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Wednesday, December 07, 2016

The Problem of Intent

The bishops of Buenos Aires have issued a teaching on how to deal with chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia. Pope Francis has lauded their summary, saying "There is no other interpretation." 
Many people have read what the bishops of Buenos Aires have said about Amoris Laetitia, found fault with it, and - based on Pope Francis' acquiescence with the bishops' writing - concluded that Pope Francis is teaching error. If we take into account the inexplicable hatred some people have for Pope Francis, this reading is understandable, but not supportable. 

It is possible for two groups of people to read and write exactly the same words, yet have completely different understandings of the meanings of those words.

I know this from personal experience, and therein lies a tale.

My undergraduate degree was in computer science. One of my courses was on database structures, one class of which was devoted to the structure of something called the "b-tree." Now, the instructor spent quite some amount of class time explaining the structure of the b-tree and providing code examples for how to implement it. As he spoke, I built in my mind a model of what it should look like and how to traverse it. When the mid-term exam rolled around, the instructor asked us, in one of the questions, to write a paragraph describe how to traverse a b-tree. I dutifully wrote my understanding out.

On receiving the exams back the next week, I was pleased to see I had gotten full credit for my b-tree answer. But, as the professor reviewed the answers to the exam, his discussion of b-tree traversal was radically different than mine. Impossibly different. I couldn't figure it out. What he was describing didn't match my understanding at all. But he had given me full credit. Why had he given me full credit?

I read my answer over and over, and suddenly it hit me. My description of b-tree traversal had been so imprecise that, depending on whether or not you assumed I had the correct model in mind, it could be read either as a completely correct or a completely incorrect traversal of the b-tree. I nearly laughed out loud. I didn't, of course. I didn't want the instructor to notice me just then. 

Now, make no mistake, my mental model was completely wrong. But my instructor inadvertently gave me the Christian charity of the doubt, he assumed the model in my head matched the model in his head, and so he read my answer in a hermeneutic of continuity with his own, thus giving me full marks when I actually deserved none at all. 

Think on that a moment - he and I both read the same answer, we both affirmed the answer was true, we might each have said about these very same words that "there is no other interpretation." Yet, my instructor's understanding was correct, and mine was thoroughly wrong. 

There have been many negative articles that pretend to "summarize" the Argentinian bishop's teachings. Are those summaries accurately depicting what the bishops have in mind? I don't know. I suspect not. But let us assume the negative summaries are accurate. 

The Pope has said that he agrees with the Argentinian bishops. Does Pope Francis really agree with the bishops, or does he merely "agree" with them in the same way that my instructor thought I agreed with him? Again, I don't know. What I do know from personal experience is this: it is possible for the bishops and the Pope to agree on exactly the same paragraph and its wording, yet the bishops might be thoroughly wrong, while the Pope is, at the same time, entirely correct.

There are a number of instances where Popes have made, or agreed with, statements that they may have intended in one way, but which could be, and subsequently were, read by either the people or the Magisterium in another. So, e
ven if the worst happens to be true, even if the bishops are wrong and the Pope has affirmed their wrong understanding, does that mean the Chair of Peter has failed? Not at all. Amoris Laetitia did not explicitly say anything that violated the Faith. Even if what the bishops wrote is wrong, even if Pope Francis thoroughly agreed with the erroneous bishops when he said "there is no other interpretation," his statement is his view as a private theologian. As a private theologian, he could easily be wrong about whether or not there is another interpretation. That is, even if we grant error on the part of the Argentine bishops and the Pope, a Magisterial document could easily overrule his off-the-cuff remark concerning how to read the Argentinian bishops' document.

You may agree with all that I have written, but reply that the Pope has no right to make pronouncements that are not precise. That argument is completely insupportable. As the eminent historian Father Phillip Hughes points out, the Nicene Creed, the very first Creed produced by the very first major council of the Church, contained the word "homoousion". "Homoousion" was so imprecise, so constantly associated with heresy, that its inclusion in the Creed arguably forced the the Church to hold four subsequent ecumenical councils just to hammer out exactly what that vague and vaguely heretical word meant. The presence of that word, "homoousion", in the Nicene creed actually caused the Coptic Church to schism off rather than sign off on any Creed containing such infamous phrasing. 

The examples could easily be multiplied. Popes and councils have a long history of imprecise wording. They think it is precise when they write it or say it, but then some wag in the corner comes up with an interpretation they hadn't considered, and it's back to the drawing board we go! 

The Church is made of people. Anyone who writes for a living knows that it is nearly impossible to phrase things precisely and accurately the first time around. Such precision takes constant re-writes, discussions, and more re-writes. Even if, by some miracle, a writer does get it correct the first time through, the phrasing may be so original that the readers simply don't "get" it, they don't see how the writer possibly made the leap from A to W. So, a bunch of supporting documents, examples, footnotes, have to be added to help the reader make the connection the first time through.

Most of the negative drum-beating about Amoris Laetitia is nonsense fomented by people who simply don't like Pope Francis. They are determined to find fault where there is no fault. It is ridiculous.

Have some faith in the Pope, have some faith in the Church. This dust-up is regrettable, but not at all new. It is not the end of the world, not even close. This, too, shall pass. 

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