Is the Magisterium Just the Pope’s Party Line?

By John Zmirak Published on December 5, 2017

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.

Muddled Teaching

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:

  1. 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:
  2. Church councils are not infallible, since Trent was wrong. Or:
  3. Adultery is not a serious sin. Or else:
  4. Marriage is indissoluble. Marital relations among the divorced amount to adultery. Which is a serious sin. But if the pope is right, then:
  5. 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.

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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.

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  • Aliquantillus

    In my opinion the Catholic Church doesn’t exist anymore. It is in ever increasing chaos since Vatican II, and the Church has fallen into the hands of modernists. I admit that there are still a few faithful in diverse corners of orthodoxy, but the official institution that once was called the Roman Catholic Church is simply done. We are witnessing its complete downfall and it is a fearful spectacle, predicting the end of the West.

  • James

    Conservative Catholics of 2017 sound exactly like liberal Catholics of 1968.

    Welcome to the cafeteria.

    • Thomas Sharpe

      You’ve totally miss the point, Catholics of 1054, 980, 756,1968 and 2017.. all should sound the same.
      God’s Law cannot change, as God cannot change, Immutable Truth. God is not “surprised” either.
      i.e. Catholic.

  • chrisinva

    Option 6: When it comes to the Ten Commandments, 60 is now a passing grade. 100 is only an “ideal.”

    • jgmusgrove


  • Paul

    In reading this article I LOL at the unity article series.

  • I understand the present dilemma, John, but the RCC claim to authority lost me a long time ago, at Unam Sanctum. God bless you.

  • ArthurMcGowan

    “Celibate” means “unmarried.” Those who do not engage in sexual activity are “continent.”

    • Zmirak

      Thanks, I will correct.

      • ArthurMcGowan

        Thanks for your thanks.

  • ArthurMcGowan

    Familiaris Consortio is an Apostolic Exhortation.

  • The Magisterium is for all time. It cannot be changed. That is why the Catholic Church is the most conservative institution in the world. Pope Francis is just a muddled thinker. I know he wants to soften things for remarried Catholics (and I sympathize) but the Magisterium has defined the teaching. Plus there is no way to undo what Christ said in Matthew 19:9. No way. The rest of Christianity, which at one time all supported it, has turned its back on Christ’s words.

    • Paul

      Matthew 19:9 “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

      I read this and see that if a man divorces his wife due to immorality, then he can remarry without commiting adultery. So based on this verse it seems the council of Trent messed up. Sola Scriptura can make life much easier.

      • That’s why there is an annulment process. It’s not for you to decide when it applies and when it doesn’t. Plus most people don’t divorce for immorality. They divorce because of unhappiness. That’s what happens when you have sola scriptura.

        • Paul

          I’m not aware of any scriptural grounds for divorce for unhappiness, so not sure how you suggest that is a result of sola scriptura. Like you said, Matt 19:9 is right there for everyone to read.

          • What I’m saying is that sola scriptura did not prevent Protestants from divorce for any reason. How does every single Protestant denomination justify divorce today? They ignore Christ. You needed a Magisterium to conserve dogma.

          • Paul

            Yes you’re right, we must ignore Christ to justify divorce for any reason. But I know pastors who refuse to officiate weddings of unbiblical divorcees nor let the facility be used for it. Not everyone ignores the Bible. For one example take a look at cmalliance(DOT)org/about/beliefs/perspectives/divorce

          • Well, that’s promising. Thanks, and have a blessed Christmas.

          • Zmirak

            The traditional reading of that refers to people who weren’t eligible to marry each other (too closely related), so that the marriages wouldn’t have been valid, and in fact amounted to immorality–since they were sinful. That’s the grounds for annulments, not divorce.

          • Paul

            I don’t see anything in Matt 19:9 about incest.

      • ArthurMcGowan

        First of all, only the rankest amateur pseudo-theologian bases his argument on a single verse of Scripture IN ENGLISH.

      • John F. Kennedy

        Don’t like Matthew 19:9? Try Luke 16:18 – “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Seems pretty simple.

  • John F. Kennedy

    John, shouldn’t your statement “Some who read it said that it made room for divorced Catholics to receive Communion while staying sexually active with their new spouses.” actually be “Some who read it said that it made room for divorced Catholics, living in adultery, to receive Communion while staying sexually active (fornication) with their adulterous partners.”

  • Thomas Sharpe

    “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.”
    Ah, yup, especially us simpletons who know better, not based on our vast education of course, but in being simple.

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