Pope Francis’ “Amoris Laetitia” is Authoritative Doctrine, Writes Theologian


Pope Francis signing his exhortation on family life

Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on the family released in April, is an exercise of the Magisterium, said a new column in the Vatican’s official newspaper. This announcement could be good news for LGBT advocates in the church, many of whom were disappointed by the document’s treatment of gender and sexual orientation issues.

Theologian Fr. Salvador Pie-Ninot wrote a column in L’Osservatore Romano suggesting that, while Pope Francis failed to identify the text as an exercise of his teaching authority, it should be nonetheless read as such.

Pie-Ninot’s analysis relied upon a 1990 Instruction On the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s authority.  Part of this document outlined how the Magisterium understood levels of church teaching. The National Catholic Reporter explained that, according to the Instruction, the three highest levels of church teaching are dogma, definitive doctrine, and authoritative doctrine.  The newspaper further reported:

“Amoris Laetitia falls into the third category, Pie-Ninot said, adding the 1990 instruction’s statement that examples of ordinary magisterium can occur when the pope intervenes ‘in questions under discussion which involve, in addition to solid principles, certain contingent and conjectural elements.’

“The instruction notes that ‘it often only becomes possible with the passage of time to distinguish between what is necessary and what is contingent,’ although, as the Spanish priest said, the instruction insists that even then one must assume that ‘divine assistance’ was given to the pope.”

The teaching authority of Pope Francis’ exhortation has been questioned by some Catholics, including prominent church leaders like Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, who currently heads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Cardinal Raymond Burke, who previously said certain parts of the exhortation were merely the pope’s opinions.

Pie-Ninot’s response is not the first, and likely not the last, defense of the exhortation. Cardinal Christoph Schönborn said Amoris Laetitia had evolved Catholic doctrine on family life. Moreover, in an essay published in L’Osservatore Romano earlier this summer, historian Rocco Buttiglione said the exhortation is consistent with tradition.

What remains to be seen is whether the debate around the exhortation is a sign of the church’s improving health or of a growing division.

Pie-Ninot’s column contributes importantly to the conversation by making a claim for what authority should be afforded to the exhortation. While his thoughts are those of a theologian, not a church official, their publication in the Vatican’s newspaper lends them additional weight. And if, indeed, Amoris Laetitia is authoritative doctrine, there are important implications.

First, authoritative doctrine is not considered infallible, nor is it considered divinely revealed. It is doctrine stated, according to the Instruction, “to aid a better understanding of Revelation and make explicit its contents, or to recall how some teaching is in conformity with the truths of faith, or finally to guard against ideas that are incompatible with these truths.” The possibility of error of an authoritative doctrine is admitted, even if the Magisterium has only done so implicitly thus far.

Second, the possibility of error derives from the reliance on contingent factors when articulating a doctrine. These contingent factors are the parts of human knowledge–science or social sciences, for instance–which change over time. Though presumed to be true, authoritative doctrine can and has been reformed or reversed when human knowledge shifts and thus requires a shift in church teaching. This concept holds implications for LGBT issues in the church. Like much of church teaching, Amoris Laetitia is rooted in outdated science in regard to gender and same-sex relationships. Recognizing contemporary understandings of these topics will change the contingent factors upon which Pope Francis has made his normative claims in the exhortation, thus requiring the doctrines to change accordingly.

Third, as with all church teaching, these differentiations are important for what response Catholics owe a particular teaching or set of teachings. As authoritative doctrine, “religious submission of will and intellect” is due for Amoris Laetitia. But submission here is better understood not as blind obedience, but as intentionally tending to the matter at hand, and making a good faith effort to understand and integrate the teaching into one’s life. And the response due can be fulfilled, if one truly studies and prays over the matter in good faith, without offering assent towards the teaching. Therefore, the document has weight for Catholics, but there is room for Catholics to disagree faithfully with what Pope Francis has laid out.

In my view, being explicit about just what weight this exercise of Pope Francis’ teaching authority possess is good news for LGBT advocates in the church. It reclaims the hierarchy of truths which Vatican II envisioned, helping Catholics recall that there are indeed certain teachings which take priority over others. LGBT advocates have long pointed out the hierarchy’s submission of more important teachings, like the dignity of the person and human rights, under less important teachings, like prohibitions on genital activity.

The claim of authoritative doctrine for Amoris Laetitia is bad news, too, for those like Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia who have sought to use the exhortation as a further hammer against LGBT Catholics and others marginalized by the church. Voices like Chaput have treated church teaching as if every utterance, with which they agree, is of equal weight and imposes an equal burden on Catholics. This approach is simply incorrect, and it would refreshing to jettison such thinking.

While Amoris Laetitia was disappointing to LGBT advocates (despite some of the exhortation’s good general developments), given that it failed to address seriously issues of gender and sexual identity, identifying the document as authoritative doctrine enables space for our questions to be respectfully submitted and our experiences to challenge the contingent factors upon which Pope Francis has made his teachings.

So what do you think? Is Amoris Laetitia rightly considered authoritative doctrine, like Pie-Ninot suggested? If so, what could be the implications for the church? We invite you to leave your responses in the ‘Comments’ section below.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry



12 replies
  1. Sharon Willey
    Sharon Willey says:

    It has been said that in the Catholic Church, the wheels of change turn slowly. But there are signs of that change coming. Do not lose heart.

  2. Tom Bower
    Tom Bower says:

    What do I think of amoris laetitia? It is mean writing that could have been ghost written by B16 himself and without an ounce of love or Christian charity. Worrying about what level of authority it holds is worrying about what was served at dinner before the Titanic hit the iceberg. Being given a snake when we asked for a fish was the example Christ gave.

  3. Wilhelm Wonka
    Wilhelm Wonka says:

    How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? A pejoratively rhetorical question asked, in medieval Europe, to debunk and dismiss medieval scolasticism and angelology. Today its target is pointless debate of matters which, well, really don’t matter all that much in the general scheme of things.

    I doubt very much whether the majority of LGBT people (including Catholics) will fret over whether ‘Amoris Laetitia’ (and the now public wrangling over its level of authority by Catholic churchmen and theologians) should have the last word on whether their loving, committed and monogamous relationships are morally good.

    Mature LGBT people in such relationships know that the love which binds couples together in reciprocal self-sacrifice and care is its own moral validation. The fact that others either cannot or will not accept this is, frankly, neither here nor there.

  4. Paula Mattras
    Paula Mattras says:

    “The Joy of Love” – is it to be confined to heterosexuals only and denied to GLBT folks? Who is the “dispenser” of this gift here on earth? No matter if the document is classified as Authoritative Doctrine or under any other label, love cannot be confined – it is a gift given to each individual from God, by God, the source of all love.

  5. Larry
    Larry says:

    This is all just an inside baseball discussion that has no real meaning for those of us out here in the real world especially the gay real world. This allows the hierarchy and the theologians to waste their time and energy discussing the muddled language fine points of this document and comparing it to 15th century texts while the modern world moves by faster and faster. To those who say this is a move forward and hold on, wake up to the fact that the RC is still operating in the 15th century playing ecclesiastical games. I will be dead as will generations after me before the Vatican gets real.

    • Kathleen
      Kathleen says:

      All this clerical holiness code-building makes me sick. I’m with you Larry, we are all dead and gone long before the Catholic Church catches up to what we already know about sexual orientations and relationships. I am thankful we have new ways ministries blog so at least we know that we are not alone on our faith journeys to change hearts and minds about lgbt people.

  6. Pat
    Pat says:

    I am a new testament and gospel person and I don’t know of Jesus’ talking about sexuality in His teachings. But times, culture and knowledge were different then. By today’s statistics two of His 12 apostles would have been gay. No doubt the statistics were different!

    But if I, a cradle Catholic, 81 years old, married 60 years with 6 children, 12 grandchildren and 3 great grandchildren, consider my own self when I was a teenager. If I learned I had a unique sexual orientation (I am not comfortable with “gay”, “homosexual”, “different”, etc) I would have discerned several options; keep it secret and become a priest, stay single, reject it and get married, or leave the Church as one of my son’s did. Can you imagine how many people chose one of the options of secrecy? What a pity! But that was the tradition pre-Vatican II.

    As we fast forward, even at midlife, 1970, I still had my head in the sand, not by intention, but by blind obedience. So I understand the feelings of many intolerant Catholics, especially the clergy. But then when a son and close relatives and friends, who were faithful practicing Catholics, disclosed their unique sexuality, I was forced to face reality and the prevailing culture and knowledge. The Church was forced to change and show some mercy with Vatican II, But it have never gotten Sex out of its thinking. And really what does the hierarchy know about sex? They’re supposed to be celibate! And celibacy should be an offering of Love to God, not a sacrificial denial for those faithful and obedient Catholics who chose the clergy or to remain single

    So here I am an 81 year old. I am blessed to be in good shape. But sex! That is long gone! I am scientific enough to know that the sex drive can persist differently among various individuals.

    Why should the Church stay out of the sex arena? Because it is a miniscule part(time wise) of the life of two people committed to each other. If I were confronted with the discernment I mentioned above, and made a choice not to marry and remain single, I would now be an 81 year old living alone. Quite likely I would not be alive now because I credit my longevity to a large extent to my wife, a blessed marriage and family, and certainly my faith.

    Consider how many Catholic men and women chose that scenario I described and are now living alone, no family. WHAT A PITY! Jesus didn’t mean it to be like that! I believe He would have shown Love and Mercy, in the face of and contrary to any rules, dogmas and doctrines. He sent His disciples out to spread the Good News, not alone, but in pairs! Our goal is to reach Heaven and He didn’t intend for us to reach it alone.

    It seems the Church, even Pope Francis, with whom I am ecstatic, and certainly the tolerant Bishops write the same old, tired, worn out phrases because they don’t want to think or want to understand that these are the very same words and phrases that cause a large part of the marginalization that they speak of wanting to do away with. The continued separation of the religious as sinless and the others as sinful makes it difficult for any reconciliation. What is called for is more acceptance of our LGBT brother and sisters rather than tolerance, more about what we have in common than what are our differences, showing that we are all in this together rather than the Church as only good and the others as only bad. Both sides of this discussion (it is sad that there even has to be “sides”) fall short of the glory of God,

    I hope and pray that my generation, pre-Vatican II, especially those who have been obedient will speak out that a “Loving God” never intended His Church to embrace rules, dogmas and doctrines of any type to be exclusive of any human being He created in His image and likeness. What would His Immaculate Mother, our Mother, say? Jesus didn’t exclude anyone when He gave us His Mother before dying on the cross.
    My generation, lay persons and clergy, need to speak out and call for Love rather than condemnation and tolerance.

    Let’s do it while I am still alive!

    • Kathleen
      Kathleen says:

      Ok Pat, so you better stick around for a long while because we all have a lot of hearts to change for the Holy Spirit to change the Church! I get the feeling that nobody can resist your loving wisdom. Thank you for sharing with us.

    • Marsha West
      Marsha West says:

      Love it, Pat!
      (and I’m a 78 year old widow, mom, grandma, great-grandma still learning about how complicated and wonderful human beings are – and how foolish it is to think we know it all.)


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Rome, the Vatican’s official newspaper L’Osservatore Romano has published essays defending Amoris Laetitia against conservative critics in the church. And Farrell has been very […]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *