One of Pope Francis’ closest advisers has given an interpretation of Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) that contributes marginally to understanding both the substance and the style of the apostolic exhortation.

On substance, the commentary by Archbishop Víctor Fernández clarifies the very narrow ground on which the innovations in Amoris Laetitia stand. On style, the commentary appears to do the Holy Father a disservice, as it suggests a rather cavalier approach to the papal magisterium.

Archbishop Fernández is the rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina in Buenos Aires. He was appointed to that post in 2009 by Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, then the archbishop of Buenos Aires, and made an archbishop soon after the latter’s election as pope in 2013.

He is described variously as a papal confidante, protégé and ghostwriter of the major documents of Pope Francis. Just as St. John Paul II entrusted the theological framework of his pontificate to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, one might say that Pope Francis has chosen Archbishop Fernández for a similar role, though without the formal office.

The archbishop’s Spanish-language commentary has been reported on in English by Austen Ivereigh, author of a well-received biography of Pope Francis.

On substance, Archbishop Fernández insists that the basic framework on the Church’s moral and sacramental teaching has remained unchanged. Objectively, it is always a grave sin to have sexual relations outside of marriage, all the more so when one party is validly married to someone else. This would be the case with those who are validly married in the Church but have civilly divorced and remarried.

Subjectively, one’s own conscience, Archbishop Fernández insists, cannot make what is objectively wrong subjectively permissible.

If one is guilty of grave (mortal) sin, such as the above case, it is not permissible to receive Holy Communion without first receiving sacramental absolution, for which a firm purpose of amendment is required.

Archbishop Fernández restates the long-standing principle that someone might have committed a gravely sinful act but not be subjectively culpable of it. That is not controversial. The person in question may not know that the act is gravely sinful, but that does not apply in the cases dealt with by Amoris Laetitia, as the persons in question must know and “love the Church’s teaching.”

That leaves the question of consent. It is possible, through coercion or for other reasons, to commit a sinful act but not to fully consent to it? This is not infrequently the case with habitual sins against chastity, such as pornography or masturbation.

It is not hard to imagine cases where a couple not validly married might know that they should refrain from sexual relations, and desire to do so, but find it difficult — or worse, in the case of one partner being unwilling.

“Francis’ great innovation is to allow for a pastoral discernment in the realm of the internal forum to have practical consequences in the manner of applying the discipline,” Archbishop Fernández writes.

It remains unclear what exactly this means. Archbishop Fernández affirms that, according to Amoris Laetitia, couples not validly married — like the divorced and civilly remarried — should refrain from sexual relations. If they truly cannot do so, they may not be culpable of grave sin; imagine a man who threatens violence against a woman who desires to refrain from sexual relations.

But Archbishop Fernández offers a possibility that looks something like this: A couple knows that their lifestyle is gravely sinful objectively. They desire to bring their life into conformity with the Gospel. But for the time being, they decide that they must continue to have sexual relations, and for this decision they are not subjectively culpable of grave sin. Therefore, they are able to participate in the sacraments.

This is an extremely narrow ground that would certainly exclude the majority of couples who are divorced and civilly remarried. Even at that, those few cases still appear to be at odds with the papal magisterium, as outlined in three recent apostolic exhortations, Familiaris Consortio (1981), Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (1984) and Sacramentum Caritatis (2007), and the principal encyclical on the Church’s moral teaching, Veritatis Splendor (1993).

If Archbishop Fernández is correct in his analysis — and though he is close to Pope Francis, his commentary is not an official clarification — then, for example, the guidelines put out by the German bishops and the Maltese bishops are not a faithful application, because they do not narrow the ground of discernment sufficiently. That is the key news of Archbishop Fernández’s commentary: that his logic excludes the guidelines in Germany and Malta. Indeed, even the Buenos Aires guidelines, which Archbishop Fernández praises, are much narrower than often reported. I commented here on that at the time.

All of which still leaves some key points rather confused. For example, Archbishop Fernández’s comments on the style of Amoris Laetitia are noteworthy. The most delicate and controverted material was relegated to an ambiguous footnote (351) that the Holy Father himself said he did not remember when asked about it on an airplane. Why that peculiar choice?

Apparently the Holy Father wanted to treat that question “in a discreet way,” so as not to distract from the previous chapters on married love. Archbishop Fernández concedes that the resulting “furor” meant that that approach failed.

Archbishop Fernández further argues that the Pope’s private letter, subsequently leaked to the press, to the bishops of Buenos Aires is a legitimate clarification on a papal apostolic exhortation. That position is even more curious, suggesting that the Pope chooses to remain ambiguous and unclear in a document addressed to the entire Church, only to teach more clearly in a slightly less ambiguous private letter awaiting a press leak.

Why should such an important question, relating to the doctrines of marriage, the Eucharist and confession, in apparent contradiction to existing teaching, be dealt with “in a discreet way”? How can the papal magisterium, addressed by its very nature to the entire Church and the world, be “discreetly” exercised? And what does “discreet” even mean in the context of a papal document highly anticipated on a controverted question?

Certainly Archbishop Fernández was not implying that the Holy Father was trying to sneak something past the Church, which is absurd on the face of it. But his own analysis presents a rather cavalier approach to the magisterium: that difficult topics can be somehow passed over without the proper treatment they deserve. That is, it must be stressed, not what Pope Francis has said. It is the view of Archbishop Fernández, his confidante, which is not the same thing.

And so another question emerges from the Amoris Laetitia confusion. Why would Archbishop Fernández think it helpful to Pope Francis to characterize his exercise of the magisterium in this way?

Father Raymond J. de Souza

is editor in chief

of Convivium magazine.