A letter from Pope Francis on Amoris laetitia has been published in which the pope says the 2016 apostolic exhortation is “always in continuity” with the traditional teaching of the Church, and must be read and understood “in its entirety and from the beginning.”
Pope Francis wrote to British author Stephen Walford in August 2017. Mr. Walford released the text ahead of the launch of his forthcoming book on the apostolic exhortation, and confirmed that the pope’s letter would be included as the book’s preface. The letter was published by Aug Crux, a Catholic news site.
Writing to Walford, Pope Francis stressed that “Amoris Laetitia is a unified whole which means that, in order to understand its message, it must be read in its entirety and from the beginning. This is because there is a development both of theological reflection and of the way in which problems are approached.”
CNA spoke to theologians about the pope’s letter, and his instructions for interpreting Amoris laetitia correctly.
Fr. Thomas Petri, a moral theologian and the Vice President and Academic Dean Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., said that the letter could serve as a corrective to previous “misguided” readings of the exhortation, especially chapter 8 on “accompanying, discerning and integrating weakness.”
Dr. Jacob Wood, Assistant Professor of Theology at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, said that the pope’s letter “tells us a lot about how he wants the Church to understand his teaching in Amoris laetitia.”
At the time of its publication in 2016, and for some months afterwards, Amoris laetitia was the focus of strong debate among theologians and even bishops, with some arguing that certain passages could be read as authorizing Catholics living in irregular unions to receive Communion, even without abstaining from sexual relations.
Those arguing for a change in Church teaching or discipline on the issue of remarriage by Catholics following divorce saw some of the language of chapter 8 as an opening to the possibility that couples could receive the sacraments, even while continuing to live together as husband and wife.
Many theologians argued out that such an interpretation would contravent the unbroken tradition of the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, and that the debated sections of the exhortation had to be read and understood within the wider context of the Church’s teachings.
At the time, several bishops’ conferences, including in the pope’s native Argentina, issued pastoral guides for implementing the exhortation’s teaching which appeared to read Amoris as a departure from previous sacramental discipline.
The pope’s letter emphasized Amoris’ continuity with past teaching, saying there was “no rupture,” and that it should not be considered a handbook for handling particular cases. Francis also wrote that attempts to lift particular sections out of their context left them open to misreading.
“It cannot be considered a vademecum [manual] on different issues. If the Exhortation is not read in its entirety and in the order it is written, it will either not be understood or it will be distorted,” the pope wrote.
Fr. Petri told CNA that this was an important point in the pope’s letter.
“I appreciate the Holy Father’s point that the document has to be read as a whole, and particularly his insistence that it be read in order and in its entirety for its meaning to be understood,” he said.
“I think part of the reason Amoris laetitia has been considered ‘controversial’ by some people is precisely because there have been misguided attempts to read chapter 8, or even specific lines of chapter 8, in isolation and outside of the essential context of the preceding chapters. The necessary context of the wider document clearly does situate Amoris within the Church’s traditional teachings.”
The pope said that, in treating “ethical situations,” the exhortation “follows the classical doctrine of St. Thomas Aquinas,” the thirteenth century theologian whose work is commended specifically by the Church for the formation of priests and theologians.
Petri told CNA that the pope’s invocation of Aquinas made sense.
“Regarding the pope’s description of the exhortation as within the classical tradition of Thomistic thought — if the document is read properly and according to the pope’s own instruction then yes it is,” Petri said.
“Chapter 8 itself at one point references the Summa and Aquinas’ observation that the more detailed and complicated a situation is, the less general norms and teaching can seem to be applicable, and this is true.
“Of course, it is important to understand that, for Aquinas and for the Church, this applies to human law and even natural law, to a degree, but certainly not to the words of the Lord in the Gospel — that is a completely different matter.”
The pope’s letter quoted St. Vincent of Lerins, a fifth century monk, on the development of Church teaching, citing him in Latin: “ut annis scilicet consolidetur, dilatetur tempore, sublimetur aetate.”
Dr. Jacob Wood translated this for CNA.
“What St. Vincent says is that doctrine ‘is solidified over the years, extended with time, and refined with age,’ and the pope has actually invoked this quote on a number of different occasions. He laid out for us how he understands it on May 8, 2017, when he referenced these words and said that true doctrinal development ‘is the same truth, but it helps us understand it better.’”
“I think the pope’s invocation of this particular quote, which he has already explained his understanding of, tells us a lot about how he wants the Church to understand his teaching in Amoris laetitia,” Wood told CNA.
Fr. Petri agreed, saying that the exhortation’s controversial passages should be read as “part of a coherent and complimentary whole.” But he echoed Francis’ warning against reading some parts in isolation.
“If you read the whole document, as the pope is inviting people to do, as a call for people to move and live in grace, its meaning is clear. If people choose to read specific lines or footnotes out of context and try to apply Thomistic thought to imply that the instructions of Christ must be somehow mitigated or considered inapplicable, that would be completely alien to St. Thomas.”
Dr. Wood agreed, noting that such an interpretation would have been equally foreign to St. Vincent.
“St. Vincent lived at the beginning of the fifth century, when the Church was going through the major Christological and trinitarian controversies as it sought to articulate true doctrine more clearly and, at the same time, refute heresies. You can imagine how this question of doctrinal development was central to St. Vincent’s time — right between the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon. Each council articulated important doctrines a little better, a little clearer, but always in continuity with what had come before and — of course — in absolute harmony with the divine teachings received from Christ himself.”
In his letter to Walford, Pope Francis said that, while not proposing a handbook for dealing with individual circumstances, it did address “current and concrete problems are dealt with: the family in today’s world, the education of children, marriage preparation, families in difficulty, and so on” but that these were treated with the “magisterial hermeneutic of the Church.”
Fr. Petri said that Amoris laetitia’s message of love and support for couples in difficult situations answered a real pastoral need, one that should not be obscured by attempts to make it say something it does not.
“It seems clear to me,” Petri said, “that, for example, chapter 8 is about helping couples in complicated and painful circumstances to move towards a regular situation, for their own benefit. It is not about trying to regularize the irregular.”