“Amoris laetitia” and the Magisterium

When Amoris laetitia was first issued, you may recall the response of Raymond Cardinal Burke, well known to Catholics around the world, in the National Catholic Register:

The only key to the correct interpretation of Amoris Laetitia is the constant teaching of the Church and her discipline that safeguards and fosters this teaching. Pope Francis makes clear, from the beginning, that the post-synodal apostolic exhortation is not an act of the magisterium (3). The very form of the document confirms the same. It is written as a reflection of the Holy Father on the work of the last two sessions of the Synod of Bishops. For instance, in Chapter Eight, which some wish to interpret as the proposal of a new discipline with obvious implications for the Church’s doctrine, Pope Francis, citing his post-synodal apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, declares:

I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion. But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a Mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, “always does what good she can, even if in the process her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street” (308).

In other words, the Holy Father is proposing what he personally believes is the will of Christ for his Church, but he does not intend to impose his point of view, nor to condemn those who insist on what he calls “a more rigorous pastoral care.” The personal, that is, non-magisterial, nature of the document is also evident in the fact that the references cited are principally the final report of the 2015 session of the Synod of Bishops and the addresses and homilies of Pope Francis himself. There is no consistent effort to relate the text, in general, or these citations to the magisterium, the Fathers of the Church and other proven authors.

(Emphasis supplied, slightly reformatted, and hyperlinks in original.) This approach was not widely adopted by traditionally minded Catholics, not least since the Holy Father and the Holy Father’s favored interpreter of Amoris laetitia, Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, O.P., have insisted, explicitly or implicitly, on the magisterial value of Amoris laetitia. In other words, no one except Cardinal Burke seemed to think Cardinal Burke had hit upon the right answer.

Today, at First Things, Jessica Murdoch, a Villanova University theologian, has a wonderful article about the magisterial weight of Amoris laetitia. Professor Murdoch’s whole essay is well worth reading, and we are tempted to quote the whole thing. The crucial point she makes is this:

Given these difficulties, what is to be made of Cardinal Schönborn’s assertion that Amoris Laetitia is a binding document of magisterial authority? His analysis is unpersuasive, for three principal reasons. First, the document lacks language of formal definition. A clear example of language of formal definition appears in Ordinatio Sacradotalis, wherein Pope John Paul II uses words such as “We teach and declare” to define the Church’s teaching on the priesthood. Contrast this with the language of Amoris Laetitia highlighted by Cardinal Schönborn: “I urgently ask”; “It is no longer possible to say”; and “I have wanted to present to the entire Church.” Second, Amoris Laetitia lacks the theological and juridical precision of binding ecclesial documents, instead relying upon metaphors, imagery, and thick description, rather than clear statements. And third, if, in fact, the document does contradict either natural or divine positive law, then it simply cannot bind the faithful to the obsequium religiosum, that is, the assent of mind and will, specified by Church Lumen Gentium 25.

(Emphasis supplied.) It bears noting, if briefly, that Cardinal Burke also pointed to the informal language and lack of “theological and juridical precision of binding ecclesial documents” in his assessment of Amoris laetitia. But Professor Murdoch unpacks very nicely for those of us who are not quite so theologically savvy what Cardinal Burke compressed into a very brief comment. And, while she treats only Amoris laetitia, it is possible to extend her reasoning to the letter to the Argentine bishops lately, which, of course, confirmed the Holy Father’s sense of what, exactly, Amoris laetitia did. Professor Murdoch goes on to note that,

The basic principles of the Church’s doctrine of infallibility provide substantive guidance here. First and foremost, the Petrine ministry participates in the infallibility of the deposit of Revelation. This is crucial to hold in view, because Revelation is ultimately the criterion of truth. The special, divine assistance of infallibility is a privilege attached to the Holy Father as the center of unity of the Church, yet this privilege is always given for the entire Church. Besides the infallibility attached to the Pope’s pronouncements taught with the fullness of his supreme authority (the “extraordinary magisterium”), the “ordinary magisterium” can also be a source of infallible teaching, when it concerns de fide doctrine (concerning faith and morals), when it is marked by unity and unanimity, and when it is proposed to be definitive and absolute teaching. Not every teaching of the ordinary magisterium, however, fulfills these criteria. Some teachings of the ordinary magisterium can be fallible, and do not command interior assent of mind and will, if such teachings are clearly contrary to reason, or to the natural law, or to the divine positive law.

(Emphasis supplied.) She then goes on to propose some practical principles for assessing the magisterial weight of not only Amoris laetitia but also any papal pronouncement. We won’t spoil that, however, other than to say that we were reminded of the greatest science-fiction movie of all time, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, by one of her points.

In short, Professor Murdoch adds some serious theological weight to Cardinal Burke’s opinion that Amoris laetitia does not have an excessive amount of magisterial weight. Perhaps it has some—after all, it is a formal teaching document of the Roman Pontiff—but given its informality of tone and its lack of precise definitions, it has magisterial weight insofar as it does not contradict natural law or divine law. Of course, the most serious aspect of the debate so far has been whether or not Amoris laetitia contradicts the divine law.

Read her whole essay, though. It is well, well worth your time.