May 20, 2015 (LifeSiteNews) – Does footnote 351 of Amoris Laetitia permit Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics? For weeks Catholic commentators, including many of a thoroughly orthodox persuasion, have been at loggerheads over this question. Sometimes-heated arguments have ensued.
However, it has become increasingly clear that in many cases members of each side of this debate only falsely believe they disagree with one another, because of a simple misunderstanding. This misunderstanding has had the unfortunate effect of driving each side further apart, as they have sought with ever greater vehemence to convince the other side of the validity of their arguments, leading to the growing perception that they emphatically disagree even on matters where there is, in fact, considerable common ground.
The simple fact is that those who say that Amoris Laetitia “opens the door” to or “permits” Communion for the divorced and remarried, and those who say that it emphatically does not, are both correct – provided you understand the diverse ways they are using the phrases “opens the door to” or “permits.”
Argument #1: Those who warn that the exhortation does open the door to Communion for the divorced and remarried are basing their argument on the foreseeable effects of chapter 8 of the exhortation, and footnote 351 in particular: that is, given the evident meaning of words used and the context in which they appear, it was entirely predictable that the footnote would be interpreted by the media and certain pastors and theologians as a nod towards liberalizing the Church’s practice, and would be exploited to do precisely that on the ground, no matter what formal Church teaching or law continues to say. To go one step further, the reason such an outcome was so predictable is because, failing the application of an interpretive “key” external to the document itself, the words of Amoris Laetitia easily lend themselves to that interpretation.
To advocates of this position, the apostolic exhortation has therefore, in a truly meaningful sense, “opened the door” to Communion for the divorced and remarried by, at the very least, appearing to give tacit papal support for doing so in ambiguous and broadly open-to-interpretation “certain cases.” Furthermore, the very predictability of this result raises the not unreasonable suspicion that the intention of whoever put the footnote there (and by this point it is by no means clear that it was the Pope) was, in fact, to undermine the Church’s traditional pastoral practice through the use of what has been called “studied ambiguity” (a conclusion that has received some surprisingly direct support in the past few days, as will be discussed in my next blog post).
That said, this argument only tells half the story, and must be counter-balanced by the second, and equally valid argument.
Argument #2: Those who argue that Amoris Laetitia has not in fact opened the door to Communion for the divorced and remarried are basing their conclusions upon valid a priori arguments about what the exhortation can accomplish and how Church law functions, and the interpretive key that must be used in reading the document. They urge that any ambiguities in the text must be interpreted according to a “hermeneutic of continuity” that places its teachings “in light” of previous clear Magisterial teachings and canon law: and that, when this is done, one can make the case that nothing in Amoris Laetitia formally conflicts with or abrogates the clear teaching of Pope St. John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio and long-standing canon law, which remain very much in effect. Anything in the text that might appear to the reader to conflict with past teachings must be read in this light. Hence, if footnote 351 speaks of giving access to “the Sacraments” to those in irregular unions “in certain cases,” the whole footnote, and that phrase – “in certain cases” – in particular, must be interpreted narrowly and in accord with the teachings of previous popes. They warn that failing to do so adds to the confusion and causes scandal.
Perhaps the starkest formulation of this position was given by Cardinal Raymond Burke in an interview with GloriaTV last week, in which he stated – reemphasizing a point he made in a commentary published at the National Catholic Register days after the release of the exhortation – that Amoris Laetitia “cannot be understood other than through the lens of the Church’s official teaching.” While the first two paragraphs of Cardinal Burke's commentary at The Register were taken by some as a stinging rebuke of conservative Catholics who have endorsed argument #1 above, the cardinal added a crucial clarification in his interview with GloriaTV:
Anything within Amoris Laetitia that is directly contrary to what the Church has always taught and practiced, or is interpreted in that way, is not sound teaching for the salvation of the soul. So it’s very dangerous now that people simply say that they accept everything in Amoris Laetitia as magisterial. Well, it’s not. (Emphasis added.)
By this point it should be clear that argument #1 and argument #2 are not opposed to one another. On the contrary, we can – as Cardinal Burke clearly does when he acknowledges that some parts of Amoris Laetitia may even be “directly contrary” to past Church teaching – hold both positions simultaneously. In fact, I would argue that both arguments are necessary, and, in fact, complete each other.
If we only emphasize the way the text appears to nod in the direction of innovative pastoral practices, without emphasizing that such a nod has no formal legislative or magisterial authority and can only properly be viewed through the lens of the Church’s clear teaching and law, we do indeed risk causing scandal of the kind Cardinal Burke so passionately warned us about, and playing directly into the hand of those pushing for a departure from past practices – who benefit from ambiguity and confusion. On the other hand, if we refuse to acknowledge that Amoris Laetitia uses troublingly ambiguous language that at times requires a distressing amount of effort to shoehorn into the “hermeneutic of continuity,” and even then the shoe doesn't always seem to quite fit, we short-circuit any constructive conversation about how this happened, the merits or faults of the exhortation, and how we as Catholics should respond.
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And, in fact, when confronted with this distinction, I have found that representatives of each side of the argument frequently will – albeit sometimes grudgingly – acknowledge the validity of the other. Those who complain that the ambiguity of the text has effectively “opened the door” to Communion for the divorced and remarried will, when pressed, admit that the document has not ushered in these changes authoritatively or formally, and that technically previous Church teaching and law remain intact; while those who assure us simply that “nothing has changed” will admit that something important has, in fact, changed insofar as avoidable confusion has become widespread and some pastors are already implementing new practices using the exhortation as justification.
Advocates of the second position may be tempted to argue that their arguments are the more important and more valid from a “truth” standpoint, insofar as the only thing that ultimately matters is the crystal clarity of Church teaching as supported by canon law: but they must contend with the reality that many unsanctioned and destructive innovations of the past century have been ushered in, not through formal changes in Church teaching or law, but through informal avenues and obfuscation. They must also be willing to face the hard questions about the reasons why a matter of such grave importance was treated with such ambivalence in an official church document, such that perfectly reasonable Catholic commentators of good will are embroiled in passionate disagreements over interpretation.
On the other hand, advocates of the first position who may be tempted to argue the greater importance of their arguments in light of this long experience of liberal Church realpolitik, must contend with the reality that if we do not respond by carefully emphasizing the clarity of Church teaching and law even in the wake of Amoris Laetitia, we are effectively giving the field to the obscurantists.
Finally, advocates of the second position may be hesitant to publicly broadcast their private concerns about Amoris Laetitia over fears of appearing to “bash the pope” or of otherwise causing scandal. Meanwhile, the advocates of the first position may be reluctant to overemphasize the fact that “nothing has changed,” at least formally, over fears that doing so paints an excessively “rose-coloured” picture and prevents a frank appraisal of what they perceive as the grave problems with the exhortation and the state of the Church in general. In both cases, however, the answer seems the same: to make clear the distinctions made above, and to issue any critiques only out of profound love and respect for the Holy Father and for Holy Mother Church.
My next blog post will look at each of these positions, and the evidence to support them, in greater depth. But my hope is that in the meantime faithful Catholic commentators who have so far emphasized one or the other of these positions, can acknowledge that there is often more common ground with the other side than we are letting on in our public writings, and that recognizing this common ground is a necessary step in having a constructive and charitable debate about this exhortation moving forward.
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