Who Interprets the Interpreters? A Question to Roman Catholics in Light of the Debate over ‘Amoris Laetitia’

The focus of this post is fairly straightforward: I have a question to pose to my Roman Catholic friends and dialogue/debate partners. It is a question I have long considered in that it directly impinges upon the historic debate revolving around the authority of Scripture vis-à-vis the authority of the church, especially in relation to biblical interpretation. Before I get to my question, however, I want to begin with excerpts from two articles posted this month on the National Catholic Register. As will become apparent from the quoted sections, the specific issue being addressed is the confusion over the meaning of certain statements made by Pope Francis in his apostolic exhortation on marriage and the family, Amoris Laetitia. Yet, as I will explain below, this particular issue seems, at least from my perspective, only to bring to light a much deeper difficulty in the Catholic Church’s view of interpretive authority that usually tends to lay hidden below the surface. First, though, the articles.

The first was reported by CNA/EWTN News (full text here):

BOLOGNA, Italy — In an interview with an Italian daily published Saturday, Cardinal Carlo Caffarra discussed at length the questions that exist about the interpretation of Amoris laetitia, Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on love in the family. Cardinal Caffarra, the archbishop emeritus of Bologna who was head of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family from 1981 to 1995, spoke to Matteo Matzuzzi of Il Foglio in an interview published Jan. 14He is among the four cardinals do922-amoris-laetitiawho authored a letter with five dubia, or doubts, about the interpretation of Amoris Laetitia, requesting that Pope Francis “resolve the uncertainties and bring clarity.” Their letter was sent privately to the Pope Sept. 19, but released to the public two months later.

The letter and its dubia “were long reflected on, for months. … For my part, they were also the subject of lengthy prayer before the Most Blessed Sacrament,” Cardinal Caffarra explained to Il FoglioThe four cardinals believed themselves obliged to submit the dubia because of their role in counseling the Pope and because of “the fact … that in the Church there exists great confusion, uncertainty, insecurity caused by some paragraphs of Amoris Laetitia.” “In these months, in terms of fundamental questions regarding the sacramental economy (marriage, confession and the Eucharist) and the Christian life, some bishops have said A, some others have said the contrary of A, with the intention of interpreting well the same text.”

Cardinal Caffarra said that “the way out of this ‘conflict of interpretations’ was to have recourse to fundamental theological criteria of interpretation, the use of which I think can reasonably demonstrate that Amoris Laetitia does not contradict Familiaris Consortio.” And yet, he said, “We saw that this epistemological model would not suffice. The contrast between the two interpretations continued,” and so the only way to address the question was to ask the author of Amoris Laetitia to clarify it.

Out of respect for the Pope, the four cardinals chose to submit their dubia privately, deciding to make them public only “when we had certainty that the Holy Father would not respond. … We interpreted his silence as authorization to continue the theological discussion. And, moreover, the problem profoundly involves both the magisterium of the bishops (which, lest we forget, they exercise not by the delegation of the Pope, but on the basis of the sacrament which they have received) and the life of the faithful.”

The cardinal noted that scandal on the part of the faithful had been growing, “as though we comported ourselves like the dogs who did not bark,” alluding to Isaiah 56:10, in which the prophet says the Lord’s watchmen “are all mute dogs; they cannot bark; dreaming, lying down, loving to slumber.”…Cardinal Caffarra pointed to the example of a pastor who had written him saying, “In spiritual direction and in confession, I don’t know what to say” when confronted by penitents who wish to receive Communion despite their adulterous situation, and they cite the Pope in their defense. “The situation of many pastors of souls, I mean above all parish priests, is this,” the cardinal continued: “There is on their shoulders a burden too hard to bear.”

In another article published on 23 January (full text here), Fr. Raymond J. de Souza has this to say about the issue:

The Church opened 2017 with another ride on the Amoris Laetitia roller coaster, with bishops issuing contradictory guidelines on the interpretation of its ambiguous eighth chapter. The most notable intervention was that of the bishops of Malta, who wrote explicitly that Catholics who are divorced and civilly remarried, should they feel “at peace with God,” can receive absolution in confession and holy Communion…The Maltese guidelines were published in L’Osservatore Romano, the official newspaper of the Vatican, suggesting that Pope Francis favors the proposed change in the traditional sacramental discipline.

I had written last year that Amoris Laetitia is destined to be forgotten, as it does not itself address with sufficient gravity the key issues at stake. The relevant canons from the Code of Canon Law (915 and 916) are simply never mentioned. Indeed, the question of Communion is never explicitly mentioned, only hinted at in an ambiguous footnote. Given the long and detailed tradition it was attempting to modify, if not overturn, Amoris Laetitia would have had to address the relevant issues forthrightly and with a great deal more sophistication than it does. The magisterium is a public act of teaching; it cannot proceed by stealth.

I stand by that earlier assessment, but before Amoris Laetitia is set aside for practical purposes, it is now likely that there will be several years of confusion, conflict and even rancor, unless the Holy Father chooses to resolve the crisis. He does not appear inclined to do so. Given that Amoris Laetitia itself is the cause of the contradictions now arising, it is not evident that a further papal intervention would resolve the matter. It is possible that it would produce a genuine crisis.

Without getting into the details of the debate, I only want to take advantage of this occasion to pose a question that I have had on my mind for a while now. The question is simply this: who interprets the interpreters? That is to say, if, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church (85) declares, “The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone”, then who interprets, for the rest of the Church, the interpretation of the living teaching office, if and when that interpretation is unclear?

 Under normal circumstances, the gravity of this question may not be particularly apparent. As long as everyone in the Church seems to agree, then the potential problem stays hidden. However, when it happens that (as is happening right now according to the aforementioned articles) the interpretation of the living teaching office of the Church is disputed, then who decides what the correct interpretation actually is? In the current situation, an appeal to the supreme teaching authority of the pope in order to resolve the issue seems out of the question, not only because the confusion originated from him to begin with, but also because the request for clarification has already been made and thus far the pope has refused to give one. Moreover, the rest of the teaching office does not seem capable of providing an authoritative interpretation inasmuch as its members do not seem to be in full agreement among themselves.

Now what is the relevance of this to the question of sola Scriptura? One of the most common rebuttals that I have heard in response to my own writings on this matter is that sola Scriptura leaves us stranded in a sea of interpretive pluralism, far from the secure moorings of the authoritative interpretation given by the one true church. When Scripture is considered the highest authority, then who can decide which interpretation of Scripture is correct and thus normative for the church? biblical-interpretation-imageIt is this lack of interpretive authority that, according to many Roman Catholics, leads to the endless splintering of Protestantism into thousands of different denominations.

I would suggest, however, that Roman Catholics face a similar dilemma. On the one hand, of course, the living teaching office of their Church appears to supply the authority necessary for determining the proper interpretation of Scripture. On the other hand, this really only pushes the question of interpretation back a step, for who is to provide an authoritative interpretation of the authoritative interpretation when the latter is unclear? If it is answered that the teaching office interprets itself, then my counterquestion would be this: why should the teaching office be granted the privilege and authority of self-interpretation but not Scripture, as Protestants have historically maintained? Many Catholics insist that the Protestant principle of “Scripture interpreting Scripture” is circular and impractical. But why then do they not react the same way to the idea that “the teaching office interprets the teaching office”? Isn’t this just as circular and impractical as the Protestant position to which they object?

Not only is this problem evident in the confusion over Amoris Laetitia, but it can also be seen in the still-ongoing debate over the proper interpretation, or at least the proper application, of Vatican II. To be sure, Pope Benedict XVI attempted to cut through the chaos with his concept of “reform in continuity”. Yet a survey of the relevant literature still being produced today shows that the controversies are far from over. Therefore, regardless of whatever may be claimed by the Catholic Church about the rock-solid certainty that its own interpretive authority provides, the reality, as illustrated currently by Amoris Laetitia and for the last 50 years by the aftermath of Vatican II, is that even the interpreters need to be interpreted, and thus the rock of certainty can still dissolve into a quicksand of confusion.

To conclude, I will simply say that while none of this proves that sola Scriptura is a better option (though of course I’m convinced it is!), it reveals that the Catholic Church’s teaching office offers no surer foundation upon which to ground the correct interpretation of the Bible than does the Protestant commitment to the supreme authority and self-interpreting power of what the Westminster Confession calls “the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture”.


4 thoughts on “Who Interprets the Interpreters? A Question to Roman Catholics in Light of the Debate over ‘Amoris Laetitia’

  1. Steven 28 January 2017 / 08:20

    Good article–it’s certainly a challenge to try and respond to it. You’ve stuck your finger right on the nerve of a question that I think we as Catholics tend to overlook or downplay, especially when it comes to apologetics and polemics. I don’t have an easy answer to this question (and I’m generally suspicious of quick and easy answers to complex issues), but I will offer up a few thoughts that come to mind. I strongly suspect you’re more well-versed in church history than I, but allow me to run down the rabbit trail here. The first thing is that when it comes to large-scale ecclesial controversies, I think the clarity often comes to us in hindsight. This situation with Pope Francis and the dubia sort of reminds me of the controversy that engulfed the early church, over the question of whether or not certain sins could be remitted by the church’s authority, after baptism. Many believed there were a few grave sins that couldn’t be remitted if committed after baptism, while others took a more merciful approach and said that all sins could be forgiven through penance. I think the situation was so widespread that it really depended on what the local bishop thought, as to how penance was handled for the case of those who renounced their faith under persecution but wanted to return to the church afterward. The situation eventually came to resolution by way of consensus within the church, but it was a long road. I think the severest test the church faced was probably the Arian controversy, which almost destroyed Christianity entirely. Somehow by a miracle, orthodox Christianity won the day, but only through a long and painful process. All of this of course, occurred pre-schism, long before the rise of what we would call the contemporary Roman Catholicism system, so the analogy isn’t perfect. A more contemporary Roman Catholic-specific example would be the various papal schisms that left the church in confusion; papal authority was greatly tested during these situations but somehow the Catholic church survived and kept going, with the resolution realized in hindsight. I try to imagine myself in the shoes of an ordinary layperson back during these days, and I’m sure there was much temptation to question the church’s authority, and I imagine many were scandalized by the lack of consensus on these important issues. Much how we have it today; when it comes to Communion and irregular marriage situations, how that question is handled really depends on the local bishop or even just the local parish. For those who have the need for everything to be black and white, I know this situation is trying to their faith. I’ve learned however, to live comfortably within the tension and I trust that this situation will eventually be resolved with the church reaching a consensus, though maybe not in my lifetime (and I’m only 32).

    Now, the difficult part is answering you on how we can hold the church’s magisterial authority as superior to the idea of sola scriptura? For me, the answer really just boils down to a matter of faith and of which historical narrative of Christianity makes the most sense to you. Whether we speak of Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, or Eastern Orthodoxy, we all eventually run into the problem of circular reasoning when it comes to certain questions of ecclesial authority. As unsatisfying as it sounds, it’s simply inevitable. All I can say from my point of view, is that my understanding of church history consistently leads me to conclude that Roman Catholicism makes the most sense, if Christianity is to be believed. Eastern Orthodoxy comes in a close second for me, but the Roman Church still provides the most coherent narrative of the story of Christianity. The fact that there are unresolved problems in the narratives does not bother me anymore, because I’ve learned that all forms of Christianity run into their own unresolved problems in their own unique ways. Alternatively, I could reject Christianity as just another man-made religion, but I’m far too convinced of the historical death and resurrection of Jesus to do such a thing, and I simply love Jesus too much to go on living without Him.

    I hope this non-answer helps 🙂 Perhaps a more knowledgeable Roman Catholic could provide a more satisfying answer, and perhaps I could go into greater detail for you, but I will end this long comment with that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan Kleis 28 January 2017 / 11:31

      Steven, I find your answer actually quite insightful. I can’t say that I’m surprised, in fact it is precisely what I would have expected a thoughtful Catholic to say. I say that because I am conversing with others right now who simply want to wave their hands and dismiss the question altogether. So I appreciate your thoughtful response.

      I think that you hit the nail on the head when you said that it “really just boils down to a matter of faith”. I have made this observation myself many times before, and it is one that I was trying to get at once again in this post. Like I said at the end, we both are putting our faith somewhere. For Catholics, it is faith in the Spirit-guided interpretive authority of the Church. Thus, when confusion or dissension arises, the Catholic has faith that sooner or later the Church will come to one mind over the debate in question. For Protestants, it is faith in the Spirit-guided interpretive authority of Scripture itself, which is another way of saying that we believe that despite whatever misinterpretations may be made, we trust that God will nevertheless accomplish the purpose for which he inspired Scripture. By saying this I don’t want to imply that you don’t have faith in God (which of course I know you do). I’m just trying to elaborate a bit on the point that you made about it being a matter of faith to say that I couldn’t agree more.

      So yes, your “non-answer” (which is actually much better than any other answer I’ve received!) is helpful, and I appreciate you taking the time to respond. I do want to say that I am fully with you on the indispensable role of the Church in interpreting Scripture throughout history, and I think that is something that unfortunately many evangelicals/fundamentalists/Protestants don’t understand. At the same time, I still want to allow for the possibility that Scripture has the authority (only, of course, because it is GOD’s word) to judge and correct the Church’s interpretation and that this has indeed occurred at various points, the Reformation being one example (although the Reformers didn’t get everything right!).

      Thanks again for your thoughts! It’s good to hear from you again.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. warrington 29 January 2017 / 08:20

    Steven (32 years)- Wow!!! I am 55+ a catholic and I thank God for the humility and insight of persons like you. Johnathan Kleis Response – Wow!!! another humble response. There is no doubt you are both men of God. With debate or conversations in matters across the Tiber, held as you have shown by your example, I have no doubt Gods truth will be delivered to His people.

    Liked by 2 people

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