ROME — When British author Stephen Walford released a book in August defending the pope’s 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, he scored what few Catholic authors could only dream of: A personal preface by Francis himself.
Walford, the author of two previous works on the papacy and saints, is an unconventional theologian. By day, he’s a piano teacher — yet that hasn’t stopped him from penning some of the most well-cited essays defending the pope’s cautious opening to communion for divorced and remarried Catholics.
While his fellow conservatives have previously heralded his theological work, he’s now become the subject of their criticism. In an interview with Crux, he discusses why he believes it’s incumbent for his fellow Catholics to accept Amoris as Magisterial teaching and chronicles the backstory of how a single letter to the pope became the preface for his book Pope Francis, the Family, and Divorce: In Defense of Truth and Mercy.
Crux: Few people get a pope to write a preface for their book. How did you get this letter from the pope that later became the preface for your book?
Walford: Originally, I’d written several articles for La Stampa on Amoris Laetitia and how it was being received. I’d booked a holiday to celebrate my 20th wedding anniversary, and I decided to take my five kids. I’d actually booked it a year before with no real knowledge that I’d be writing anything that had to do with Amoris.
The reason I got involved in the whole debate is I’d seen Catholics similar to myself — conservative Catholics, not traditionalists, but those who would accept Vatican II, love the pope, have a devotion to Our Lady, and so forth. When I started seeing some of these people being swayed by the traditionalists’ rhetoric on the back end of 2016, that’s when I decided to write an essay defending the pope’s teaching and how it’s compatible with the Catholic understanding of tradition.
I wrote to Andrea Tornielli [editor of Vatican Insider], not expecting to receive a reply, but when I showed him the essay he seemed to really like it and wanted to use it as an editorial on the subject.
How the thing really came about, well I’m sworn to secrecy as to how it happened, but the actual reasoning was to present him with a copy of a book that had just been published on the Communion of Saints. Fortunately, I was able to have a private audience, and I said to my children “let’s expect 5 minutes,” and it turned out to be 45-minutes.
In terms of the preface, I actually had a letter translated into Spanish, which I gave him. He didn’t open it then, he opened it later, but I asked him if he’d possibly contribute in some way and I’d posed some questions to him. Within a few days of coming back from holiday, this large envelope came through the door and that was the pope’s contribution.
Describe what those 45 minutes were like for you and your family.
It was obviously a massive blessing to grow up loving the popes, whoever they are, I’d seen Saint John Paul II in a General Audience on our honeymoon here 21 years ago, but to be in that situation was incredible.
He’s very humble, very laid back, and he said, “let’s just try and get by without a translator. Just talk slowly.” So we did that for about 10 minutes and talked about Laudato si’ and what life was like here in Rome compared to Argentina. Then he said he’d go and get a translator, so he went off on his own and came back with one. We didn’t really talk about Amoris Laetitia very much, partly because I was aware of the delicate nature of the whole subject, and my wife and children were there. I actually kind of avoided it, and I told him I’d written this book and he seemed genuinely very pleased. He joked with the children and was happy to have selfies with them.
We had a lovely photograph with him in one part of the room, and then he said, “let’s go to the other part, it might have better lighting.” He’s very, very down to earth. I had a hug with him, and told him it was a real honor to defend his Magisterium. I think he understood what I was trying to do, because at that stage I’d written several articles, including an open letter to the Dubia cardinals, which got a lot of publicity.
You’ve approached your defense of Amoris as someone who is identified as a conservative. Has it surprised you then that the pope’s biggest critics are often conservatives who have traditionally long criticized those that questioned past popes?
It’s a huge dose of hypocrisy, and it’s disgraceful as far as I’m concerned. Because people know my other books, for instance, Father Thomas Weinandy blurbed my book on the communion of saints. I think some critics can’t understand why I’m on the side of the pope.
For me, it’s a very, very simple issue. Amoris Laetitia was always a magisterial document. Anyone who was trying to claim that it wasn’t is just ridiculous. You can’t have one sort of rule for how other popes up until Francis have taught, and then suddenly say Francis is different.
For me, it’s always been about accepting the ordinary magisterium, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, and previous popes. The pope speaks with the authority of Christ, and it doesn’t have to be some infallible dogma for that to be the situation.
I can accept people struggling to understand certain aspects of it, but what they need to do in humility is say “we need to understand that if the holy spirit is guiding the pope in this era of history to have a more merciful and maternal attitude to people who are struggling — we’re not talking about those who could not care less about Catholic morality and want to live their lives as they please and disregard Church teaching — but we’re talking about people who are generally struggling. If people can’t understand that, they need to try to say to themselves we need to obey the pope, whoever the pope is. I got involved in this debate because I saw people like myself starting to be swayed by the rhetoric, and I wanted to bring the debate back to the fact that we accept the Magisterium whether it’s ordinary or extraordinary, and it’s as simple as that.
One of the major questions of the past two synods, of course, was over the question of communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, but Amoris is much larger than that one issue. To what extent do you think Amoris has played into the discussions of this synod?
It’s hard to tell. Probably for the dissenters, there’s a worry about what’s going to happen, but it’s all a lot of hysterical melodrama, really. What will come out of this synod? Hopefully, there’ll be talk about how young people can be better integrated into the Church and the need to listen to them. For me, it’s sad that a lot of traditionalists seem to have taken a Protestant route of picking and choosing what they want to accept now, and if they’re not careful, they’ll be in danger of being left behind. We have to accept that the Church has to go out and meet people, certainly in this post-Christian culture in the West.
The Church has to have answers as to how it can reach people. I have some family members that have left the Church, and they will never come back through a pope pointing a finger at them. Somehow, they’ll come back through witness. And I think that’s one of the great things about the canonization of Pope Paul VI. Again, a lot of traditionalists don’t like him, but Pope Paul VI, similar to Pope Francis, he was a realist and he accepted that we have to reach out. The Church is a mother, and if the Church can be a mother, it cannot disregard its children, it’s got to reach out for them and try to bring them back and realize whatever ways the Holy Spirit guides to do that. Hopefully, this synod now will do something similar to what the previous two synods have done for the family, and invite young people to look at the Church again and say, “the Church has something to offer you.”
Do you think because Amoris hasn’t been heavily discussed during this synod that means there’s been greater acceptance or that those that don’t like it are resolute in that and are just ignoring it?
I think it has been gradually accepted. I think the Polish bishops when they family came out with their proper guidelines, I think they were much more accepting of the pope’s teachings. I think once the pope made it clear through the Buenos Aires guidelines that this was authentic Magisterium — which I’d argued all along — I think the other bishops’ conferences have to accept it. I never understood that any of the conferences could come up with their own guidelines where they’d actually reject the idea that in certain cases Holy Communion could be granted.
I’ve always taken it as the pope saying in Amoris that this is the framework that you can work within and obviously tailor it to certain needs. I think the Church has rallied around the pope much more now. Maybe in some parts of America and elsewhere, some of the bishops might still be dubious about it, but I’ll go back to what I said early on: all of the bishops have to be in unity with Peter, not the other way around.