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The Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, issued by Pope Francis at the close of two recent synods on the family, has stirred up more controversy than any other papal document of recent memory. Commentators—both scholarly and popular—who favor a change in the Church’s view of the sacramental and spiritual status of Catholics living in illicit second marriages have hailed the document. Those seeking to uphold traditional Church discipline concerning the indissolubility of marriage have criticized the exhortation as ambiguous or worse. Beyond the disputes over its substance (what does the document actually mean?) its supporters and detractors argue over its nature (what level of authority does the document command?). Because of the neuralgic issues at the heart of the document, neither controversy is likely to dissipate soon.

The seeming doctrinal difficulties presented by Amoris Laetitia have been explored thoroughly in other articles, some of which have appeared in First Things. Such criticisms of a papal pronouncement inevitably spawn questions about its authoritative character. What sort of a document is this, and how are we to understand its authority? This itself is a contentious question. In a recent interview, Cardinal Christof Schönborn, whom Pope Francis called “the most competent interpreter” of Amoris Laetitia, made the case for the binding character of the document. When asked:

Some have spoken of AL as a minor document, a personal opinion of the Pope (so to speak) without full magisterial value. What value does this Exhortation possess? Is it an act of the magisterium?

The Cardinal responded:

It is obvious that this is an act of the magisterium: it is an Apostolic Exhortation. It is clear that the Pope is exercising here his role of pastor, of master and teacher of the faith, after having benefited from the consultation of the two Synods. I have no doubt that it must be said that this is a pontifical document of great quality, an authentic teaching of sacra doctrina. … There is no lack of passages in the Exhortation that affirm their doctrinal value strongly and decisively. This can be recognized from the tone and the content of what is said, when we relate these to the intention of the text– for example, when the Pope writes: “I urgently ask ...”, “It is no longer possible to say ...”, “I have wanted to present to the entire Church ...”, and so on. AL is an act of the magisterium that makes the teaching of the Church present and relevant today. Just as we read the Council of Nicaea in the light of the Council of Constantinople, and Vatican I in the light of Vatican II, so now we must read the previous statements of the magisterium about the family in the light of the contribution made by AL.

The Cardinal’s statement does not equivocate. It can be translated into four propositions. First, Amoris Laetitia is a binding document of the ordinary magisterium. Second, it is meant to be universal in scope. Third, it bears a doctrinal character. Fourth, it is to be understood as an authentic interpretation of the deposit of the faith. These assertions, if correct, are extremely consequential. Under settled doctrine, Catholics would be required to assent intellectually and submit their minds and wills to the pronouncements in the Exhortation. The Cardinal’s conclusions, however, do not withstand scrutiny in light of principles governing the interpretation of magisterial documents.

One does not need a Ph.D. in theology to discern areas in Amoris Laetitia that are ambiguous and that have already led to multiple interpretations. Paragraph 299, for example, states that the divorced and remarried “need to feel not as excommunicated members of the Church, but instead as living members, able to live and grow in the Church.” Does this statement merely admonish censorious pew-sitters concerning the divorced and remarried, criticizing those who may treat them with judgment or disdain? Or does it suggest that one can be spiritually alive while in a state of continued objective mortal sin? Obviously, the latter interpretation, which has been expressly drawn by many, is more than problematic.

Another example of ambiguity in the document appears in Footnote 329: “In such situations, many people, knowing and accepting the possibility of living as brothers and sisters which the Church offers them, point out that if certain expressions of intimacy are lacking, ‘it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of the children suffers.’” Does the document maintain that the virtue of sexual continence leads to sin and to the endangerment of children, or does it merely underscore the difficulty of living in conformity to the Gospel in difficult situations? The correct interpretation of statements such as these is not clear.

Some positions in Amoris Laetitia that are not ambiguous appear to imply the validity of positions that are contrary to the Church’s perennial teaching. In Paragraph 297, one finds: “No one is condemned forever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel!” Such a statement implies the non-existence of hell and even suggests dissimulation on the part of Christ, who preached about hell almost as much as heaven. Another example of implied error appears under the heading of “Accompanying, Discerning, Integrating Weakness” in paragraphs 296-299, where the document implies that sexual sins can admit a parvity of matter. One cannot overlook in this regard the much discussed Footnote 351, which many—including the Bishops of Argentina—have cited to support the reception of communion by divorced and remarried couples who have not accepted sexual continence.

Finally, some statements at least appear to contradict longstanding Church doctrine, whether formally defined teaching, the constant Tradition of the Church, or Scripture itself. Paragraph 159, for example, rejects the privileged status of perpetual continence. Paragraph 295 seems to doubt the sufficiency of grace to overcome human weakness. And Paragraph 301 suggests that those who act with full knowledge of grave matter are not necessarily in a state of mortal sin.

Given these difficulties, what is to be made of Cardinal Schönborn’s assertion that Amoris Laetitia is a binding document of magisterial authority? His analysis is unpersuasive, for three principal reasons. First, the document lacks language of formal definition. A clear example of language of formal definition appears in Ordinatio Sacradotalis, wherein Pope John Paul II uses words such as “We teach and declare” to define the Church’s teaching on the priesthood. Contrast this with the language of Amoris Laetitia highlighted by Cardinal Schönborn: “I urgently ask”; “It is no longer possible to say”; and “I have wanted to present to the entire Church.” Second, Amoris Laetitia lacks the theological and juridical precision of binding ecclesial documents, instead relying upon metaphors, imagery, and thick description, rather than clear statements. And third, if, in fact, the document does contradict either natural or divine positive law, then it simply cannot bind the faithful to the obsequium religiosum, that is, the assent of mind and will, specified by Church Lumen Gentium 25.

The basic principles of the Church’s doctrine of infallibility provide substantive guidance here. First and foremost, the Petrine ministry participates in the infallibility of the deposit of Revelation. This is crucial to hold in view, because Revelation is ultimately the criterion of truth. The special, divine assistance of infallibility is a privilege attached to the Holy Father as the center of unity of the Church, yet this privilege is always given for the entire Church. Besides the infallibility attached to the Pope’s pronouncements taught with the fullness of his supreme authority (the “extraordinary magisterium”), the “ordinary magisterium” can also be a source of infallible teaching, when it concerns de fide doctrine (concerning faith and morals), when it is marked by unity and unanimity, and when it is proposed to be definitive and absolute teaching. Not every teaching of the ordinary magisterium, however, fulfills these criteria. Some teachings of the ordinary magisterium can be fallible, and do not command interior assent of mind and will, if such teachings are clearly contrary to reason, or to the natural law, or to the divine positive law.

And in all of this one must keep ever in mind that the charism of infallibility is one of assistance and not of inspiration. In other words, the Holy Father cannot create doctrine, but can only explain the deposit of the faith more clearly. This consideration of assistance versus inspiration raises another question, namely, what is to be done when a direct contradiction appears between one pontificate and another, or between pontifical documents? Cardinal Schönborn suggests that in such cases the older pronouncements must yield to the newer. The Cardinal said that we read Nicaea in light of Constantinople I, and Vatican I in light of Vatican II. But the Church’s longstanding practice is precisely the contrary. It emphasizes that which is prior, that is, the Church’s tradition, over and against that which is posterior and, therefore, untested. Thus, the typical hermeneutic of the Church is to read Vatican II in light of Vatican I, Vatican I in light of Trent, Trent in light of what has preceded it and so on. In other words, tradition is always privileged as the remote rule of faith.

Responding faithfully to the trans-temporal magisterium of the Church (and not simply to the magisterium of one’s own times) requires holding in view two other principles of interpretation. First, “the minor must give way to the major.” Second, the “one must give way to the many.” Taking the first principle: If there is question of conflict between two pontifical documents, the privilege must be given to the document that bears higher magisterial authority. For example, an apostolic exhortation of one pontificate does not possess more authority than an encyclical of a prior papacy. Thus, Amoris Laetitia cannot supersede the encyclical Veritatis Splendor. Now, when the documents are of the same authoritative rank, the second principle comes into play: One must privilege the harmony of the many pontificates in union with each other, and their unanimity with the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, over the one seemingly dissonant voice. This concept was famously expressed over 1,500 years ago in the Canon of St. Vincent of Lerins: “Now in the Catholic Church itself we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.” Although Amoris Laetitia and St. John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio are both apostolic exhortations, this principle would justify privileging John Paul’s document, because it seems to be more harmonious with prior magisterial teaching, both extraordinary and ordinary.

Ultimately, however, this level of discernment cannot be a matter of private judgment, but of magisterial decision. In case of real conflict between the teaching of various popes or between the teaching of one pontificate and natural or divine positive law, only the magisterium bears the obligation and authority to clarify any errors publicly.

The interpretive key that may provide the most utility here is that Church doctrine proceeds by way of the principle of organic development. This contrasts with the perspective adopted by Schönborn when he says:

[T]he Holy Father has fundamentally renewed the discourse of the Church—certainly along the lines of Evangelii gaudium, but also of Gaudium et spes, which presents doctrinal principles and reflections on human beings today that are in a continuous evolution. (Emphasis added.)

And again:

There is an evolution, clearly expressed by Pope Francis, in the Church’s perception of the elements that condition and that mitigate, elements that are specific to our own epoch. (Emphasis added.)

And yet again:

To a greater degree than in the past, the objective situation of a person does not tell us everything about that person in relation to God and in relation to the Church. This evolution compels us urgently to rethink what we meant when we spoke of objective situations of sin. And this implicitly entails a homogeneous evolution in the understanding and in the expression of the doctrine. (Emphasis added.)

This insistence on the evolution of doctrine is a problematic view, as was recognized most cogently by Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman in the nineteenth century. Cardinal Newman articulated seven “notes” that constitute true development of doctrine, a development that stands in contradistinction to the evolution of doctrine. Newman’s exposition of this concept took up an entire book. For present purposes, I offer Newman’s own summary. He says that true doctrinal development must be

one in type, one in its system of principles, one in its unitive power towards externals, one in its logical consecutiveness, one in the witness of its early phases to its later, one in the protection which its later extend to its earlier, and one in its vigor with continuance, that is, in its tenacity.

One could sum this up by noting that a true development of doctrine—a development that requires full assent of mind and will from the faithful—gives life and vitality to the soul. By contrast, doctrinal evolution in which a new teaching sublates and eliminates the earlier teaching in a quasi-Hegelian fashion breeds dissolution, confusion, and death.

In his first encyclical, Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis wrote: “The transmission of the faith not only brings light to men and women in every place; it travels through time, passing from one generation to another. Because faith is born of an encounter which takes place in history and lights up our journey through time, it must be passed on in every age.” The Church, and the chair of Peter in particular, has been endowed by her divine founder with the gift of infallibility so that all may know with clarity what they must do to gain eternal life. For this reason, the Church has, in every age, proposed that doctrine which is to be definitively held. Yet, as Lumen Gentium reminds us, “this infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed His Church to be endowed in defining doctrine of faith and morals, extends as far as the deposit of Revelation extends” and no farther. Thus, the Holy Father and the Bishops in union with him cannot accept “a new public revelation … as pertaining to the divine deposit of faith.” True development of doctrine, therefore, always operates within the analogy of faith; it operates, as Cardinal Ratzinger has noted, in a diachronic and not simply a synchronic sense. Furthermore, the Church must continually distinguish between what is necessary for salvation—the “wheat” that truly constitutes the deposit of the faith, and the “chaff” of the age that must be cleared away.

Distinctions are necessary. And for this reason any sort of “creeping infallibility” that would attach the same level of authority to every papal utterance or document must be avoided. To fail to draw appropriate distinctions—whether between binding and non-binding documents of the ordinary magisterium, or between the development and the evolution of doctrine—is to dim the light of the Petrine ministry and impoverish the faithful.

Jessica M. Murdoch is associate professor of fundamental and dogmatic theology at Villanova University.

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