A wickedly funny website on matters Catholic, Ignatius His Conclave, recently pointed out that, in the currently casual logic of the Church, Communion for the divorced and remarried is:
1) a conscience matter (Cardinal Blase Cupich in February), or
2) subject to local regulation, which may lead to differences among bishops and national bishops’ conferences (the pope in Amoris laetitia and various spokesmen at various times), or
3) that “there are no other interpretations” than that of the Argentine bishops, since the papal letter saying so was published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis (June 2017).
Which of these mutually exclusive possibilities is now normative, or will be at some future date, is anybody’s guess.
Note that this mess is a mere administrative question, that does not (yet) touch the radical recasting of marriage and the Church’s understanding of the Eucharist and her very self. On those things, the field is so tracked over with inconsistencies that it’s difficult just to formulate the problems. Though the Dubia still do a pretty good job.
But let us be of good cheer. As the old adage says, there is both crisis and opportunity here, and this creates a propitious moment for us to become more deeply acquainted with the authentic Catholic tradition.
For instance, Cardinal Cupich, speaking at Cambridge University, invoked the great Cardinal Newman as he substituted his own notion of the role of conscience for what Catholics have always believed. He even cited Newman’s famous description of conscience as “the aboriginal vicar of Christ.”
That phrase appears in Newman’s Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, which is actually a 150-page book. The key passages amount to only ten pages (here). They deserve a careful read. Or look at this clear and brief summary – though if you want fully to understand conscience, read further into Newman’s thought.
The Cupich interpretation is wrong and was known to be such long before the Chicago cardinal appeared on the scene. It so obviously contradicts everything Cardinal Newman stood for that whoever has been writing the cardinal’s speeches would be wise never to bring up Newman again. They’re inviting ridicule as more Catholics become aware of the truth.
Which brings us to our second possibility: individual bishops or bishops’ conferences determining marriage and Communion regulations, even if these conflict among themselves. In a 2000+-year tradition, there are breakdowns, errors, scamps, lunatics. But as Cardinal Gerhard Müller and Fr. Thomas Weinandy have cogently argued in the last few weeks, from the very earliest days, the four “marks” of the Church – one, holy, catholic, and apostolic – have been understood to sift what is true from what is false in any “developments.”
Everything begins with the Church as “one,” which is to say united with Jesus Christ Himself. This is why “heresy” is not only a matter of wrong opinions, departures from what has been received and taught. It’s a break within Christ’s Mystical Body. Fr. Weinandy invokes St. Ignatius of Antioch (35-108 AD), probably a disciple of St. John the Apostle and a martyr, who already understood what’s at stake: “For Ignatius, heresy is absolutely detestable precisely because it abolishes the unity of the Church, and it does so by denying the Church’s one catholic and apostolic faith.” Vatican II and the teaching of St. John Paul II, to say nothing of the intervening centuries, are consistently in agreement about this, says Weinandy.
Cardinal Müller lucidly reviews Newman’s own “marks” of what constitutes genuine development as opposed to corruption. This is too complicated a subject to treat in a brief column, but note Müller’s conclusion: “when cardinals, bishops, priests, and laity ask the pope for clarity on these matters, what they request is not a clarification of the pope’s opinion. What they seek is clarity regarding the continuity of the pope’s teaching in Amoris Laetitia with the rest of tradition.”
And so here’s a second opportunity: in addition to understanding conscience better, we all need a much deeper knowledge of what constitutes real Catholic tradition.
And the third and final question: did the pope’s “letter” about the Argentine bishops, settle these matters?
Müller is former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and Weinandy remains a member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission. Both argue: no.
Obviously, any serious Catholic will want to tread very carefully here. As I myself know from experience: I’ve been accused both of rejecting the pope and being Protestant, and of indulging him by trying to understand precisely what he is – and is not – saying.
For Weinandy, the whole mess begins with ambiguity:
for Pope Francis to then take sides in the ensuing debate, a debate for which he himself is responsible, concerning the proper interpretation of the uncertain teaching is disingenuous. He has now allowed others to be the arbiter of what is true, when it is precisely the apostolic mandate of the pope to be the one who confirms the brethren, both episcopal and laity, in the truth. Furthermore, to appear to sanction an interpretation of doctrine or morals that contravenes what has been the received apostolic teaching and magisterial tradition of the Church – as dogmatically defined by Councils and doctrinally taught by previous popes and the bishops in communion with him, as well as accepted and believed by the faithful, cannot then be proposed as magisterial teaching.
Müller concludes with Newman: “Those who seek to accommodate the gospel message to the mentality of this world, invoking the authority of Cardinal Newman in their efforts, should consider what he says about the Church’s continuity of type. According to Newman, the true Church can be identified by the unchanging way in which the world has perceived her through the centuries, even amidst many developments. . . . ‘And there is but one communion such. Place this description before Pliny or Julian; place it before Frederick the Second or Guizot. . . . Each knows at once, without asking a question, who is meant by it.’ Where would Newman find such a communion today?”
A good, final question for us to ponder deeply, as well.
*Image: Bust of Newman by Richard Westmacott, 1841 [Birmingham Oratory]