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Some notes on terminology usually associated with the Church’s teaching office

Some years ago I stated: “The liturgical renewal movement that preceded the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) has been repeatedly and authoritatively recognized as a movement of the Holy Spirit in the Church.”* What catches my eye about Pope Francis’ recent remarks to an Italian liturgical conference is not, therefore, his strong endorsement of liturgical renewal, but rather some of the language he used to make that endorsement, language that one often associates with the exercise of the Church’s teaching office.

In phrases typically associated with formal, even infallible, teaching exercises, Francis purported to invoke his “magisterial authority” to “affirm with certainty” that the process of liturgical reform was “irreversible”. Such terminology, I suggest, coming from such a figure, predictably occasions questions about, among other things, whether such authority extends to declaring formally something (indeed, anything) about what is actually a process like “liturgical reform”. A blog post cannot, of course, do justice to all of the questions raised here, but it can perhaps contextualize some issues as a service for those interested in looking further into the matter.

Infallibility is a charism given to the Church by Christ which assures that some assertions, made by some persons, under some conditions, are asserted with the certainty of being without error and should therefore be accepted as certain (CCC 891-892). In itself, infallibility does not admit of degrees so a statement either satisfies all of the prerequisites for infallibility or it is not infallible (however likely or even true it might otherwise be). Infallible assertions, being certain in themselves, require Catholics either to believe the assertion (if it concerns faith) or to hold the assertion (if it concerns matters required to support the faith). See generally 1983 CIC 749-750. Finally, infallible assertions, although they might be clarified over time, are fundamentally irreversible, or irreformable, and so can never be cancelled or contradicted.

Now, setting aside some important points such as “subjects of infallibility” (briefly: the pope alone per Canons 331 and 749 § 1; the college of bishops—which of course always includes the pope—per Canons 336 and 749 § 2; and even the Church herself per, e.g., CDF’s 1973 declaration Mysterium Ecclesiae, n. 2) and “modes of infallibility (chiefly: “solemn” or “extraordinary” in regard to papal and collegial teaching, and “ordinary” especially in regard to collegial teaching), it is in regard to the “objects of infallibility” that the pope’s rhetoric about affirming with certainty and with magisterial authority that the liturgical reform process is irreversible strike me as remarkable.

As mentioned above, infallible assertions, being certain in themselves, demand, depending on their content (i.e., the ‘object’ of the assertion) one of two responses from the faithful: either the assertion demands belief if the matter being asserted is “contained in the Word of God, written or handed on, that is, in the one deposit of faith entrusted to the Church [and] proposed as divinely revealed …” per 1983 CIC 750 § 1—and no one can think that the liturgical reform process is “divinely revealed” so it is not possible that the pope was implying otherwise—or the assertion must be “embraced and retained [i.e.,] held definitively” if it is “required to safeguard reverently and to expound faithfully the same deposit of faith …” per 1983 CIC 750 § 2.

Examples of infallible assertions that must be believed (credenda) are the points in the Creed, the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Our Lady, the foundation of the Church by Christ, the precise number of sacraments, and so on. Examples of infallible assertions that must be held (tenenda) are canonizations, determinations as to which councils should be deemed “ecumenical”, the invalidity of Anglican orders, and so on. While infallible assertions demanding belief and infallible assertions demanding definitive retention are distinguishable from each other, their very close connections are equally obvious. As a result, among the many, many things that the Church asserts with various degrees of authority, relatively few are recognized as being asserted with certainty and, in that regard, as being irreversible. See 1983 CIC 749 § 3 and CDF’s 1998 “Doctrinal commentary on Ad tuendam fidem. But while it is fairly easy to spot matters of belief infallibly asserted (so-called “primary objects” of infallibility), matters requiring definitive retention (so called “secondary objects” of infallibility) are trickier to assess.

To offer some negative examples, the Church would never declare infallibly that the sun rose in Ann Arbor today at 6:54 AM local time—even though the assertion is true—because such an assertion is not divinely revealed nor is it necessary to defend or expound the deposit of faith; she would never affirm with certainty that St. Peter’s Basilica is the most beautiful church in the world because such an assertion is not divinely revealed nor is it necessary to defend or expound the deposit of faith (not to mention it being difficult to assign the notion of “most” to any judgment about the beautiful); and she would never affirm with certainty and magisterial authority that the New Evangelization is “irreversible” because such an assertion is not divinely revealed nor is it necessary to defend or expound the deposit of faith (not to mention that the New Evangelization is a phenomenon that does not admit of easy categorization and is in part a response to its times).

And so I think it can be confusing to the faithful for any prelate to “affirm with certainty” and/or with “magisterial authority” that liturgical reform is “irreversible” precisely because such language connotes in Catholic minds the exercise of a charism given not to underscore the importance of what is being asserted, but rather, to identify certainly and without error either what is divinely revealed and thus to be believed or what is required to safeguard reverently the deposit of faith and thus to be definitely held.

To repeat, with Pius XII, Vatican II, St. John Paul II, and doubtless with Francis, a faithful Catholic may regard liturgical reform (properly understood, and apart from the travesties committed in its name) as springing from a movement of the Holy Spirit in the Church; but whether it is prudent for any pope, in virtue of his “magisterial authority”, to “affirm with certainty”, that such reforms (whatever exactly those are) are “irreversible” (whatever exactly that means here) is, I think, a different issue. 

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* See my “The Communion fast: a reconsideration”, Antiphon 11 (2007) 234-244. The footnote for my claim records that: The Council itself made this assertion in its constitution on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, when it said: “Zeal for the promotion and restoration of the sacred liturgy is rightly held to be a sign of the providential dispositions of God in our time, as a movement of the Holy Spirit in his Church.” … [See] Sacrosanctum Concilium (4 December 1963), n. 43, … Just a few years earlier, Pope Pius XII addressing the International Congress of Pastoral Liturgy (1956) had observed: “The liturgical movement is thus shown forth as a sign of the providential dispositions of God for the present time, of the movement of the Holy Ghost in the Church, to draw men more closely to the mysteries of the faith and the riches of grace which flow from the active participation of the faithful in the liturgical life.” Pope Pius XII, Allocution “Vous Nous avez demandé” (22 September 1956) …, [and] Twenty-five years after the Council, Pope John Paul II reiterated this theme, saying: “[W]e should give thanks to God for that movement of the Holy Spirit in the Church which the liturgical renewal represents.” Pope John Paul II, apostolic letter Vicesimus quintus annus (4 December 1988), n. 12.

Some other good discussions of this matter include those by Phil Lawler and Fr. Zuhlsdorf.


On the appearance of the pope’s ‘Buenos Aires’ letter on the Vatican website

Part of the turmoil engendered by Pope Francis’ exhortation Amoris laetitia regarding whether divorced-and-remarried Catholics (living in the manner of married couples) may be admitted to holy Communion turns on what authority should be accorded a private letter the pope sent to the bishops of Buenos Aires endorsing, supposedly as definitive, their interpretation of Amoris in regard to this crucial question.

For the reasons I suggested here*, however, the pope’s letter to the Buenos Aires bishops does not “settle” anything about the application of Amoris in this area, if for no other reason than that the Buenos Aires directives themselves, amid their copious platitudes and euphemisms, manage to avoid, if perhaps more narrowly than does Amoris, directly answering the key question raised by Amoris in this area. Thus, the near-universal conclusion, applauded by some and deplored by others, that the pope in Amoris, or at the very least in his endorsement of the Buenos Aires document, has indeed established that, ‘Yes, divorced-and-remarried Catholics, while living sexually active lives, may licitly approach for and be administered holy Communion’—as, I grant, the Maltese bishops plainly say and as the German episcopal committee effectively holds—is a source of consternation. Oh well. 

In any event a few days ago the pope’s letter and the Argentine directives to which he was replying appeared on the Vatican’s website (Spanish, English), setting off a fresh tizzy of concerns about the level of authority to be accorded them in light of their now being posted at

In response to such concerns, here are, in my professional opinion, the three levels of canonical authority to be ascribed to Church documents in virtue of their being published on the Vatican’s website: None, Zero, or Zip.

Let’s back up.

As has been explained many times (and pace fact-patterns very rarely encountered) divorced-and-remarried Catholics living as if they were married should not approach for holy Communion per Canon 916 and, if they do approach, ministers should not give them the Sacrament per Canon 915. Therefore, if the pope, immediately (in Amoris) or mediately (by endorsing the Buenos Aires directives), wished to authorize persons living in irregular unions to approach for holy Communion and/or to direct ministers of holy Communion to give the Sacrament to such persons, he would have had to modify or cancel the pontifically-authorized canons unquestionably prohibiting such actions found in his Code of Canon Law.

But canon law is barely a blip in Amoris and neither it, nor the Argentine directives, nor the pope’s endorsement letter so much as mentions Canons 915 or 916, meaning that these two canon laws remain in full force and must be understood and applied as the canonical and moral tradition has long understood and applied them. That, or Francis is the first pope in history to widely and expressly authorize what he plainly and comprehensively prohibits. Which I don’t think is the case.

But now, suppose under some result-driven, eisegetical reading of Amoris and/or the Buenos Aires document, someone argues that Canons 915 and 916 have been derogated from in the case of divorced-and-remarried Catholics, in other words, that Amoris or (even more fantastically) the endlessly malleable verbiage of the Buenos Aires document, has the character of universally-applicable canon law. What then?

Enter Canon 8 § 1 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law which states: “Universal ecclesiastical laws are promulgated by publication in the official commentary Acta Apostolicae Sedis, unless some other manner of promulgation has been prescribed in particular cases.” 

For over a century the Acta Apostolicae Sedis (Documents of the Apostolic See), a monthly journal subscribed to by few outside of arch/diocesan chanceries and ecclesiastical academe, has been the nearly-exclusive vehicle for publishing the official, binding documents of the Holy See. In just the last several years it has, Deo gratias, been posted on-line (warning: there are many maddening errors in the electronic texts not present in the printed versions). But the Acta Apostolicae Sedis is not a synonym for “Vatican Website” and, however useful that website might be to researchers, it has not been designated as the vehicle for promulgating canon law or equivalent provisions. As it is, moreover, self-evident that no “other manner of publication” was prescribed in Amoris or the pope’s follow-up letter, the appearance of these materials on the Vatican’s website means canonically nothing.

There are, to be sure, many important publications coming out of the Holy See and/or the Vatican City State (L’Osservatore Romano, Communicationes, Enchiridion Vaticanum, the Insegnamenti of recent popes, and so on) some of which carry canonically and magisterially significant documents in a complex (and sometimes confusing) variety of formats. Sorting out these fontes essendi and fontes cognoscendi is stuff for professionals; our focus today is on key points of codified canon law, on some very important disciplinary provisions presented in that law, and specifically on where such laws and norms for pastoral activity are set out authoritatively.

And that, folks, is not the Vatican website.

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* See also my article “The canonical position of Amoris laetitia” in Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly 40/1-2 (Spring-Summer 2017) 15-19.

Related thought: What if the pope’s Buenos Aires letter does eventually appear in the Acta, what then? Well, in this case, basically, nothing. Many, nay most, papal documents appearing in the Acta carry no canonical or disciplinary force, a fact demonstrable by understanding how to assess the various fontes mentioned above. We can talk about that if it happens (my guess is, it will), but my concern today is for those who, in this electronic age, think that the appearance of a papal document on the Vatican website carries some special canonical consequences. Well, it doesn’t.

Clarifying what we can

According to Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández, or perhaps Austen Ivereigh who was reporting on the prelate’s position: “In the case of norms forbidding killing and stealing, for example, the norms are absolute, admitting of no exceptions; yet it is questionable … whether taking life in self-defense is killing, or taking food to feed a hungry child is stealing.”

However such confused formulations of moral principles came to be offered as examples of critical thinking in the Church, one can’t respond to every misstatement of Church teaching floating around these days and so I limit myself to commenting only on some assertions made by Fernández/Ivereigh about what canon law supposedly held and holds in regard to divorce, remarriage, and admission to the sacraments and sacramentals.

“Over the past century alone,” Fernández per Ivereigh claims, “there have been important changes even in the area of the discipline concerning the divorced and remarried, [such as] the example of their being denied a church burial, which was one of the effects of excommunication of the divorced and remarried that was possible under the 1917 Code. The lifting of that ban was opposed … with the same arguments against their receiving Communion now.”

Okay, two problems: (1) Catholics were not excommunicated under the 1917 Code for being divorced and remarried; and (2) divorced and ‘remarried’ Catholics are still recognized as figuring among those to whom ecclesiastical burial may be denied.

Re the first problem. In a blog post some three years ago, I noted that, contrary to common perception, the 1917 Code did not excommunicate divorced-and-remarried Catholics; in fact, the closest that universal law came to doing so was to excommunicate Catholics who violated canonical form in marrying and, given that most divorced Catholics who ‘remarried’ did so in violation of canonical form, divorced and ‘remarried’ Catholics could be excommunicated but—again, to be clear—such Catholics, like all who married ‘outside the Church’ (which is lots of Catholics), risked excommunication for violating form and not for being divorced and ‘remarried’. I further noted that while bigamy was a crime under the Pio-Benedictine Code, the penalty for bigamy was “infamy” and only if later combined with obduracy, might it result in excommunication or not. Finally I noted that divorced and ‘remarried’ American Catholics could be excommunicated for being divorced and ‘remarried’, but only under American legislation. Why the Argentine Fernández or the Briton Ivereigh should be concerned about that local possibility in their discussion of the universal law of the Code escapes me.

In any case, Pope Paul VI abrogated the old Code’s excommunication for Catholics violating canonical form in 1970, and he lifted the particular American excommunication for divorce and ‘remarriage’ in 1977. Thus, both sanctions went off the books while the 1917 Code was still in effect and, whatever factors led to these changes, they were not changes to the status of divorced-and-remarried Catholics excommunicated under some canon of the 1917 Code because divorced-and-remarried Catholics per se were not excommunicated by the 1917 Code.

Re the second problem. The 1983 Code does not, and the 1917 Code did not, deprive divorced-and-remarried Catholics per se of ecclesiastical funeral rites. Rather the new law (1983 CIC 1184 § 1 n. 3) and the old law (1917 CIC 1240 § 1 n. 6) both call/ed for public and manifest sinners to be deprived of ecclesiastical funeral and Mass. Pio-Benedictine commentators regularly cited divorced-and-remarried Catholics as examples of ‘public and manifest sinners’, and few Johanno-Pauline commentators dispute that example (how could they, given CCC 2384?), although they do rightly underscore what, in fact, both codes called for, namely, pastoral discernment by local ordinaries in concrete cases which, in turn, means that, as a practical matter, cases of denial of ecclesiastical burial for ‘public sin’ will be very few. In short, canon law in this area has always had more flexibility built into its application than most non-canonists would have spotted.

But finally, beyond the fact that the canon law on funerals which Fernández/Ivereigh seem to think has greatly changed has basically remained the same, and besides the fact that the law on funerals law has always been more flexible than Fernández/Ivereigh seem to realize, there are serious difficulties in trying to parlay changes in laws regarding sacramentals (such as burial, over which the Church has great authority) into arguments for changing laws regarding sacraments (such as the Eucharist, over which the Church has much less authority). But, while discussions of these difficulties are worth having, if only for their ability to clarify wider issues, little clarity can be expected when inaccuracies about and muddled formulations of basic moral and canonical categories plague their presentation from the outset.

On Fr. Nichols’ recent remarks

Dominican theologian Fr. Aidan Nichols needs no introduction to readers of this blog and it suffices to say that, when a priest of Nichols’ credentials urges development of a canonical procedure to correct popes who—how exactly to put this?—leave confusion in their wake, people are going to take notice. I have seen only news reports of Nichols’ address (not the speech itself), but a few comments occur to me that won’t come as a surprise to Nichols but that might help inform others’ reactions to them.

First, while most provisions in the Code of Canon Law are of human (albeit, ecclesiastical, usually pontifical) origin, implying the possibility of changes in them in accord with circumstances, some canons rest on divine law foundations and are not, therefore, so easily amended—however appealing such changes might seem to be. Such is the case, I suggest, with Canon 331 on the full and supreme authority of the Roman Pontiff and Canon 1404 on the immunity of the Holy See from judgment (canonical or civil). These canons (and others besides, say, Canon 1372) serve the decision of Our Lord to leave Peter and his successors basically free to act as they see fit in guiding the Church, meaning that such canons, operating in support of a divinely-sanctioned freedom, are not liable to repeal if popes misuse that freedom. All of this Nichols takes for granted, of course.

Nichols also knows, however, that Petrine freedom has limits, that it is not something bestowed in order to make possible, say, papal plundering of Church property or dalliances with dangerous theological theories (both of which have happened in the past), but rather, it serves the Church’s need for, and the faithful’s right to, certainty and continuity in Catholicism’s witness to the teachings of Jesus. Canon law read as a whole (and not cherry-picked to get the results one hopes for) operates in service to all of doctrine (and not just the parts that sound convenient to this generation or that).

Canonical evidence of one such limitation on papal power is found in, for example, Canon 336 which recognizes the college of bishops (properly understood) as also a subject of full and supreme power in the Church—a mystery, to be sure, how one Church can have two subjects of full and supreme power, but nevertheless an ecclesiological given to be reckoned with, not ignored. Nichols might, for all I know, have referenced Canon 336 in his original speech; if he did not, he certainly could have done so.

But another check against this papal freedom turning into license, albeit a check harder to pin down than are neatly drafted canons, is “Tradition”.

Tradition, not canon law, holds the Church to accept a host of truths, for example, that Jesus rose from the dead, that canonized saints are in heaven, and that contraception between married couples is objectively gravely wrong, such that a pope who suddenly challenged the reality of the Resurrection, the status of one duly canonized, or the gravity of conjugal contraception—or who winked at others doing such things—would stand in urgent need of prayers and would be a proper object for some kind of correction, perhaps such correction as is apparently envisioned by Cdl. Burke and others.

But beyond even this—and moving back to what Nichols’ point seemed to be—Tradition has some even more startling things to say about popes who might fall into heresy. To summarize a long story already shortened here, the Church is not defenseless against heresy from popes. Under certain rare circumstances, one is talking, according to several weighty authors, about the loss of pontifical office itself.

There are, of course, several practical problems with Nichols’ proposal for changes to canon law (some of which problems he noted in the reported version of his remarks) and to which I would add a simple one: popes are the Legislator of canon law, and the chances of any legislator writing a law that could be used against him are slim. But, if the commentators cited in my earlier blog are really saying what they seem to be saying, we might not need new canon laws to deal with the problem.

Tradition might already have a solution.

Come over here and say that

Austen Ivereigh, in one of the most embarrassing essays Crux has ever run, recently smeared seven talented Catholic commentators as suffering from ‘convert neurosis’. Not once in passing, but repeatedly, Ivereigh uses ‘neurosis’ and ‘neurotic’ in regard to some seven writers, Ross Douthat, Daniel Hitchens, Carl Olson, Edward Pentin, Rusty Reno, Matthew Schmitz, and John-Henry Westen. Ivereigh even offers a primer on what “neurosis” means, suggesting a war-scarred woman’s throwing herself to the ground when later stopped by a policeman as, one supposes, an example of how ‘convert neurotics’, supposedly being persons given to extreme reactions to un-realities in the Church, might behave.

While an expert in psychology can tell us whether any of these men are, in fact, “neurotic”, and an expert in morals can tell us whether Ivereigh’s employing and Crux’s circulating of such labels against brothers in the Lord meets any standard of decency in Christian discourse, Ivereigh’s constant referral to these Catholics as “converts” draws my attention.

Ivereigh’s description of several figures (Douthat and Reno as former Episcopalians, Olson as a former Protestant fundamentalist, and Hitchens and Pentin as former Anglicans) plus what I gather about Westen (a once fallen-away Catholic who went through an atheistic period) and Schmitz (who talks respectfully about his days as a Protestant), suggests that not one of them, not one, would, under American catechetical criteria, qualify as “converts” at all—let alone as neurotic ones.

According to the (US) National Statutes for the Catechumenate (November, 1986) no. 2 (my emphasis), “the term ‘convert’ should be reserved strictly for those converted from unbelief to Christian belief and never used of those baptized Christians who are received into the full communion of the Catholic Church.” Number 3 reiterates that this “holds true even … [for] baptized Catholic Christians … whose Christian initiation has not been completed by confirmation and Eucharist” (Westen) and [for] “baptized Christians who have been members of another Church or ecclesial community and seek to be received into the full Communion of the Catholic Church” (the other six authors).

Now perhaps the circles Ivereigh runs in ‘over there’ do not bother with this important distinction among persons entering into full communion, and I grant that some Catholics ‘over here’ might still show ecclesial insensitivity by referring to separated Christians coming into full communion as “converts”, i.e., as if they had not been baptized. But, as most of the men Ivereigh chastises are Americans, and as the American bishops are trying to get American Catholics to think more accurately about these things, I thought Ivereigh’s outdated and inaccurate use of the word “convert”—to say nothing of his abuse of the tragedy that is “neurosis”—worth noting.

The category in Maiorem looks sound, the criteria less so

There is a good impulse behind Pope Francis’ document, Maiorem hac dilectionem, providing a path to beatification/canonization for those who offer their lives for others, if only because Maiorem addresses more cogently the awkward notion of “martyr of charity” developed by Pope John Paul II in regard to such luminous figures as St. Maximillian Kolbe.  The distortion of the idea of “martyrdom” inherent in that novel terminology has led, I fear, to a lurch from recognizing as “martyrs” (for the Faith) pretty much any Catholic who dies as a victim of religious persecution, something that has never sat well with the traditional understanding (and values) behind the concept of martyrdom. Unfortunately, making that technical point has long labored under the shadow of impiety, and I am pleased that Maiorem deals with it more forthrightly.

No, my concern about Maiorem is not with the category, it’s with the criteria.

Eligible for a process under Maiorem are those who “have voluntarily and freely offered their lives for others and have persevered until death in this regard.” Problem: This status includes tens of thousands of soldiers, policemen, firemen, and, countless others whom, we all know, put their lives on the line for others constantly and in many cases do in fact ‘voluntarily and freely offer their life for others’. And that is to say nothing of innumerable spur of the moment, but ultimate, sacrifices. If Mairoem is retroactive—and nothing suggests that it isn’t—local Churches first, and then Rome, could be deluged with sympathetic petitions. Deluged.

Unless some other criteria limit potential petitions. So, do any?

Well, the candidate for recognition must have lead a life of “ordinary Christian virtue” prior to his or her sacrifice. Problem: Such a criterion, aside from being quite vague (and hence of little use in a legal process) also seems easy to satisfy for countless cases. Under it, one need not have led a Kolbe-life prior to taking another’s place in the death cell, one just needs to have been an ordinarily decent Catholic man or woman. So, not very many petitions can be eliminated on that score.

ASIDE: Strictly speaking, if the greatest love is shown by one who gives his life for another (and we know that is true because Jesus told us so), why is it necessary to have led an ordinarily decent Christian life prior to offering one’s life for another in order to be recognized in this manner as having given one’s life for another? Cannot the crisis of a life and death situation lead one, in an instant, with the grace of God, to put aside a sinful life and choose the highest act of love? Does Maiorem, as stated, suggest that self-sacrifices by ‘less-than-honorable’ individuals are less significant?

Next there must be “signs of and a reputation of holiness, at least after death.” Now the procedural requirement regarding a reputation for holiness, especially one after death, has always been a problem in Church life. On the one hand, the Church has rightly been on guard on against excesses of piety toward local sons and daughters morphing into de facto canonizations—hence the many rules over the centuries restricting public cult for non-blesseds and non-saints (see, e.g., 1983 CIC 1187). At the same time, the Church does not want to investigate a figure whom no one cares about anymore. The tension between these two values has led to the unhappy compromise of looking for, well, some attention but not too much. No longer being able to thin cases by the requirement of a life of demonstrable “heroic virtue”, the reputation problem remains in these new norms, but stories apparently eligible for consideration under Maiorem are going to suffer, at least in the short run, from an inability to show a “reputation for holiness” after death in part because Catholics who honor the memory of their fallen ones might have avoided, even discouraged, reputations for holiness precisely out of respect for the Church’s reticence toward such accolades, especially in the cases of so-called “ordinary Christians”—the group explicitly included in the new norms as being eligible for consideration.

The final requirement, that of a miracle attributable to the candidate, adds nothing to what is already required and, for that reason, it will do nothing to decrease the number of cases eligible for local and Roman investigation under Maiorem—which is, of course, the tedious and taxing part of the process. So, once again, the new norms seem of limited practical value.

I say again, I think that the basic idea behind Maiorem is sound but I also think that some fairly significant practical issues have not been adequately anticipated or addressed in a document intended by its genre to address practical issue.

So, we’ll see what happens.

Post-script. I see Latin took another one on the chin here. This morning’s Bollettino introduced the Italian version of Mairoem as “the text” of Francis’ letter and identified the Latin as a “translation”. The fact that Maiorem sports a Latin title means little for so did Evangelii gaudium (2013) and it was officially released in Italian. Last I checked is still not out in Latin.

About that ‘Humanae vitae’ rumor

Too many Roman rumors, it seems of late, have turned out to be true (or close enough to true) to rule out recent rumors that a “papal commission” has been set up “to reconsider” (perhaps as a step toward repudiating?) Bl. Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae vitae (1968). In any event, a few observations.

1. Humanae vitae itself, as brilliant as it was and as prophetic as it turned out to be, was not an infallible exercise of the (papal) magisterium. But rather than defend that view against the few serious-thinking Catholics who might disagree let me move directly to my second point.

2. In my opinion the central teaching in Humanae vitae—that contraception between married couples (both terms being correctly understood) is intrinsically evil—is a proposition infallibly taught by the (ordinary universal) magisterium of the Church. I say this in light of my third point.

3. That the substance of Humanae vitae is infallibly taught by the ordinary magisterium is masterfully argued in: John Ford & Germain Grisez, “Contraception and the infallibility of the ordinary magisterium”, Theological Studies 39 (1978) 258-312. This article expands on ideas considered in John Ford & Gerald Kelly, “Can the Catholic Teaching Change?”, in their Contemporary Moral Theology  (Newman Press, 1963) II: 256-278, but the 1963 article, while very good, need not be read in order to follow the 1978 discussion. If Ford and Grisez are correct (as I think they are, even in the face of some important challenges over the years) then no substantive modification of Humanae vitae can be wrought by any commission, papal, dicasterial, or otherwise.

4. What one could imagine being discussed hereabouts is whether the rejection of contraception set forth (I would say, infallibly) in regard to conjugal relations is applicable to non-conjugal relations. Some theologians, solidly committed to defending Church teaching against conjugal contraception, have flagged the fact that the anti-contraception tradition, witnessed to in Humanae vitae, has been clearly articulated, so far at least, only in regard to conjugal sex. See, e.g., Ramón García de Haro (Spanish priest, 1931-1996), Marriage in the Documents of the Magisterium: a course in the theology of marriage (Ignatius, 1993) 297-298. To be sure, others (including the esteemed William E. May, translator of García de Haro) argue that the Church’s rejection of contraception between married couples, already part of the infallible magisterium, also applies to non-conjugal sex (sex that is, of course, by definition, objectively immoral); but it is also possible that the Church’s rejection of conjugal contraception does not apply outside of that context. I grant, of course, that explaining that difference, not to mention keeping it from morphing into a license for all sorts of morally illicit acts, would not be easy in age ill-equipped to follow subtle discussions and ill-disposed toward even trying, but for those respectful of the Church’s tradition of precision in complex matters, drawing the distinction seems a possibility.

In any case, my main point is this: before any commission or study group could move against the substance of the Church’s teaching reflected in Humanae vitae, the arguments for its infallible certainty, arguments set forth and steadily defended by Ford and Grisez, would need to be addressed and soundly rejected.

Something I don’t see happening. At all.