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I am a lawyer, not a mind-reader

February 23, 2017

Cardinal Vincent Nichols’ echoing of claims that Amoris laetitia changed no doctrines occasioned a question for me: Am I the only (or among the few) Amoris critics who agrees with Amoris defenders that Pope Francis made no doctrinal changes in Amoris?

I do not think that Francis changed any doctrines in Amoris (or even purported to change any doctrines—assuming a pope could have changed doctrines this way, which I would dispute) and thus I regard the kind of correctives routinely offered by Nichols, et al., as superfluous. But I’ll go a step further: I do not think that Francis changed any disciplines in Amoris (or even purported to change any disciplines—assuming a pope could have changed disciplines this way, which I would also dispute, though less vigorously than above). In short, I hold that the few who claim Francis changed doctrine via Amoris, and the many who claim that he changed disciplines therein, are wrong.

That said, though, I still regard Amoris (or at least its eighth chapter) as seriously flawed, not because of doctrinal changes it never attempted and not because of disciplinary changes it never effected, but because of the ambiguity and incompleteness with which it discusses certain key, doctrinal and/or disciplinary factors that go into making real world, concrete, Yes-you-can or No-you-can’t decisions regarding Penance and holy Communion. All of this I have discussed many, many times.

As for why the pope (assuming my characterization of his document is correct) chose to write ambiguously and/or incompletely about these factors, I do not know. I am a lawyer reading texts, not a mind-reader divining motives, and the lawyer in me has concluded that: (1) no doctrines are changed in Amoris; (2) no disciplinary norms are changed in Amoris; but (3) several factors vital to considering requests for and administration of sacraments are ambiguously and/or incompletely presented in Amoris.

Even this much, though, prompts some additional conclusions, including:

(1) all of the canons governing sacramental administration, notably Canon 915, remain in full force;

(2) the Maltese, the Germans, and Cdl. Coccopalmerio (but, I say again, not the Argentinians, not quite) go well beyond what the pope actually wrote in Amoris, though some of his phrasings in Amoris frustrates one’s appealing to it as a corrective; and,

(3) bishops such as Chaput and the Western Canadians can also invoke Amoris to justify their sacramental polices even though their policies are the polar opposite of those being pushed by the Maltese et al.

That is why I say that Amoris, a papal document so framed that it really can be plausibly invoked by diametrically opposed schools of sacramental practice, is itself what’s flawed and is itself what must be addressed.

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