“This was the great breakthrough the Spirit brought us: a better synthesis of truth and mercy in a fresh understanding drawn from within our own Tradition. Without changing law or doctrine but recovering an authentic meaning of both, the Church is now better able to walk with people who are living together or divorced, to help them see where God’s grace is operating in their lives, and to help them embrace the fullness of Church teaching.” — Pope Francis, Let Us Dream, p. 88
In one of his most recent books, entitled Let Us Dream: The Path To a Better Future, Pope Francis provides both an in-depth explanation and the theological reasoning behind one of his most widely-debated teachings. The question over how to correctly interpret the eighth chapter of his 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia has been seen as controversial in some corners of the Church, especially footnote 351. This footnote has been widely interpreted to mean that in some individual cases of reduced culpability, Catholics in irregular marriage situations (such as those who are divorced and civilly remarried) may be admitted to the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist in the course of accompaniment and discernment with a pastor.
In his book Let Us Dream, Pope Francis describes the process of overcoming polarisation during the two Synods on the Family (October 2014 and 2015), and how he and the synod fathers found a path to a just and merciful solution to a very complex problem. He writes openly about the conflict and the taking of “sides” that at times threatened to derail the entire synodal process. He specifically noted how the media seized the opportunity to exacerbate the already-present division among the synod’s participants:
“Media linked to particular groups reduced and simplified the whole work of the Synod to this one issue, as if this synod had been called solely to decide whether or not to allow divorced and remarried people to receive Communion. The narrative was set that the Church should either ‘relax the rules’ or maintain its ‘strict’ stance.”
Pope Francis puts any questions about the accurate interpretation of Amoris Laetitia chapter eight (and footnote 351) to rest. He writes, “Because of the immense variety of situations and circumstances people found themselves in, Aquinas’s teaching that no general rule could apply in every situation allowed the synod to agree on the need for a case-by-case discernment.”
Francis describes this synodal decision as a “breakthrough,” where the Holy Spirit saved the synod in the end. Pope Francis credits the synod participants who were experts in the work of St. Thomas Aquinas, including Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, who he mentioned by name. These Thomistic scholars were able to help come up with a solution that was both faithful and true to the traditions of the Church, by recovering “the true moral doctrine of the authentic scholastic tradition of Saint Thomas, rescuing it from the decadent scholasticism that had led to a casuistic morality.”
The tension was broken and a path was discerned that neither infringes on doctrinal truth, nor needlessly denies mercy to those who seek it with an open and receptive heart. The Pope continues, “There was no need to change the Church’s law, only how it was applied. By attending to the specifics of each case, attentive to God’s grace operating in the nitty-gritty of people’s lives, we could move on from the black-and-white moralism that risked closing off paths of grace and growth. It was neither a tightening nor a loosening of the ‘rules’ but an application of them that left room for circumstances that didn’t fit neatly into categories.”
The process, which included the two Vatican Synods in 2014 and 2015, concluded with the April 2016 release of Amoris Laetitia. Francis sees this as an example of how the Church can overcome polarisation and division through synodality and trust in the Holy Spirit.
This has long been the prevailing interpretation put forth by leading Catholics, including many who are close to Pope Francis. These figures include high-ranking prelates who have written about the exhortation or laid out guidelines for its implementation in their own dioceses, including Cardinals Schönborn, Clemente, and Ouellet. This interpretation was also articulated in great detail in the book Pope Francis, the Family, and Divorce: In Defense of Truth and Mercy by Stephen Walford, which received the endorsements of three more prominent churchmen close to Francis—Cardinals Donald Wuerl, Kevin Farrell, and Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga— and includes a preface written by the pope himself.
For most Catholics paying attention, it is no surprise that their interpretation represents the “manifest mind and will” of the Pope (Lumen Gentium 25). Still, it will disappoint those Catholics, including bishops, theologians, and prominent members of Catholic media, who have continued to insist that Amoris Laetitia changes nothing, or that it is impossible to understand the Pope’s intention from the text and his subsequent statements.
For years, many well-known Catholics have continued to insist that this interpretation does not accurately reflect the teaching of the exhortation. Others have argued that the exhortation is not clear to justify the assertion that the predominant interpretation is correct. For example, Msgr. Livio Melina (who was then President of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute) wrote in his response to the exhortation:
“It must be said with clarity: also after Amoris Laetitia it continues to be the case that admitting to communion the divorced and “remarried,” (apart from the situations foreseen by Familiaris Consortio 84 and Sacramentum Caritatis 29) goes against the Church’s discipline.”
In a response to a series of questions from Catholic News Service, then-Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia agreed and equated it to the Church “invalidating her mission.” He wrote, “Life is messy. But mercy and compassion cannot be separated from truth and remain legitimate virtues.” Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix, in his diocesan guidelines for Amoris Laetitia, followed suit, writing that while “accompaniment is possible… This does not, however, include receiving Holy Communion for those who are divorced and remarried.”
The stakes of the debate over the proper interpretation were raised in November 2016, when four retired cardinals (the American Raymond Burke, Italian Carlo Caffarra, and Germans Walter Brandmuller and Joachim Meisner) publicised four “dubia” that they had delivered to Pope Francis a few weeks prior. These dubia (doubts) asked the Pope to “clarify” Amoris Laetitia, asking questions along the lines of, “does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor?” In other words, they were suggesting that the predominant understanding of Amoris Laetitia chapter 8 constitutes a rejection of objective morality and an embrace of moral relativism.
“Answer the dubia,” soon became a rallying cry for critics of Pope Francis. The dubia letter galvanised Catholics who were suspicious of his teachings. Some went as far as to declare Francis a heretic over the matter. Still others—while at the same time insisting the exhortation was unclear—declared that Amoris Laetitia absolutely did not change the existing Church practice.
Questions continued even after a set of guidelines addressing such cases, written by the bishops of the Buenos Aires region, was officially promulgated as authentic Magisterium by Pope Francis in December 2017, along with an apostolic letter asserting that “there are no other interpretations.” This set of guidelines aligned with the prevailing interpretation, asserting that, “Amoris Laetitia offers the possibility of having access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist.”
Nevertheless, papal critics still found ways to avoid granting assent to the teaching despite the official promulgation of these guidelines as Magisterium. For example, canonist Edward Peters, writing on his blog, imagined that the provision in canon law prohibiting communion for those who are “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin” still stood as a bulwark against the implementation of the pope’s teaching. Others followed suit.
Many of these Catholics publicly declare their orthodoxy, fidelity to the Pope, and their submission to the Magisterium. Many times in the past, they have been fiercely critical of those of us who have accepted the prevailing interpretation. Some of them have even accused us of pushing an agenda contrary to that of Pope Francis.
It remains to be seen whether anyone recants their position in light of these new clarifying statements by the Pope.
Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future by Pope Francis (in collaboration with Austen Ivereigh) was released on December 1, 2020. In this book, Pope Francis explains why we must—and how we can—make the world safer, fairer, and healthier for all people now.
Mike Lewis is a writer and graphic designer from Maryland, having worked for many years in Catholic publishing. He’s a husband, father of four, and a lifelong Catholic. He’s active in his parish and community. He is the founding managing editor for Where Peter Is.
With thanks to Where Peter Is and Mike Lewis, where this article originally appeared.