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.
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“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.’”