The Pope has given official approval to a document by the Buenos Aires bishops. That won't necessarily change what Catholics believe

In 1870, many Catholics, from cardinals to laypeople, had real concerns about the doctrine of papal infallibility. Then the First Vatican Council proclaimed the doctrine – with some important limits and qualifications – and that was pretty much that. Apart from an eccentric schism starting in Germany, and the odd priest here and there, pretty much everyone said, “Well, the Church has taught it so I’ll go along with it.”

That is presumably what Pope Francis is hoping for with his latest act in the saga of Communion for the remarried. This debate, which has dominated Francis’s pontificate, is becoming harder to explain than the geopolitics of the Middle East, but on Friday the Pope attempted to clarify it. He has added an “apostolic letter” to the Acta Apostolicae Sedis – the record of the papacy’s official acts. The letter was sent to the Bishops of Buenos Aires last year, approving their interpretation of Amoris Laetitia. The bishops appear to say (this is disputed, as we’ll see) that Amoris Laetitia favours Communion for the remarried in some circumstances, even if the new relationship is sexually active. The Pope has now approved this reading, not just in private but in his role as Supreme Pontiff.

So will this new act do a Vatican I? Will everyone now accept that Communion for the remarried can be OK? It seems highly unlikely, for several reasons.

First, there is little consensus about what the Buenos Aires bishops actually said. Some believe they were licensing Communion for the remarried (even if not living in continence). However, a prominent defender of the Pope’s orthodoxy, Dr Robert Fastiggi, has written that the Buenos Aires document isn’t necessarily advocating anything outside Catholic tradition: it “could reasonably be understood” as urging Confession and a resolution not to have sex in the new relationship.

Fastiggi’s critics say he is trying too hard to reconcile the Pope’s words with orthodoxy. But he is not the only observer to find the Buenos Aires document ambiguous. The canonist Edward Peters, an advisor to the Holy See’s top tribunal, tells me: “My read of the Buenos Aires letter suggests that its assertions regarding faith and morals can, strictly speaking, be understood in an orthodox sense, and that its assertions regarding discipline (especially the reception of holy Communion by divorced-and-remarried Catholics) avoids, albeit narrowly, directly saying that such reception is per se licit.” A bigger problem, says Dr Peters, is “the pervasive ambiguities” of the Buenos Aires document, which could open the way for others to “impugn” Church teachings, “exactly as I think the bishops of Malta have done”.

Second, even if the document did have a heterodox meaning, it doesn’t actually claim to be a statement of Catholic doctrine. Dr John Joy, president of the St Albert the Great Center and an academic specialist in magisterial teaching, remarks over email: “The essential content of the two documents is this: Argentine Bishops: ‘The pope says that some divorced and remarried people may be able to receive the sacrament of Reconciliation without intending to live in continence.’ Pope: ‘Yep, that’s what I said.’ But these are merely factual assertions about what Amoris Laetitia says.”

In other words, the letter claims something, not about Church teaching, but about the meaning of Amoris Laetitia – and, as popes can go wrong, these aren’t necessarily the same thing. The Pope’s latest act “certainly does not mean,” Dr Joy says, “that Catholics are obliged to accept that anyone living in an invalid second union may actually receive the sacrament of Reconciliation validly without intending to live in continence. If Amoris Laetitia in fact says that they can, so much the worse for Amoris Laetitia.”

That brings us to the third reason why the latest move will not simply make Catholics accept a new doctrine. The Church down the ages has taught that the divorced and remarried, if in a sexual relationship, cannot receive Communion. You’ll find it in the Church Fathers; in the teaching of Popes St Innocent I (405) and St Zachary (747); in the recent documents of Popes St John Paul II, Benedict XVI and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. All the teaching of the Church about sin, marriage and the Eucharist would have been understood by those promulgating it to have excluded the sexually-active divorced and remarried from Communion. This has also become part of the Catholic mind: the prohibition is casually referred to by the likes of GK Chesterton and Ronald Knox as Catholic doctrine, and there can’t be much doubt that if you picked a random saint from the history of the Church and asked them what the Church taught, they would tell you the same thing.

This history puts limits on what can be taught today, says Thomas Pink, professor of philosophy at King’s College London. “Doctrinal development, to the extent that it is possible, cannot coherently be understood to permit a pope to use his teaching authority to contradict his predecessors, and impose that contradiction on Catholics as something they are obliged to believe,” says Prof Pink. Papal authority “exists only to preserve and safeguard” the revelation given to the Apostles.

The doctrinal content of the Buenos Aires document, he continues, “is not entirely clear, does not meet conditions for infallibility, and comes without any accompanying explanation of its relation to previous teaching.” So it can scarcely “oblige Catholics to believe anything inconsistent with what the Church has so far taught and which they were already under an obligation to believe.”

Fourth and finally, the recent controversy has been very different from (to stay with that example) the Vatican I debates. Then, all the objections were carefully considered, the definition of infallibility was cautiously restricted, and even those who had been a little sceptical were able to come round.

But this time, the weight of scholarly opinion – the signatories of the filial correction, the dubia cardinals, Finnis and Grisez, Fr Aidan Nichols and so on – has been firmly on the side of the traditional teaching. The most significant expression of collective opinion on the other side was a letter signed by campaigners for women priests and other ideas which could politely be described as unusual. Catholics looking at the present controversy are unlikely to be persuaded that the established doctrine is wrong.

So what is the upshot of the Buenos Aires document receiving official papal approval? It may somewhat clarify what the Pope is saying. But given the ambiguity of the document, the small scope of its claims, and the weight of past teaching, this episode leaves us pretty much where we were. That is, with the doctrine expressed by, among others, St John Paul II:

The Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.

Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage. This means, in practice, that when, for serious reasons, such as for example the children’s upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they “take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.”