Last week was one of the strangest in Rome in recent memory. It began with the news that four cardinals had asked Pope Francis to answer five yes-or-no questions – known in Latin as dubia – about Amoris Laetitia, his exhortation on the family. They had submitted the queries in September, but decided to make them public now because they had received no reply. Then the Pope suddenly cancelled a meeting with the world’s cardinals scheduled for the end of the week. The Vatican offered no explanation, prompting speculation that the four cardinals were planning to raise the dubia at the gathering.
Cardinal Raymond Burke, one of the four, gave an interview suggesting that the cardinals might issue a “formal act of correction” if they received no reply. The Pope responded with an interview of his own, in which he chided critics of the apostolic exhortation for thinking that everything is “black and white”. In a bizarre turn, a papal adviser was accused of comparing, on Twitter, the four cardinals to a sinister Lord of the Rings character.
The week ended with the creation of 17 new cardinals. “The virus of polarisation and animosity permeates our way of thinking, feeling and acting,” the Holy Father said at the ceremony. “We are not immune from this and we need to take care lest such attitudes find a place in our hearts, because this would be contrary to the richness and universality of the Church, which is tangibly evident in the College of Cardinals.”
How do things stand after this tumultuous week? With a clear awareness that there are profound divisions at the highest levels of the Church. The immediate object of these disagreements is Amoris Laetitia, but they run much deeper – back to the Second Vatican Council, if not earlier. Lest we despair, we should remember that not all ecclesiastical conflict is harmful. Controversy is sometimes a sign that the Church is alive and well. The Apostles, after all, engaged in ferocious disputes. That didn’t prevent them from taking the Gospel to the four corners of the earth. Polarisation is not always bad: think of the analogy of a battery, which requires two poles to work. Sometimes tensions can be creative.
But Pope Francis is right to say that certain forms of polarisation are destructive. This is especially so when the divisions centre on the papacy. The current standoff over the dubia is unhealthy. Contrasting interpretations of Amoris Laetitia cannot be resolved through newspaper interviews. Only a prayerful, face-to-face gathering of the main parties is likely to offer a way forward.
As this drama unfolds in Rome, we are not mere spectators. We have a responsibility to pray daily for unity. We should also consciously avoid being too preoccupied by our divisions. Our suffering world expects us to be united in proclaiming the Gospel and performing works of mercy. We have no right to let it down.
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