Changes in canon law don’t come quickly, as the ongoing reception of Amoris Laetitia since its promulgation in April 2016 is currently reminding us. But the news this week that Pope Francis has officially recognized the interpretation of Chapter VIII of the exhortation put forth by Argentine bishops indicates that change does nevertheless occur. That interpretation, on “accompanying, discerning, and integrating weakness” in regard to the issuing of sacraments, was expressed in a September 2016 pastoral letter that was also addressed to Francis. It includes guidelines noting that there is no such thing as “unrestricted access to the sacraments,” but that in some situations a process of discernment “opens the possibility” to receipt of communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. In accepting that interpretation, Francis wrote (in Spanish) to the delegate of the pastoral region of Buenos Aires that “it fully explains the meaning of Chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia. There is no other interpretation. And I’m sure it will do a lot of good.”
This counts as big news, but there are also some additional interesting facts about it. One is that Francis made his approval of this local interpretation public by having the epistolary exchange published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, the official gazette of the Holy See (available online here, pp. 1071-1074). It’s also worth noting what appears at the end of Francis’s letter: specification of the pope’s will, communicated in an audience on June 5, 2017, that “these two documents [the letters] be published on the Vatican website and in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, as authentic magisterium [velut Magisterium authenticum].” This not only expresses Francis’s “authentic interpretation” of that particular passage of Amoris Laetitia, but also elevates that interpretation to the level of official Church teaching. The constitution of Vatican II on the Church, Lumen Gentium, paragraph 25, codifies the meaning of “authentic magisterium” this way: “[R]eligious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will.”
Papal approval of the Argentine guidelines means for certain that “it will now be more difficult to defend any opposition to this ‘open’ interpretation of Amoris Laetitia’s Chapter VIII”, as Marie Malzac wrote in La Croix International. Just as certain is that there will be another wave of reactions from those who think Francis’s teaching on family and marriage is not Catholic, accusations that were already being leveled at the synods of 2014 and 2015, well ahead of the publication of Amoris Laetitia.