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Do footnotes count?

January 27, 2017

Fr. Regis Scanlon, in a column that makes several interesting criticisms of Amoris laetitia, offers a comment that I think requires more than his simple claim.

In criticizing the very regrettable Amoris footnote 329, which I criticized in my first comments on Amoris, Scanlon writes “Since footnotes are not part of the text, footnote 329 is probably not the work of the pope or the magisterium.”

Come again? Footnotes are not part of this duly published papal text? How is that, I wonder.

Granted, footnotes usually supply bare references to the sources underlying the assertions made in the main body of a text and so are not typically used for making substantive assertions on their own. But does such an adjectival footnote convention mean that footnotes cannot make assertions if that is in fact how they read?

Looking at, say, the documents of the Second Vatican Council, one sees that, while most conciliar footnotes were merely informational in nature, some did make substantive assertions of their own and a few even carried legal consequences.

For example, footnote # 1 of Optatam totius (Decree on Training of Priests, 1965) states “It is clear from the words by which our divine Lord appointed the apostles [that]… the progress of the whole People of God depends in the highest degree on the ministry of priests.” That is unquestionably a conciliar teaching assertion, albeit one made in a footnote. Optatam footnote # 2 directs that future adaptations in priestly formation programs should be made by episcopal conferences and competent religious superiors (which is what happened), and Optatam footnote # 12 expressly abrogated Canon 1357 § 4 of the Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law. Clearly, such footnotes were making substantive assertions on par with those in the main text.

To be sure, the footnotes of some ecclesiastical documents are recognized as not carrying substantive force. The footnotes of the Johanno-Pauline Code, for example, were not even available when it was published in 1983, and when they did finally appear in late 1989, Cdl. Castillo-Lara underscored that they were of private, albeit scholarly, value. Bouscaren & Ellis (1957) at p. 6 made this same point in regard to the footnotes of the 1917 Code.

But simply claiming that footnotes in a papal text are not part of the text, besides being unsubstantiated in itself, seems also to raise serious questions about the value of footnotes in numerous other papal texts. In footnote # 100 in Veritatis splendor (1993), for example Pope St. John Paul II states that Pope St. John XXIII’s opening address to the Second Vatican Council, though dealing with questions about formulating doctrine, can also be applied to formulations of moral principles. Well, does John Paul II hold that his predecessor’s teachings can be so understood, or does he not?

For that matter, Pope Francis himself makes several assertions in the footnotes of Amoris that it would seem strained to dismiss as not reflecting his thoughts. In Amoris footnote # 351, for example, Francis quotes himself to the effect that the Eucharist should be made widely available to the faithful, in Amoris footnote # 364 he warns against priests exaggerating the demands associated with purpose of amendment in the confessional, and in Amoris footnote # 378 he calls attention to the espousal/betrothal character of God’s covenant with his people. Should these observations, too, be dismissed as not contributing to Francis’ magisterium?

Perhaps Scanlon has in mind a convention for reading certain kinds of ecclesiastical texts of which I am unaware; if so, I look forward to learning of it. Till then, I think that Amoris laetitia needs to be read as the whole it appears to be and its problems confronted, not avoided.

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