Can Catholics dissent from Pope Francis’ teaching on the family? Wrong question.

Pope Francis speaks during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican March 15. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) Pope Francis speaks during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican March 15. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) 

March 19 marks the one-year anniversary of the publication of “Amoris Laetitia,” the apostolic exhortation promulgated by Pope Francis after the close of the latest session of the Synod of Bishops. For some, this anniversary is celebratory, a reminder of the synod’s prayerful study of the mission and vocation of the family. For others, it calls attention to what they see as the document’s dangerous ambiguities, particularly as they pertain to the pastoral care of Catholics who are divorced and civilly remarried.

For all Catholics, however, the anniversary and, specifically, the disparate reactions “Amoris Laetitia” continues to produce within the church—including among those with responsibility for the church’s governance—pose an important question: How free are Catholics to disagree with a teaching of the church? Some go further and use a more technical, and at that, a more provocative term: Is dissent permitted in the church?

How free are Catholics to disagree with a teaching of the church?

The question is an understandable one, particularly in a culture where dissent, or something like it, is as easy as giving one’s Uber driver a single star.

Though understandable, the question is minimally fruitful, a point that the theologian Nicholas Lash emphasized in America in 2010. Professor Lash made a distinction between two ways the word “instruct” can be used: instruction as teaching (“She is under an expert’s instruction”) and as commanding (“I instructed him to stop”). The first has understanding as its goal (“Ahh, I see!”); the second, obedience (“O.K., I am stopping”).

“Dissent,” Professor Lash writes, “is disobedience.” Consequently, when the language of dissent gets applied to church teaching, the conversation moves squarely into the category of “instruction as commanding.” And to understand the role of the magisterium, that is, the church’s bishops under the headship of the pope, as one of commanding is to misunderstand completely the tasks of the magisterium as described by Vatican II: “Teaching only what has been handed on [in Scripture and Tradition], listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully” (“Dei Verbum,” No. 10).

What is more, “instruction as commanding” is clearly contrary to the will of Pope Francis in “Amoris Laetitia,” where he advises against “a rushed reading of the text,” claiming instead, “The greatest benefit…will come if each part is read patiently and carefully” (No. 7). One issuing a command does not discourage rushed listening and encourage patient consideration. One who teaches does.

So if the question of the permissibility of dissent is not the right question, then what is? How about this: What invitations does a teaching of the magisterium extend to believers?

I see three primary invitations.

First, a teaching of the magisterium asks believers to remember that the intellectual dimension of ecclesial life is just one of its dimensions. In other words, one cannot isolate a teaching of the magisterium to such a degree that all the other components of the life of the church—prayer, worship, community, works of mercy, reading the signs of the times, etc.—are forgotten. Indeed, the more persuasively the magisterium situates a church teaching in this broader context, the more authentically will its action be “instruction as teaching.”

Second, a teaching of the magisterium asks believers to take all available means to understand the form and the content of the given teaching. The “form” of a church teaching is how the magisterium presents it: A dogmatic constitution at an ecumenical council is a more solemn form of teaching than an apostolic exhortation of a pope, which itself is more solemn than a pastoral letter of a diocesan bishop.

The “content” of a church teaching is what the magisterium proposes. To hone what they teach, bishops can enlist the help of theologians, with whom they have “a reciprocal relationship,” according to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, during a teaching’s development and after its promulgation, asking theologians to “striv[e] to clarify the teaching of Revelation with regard to reason and [to] giv[e] it finally an organic and systematic form” (“Donum Veritatis,” No. 21).

Third, a teaching of the magisterium, especially when it prompts questions and confusion among people, asks believers, to use the image of the theologian Richard R. Gaillardetz, to wrestle with the tradition and not to give up on it. This invitation extends to all believers, those who are members of the magisterium and those who are not.

It is incumbent upon the magisterium to be serious about “instruction as teaching,” which should compel them to do what all good teachers do when what they teach is not understood: try again, use a different approach, respond to questions.And it falls to the rest of us to keep wrestling with what we find difficult, or, put in terms the International Theological Commission uses, to keep trying to recognize in a teaching of the magisterium “the voice of Christ, the Good Shepherd.”

Michael Barberi
1 week 3 days ago

A good article. I would like to expand on its theme and offer some additional thoughts for reflection.

In my opinion, It is important to educate oneself thoroughly about a particular teaching, especially if at first we might respectfully disagree with it. By this I mean that one should search, understand and learn the teaching and its underlying principles and philosophy. This applies whether one agrees or disagrees with it and this means seeking competent spiritual and moral advice. I have found my parish priest can be helpful as well as seeking the advice of two prominent moral theologians. I have benefited immensely by seeking the advice of an moral theologian in support of a teaching and one who respectfully disagrees with it.

I always suggest that preference should be given to all teachings of the magisterium. By this I mean that even after much education, if one's conclusions are in tension with a teaching, such conclusions should be temporary. While our temporary conclusions may last a long time or a lifetime, we must always be open to further education and enlightenment.

As for asking questions, one should ask questions until all questions are adequately answered. One must not give up seeking the truth and this means much prayer, spiritual and moral guidance, and a sincere belief that one understands, as best they can, the voice of Holy Spirit, the Gospel of Christ and the commandment to love God and neighbor. This is particularly important if any voluntary human action is said to be intrinsically evil by the magisterium (e.g., contraception).

When in doubt, some will conclude that it is best to follow every teaching of the magisterium, while others may respectfully disagree for good reasons. This does not mean Catholics can 'pick and choose' the teachings that suite their circumstances as I hope my thoughts for reflection make clear. Having said that there is room for disagreement as we are all imperfect and many times we do not see the fullness of truth in every moral issue and question. In past times, many moral teachings were taught as truth for centuries by popes and councils but were eventually changed. Even today we are witnessing a change in the pastoral application of the teaching about whether Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried under certain circumstances is morally permitted (e.g., per Amoris Laetitia). For the first time, the role of virtue, the informed conscience, discernment, graduation and accompaniment is being integrated into the praxis of the Church. This 'development' has been welcomed by many but has also caused some disagreement among the bishops. Change is always difficult to accept at first.

In conclusion, we should strive for unity and not division. However, sometimes disagreement can lead to the truth and a change in a teaching, as this has happened many times in the history of the Church. The good news is this: if we pray for God's grace to help us become the men or women he wants us to be, then his grace will help us strive for the good and the truth and help us lead lives pleasing to Christ.... even if we might temporarily disagree with some of the teachings of the magisterium.

Charles Erlinger
1 week 3 days ago

Excellent article and comment. By coincidence, while trying to refresh my memory on another topic, I came across a transcript of an old seminar given by the French Catholic philosopher Jaques Maritain. Although his topic was a discussion of the Church's prescription from anti-Reformation days about the importance of Thomism in Catholic teaching, he waxed more generally about Catholic teaching. Here is an excerpt:

“Every philosophical or theological doctrine is a human doctrine, and therefore, however true it may be, it cannot be imposed in the dogmatic order and in the name of the truth of the faith (even though a certain number of philosophical or theological truths may be imposed as necessarily attached to the deposit of revelation). If the Church still wants somehow to impose by way of authority the teaching of some philosophical or theologic doctrine, it can only be by recommending it in the order of discipline and in the name of prudence, according as this doctrine appears to be safer and posing less of a risk. There is no doubt that such a procedure is legitimate in itself; but in actual fact it runs the risk by its very nature of inevitably provoking the result directly opposite to what it had intended, for it is truth, not safety, which matters in every struggle for knowledge…. And to recommend a doctrine solely on the basis of discipline and prudence, as being ‘safer,’ is the best and most effective way to turn away from it many minds which cannot necessarily be called reckless or proud because they have turned elsewhere.”

From The Collected Works of Jaques Maritain, translated by Bernard Doering. Notre Dame, Indiana, University of Notre Dame Press, 1997. Seminar in Toulouse, 1965

Maritain was talking primarily about knowledge of truth in the rational order. He of course gives plenty of deference to truths about which we can attain certainty through faith, and acknowledges that: "Moreover there are truths of the rational order which revelation itself says are accessible to us. Thus it is our faith which asks us to believe that the existence of God can be attained with full certitude by paths of reason...."

We appear to be destined to perpetual frustration if we depend, as a method for reaching agreement, on discipline. Unfortunately, the same might be said about persuasion, but optimism lives on.

Our permanent complaint seems to be, in the immortal words of Muddy Waters:

"I got my mojo workin'
I got my mojo workin'
I got my mojo workin'
It just don't work on you!"

Henry George
4 days 21 hours ago

I still do not understand whether the teachings of the Church on Marriage/Communion/Divorce have been changed or not and whether
those changes are dependent upon your local Bishop.

If anyone can enlighten me, I would be glad to hear their response.

Michael Barberi
4 days 19 hours ago

Henry,

My brief comments below do not do justice to the many issues concerning Amoris Laetitia and this teaching development concerning Holy Communion of the divorced and remarried. Check out the many recent articles in Am. Mag., about AL and the comments posted thereunder, as they will provide you with more details on all the issues surrounding this teaching.

The doctrine on Marriage/Communion/Divorce has not changed. What has changed is the pastoral application of this teaching per AL. As such AL is a teaching 'development'. For the first time, the concepts and teachings regarding virtue, conscience, accompaniment, discernment, circumstances and the principle of graduation is being integrated into the praxis of the Church. AL now permits Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried under certain circumstances through the pastoral application of the doctrine on Marriage/Holy Communion/Divorce.

The guidelines issued by the Argentina Bishops have been not only approved by Pope Francis but he said their interpretation was the only right one. Since then, Bishop McElroy of San Diego and the Conference of Bishops of Germany and the Bishops of Malta are following similar guidelines. On the other hand, some Bishops have taken a rigid interpretation of AL and will only permit Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried if they obtained an annulment or agree to live as brothers and sisters. So, to answer your question: yes, AL is to be interpreted by each Bishop...and yes, this is causing some confusion. However, over the next few years moral theologians will be incorporating into moral theology the issues underpinning AL. Some articles are now available if you google them. Try googling Todd Salzman and Amoris Laetitia. You might find his article online. As for other articles, they appear in some Journals of Theology, such as Theological Studies, but you will either have to have a subscription to access them or get them from your local library.

This "theological development" in the pastoral application of the marriage doctrine is a welcomed change. No longer are some previous prohibitions (e.g, in short, no Holy Communion for all divorced and remarried Catholics) to be based solely on the 'rigid letter of the law' (e.g., doctrine). Rather, AL wants bishops and priests to emphasizes the 'spirit of the law' and the practical and pastoral application of doctrine using virtue, conscience, circumstances, et al.

In essence, Pope Francis wants the love and mercy of Christ to be available to those in moral dilemma who want to repent and come back to the Church. As Pope Francis said in paraphrasing AL: it is very possible that God's Spirit and Grace is indeed dwelling in the minds, hearts and souls of many divorced and remarried Catholics where God may only be asking them for what is possible at this time. This is especially important where they cannot adhere to the ideal requirement of doctrine without endangering their current marriage and the well-being of their children. AL recognizes that there are no reasonable and realistic solutions but the love and mercy of Christ. It also provides a pathway back into the Church for those who have been disenfranchised, who recognize their sins, want to repent and return to Christ and enter into the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist. As AL makes clear, the Eucharist is not a reward for the few, but the only effective medicine for healing and salvation.

I hope this helps.

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