American Cardinal Raymond Burke, here shaking hands with Pope Francis, is one of four senior Churchmen demanding clarification on points of doctrine in Amoris Laetitia. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Cardinals called 'disloyal' after dubia request goes unanswered

  • November 27, 2016

There is little tradition of cardinals correcting popes on matters of Catholic Church teaching. But citing tradition, canon law and dogma, Cardinal Raymond Burke has reached back almost 700 years and threatened to initiate a “formal act of correction” if Pope Francis refuses to answer five questions launched by Burke and three other cardinals.

Burke and retired European Cardinals Carlo Caffarra, Walter Brandmuller and Joachim Meisner have demanded Pope Francis clarify points of doctrine in Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, which the four believe could be interpreted to contradict Church teaching. Released in April this year, Amoris Laetitia is the official papal response that summed up the work of the synods on marriage and family held in 2014 and 2015.

The Burke questions are in the form of “dubia,” a formal process whereby bishops and sometimes theologians ask for definitive judgments on points of doctrine from Rome’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The answers are then confirmed by the Pope. Answers to dubia are either positive or negative with no reasons given for the judgment.

The four cardinals sent their dubia to Pope Francis and Cardinal Gerhard Muller, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Sept. 19. After receiving no response, Burke released the letter to an Italian journalist and it was published Nov. 14.

“Ours is therefore an act of justice and charity,” Burke and his colleagues wrote in a forward to their letter to the Pope.

Not all agree.

“It is definitely disloyal,” is the frank assessment of Atlantic School of Theology professor David Deane in Halifax.

Burke has assumed the novel and informal mantle of “figurehead for the opposition” to Pope Francis, said Deane. But his attempt to back Francis into a corner with questions that come within a hair’s breath of calling Amoris Laetitia and Pope Francis heretical aren’t really trying to advance a constructive debate, Deane said.

“I don’t think it can be said they are looking to start a conversation by virtue of the fact that the issues they raise are not issues anyone is in the dark about,” said Deane. “It’s an act of public shaming, or an act of trying to publicly shame Pope Francis.”

Deane thinks it unlikely Pope Francis will ever respond to the dubia or to the publicity campaign Burke has launched by giving several media interviews. Initiating an act of correction is so rare that it is unclear what the process entails, particularly one being threatened by a group which represents less than two per cent of the total college of cardinals.

“The Pope’s a Jesuit. He’s not going to be outmaneuvered by these people. So he’s ignored them,” Deane told The Catholic Register in an interview. “He’s not going to be backed into a corner.”

Burke may actually have a legitimate complaint about a lack of clarity in Amoris Laetitia, but the campaign seems far too political to have any positive effect, Deane said.

“For them (Burke, et al), the theology of the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, is being transgressed against in such a significant way that it has to be clarified,” explained Deane.

In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis opens the possibility for divorced and remarried Catholics who have not obtained a Church annulment of their first marriage to receive Communion. Church law, especially under Pope John Paul II, denied the Eucharist to those remarried outside the Church unless they had first agreed to cease having sex with their current spouses and then only received communion in a place where they are not known and could not cause others to believe they were receiving the Eucharist while in an adulterous relationship.

 Francis, writing that every situation is different, expressed a preference for a process of discernment involving pastors and the remarried couple. His approach has been interpreted in different ways by various dioceses and conferences of bishops. The Pope personally thanked the Argentinian conference of bishops for guidelines which would allow Argentinian priests wide latitude in interpreting Amoris Laetitia and welcoming some couples back to the sacraments.

There was no such letter of congratulation to Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput, who issued Amoris Laetitia guidelines to Philadelphia priests that closed the door on Communion for Catholics remarried outside the Church. But neither did Francis censure Chaput for his stand against individual, pastoral discernment for each case.

“Francis welcomes a sense of dissent in the Church,” said University of St. Michael’s College professor of systematic theology Michael Attridge. “He thinks that putting issues into a broader forum allows for the possibility of discussion and maturation of the questions… Francis believes that assent and dissent are important issues, or are important mechanisms within the Church to get the people of God talking about these sorts of things.”

It’s clear that Francis will resist every attempt to force him to define his teaching “within a framework of doctrinal clarity and canon law,” said Attridge.

The Pope’s pastoral vision for the Church prefers bishops, priests and Church institutions to always relate to the faithful as individuals, rather than start from legal templates which impose firm answers on entire classes of people before hearing their stories, said Attridge.

“I have divorced and remarried people in my own family,” he said. “Each of those cases are so particular. To put forth a universal rule on this is just ... it just doesn’t work.”

After Burke publicly released his dubia, Pope Francis seemed to condemn the effort without ever naming Burke and his co-signers. In an interview with the Italian conference of bishops’ daily newspaper Avvenire, the Pope spoke of the Church moving away from “a certain legalism, which can be ideological.”

“Some — think of certain replies to Amoris Laetitia — still do not understand,” he said. “(They want it) white or black, even if in the flow of life you have to discern.”

The Pope’s constant use of the words “discern” and “discernment” reflect his desire for a Church which can tolerate diversity and even ambiguity within a strong communion of local Churches, said Attridge.

“It starts with the local Church, with a discernment of the faith that is done co-operatively, collaboratively, between the leadership of the Church and the people of God within the diocese. It moves then up to the episcopal conference, which has a role to play in discerning what the faith of the people is. And finally there’s the discussion at the synod of bishops,” said Attridge.

“Being drawn into questions about universal rules and the universality of Church doctrine, ecclesiological doctrine — as these four cardinals are seeming to pull him in the direction of — is not at all his ecclesiological vision… He wants things to move back to the local level, where the local Church can decide pastorally what are the needs of the people through the values of listening and mercy and compassion.”

Among the new cardinals appointed by Pope Francis, American Cardinal Joseph Tobin has described Burke’s opposition to Amoris Laetitia as “naive.”

Amoris Laetitia cannot simply be reduced to a question of yes or no in a specific pastoral situation,” Tobin told the British Catholic weekly The Tablet. “The Holy Father is capturing the work of two synods. So if four cardinals say that two synods were wrong, or that somehow the Holy Father didn’t reflect what was said in those synods, I think that should be questioned… You are dealing with difficult pastoral questions. Just to simply reduce it to a dubium, I think it is at best naive.”

Perhaps the most dramatic and crucial division in Church history was in the early 300s, when a majority of bishops sided with the Arian heresy, which would have relegated Jesus to a lesser role in the Trinity — as though the Trinity were a sort of hierarchy of gods instead of the one, true God. 

Cardinals voicing doubts about papal teaching is not unprecedented

It was Emperor Theodosius I who firmly established the Nicene Creed as the statement of faith for Christians after 380.

A formal act of correction was undertaken by the Roman cardinals after the death of Avignon Pope John XXII in 1334. John XXII had taught that no one will see God until after the resurrection at the end of time. The Cardinals amended this teaching to say that some righteous Christians will immediately experience the beatific vision upon death.

In 1969, Cardinal Leo Joseph Suenens questioned the wisdom of Pope Paul VI’s definitive ruling against artificial contraception in Humanae Vitae. Suenens believed the Church did not yet fully understand the science.

“I beg you my brothers, let us avoid another Galileo affair,” Suenens said, referring to the Church’s condemnation of Galileo Galilei’s scientific views about the Earth and the solar system in the 1600s.

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