We have recently seen a rather unusual event in Roman Catholicism. Pope Francis issued a document called Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love). In it, the Pope moved in the direction of softening the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) stance on issues related to marriage and divorce, This is important, for in RCC theology taking the bread and wine in the Eucharist is a means by which a person receives God’s grace, and RCC rules prohibit divorced people from receiving the bread and wine. Protestants would disagree, saying that God’s grace is not given through any good act, but through trust in the finished work of Jesus, and hold that forgiven sins do not separate us from God’s grace.
In response, a group of priests, bishops, and lay leaders of the RCC have penned a document titled Correctio Filialis de Haeresibus Propagatis, which loosely translates as Subordinates’ Correction of the Propagation of Heresies. This Filial Correction is an attempt to correct what they call heretical teachings that arise from the Amoris Laetitia.
This is a very interesting development in Protestant – Catholic relations. Defenders of RCC positions have long taught that without an authoritative source, no Christian can rightfully interpret the Bible. The RCC claims that the authoritative interpretation, of course, can only come from the RCC, the holder of the authoritative succession from Peter, who they hold as the first Pope and keeper of the keys of church doctrine. The official RCC teaching office, called the magesterium, is held to be the sole source of authoritative interpretation, which they hold as equal in authority to the Bible. The official doctrinal teachings of the Pope are held to be infallible. In the 500 years since the Protestant Reformation began, the RCC has held that no Protestant can rightfully know what the Bible teaches because they are outside the teaching magesterium and do not hold the Pope’s teachings as infallible. The issue of the teaching authority of the RCC is a major issue in Catholic – Protestant discussions and has been for five centuries.
Into this fray comes the Filial Correction. This is interesting from a Protestant perspective, for now we have a Pope’s official teachings being corrected. A few points cannot be denied by RCC defenders:
- The Amoris Laetitia (AL) is an official teaching of Pope Francis. The official title calls it an “apostolic exhortation” of the Pope to bishops, priests, and deacons. The reference to apostolic authority makes it clearly an official teaching of the Pope’s office. The document seems to specifically try to allow for different regions to interpret some issues for themselves, saying that not all issues should be settled by the magesterium (p.4). Regardless of the extent intended, the document as a whole is clearly the teaching of the Pope on a doctrinal matter.
- They clearly are trying to correct the Pope’s teachings, for they tell us that AL contains “heresies and errors” that the Pope does “not rebuke but favour.” Several times the Filial Correction attempts to recognize and not usurp the RCC position on the infallibility of the Pope, but their correction of his teachings betrays their position.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out. One can immediately sense the uneasiness in RCC circles and the attempt to explain away the implications. One RCC source claims that the accusations are not that the Pope is teaching heresies, but rather not acting to stop heresies. Such words are a dance of sophistic artistry, as are also the words of the Filial Correction that suggest they still hold to papal infallibility while they correct the Pope for false teachings.
We will watch this issue to see how it progresses. Meanwhile a critical point is reinforced: post-first century humans are all potential sources of error. Paul corrected Peter in Galatians, and here the RCC bishops are correcting the Pope. This leaves us with what every protestant has known since the 1500s, namely that the only authoritative source of truth we have is the text of the Bible itself. Accurate interpretation is a legitimate question, but falls into the realm of how we know things, a different question entirely. Protestants have long had mechanisms for correcting what church leaders hold to be false teachers, and now the Roman Catholic Church has exercised the same authority.
Catholic apologists have long spent much time and energy attempting to refute protestant Christians. I call them to soften their positions against protestants, at least on this issue, and begin to spend more energy on the true enemies of the church and evangelizing the lost.