I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
– Jesus Christ speaking to Peter in the Gospel of Saint Matthew, 16:18-19
I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium. Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it. – Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love)
Most Catholics strive to follow with little debate whatever Rome decrees. After all, Jesus Christ Himself empowered Saint Peter to bind and loose – Biblespeak for giving religious tenets believers must abide by.
Hence, for most of the one-and-a-quarter billion faithful, Catholicism means believing and living by doctrines, tenets and morals promulgated by the hierarchy and clergy, led by the Holy Father. That’s the magisterium of the Church.
But what if the Pope and the Church decide not to rule on certain matters? How do ordinary believers know what’s right and wrong?
In his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), released April 8, Pope Francis said “not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium.”
Thus, on certain matters, Francis, the 266th Bishop of Rome, will not bind and loose, to quote our Lord’s empowerment of the first Bishop Peter.
There’s more. Francis added that while “unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church,” there could be “various ways of interpreting some aspects of the teaching.” One magisterium, different interpretations and applications.
‘It changes everything’
If this sounds like a big change, it is, at least as one Prince of the Church sees it.
German Cardinal Walter Kasper told The Tablet, a leading British Catholic journal, that The Joy of Love “doesn’t change anything of Church doctrine or of canon law – but it changes everything.”
Francis himself repeatedly says he won’t alter official doctrines, principles, and practices. But how they are actually understood, explained, and implemented may vary. Hence, what’s forbidden in some places or situations could be allowed in others.
Cardinal Kasper won Francis’s kudos for his book about communion for couples who remarry without annulling previous unions. Kasper said The Joy of Love “overcomes a rigid casuistic approach and gives room for Christian freedom of conscience.”
Translation: Rather than strictly applying moral dos and don’ts (that’s casuistic), Amoris Laetitia lets personal conscience help discern right and wrong.
So in spite of or along with commandments taught by the Church, conscience is given leeway to divine moral directions.
Francis argued in Amoris Laetitia that “individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the Church’s praxis in certain situations which do not objectively embody our understanding of marriage. … We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.”
That may indeed change everything. Rather than having to strictly follow Church decrees, Catholics may deviate as their consciences dictate. On certain issues the magisterium won’t even step in. We must resolve those matters without Rome’s rulings.
The Pope’s opinion – take it or leave it
Segments of clergy and laity aren’t comfortable with this no-intervention approach. They believe the faithful need the guidance of the magisterium not only to be true to the faith, but also to ensure their salvation. There are also concerns about widely differing interpretations and applications of Catholic principles and practices.
So some strict-minded Church figures do not consider Amoris Laetitie as official policy. Among them: American Cardinal Raymond Burke, the former prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, Catholicism’s supreme court. He believes The Joy of Love is the Holy Father’s personal perspective, which should be respected, but may still be rejected.
Burke wrote in the National Catholic Register, a leading US religious publication, that “the Holy Father is proposing what he personally believes is the will of Christ for His Church, but he does not intend to impose his point of view, nor to condemn those who insist on what he calls ‘a more rigorous pastoral care.’ ”
In short, for Cardinal Burke, Amoris Laetitia is Pope Francis’s opinion. Take it or leave it.
So there we are: The Holy Father and the likes of Cardinal Kasper want room for personal conscience in interpreting and applying Church doctrines and commandments. And those who disagree say that The Joy of Love doesn’t bind and loose, but merely offers Francis’s opinions, to be accepted or declined.
Commandments or conscience?
Amid this debate, ordinary Catholics used to following what Pope and Church say, may understandably wonder what and who are right and wrong.
For sure, most Catholic tenets are accepted without debate; no one seriously disputes that Jesus Christ is God and man, and murder and stealing are sinful.
But it is precisely in controversial issues like contraception, homosexuality, and communion for remarried divorced Catholics that Church rulings are needed, but may be withheld, leaving conscience and local bishops and priests to decide.
For believers unsettled by silences in the magisterium, a three-step approach may help:
First, make sure one knows official doctrines and morals. Read The Catechism of the Catholic Church, and consult the faithful clergy, who should clearly explain established tenets, even those they may question.
Second, to assure salvation one may follow strictly the magisterium. Then one avoids sin, even if approved doctrines and practices eventually change.
Third, believers seeking moral guidance from their consciences in “situations which do not objectively embody our [Catholic] understanding of marriage,” as Francis puts it, should pray hard, seek learned counsel, and resolutely resist self-serving rationalization, so that the inner voice they hear hopefully comes from above, not below.
In all this, let mercy prevail, especially counsel for the doubtful, instruction for the ignorant, and admonition and forgiveness for the sinner. Amen.