The latest clarification of the proper interpretation of Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) raises new questions, with perhaps unexpected answers.

In September 2016, the bishops of the Buenos Aires pastoral region released guidelines for the interpretation of Chapter VIII of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, which addresses the situation of those in a sacramental marriage but living in conjugal union with someone else, perhaps civilly married.

On the same day the guidelines were released, the Pope wrote a private letter to the Buenos Aires bishops commending their efforts and saying that there were “no other interpretations.” This letter was first leaked to the press and then put on the Vatican website.

Pope Francis has now decreed that both the Buenos Aires guidelines and his letter be included in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis (Acts of the Apostolic See) as acts of the “authentic magisterium” of the Roman Pontiff. The AAS is like the official gazette of a government where official regulations are published. Not everything in the AAS is an exercise of the magisterium, but magisterial acts are recorded there.

The Buenos Aires guidelines were widely read as permitting, under limited circumstances related to reduced culpability, admission to confession and Holy Communion of those living in conjugal unions outside of a valid marriage.

However, the guidelines themselves could also be read as conforming to the prevailing teaching of the Church as found in St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. So the Buenos Aires text itself did not resolve the ambiguities in Amoris Laetitia. At the time, I examined the guidelines in detail.

As for the “no other interpretations” approval letter of Pope Francis, it was private correspondence. No matter how cleverly leaked to the press, it was not a magisterial act.

It is important to know what the Pope thinks but is not necessarily relevant to what the Pope is officially teaching. The papal letter had no standing. Now it does. What does that mean? There are six considerations that come to mind.

— First, it is a novelty. The letter to the Buenos Aires bishops now appears in the AAS as a formal apostolic letter, for example, like the Holy Father wrote to conclude the Jubilee of Mercy. It never was an apostolic letter before, not when it was written, not when it was received and not when leaked to the press.

An apostolic letter is not private correspondence. Yet what appears in the official record is now something that heretofore did not exist. Nevertheless, its curious retroactive change in status does not impinge on its authority. It now is an apostolic letter, even if it wasn’t when Pope Francis wrote it.

— Second, what the Holy Father meant when he wrote that “there are no other interpretations” is itself in need of further clarification. Does he mean that all interpretations other than the Buenos Aires guidelines are to be ignored, like those of, for example, the Holy Father’s own Diocese of Rome? That can’t possibly be the case.

Indeed, if only the Buenos Aires guidelines are correct, then it would rule out Pope Francis’ own 2014 telephone advice to a divorced-and-civilly-remarried woman in Argentina — without any pastoral accompaniment — to receive Holy Communion in another parish after her pastor advised her otherwise. So it must mean only those guidelines that are in conformity with the Buenos Aires guidelines are accurate reflections of Amoris Laetitia.

— Third, that raises the question of which guidelines could be read as compatible with Buenos Aires.

Though differing in emphasis, the guidelines of Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia and the bishops of Alberta and the Northwest Territories do not contradict Buenos Aires. So they would appear to be valid.

That’s not the case for the bishops of Malta, whose guidelines go much further than Buenos Aires, with a wholly different understanding of conscience. Therefore, it would appear that the upgraded apostolic letter makes room for Philadelphia and Alberta, but rules out Malta. That is counterintuitive, but is a reasonable reading of what “no other interpretations” means.

— Fourth, does the new apostolic letter contradict Amoris Laetitia itself? Perhaps so, for in No. 300, Pope Francis writes that “priests have the duty to ‘accompany [the divorced and remarried] in helping them to understand their situation according to the teaching of the Church and the guidelines of the bishop …’”

If the bishop is to establish guidelines, but the Buenos Aires guidelines are the only guidelines possible, what is the point?

Paragraph 300 opens with the observation that “if we consider the immense variety of concrete situations such as those I have mentioned, it is understandable that neither the synod nor this exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases.”

What, then, is the difference between guidelines about which there are “no other interpretations” and general rules that cannot be provided? Are the Buenos Aires guidelines general rules or local rules to be mandated generally?

— Fifth, the Buenos Aires apostolic letter does not address directly the key question that Amoris Laetitia raised, which is how to resolve apparent conflicts between it and previous, clearly expressed magisterial teaching.

For example, Amoris Laetitia No. 303 teaches:

“Naturally, every effort should be made to encourage the development of an enlightened conscience, formed and guided by the responsible and serious discernment of one’s pastor, and to encourage an ever greater trust in God’s grace. Yet conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal.”

That appears to conflict with the teaching of St. John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor, which says that an intrinsically sinful act, if understood to be so, can never be done, much less be what God himself is asking.

The Buenos Aires guidelines do not address specifically that question, but the thrust of the guidelines actually militates against such a “creative” view of conscience. It is therefore possible that the Buenos Aires guidelines discreetly demur from the teaching of Amoris Laetitia, 303, a demurral that it is now officially endorsed by the Holy Father. That confusion would be dizzying.

— Sixth, and further to the point above, the Buenos Aires guidelines seek to resolve the ambiguities in the Pope’s exhortation by restricting themselves to the grounds of reduced culpability, i.e., that one cannot be guilty of a mortal sin if there is no freedom to act otherwise. That is not in contradiction with previous teaching and is a pastoral principle often applied in matters relating to chastity.

Cardinal Marc Ouellet, in a September 2017 address to the Canadian bishops, subsequently published in L’Osservatore Romano, explicitly states that this is only as far as Amoris Laetitia goes:

“The novelty of Amoris Laetitia consists in offering benchmarks to assess extenuating circumstances that diminish the subjective imputability of an objective state of sin and thus lift an obstacle to sacramental life.”

The novelty is not changing the norm nor does it change the role of conscience, but rather clarifies the factors that mitigate culpability.

Should Cardinal Ouellet’s careful address find itself, in future, elevated in the AAS to the status of “authentic magisterium,” it does offer a response — in a footnote, suitably enough! — to the apparent conflict between Amoris Laetitia, 303, and Veritatis Splendor. Cardinal Ouellet flatly concludes that Amoris Laetitia “does not distance itself from Veritatis Splendor with respect to the question of determining the objective morality of human acts and of the fundamental role of conscience as a ‘witness’ to the divine law inscribed in the sacred depths of each person.”

The Buenos Aires guidelines are less explicit, but are easily read in the same vein as Cardinal Ouellet’s address, namely that Amoris Laetitia has to be read in light of Veritatis Splendor. Does the new apostolic letter of Pope Francis implicitly concede that point?

If we assume communications between Curial cardinals are functioning well, it is likely that Cardinal Ouellet knew about the apostolic letter upgrade when he addressed the Canadian bishops in September.

Where does all this leave us? In much of the same place, though with the clarification that the most adventurous interpretations of Amoris Laetitia, like those in Malta, are now definitively ruled out.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the

editor in chief of Convivium magazine.