Theologians' Appeal for Clarification of Apparent Errors in Amoris laetitia, part 1

A few weeks ago 45 priests and theologians submitted a letter to all cardinals and patriarchs, appealing to them to ask Pope Francis to clarify a number of points in Amoris laetitia, which, it is said, could be understood in a manner that would be opposed to Catholic faith. E.g., the statement about marriage and virginity, "Rather than speak absolutely of the superiority of virginity, it should be enough to point out that the different states of life complement one another, and consequently that some can be more perfect in one way and others in another" (n. 150 of Amoris laetitia), if taken as denying that a virginal state of life consecrated to Christ "is superior considered in itself to the state of Christian marriage" would be contrary to the solemn teaching of the Council of Trent.

They do not accuse the pope of heresy or of teaching errors contrary to the Catholic faith, but criticize the text of the document on the grounds that it "contains many statements whose vagueness or ambiguity permit interpretations that are contrary to faith or morals," and indeed "contains statements whose natural meaning would seem to be contrary to faith or morals." They make an appeal for Pope Francis to clarify that Amoris laetitia does not teach these errors.

As the letter has now been leaked to the public, as not a few of the signatories have some kind of connection to the International Theological Institute, where I teach, and as I already previously began addressing some of the issues in Amoris laetitia that are addressed in the appeal, I intend to make a few comments and critiques here and in the following posts.

Noting that the Amoris laetitia does not speak with scientific accuracy, and that the problem with it lies more in the way the statements can or are likely to be taken, the letter suggest that moreover, it would be impossible for Amoris laetitia to teach anything contrary to the faith, as that would exceed the pope's authority.

"The problem with Amoris laetitia is not that it has imposed legally binding rules that are intrinsically unjust or authoritatively taught binding teachings that are false. The document does not have the authority to promulgate unjust laws or to require assent to false teachings, because the Pope does not have the power to do these things…. The document is formulated in terms that are not legally or theologically exact, but this does not matter for the evaluation of its contents, because the most precise formulation cannot give legal and doctrinal status to decrees that are contrary to divine law and divine revelation."

These statements seem to boil down, in effect, "Pope Francis is not teaching or requiring false statements or imposing immoral rules X, Y, and Z, because Pope Francis does not have the authority to teach what is false or impose what is wrong."

I see two problems here: first, the supposed truth or falsity of a statement or legitimacy or illegitimacy of a directive is being used as a principle of interpretation: "the document isn't actually teaching X, because X is false"; secondly, the authors put themselves in the position of privately judging that the statements declared problematic (if understood in a particular way) are, in fact, contrary to divine revelation or divine law.

This hermeneutical approach would be valid only if one took the pope to be unquestionably speaking infallibly in all of his statements in Amoris laetitia, which the authors explicitly deny, and if one supposed oneself to be infallible in one's opinion of what is compatible with or contrary to divine revelation or divine law.

If I am reading a document in order to learn from it rather than in order to impose my own views upon it, then the truth or falsity of a given position, in itself, has no direct hermeneutical value in determining the meaning of a statement the author makes. Only to the extent that (1) the author can be presumed to be intending to speak the truth, and (2) he can be presumed to know or to opine correctly what the truth of a given matter is, and (3) I can be presumed to know or to opine correctly what the truth of a given matter is, can I favor an interpretation of what he says that would make his statements be, in my opinion, true.

We can contrast three attitudes in reading a magisterial text, in which there are textual and other reasons in favor of reading the text to be saying "X", and at the same time, there are reasons to think that X is wrong.

(1) X is wrong, so the pope must not be saying it;
(2) X is wrong, and the Pope is saying X, so the pope is in error;
(3) The pope is probably saying X, and I see a problem with X; is it possible that my view of X is mistaken?… Or that I'm overlooking some reason why his statement should be read to mean something else? Or that the Pope is mistaken?

The third attitude, being ready in the first place to question one's own opinion on the basis of an authority's appearing to contradict one's own opinion, as well as to question one's own reading of his statement, before questioning whether the authority is right, is surely the appropriate attitude to take to someone, precisely as an authority, and in particular, to magisterial authority in the Church. As Lumen gentium 25 teaches, religious submission of mind and will is due even to non-infallible statements of the Magisterium, i.e., even to statements that could, in principle, be wrong. (The submission is due to them in a generic manner as statements of the authority; it does not follow that one must accept the statements as true even if one sees them to be false.)

By immediately using the perceived wrongness of various statements in Amoris laetitia as grounds to presume that the pope can't truly be teaching those things, one may avoid accusing the pope of error, but at the same time, avoid being challenged by the pope to rethink whether there might be some important truth that the pope is speaking which I don't myself clearly or fully perceive.

On this note, I close with a remark of Jeremy Holmes regarding the encyclical Laudato Si, but just as relevant to Amoris laetitia.

Everyone who finds the encyclical troubling should start by listing the “I like it” elements and the “This bothers me” elements. Then he should do one more thing: write down at least ONE element in the encyclical that genuinely challenges him, that is, one way in which he feels this encyclical may change his mind on something he has thought for a long time.

The Spirit leads the Church through weak human beings, and yet we have to be on the lookout for God in the midst of it all. As Fulton Sheen once remarked, Jesus Christ rode into Jerusalem on an ass. If we don’t make a real effort to find ONE element in an encyclical that changes our attitude or conviction, then we have failed as readers.