“The apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia, issued by Pope Francis on March 19th 2016 and addressed to bishops, priests, deacons, consecrated persons, Christian married couples, and all the lay faithful, has caused grief and confusion to many Catholics on account of its apparent disagreement with a number of teachings of the Catholic Church on faith and morals. This situation poses a grave danger to souls.”
So begins the 13-page document sent by an international group of Catholic theologians, pastors, historians, and scholars “to every one of the Cardinals and Patriarchs, of whom there are 218 living at present.”
Though the document was intended to be viewed only by its ecclesiastical recipients and not the general public, it has now been published in full on the website of The Australian by Tess Livingstone, who is also the biographer of Cardinal George Pell. (There is no indication in the story as to the source of the leaked document, but the professional connection between Livingstone and a prominent member of the curia is worth noting in this regard.)
Dr. Joseph Shaw, one of the signatories and the group’s spokesman, previously revealed to Claire Chretien of LifeSiteNews the reasoning behind the originally-intended secrecy of the content of the appeal and its signatories, as well as the public revelation of the effort’s existence:
“The appeal and cover letter are directed to the cardinals for action in the first place, and we have taken the view that the Sacred College should be allowed to consider the substance of the document and the action to be taken in response to it before its contents are made public,” he said. “The censures are a detailed and technical theological document whose contents are not readily accessible to a non-specialist audience, and are easily misrepresented or misunderstood. Making the document public would impede the cardinals in their task by the media coverage and frequently uninformed debate and polemics it would raise.”
Shaw continued, “At the same time it is important that Catholics who are troubled by some of the statements in Amoris Laetitia be aware that steps are being taken to address the problems it raises; hence the announcement of the document’s existence.”
“By the same token we aren’t releasing the names of the signatories, though some have agreed to be named,” such as Shaw himself and Father Brian Harrison…
Since the time of Shaw’s statement, the National Catholic Reporter revealed the list of signatories without providing the accompanying theological text. It remains an open question whether this was intended to provoke retributive action against the authors of the text, who had signed under the condition of confidentiality and did not authorize the release.
It was previously my position to honor the process laid out by the authors and the confidentiality it entailed, but with the text of the theological critique and the cover letter to the dean of the College of Cardinals (including the list of signatories) now irretrievably made public, I have chosen to offer them here for review and comment.
On the authority of Amoris Laetitia, the critique notes the conflict between the perceived and actual authority the exhortation possesses, and the subsequent change in behavior it is likely to elicit on the part of the faithful:
The official character of Amoris laetitia enables it to pose a grave danger to the faith and morals of Catholics. Although an apostolic exhortation pertains normally or principally to the purely pastoral governing power, nevertheless, on account of the inter-connection of the powers of teaching and of government, it also pertains indirectly to the magisterial power. It can also contain directly magisterial passages, which are then clearly indicated as being such. This was the case for previous apostolic exhortations such as Evangelii nuntiandi, Familiaris consortio, and Reconciliatio et paenitentia.
There is no obstacle as such to the Pope’s using an apostolic exhortation to teach infallibly on faith and morals, but no infallible teaching is contained in Amoris laetitia, since none of its statements satisfy the strict requirements for an infallible definition. It is thus a non-infallible exercise of the papal magisterium.
Some commentators have asserted that the document does not contain magisterial teaching as such, but only the personal reflections of the Pope on the subjects it addresses. This assertion if true would not remove the danger to faith and morals posed by the document. If the Supreme Pontiff expresses a personal opinion in a magisterial document, this expression of opinion implicitly presents the opinion in question as one that it is legitimate for Catholics to hold. As a result, many Catholics will come to believe that the opinion is indeed compatible with Catholic faith and morals. Some Catholics out of respect for a judgment expressed by the Supreme Pontiff will come to believe that the opinion is not only permissible but true. If the opinion in question is not in fact compatible with Catholic faith or morals, these Catholics will thus reject the faith and moral teaching of the Catholic Church as it applies to this opinion. If the opinion relates to questions of morals, the practical result for the actions of Catholics will be the same whether they come to hold that the opinion is legitimate or actually true. An opinion on moral questions that is in truth legitimate for the Supreme Pontiff to hold is one that it is legitimate for Catholics to follow. Belief in the legitimacy of a moral position will thus lead Catholics to believe that it is legitimate to act as if it is true. If there is a strong motivation to act in this way, as there is with the questions being addressed here for the faithful to whose situations these questions are pertinent, most Catholics will act accordingly. This is an important factor in an evaluation of Amoris laetitia, because that document addresses concrete moral questions.
Though some have questioned why the authors of the appeal have not made accusations of heresy toward Pope Francis if a “natural reading” of the exhortation can lead to a heretical understanding of Catholic teaching, the authors answer this objection in the section on “The dangers of Amoris laetitia.” They write:
The following analysis does not deny or question the personal faith of Pope Francis. It is not justifiable or legitimate to deny the faith of any author on the basis of a single text, and this is especially true in the case of the Supreme Pontiff. There are further reasons why the text of Amoris laetitia cannot be used as a sufficient reason for holding that the Pope has fallen into heresy. The document is extremely long, and it is probable that much of its original text was produced by an author or authors who are not Pope Francis, as is normal with papal documents. Those statements in it that on the face of them contradict the faith could be due to simple error on Pope Francis’s part, rather than to a voluntary rejection of the faith.
This is, it seems to me, a legitimate extension of the benefit of the doubt, even though we may (rightly) suspect that the contradictory statements are intentional. The fact is, we do not have certitude, and that is enough of a reason to make such a qualifying statement. But the authors do not shy away from a strong statement about the effect of the exhortation, intentional or not:
When it comes to the document itself, however, there is no doubt that it constitutes a grave danger to Catholic faith and morals. It contains many statements whose vagueness or ambiguity permit interpretations that are contrary to faith or morals, or that suggest a claim that is contrary to faith and morals without actually stating it. It also contains statements whose natural meaning would seem to be contrary to faith or morals.
The problem with Amoris laetitia is not that it has imposed legally binding rules that are intrinsically unjust or authoritatively taught binding teachings that are false. The document does not have the authority to promulgate unjust laws or to require assent to false teachings, because the Pope does not have the power to do these things. The problem with the document is that it can mislead Catholics into believing what is false and doing what is forbidden by divine law.
In expressing their intent, the authors make clear what they are attempting to establish with this document, and it is here that we begin to see the technical nature of their work as theologians, and why it is critical that their analysis be understood properly, to avoid misinterpretation:
For the sake of theological clarity and justice, this criticism of the harmful parts of Amoris laetitia will take the form of a theological censure of the individual passages that are deficient. These censures are to be understood in the sense traditionally held by the Church,2 and are applied to the passages prout iacent, as they lie. The propositions censured are so damaging that a complete listing of the censures that apply to them is not attempted. Most if not all of them fall under the censures of aequivoca, ambigua, obscura, praesumptuosa, anxia, dubia, captiosa, male sonans, piarum aurium offensiva, as well as the ones listed. The censures list i) the censures that bear upon the content of the statements censured, and ii) those that bear upon the damaging effects of the statements. The censures are not intended to be an exhaustive list of the errors that Amoris laetitia on a plausible reading contains; they seek to identify the worst threats to Catholic faith and morals in the document. The propositions censured are divided into those that are heretical and those that fall under a lesser censure.
This is, in other words, a serious and scholarly undertaking. As Dr. Shaw has commented, “The censures are a detailed and technical theological document whose contents are not readily accessible to a non-specialist audience, and are easily misrepresented or misunderstood.” We must be careful then, now that the contents have been made public, to defer to those specialists in theology (including the signatories themselves) in the proper interpretation of the appeal.
There is no reasonable way to summarize here the list of ostensibly heretical propositions in AL and their applicable theological censures without leaving out language vital to a proper understanding of the analysis. The propositions include statements contained in the post-synodal apostolic exhortation about the death penalty, sexual submission, the nature of consecrated virginity, the supposed inability of the faithful to meet the demands of the divine law, the implied denial of the reality eternal damnation, certain questions of culpability for grave sin (and the possibility of obtaining sanctifying grace while in such sin), the notion that one can sin by obeying the divine law, and more. A total of 19 propositions are analyzed, interpreted, and, given the context of an obvious reading that would be contrary to divine teaching, assigned appropriate theological censures.
It appears, therefore, that a request for “clarification” or “correction” is being made by the signatories in order to eliminate any language from Amoris Laetitia which could reasonably be construed to convey heretical understandings of Catholic teaching. The importance of this request cannot be understated; barring a complete retraction of the exhortation, responding positively to this request is, at a bare minimum, a solemn moral duty of the pope. It is my own interpretation (not stated anywhere in the appeal) that for Pope Francis not to do so would be for him to tacitly acknowledge that he accepts — and quite likely intends — the propagation of these heretical understandings.
It is therefore my opinion that this document represents an incredibly important first step in any conceivable process to determine whether, as so many Catholics have already surmised, we have a pope who is a manifest and obdurate heretic. It must be acknowledged and addressed; failure to do so is to give consent to the very heresies it addresses.
Thank God for the brave men who undertook this painstaking initiative and took the risk of putting their names on it. Three of the signatories — Fr. Brian Harrison, Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, and Dr. Michael Sirilla — have contributed here at 1P5. (Full disclosure: Dr. Sirilla is not only a friend and podcast guest, but a member of the board of directors of OnePeterFive. I had previously agreed to keep any knowledge of the project gained through my relationship with signatories confidential. As noted above, the newsworthiness and public dimension of the now-published letter and critique has now made it possible for me to cover the contents here.) Please pray for the signatories. They anticipated a leak, were aware of the risk it would represent, and signed regardless. I’ve already gotten reports that some of the larger group of 45 signatories have, following the publication of their names, received negative reactions either from religious superiors or the general public. It is without doubt that they will not be the last.
Nevertheless, this is by far the most important and substantive act of faithful resistance that has yet been made during the present pontificate. We should all pray that it is an effort blessed by Our Lord, and that it accomplishes what it sets out to do, and that those who undertook this initiative be rewarded by God for their fidelity to His holy Church.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have eight children. You can find more of his writing at his Substack, The Skojec File.