Is the Magisterium Just the Pope’s Party Line?
In recent days Pope Francis did something momentous. In fact, in a curious way, he’s teaching faithful Catholics to feel a new sympathy with orthodox Protestants. Just as they must read the statements of their church leaders and compare them with ancient traditions to see if they are reliable, Catholics must do the same. God can bring good out of evil. Let’s hope that happens this time.
The Trouble Starts
In 2015, Francis issued a document, Amoris Laetitiae, which deeply troubled leading Catholics. That included four cardinals, who asked him to fix the confusion it sowed. He refused. Hundreds of laymen issued an equally public call for the pope to retract or at least clarify his teaching. No dice. In fact, Francis doubled down, as I’ll explain below.
Let me lay out the stakes as simply as possible. Even if non-Catholic readers don’t agree with what the Catholic church always taught on this, they can at least see how it hangs together. And what is now at stake:
- The Roman Catholic church has always believed that valid Christian marriages are indissoluble. And:
- That doctrine was taught infallibly at the Council of Trent. Hence:
- Subsequent weddings of legally divorced Catholics aren’t valid. So:
- Their marital relations amount to adultery. In light of that:
- People who commit serious sins cannot receive Holy Communion without confessing those sins, and promising not to repeat them. Therefore:
- Divorced Catholics who “remarry” outside the church must try to be celibate, and avoid Communion when they fail.
Pope John Paul II made all of this crystal clear in Familiaris Consortio. The Church has literally bet its authority on the teaching St. John Paul II affirmed. If it officially reverses course on this issue, there is no reason in principle why it couldn’t “flip” on any other subject from homosexuality to the Trinity. Of course, many of Pope Francis’ loudest supporters, such as his advisor Fr. James Martin, SJ, seem eager for a long list of flip-flops. Then the Catholic Church would be, in effect, Mainline liberal Protestant.
But Pope Francis’ document Amoris Laetitia muddied the waters on all of this in a sly, ambiguous footnote. Some who read it said that it made room for divorced Catholics to receive Communion while staying sexually active with their new spouses. Others denied that, perhaps unwilling to believe that a pope would say such a thing — in defiance of clear, infallible Church teaching to the contrary.
And indeed it’s shocking. The laws of logic force us to certain conclusions. Such a papal statement would imply at least one of following:
- The Church and the Council of Trent were wrong for many centuries in the reading of Jesus’ words. Marriage is not indissoluble. If so, then:
- Church councils are not infallible, since Trent was wrong. Or:
- Adultery is not a serious sin. Or else:
- Marriage is indissoluble. Marital relations among the divorced amount to adultery. Which is a serious sin. But if the pope is right, then:
- The Church was wrong to require Confession and the effort to avoid sin as the “price” of receiving Holy Communion. It has been wrong for 2,000 years.
I challenge the ingenious reader to offer an option 6.
What Else Has the Church Been Wrong About?
If any of these statements is true, the question immediately arises: What else has the Church been wrong about? What other “sins” really aren’t sins? As I predicted right after Amoris Laetitia appeared, liberal Catholics are already trying to use it to accommodate same-sex couples. After all, what are they but people who love each other, joined in non-church weddings? The bishop of San Diego, Robert McElroy, has been teaching just that in public. So far, no papal correction.
For Pope Francis, Magisterium seems to mean what popes and the bishops are saying at the moment. It’s logically distinct from the “Deposit of Faith,” which is the sacred doctrine the Magisterium is meant to protect.
Since the bombshell document appeared, Catholics have feuded over what it really means. Those deeply loyal to the papacy have insisted the pope couldn’t possibly mean what the liberals say. Because, as they realized, that reading of the document implied one of the options above. None of those statements is compatible with Catholicism — except in the purely tribal, Irish-or-Italian pro-choice Democrat sense of the word.
Doubling Down on the Party Line
Now Pope Francis has declared that the liberal interpretation of Amoris Laetitiae is the correct one. He took a letter he’d written to Argentine bishops affirming that liberal reading, and said that it is an official act of the “Magisterium.” That is, the Church’s teaching authority. So that’s infallible, right?
Wrong. For Pope Francis, Magisterium seems to mean what popes and the bishops are saying at the moment. The Vatican Party Line, if you will. It’s logically distinct from the “Deposit of Faith,” which is the sacred doctrine the Magisterium is meant to protect. Now for many centuries, all popes and most bishops hewed carefully to apostolic teachings. So Catholics have felt safe using those two terms interchangeably. (I have in several articles for The Stream.)
We now face the same disturbing situation that Catholics did under Pope John XXII (1316-1334). That pope came up with his own private theory about what happens when we die. Instead of seeing Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory, he said, our souls go to sleep. They only awake at the Last Judgment.
Pope John went around preaching that, to the horror of his cardinals. They locked him up. When he died, the next pope issued an infallible teaching correcting him. However, while Pope John XXII was walking around teaching that theory, it was part of the Magisterium. But it wasn’t part of the Deposit of Faith. Catholics knew that by comparing what the pope was saying with what the Church had always taught, and concluding that the pope was wrong. Sobering as it is for a Catholic to conclude that, to do anything else would just be to prostitute his God-given reason.
The Pope Is Wrong
Like Pope John XXII’s sermons, Pope Francis’ decision is not protected from doctrinal error. He didn’t issue an ex cathedra statement, the kind that Catholics think God warranties. The papal claim to infallibility, only finally made official in 1870, is extremely specific: On a few, vanishingly rare occasions, when the pope specifically uses a particular formula, and speaks on faith and morals, we believe that a divine veto kicks in. If a pope tried to teach something false on those occasions, and only on those occasions, God would prevent him. Think “heart attack” or “meteorite.”
Such statements have been issued at least twice in history, maybe as many as eight times.
But the pope is not protected from error in issuing encyclicals, appointing bishops, reforming the liturgy, or speaking about politics.
Alas, whenever he departs from settled Church teaching, we should think of him less as pope, and more as a retired Argentine high school chemistry teacher.