In the past seven months, Amoris Laetitia has become a kind of third rail in the life of the Catholic Church. Amoris stands at a delicate junction—between unchanging hermeneutic and theological principles on the one hand, and sensitive topics such as sex, marriage, and family on the other. And it deals with a kind of entitlement—the mentality that moral prohibitions and sacramental discipline are cruelties out of sync with the Christian Gospel.

Many senior churchmen have tied themselves in knots trying to offer the “right” interpretation of the pope’s exhortation, often working too hard to avoid offending anyone, and in the process walking into serious theological error. The project of interpreting the document has created a forum for internecine disagreements over broad and serious issues.

Many other bishops have been reluctant to address the meaning and implications of Amoris Laetitia, and to make themselves targets in the process. But the problematic passages of Amoris Laetitia will not be rescinded, and the document is not simply going away. Apostolic exhortations, including Amoris, shape the direction of the Church’s pastoral practice. Good pastoral practice leads people into freedom; bad pastoral practice leads faithful souls deeper into the captivity of sin.

The Church needs to find a faithful explanation of what Amoris means, and of what it can’t possibly mean.

This week, Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland, Oregon released “A True and Living Icon,” a pastoral letter on Amoris Laetitia. His letter takes the electricity out of the third rail. Sample doesn’t offer another set of justifications, or an apologia, for the problematic passages of Amoris. Nor does he dismiss them outright. In fact, Sample doesn’t even try to interpret the troubling footnotes and seemingly contradictory claims of Amoris’s eighth chapter. Instead, he outlines the parameters of legitimate Catholic interpretation, and then responds to three “misuses” of Amoris Laetitia.

The letter begins with an excursus on the development of doctrine, an issue at the heart of the Amoris wars. Sample is clear: Doctrine does not change; it does develop; but in moral theology, the objects of goodness cannot change because times have changed. “Authentic development admits of no essential change,” Sample clarifies, “no variation in essential shapes and limits.” Thus, no faithful Catholic reading of Amoris can propose that it contains an “evolution” of doctrine that repudiates the constant teaching of the Church.

Sample then identifies three inferences drawn from Amoris by readings that fall short of being faithfully Catholic:

Misuse One: Conscience Legitimizes Actions Contravening Divine Commandments

Misuse Two: Under Certain Conditions Divine Prohibitions Admit of Exceptions

Misuse Three: Human Frailty Exempts from Divine Command

Sample explains in detail how each of these misuses purportedly arises from Amoris, and why each is insupportable when the document is read in light of Church teaching. Sample holds that we may not use Amoris to say that conscience may disregard divine precept; we may not use Amoris to endorse moral relativism; and we may not use Amoris to claim that our weakness excuses us from our obligations. In short, Sample holds that Amoris cannot be interpreted “to support positions that are not compatible with Church teaching.”

Implicit in Sample’s guidance is the insistence that we must read the present in light of the past, that authentically Catholic teaching cannot contradict its past. Sample’s approach to Amoris may entail the suspension of judgment, moments when we arrive at no conclusions about Pope Francis’s intended meaning. In certain places, Amoris obviously needed more clarity and more precision. In those places, it is better for us to suspend our judgment than to use the Holy Father to reject the authentic magisterium of the Church. In such circumstances, suspending judgment becomes an act of faith.

The task of theologians is to read Amoris, understand it in continuity with the doctrinal teaching of the Church, and make suggestions for its implementation. And the task of bishops, which Sample has laudably taken up, is to guide that process, by drawing from the historical and magisterial teaching of the Church, to set forth the boundaries of orthodoxy.

Pope Francis wrote Amoris Laetitia as “an invitation to Christian families to value the gifts of marriage and the family, and to persevere in a love strengthened by the virtues of generosity, commitment, fidelity and patience.” Misusing the exhortation does little for those in broken families. Exploiting ambiguity will only cause real pain.

Archbishop Sample is not well-known outside of Portland, but he should be. “A True and Living Icon” is a call for for the outreach of mercy, rooted in truth, that brings Christ to marriages and families who need him. It follows in the footsteps of Sample’s earlier work, on diaconate and liturgy. The approach is restrained, thoughtful, and charitable. Those virtues are sorely needed in contemporary ecclesial conversations.

JD Flynn is a canon lawyer in Lincoln, Nebraska.

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