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It's Even Worse than I thought:
The Distinction Between an Apostolic Letter and an Apostolic Epistle

by Christopher A. Ferrara
December 20, 2017

An article at Life Site News by the respected theologian Father Brian Harrison, O.S., has educated me to a distinction respecting papal teaching documents of which I was not aware: that between an Epistula Apostolica (literally, Apostolic Epistle) and a Litterae Apostolicae (literally, Apostolic Letter). As Father Harrison notes, the publication in the AAS of Pope Francis’ letter to the Buenos Aires bishops approving of their reading of Amoris Laetitia (AL) to allow admission of certain public adulterers to Holy Communion, but not others, based on the nebulous criterion of “complex circumstances,” assigns the status of Epistula Apostolica to the letter, not Litterae Apostolicae.

Father Harrison further notes that “when in 1994 Pope St. John Paul II ruled out women priests with ‘definitive’, binding language, he used an Apostolic Epistle, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, to do so. Many theologians (including myself) believe John Paul’s language manifestly marks this as a second-degree, but nonetheless infallible, ex cathedra definition… The AAS indices show, in fact, that this class of document, per se, ranks third in magisterial authority after Encyclical Letters and Apostolic Exhortations.”

This additional fact poses a massive problem for the “normalist” narrative in its pretension — there is nothing else one can call it at this point — that Pope Francis has not actually attempted to abuse the very Magisterium in his drive to institutionalize the toleration of public adultery in the sacramental life of the Church. 

As Father Harrison puts it: “So there’s no getting around the doctrinal upheaval now confronting us. Peter’s current Successor seems to have told all Catholics in no uncertain terms that as of December 2, 2017 we must accept as orthodox and true something that until the previous day we were always required to reject as unorthodox and false! That is, Pope Francis is apparently telling us all to start holding that some divorced and invalidly remarried people – people Jesus himself says are committing adultery – are to be given sacramental absolution and Holy Communion without any commitment to ‘go, and sin no more’ (Jn. 8: 11).”

Father Harrison makes short work of the ridiculous attempt by “normalist” commentators to demonstrate that this absurd doctrinal about-face is not really an about-face. He quotes the example of Cardinal Mark Ouellet’s defense of the traditional teaching before the rigged “Synod of the Family.” Quoth the Cardinal: “It is not a lack of mercy on the part of the Church if she does not authorize sacramental absolution and eucharistic Communion, even after an authentic conversion of the divorced and remarried person. What is at stake is Christ’s fidelity to his own witness, which the Church does not feel free to modify lest she betray the truth that is the foundation of the indissolubility of marriage.”

“Now, however,” writes Father Harrison, “Ouellet sings a very different tune.” In a desperate attempt to square the circle, Ouellet’s recent essay on AL, as summarized by Father Harrison, “seriously suggests that in certain cases – only after much dialogical pastoral accompaniment and merciful discernment, mind you – adulterous Catholics should receive the sacraments (a nod here to Pope Francis) so they’ll receive the grace to realize they should not be receiving the sacraments (a nod to John Paul)!”

Yes, it is just that ridiculous. And I quite agree with the sentiment Father Harrison expresses: “I would be inclined to cry, rather than laugh, at such theological and pastoral nonsense, because I think that, unlike Shakespeare’s wily Mark Antony, Marc Ouellet is not deliberately trying to send his audience the opposite message to the one he ostensibly professes. To me he comes across as a painfully conflicted man, struggling to combine a genuine sense of loyalty owed to Peter’s current successor with that owed to all his predecessors who taught the contrary doctrine.”

Father Harrison goes on to discuss the “authentic Magisterium,” of which he assumes the subject Apostolic Epistle is truly a part, and then declares: “I’m suspending my own assent in this present case [because of] the strangely anomalous character of the new Apostolic Epistle. Unlike all other documents in this category that I’m aware of, it not only lacks its own title; it lacks any doctrinal content whatsoever! It simply points down to a separate document (the Argentinian draft pastoral letter), and affirms generically that everything that document says – which would include its practical pastoral statements as well as its doctrinal ones – interprets a third document, Amoris Laetitia, correctly.”

But what if Pope Francis had simply declared flatly and directly in a separate and distinct Apostolic Epistle: “Certain public adulterers may receive Holy Communion given their complex circumstances, without a prior amendment of life”? Would we have to believe this merely because Francis had said it in a way that left no wiggle room? That is, would we, to quote Father Harrison again, be obliged to believe that “as of December 2, 2017 we must accept as orthodox and true something that until the previous day we were always required to reject as unorthodox and false”?

This simply cannot be. Not if the terms “authentic Magisterium” and “orthodox” have any objective meaning.  But of course they do, and what Francis or any other Pope teaches must conform to that objective meaning.  The Pope is the guardian of the Magisterium, not its author, for the Magisterium expounds what God has revealed, not what a given Pope thinks.  And God does not change His mind.

So now we find ourselves in precisely those circumstances foretold in the Third Secret of Fatima: the final battle over marriage and family in which only the intercession of the Mother of God will bring victory for the Faith along with the Triumph of Her Immaculate Heart.  It is the height of folly for the normalists to continue to pretend otherwise.