Church Leaders Respond to the ‘Dubia’

While Pope Francis has declined to reply to the formal request for clarification of Amoris Laetitia, some cardinals and bishops have responded publicly.

Swiss guards with cardinals and priests during the celebration of the Mass at the Easter vigil in St. Peter's Basilica on April 4, 2015.
Swiss guards with cardinals and priests during the celebration of the Mass at the Easter vigil in St. Peter's Basilica on April 4, 2015. (photo: L'Osservatore Romano)

VATICAN CITY — Cardinal Peter Turkson has proposed placing on stage all the main parties publicly debating the correct interpretation of the Pope’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) so they can listen to and better understand one another.

“For all of these people who’ve said things, written things, each in their own different contexts, a great thing that could happen is have them all on stage,” Cardinal Turkson told the Register Dec. 1.

The prefect of the new dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development believes it could help resolve the differences if they were “together, to listen to what each other had to say, and to see: How would they respond and react to each other?”

The Ghanaian cardinal was responding to the various conflicting interpretations of the document, as well as the publication last month of the Dubia, five “doubts” that Cardinals Carlo Caffarra, Raymond Burke, Walter Brandmüller and Joachim Meisner sent the Pope Sept. 19, with the intention of seeking clarity regarding the ambiguities and differing interpretations they said the document has generated.

The Pope has declined to respond to the five questions, which ask for “Yes” or “No” answers on whether aspects of Amoris Laetitia, particularly related to whether civilly remarried divorcees without an annulment and not living in continence can receive holy Communion, are consistent with previous papal teachings.

The Pope’s silence prompted the cardinals, “out of deep pastoral concern” for the faithful and the unity of the Church and charity towards the Petrine office, to make the Dubia public on Nov. 14. They said they “interpreted his sovereign decision as an invitation to continue the reflection and the discussion, calmly and with respect.”

Since the Dubia were published, Pope Francis has reacted only in an indirect way, saying in a recent interview that “certain responses” to Amoris Laetitia “persist in seeing only white or black, when, rather, one ought to discern in the flow of life.” He also said such opposition can derive from a “bad spirit” or psychological defects that foster division and argued that such thinking showed a lack of understanding about how the Holy Spirit has been working in the Church since the Second Vatican Council. 


Cardinals Müller and Turkson

Varied and sometimes heated reactions have ensued from other Church leaders, although most cardinals and bishops have chosen to remain silent publicly, neither supporting the cardinals’ wish to uphold previous Church teaching, nor backing those who have said the document opens the door to radical changes.

In a Dec. 1 interview with the Austrian Catholic news agency Kathpress, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), declined to comment on the content of the Dubia themselves, explaining that his office has a duty not to respond to the questions unless Pope Francis instructs that it do so. Cardinal Müller, who also received the cardinals’ letter and Dubia in September, said his office could respond if Pope Francis authorized it, but it would now be inappropriate for the CDF to intervene in a controversy without the Pope’s specific approval.

Cardinal Burke told the Register last month that Cardinal Müller earlier had relayed to the signatories that the Pope would not be responding to the questions they had submitted. “He [Cardinal Müller] was told by the Pope that he was not to respond to the Dubia and that there would be no response to them,” he said. 

Several other prelates along with Cardinal Burke had also written to the Pope between the end of the last synod and the publication of Amoris Laetitia in April, urging him to be clear about the Church’s teaching in the document. That letter also received no response. 

For his part, Cardinal Müller played down differences within the Vatican in his Kathpress remarks, emphasizing, “It is important for each one of us to stay focused and objective and not to be driven into polemics, much less create them.”

And although he refrained from addressing the passages of Amoris Laetitia that created confusion, he stressed the document cannot be interpreted in a way that refutes previous teachings of the popes or of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

In particular, he cited a letter of the CDF from 1994 in which then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger rejected a plan by German bishops to allow divorced couples to receive Communion in some cases. The indissolubility of the marital bond, Cardinal Müller said, should be the “unshakeable foundation” of every pastoral strategy. Pope Francis, he added, was seeking to help couples “find a way that is in accordance with God’s gracious will.”

In his comments to the Register, Cardinal Turkson expressed surprise at the Pope’s decision not to respond, noting his emphasis at the recent synods on the family for parrhesia — to speak boldly and frankly.

He also regretted that the debate is continuing to play out in public.

“Probably we can find a way of doing this so it doesn’t become warfare in the media,” he said. “If we don’t sort it out, and if we resort to the media to help us to slog out this kind of thing, then it takes away the freedom to discuss everything and anything freely.”


Other Church Leaders Comment

The Register has contacted approximately 20 cardinals and bishops in the Curia and in the wider Church, some of whom have been vocally supportive of Amoris Laetitia, as well as others known to be concerned about its content or the confusion it has generated.

Almost all of them either didn’t respond, said they were too busy or politely declined. Those not commenting included Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, Cardinal Francis Arinze, Cardinal Sarah’s predecessor, and Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture.

Some of those who have been most vocally supportive of the Pope in light of the Dubia similarly declined to restate or clarify their perspectives when contacted by the Register, including Cardinal Kevin Farrell, prefect of the newly created Dicastery for Family, Laity and Life. In mid-November, Cardinal Farrell, who served formerly as bishop of Dallas prior to his Vatican appointment, said U.S. bishops should have agreed on a common position about implementing Amoris Laetitia before individual dioceses implement their own pastoral guidelines. And he specifically criticized Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia for ruling out holy Communion for all remarried divorcees who are not living in continence as brother and sister in the guidelines published by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia on July 1.

Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, a close confidant of the Pope who, at the time of the publication of the Dubia, published a torrent of tweets insisting Amoris Laetitia is magisterial, and retweeted a comment mocking the cardinals from an account he had created in a different name, also declined comment when contacted by the Register. Father Spadaro, who is editor of the influential Jesuit periodical La Civilta Cattolicà, also wrote an op-ed for CNN saying the Pope never blocks dialogue if it is “loyal and motivated by the good of the Church.” It is different, he added, for those who “use criticism for other purposes or ask questions in order to create difficulty and division.” Amoris Laetitia is only “the mature fruit of Francis’ reflection, after listening to everyone and reading the synod’s final document,” Father Spadaro added.

Father Spadaro declined a request from the Register for additional clarification, but he reiterated that Amoris Laetitia is “the mature fruit of the synod” in an interview published by Crux on Dec. 4.

“And in the synod all the necessary responses were given, and more than once,” Father Spadaro added. “Afterwards, many other pastors, among whom were many bishops and cardinals, carried on and deepened the discussion. Amoris Laetitia is very clear. I think a questioning conscience can easily find all the responses it is seeking, if it is seeking sincerely.”

The dean of the Roman Rota, Msgr. Pio Vito Pinto, also criticized the Dubia in remarks made during a conference in Madrid and was incorrectly reported by some news media as warning that the cardinals risked losing their membership in the College of Cardinals by virtue of expressing their concerns. In fact, Msgr. Pinto had actually emphasized that Francis would not contemplate such a course, even though the Pope theoretically had the authority to take such action.

In subsequent comments to the Register, Msgr. Pinto stressed that both of the family synods in 2014 and 2015 that gave rise to Amoris Laetitia incorporated a wide consultation of episcopal perspectives. “It’s enough to remember that the Pope did not decide anything in solitude,” Msgr. Pinto said, emphasizing how the “people of God” were also consulted by means of questionnaires.

He also reiterated that Francis would not dismiss the cardinals from the cardinalate.

“This Pope would never touch the essence of the cardinals,” he said. “He’ll leave them in peace, but I think they also have a duty to manifest the communion, although they think differently. That is the essence of communion.”


Additional Perspectives

Cardinal Claudio Hummes, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for Clergy, sought to downplay the Dubia in a Spanish interview, by saying the four cardinals were alone in their concerns and that they were “excluding themselves” from the Pope’s position.

The most direct criticism of the cardinals by a senior Church leader has come from the president of the Greek bishops’ conference, retired Bishop Frangiskos Papamanolis, who accused the Dubia authors of committing sin and heresy and saying they should have resigned as cardinals before even writing them.

However, Cardinal George Pell, prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy, expressed his support for the four cardinals by asking, “How can you disagree with a question?” He added that to ask the five questions was “significant.”

Cardinal Pell also tried to deal with the substantive issues in question, saying he believes that “primacy of conscience” is being used selectively by those seeking to change the Church’s pastoral practice on certain moral issues, usually concerning sexual morality, but not similarly on other issues, such as race. He also reiterated that while doctrine develops, there are “no backflips.”

Others supportive of the four cardinals have included Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Astana, Kazakhstan, who said the cardinals “did their basic duty as bishops and cardinals,” and the obstreperous reaction from their critics was geared towards “silencing the truth.”

And Bishop Jan Watroba, president of the Council for the Family of the Polish Bishops’ Conference, commented that “no unified interpretation and no clear message” exists of Amoris Laetitia currently, while Bishop Jozef Wrobel, auxiliary of Lublin, Poland, said the apostolic exhortation “is not well written” and the four cardinals “did well in asking for clarification.” It is “evidently necessary to answer them,” he said, and the cardinals “did well and have exercised correctly what canon law provides for. I think it is not just a right, but, moreover, a duty.”


Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.