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Lawler Still Doesn't (or Won't) Get It

by Christopher A. Ferrara
December 18, 2017

Even as he prepares to launch his own book-length critique of what he himself calls “this disastrous papacy,” sensationally entitled “Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis is Misleading His Flock,” it seems Philip Lawler is still clinging to the last remaining shreds of the “normalist” narrative.

Responding to criticism of for its failure to offer any commentary on the publication of the Pope’s letter to the Argentine bishops on the implementation of Amoris Laetitia (AL) in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis (AAS), along with a papal rescript declaring the letter to be “authentic Magisterium,” Lawler denies that the development has any real importance.  According to him, “Not much was changed by the appearance of the Pope’s letter in Acta Apostolicae Sedis, or by Cardinal Parolin’s announcement that the papal statement was magisterial.”

Lawler continues to maintain that “a private letter from the Pope cannot be seen on the same level as a formal papal document, even if that letter is later made public.”  Come on, now.  Pope Francis has done more than merely making a private letter public, and Lawler knows it.  The papal rescript declares that the missive is now elevated to the status of an “apostolic letter” and that the “apostolic letter” along with the Argentinian guidelines it approves are “authentic Magisterium.” 

Of course, despite the label Francis applies to it, the letter is not “authentic Magisterium” — not because the letter is “private” but rather because it contradicts what the Magisterium has always taught respecting access to the sacraments by the divorced and “remarried.”  But Lawler will not go there. Instead, Lawler insists that “Insofar as Pope Francis made a magisterial statement on marriage, he made it in Amoris Laetitia.”

Seriously?  Francis has expressly declared that his letter to the Argentine bishops is an “apostolic letter” and that his approval of their interpretation of ALis “authentic Magisterium.” Yet Lawler refuses to engage with the implications of the label Pope Francis slaps on his novelty in a transparent attempt to force us to accept it as authentic Catholic teaching on faith and morals.

Citing the view of canonist Ed Peters, which I address here, Lawler next argues that despite Francis’ self-evident approval of a heterodox reading of AL as the only correct interpretation, “the Code of Canon Law (specifically Canon 915) requires priests to withhold Communion from Catholics in those circumstances. No one disputes the authority of Pope Francis to change canon law, but he has not changed [his emphasis] Canon 915, and so it remains in force, with its own ‘magisterial authority.’”

Like Peters, then, Lawler simply assumes that so long as Francis does not “change canon law” by expressly “repealing” Canon 915, the divorced and “remarried” are still forbidden to receive Holy Communion without an amendment of life.  But Pope Francis cannot simply “change canon law” in this regard, because, as John Paul II insisted, Canon 915 is rooted in the divine law and is not subject to change.

Lawler concludes with the following argument:

“The Roman Pontiff can speak with authority on questions of faith and morals, but he cannot overrule the laws of logic. In his letter to the Argentine bishops, applauding their understanding of his apostolic exhortation Pope Francis declared: ‘There are no other interpretations.’ But there are other interpretations. Some bishops say that Amoris Laetitia upholds the traditional teaching of the Church; others say that the document changes those teachings. These interpretations are incompatible. The Argentine bishops’ document, like the Pope’s apostolic exhortation, leaves crucial questions unanswered. Until those questions are answered clearly, nothing much is accomplished by the claim that the reigning confusion has ‘magisterial authority.”

Excuse me, but now Lawler — contradicting the usual “normalist” line on papal authority — appears to be pitting some bishops against Pope Francis because they reject what Francis says is the only correct interpretation of AL, an interpretation he now “officially” declares to be “authentic Magisterium.” But how can some bishops reject the “authentic Magisterium” if it really is the authentic Magisterium?

Lawler’s arguments are simply a dodge of the real issue: that Pope Francis has uttered a false teaching he is attempting to pass off as “authentic Magisterium” by falsely labelling it as such. This is not merely a question of “confusion” or dueling interpretations.  Francis has made himself perfectly clear: he means to impose error on the Church, if that were possible.  Lawler does not do the Church any good by pretending otherwise.  And his stance in this regard is all the more puzzling in view of the subtitle of his upcoming book: “How Pope Francis is Misleading His Flock”.