Four Cardinals Formally Ask Pope for Clarity on ‘Amoris Laetitia’

The senior Church leaders have referenced the controversial aspects of the Holy Father’s apostolic exhortation, relating to reception of Communion.

Pope Francis celebrates Good Friday with the veneration of the cross at St. Peter's Basilica on March 25, 2016.
Pope Francis celebrates Good Friday with the veneration of the cross at St. Peter's Basilica on March 25, 2016. (photo: L'Osservatore Romano)

VATICAN CITY — Out of “deep pastoral concern,” four cardinals have taken the very rare step of publicizing five questions they have sent Pope Francis in a bid to clear up “grave disorientation and great confusion” surrounding his summary document on the synod on the family, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love).

The cardinals — Italian Carlo Caffarra, American Raymond Burke and Germans Walter Brandmüller and Joachim Meisner — sent the five questions, called dubia (Latin for “doubts”) to the Holy Father and Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), on Sept. 19, along with an accompanying letter.

Dubia are formal questions brought before the Pope and the CDF aimed at eliciting a “Yes” or “No” response, “without theological argumentation.” The practice is a long-standing way of addressing the Apostolic See, geared towards achieving clarity on Church teaching.

The cardinals said the aim was to clarify “contrasting interpretations” of Paragraphs 300-305 in Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, which are its most controversial passages relating to admission of remarried divorcees to the sacraments, and the Church’s moral teaching.

In a Nov. 14 statement entitled “Seeking Clarity: A Plea to Untie the Knots in Amoris Laetitia,” they say, for “many — bishops, priests, faithful — these paragraphs allude to or even explicitly teach a change in the discipline of the Church with respect to the divorced who are living in a new union.”

But they add that others, while “admitting the lack of clarity or even the ambiguity of the passages in question, nonetheless argue that these same pages can be read in continuity with the previous magisterium and do not contain a modification in the Church’s practice and teaching.”

To clarify these matters is “extremely important” for the “life of the Church,” the cardinals stressed.

Since the publication of Amoris Laetitia in April, some Church leaders — prominently including Cardinal Walter Kasper and papal adviser Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro — have insisted the document is in continuity with Church doctrine, and yet also opens the door to admission of some remarried divorcees to the sacraments. Others, such as Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, believe it can be read in the light of the Church’s teaching and life and so does not allow such a change in pastoral practice.

As the Pope decided not to respond to the dubia, the four signatories said they read “his sovereign decision as an invitation to continue the reflection and the discussion, calmly and with respect,” and therefore have decided to inform “the entire people of God about our initiative and offering all of the documentation.”


What the Dubia Reference

The five dubia are short and concise questions on Paragraphs 300-305. The first is a practical question regarding the divorced and civilly remarried; the other four touch on fundamental issues of the Christian life.

The first question asks whether it has “now become possible” to admit to the sacraments remarried divorcees, even though they are engaging in sexual relations, without “fulfilling the conditions” provided for by the previous teachings, mostly of Pope St. John Paul II, such as his 1981 apostolic exhortation on the family, Familiaris Consortio. It further asks if the expression “in certain cases” — found in Note 351 (Paragraph 305) of Amoris Laetitia — should be applied to divorced persons who are in a new union and who continue to live more uxorio (engaging in sexual relations).

The Church teaches that a divorced-and-remarried Catholic can only receive holy Communion if living in continence, as “brother and sister.” This is because, based on Christ’s teaching, a person who remarries without an annulment and engages in sexual relations with another person is committing adultery and in a state of mortal sin.

The second question asks if the teaching of St. John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth), in No. 79, “on the existence of absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts and that are binding without exceptions,” is still valid.

The cardinals then ask if, after Amoris Laetitia, it is “still possible to affirm” that a person who “habitually lives in contradiction to a commandment of God’s law, as for instance the one that prohibits adultery” is living “in an objective situation of grave habitual sin.”

Fourthly, they wish to clarify if, in light of the exhortation, Veritatis Splendors teaching that “circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act ‘subjectively’ good or defensible as a choice” is still valid.

Lastly, the cardinals hope the Pope will clarify whether Veritatis Splendor, 56, “that emphasizes that conscience can never be authorized to legitimate exceptions to absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts by virtue of their object,” remains valid.

The cardinals make a point in the dubia of repeating three times that Veritatis Splendor is “based on sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church.”


Act of ‘Justice and Charity’

In their Nov. 14 statement, the four Church leaders stress they are above all acting out of “justice and charity” — justice because they profess through the dubia the Petrine ministry of unity and confirming the faith; and charity because they want to “help the Pope to prevent divisions and conflicts in the Church, asking him to dispel all ambiguity.”

The cardinals also say they are carrying out their duty in accordance with Canon 349 of the Code of Canon Law: to help the Pope “care for the universal Church.” And they stress that their initiative should not be interpreted “according to a progressive/conservative paradigm,” as they say that would be “completely off the mark.”

Rather, they underline that their motives are that they are “deeply concerned about the true good of souls, the supreme law of the Church and not about promoting any form of politics in the Church.”

“We hope that no one will judge us unjustly, as adversaries of the Holy Father and people devoid of mercy,” they continue. “What we have done and are doing has its origin in the deep collegial affection that unites us to the Pope and from an impassioned concern for the good of the faithful.”


Letter to the Pope

In their Sept. 19 letter to the Pope, the cardinals explained their reasons for taking such action, insisting that clarification was needed because “theologians and scholars have proposed interpretations” of Amoris Laetitia’s Chapter 8 that are “not only divergent, but also conflicting.”

The cardinals say the media has “emphasized this dispute, thereby provoking uncertainty, confusion and disorientation among many of the faithful.” They also say “many bishops and priests” have received “numerous requests from the faithful of various social strata on the correct interpretation” of the chapter.

The signatories explain in their letter to the Pope that they felt “compelled in conscience” by their “pastoral responsibility” to act, and because they desire to “implement ever more that synodality to which Your Holiness urges us.”

They end by calling on the Holy Father “to confirm his brothers in the faith, to resolve the uncertainties and bring clarity, benevolently giving a response to the dubia that we attach to the present letter.”

To read the complete text of the dubia, the cardinals’ letter to the Pope and the full Nov. 14 statement including explanatory notes, click here.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.