The Problem With Papal Mind-Readers

pope francis, pope, papal, papacy

pope francis, pope, papal, papacyAs 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.

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26 thoughts on “The Problem With Papal Mind-Readers”

  1. We welcome lively debates on issues relative to the Catholic Church. However, please read our comment policy located in the “Our Policies” link in site menu. Offensive personal attacks directed either at a person or entity will be deleted. Persons who fail to respect this policy will be blocked from further participation.

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  2. Susan,

    Ciao is correct, up to a point:

    Yes, there were arguably two popes in Church history that we know held heretical views as a matter of personal opinion.

    And, yes, no one has to believe heresy, and no good Catholic should.

    And yes, if you reject the opinions of a pope who holds heretical views, you aren’t rejecting the office but the errors of an officeholder ill-suited to it.

    So as I said: Ciao answered you correctly.

    But I think we need to be very clear, here, both about what it means to “reject” a particular pope, and what faithful Catholics are supposed to do about bad popes.

    Bad popes happen. Pope Francis is far from the worst we’ve had; have you read anything about Alexander VI?

    So it’s entirely correct for a Catholic to reject a pope’s behavior when that behavior is scandalous. On occasions the saints have upbraided popes for not behaving as they ought, following the example of St. Paul’s rebuke to Peter. (One had better be pretty saintly, though, to be publicly rebuking a holder of such a high office.)

    But it is important not to “reject the pope,” in the sense of pretending that this person whose conduct of the office is bad somehow doesn’t really hold the office of the papacy. With Francis there is reason for absolute confidence: His election was valid and he’s the pope, all right.

    So, if he is the pope, and if (as seems possible) he holds some heretical views, what then?

    Well, if Francis were to publicly and definitively teach clear heresy as a matter of faith, with the authority of his office as successor of Peter, intending this teaching to be embraced by the whole Church worldwide, why then…he’d have just falsified the Catholic faith, and we’d better all go become Eastern Orthodox, or else just sleep in on Sundays!

    (But that isn’t going to happen. If he tried, he’d probably drop dead of a heart attack a split second before pickup the pen or microphone. Jesus looks after His Church.)

    So, what is the worst that Francis is likely to do, instead?

    The worst he’s likely to do is:
    1. Make doctrinally-ambiguous statements and refuse to clarify them, in official Church publications and pronouncements;
    2. Give encouragement to whichever bishops, priests, and theologians interpret those ambiguous statements in a heretical fashion;
    3. Discourage, undermine, and punish whichever bishops, priests, and theologians are recognized as champions of orthodoxy;
    4. Bring enough confusion to the faithful about the disputed points that those who just want to know what’s going on are constantly bewildered and discouraged, and those who’re looking for an excuse to adopt heretical views are encouraged and run wild, causing further scandal.

    Now, what is a good Catholic supposed to do if Francis, or any other pope, should happen to do these things?
    (a.) Pray for the pope.
    (b.) Pray for the bishops.
    (c.) Pray for your bishop.
    (d.) Pray for your parish pastor and all the clergy at your parish. Yes, even if some or all of them are total dipweeds.
    (e.) Pray that God will see to it that the errors and unwisdom of the pope do not result in the loss of souls.
    (f.) Learn Catholic orthodoxy as best you can through faithful teachers. Real Catholicism will seem consistent with St. Thomas Aquinas and other doctors of the Church, the Catechism, Ott and Denzinger and other reliable authors about Catholic dogma, guys like Edward Sri and the better Catholic apologists (David Anders is my favorite), some good online sources like Fr. John Zuhlsdorf and canonist Ed Peters, and the actual precise literal statements in the documents of the Councils; e.g. Vatican II and Trent (but if someone starts saying flaky things citing the “spirit” of Vatican II, make sure you ignore them).
    (g.) Teach what you have learned.
    (h.) Be patient. Bad popes are a trial for the Church, but a trial lasts only for a season.

    That is what you may do, and still become Catholic.

    And this kind of situation is what you should expect, from time-to-time, if Catholicism is true.

    For God usually prefers to act through or by means of His creatures: He likes to get His sons and daughters “involved in the family business,” as it were. But this means sometimes putting them in positions of authority, and sometimes — humans being humans, after all — they prove not-up-to-the-task.

    He could, of course, destroy the free will of the pope at the moment of his election, or something like that. But that’s not God’s way: For good or ill, he allows us to “wield our little tridents,” each of us in our own sphere of influence, for good or ill. God protects the Church from falling into error by preventing the pope from teaching error to the universal Church as a thing to be held by all the faithful, but God does that with, if you will, “the lightest touch possible,” so as to still allow the pope the freedom to be a fool or a scoundrel, if he will.

    And by the way, I don’t think pope Francis is a scoundrel — there are no bastard children or male lovers running ’round St. Peter’s so far as I know — and he isn’t an utter fool even if some of his public statements come across as foolish. Again: If Jesus’ Church can survive Alexander VI, we can survive Francis just fine.

    Does all that make sense to you, Susan?

  3. Patricia Downing

    In charity I will attribute this misleading article to a very advanced case of naïveté rather than to a desire deceive.

    1. Michael Siddle

      I assume you mean “dissent ” otherwise the master deceiver would insist on you going ever upwards!.

    2. Good catch.
      Another excellent reason for yours truly to think twice, type once.
      Or perhaps not type at all.

    3. Patricia Downing

      Your charity seems already rather strained. Pity. Defending the indefensible does make heavy demands.

  4. JohnnyCuredents

    This essay is seriously misleading. Fr. Schneider alleges Francis is simply less articulate, not up to the rhetorical standards of his two predecessors, but totally orthodox nonetheless. Of course, the real problem is that Francis is being deliberately vague; his is a studied ambiguity. He could end the controversy in minutes were he simply to answer the 5 dubia he’s had in his possession for several months now, but he refuses. Why is that? Actually, it’s an old Alinsky tactic for defeating systemic resistance to change [Saul Alinsky was a left-wing activist who instructed a whole generation of radicals like Obama and Clinton in the ‘science’ of social destruction].

    The pope knows well that if he attacks 2000 years of constant Church teaching concerning this matter head-on, the opposition will be overwhelming. So, when asked what Amoris Laetitia really means, he says nothing, pretending, always through surrogates, naturally, that it’s all as clear as a limpid pool. But the questions and doubts remain around the Catholic world, and “heteropraxy” gradually takes hold as it already has in Buenos Aires, Malta, across Germany, and perhaps elsewhere. The official teaching thus stands, but it is gutted of all force by practice. On a far less important level, the same tactic was once used to scrub Latin completely from the liturgy (NOT a “teaching” of Vat II), and later to install “altar girls” in defiance of rubrics.

    And, while Fr. Schneider says the pope never approved of Communion for the divorced living in an adulterous second “marriage,” in fact he has, albeit unofficially. One need only read his letter to the bishops of Buenos Aires where he said of their assessment of Amoris Laetitia, “there are no other interpretations.” Contrary to what Fr. Schneider believes, the Argentine bishops approved Communion for the divorced living in sin. See these two sources for confirmation of my assertions here:

    1. 1. The Argentine bishops are misunderstood in English, they did explicitly forbid a couple from continuing relations but indicate an extreme case an individual might.

      2. His number 1 surrogate, Muller, has made it clear you should read AL as I do in various interviews.

    2. JohnnyCuredents

      As you can see from other posts here, many of us find this papacy troubling for more reasons than just Amoris laetitia, but let’s stick to the topic at hand. I’m fluent in Spanish and I read both the Argentine bishops’ letter and the pope’s response as written by the authors. That reading didn’t change my mind at all. The English translation is faithful to the Spanish original.

      I disagree that Muller is Francis’ #1 surrogate; he’s one of several who seem to disagree with each another over the meaning of AL. (But, then, why shouldn’t they? The pope chooses deliberately to be ambiguous, to let differing interpretations stand, and refuses to answer the dubia.) Here, for example, is what Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, President of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legal Texts says in his very short book The Eighth Chapter of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia:

      “The divorced and remarried, de facto couples, those cohabiting, are certainly not models of unions in sync with Catholic Doctrine, but the Church cannot look the other way. Therefore, the sacraments of Reconciliation and of Communion must be given even to those so-called wounded families and to however many who, despite living in situations not in line with traditional matrimonial canons, express the sincere desire to approach the sacraments after an appropriate period of discernment… Yes, therefore, to admission to the sacraments for those who, despite living in irregular situations, sincerely ask for admission into the fullness of ecclesial life, it is a gesture of openness and profound mercy on the part of Mother Church, who does not leave behind any of her children, aware that absolute perfection is a precious gift, but one which cannot be reached by everyone.”

      That seems clear enough to me, but this headline in Crux from February puts it more succinctly:
      “Vatican’s Legal Chief Says Desire To Change Enough For Communion”
      (find at

      I repeat what I indicated before: If Pope Francis were at all interested in clearing the air, he could simply answer the dubia in short sentences and quickly put an end to the controversy. In fact, it’s his job as pope to clarify, not to muddy the waters for the faithful. That he refuses tells us he both wants his cake and to eat it too, i.e. orthodoxy combined with heteropraxy.

    3. This is a doctrinal issue: the CDF is the office to deal with doctrine not the office for interpreting law or the archbishop of Malta.

      Re Argentina: notice how in #5 it talks about couples then #6 talks about individuals that indicates a couple who disagree about living chastity. There seems to be varied theological opinion even from the most reliable theologians on whether a person in such situations could submit to their partner’s advances. Also, there has been no clear authoritative interpretation from any Pope or official Vatican office on that question… I should publish a video of a talk tomorrow which includes a 5-minute discussion on this point.

    4. JohnnyCuredents

      You mentioned surrogates, not official officers. The pope uses many in relation to Amoris laetitia and other affairs, as you well know (e.g. Card. Kasper, Archbishop Pio Vito, Greg Burke who replaced Lombardi, Garcia Ovejero; Rosica also comes to mind, but I’ve not heard much from him lately). I note that you do not say why the pope refuses to answer the 5 dubia. Cardinal Burke mentioned just the other day again that Francis had not answered. It’s my impression Burke isn’t impressed with this tactic of the pope…and neither are many others. Of course, there are many things about him that fall short of being impressive.

    5. You began with the “surrogate” terminology which I didn’t object to although I would give the official officer a kind of primary surrogate on the issue. Like if the attorney general says something about how they will enforce the law signed by the president, I take his word above the word of a senator, or other surrogate.

      Living in Rome 3 years, it would surprise me if the dubia are answered in early 2019… Italians take a long view of history, talking about the 1500s like Americans talk about the 50s so would prefer to wait and do it 100% right than rush (for them a few months) to answer. This is just the reality of the curia which is primarily staffed by Italians, many whose ancestors were papal state nobles and they got their job by family connections and can’t be fired so work at a snail’s pace. (Pius IX brought in nobles losing their nobility during Italian unification and the end of the Papal States 150 years ago which was a good idea then, and many Vatican employees come from those same families.) This is a problem but an entirely different one from a doctrinal error in AL. At some point we’ll need a Pope to clean this up but it will be difficult.

    6. JohnnyCuredents

      Fair enough, but I think you’ll grant that, regardless of the surrogate involved, Francis has not objected to interpretations like the one I cited from Coccopalmerio. That in itself is telling. I can’t remember an instance where a previous pope — I go back to Pius XII — would allow “wild” interpretations of his own apostolic exhortation to go unanswered. (Of course, in the case of the Argentine bishops, he didn’t let it go; he confirmed it fulsomely.)

      As for the dubia, they are not some minor clerical questions. Since they involve a principle so critical, viz. the integrity of the sacraments, one would think Francis might be eager to give clarification as soon as possible. He reads probably more widely than I and, since I am well aware of widespread angst in the Church concerning this matter, I assume he is too. But no, instead he chooses to play a bizarre game of Vatican hide and seek.

      Regardless of how one views Pope Francis, with disquiet and growing disappointment as I do, or with admiration as you appear to, it’s useless arguing that AL is unambiguous, transparent; the turmoil it has occasioned contradicts that assertion at every turn. I know you are familiar — or you should be, at least — with Phil Lawler, a very knowledgeable Catholic writer who can hardly be accused of impetuosity, of being an alarmist, or of any particular animus vis-a-vis this pope. I invite you to read what he had to say about this question in an essay published last November. Lawler, I believe, scents tacit heresy, as do many of us. He lays out the case quite well.

  5. “Interpretation” seems to be the standard for all things said, written, and done in the modern church. It is what “went wrong” with Vatican II. The council, especially Sacrosanctum Concilium, (the document on the sacred liturgy) was “interpreted” with a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture rather than the hermeneutic of continuity and renewal. It seem people, even (and especially) those high in the clerical ranks seem bent on their own will and likes, and a desire to please feminists and other progressives rather than God. The result is we have a liturgy of “man” rather than the one intended by God through council. We do not get to experience what is actually written in Sacrosanctum Concilium. The church has over two thousand years of teaching to base our choices on so our personal choice (interpretation) is now just a matter of heart, person desire to do or not do what the church has ALWAYS taught. It’s a time of testing and judgement.

  6. With all due respect, Father, I think that there’s a healthy dose of disingenuousness in this essay. It’s not plausible that you’re unaware of the letter written by Francis to the Argentine bishops after the release of AL which explicitly confirms their reading of AL, in which under limited circumstances, divorced and remarried (absent an annulment), sexually active couples may partake in Holy Communion. True to the game playing that Francis has not infrequently exhibited an unhappy penchant for, the letter was “leaked” by the Vatican, and afterward confirmed as being genuine. So you see, Father, at least as regards this particular question, there’s no need to read Francis’ mind; he has advertised it to the world in an albeit awkward, yet reasonably clear manner.

  7. Dear Father Schneider… if, as you say, the vague areas of Amoris Laetitia should be overlooked because they couldn’t possibly contradict the supposed “clear” areas, why did Pope Francis insert those vague areas in the document? Why will he not respond to the Dubia? Why will he nt say something like, “Oops! That’s not what I meant at all. My bad!”. What’s wrong with absolute clarity for a flock hunger for the truth?

  8. Yes. There were at least two heretical popes in Church history. No one has to believe heresy. No good Catholic should.
    We reject not the Chair of Peter, but we can disagree with the man that occupies it who is a heretic.

    1. JohnnyCuredents

      It used to be “pray, pay, and obey.” The updated Francis version would seem to be “Pray, pay, obey, and be led astray.”

  9. The Internet has obviously made papal documents “too available.” Reading them and arguing about them is now a hobby for many people. Everyone needs to stop mind-reading them, and I would suggest that most people need to stop reading them altogether.

    1. JohnnyCuredents

      Curious. A document written but never read. That certainly assures us the author will never be misunderstood, doesn’t it?

  10. Have you deliberately chosen darkness…..or any of the darkness of the contradictory statements PF has made about AL and the way to understand it correctly?

    ….GS 51 in AL is used to say that chaste continence as brother and sister is no longer necessary and this makes Communion possible for those for whom chaste continence is “impossible”, and which endangers the current adulterous relationship of the couple and their present or future children.

    I believe all writings must be understood in the Light of the Holy Spirit’s Teaching Magisterium….this means AL too….but AL and PF’s various statements of how to understand this in AL have removed any mind reading mind reading…..Easter blessings and blessedness!

    1. What has the Pope directly said about how to understand the document?

      AND how is an off-hand Papal remark similar to an official teaching of the Magisterium? What holds more weight?

    2. GS 51 is quoted to say couples shouldn’t be emotionally cold simply BECAUSE THEY ARE PRACTICING CHASTITY. The “certain expressions of affection” cannot refer to sexual activity but refers to an emotionally warm home.

  11. “But now contrary to what was written, some even of the rulers of the church have permitted a woman to marry, even when her husband was living, doing contrary to what was written, where it is said, A wife is bound for so long time as her husband lives, and So then if while her husband lives, she shall be joined to another man she shall be called an adulteress, Romans 7:3 not indeed altogether without reason, for it is probable this concession was permitted in comparison with worse things, contrary to what was from the beginning ordained by law, and written.” – Origen, commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, book XIV.

    Origen reaffirms Church teaching in the rest of book XIV, but that last sentence is interesting, and suggests (as King Solomon put it) that there is nothing really new under the sun.

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