Hey, Amoris Laetitia, the 1968 Canadian bishops phoned and they want their strategic ambiguity back.
That line may not mean much to anyone who isn’t familiar with the Canadian Conference of Bishops’ statement in response to the birth control encyclical Humanae Vitae. Dubbed the “Winnipeg Statement” for the last 49 years, it represents in the minds of many a kind of zenith of fuzzily-fomented episcopal dissent from an authoritative papal teaching.
With only a few naysaying brother bishops to oppose a majority who apparently did not think highly of the renewed doctrine against contraception, the “Winnipeg Statement” effectively suggested that a person who sincerely and honestly concluded that using contraceptives would be okay for them could be assured they did so “in good conscience.”
The Canadian Bishops’ statement never quite got to the part about the so-called “good conscience” actually being an erroneous and de-formed conscience that stood in opposition to truth.
As I’ve pondered it, I see a striking parallel between the approach the Canadian bishops took in 1968 toward contraception, and the manner in which many interpret the “non-approach” Pope Francis took in Amoris Laetitia a year ago regarding Communion for the divorced-remarried-not-annulled.
Let me be really clear, though. I have no intention to engage in guesswork regarding Pope Francis’ personal motives or beliefs on this or any issue. I am merely seeking to understand what he has written based upon what he himself has already told us about his intentions and perspective. I wish to treat my spiritual father respectfully and in accord with his office and his magisterium.
First, it’s important to put the text of Amoris Laetitia in proper context. And that’s not exactly easy to do. It means that we need to start with one of Pope Francis’ crucial guiding principles: “time is greater than space.” This cryptic phrase, used repeatedly by the pope, at its root means (in the Holy Father’s own words) that “it is more important to start processes than to dominate spaces.”
I actually wrote about this elsewhere, but I basically believe this has driven—and continues to drive—Pope Francis’ approach to the Communion issue, as well as other issues. His lifelong approach to pastoral ministry has been intentionally focused on “process-starting” and decidedly not on seeking to dominate “space” via rules, regulations, and rigid, inflexible declarations, etc.
The history of the two synods on the family, presided over by Francis, really tells the story. It was a sort of controlled chaos—a “process-starting” in which the pope never intervened to dominate the “space” by personally resolving anything by virtue of a definitive declaration. Rather, he let the process unfold in all its messiness. “Time” prevailed, not “space.”
Then Pope Francis had to offer a summary of the “process” he had started via the two synods. The post-synodal apostolic exhortation of last year, Amoris Laetitia, was the result. It, too, bears the clear imprint of “time” over “space”—he tells us so unabashedly in the text. Anyone who thought the exhortation might, just might, include a “space-filling” declaration reaffirming the no-Communion stance of Pope St. John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio was disappointed.
And then there is the “dubia” effort—the five crucial questions articulated by four holy cardinals who rightly asked Pope Francis to “settle” the Communion question and bring clarity where there now exists only confusion. Here is the problem: “clarity” is a feature of dominating space, not a feature of the messy “process-starting” favored by Francis. In not responding to the dubia, the pope is merely being consistent—the “process” he helped start is far from over, and the whole point is that, given the inherent rationale of “time is greater than space,” it’s not supposed to conclude with a magisterial declaration that fills the space once and for all. No, the whole point is that we are supposed to get comfortable living in the “tension” of the confusion created by “process.” The “process” we find ourselves in now is supposed to lead not necessarily to clarity, but to the next process.
So, don’t hold your breath waiting for a definitive statement from Pope Francis—there really appears to be a strategic ambiguity in the half-dozen paragraphs of Amoris Laetitia that seem applicable to the divorce-Communion question. At its core, the lack of clarity gives adequate cover for those in the Church who have already determined that it’s okay to give Communion to the divorced and “remarried.” Plus, it enables others eager to get off the fence on the issue and move overtly in the direction of permitting Communion in those situations.
Pope Francis is clearly willing to live in the tension created by a process that, on one hand, continues to uphold the indissolubility of marriage while, on the other hand, leads people to think that it’s sometimes okay to give Communion to someone in an irregular union. Perhaps even his own pastoral practice been lax in this regard, but I choose not to speculate on that. Some available evidence suggests it is possible (e.g., the 2014 report of his private phone call with an Argentine woman, in which she makes the claim he said she could receive Communion, even apart from confessing her ongoing irregular union).
So, why doesn’t he just go ahead and declare that it’s okay in some cases for the divorced-“remarried” to receive Communion? For the same reason, in my view, that the Canadian bishops’ “Winnipeg Statement” didn’t simply declare that the Pope was really in error in his teaching in Humanae Vitae.
Such a declaration would be an explicit overreach of authority that would seriously undermine the “process” itself. That is, for Francis, it would both pit him against his predecessors and run counter to the “time is greater than space” dictum of “process.” Any authoritative declaration falls in the forbidden realm of seeking to “dominate space”—it would be a mere power play.
Also, for those who already may be inclined to relax the Communion prohibition, it is the ambiguity itself that creates the conditions necessary to act in opposition to what used to be considered clear teaching. The “nuclear” option of reversing the doctrine isn’t necessary to achieve their desired result.
With the “Winnipeg Statement,” for example, the bishops acknowledged papal authority rather than rejecting it—they just didn’t explicitly say they agreed with it in the case of contraception. Also, a number of ambiguous assertions were made in just such a way as to be at some level true themselves while simultaneously, cumulatively, leading a reader toward a false conclusion. The statement left ample room for a Catholic to disregard the space-dominating “clear teaching” of Humane Vitae. Confessors and married couples could invoke the “Winnipeg Statement” if they wanted to contracept “in good conscience.”
Likewise, the handful of troublesome paragraphs in Amoris Laetitia yield a similar result. Of course, with effort they can be read and understood in a way that is faithful to the previous papal magisterium regarding the divorced-“remarried” and Communion. But, those who already are giving Communion to those in manifest grave sin—and those who wish to—will now be emboldened to do so, also, in supposedly “good conscience.”
In this manner, one document is understood to simultaneously uphold the indissolubility of marriage while also tolerating the giving of Communion to those persisting in irregular unions. The absolute “rule” is acknowledged, but its application will vary in concrete cases, making the consequences of the rule not-so-absolute after all.
Why will it vary? Because many think subjective circumstances are more important than the objective reality that the two people in question are not really husband and wife. Without getting into details in this article, the fundamental problem is fairly simple. People who “appear” to be married, who may even sincerely believe and behave as though they really are married, are led to believe that this false “appearance” isn’t the real problem at all—the only real problem is whether you are in a “state of grace,” or not. If you really think you are, then you should be able to receive Communion “in good conscience.”
Like the “Winnipeg Statement” which reduced the question of contraceptive use to the question of whether one believes “honestly” that it’s okay to contracept, we currently face a growing number of people who will gladly use the strategically ambiguous spots in Amoris Laetitia to justify their own erroneously formed consciences.
Such a spiritually dangerous “process” is wholly avoidable, but it requires someone willing to dominate a bit of “space” and make the truth taught by the Church crystal-clear.
I’m pleased to say that I do think there is such a presentation of the truth found in the papal magisterium. Only, it’s from the papal magisterium of 1983. It is a quote that I hope readers will remember and begin to use far and wide, and it seems fitting to give the “Pope of the Family” the final word:
It is absolutely necessary that the pastoral activity of the Christian community is totally faithful to what is taught by the Encyclical Humanae Vitae and the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio. It would be a grave mistake to contrast pastoral needs and doctrinal teachings, since the first service that the Church must make to man is to tell him the truth: that for which it is neither the author or the arbiter. (Para. 4)