As people continue to be confused over what Pope Francis thinks here or there, especially regarding Communion for the divorced and remarried, one thing seems to come up over and over again: what does Pope Francis, this bishop, or that bishops’ conference mean by these words? Obviously, we need to draw meaning from the text and apply it to certain cases.
The problem arises when someone makes an entire interpretation based on what they think the Pope means and not the text itself. Often this interpretation contradicts the very words of the document.
The first place we should go to get the meaning of any Church document is the words of the document themselves. The second is the Scripture and tradition illuminates every Church document.
Anyone can interpret the Pope but as Catholics, we are called to read it in light of Church teaching. Such a reading never interprets the intention of a Pope’s statement in opposition to another Church teaching if this is possible.
Even more so, we are not free to interpret one part of a document in contradiction to what another part of the document clearly states.
As I pointed out previously, nowhere in the text of Amoris Laetitia does it say that Communion can be given to the divorced and remarried who intend to continue sexual relations. In fact, Amoris clearly states on several occasions that it is not changing church doctrine as expressed in Familiaris Consortio and Trent.
So, how did we get the understanding that Pope Francis is opening the door for Communion to the divorced and civilly remarried?
I’m not 100 percent sure. Nonetheless, I’ve read this understanding in more articles than I’d like to admit and most interpreters seem to come down to two factors: ambiguity or mind-reading.
The first factor is that certain parts, notably paragraph 305 of Amoris and the accompanying footnote 351, could have been much clearer in expressing Church doctrine. I think we can all agree that this isn’t the clearest statement of no Communion for the divorced and remarried who intend to continue relations.
It’s important to note that the Pope is obliged never to declare heresy but not obliged to express doctrine as clearly as possible. Clarity is generally preferred but he may prioritize other factors like reaching more people with a newer wording he things is more attractive, leaving a text that could have been clearer.
We’ve been spoiled by the two previous Popes were particularly good at doctrinal clarity, and in general, clarity is charity. Nonetheless, we can’t deny Pope the right to express truths in a different way, a way which may not be as clear as others would like.
I sympathize with those who simply struggle with understanding it due to this lack of clarity. I fully admit that without my own theological training, I might be confused as well. Remember, this chapter was written for priests so Francis should be able to presuppose good theological training.
Mind-Reading Pope Francis
The second factor concerns me more. It is the attitude of many who feel they can not only read the Pope’s mind but then change doctrine of the Church and his own words to match what they’ve read in his mind.
There are positive aspects of grasping certain intentions the Pope might have. If you visit him, you might interpret that he’d like a cup of mate (Argentinian tea) so bring it. A priest may realize his emphasis on mercy and be a little gentler with a man who comes back to confession after a decade.
However, it is impossible to change doctrine based on any individual’s supposed reading of the Pope’s mind. The Pope cannot change defined doctrine, and if he wants to make an undefined doctrine now defined, he has to be clear about it. When Pius XII defined the Assumption in Munificentissimus Deus, he was extremely clear in his expressed language and did not require you to read his intention from his mind.
Moreover, if we mind-read something contrary to the straightforward text elsewhere in the document, we are doing an injustice to the document. Reading one part of Amoris Laetitia as allowing Communion for those continuing relations requires ignoring other parts which clearly deny it.
Often in literature, you need to read between the lines: even though we’re over halfway through Jane Eyre before Mr. Rochester and Jane say they love each other, most readers have read that between the lines long before. But Papal magisterial documents are not literature and the first meaning they should be given is a literal and direct meaning not an interpretive meaning reading between the lines.
The only way to get Communion for the divorced and remarried who intend to continue with marriage-like relations is to mind-read it into the document. Pope Francis never said it. He wanted to be a lot more merciful with the ignorant and weak, but he never said priest should absolve or give to Communion to those who intend to continue sleeping together.
If he wanted to change, adjust or add to doctrine, he would need to be clear. Instead he said “Neither the Synod nor this document could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable in all cases,” and “Discernment can never prescind [be cut off from] from the Gospel demands as proposed by the Church.” (300)
An emanation from mind-reading of the intention behind footnote 351 is not a way doctrine can change. It’s simply an improper way to read Church documents.
We live in a free country so I can’t force you to stop mind-reading Pope Francis and giving him interesting interpretations. However, I can say clearly that these interpretations are misunderstandings and not the way he should be read.