The Shouting

Rorate Caeli reports that in the October 2016 edition of the Acta Apostolicae Sedis the Holy Father’s letter to the Buenos Aires bishops regarding their interpretation of Amoris laetitia is presented as an apostolic letter. The bishops’ interpretation is also included. And, topping off this bounty, there is a note from Cardinal Parolin, which reads:

Summus Pontifex decernit ut duo Documenta quae praecedunt edantur
per publicationem in situ electronico Vaticano et in Actis Apostolicae Sedis,
velut Magisterium authenticum.

In Rorate‘s translation:

The Supreme Pontiff decreed that the two preceding documents be promulgated through publication on the Vatican website and in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, as authentic Magisterium.

Of course, astute observers knew this was coming. Archbishop Fernandez’s essay in the CELAM theological journal relied heavily on the letter to the Buenos Aires bishops. This simply adds the icing to the cake. One wonders—though how ingenuously is another matter—how the bishops in Francis’s old diocese managed to come up with guidelines that happened to come across his desk and happened to receive a favorable reply. (Maybe Cardinal Baldisseri knows.) No matter. Did anyone have any doubt that this is how the story of Amoris laetitia would end? That is, did anyone really think Francis would really leave Familiaris consortio untouched? When the only responses to the dubia were sneering insults from the commentators in line with Santa Marta on one hand and fuzzy casuistry from the serious theologians on the other? It is, as they say in our neck of the woods, all over but the shouting.

Or is it? There are orthodox interpretations of the Buenos Aires guidelines. A very clever friend of ours has pointed out that paragraph 6 is frustratingly vague and requires interpretation. It is possible to read an orthodox interpretation into the guidelines. Here’s Matthew Hoffman’s translation:

In other, more complex circumstances, and when it is not possible to obtain a declaration of nullity, the aforementioned option may not, in fact, be feasible. Nonetheless, it is equally possible to undertake a journey of discernment. If one arrives at the recognition that, in a particular case, there are limitations that diminish responsibility and culpability (cf. 301-302), particularly when a person judges that he would fall into a subsequent fault by damaging the children of the new union, Amoris Laetitia opens up the possibility of access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist (cf. notes 336 and 351). These in turn dispose the person to continue maturing and growing with the aid of grace.

(Emphasis supplied.) This passage, despite being now “Magisterium authenticum,” is full of perplexities. Does it apply in the United States, where almost everyone who asks can obtain a declaration of nullity? What does it mean to be “feasible” in this context? Millions of people live continently every day, and, recalling the Tridentine anathema, it seems to us that continence is always “feasible.” And, taking a step back, if the presence of children is the guiding star, have we not found a new regime crueler than anything John Paul established? Does not the middle-aged childless bigamist who found new love have to step aside for the professional who ditched his “starter wife” for a younger woman and had a couple of children? After all, the yuppie might judge “that he would fall into a subsequent fault by damaging the children of the new union.” And his younger wife could be put out if he suddenly got religion. Indeed, it seems as though he is the target recipient of these guidelines. But, given all the Pope’s talk of pastoral solicitude and helping the poor and the Church as a field hospital, it cannot be the Pope’s intention to encourage the practice of “starter spouses” and new families in smart suburbs. Or is it? As we say, the Buenos Aires guidelines do not clear much up. Maybe it is all over except the shouting, but there’s still plenty of shouting to be done.

Of course, the case will be judged in the court of history by future Catholics and future popes. The partisans of Santa Marta, like Archbishop Fernandez, the microblogging platform enthusiast Massimo Faggioli, and the writer Stephen Walford, have been banging the “development of doctrine” drum. Fair enough. In response to one of our columns for First Things, we received a note from a learned correspondent on a point relating to Newman’s Development of Christian Doctrine. (Despite our Email Policy, we won’t reveal our correspondent’s details.) Our correspondent pointed out that Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine was written in 1845 as part of Newman’s conversion to Catholicism, though revised in 1878. One can read about this in the Apologia pro Vita Sua or Ian Ker’s biography. The Development of Christian Doctrine should be placed in its proper context. Our learned correspondent noted that, consequently, we should be cautious in proposing Newman’s tests or notes of authentic developments as a toolkit for speculative theology or a means of judging the magisterium. This is true as far as it goes, though, in response we would submit that Dei verbum formalizes, with the assent of an ecumenical council, the idea of development of doctrine without providing a clear understanding of how to separate developments from corruptions.

And this is where Newman comes in. The tests set forth in Development of Christian Doctrine might not be especially good for speculative theology; that is, one would have a hard time sketching out a theological argument on a given topic by means of the notes. However, as a method of approaching magisterial interventions—which are asserted to be developments of doctrine—you could do a lot worse than the notes in Development of Christian Doctrine. We have made this argument before. It is obvious that the proposed development contained in Amoris laetitia fails to pass several of the tests set forth by Cardinal Newman, not the least of which is whether or not the proposed development is conservative of the course of prior developments. Amoris laetitia contradicts Familiaris consortio. This is clear. If it is proposed that Familiaris consortio is itself a development of doctrine, which seems entirely plausible, then Amoris laetitia is not conservative of the course of prior developments. If we walk a little bit forward in time, and look back at this moment, we can say, without doing violence to Cardinal Newman’s intent in the Development of Christian Doctrine, that the development proposed by Francis by means of Amoris laetitia and his apostolic letter to his friends in Buenos Aires would not be an authentic development by Cardinal Newman’s lights.

Now, one may reject Newman’s approach. We have it on pretty good authority that one of the Pope’s most prominent defenders in the media has been presented with this argument and has made precisely this rejection. The response is, of course, Newman is not magisterial and, as our learned correspondent rightly pointed out, did not write the Development of Christian Doctrine as a work of speculative theology, intended to be applied to proposed developments as a means of judgment. Fair enough. Both are quite valid points. And one may go further, as we believe this prominent defender did, and argue that authentic developments are those which the pope says they are. Such an approach is simply wrong under the ecclesiology of Lumen gentium, insofar as it obliterates the teaching offices of the other bishops in the world in communion with the pope. And it is nowhere found in Dei verbum:

Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church. Holding fast to this deposit the entire holy people united with their shepherds remain always steadfast in the teaching of the Apostles, in the common life, in the breaking of the bread and in prayers (see Acts 2, 42, Greek text), so that holding to, practicing and professing the heritage of the faith, it becomes on the part of the bishops and faithful a single common effort.

But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.

(Emphasis supplied.) In other words, this commentator would chuck the finely wrought teachings of the Second Vatican Council in favor of a papal autocracy beyond the dreams even of Pius IX and the Vatican Council itself in Pastor aeternus. Perhaps we ask a lot of Newman, but, the fact remains that Newman is the one best situated to help the Catholic who wishes to “remain always steadfast in the teaching of the Apostles” and to contribute to the “single common effort” of “holding to, practicing and professing the heritage of the faith,” identified by the fathers of the Second Vatican Council.

And it is this “single common effort” that we refer to when we say that the case of Amoris laetitia will have to be judged by future Catholics.