Amoris Laetitia and the ‘Authentic Magisterium’

The Holy Father has ordered his letter to the Argentine bishops regarding their permissive interpretation of Amoris Laetitia to be published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, at the same time raising the status of that private communication to the level of an “Apostolic Letter” (Epistola Apostolica). According to a rescript also published in the Acta, the Holy Father’s letter and the bishops’ guidelines are both documents of the “authentic Magisterium.”

This is a very troubling development.

Rorate Caeli has a good writeup of the news, which has also been reported by Church Militant and other outlets.

From the perspective of Canon Law, Dr. Edward Peters has shown how none of this detracts from Canon 915, which still clearly prohibits the thing that the Argentine Bishops and the Holy Father are saying is permitted, namely, giving Holy Communion to those living manifestly in a state of objective mortal sin, in this case, those who are living in adultery.

The major aspect of this business I would like to consider in these lines is the theological issue invoked by the words “authentic Magisterium.” This is a technical term in theology and canon law, and it describes a category of magisterial teaching that is not infallible.

For the sake of clarity, here are some distinctions regarding categories of the Magisterium:

  1. The Extraordinary (or Solemn) Magisterium — This category is infallible. It may be exercised by the pope alone (e.g., the papal definitions of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary), or by the whole college of bishops, with the pope as their head, defining in an ecumenical council (e.g., the Council of Florence on the necessity of the Church for salvation, or Vatican I on papal infallibility).
  2. The Ordinary and Universal Magisterium —This category is also infallible. It is expressed by the entire episcopacy of the universal Church, under the headship of the pope, when all are in agreement on a doctrine concerning faith or morals as definitively to be held. For something to be infallible by virtue of this category, the note of universality must be not only one of space (all the bishops of the world), but also of time (all the bishops going back to the beginning of the Church). To use the technical jargon, this distinction between “synchronic” and “diachronic” universality shows how indispensable tradition is to infallibility. The pope can confirm a doctrine of this category as being infallible, as when Pope John Paul II confirmed the irreformable nature of the male-only priesthood as being a doctrine of the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium.
  3. The Authentic Magisterium — Or, as I like to call it, the merely Ordinary Magisterium. This category lacks the note of universality, which is necessary in the second category, above. It is not infallible, but its teachings are to be received with a “religious submission of the intellect and will,” according to Canon 752 of the Code of Canon Law. Because doctrines of this category are not infallible, they could, in theory, be erroneous, but one must give the benefit of the doubt to the pope and the bishops who exercise it. Dom Paul Nau, O.S.B., tells us that only if the “doctrine rejected was an actual novelty or involved a manifest discordance between the pontifical affirmation and the doctrine which had hitherto been taught” may such a doctrine be rejected as false.

For more on these categories, see my The Three Levels of Magisterial Teaching and Vatican II and the Levels of Magisterial Teaching.

Much of the confusion regarding both Amoris Laetitia itself and what was recently published in the Acta exists because disciplinary, sacramental, pastoral, canonical, and dogmatic questions are all jumbled up and spoken of indistinguishably. Dr. Edward Peters does a great deal to cut through this confusion, and demonstrates that, canonically speaking, whether Holy Communion may be given to those manifestly living more uxorio in an objectively adulterous relationship is settled law. And the answer, of course, is, no, It may not. The newly published documents in the Acta do not change that.

Doctrinally, some serious questions that arise from Chapter eight of Amoris Laetitia — questions pertaining to conscience, the moral law, and intrinsically evil acts — are contained in the dubia submitted by the four Cardinals on September 19, 2016 (especially Nos. 2, 4, and 5). But the Holy Father has thus far refused to reply to these dubia, so we do not know his mind on what relationship Amoris has with the doctrines in question.

This new situation only complicates matters. The defenders of Amoris Laetitia, including the Holy Father’s official and unofficial spokesmen in the episcopacy (e.g.), have stated that the document represents no change to doctrine, but merely a different pastoral or disciplinary approach. But this claim is now contradicted by the rescript published in the Acta, for, if the Holy Father now says that this liberal interpretation of Amoris Laetitia is “promulgated… as authentic Magisterium,” then he is saying that Amoris, the Argentine bishops’ letter, and his reply to those bishops are all doctrinal in nature, and not strictly pastoral.

I say this because, by its very nature, something that belongs to the “authentic Magisterium” is and must be a matter of faith or morals, not merely a matter of sacramental discipline or pastoral practice.

Which means that in Chapter eight of Amoris, in the Buenos Aires guidelines, and in the Pope’s letter to the Bishops of Buenos Aires, we are confronted with a body of propositions that have long been defended as merely pastoral and representing no change in doctrine being elevated to a magisterial category that is strictly doctrinal in nature.

All that is aside from the objection derived from what Dr. Peters has written, i.e., that to change the pastoral or disciplinary approach in a way that violates the Church’s own positive law entails a contradiction.

This leads the confused student of all this to ask some troubling questions.

Do we have here a pastoral discipline that contradicts law and a doctrine that is not doctrine?

And, if we can answer that compound question in the affirmative, what happens to the moral and dogmatic certitudes of the Catholic faithful?

At the end of the day, the issues brought up by the Amoris Laetitia phenomenon are first and foremost doctrinal. They pertain to the doctrine of Christian Marriage, the doctrine of the Eucharist, the doctrine on conscience, the moral law, and intrinsically evil acts. They also pertain to the Church’s doctrine about herself and her own teaching authority. All weighty issues indeed.

It is my contention that this is a providential series of developments that ought to push the Church in the direction of more closely examining recent texts of the “authentic Magisterium.” Those passages in the texts of Vatican II and the post-conciliar Magisterium that traditionalists find objectionable generally belong to this category. These include recent teachings pertaining to religious liberty, ecumenism, and ecclesiology — especially on “no salvation outside the Church.” If Amoris and these new publications in the Acta are demonstrably in need of correction by the infallible Magisterium of the Church, then these earlier texts are, theoretically at least, subject to the same scrutiny.

I believe that when a genuine Catholic restoration happens, a winnowing of such texts will be undertaken by the Holy Father himself. Authoritative and binding corrections to these texts will be made with reference the Solemn Magisterium, as well as the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium. Certain novel propositions will be formally condemned — and that, by the papal Magisterium itself. A day of new doctrinal clarity will dawn, for the glory of God and the salvation of souls.

Meantime, we must each do our best to remain faithful to the light of Catholic truth as the darkness of confusion and error continues to envelop the world around us.