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Update on That's Amoris

by Tony M.

For those of you who liked my recasting of Laetitia Amoris into Dean Martin's song "That's Amore", I offer you this rendition of the idea. More developed than mine, but mine came first. It's really pretty good, you should check it out.

On the serious side, we have finally had a defense of Amoris that is worthy of the name: it isn't filled with denunciations of those who have problems with it, it isn't filled with empty rhetoric, it addresses the real problems seriously, and it takes seriously both the ancient teaching and the more modern resolution of that teaching into decrees, canons, etc. It's by someone named Scott Smith.

I don't agree with everything in there, not by a good margin. I have made a few critical comments, and will be making more as we go along. I think Scott misses some significant distinctions, but he doesn't do it wrong-headedly, and by and large he is very careful to present the full rationale behind the problems he gives solutions for, not straw men positions. He and I agree on a fundamental point: Amoris has to be read through the lens of 2000 years of prior teaching, and anywhere it is ambiguous but only one sense is compatible with Tradition, you have to give it that sense.

Comments (8)


Thanks again for the kind words. I am looking forward to your further critical comments. I think they are helpful in testing if my position is tenable. I certainly don't want to be wrong, or indeed spread error, which might even be worse.

Tony, I have a question that I want to ask tactfully, so here goes:

Suppose that a letter like Amoris appears to be saying something at odds with earlier church teaching and even just plain wrong. (But perhaps that is redundant.) If, then, the way Catholics are supposed to deal with this is by interpreting said document in a way that would be strained, taking the writing on its own terms, in order to refuse to treat it as really teaching something at odds with earlier teaching, would you agree that that document is not doing anything at all helpful to exercise the putative teaching office of the Church and to guide the faithful? Perhaps more controversially, would you agree that, looked at from the perspective of a person not already convinced of the existence of such a divinely guided teaching office, that document is actually some evidence *against* such divine guidance?

It seems to me that, when we are talking about the putative divine guidance of the magisterium, Protestants who question it are often told to focus only on the most unequivocally authoritative pronouncements, leaving things like encyclicals or the type of thing that Amoris is out of the picture. Yet when one listens to Catholics talking among themselves, they seem very concerned not to just say that something like Amoris is out to lunch. They are concerned to apply a hermeneutic that forces (if necessary) the document not to say something false or contradictory to earlier teaching. Which seems to mean that these documents are being treated as part of the overall teaching ministry of the church. One can be fairly sure that, if a document at that level clearly taught something clearly true, it would be put forward as evidence of God's guidance of the Church's teaching office. Indeed, Protestants are told that we go astray because we have no such guidance.

Yet when something like Amoris comes along, it is the faithful themselves (the ones who supposedly need the help and guidance) who are forced to interpret it in a strained manner in order not to be led astray!

Surely this is, at a minimum, a bit of an embarrassment to the idea of the usefulness of the teaching office. After all, if the faithful are so in need of guidance, how are they qualified to reinterpret something like Amoris so it doesn't mess things up? It seems pretty obvious that things would have been better all around if the Pope had never written it. Hence, whether or not some document contributes to, detracts from, or is neutral with regard to actually *helping* the faithful seems to depend a lot more upon the faithful's ability to descry (or force) truth in the document rather than upon some independent guiding force making sure that the church is guiding the faithful aright.

I don't mean to put any of this snarkily, but it seems particularly ironic in light of the fact that, previous to this, the top comment in recent comments was one about how evangelicals are having problems because we don't have a teaching magisterium! With this post about Amoris at the top of the page meanwhile!

Lydia, it's a fair question.

There is no question that the Church, protected as it is by the Holy Spirit so that it will never wholly succumb to Satan and fail altogether, can suffer partial defeats and evils that are "self-inflicted" i.e. by its members in the here and now world, the Church Militant. An easy examples is the set of mistakes that led to the East-West schism, which is a grievous injury to the Church and her insistence that one of the marks of the Church is "universal". Non-Christians pointing at that schism, and the "two churches" that resulted, are perfectly correct that the schism makes the "universality" mark of the Church less manifest.

Even easier to see: every time a non-Christian sees a Christian behaving in a clearly evil manner, contrary to charity, this damages the Church's claim for the mark of "holiness". Perhaps more to the point would be the manifest great sinfulness of many members of the Church at various times, even those in positions of leadership.

Christians of all sorts, and not just Catholics, think that the Church is protected from complete failure by the Holy Spirit, but the above realities make such belief less than simplistic in apologetics with non-Christians. Of what probative value is a claim we can rely on the protection of the Holy Spirit in that "the Church cannot be destroyed" if, hypothetically, every sect but Mormons were eradicated and THEY claimed "we are the surviving Church"? Or (a little closer to home), if for 1400 years "the Church" consisted entirely of heretics who taught false doctrines but who claimed "we are the Church"? If you cannot reliably identify "the Church" or "Christians" then you cannot reliably prove that the Church has not already been destroyed. So the problem extends beyond the Catholic claim for the Holy Spirit's defense of the _teaching office_ of the Church, it extends even to claims about the protection of the existence of the Church itself. Christians of all stripes have to face the issue.

Likewise they all have to face the issue about doctrinal / teaching purity in the Church, because they all rely on a set of documents to constitute Scripture, the public revelation that is protected by God from error. For they all have to take a stand on what is and what is not in Scripture. There is hardly a Christian on the planet who, either through their own internal inspiration, or knowledge of the sources and authorities behind each and every book in the Bible, could confidently say "I know that Scripture consists of these 66 books and no others", rather than relying on the testimony of others, especially the early Fathers. I don't know any Christians who say that the Holy Spirit has inspired them (directly) to include the First Letter of Peter and not to include the Prayer of Manasseh, or some such thesis. While the Catholic claims of protection for doctrinal purity are more extensive than those of other Christians, all of them have issues to face.

As to the specific case you point at, I think it really would be a scandal if the Church (i.e. the Pope) were to issue a less authoritative document that seems - in its most normal interpretation (using "normal" as what would be applied to all non-Church documents) - to contradict clear immemorial teaching, and such scandal WILL have the effect of damaging people's confidence in the protections of the Holy Spirit. But such is not the critical damage that would be implied for the truly serious case of the Pope issuing a definitive document that is clearly meant to teach the whole Church, to be taken as definitive, and that directly contradicted prior definitive teaching. The latter would be an insurmountable blow to the doctrine of magisterial authority and infallibility - and for that reason I believe that no such event can happen. The Holy Spirit will always prevent such a thing, either through changing the mind of the Pope, or allowing him to die, or some other intervention. (Just as I believe that God will prevent the complete eradication of the Church centuries or millennia before the Final Judgment, and even though such an even is hypothetically possible in a natural sense, I don't credit it as a "problem" to deal with.)

In our case, the document at hand is extraordinarily ambiguous, but retains many qualifiers attaching the usual references to long-standing and and more recent (within the last century) teaching and standards that any good conservative Catholic would rely on, references to "not causing scandal" and so on. Given that Francis issued it as an Exhortation rather than something stiffer like an encyclical or a decree, and given that he nowhere uses the "defining" sorts of phrases that the Church uses to say "pay attention, here, this is something for which we are requiring of you a heightened level of submission", we OUGHT to give it a fair amount of wiggle in terms of how readily it can be made to conform to immemorial doctrine. This does not prevent me from concluding that the ambiguity is damaging to the Church, I think it is. This is why I hope the Church will see fit to issue clarifications. There is no doubt that a pope can damage the Church through imprudence, many have in the past.

Yet when one listens to Catholics talking among themselves, they seem very concerned not to just say that something like Amoris is out to lunch. They are concerned to apply a hermeneutic that forces (if necessary) the document not to say something false or contradictory to earlier teaching. Which seems to mean that these documents are being treated as part of the overall teaching ministry of the church.

They ARE part of the ministry of the Church, and we ARE trying to use a hermenuetic of integration rather than division - instead of saying that it is "out to lunch". I think that this is implicitly necessary given the Catholic understanding of the magisterial authority, which teaches BOTH in the "ordinary" manner and in extraordinary pronouncements. The "ordinary" magisterial authority finds its way in the long-term expression of doctrine, not in any one instance of it. The authority with which it speaks is seen in the way in which the teaching is seen coming from its direct deduction from Scripture, from its presence in most or all of the Fathers, from its universality in all the local churches of the early Church, from its being handed on unchanged from early times right through the present, and being explained ever more thoroughly in time. This sort of authority cannot be located in a SINGLE document or instance of a pope or saint teaching it, it is the whole array together. At the same time, a single non-definitive document which might seem to contradict past teaching, but which is capable of being qualified, clarified, and delimited by additional teaching, is more or less part and parcel with an ordinary magisterium that finds expression in long-term consistency rather than perfect moment to moment consistency.

The reality of an ordinary magisterial teaching is not defeated by showing one or two early Fathers who disagreed with the rest, nor by one early local Church that taught differently from the rest. Ed Feser makes a perfectly valid point, with the examples of Popes John XXII and Liberius, that the Church CAN correct a pope. These have never been taken to imply an absolute defeat for the infallibility of the Pope or of the Church.

Please note, these are my own off-the-cuff musings, and I may not have as ideal an account of the matter as others might give. My defects are not the Church's.

Christians of all sorts, and not just Catholics, think that the Church is protected from complete failure by the Holy Spirit,

Sort of. I'm not sure that I'm committed to believing that any institutional organization is prevented from doctrinal failure, even a fairly spectacular one. Given the much more amorphous Protestant concept of "the Church," there isn't a very robust prediction in place. For that very reason, I myself would be hesitant to point to the preservation of anything called "the church" as *evidence* of the truth of Christianity. I tend to take my evidences from other places.

There is also less of an epistemic burden, because even in the highly unlikely event that all Christians but, I dunno, two hundred in the whole world were wiped out, it wouldn't require the existence of any non-lay living hierarchy for them to continue to know the truth. That is, even if they were all just laymen, things could go on epistemically (in theory) without their being in dire straits for the want of a teaching magisterium. In practice, of course, things could be a lot harder, but Protestants aren't committed to a _doctrine_ to the effect that the laity _require_ a teaching magisterium on an on-going basis. This also means that there is no way to play "gotcha" on the Protestant when the laity have the burden of deciding that a given, newly written document is heretical, regardless of its apparent institutional source.

I'm not sure that I'm committed to believing that any institutional organization is prevented from doctrinal failure, even a fairly spectacular one.

I wasn't talking about any institutional (hierarchical) entity, or any doctrinal survival, I meant the Holy Spirit preventing the absolute and complete eradication of all Christians from the face of the Earth, before the eschaton. Having all people who consider themselves "Christian" dead, and this condition so for hundreds or thousands of years. This prospect, I think, would make any Christian uncomfortable in light of such things as Christ's promise that "the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it".

This also means that there is no way to play "gotcha" on the Protestant when the laity have the burden of deciding that a given, newly written document is heretical, regardless of its apparent institutional source.

Not sure where you think this fits in, as I wasn't considering such a 'gotcha'. Was I? The Protestant, like the Catholic, relies on Scripture, which means he has a working canon of Scripture, and almost every Protestant I know of relies on sources outside himself (and outside the Bible) for guidance on that canon. This means that in practice they are relying on "the Church", and, more determinately, "some subset of the Church" to guide them in accepting this canon over that one. This is sufficient for Protestants to need a certain amount of circumspection about competing claims of orthodoxy (i.e. about the canon), as do Catholics about other documents. That's all I was saying. It's not cut and dried for Catholics, nor is it all cut and dried for Protestants.

Not sure where you think this fits in, as I wasn't considering such a 'gotcha'. Was I?

No, what I meant is that it's a little easier for the Protestant to play "gotcha" the other direction. Since an argument for Catholicism (which I've seen numerous times) is that the magisterium must exist (or that a good God would create the magisterium) because the laity *need* the magisterium to teach them, then it seems kind of backwards when a situation arises where the Catholic laity have to take a document (produced by some level of the putative magisterium) and reinterpret it in a strained way (vis a vis what it appears to mean on its own) so they won't get misled by it.

Another update: Cardinal Muller says that D&R Catholics cannot receive Communion unless they live in continence (without sex).


In the new interview, Cardinal Müller says: “Amoris Laetitia must clearly be interpreted in the light of the whole doctrine of the Church.” He added: “I don’t like it, it is not right that so many bishops are interpreting Amoris Laetitia according to their way of understanding the Pope’s teaching. This does not keep to the line of Catholic doctrine.”

He said that many people needed to study more doctrine on the office of the bishop, which was not to offer novel accounts of papal teaching. “The bishop, as teacher of the Word, must himself be the first to be well-formed so as not to fall into the risk of the blind leading the blind,” the cardinal said. He also warned against “sophistries” and “casuistry” which would diminish Church teaching on marriage.

This is based on an English translation of an interview he gave. We'll have to see if that translation holds up, but if so, I think we are going to have some interesting battles coming up. He could do something to squelch the Maltese bishops' guidelines as contrary to Church law (which they certainly are). It seems very likely that SOME Maltese priest will appeal to the CDF for protection from their bishop's mandate. Wouldn't be surprised if Francis sacks him soon.

And still another update: L'Osservatore Romano reports on the German bishop's implementation of AL by intentionally underplaying the Germanic evisceration of the role of the institutional Church - specifically, the pastor - in helping persons discern their position and how to move forward.


As I stated in my initial article, this was an ambiguous element of AL, but it is a mistake to read into this the notion that a person's recourse to the pastor is a mere triviality, or a matter of preference or option.

While it is valid to say that a person can and indeed should seek to discern his own rights and wrongs to some extent, what Canon Law does not provide for or permit is that a person does so in isolation from the priest and the Church. If he is engaging in behaviors which outwardly constitute acts of adultery via a second marriage, the public dimension of his behavior – combined with the public dimension of his taking Communion – require that he seek the help of the priests in order to be right with the Church. Jesus’s admonition “whatever you hold bound on earth will be held bound in heaven” presumes that the priests of the Church have jurisdiction over the sacraments, and jurisdiction includes “holding bound” in certain cases. So, if a person reads the lack of clarity in AL to leave room for a person doing the discernment all on his own, this would be a mistake.

The attitude being modeled by the Germans would make the Church as a visible institution a complete non-entity, a withered and dead tree waiting only to be uprooted and burned. Indeed, one wonders if they have not achieved pretty much that outcome already in Germany, for without state support, not 1 in 10 churches would be open there, from what I gather.

Still more reason why a clarification of AL is desperately needed. From every printed word I have seen of the current Pope's, his pen is not capable of the clarity and precision needed. More's the pity. Pray.

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