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What the ‘ff’? Why the USCCB split over a footnote, and why it matters

The U.S. bishops on Thursday afternoon discussed amendments to a draft pastoral framework for ministry on marriage and family life before voting on the document.

Some conference-watchers predicted a lengthy and pointed debate. They were wrong: What we got was less than 15 minutes’ discussion on a footnote citation of Pope Francis’ document Amoris Laetitia which ended in a knife-edge vote.

The results of the vote on the full document won’t be known until Friday, but the bishops did vote narrowly to approve a change to a single footnote, after a jargony, but apparently controversial discussion over inserting the letters “ff”.

Cardinal Blase Cuppich of Chicago during the USCCB June meeting, 2021. Credit: USCCB/YouTube

Neither the text of the document nor the amendments proposed by bishops have been publicly released, so the debate was somewhat impenetrable to viewers - and apparently to some of participants as well.

To help you make sense of it all, The Pillar offers some some clarity on what it was all about:

The discussion began with the chairman of the bishops’ committee on marriage and family life, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, moving for the adoption of a group of amendments which had been proposed by the bishops and accepted by the committee. We weren’t told how many they were or who proposed them.

Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago asked for a separate discussion of two amendments he had proposed, which the committee had said it accepted with some modifications. One of those amendments was that a reference to Amoris Laetitia to be included in a footnote, which the drafting committee accepted.

On Thursday, Cupich asked for another change to an amendment he had already proposed. Here’s what he said:

“I am grateful for the consideration of my amendment being accepted. I would just add in the footnote if you could be good enough to put, as you have ‘Amoris Laetitia 291’, I would put ‘[AL] 291ff’ - [as in] and following.”

Here’s what that is all about:

The back and forth over Cardinal Cupich’s amendment seems to be a continuation of a discussion that started on Wednesday, when he asked Cordileone why the text seemed not to have drawn from the pope’s ideas to better “integrate” couples in irregular marriages into the life of the Church.

Those ideas are expressed most especially in Chapter Eight of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’ 2016 apostolic exhortation on the family followed the previous year’s synod on the family.

The chapter, which treats “accompanying, discerning, and integrating weakness,” was controversial. Different theologians, bishops’ conferences, academics, and others highlighted parts of the chapter, most especially footnote 351, which some have interpreted as opening a path for Catholics in stable sexual unions outside of marriage to receive Communion, despite the Church’s long-standing teaching on the subject.

Chapter eight of Amoris Laetitia begins with paragraph 291, which says, in part:

“Although she constantly holds up the call to perfection and asks for a fuller response to God, the Church must accompany with attention and care the weakest of her children, who show signs of a wounded and troubled love, by restoring in them hope and confidence, like the beacon of a lighthouse in a port or a torch carried among the people to en-lighten those who have lost their way.”

“Let us not forget that the Church’s task is often like that of a field hospital.”

The suggestion from Cardinal Cupich in his amendment was, essentially, to make it clear that the document’s footnote referenced not just the chapter’s introduction, but also what follows.

Archbishop Cordileone responded to Cupich that the drafting committee “thought it was adequate to cite this section of Amoris Laetitia about the rules for faithful discernment and the logic of mercy with a footnote citing that in 291 - so we thought with that economy of words it adequate addresses that concern.”

Cupich responded that he “appreciated that very much.”

“I think that 291, the beginning of the chapter, is adequate — I would just ask [for it to be] 291 ‘and following’, just put ‘ff’ because it really does deal with those two questions as the text follows beyond 291.”

So, if the cardinal thought the citation of paragraph 291 was “adequate,” but still wanted a change, what is the issue?

The bishops seem to be debating, without naming it, the best way to incorporate couples and families in what are often called “irregular” unions, usually divorced and civilly remarried.

The extent to which bishops’ conferences have explicitly or implicitly interpreted Amoris Laetitia as allowing for the reception of Communion by couples in such unions has proved a flashpoint in the Church for years.

It might be difficult to believe that a discussion about whether to add a simple “ff” to a citation in a footnote could be loaded with significance.

But, while maintaining a very cordial tone, Cordileone and Cupich went back and forth on exactly this issue, with it becoming increasingly clear that an explicit reference of the whole of chapter eight of Amoris Laetitia, even through two letters in a footnote, was a big deal to the bishops, even if they did not want to say it in those terms.

After a break, the bishops came back to the issue, with Archbishop Cordileone asking for the bishops to vote on including a simple “ff” in the text of a footnote.

“We need a sense of the body of bishops on this,” said Cordileone, noting that while the whole of Amoris Laetitia was the inspiration for the draft pastoral framework, adding “and following” would be too vague to be a useful reference.

Cardinal Cupich said again he “appreciated that very much,” and the suggested a compromise: Changing the citation in question to include the whole of Amoris Laetitia’s Chapter Eight. But that, too, was not something the bishops saw eye-to-eye on.

In the end, 52% of bishops voted to approve a new version of the footnote, which cited the whole chapter.

What it all means

While it was veiled under a cordial exchange over a seemingly innocuous footnote, the bishops’ debate and vote showed that, five years after it was issued, Amoris Laetitia still has the power to divide them nearly down the middle over the text of a footnote.

Perhaps more significantly, the debate’s framing suggests the question of what to do with the divorced and civilly remarried is still so sensitive that the bishops might not even be ready to talk about it, at least outside of a jargony discussion over footnotes.