Pope Francis has declined to answer four cardinals’ ‘doubts’ about his teaching on marriage. The Church is now in uncharted territory

Prognostications are a dangerous pastime for commentators, and in the papacy of Pope Francis the business of making predictions seems a particularly dangerous one. Back in April, when Francis issued a document called Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”), I warned readers to expect ongoing controversy around an unanswered question. This time I was not wrong.

The unanswered question was the one which had been hotly debated at the two consecutive synods of bishops held in 2014 and 2015 – namely, whether divorced and remarried Catholics might be admitted to the Eucharist in certain circumstances. At the two synods the proposal, pushed by prelates handpicked by Francis, faced strong opposition from many bishops and failed to achieve the necessary consensus. The document produced by the 2015 meeting came up with an ambiguous formula, essentially fudging the issue.

After the synod all eyes were on Francis to see if he would intervene with a clear decision. Popes usually publish “post-synodal exhortations” after these gatherings. Most are anodyne and soon forgotten, but this one aroused feverish hopes and anxieties in a polarised Church. When it arrived, readers thumbed hastily through more than 300 pages to find the eagerly awaited response. That answer, hidden away in two footnotes, was once again ambiguous.

The past six months have seemed at times like a war of attrition. The controversy has centred largely on how the Pope’s words are to be interpreted. Some national bishops’ conferences – Germany, for example – seem more or less united in favour of liberalising the discipline, while others – such as Poland – insist that nothing has changed. The bishops of Buenos Aires produced a document suggesting that the way is now open for Communion for the remarried in some cases where subjective guilt might be diminished. The Pope responded with a private letter commending this interpretation as the right one. In what has become a familiar aspect of disputes around the Pope’s real intentions, the purportedly private exchange was leaked – a transparent attempt to give momentum to the liberalising tendency.

The division doesn’t just run between national groups; it also divides episcopal conferences internally. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia published norms for his diocese which made it clear that the discipline there would remain unchanged. Those in irregular unions might receive Communion only if they lived in continence. His compatriot Cardinal Kevin Farrell, head of the new Vatican body overseeing family issues, criticised Chaput for jumping the gun on what should have been, according to him, decided collegially by the American bishops. Farrell clearly implied that such a policy should be more open to Francis’s favoured “option of mercy”. Amoris Laetitia, he said, was the Holy Spirit speaking.

Amid these manoeuvrings, a bombshell exploded. A letter was made public, addressed to the Pope by four cardinals known to be hostile to any change in the discipline. It took the form of dubia, “doubts”, traditionally addressed to the competent Roman authority by those seeking clarification of points of Church teaching or canon law deemed insufficiently clear.

Of the cardinals concerned, only one is currently serving, albeit in a role of reduced importance. He is Cardinal Raymond Burke, already well known as a conservative “bruiser”. The others cardinals are all retired: Walter Brandmüller, a highly respected academic historian; Carlo Caffarra, Archbishop Emeritus of Bologna and a distinguished moral theologian; and Joachim Meisner, Archbishop of Cologne until 2014 and one of the strongest supporters of the last two popes among the world’s bishops.

The dubia covered five questions, all referring to magisterial teachings of St John Paul II, contained notably in the landmark texts Familiaris Consortio and Veritatis Splendor. It is evident that the questions, all put respectfully and with detailed arguments, were not innocent, in that their purpose is to suggest that there are difficulties in reconciling Amoris Laetitia, or at least its implications, with established Catholic doctrine. But neither are they purely rhetorical questions: they do present the Pope, or those liberalising theologians he seems to favour, with an opportunity to develop, with concrete and precise reasoning, their assertion that what is underway constitutes an authentic development of doctrine.

The Pope let it be known that he would not be delivering a response to the four cardinals. It was this determined silence which pushed them to make the dubia public. To many, this has seemed a direct challenge to Francis. As if to confirm this, Cardinal Burke has even gone so far as to state that he and the others may make a “formal act of correction” if the Pope did not clarify his teaching. The clear implication is that the Holy Father is possibly teaching error.

What is the significance of Pope Francis’s silence? And how audacious is the cardinals’ initiative?

The Pope is in a difficult position. If he were to state that the principles taught by St John Paul II were no longer part of the Church’s teaching, he would cause a theological earthquake. Never in modern times has a pope publicly disavowed his predecessor. To do so would provoke open revolt among the many who cling tenaciously to the doctrine of previous popes – not merely the last two, but the entire Catholic tradition as it has evolved over the centuries. It might even provoke a formal schism.

What’s more, it would relativise Pope Francis’s own teaching authority – after all, if his predecessors got it wrong, why should anyone think his own statements had any lasting value beyond his lifetime?

On the other hand, if Francis reaffirms the previous teaching, then he must either abandon his attempts to reform the discipline of the sacraments, or come up with arguments to show that the contradiction is only apparent. Defenders of the change, chief among them Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, have said that the change they advocate is not a reversal of former teaching but a development of doctrine. I have so far seen nothing which convinces me that this is more than mere affirmation, unsupported by cogent, rational demonstration.

Is the Pope furious with the four authors of the dubia, as some suggest? I doubt it. He has, after all, called for parrhesia – courageous and frank debate. The signs are that he believes in initiating processes, rather than dictating outcomes. He should recognise, then, that initiatives which aim at balancing the discussion, even at putting a break on evolutions judged by many to be inopportune, are a normal part of such processes in a Church which he has called upon to become more “synodal”, or collegial.

I am less convinced of the serene disposition of many who surround Francis and might seek to use his popularity to advance agendas of their own. There have been intemperate and angry reactions. Bishop Frangiskos Papamanolis, president of the bishops’ conference of the minuscule Catholic Church in Greece, charged the four cardinals with schism, heresy and even apostasy. Nobody who understands properly the Catholic doctrine of the papacy believes that challenging the prudential judgments of a pope makes anybody a renegade from the Catholic faith. But I am concerned that this reaction exemplifies some worrying factors in this debate, beyond the anger and divisive rhetoric present on both sides.

The first is the anti-intellectualism which seems present in some quarters. Bishop Papamanolis reproached the four cardinals with making “sophisticated arguments”, as if this were something unforgivable. Pope Francis has contended that “realities are greater than ideas”. But hardening this into a contempt for rationality and logical discourse risks handing over the Church to the reign of the emotive and the sentimental in a way which cannot in the end sustain its efforts to evangelise.

Secondly, there is the risk of replacing the proper understanding of papal authority with an excessive attachment to a particular pope verging on a cult of personality. I am worried when some of those who were warning against this danger under St John Paul II now seem quite happy to tolerate it under a pope they believe to favour their agenda.

Popes are human beings whose job is to teach Christian doctrine, and in cases of necessity to intervene to restore unity on the basis of truth. They can make errors of judgment in pursuing this task, as they have in the past and doubtless will in the future. They teach and govern in union with their collaborators – the bishops – who have a role in advising them and, if necessary, urging caution.

Pope Francis has chosen to open a debate, and I believe that one day, in a global Church requiring globally consistent teaching and discipline, he or one of his successors will be called upon to close it. The authority of the world’s bishops will need to be involved in such a decision – perhaps in a future synod or even an ecumenical council.

This article first appeared in the December 2 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here

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