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