VATICAN CITY — After seven months of not receiving a response from Pope Francis to their request that he clarify highly disputed parts in his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), four cardinals asked the Holy Father for an audience in April. But the Pope has yet to respond, it has emerged.

In an April 25 letter hand-delivered to the Holy Father on May 6, Cardinals Carlo Caffarra, Walter Brandmüller, Raymond Burke and Joachim Meisner wrote to Francis asking for an audience, having received no response to the dubia they sent him on Sept. 19 last year.

The cardinals’ dubia, which they made public on Nov. 14, are five questions, or “doubts,” seeking simple “yes” or “no” answers about Amoris Laetitia, the Pope’s summary document on the 2014 and 2015 Synods on the Family.

A long-established procedure aimed at clarifying doctrine, the cardinals used it to ascertain if controversial passages of the papal document are consistent with past papal teaching.

The most contentious dubium is whether some remarried divorcees without an annulment and living in an objective state of adultery are allowed to receive Holy Communion.

Some bishops’ conferences, such as Belgium’s, Malta’s and Germany’s, have read the exhortation as giving — under certain conditions, but with an emphasis on the primacy of conscience — access to the sacraments in these cases.

Others such as Poland’s, various individual bishops, and Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, have insisted it should be read in continuity with the Church’s teaching and tradition, which forbids such a practice unless the couple are living as “brother and sister.”

The disparate interpretations have led to warnings of “doctrinal anarchy” over this key part of Church teaching, something which many predicted would happen during the synods when it became clear senior figures were pushing for such a change in pastoral practice on this issue.

The Pope has only indirectly referred to the dubia, saying in an interview last year that “some, as with certain responses to Amoris Laetitia, persist in seeing only white or black, when, rather, one ought to discern in the flow of life.” He added that these “critiques — if they’re not from an evil spirit — do help. Some types of rigorism spring from the desire to hide one’s own dissatisfaction under armor.” 

But he has ignored them ever since and, so far, failed to acknowledge the cardinals’ request for an audience, despite them saying in their April 25 letter that they felt impelled by their conscience to “ask humbly and respectfully” for a meeting because of the “grave situation” facing the Church.

Last year, Cardinal Burke lamented the “tremendous division” the lack of clarity has caused and said the cardinals would issue a formal correction if the Pope continued not to respond.

 

Loyalty to the Pope

Cardinal Caffarra, who signed the letter on behalf of the four, began the missive by stressing their “absolute dedication and our unconditional love for the Chair of Peter and for your august person, in whom we recognize the Successor of Peter and the Vicar of Jesus: the ‘sweet Christ on earth,’ as St. Catherine of Siena was fond of saying.”

He further underscored that they “do not share in the slightest” the position of some critics that the See of Peter might be vacant, nor that anyone else might be pope. Instead, he said, they are moved by their “grave responsibility” as cardinals to be “advisers of the Successor of Peter” and by their role as bishops to “pasture the Church, which He has acquired with his blood.”

After explaining why they are so keen for a meeting, Cardinal Caffarra noted that, more than a year since its publication, “interpretations of some objectively ambiguous passages” of Amoris Laetitia have been given that are “not divergent from, but contrary to, the permanent magisterium of the Church.”

Noting that Cardinal Müller has repeatedly said the doctrine of the Church has not changed, Cardinal Caffarra said that, nevertheless, “numerous statements have appeared from individual bishops, cardinals and even episcopal conferences approving what the magisterium of the Church has never approved.”

He added that this concerned not only access to Holy Communion for “those who objectively and publicly live in a situation of grave sin, and intend to remain in it, but also a conception of moral conscience contrary to the Tradition of the Church.”

“And so it is happening — how painful it is to see this! — that what is sin in Poland is good in Germany, that what is prohibited in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is permitted in Malta. And so on,” Cardinal Caffarra wrote. Quoting the 17th-century French theologian Blaise Pascal, he added: “Justice on this side of the Pyrenees, injustice on the other; justice on the left bank of the river, injustice on the right bank.”

He also drew attention to laity who are “deeply in love with the Church and staunchly loyal to the Holy See” and have turned to the Pope to be confirmed in doctrine concerning the sacraments of marriage, confession and the Eucharist. He recalled a “very well attended” Vatican seminar of concerned lay experts who discussed the theme of “bringing clarity” to the document on April 22.

“Faced with this grave situation, in which many Christian communities are being divided, we feel the weight of our responsibility, and our conscience impels us to ask humbly and respectfully for an audience,” Cardinal Caffarra said in closing.

“May Your Holiness remember us in your prayers, as we pledge to remember you in ours. And we ask for the gift of your apostolic blessing.”

 

Reasons for Going Public

The cardinals’ decision to go public with the letter demonstrates increasing frustration on their part at receiving no response to their request, as they have an overriding concern that souls are at stake, that the Church is becoming deeply divided, and that many Church leaders and their flocks are very confused, concerned and wanting clarity.

Also evident in their request is their emphasis on dialogue, seeking to keep channels of dialogue with Francis open to give him the chance to answer, and their unquestionable respect for the Petrine Office, whose authority they are keen to preserve.  

 

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.