Father Brian Harrison at One Peter Five examines the problems that arise when a pope contradicts an earlier pope:
Last week saw the release of an important interview (PDF link) given by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna and one of Pope Francis’ most trusted theological advisers and spokesmen, to the Roman Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica. The topic was the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia (AL):
This interview has already made waves round the world, mainly because of His Eminence’s insistence on three points: first, that an apostolic exhortation such as AL is indeed an authoritative magisterial document, containing teaching that Catholics must assent to; secondly, that all previous teachings on marriage and the family must now be interpreted in the light of AL; and finally, that AL is indeed to be understood as allowing divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist in some cases, even without a commitment to live ‘as brother and sister’.
I actually have no quarrel in principle with Cardinal Schönborn’s first point, about the status of apostolic exhortations. Though relatively recent in origin, they are fairly high in the ‘pecking order’ of magisterial documents – probably just a tad beneath encyclicals. To a large extent they are indeed hortatory and pastoral in tone and content, rather than strictly doctrinal. But Schönborn is correct in pointing out that when certain passages are worded in such a way as to manifest the Pontiff’s intention to inculcate some doctrinal truth, that certainly counts as magisterial teaching. I also agree with the principle of theological method that underlies Cardinal Schönborn’s second controversial statement – that all previous magisterial statements on marriage and the family must now be interpreted in the light of AL. However, what His Eminence says is not the whole truth.
Let me explain. It has often happened in the historical development of Catholic doctrine that certain teachings which at an earlier stage were not fully explicated were subsequently clarified by new interventions of the magisterium. For instance, the ancient faith of the Church that the Blessed Virgin was without sin did not make entirely clear whether her perfect sinlessness began at the very moment of her conception. Hence, as is well known, some distinguished theologians over the centuries disputed her Immaculate Conception until Bl. Pius IX finally settled the question dogmatically in 1854. So when a later magisterial teaching adds precision or clarity to an earlier one, or draws out its logical implications, then of course we’re going to interpret the earlier statement(s) in the light of the later one.
But what happens when the reverse is the case – when a more recent magisterial statement is less clearly expressed than an earlier one? This has been a problem with certain documents of Vatican Council II. Since the sometimes deep theological cracks between ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ Fathers had to be papered over so as to get a consensus vote, the final texts on some topics – e.g., religious freedom, biblical inerrancy, ecumenism, the definition of Christ’s Church, his social kingship, and whether those dying as non-believers can be saved – are less clear than earlier relevant statements of the magisterium. In this new situation, correct theological methodology requires us to interpret the new teaching in the light of the old one. Unfortunately, Cardinal Schönborn’s one-sided presentation says nothing about this complementary norm.
In both situations, the basic interpretative principle is the same: we should interpret less clear magisterial statements in the light of those that are expressed more clearly, regardless of which happened to come first. That common-sense norm derives from a still more basic principle, namely, the revealed promise of Jesus that his Holy Spirit will always be present in the Church to guide and keep her in the path of truth (cf. John 14: 16-17, 26). So when two apparently contrasting magisterial statements can reasonably be harmonized, they should be.
However, that raises another question: What if it seems impossible to reconcile two papal affirmations dealing with faith and morals? This brings us to the third and most contentious of the controversial positions now espoused by Cardinal Schönborn. Some have sought to reconcile with previous papal teaching Pope Francis’ statements in AL #305 and its notorious footnote 351, which says that “in certain cases” Catholics living “in an objective situation of sin” (notably the divorced and civilly remarried) can receive “the help of the sacraments” – sacraments which the same footnote identifies as Penance and Eucharist. According to would-be reconcilers, the Holy Father should here be understood as implicitly restricting this sacramental “help” to those who commit to live ‘as brother and sister’.
Given the context, this bland reading of note 351 never struck me as very plausible. In any case, it has now been rejected decisively – almost scornfully! – by the learned prelate whom Francis himself has repeatedly designated as the most trustworthy commentator on the new apostolic exhortation. Moreover, this occurs in an interview that the Pope would almost certainly have read beforehand. (Every issue of this top-drawer Jesuit journal is vetted by the Vatican Secretariat of State prior to publication.) When editor Spadaro asks Schönborn if he agrees that it’s “obvious” Pope Francis is not limiting this sacramental “help” to couples living as brother and sister, His Eminence immediately responds, “Yes, certainly!” He then spells it right out: the present Holy Father “does not stop short at the kinds of cases that are specified [by John Paul II]in no. 84 of Familiaris consortio.” (That is, those cases where the couple abstain from sexual intimacy.)
Hopefully Schönborn’s authority will at least settle the debate as to what Pope Francis means and intends on this point. But let’s look again at this key article of Pope St. John Paul II’s 1981 apostolic exhortation on the family. In the troubled wake of AL, most appeals to the authority of FC #84 have cited its exclusion of (sexually active) remarried divorcees from the Eucharist. But still more basic is what this article says about the sacrament of Penance. For if you can’t be absolved, you can’t go to Communion anywhere – not even in a church where this would cause no scandal. And John Paul affirms, “Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance, which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, . . . take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.”
Now, this is where the rubber hits the road, folks. Pope John Paul, in continuity with all his predecessors from time immemorial, has reaffirmed that only those divorced and civilly remarried Catholics who commit to live in complete continence may be given sacramental absolution. But Pope Francis now says that those who make that commitment are not the only such Catholics who can be absolved.
“Only” vs. “Not only”. No ‘hermeneutic of continuity’ can mask that stark contradiction. But that hasn’t stopped some from trying. We have seen two principal attempts to square the circle. Continue Reading