“The writing is very good and fully explicates the meaning of chapter VIII. . . There are no other interpretations.” With these words Pope Francis, in a letter dated September 5 of last year, approved a note from the bishops of the region of Buenos Aires who in interpreting the postsynodal apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” admitted the possibility of Eucharistic communion for the divorced and remarried who continue to cohabit “more uxorio.”
But this was a matter of a private letter to an Argentine monsignor employed in the secretariat of that group of bishops. And even the note approved by the pope was not initially intended for publication and does not bear the names of the signers. Too little and too poorly done to clarify in a definitive way the authentic meaning – that is, attributable with certainty to its author – of “Amoris Laetitia.”
An attempt has been made in recent days by the theologian closest to the pope, the Argentine Víctor Manuel Fernández, to settle this question, with the tepid assistance of “L’Osservatore Romano.” But without success.
And it could not have been otherwise. Because the confusion is at the origin. It is within the very text of “Amoris Laetitia,” which never says fully, in a clear and incontrovertible way, what Pope Francis limits himself to hinting at.
The passage that gets closest to it is in paragraph 305:
“Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin –which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.”
And in the connected footnote 351:
“In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, ‘I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy” (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium [24 November 2013], 44: AAS 105 , 1038). I would also point out that the Eucharist ‘is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak’ (ibid., 47: 1039).”
As is very well known, Francis has been asked in various forms and a number of times to bring clarity on such a confused and bungled text. In particular on the part of four cardinals, to whom the pope did not want to give a response or even grant an audience.
But here comes Fernández to sermonize that the letter to the bishops of Buenos Aires is enough and then some for those who “want to know how the pope himself interprets what he has written.”
And to those who object that a letter of that sort is too little, Fernández makes his rebuttal by dusting off a precedent concerning the interpretation of Vatican Council I, when Pius IX, in 1875, clarified a controversial point by endorsing a letter from the bishops of Germany to chancellor Bismarck.
“If the pope has received a unique charism in the Church at the service of the correct interpretation of the Word of God,” Fernández writes peremptorily, “this cannot rule out his capacity to interpret the documents that he himself has written.” It does not matter how and when he does so, the important thing is that it should be known that the “war” against him is over.
“What is left after the storm:” this is the title that the pope’s trusted theologian decided to give to the essay that he published in the latest issue of “Medellín,” the theology journal of the Latin American Episcopal Council, in the run-up to Francis’s journey to Colombia in September and to Chile and Peru next January:
Since the author of the article is not only very close to Jorge Mario Bergoglio but also the de facto architect of much of “Amoris Laetitia,” to such an extent that it contains entire sections of articles of his from a decade or so ago, this statement of his was immediately interpreted as inspired by the pope himself.
Whose intention would have been to clarify once and for all – through Fernández as his chosen spokesman – two things above all.
The first is that the interpretation of the Argentine bishops is also his, and is the right one.
The second is that if Francis preferred to make way for communion for the divorced and remarried not in the body of “Amoris Laetitia” but only in skimpy footnotes, it is because he wanted to do so “in a discreet manner,” because he does not consider this the center of the document, but rather the capitals “dedicated to love.”
But the question remains: what level of authority can be attributed to an article like the one that appears in the journal “Medellín,” signed by a theologian universally considered less than mediocre?
An attempt was made to raise it to a higher level, at the Vatican, with two consecutive steps: one before and one after the publication of the article.
Even before Fernández’s article came out, in fact, both the note from the bishops of the region of Buenos Aires and the letter from Francis to their “delegate” Sergio Alfredo Fenoy had been promoted on the official website that presents the entire collection of papal writings and discourses:
While after the release of the article it was “L’Osservatore Romano,” the newspaper of the Holy See, that covered the story on August 22, and above all declared that “when the eighth chapter of ‘Amoris Laetitia’ is interpreted, particularly in reference to access to Eucharistic communion on the part of the divorced who find themselves in a new union,” this must be done precisely as stated in the article by Fernández in “Medellín.” Meaning this :
“It is worth starting from the very interpretation that Francis himself did of his own text, categorical in his response to the Bishops of the region of Buenos Aires. Francis proposed a step forward, which implies a change in the current discipline. Maintaining the distinction between objective good and subjective guilt, and the principle that absolute moral standards do not concede exceptions, differentiates between norms and their formulation and specifically calls for distinctive attention to mitigating constraints. These are not related only with the knowledge of the norm but especially with the real possibilities of decision on the part of the subjects in their concrete reality.”
Both of these passages, however, seem anything but decisive.
First of all, the insertion of the letter from Francis to the Argentine bishops into the collection of proceedings of the pontificate says nothing about its level of authority, because this collection is extremely diverse and includes, for example, his spontaneous chats on every flight back from his journeys.
In the second place, there is a strikingly tepid hesitation in the way “L’Osservatore Romano” covered Fernández’s pretentious article. On page six, without any blurb on the front page, and with a headline that doesn’t give any idea of its contents:
> Il discernimento pastorale. Nell’ultimo numero di “Medellín”, la rivista di teologia del Celam, dedicato al magistero del Papa
And that’s not all. The citation by “L’Osservatore,” instead of coming from the actual article by Fernández, is taken from its “Summary,” and reproduces the first half of it.
In short, there remains the original sin of the confused and botched composition of “Amoris Laetitia,” and especially of its eighth chapter. But evidently that’s the way Francis likes it.
(English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.)