A Handbook for Faithfully Interpreting Amoris Laetitia

Stephan Kampowski, who co-authored the handbook, explains how the authors hope their work will provide a definitive interpretation in continuity with the Church’s magisterium.

(photo: Pixabay)

VATICAN CITY — Since Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) was published last April, bishops around the world have interpreted the document differently.

This is especially true of its most contentious passages in Chapter 8, dealing with whether to admit some remarried divorcees, living in an objective state of adultery, to the sacraments.

Some bishops’ conferences, such as in Malta and Germany, have interpreted it as loosely allowing such Catholics to the sacraments without a clear amendment of life, while other ordinaries, such as the Canadian bishops of Alberta, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia and Bishop Steven Lopes of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter in the United States, have interpreted it strictly in continuity with the magisterium of past popes, most notably Pope St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

To help provide a definitive interpretation in continuity with the Church’s teaching and Tradition, three professors of the Pope St. John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome — Father Jose Granados, Stephan Kampowski and Father Juan Jose Perez-Soba — have written a handbook for bishops, priests and laity.

The handbook, called a “vademecum,” is entitled Accompanying, Discerning, Integrating: A Handbook for the Pastoral Care of the Family According to Amoris Laetitia.

In this April 12 email interview with the Register, Kampowski explains how the authors hope their work will provide a definitive interpretation of Chapter 8 in continuity with the Church’s magisterium and Tradition.

He also discusses the depth of concern about the different readings, how allowing some divorced and remarried to receive Communion without commitment to an amendment of life introduces “a chasm between life and liturgy,” and how their handbook could unintentionally offer a solution to the dubia — questions four cardinals have addressed to the Pope aimed at ending the confusion over differing interpretations of the contentious chapter.


How does the vademecum help in practical ways to remove some of the confusing interpretations of Amoris Laetitia?

By making use of a hermeneutics of continuity and coherence, we show that it is plausible and legitimate to read the difficult and controversial passages of Amoris Laetitia in the light of the previous ecclesial magisterium, in the light of the synods, and in the light of the overall message of the document itself.


What documents or methods do you draw on to be able to read the document with the proper hermeneutics for reading ecclesial texts in continuity?

The method we use for interpreting Amoris Laetitia is that of a hermeneutic of coherence. In the case at hand, this coherence is threefold. There is, first of all, the hermeneutic principle of internal coherence. Passages that are not clear or that lend themselves to several kinds of readings should be read in a way that is consistent with other passages in the same text that are clear. This principle applies to documents of any kind whatsoever.

An interpretation of difficult passages that allows for a coherent reading of a document is more plausible and requires less justification than a reading that posits an internal contradiction in the text.

Now, Pope Francis is very clear in Amoris Laetitia that he wishes for a “pastoral care of engaged and married couples” that is “centered on the marriage bond” (211).

In Chapter 4, he speaks of love in marriage as a love that endures all things and that is lifelong (118-125). An interpretation of some of the more difficult passages in Chapter 8 that makes light of the marriage bond is clearly inconsistent with the rest of Amoris Laetitia and is thus implausible already from the point of view of general hermeneutics.

There is still another kind of coherence that serves as a guide for interpreting ecclesial documents in particular: Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit guides the Church along the ages in the understanding of the revelation that God has given us once and for all in Jesus Christ.

While there is growth in understanding, no new revelation is to be expected. Jesus is the definitive Word of God. A particular ministry in the Church for the authentic interpretation of God’s revelation is the magisterium, which Catholics believe is guided by the Holy Spirit when it wants to settle disputed questions concerning faith and morals.

Now, the Holy Spirit does not contradict himself. Therefore, a hermeneutic of continuity is the only legitimate one for interpreting magisterial texts. A manner of reading the difficult passages of Chapter 8 that clearly contradicts the previous magisterium — in particular, with respect to the concrete practice, John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio and Benedict XVI’s Sacramentum Caritatis, but also, with respect to some of the premises, the Council of Trent (it is possible, with the grace of God, to keep God’s commandments) and the Second Vatican Council (all are called to holiness) — is not simply implausible but, theologically speaking, illegitimate.

A third kind of coherence that serves to interpret Amoris Laetitia is peculiar to it as a post-synodal apostolic exhortation, which aims at taking up the results of the two synods of bishops that preceded it. The synods nowhere speak of Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried. They nowhere suggest bracketing the marriage bond as pertaining to an abstract level of “doctrine,” and being of such unimportance for the concrete life of the faithful, nor did they suggest one could separate life from liturgy. Hence, interpretations of Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia that amount to such claims are implausible because they were not foreseen by the synods on which Amoris Laetitia is based.


How deep is the concern over the varying interpretations, and how much do you think the vademecum will put a definitive end to the confusion?

The concern is deep. One must remember that any interpretation of Amoris Laetitia that suggests that the divorced in a new union could approach the sacraments without first taking on the commitment to change their objective way of life (by separating, or by living like brother and sister), introduces a chasm between life and liturgy, between ethos and sacrament, putting into question not only marriage as an objective reality of the Church, but the very sacramentality of the Church herself.


To what extent do you foresee bishops’ conferences around the world using your interpretation as the definitive one?

So far, we have received some very positive feedback from some individual bishops who have referenced our book in their pastoral directives. Our text has met with great interest from many countries, to the point that the Italian, Spanish, English, German and Czech versions have already been published. The French, Portuguese, Croat and Romanian translations are on their way.

I have great confidence that whoever reads our interpretation will concur that it is plausible and legitimate.


Do you plan on doing any follow-up publications?

All of us three authors will remain involved in the current public debate. At the moment, we are not working together on another common publication, but each of us will continue to publish in his respective field of sacramental or pastoral theology and philosophical anthropology.


Does the handbook provide a solution to the dubia?

Yes, I’d say it does provide a solution to the dubia, by offering a reading of Amoris Laetitia’s Chapter 8 that is coherent with the Tradition, the previous magisterium, the synods and the other chapters of the document.

Evidently, though, the book wasn’t thought of as a response to the dubia. Only the Pope can respond to them, since the questions are addressed to him, asking him what he intended by certain affirmations. We are just giving our interpretation as a legitimate and coherent one, though, of course, we are aware that there are other ways of reading the text, ways that would break with the Tradition, the previous magisterium, the synods and the other chapters of the text.

The dubia are justified, given the various dissonant interpretations, which are an undeniable matter of fact. Things are not at all crystal clear. But our way of reading is a plausible one — in fact, the only one if one admits that the proper hermeneutics for reading ecclesial texts is one of continuity.


Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.