As readers will have surmised from my narrative and my rhetoric so far, it is my view that a dogma with an implicit "Use Before" note on the packaging is not really dogma at all, however much it blusters and flusters.
This pontificate, whatever ever else it has done, has forced upon us a reconsideration of the question "What degree of obsequium religiosum is to be attached to the statements of Roman Pontiffs, or of Episcopal Conferences?" This is far from being a new question; but the eccentricities and unpredictabilities of the current Successor of S Peter pose it in a new and acute form. I have lived under six previous Roman Pontiffs and one Ecumenical Council, and, without attempting detailed and precise discrimination of the levels of authority involved in different types of document, I received everything they said in the simple hope and expectation of being fed and led by it. Benedict XVI was a fantastic Leader and Feeder!! But Francis has completely changed (what I believe North Americans for some peculiar reason call) the Ball Game.
I assure you that I am not sitting here in front of my computer impatiently waiting to unload upon you my own instantaneous and brilliant solution to this most grave problem. Indeed, I feel that I have 'naught for your comfort' to say to you.
For starters ~ I feel I have nothing much better than this to suggest: a piece of teaching makes a claim on our assent and respect directly in proportion to the extent to which it can be most plainly seen to be in unruptured continuity from, and compatible with, what has been taught before.
Sadly, this puts the old, easy, comfortable, perhaps even lazy, receptivity and docilitas I describe above in my second paragraph out of court.
Even more deplorably, it puts us to a degree into the hands of "Experts"; those with the technical expertise to help us to discern how 'continuous' and 'compatible' a particular papal or episcopal statement is. But is there any alternative? In any case, under the old system we did rather tend to need experts to analyse the magisterial level of a document.
One example, indeed, of the technical expertise we're going to be needing more of in the future is the judgements Cardinal Burke, a canonist, has expressed about the extent to which Evangelii gaudium and Amoris laetitia can attract the convenient old label of 'Magisterial'. One might, indeed, fearfully wonder whether Papa Bergoglio has volens nolens rendered the entire concept of the 'Magisterial' potentially obsolete. I simply do not know. I hope not. The Church so badly needs it. Let us pray that damage already done will not prove irreparable. Deep waters.
A second example has to be the Letter to the Cardinals which 45 writers from all over the Catholic World sent to Their Eminences, humbly asking them to beg the Sovereign Pontiff to resolve apparent ambiguities in his strange document Amoris laetitia. If you have not yet read that Letter, I urge you to do so, and to urge others to do likewise. Do not be put off by the hostility shown towards the Letter by some prominent cardinals and other prelates. After all, one of the practical difficulties in this present crisis is working out whether such Eminences and such Most Reverend Gentlemen are parts of the problem or parts of the solution. We had a similar problem a just few years ago during the Arian Crisis.
Hard days. Hard graft.
One more section will, Deo volente, conclude this piece.