Lawler vs. Pope Francis #4: Communion / Buenos Aires Letter

Lawler vs. Pope Francis #4: Communion / Buenos Aires Letter January 3, 2018

Buenos Aires

This is one of a series of my reviews of the book by prominent Catholic journalist, editor, and author Philip Lawler, entitled Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis is Misleading His Flock (due to be released on 26 February 2018). Phil was kind enough to send me a review copy, and he and others have encouraged me to read the book and review it. Their wish is granted!

For background, see my paper, On Rebuking Popes & Catholic Obedience to Popes, and three posts concerning a few statements from the book that I found very troubling and questionable, including dialogues with both Karl Keating (who positively reviewed it) and briefly with author Phil himself (one two / three).

Previous Installments:

#1 Critique of Introduction

#2 Homosexuality & “Judging”

#3: The Pope Annihilated Hell?


Phil Lawler writes in Chapter Six, p. 126 in the manuscript he sent me:

Despite his studied ambiguity, Francis has unquestionably opened a door for the divorced and remarried to receive Communion. As a practical matter, virtually every divorced and remarried Catholic can argue that his case falls into that special category— whatever it is—of those allowed to receive the Eucharist. If his pastor disagrees, he will probably move on to another parish, until he finds a pastor who accepts his argument.

Was that the pope’s intent: to leave every parish priest free to make his own interpretations of Church teaching? Having spoken frequently about decentralization of Church authority, did the pope really mean to go that far? He has playfully encouraged young Catholics to “make a mess”; was he trying to set an example by deconstructing the teaching office?

The Code of Canon Law puts priests under a solemn obligation to avoid scandal by withholding the Eucharist from those who persist in manifest grave sin (canon 915). An adulterous relationship is a manifest grave sin. The Argentine bishops appear to say—with papal approval—that in some circumstances priests should administer Communion to people who are living in objectively adulterous relationships. Has canon 915 been amended or abrogated, then? The pope is the supreme legislator of the Church, with the unquestioned power to modify canon law. But he has not done so. In fact, he has deliberately avoided the exercise of his authority, giving the impression that formal Church teachings and laws do not really matter and can safely be ignored.

It may surprise some (including Phil!) that I actually have some significant agreements with him here. It wouldn’t surprise anyone who closely follows my writings, because I have made my views quite clear, in repeated papers and statements on Facebook. I would agree this far:

1) It would be good for the pope to further clarify and make more definite, through the exercise of his papal authority the issues that are troubling and confusing to many Catholics.

2) The present confusion makes possible (and arguably encourages) “loopholes” that can and likely already have been exploited for ill by dissidents and so-called “progressives” or theological liberals in the Church.

I’ve written about this: most notably in a National Catholic Register article of 9-30-17, entitled “I Hope the Pope Will Provide Some Much-Needed Clarity”. As to #1 above, I stated:

It’s always better to clarify than not to, in instances of confusion (a well-known phenomenon that I’ve noted as an author and apologist). Probably good would result from answering, and probably only bad from not answering.

We need answers for the sake of unity. What good comes out of what we have now in the Church? If the pope answered, I think it would do a great deal of good. This is a big reason why we have the pope in the Church: to give the “final say” at times, when it is sorely needed. “The buck stops here” . . .

The more uncertainty we have, the more we will have undue and unedifying speculation, detraction, gossip, calumny, and slander taking place in our beloved social media. And that is not good at all. Confusion within the Church doesn’t help in the slightest, our witness to the world. . . .

I think that the pope’s utter refusal to answer is troublesome. Many Catholics (including many bishops and priests) are clearly confused and virtually begging for guidance. Why would the shepherd of the sheep resolutely refuse to try to help them: even on a private basis, if he prefers that? It’s baffling to me.

Regarding #2 above, I opined:

Theological liberals / dissidents / modernists / heterodox [choose your term] are already exploiting confusion and (rightly or wrongly) perceived “loopholes” as a license to depart from true Catholic practice, just as they did with Vatican II and the reform of the Mass.

I expanded upon this latter motif in a paper of mine from December 2016:

Theological liberals habitually distort [Catholic teaching] under the pretext and pretense that any loophole becomes (after being exploited and co-opted) a giant gaping hole big enough for a truck to drive through. It becomes a (by now familiar) exercise in the “slippery slope.” If rare exceptions exist [in reception of Holy Communion], and if this is in line with previous Catholic moral tradition and canon law, then it needs to be made crystal clear which scenarios constitute such exceptions and which do not. Otherwise, there is confusion and exploitation from those who are seeking to change unchanging Catholic moral tradition.

That’s why the pope (or at least a high-ranking Cardinal in effect speaking “for” him) needs to clarify, and the sooner the better. The longer the current confusion continues on, the worse it gets.

I think Phil Lawler would agree with all or virtually all of those comments of mine. I disagree with him (and alas, millions of other Francis critics) in these two respects:

1) That Pope Francis has proven he favors admitting adulterers in an ostensible but invalid second “marriage” to Holy Communion.

2) That his letter endorsing the Buenos Aires implementation of Amoris Laetitia is unquestionably heterodox and anti-traditional (i.e., radical).

To explain these two things in a way infinitely better than I could, I turn to my good friend, theologian Dr. Robert Fastiggi. Anyone who is interested in the immediate questions at hand and is willing to consider a “positive / hopeful” interpretation wherein the pope is orthodox and within Catholic tradition, absolutely must read his article, “Pastoral Charity is the Key to Pope Francis’s Endorsement of the Buenos Aires Bishops’ Document” (Vatican Insider / La Stampa, 12-8-17). For anyone who wants clarity, here it is. It’s not from the pope himself, but it is closely and comprehensively argued (by an actual orthodox systematic theologian who specializes in magisterial authority) based on the pope’s statements and actions. Here is the heart of his reasoning:

It was recently made known that Pope Francis’s September 5, 2016, letter praising the Guidelines for the Application of Chapter VIII of Amoris laetitia—issued by the Argentine bishops of the Buenos Aires Region—has now been published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis (Acta or AAS for short), the “Acts of the Apostolic See.” Since 1909 the Acta have served as the official instrument for the publication of documents and decisions of the Holy Father and the Roman Curia. In addition to Francis’s letter, the AAS include the actual Guidelines of the Argentine bishops along with a rescript by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, stating that the Supreme Pontiff decrees both his letter and the Guidelines as “authentic magisterium.” With this decree, Francis is effectively saying that he considers this local episcopal interpretation of chapter eight of Amoris laetitia to be a worthy example to the global Church. . . .

The headline on LifeSiteNews was “Confusion explodes as Pope Francis throws magisterial weight behind communion for adulterers.” Most Rev. René Henry Gracida, the retired bishop of Corpus Christi, Texas, wrote on his blogsite: “Francis’ heterodoxy is now official.” . . .

In contrast to the papal critics is the view of Cardinal Gerhard Müller who, in his October 9, 2017, National Catholic Register interview with Edward Pentin, said that “if you look at what the Argentine bishops wrote in their directive, you can interpret this in an orthodox way.” Cardinal Müller is absolutely correct. There is nothing in the Guidelines of the Argentine bishops that violates Catholic faith and morals.  . . .

[B]oth the papal letter and the Guidelines themselves embody a magisterium that is primarily pastoral in nature. As with Amoris laetitia itself, there are no new teachings on Catholic faith and morals that are not in harmony with prior Catholic doctrine. In his National Catholic Register interview with Edward Pentin, Cardinal Müller correctly notes that Amoris laetitia “is in the line of holy Scripture, apostolic Tradition and the definite decisions of the papal and episcopal magisterium, which is continuous up to now. Nowhere in Amoris laetitia is it demanded by the faithful to believe anything that is against the dogma because the indissolubility of marriage is very clear.” It is also important to recognize that neither Amoris laetitia nor the Buenos Aires Guidelines authorize any changes to Catholic canon law as the canonist Dr. Edward N. Peters has made clear. Therefore, the canonical rules for the worthy reception of Holy Communion articulated in canons 915 and 916 of the 1983 Code remain fully in force. . . .

[I]t’s significant that, whereas Pope Francis has chosen to endorse and include the Buenos Aires bishops’ Guidelines in the AAS, he has not chosen to do so with other bishops’ instructions concerning Amoris laetitia. This shows that he favors these Guidelines over the more permissive ones offered by the bishops of Malta and Germany.  . . .

It’s very clear that Pope Francis wishes his letter to be an expression of his authentic magisterium because it underscores the need for pastoral charity and the hard work of welcome, accompaniment, discernment, and integration on the part of priests reaching out to those who have strayed. He wants to make sure that these points have magisterial authority. . . .

It should further be noted that the Guidelines of the Argentine bishops warn about “unrestricted access to the sacraments as if it is justified in every situation.” They are aware that access to the sacraments in some cases would be “particularly scandalous.” What they propose, with the Holy Father’s encouragement, is a process of discernment on a case-by-case basis that sometimes involves denying access to the sacraments and sometimes involves possible access. If access to the sacraments is given to those who are divorced and remarried, it must always take place in a private or reserved manner in order to avoid scandal. What can never be lacking in this process of discernment is pastoral charity. This charity, however, must never involve creating confusions “about the teaching of the Church on indissoluble marriage.” This indicates that any possible access to the sacraments for the divorced and civilly remarried must be in accord the moral and sacramental teachings of the Church. This would be the “orthodox way” of understanding the Guidelines indicated by Cardinal Müller.

Understood in this orthodox way, the Guidelines of the Argentine bishops and Amoris laetitia fully conform to the teachings of St. John Paul II (Familiaris consortio, 84), Benedict XVI (Sacramentum caritatis, 29), and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1650. These documents, however, assume that the civilly remarried Catholics are aware they are committing adultery and are culpable for their violation of marital indissolubility. They do not deal with the complex and exceptional cases in which—as Cardinal Müller has noted—there may be a tension between the public status of the second bond and the objective status of the bond before God.

See also Dr. Fastiggi’s article in the same magazine (11-28-17): “Recent Comments of Pope Francis Should Help to Quiet Papal Critics”.

Lawler, in effect, breezily blew off all of this sort of relevant, very helpful treatment of the subject (not to say that he read Fastiggi’s piece), in an article dated 12-15-17:

I did not—and still do not—see this story as particularly important. . . .

The Roman Pontiff can speak with authority on questions of faith and morals, but he cannot overrule the laws of logic. In his letter to the Argentine bishops, applauding their understanding of his apostolic exhortation Pope Francis declared: “There are no other interpretations.” But there are other interpretations. Some bishops say that Amoris Laetitia upholds the traditional teaching of the Church; others say that the document changes those teachings. These interpretations are incompatible. The Argentine bishops’ document, like the Pope’s apostolic exhortation, leaves crucial questions unanswered. Until those questions are answered clearly, nothing much is accomplished by the claim that the reigning confusion has “magisterial authority.”

Make your choice: you can dismiss what this meant, like Lawler did, or you can learn many helpful and practical things, that go a long way to help resolve this mess, by reading and understanding [actual theologian] Dr. Fastiggi’s analysis (which is much more in-depth than what I cited above). What I find most curious and ironic in this “surfacey” article from Lawler, is that he and many others have called over and over for the pope to clarify; to make things clearer and more definite. So Pope Francis does exactly that, and states, “There are no other interpretations.” That is, he meant, “there should not be any other interpretations.” Isn’t that what his critics want? I do, too!

And so he does it here, and Lawler comes back with, “But there are other interpretations.” Exactly! Yes, in fact, unfortunately there are other [liberal, heterodox] interpretations (when there shouldn’t be). The pope wasn’t speaking sociologically (what is), but theologically (what should be). Lawler mixes the two things. Pope Francis made his opinion magisterial and endorsed with authority one of the interpretations that is consistent with existing moral teaching, and Lawler saw that as irrelevant and not “particularly important.” Go figure . . . You can never please some people, if they are determined to be in opposition. Even if you give them exactly what they want, they dismiss it, thumb their nose, and wave it off as of no import.

But wait! On pp. 142-143 of my PDF manuscript copy of his book, Lawler wrote:

Francis endorsed the Argentine bishops’ interpretation in a private letter and Schönborn’s interpretation in an interview with the press. Obviously neither was a formal statement of the Magisterium. . . .

By now it should be clear that in Amoris Laetitia, Francis carefully avoids making the sort of authoritative statement that  would command the assent of the faithful. Catholics cannot be expected—much less commanded—to accept a new “teaching” that the pope has chosen, for his own reasons, not to make.

Well lo and behold, the pope now has included the Argentine bishops’ guidelines and his letter of approval in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, which states that he decrees both his letter and the Guidelines as “authentic magisterium.” He just did what Lawler claimed in his book that he “carefully avoids” and has “chosen . . . not to make.” And how did Lawler respond to that (in his later article)? He did with a “ho hum” and yawning judgments that this development was not “particularly important”: not even enough to bother (another long yawn + ZZZzzzzz) writing about in his regular column at Catholic Culture.

You can’t make these things up . . . Arguably, then, Lawler in this respect exhibits a “head in the sand” mentality that we Francis defenders are constantly accused of possessing (newly vocal papal critic Karl Keating recently used the term, “ostrichism”).


Photo credit: Buenos Aires, Argentina. Photograph by Maximiliano Buono (3-5-17) [Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0 license]


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