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A footnote in history – has Pope Francis gone too far?

By Cian Molloy - 21 November, 2016

Efforts by Pope Francis to create a more forgiving, more accommodating Church may be set back if a group of cardinals organise a ‘formal act of correction’ against him and Amoris Laetitia, the apostolic exhortation on love in the family.

The exhortation, whose Latin name translates as ‘the joy of love’, was issued following the synods on the family held in Rome in 2014 and 2015. Overall, the exhortation has been generally welcomed, with Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh saying it was “very much in tune with the concrete realities of everyday life”.

Amoris LaetitiaThere are some, however, who believe Pope Francis has gone too far in Chapter 8, titled ‘Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness’. This chapter explores the issue of divorced and remarried Catholics having access to the Eucharist. A footnote to this chapter, Footnote 351, is proving particularly contentious.

After considering a number of situations – including where a married person is abandoned by their husband and wife and they then remarry – Pope Francis writes “it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end”.

Here, footnote 351 elaborates Pope Francis’s thinking by quoting from Evangelii Gaudium, his apostolic exhortation on evangelisation in the modern world, which was published in 2013 and is seen as the pope’s manifesto for Church reform. The quotes are: “the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy” and “the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak”.

Some believe this to be at odds with Church teaching, particularly as articulated by Pope Saint John Paul II. An apostolic exhortation does not have the same authority as a papal encyclical; it may encourage a particular activity or activities, but it should not define Church doctrine.

Four cardinals – Walter Brandmuller, Raymond Burke, Carlo Caffarra and Joachim Meisner – wrote to the pontiff calling on Pope Francis to “resolve the uncertainties and bring clarity” to the contents of Amoris Laetitia. In particular they listed five dubia, or doubts, about the contents of the document.

Last week, during a wide-ranging interview with Avvenire, a newspaper published by the Italian bishops, Pope Francis said his critics suffered from “a certain legalism, which can be idealogical”.

Since then Cardinal Burke has upped the stakes further, telling the National Catholic Register that if the Pope did not respond to the cardinals’ letter: “Then we would have to address that situation. There is, in the tradition of the Church, the practice of correction of the Roman Pontiff. It is something that is clearly quite rare. But if there is no response to these questions, then I would say that it would be a question of taking a formal act of correction of a serious error.”

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