doctrinally precise they are than with how his statements might be pastorally useful, or with how rhetorically striking and thus thought-provoking they might be.  The trouble is that, whatever one’s purposes when speaking or writing, the specific words one chooses always have certain logical implications, whether or not one is aware of or would welcome all of those implications.  Hence, Pope Francis’s critics too have insisted that “it is the words that matter,” whatever the intentions behind them.  And some of the pope’s words seem to be interpreted even by some of his own defenders in ways that simply cannot be squared with traditional Catholic teaching.

For example, as the Catholic Herald has noted, Pope Francis’s friend and advisor Fr. Antonio Spadaro appears to claim in a recent interview that Amoris Laetitia teaches that “it may not be practicable” for some Catholics living in an adulterous union to refrain from sexual intercourse, and that such Catholics may persist in this adulterous sexual relationship if they “[believe] they would fall into a worse error, and harm the children of the new union” if they refrained from sex.  Now, if – I repeat, IF — this is really what Fr. Spadaro is asserting, then he is essentially attributing to Amoris the following two propositions:

(1) Adulterous sexual acts are in some special circumstances morally permissible.

(2) It is sometimes impossible to obey the divine commandment against engaging in adulterous sexual acts.

But these propositions flatly contradict irreformable Catholic teaching.  Proposition (1) contradicts not only the perennial moral teaching of the Church, but the teaching of scripture itself.  As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

Adultery refers to marital infidelity.  When two partners, of whom at least one is married to another party, have sexual relations – even transient ones – they commit adultery.  Christ condemns even adultery of mere desire.  The sixth commandment and the New Testament forbid adultery absolutely.  (Paragraph 2380)

Proposition (2) contradicts the decrees of the Council of Trent, which declare:

God does not command impossibilities, but by commanding admonishes thee to do what thou canst and to pray for what thou canst not, and aids thee that thou mayest be able.


If anyone says that the commandments of God are, even for one that is justified and constituted in grace, impossible to observe, let him be anathema.

Now, again, perhaps Fr. Spadaro did not mean to assert or imply the propositions in question.  But that is what his remarks seem to be saying on a natural reading, and it is not obvious what else he could have meant.  Perhaps, even if he did mean to assert or imply these propositions, he is mistaken in attributing them to Amoris.  But he is very close to the pope, so that it would be odd if even he misunderstood what the pope was saying.  Nor has the pope issued any disavowal of Fr. Spadaro’s remarks.

And, later:

If all that makes the current situation sound serious, that is because it is.  Yet there seems to be, in certain sectors of the Church, an air of unreality or make believe surrounding the crisis.  With the honorable exception of Rocco Buttiglione, defenders of Amoris have not even attempted to respond to the substance of the four cardinals’ questions.  They have instead resorted to abuse, mockery, and threats – all the while claiming to champion mercy and dialogue.  They assure us that the four cardinals and others who have raised questions about Amoris are comparable to rigid and legalistic Pharisees and acting contrary to the gentle mercy of Christ.  Yet as a matter of historical fact it was the Pharisees who championed a very lax and “merciful” attitude vis-à-vis divorce and remarriage, and Christ who insisted on a doctrine that was so austere and “rigid” that even the apostles wondered if it might be better not to marry.

Others suspect that there is something wrong, but refuse to express their concerns on the assumption that a Catholic must never say anything that might seem to imply criticism of a pope.  They simply refrain from thinking or talking about the crisis, or they do so only when they can put a positive if tortuous spin on some problematic statement, or they badmouth as disloyal those who raise even politely expressed worries.  “We are at war with Eastasia, and always have been!  We are through the looking glass!  Denial is just a river in Egypt!

Several reasons are often put forward for taking these various attitudes toward the crisis.  All of them are bad.  Let’s consider each one and what is wrong with it:

“To ask the pope for a Yes or No answer misses the point.”

Some defenders of Amoris seem to think that the problem with critics of the document is that they are demanding Yes or No answers, when the pope’s whole point is that Yes or No answers are not possible in this case.  The idea seems to be that those asking the pope for clarification of Amoris are like the lawyer who asks a witness “Are you still beating your wife?”, where the witness will look bad either way he responds.

But this is not a serious objection.  There is a Yes or No answer to the lawyer’s question, and if the witness is not and never was beating his wife, then the right answer is “No.”  If the lawyer is fair, he will allow the witness to go on to say “No, but I was never beating her in the first place.”  But whether he allows this or not, it is simply not the case that neither Yes nor No is the correct answer.  After all, the question corresponds to the declarative sentence “You are still beating your wife,” and if the witness is not and never was beating his wife, then that sentence is false (rather than being neither true nor false).

Similarly, if Amoris is not asserting either proposition (1) or (2) above, then there is no reason not to say so explicitly, even if one thinks that further comment is necessary beyond saying so.  For example, the pope can say “No, of course adulterous sexual acts are never under any circumstances morally permissible, but…,” and then go on to explain exactly what Amoris is asserting if it is not asserting proposition (1).

Now, it is true that the four cardinals’ dubia are formulated as simple Yes or No questions.  The cardinals are indeed asking for a Yes or a No, without further commentary.  But there is nothing stopping the pope from answering them in a “Yes, but…” or “No, but…” fashion if he prefers.  To suppose that the only options facing the pope are either responding with simple and unqualified Yes or No answers, or not responding at all, is itself to commit a False Dichotomy fallacy.

“Those who support the four cardinals are dissenters from Church teaching.”

In response to the four cardinals’ dubia, Austen Ivereigh proclaims: Roma locuta, causa finita est – “Rome has spoken, the matter is closed.”  Hence those who continue to raise questions are, Ivereigh suggests, “dissenters” from settled teaching, comparable to those critics of Pope John Paul II who “argued for women priests, an end to mandatory celibacy and an opening in areas such as contraception.”

There are several problems with these claims.  First, the reason there is a controversy in the first place is precisely because Rome has not spoken.  Consider again the scenario I described above, wherein you ask me if I am asserting that “Socrates is mortal” and I refuse either to confirm or deny that I am.  It would be ridiculous for me to accuse you of dissenting from my assertion if you keep asking me to clarify it.  In fact, what you are doing is trying to find out what my assertion is in the first place.  Until you know that, the question about whether you agree with it or dissent from it cannot arise.

Similarly, what the four cardinals and other critics of Amoris are doing is asking the pope to explain exactly what he is saying.  They can hardly be accused of dissenting from what he is saying if they aren’t clear about what it is.

A second problem with Ivereigh’s position is that it is simply not the case that anyone who raises critical questions about some statement that comes from the Magisterium counts as a “dissenter.”

It is a long post, but it is well worth the read.

• Finally, Phil Lawler’s December 16th article “The rhetorical strategy to debunk the dubia” is also worth reading. He describes some of “the main talking points” of those who are saying that there is nothing to worry about with AL 8:

  • Come down hard on papal authority. Especially if you are not a bishop—and therefore will probably not be seen as an authority figure in the Church—act astonished that anyone would dare to question what a Roman Pontiff has written. Never mind that the four cardinals are only asking questions. Never mind that you yourself have probably questioned papal statements in the past. Never mind that in its most contentious recommendation, Amoris Laetitia seems to be a direct contradiction of previous papal documents, so some papal teaching must be questioned. Never mind that Pope Francis himself has called for free debate and encouraged people to “make a mess.” Hammer away on papal authority. Take as your model this argument by Austen Ivereigh, who suggests that we should move on and leave the dubia behind. “Roma locuta, causa finite, as Catholics used to say,” Ivereigh writes—notwithstanding the fact that this whole debate is caused by the fact that Roma has not “locuta’d” clearly on the key issue.
  • Don’t be afraid to impugn the integrity of people who disagree. Again, follow Ivereigh’s example. He wrote of an “anti-Francis revolt” that had taken on “a newly vicious tone.” And then he proceeded with his own vicious attack on critics of Amoris Laetitia. (That’s always an effective rhetorical tactic, you know: accuse the other guys of doing precisely what you’re doing yourself.) So write angry Tweets, saying that the other side is writing angry Tweets. We’ll be speaking a lot about “accompanying” couples in troubled relationships. But we don’t want to “accompany” the people who disagree with us. Shout them down. Ridicule them. Don’t give them a chance.

• More to come, I’m sure, in the near future, on this troubling topic. 

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About Carl E. Olson 1197 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.

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