Amoris Laetitia and the ‘Humpty Dumpty Effect’

In E.D. Hirsch’s Validity in Interpretation, a classic on the subject of literary hermeneutics, professor Hirsch argues that the goal of interpretation is to understand what an author intended, a concept that had been abandoned by many authors and critics. One common error which he labeled the “Humpty Dumpty effect” struck me as evident in the general response to the Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation. This particular fallacy was illustrated in the following lines from Alice in Wonderland:

“The question is,”, said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

Humpty wants to make words mean what he’d like them to mean. T.S. Eliot, for example, had no problem with interpreters determining meaning in his poems that had no connection with what the poet may have been thinking when he wrote them.

While we can’t know everything an author is thinking when he or she composes a text, Hirsch argues that the “norms of language” allow the interpreter to access the intention of an author because they impose limitations on both:

“Although verbal meaning requires the determining will of an author or interpreter, it is nevertheless true that the norms of language exert a powerful influence and impose an unavoidable limitation on the wills of both author and interpreter. Alice is right to say that Humpty Dumpty cannot successfully make words mean just anything he wants them to.” (p. 27)

“Verbal meaning is whatever someone has willed to convey by a particular sequence of linguistic signs and which can be conveyed (shared) by means of those linguistic signs”. (p. 31)

Authorial irrelevance with respect to interpretation is not confined to literary criticism, but has affected all forms of textual inquiry including biblical studies.

Amoris Laetitia

There have been questions directed to Pope Francis respectfully asking him to clarify his intended meaning in certain passages of his Apostolic Exhortation. His refusal to respond has led priests and bishops to interpret the document differently and hence implement it differently.

Cardinal Müller, former head of the CDF, interprets the phrase “irregular unions” as couples living as brother and sister with respect to the sacraments. The phrase in AL, however, always refers to couples that do not refrain from sex, and includes unmarried cohabitating pairs (see esp. pars. 78, 298, 301). Ignoring the author’s intention based on the “norms of language”, the Cardinal conveniently elects to redefine the phrase as he pleases, concluding that the text upholds perennial Church teaching.

The truth is that the last few paragraphs of AL along with note 351 that offer a pathway to the sacraments for folks in “irregular situations” do not require clarification; there is no ambiguity (in my estimation). This is why Professor Josef Siefert, suspended from his teaching post by the archbishop for his opposition to AL, declined to join the 62 theologians and clergy and sign on to the filial correction. He referred to the problem as a “moral-theological destructive atomic bomb”, to be dealt with by a much higher authority:

“…because only the Pope himself, and possibly the College of Cardinals, or a Council, could correct this statement, and avoid drawing in praxis its logical consequences.”

“If our conscience can know (not only falsely opine) that God wants us to commit in a certain situation intrinsically bad, adulterous or homosexual acts, then pure logic must draw the consequences that the same applies to contraception (HV), to abortion, and to all other acts which the Church and the divine commandments excluded ‘absolutely’.”

I fully expect that this will lead to a “Third Vatican Council” in my lifetime.



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