The battle over Amoris Laetitia seemed to be joined anew by the guidelines, endorsed by Pope Francis himself, of the Buenos Aires bishops. That has been covered extensively in these pages, but it seems that the larger picture might have been missed. The Buenos Aires guidelines indicate that the magisterial impact of Amoris Laetitia is limited even in the present and unlikely to endure in the future.

A fortnight ago I suggested that the governance reforms of Pope Francis regarding finances and sexual abuse had been significantly rolled back by the same pope because, being improvised without consultation of all the relevant parties, they lacked a solid foundation. Magisterial teaching is a much more serious matter, but the same principle applies. While in theory a pope only need teach something for its impact to be felt, in practice the degree to which a teaching endures depends on the clarity of its expression, the persuasiveness of its argument, and the consultation that precedes its promulgation.

Leaving aside the substantive content of the letter to Buenos Aires, it represents a significant departure from the traditional exercise of the papal magisterium. Indeed, its improvisational character indicates that is magisterial impact will be as passing as the Holy Father’s now abandoned governance reforms.

The papal magisterium is a serious matter, which is why the Catholic tradition has developed a comprehensive taxonomy of the levels at which it is exercised. We have seen recent popes take great care to indicate when they were not exercising their magisterium. Benedict XVI did so in regard to his trilogy Jesus of Nazareth, and St John Paul II did so in relation to the historical analysis contained in the encyclical letter Centesimus Annus.

Amoris Laetitia itself was deliberately ambiguous on the most controverted question of whether the traditional teaching and practice related to marriage and the Eucharist remained. In the absence of any clear teaching to the contrary, the presumption would be that traditional teaching held. Ambiguity – all the more so when deliberately chosen – cannot be retroactively clarified by means of private letters, no matter how cleverly leaked. The magisterium is a public act; there is no magisterium by stealth.

The Buenos Aires guidelines are not, in fact, an endorsement of the Kasper proposal, but may only permit what was already permissible in very unusual circumstances. Indeed, even in such circumstances when reception of Holy Communion may be received, the guidelines speak of perhaps doing it in secret, so that people are not confused by an apparently suspect practice.

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