Moral Theologian: ‘Dubia’ Need to Be Answered Soon

Father George Woodall explains why a papal response to the ‘dubia’ will be of “fundamental importance” for the good of the Church.

(photo: Edward Pentin/

In this recent interview with the Register, Father George Woodall, professor of moral theology and bioethics at Rome’s Regina Apostolorum university and former coordinator at the Pontifical Academy for Life, explains that Amoris Laetitia can be read in continuity with Pope St. John Paul II's encyclical on the Church's moral teachings, Veritatis Splendor.

But he adds that varied interpretations of Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation on the family mean that clarification “will have to come in the future” as certain readings of Amoris Laetitia “could well give the impression that there is no objective moral truth any more.” To answer the dubia is therefore of “profound importance”, Father Woodall explains, and the longer the wait, “the greater will be the risk of harm.”

The British moral theologian also says that from what he has experienced, "anxiety and confusion about the matters raised by the cardinals are very real and are widespread,” and cites two “very sad episodes” which, he says, “are emblematic of the problem.”

Do you welcome this initiative of the four cardinals?

We need to distinguish between two initiatives of the cardinals, the first in formulating the formal doubts about Amoris laetitia and in communicating their concerns on behalf of the Church as a whole to the Holy Father, the second in deciding to make the matter public. I welcome the first initiative very much. It must have taken considerable reflection and prayer, as well as careful redaction, to have formulated the doubts so precisely. In my opinion, the doubts are very well presented, go to the nub of the issues at stake and are more than justified. They are not exhaustive and have enormous implications for the moral life of all Christians and for pastoral work in the Church at all levels. The second initiative, to go public, leaves me in some doubt; on the one hand, the issues raised are of fundamental significance for the whole of the Church, but on the other it could appear that this move opens a division in the Church, even if it might be thought that such a division exists already. What must be recognised, however, is that the four cardinals have expressed themselves in the text not only with great precision and in a very measured way, but with evident courtesy and respect, with heartfelt anguish of conscience, not in opposition to the Pope but in an appeal to him, on what is of fundamental importance for the life of Christians and for the good of the Church.

How important is it that these issues be clarified?

To my mind the doubts which the cardinals ask to be clarified are of profound importance for all disciples of Christ and for the Church. At issue are our fidelity to the Lord himself, the meaning of the demand for conversion in relation to belief in the gospel, the basic distinction between what is morally good and what is immoral, the Tradition of the Church itself in its handing on of the moral implications of the gospel, as well as in its sacramental and pastoral practice. It would be hard to exaggerate the importance of the issues to be clarified. Certain readings of Amoris laetitia could well give the impression that there is no objective moral truth any more, that the centrality of love, mercy and forgiveness to the gospel now mean that those who intend to persist in ways of living that are seriously at odds with the teaching of Jesus and of the Church are nevertheless in a state of grace, that it does not matter that much whether people are faithful to marriage and to its indissolubility or whether they are in adulterous unions because they may all receive Holy Communion and are all in a state of grace. Of course, Amoris laetita does not say this at all and indeed reaffirms Jesus’s teaching on indissolubility, but it is exactly the ambiguity of the assertions of the apostolic exhortation that has led the four cardinals to formulate these doubts and to ask for their clarification. Anxiety and confusion about the matters raised by the cardinals are very real and are widespread. Apart from what I encounter in my work with students and in the parish, including the confessional, two very sad episodes related to me very recently are emblematic of the problem. A priest, whose bishop gave an apparently indulgent interpretation of the exhortation in terms of admitting those in adulterous relationships to holy communion is seeking dispensation from the duties of the clerical state because he is unable in conscience to continue to practise as a priest. Secondly, not just because of the exhortation but also after other statements on the Reformation, etc., a lady has abandoned the practise of her faith because she feels everything she is now being told is in complete contradiction to what she was always taught before as a Catholic. Pope Francis would not wish anyone to feel pressed to the point of abandoning the practice of the priestly ministry or of the Catholic faith. His passionate desire to reach out to people in very delicate pastoral situations is known to all and is shared by all. Amoris laetitia denies that what is being proposed is a ‘double morality’ of teaching one thing and doing or allowing the opposite. Yet, parts of the text are very ambiguous, the doubts formulated by the four cardinals have captured the essence of the issues at stake and, if the aim of the text was certainly to try to ease the very real pastoral problems of some, it cannot be excluded that it may have provoked a different crisis of no less significance, involving fundamental questions of moral theology and of pastoral practice. This is why, in my view, the doubts raised by the cardinals need to be clarified.

How hopeful are you that the confusion over Amoris Laetitia will be resolved? 

A resolution in the near future does not appear to me to be very likely. Positions have become polarised. It is true that the world has been living through a crisis of moral values for many decades and it is likely that it has always lived in the midst of such crises in the past. The Christian moral life has is not the gospel in its entirety, but it is a necessary part of responding to the gospel, and of living and giving witness to the faith. It will always have been the case that Church teaching on morals has not always been followed by all; hence the need for continual conversion and for the sacrament of reconciliation. Nevertheless, the Church’s moral teaching has been manifestly coherent with the doctrine taught by Jesus and the witness of many, if not the majority, of Catholics has been such that non-Christians recognised both the refusal of people to kill the unborn and newly born and to refuse to violate the integrity of marriage, amongst other things. The contribution of moral theology and of moral magisterium both to the ecumenical movement, since no other Church or ecclesial community has anything comparable and also to the common good of societies across the world and across the centuries, has been very impressive, even if people have not agreed with everything and even if some and perhaps many have not succeeded always in living those demands to the full. The service of the magisterium and of Catholic moral theology to the careful formation of consciences of those in the Church and those with no allegiance to the Church has been unparalleled. In an age of massive moral relativism, the impression that the magisterium itself might perhaps be contradicting itself, compromising on basic moral truths, saying one thing while encouraging the opposite, would be damaging. If the cardinals’ doubts are not clarified soon, I think this would be very regrettable. Their clarification will have to come in the future, but the longer we have to wait, the more difficult it may be and the greater will be the risk of harm.

It’s often said and from the Pope himself that, on this issue, ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers don’t apply, that hard black and white answers obscure the reality of people’s lives and that pastoral care and discernment are required. What do you say to this?

There is no doubt that the reality of people’s lives is complex and very varied. This is why Pope Francis calls for careful discernment and for proper pastoral care. No-one could object to that. My experience as a theologian, canonist and pastor leaves me in no doubt that priests who do not listen, who jump to conclusions, who are ignorant of Church teaching on morals, on sacramental discipline, etc., misjudge the reality of people’s lives, give wrong advice and sometimes do very real harm. This is also why seminarians and priests need to study, since neither ignorance nor mere sympathy is a sound basis for pastoral care. It is why a priest, in the confessional or in pastoral care more generally, must attend to the person before him, listen carefully and seek to understand the predicament before deciding or acting on a matter. This is part of the virtue of prudence, the key virtue of the moral life, and it is part of any genuine e discernment. It involves, moreover, the accompaniment of which Pope Francis speaks in Amoris laetitia because a pastor is there to sustain the person who seeks advice or help to the best of his ability, whether this be on a single occasion or over a period of time. That accompaniment will often entail encouraging someone to persevere in the efforts he is making to improve (the law of graduality) and, hopefully, it will lead to the person being more fully integrated into the community of the parish and of the Church. Things are not ‘black’ and ‘white’ as if the same advice will suffice for all or as if there can be an automatic response to everyone in circumstances that may appear initially to be similar, if, listening to the parishioner, they are actually different. Yet, this discernment, accompaniment and integration are not possible and cannot be pursued without reference to or in contradiction to moral truth. Things are not black and white in terms of the circumstances in which we act morally, but our intention must be morally upright and not only in the long-term, but in everything we do, advise or recommend and the intention of the person we advise must always be directed only to what is objectively morally true and good. Even that is not enough; a good intention is necessary for what we do to be morally good, but it is never sufficient. What we deliberately choose to do in order to fulfil an upright intention must also be morally good and in particular must not be immoral. Here there may well be points that are not black and white when it is a question of choosing between different options, all of which are morally upright, as to what to do to pursue a good intention, but we may never deliberately pursue an immoral intention nor may we ever deliberately choose to do what is immoral in order to implement a good intention; here things are black and white.

Do you see Amoris Laetitia as ultimately incompatible with Veritatis Splendor and, if so, what consequences could it have for the Church’s moral teaching?

There is no difficulty about many of the teachings in Amoris laetitia, since large parts of it present once more teachings of the Christ and of the Church’s magisterium on marriage or on love in general. There are many sections which can and should be read which are uplifting, which have implications directly for marriage, but indirectly for those living other vocations, such as the analysis of 1 Cor 13, the valuable indications about how to discern a vocation of (married) love and about what needs to be done positively to pursue that vocation and to live it out happily and effectively. None of that is at odds with Veritatis splendor. The difficulties arise on the points raised by the four cardinals because certain interpretations of Pope Francis’ exhortation could well seem to go against the teachings of John Paul II’s encyclical. Were such interpretations to be adopted in pastoral practice, this would be very damaging, in my opinion, for the Church’s moral teaching and even more so for its pastoral practice. The final document of the 2015 Synod of Bishops, in its treatment of conscience, was seriously defective. What is stated in Amoris laetitia on conscience and on discernment, accompaniment and integration needs to be read and implemented in strict accordance with the Church’s Tradition, its moral magisterium and specifically Veritatis splendor and its pastoral practice rooted in that Tradition and taught in that magisterium.  

Photo: Father George Woodall (YouTube)