December 8, 2016, Thursday — The Silent Pope
“This apostolic exhortation contains a number of statements that can be understood in a sense that is contrary to Catholic faith and morals… We request that the Cardinals and Patriarchs petition the Holy Father to condemn the errors… in a definitive and final manner.” —Letter to Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Dean of the College of Cardinals, June 29, 2016, signed by 45 Catholic pastors and theologians from all over the world. It includes an analysis of the March 19 Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia in which the signers condemn 19 statements of the papal document. An English version of the critical analysis may be found here
“There are no other interpretations.” —Pope Francis, in a private September 5 letter to the bishops of Buenos Aires, Argentina, leaked by a priest in Argentina. Pope Francis writes there is “no other interpretation” of Amoris Laetitia other than one admitting divorced and remarried Catholics to Holy Communion in some cases. The Pope’s letter came in response to a confidential document of the bishops of the Buenos Aires to priests instructing them on the application of the Pope’s text (link)
“They [the four cardinals] have written to the Pope and that is correct and legitimate. But, after there did not come an answer after a few weeks, they published the case. That is a slap in the face.” —Monsignor Pio Vito Pinto, in a November 30 interview with the German Catholic website Katholisch.de (link), cited in a December 1 English-language article here
“It is clear that the Pope did not want to answer — and does not want to answer — questions formulated in a precise theological scheme in the form of ‘dubia’ (‘doubts’) which do not allow vagueness and loopholes in the reply. And it is likely, in our opinion, that the question would have been resubmitted during a meeting with the College of Cardinals; not only by the signatories of the request for clarification, but also perhaps by other cardinals, eager for a decisive word from the Pope. So, we believe that precisely for this reason during the consistory of November no provision was made for a collegial meeting with the cardinals. It could have had really embarrassing implications for the pontiff. He preferred to avoid.” —Italian Vatican journalist Marco Tosatti, in a November 17 article entitled “A strange consistory.” Without a meeting with the cardinals of the whole world. In order to avoid responding to the ‘dubia‘?” (link). Tosatti argues that Pope Francis canceled an expected meeting with the world’s cardinals just before the November 19-20 Rome consistory because he suspected other cardinals would raise the question of the ‘dubia.’ The Vatican has offered no official explanation for the cancellation
“As for opinions of others, we always have to distinguish the spirit in which they are given. When not given in bad faith, they help with the way forward. Other times you see right away that the critics pick bits from here and there to justify a pre-existing viewpoint; they are not honest, they are acting in bad faith to foment divisions.” —Pope Francis, in an interview conducted by a friend, Italian journalist Stefania Falasca, published in Avvenire, the daily of the Italian bishops, on November 17, three weeks ago (link)
“Question: But would it be possible (to take the cardinal rank away from the four cardinals who signed the letter)?
Monsignor Pio Vito Pinto: Pius XI [in 1927] took away the biretta from Cardinal Louis Billot — a great French theologian who, however, held to a line in favor of the extremist Action Francaise that the Pope did not share. Pius XI called him to a papal audience, Billot did not alter his position, and at a certain point the Pope said: ‘Eminence, you will leave this audience as a Jesuit priest.’ A Pope can do such a thing. As I know Francis, he will not.” —A question and answer in the December 1 interview with Monsignor Pio Vito Pinto by the Catholic website Katholisch.de, on whether Pope Francis may strip Cardinals Brandmueller, Burke, Caffara and Meisner of their cardinalatial dignity. Pinto says the Pope has the authority to do so, and gives one example from 1927, but says he does not think Pope Francis will act in this way… (link)
“It is deplorable that only four cardinals have taken the initiative in this case… The four cardinals have chosen the correct road… The Pope clearly has a deep aversion to these decisions in which a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is required.” —German theologian and philosopher Prof. Robert Spaemann, 89, in a December 4 interview (Sunday), with the Italian website La Nuova Bussola (link), summarized December 5 by the Catholic Herald in England (link) and by the American website onepeterfive (link). Note: The La Nuova Bussola story says that “in all probability” two other Church leaders — whose names have never been made public — also signed the letter of the four cardinals, giving their names as retired German Cardinal Paul Josef Cordes and His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk, Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. If true, there were not four cardinals, but five cardinals and one major archbishop, six prelates in all, who signed the letter…
“I think that some people are exploiting the cardinals’ letter in order to ramp up the tension and create division within the Church… The hatred and viciousness directed against him [the Pope] are always signs of the bad spirit which has nothing to do with the Gospel.” —Father Anthony Spadaro, S.J., editor of Rome’s twice-monthly Civilta Cattolica, one of the closest advisers of Pope Francis, in an email interview with Austen Ivereigh of Crux published on December 4, four days ago (link)
“These sad Cardinals have gotten so wrapped up in the minutiae of doctrine that they fail to see the loving and merciful message of the one whom they profess to follow. These cardinals (Burke, Caffarra, Meisner, and Brandmüller) feel so compelled to preserve doctrine that is in no way threatened. Pope Francis has been careful throughout his papacy to challenge none of the doctrines of the Church… How far will Francis’ dissidents take their issues? Are we headed for schism?… I believe Pope Francis is being silent to give these clerics an opportunity to back off. He is giving them an opportunity to rethink what they are saying.” —American Catholic columnist Pat Perriello, in an essay entitled “Critical Cardinals Fail to Understand Francis,” published December 7, yesterday, in the National Catholic Reporter (link)
“As a result of the widespread confusion and disunity following the promulgation of AL, the universal Church is now entering a gravely critical moment in her history that shows alarming similarities with the great Arian crisis of the 4th century. During that catastrophic conflict the great majority of bishops, including even the Successor of Peter, vacillated over the very divinity of Christ… Today we are witnessing a similar metastasizing crisis, this time over fundamental aspects of Christian living. Continued lip service is given to the indissolubility of marriage… But in practice, increasing numbers of highly placed prelates and theologians are undermining or effectively denying these dogmas… by virtue of their exaggerated or one-sided emphasis on ‘mercy,’ ‘pastoral accompaniment,’ and ‘mitigating circumstances.'” —”A Grave and Pressing Duty”: Statement of Support For the Four Cardinals’ Dubia, released today, signed by 23 Catholic pastors and scholars from around the world (link)
“We hope that no one will choose to interpret the matter according to a ‘progressive/conservative’ paradigm. That would be completely off the mark. We 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.” — Card. Walter Brandmüller, Card. Raymond L. Burke, Card. Carlo Caffarra, Card. Joachim Meisner, November 14, in making their letter public
“If you will wash away the shameful things that have been deposited in your heart through a standard of living that is diligent and attentive, God’s beauty will shine in you… Contemplating yourself, you will see within yourself He who is the desire of your heart, and you will be blessed.” —St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Beatitudes. The words were cited by Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI in his catechesis of August 29, 2007 on St. Gregory of Nyssa
“Man has, as his goal, the contemplation of God. This is the only way he can find his fulfillment. In order to have a foretaste of this goal in this life, he must strive constantly toward a spiritual life, a life in dialogue with God. In other words — and this is the most important lesson that St. Gregory of Nyssa teaches us — man’s total fulfillment consists in holiness, in a life lived out in an encounter with God, thereby becoming a light for others and for the world.” —Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, August 29, 2007, catechesis on St. Gregory of Nyssa
The Silence of the Pope
It is a dramatic story.
And a complicated one.
And one that could have devastating consequences for the unity of the Church, for the orthodoxy of Church teaching, and for the legacy of this Pope.
It is the story of the “doubts” of four cardinals who for many weeks have been asking Pope Francis to clarify, leaving no shadow of doubt, that in his March 19 Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”) he has taught nothing “un-Catholic,” nothing that diverges from the Church’s tradition and faith — nothing heretical.
Indeed, in this case, these cardinals are truly asking “Is the Pope Catholic?”
Many think the cardinals are wrong to have acted in this way. They think that these “sad cardinals,” as one writer put it, have gotten “so wrapped up in the minutiae of doctrine that they fail to see the loving and merciful message of the one whom they profess to follow.”
And many in Rome are shaking their heads, saying they do not understand why the four cardinals have taken a course that is leading them to a direct confrontation over doctrine with their own Pope.
Yet today, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the four cardinals picked up new support, with 23 Catholic pastors and theologians publishing a statement comparing the danger of this situation to the danger at the time of the Arian heresy in the 4th century, when St. Athanasius stood alone “contra mundum” (“against the world”) in defense of the doctrine of the full divinity of Christ. Central truths of the faith are at stake, these Catholics are saying.
Adding drama to this story is its unprecedented backdrop: a time of “two Popes” (Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI and Francis) in Rome, and a time of astonishing global technological change and of multiple efforts to control and transform the very nature of human life, and of human morality.
The story pits bishops against bishops, cardinals against cardinals… and threatens to split the Church. This is serious matter, not to be taken lightly.
Many of you have followed the twists and turns of this story for three years now, through the two Synods and the publication of Amoris Laetitia, and the publication of the September 19 “dubia” (“doubts”) of the four cardinals, Carlo Caffara of Italy, Joachim Meisner and Walter Brandmueller of Germany, and Raymond Leo Burke of the United States, all of whom I know personally, made public on November 14.
The four cardinals asked Pope Francis, whom I have also met several times, to give “yes or no” answers to five questions about marriage, divorce and communion, and Church teaching on morality in general, that they say remain unclear and a cause of confusion. (For the five questions, see below.)
And, in an interview on November 15, the day after the publication of the questions, Cardinal Burke said that, if the four cardinals do not receive an answer, they may issue a “formal correction” of the Pope’s teaching
“Then we would have to address that situation (of the pope not responding),” Burke said. “There is, in the tradition of the Church, the practice of correction of the Roman Pontiff. It is something that is clearly quite rare. But if there is no response to these questions, then I would say that it would be a question of taking a formal act of correction of a serious error.” (link)
The gauntlet, as it were, was thrown down by Burke with those words.
That was followed by seeming threats, retractions, denunciations, clarifications, appeals and… silences.
Here are just a few of the highlights:
(1) November 15: Cardinal Burke raises the stakes (link)
In an interview with Edward Pentin of the National Catholic Register, Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, an American, says that “tremendous division” in the Church warrants action.
“We, as cardinals, judged it our responsibility to request a clarification with regard to these questions, in order to put an end to this spread of confusion that is actually leading people into error,” Burke said. “Everywhere I go I hear it. Priests are divided from one another, priests from bishops, bishops among themselves. There’s a tremendous division that has set in in the Church, and that is not the way of the Church.”
And he concluded: “The issue is the truth. In the trial of St. Thomas More, someone told him that most of the English bishops had accepted the king’s order, but he said that may be true, but the saints in heaven did not accept it. That’s the point here. I would think that even though other cardinals did not sign this, they would share the same concern. But that doesn’t bother me. Even if we were one, two or three, if it’s a question of something that’s true and is essential to the salvation of souls, then it needs to be said… What’s binding is the Tradition. Ecclesial authority exists only in service of the Tradition. I think of that passage of St. Paul in the Letter to the Galatians (1:8), that if ‘even an angel should preach unto you any Gospel other than that which we preached unto you, let him be anathema.'”
Pentin asked: “If the Pope were to teach grave error or heresy, which lawful authority can declare this and what would be the consequences?”
Burke replied: “It is the duty in such cases, and historically it has happened, of cardinals and bishops to make clear that the Pope is teaching error and to ask him to correct it.”
(2) November 17, Francis Answers His Critics (link)
In a long interview with Italian journalist Stefania Falasca, Francis suggests that his critics — the reader may assume that he is speaking of the four cardinals — “pick bits from here and there to justify a pre-existing viewpoint; they are not honest, they are acting in bad faith to foment divisions.”
(3) November 25: Cardinal Hummes Says “The Whole College of Cardinals Is With Him (Francis)”
On 25 November, Cardinal Claudio Hummes, 82, from Brazil, the cardinal who stood near to Francis on the balcony of St. Peter’s after his election on March 13, 2013, gave an interview to the Spanish news website Religion Digital. In this interview, the former Archbishop of São Paulo suggests that the resistance to Pope Francis is insignificant and of little weight. He says: “Without wishing to relativise this fact [of the dubia] …. but these are only four cardinals. In the Church, we are more than 200 [cardinals].”
The cardinal then adds: “The Pope could be wounded by the motives which led these four persons to go so far as to want to correct him. But, he is very calm, relaxed, and moves forward. He knows which is the right path that one has to follow. And the College of Cardinals is with him, without any larger problems. The whole College of Cardinals is with him.”
(4) November 29: A Vatican Official Says Francis Could Strip the Four Cardinals of their Red Hats (link)
Monsignor Pio Vito Pinto, Dean of the Roman Rota, told a conference in Spain that Cardinal Burke and the three cardinals who submitted the dubia to Pope Francis “could lose their Cardinalate” for causing “grave scandal” by making the dubia public. The Dean of the Roman Rota went on to accuse Cardinals Burke, Caffarra, Brandmüller and Meisner of “questioning the Holy Spirit.”
(5) December 1: The Above Story Is Retracted Due to “Mistranslation” (link)
Religión Confidencial publishes a “rectificacón” (correction) that states they put words into the mouth of Mons. Pio Vito Pinto regarding the statement that the four cardinals who have written the Pope ‘could lose their cardinalate.’”
“The phrase,” the correction goes on, “was taken from an interview conducted by RC in which Mons. Vito responds in Italian and it is not correct. After reviewing the recording, it has been proven that what he affirms is that Pope Francis is not a Pope of other times in which those measures were used and that the Pope was not going to withdraw from them the Cardinalate dignity.” (link)
(6) December 1: Catholic Columnist Ross Douthat Suggests in the New York Times that “Catholic marriage is coming to an end” (link)
In a December 1 article in the New York Times entitled “The End of Catholic Marriage,” columnist Ross Douthat sides with the four cardinals about the seriousness of this case, and asks for Pope Francis to end his silence.
“Turn your eyes to the teaching document recently produced by San Diego’s bishop, the Francis-appointed, beloved-of-progressives Robert McElroy, following a diocesan synod convened to discuss the implementation of Amoris,” Douthat writes. “This is a teaching on marriage that might be summarized as follows: Divorce is unfortunate, second marriages are not always ideal, and so the path back to communion runs through a mature weighing-out of everyone’s feelings — the feelings of your former spouse and any kids you may have had together, the feelings of your new spouse and possible children, and your own subjective sense of what God thinks about it all. The objective aspects of Catholic teaching on marriage — the supernatural reality of the first marriage, the metaphysical reality of sin and absolution, the sacramental reality of the eucharist itself — do not just recede; they essentially disappear.”
Douthat concludes: “If Pope Francis does not mean his apostolic exhortation to be implemented along the sweeping, come-all-eventually-back-to-communion lines proposed by Bishop McElroy, he should say so, and soon. Because in the diocese of San Diego, there may be something called the sacrament of matrimony, but the Church itself plainly does not believe in Catholic marriage anymore.”
(7) December 4, Father Spadaro Says the Letter of the Four Cardinals Is Being Exploited to Cause Division (link)
In an email interview with Austen Ivereigh of Crux, Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, a close adviser of Pope Francis, says the opposition to some portions of Amoris Laetitia is being exploited to cause division in the Church.
“I think that some people are exploiting the cardinals’ letter in order to ramp up the tension and create division within the Church,” Spadaro said. “These groups feel sidelined, so they’re yelling, and attacking anyone perceived as being close to the Pope… It’s painful that this is taking place within the Church, among Catholics… The hatred and viciousness directed against him [Pope Francis] are always signs of the bad spirit which has nothing to do with the Gospel.”
Ivereigh asks: “Why hasn’t the Pope responded to the cardinals?”
Spadaro replies: “The Pope doesn’t give binary answers to abstract questions. But that does’t mean he hasn’t responded. His response is to approve and to encourage positive pastoral practices. A clear and obvious example was his response to the Buenos Aires area bishops, when he encouraged them and confirmed that their reading of Amoris Laetitia was correct.
“In other words, the pope responds by encouraging, and indeed loves to respond to the sincere questions put to him by pastors. The ones who really understand Catholic doctrine are the pastors, because doctrine does not exist for the purpose of debate but for the salus animarum [‘the health of souls’] — for salvation rather than intellectual discussion.”
Spadaro continues: “Pastoral ministry always demands the discernment of situations. The Church’s doctrine is that of the Good Shepherd. Pastoral ministry is not a second-rate, or even pragmatic, application of doctrine. Doctrine without the pastoral element is a ‘clashing cymbal.’ We have to continually return to the kerygma, to that which is essential and which gives meaning to our whole body of doctrine, in particular to our moral teaching.”
And regarding the support in the Church for Pope Francis: “From what I see and sense around me… I can say with total certainty there is a great commitment to following the Petrine ministry, to following Francis. My sense is that the vast majority of the cardinals and bishops are with him, and very few are resisting Amoris Laetitia.”
(8) December 5: German Prof. Robert Spaemann Praises the Four Cardinals (link)
On December 5, Prof. Robert Spaemann, the prominent German philosopher and outspoken critic of the papal document Amoris Laetitia, gave an interview to the Italian website La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana, in which he supported the four cardinals.
Spaemann, a personal friend of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, said: “With the dubia, the cardinals fulfill their own duty to support with their own counsel – as ‘senators’ – the Church in the person of the Holy Father. The supreme judge of the Church is the Pope. And that is why it is deplorable that only four cardinals have taken the initiative in this case… The four cardinals have chosen the right path…. The Pope’s refusal to respond to the appeal of the four cardinals makes me worried, because the supreme Magisterium is being thereby [lowered and] sunk.”
He concluded: “The Pope has a very deep aversion against decisions which demand a clear ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ However, Christ – the Master of the Church – confronts his disciples with decisions of this kind. In His own [unambiguous] demand in regard to adultery, He ‘shocks’ the Apostles with the simplicity and the clarity of the teaching.”
(9) December 6: Cardinal Turkson Suggests a Public Debate (link)
In an interview published on December 6 with Edward Pentin of the National Catholic Register, Cardinal Peter Turkson, from Ghana in West Africa and new Prefect of the new dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, suggests that there be a public debate on the entire matter.
“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,” Pentin writes.
“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 Pentin.
Turkson said he 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?”
Could such a suggestion be followed? Time will tell…
The Key to the Story
So this is an emotionally charged story, a sensational story, of clashing convictions and with an as yet uncertain end.
The key to the story lies in understanding the real context of the conflict.
This will help us to understand the motivations of all involved.
With that understanding, we may be able to find a way forward without any dramatic public rupture in the Church.
A dramatic break between Pope Francis and some of his cardinals would inevitably be confusing, and therefore harmful, to the Church, and a cause of rejoicing for the Church’s enemies.
The better way is to find a true solution, perhaps along the lines of Turkson’s suggested public debate.
In any case, let us consider these important questions of doctrinal truth and pastoral mercy in the context of our time.
This context has two parts.
Part 1: “The global anti-Christian spirit”
The first part is the global anti-Christian spirit, which seems to grow more powerful with each passing decade, pushing for the acceptance of immoral behavior and exploiting each sign of openness from the Catholic Church. I will try to explain further.
We live in a world which has a very different anthropology, or idea of man, and a very different understanding of human morality, than the world of recent centuries. In that world, the tenets of orthodox Catholicism were widely and publicly held, often by state leaders. Catholic anthropology speaks of a human soul, and of human personal freedom. The elites of our age have abolished the soul, and, as well, personal freedom, regarding personal freedom as an illusion, the product of genetic hard-wiring and the arrogance of humans too ignorant to realize their own conditioning and lack of freedom.
In our world today, there are many forces committed to altering and eliminating the old Catholic anthropology, and the old morality.
Now, it is the Catholic belief that Catholic anthropology and morality are true, and provide, in fact, the very best metric, or compass, for guiding human behavior, in matters of social justice, and in matters of sexual morality. Catholics believe this because they believe the author of these moral beliefs was also the author of life itself. They believe this benevolent creator revealed these beliefs to our forefathers, the apostles and disciples of Christ, and that that author bid those apostles and disciples carefully preserve and teach those beliefs unto the end of time.
This is the first task of the Bishop of Rome: to guard the deposit of the faith, and to confirm his brethren in that faith.
Moreover, it is the Catholic belief that the consequences of departing from this anthropology, and morality, are devastating, horrific, leading to misery in this life and to eternal sorrow, which we call damnation, in the next. And it is Catholic belief that observance of this morality allows many miseries to be avoided in this life, and, in the end, brings a blessedness which surpasses all human understanding, which we call heaven.
So, this is the point: in this present context, where Catholics face a direct challenge from a powerful secular-humanist society — and many special societies within that one powerful secular-humanist umbrella society — a challenge which has as its goal the overthrow and eradication on this planet of orthodox Catholic beliefs in many, if not all, social and moral matters, vigilant Catholics are alert to any effort they see to alter the Church’s teaching to fit the teaching of “the world.”
This explains, in part, the vigor with which the defendants of traditional teaching denounce any effort to alter or water down that teaching. They are not paranoid, but vigilant; they see the enemy coming even from afar…
These defendants of traditional teaching fear a breach in the walls, the opening of an easy pathway into the castle of the faith, which will be exploited by the forces of the world to the great confusion and devastation of the Catholic people.
And this context urges us to note something important also about Pope Francis: that he, on more than one occasion, has spoken out publicly, powerfully, and prophetically, about the dangers of a modern-day “ideological colonization,” promoted with huge financial and political-social forces, which seems bent on eradicating all traditional understandings of morality. He is clearly opposed to such a colonization. In this he is a staunch traditionalist, opposing the imposition of the post-Christian “gender agenda” on the simple still traditional people of Latin America, Africa and Asia.
We are thankful for, and honor, the courage of all Popes, and of all great Catholic leaders in all ages, in defense of the deposit of the faith against any dilution or alteration.
And we are thankful for, and honor, those who act in defense of the faith in our present enormously challenging age.
Part 2: “All who have been hurt and cast aside”
Now to the 2nd part of this context, which significantly involves pastoral care and prudential decision-making, not just the preaching of doctrinal truths.
So, this 2nd part is about all those people who have been hurt and cast aside, even by themselves, devoured by the lack of formation, reckless immorality and great disorder which marks our time.
It is an axiom, an unquestioned truth, that the highest law of the Church is the salvation of souls.
It is in fact a great act of love to work and pray to save another’s soul.
The Christian faith incarnates itself in such love. Husbands pray in this way for their wives, and wives for their husbands, and parents for their children, and friends for friends, and even, if it is possible, for enemies.
But all of us know that saving a soul can be a delicate, daunting, exhausting task.
We know it because of the great challenge we face in saving our own souls…
How does one draw a soul closer to God? To truth? To sacrifice? To the practice of Christian morality?
How does one represent Christ, act “in persona Christi” (“in the person of Christ,” “in the place of Christ”) in this world?
St. Paul tells us how he went about this task: “To those without the Law, I became like one without the Law (though I am not outside the law of God but am under the law of Christ), to win those without the Law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men, so that by all possible means I might save some of them. I do all this for the sake of the Gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.” (1 Corinthians 9:21-23)
And in these words we find the spirit of a pastor, of one who goes out to strangers, to the confused, to the lawless, to the weak, to the lost, and attempts to communicate to them something of their own greatness, and something of the love that Christ has for them.
In our time, after decades of effort, the orthodox Catholic teaching on marriage and divorce has been overthrown by secularists, as has the orthodox teaching on contraception, on abortion, on euthanasia, on sexuality in general.
What have been the consequences of this? The consequences have been profound and widespread, to our sorrow and shame. Abortion has taken the lives of tens of millions, hundreds of millions. Contraception has become routine, and few even protest against it. Many sexual activities the Church has always regarded as immoral are praised and promoted. Divorce has been legalized almost everywhere, breaking the indissolubility of marriage in millions upon millions of cases, leaving children in two homes, or three, and confusing them greatly.
In this context, what has Pope Francis done?
He held two Synods, in October of 2014 and October of 2015; he unilaterally streamlined the Catholic canonical process of annulment, and made it much cheaper; and he, with many advisers, drafted Amoris Laetitia. (Perhaps the chief among his collaborators was Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn of Vienna, Austria, the General Secretary of the committee that produced the Catechism of the Catholic Church almost 30 years ago. Schoenborn, a Dominican, is said to have played a key role in drafting Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, which cites the Dominican theologian St. Thomas Aquinas on numerous occasions).
So what does Amoris Laetitia say, and why is it now the subject of such contention?
This long, rambling document addresses two things:
1) it defends the doctrine of Catholic marriage, and
2) it offers pastoral counsels on how to reach out to people in objectively “irregular” and even “immoral” situations to the world’s bishops and priests, who care for 1.2 billion Catholics around the world.
Amoris Laetitia has appeared in the context outlined above.
In its first seven chapters, especially in Chapter 4, Amoris Laetitia is a hymn to the joy of marital and family love — the joy that comes of having mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, of living and learning and loving in the context of that “safe space” a family ought to be, and can be.
And in Chapter 8, Amoris Laetitia offers suggestions to pastors who must deal with hurting humanity, fallen humanity, even ruined humanity, lost humanity, to begin the process of healing and possible reintegration into that mystical body of Christ which is the Church. It offers suggestions for the care of souls, fallen souls.
In Amoris Laetitia, Francis writes with great eloquence and poetry about marriage and married life, and in a traditionally Catholic way.
In doing so, he responds to that deep human need, and hope, that deep sense in so many young people, that their lives will be marked by a great love, and that that love will become fruitful through children, and grandchildren, creating a bit of heaven on earth — a place of peace, security, love, understanding, forgiveness.
Here is one example of his teaching: “Christian marriage, as a reflection of the union between Christ and his Church, is fully realized in the union between a man and a woman who give themselves to each other in a free, faithful and exclusive love, who belong to each other until death and are open to the transmission of life, and are consecrated by the sacrament, which grants them the grace to become a domestic church and a leaven of new life for society.” (Amoris Laetitia, Paragraph 292)
And he writes that such marriages come about when both spouses are aware of “a love that is prior to any of our own efforts.” He writes: “We have known a love that is prior to any of our own efforts, a love that constantly opens doors, promotes and encourages. If we accept that God’s love is unconditional, that the Father’s love cannot be bought or sold, then we will become capable of showing boundless love and forgiving others even if they have wronged us. Otherwise, our family life will no longer be a place of understanding, support and encouragement, but rather one of constant tension and mutual criticism.” (Amoris Laetitia, Paragraph 108)
At the same time, Pope Francis has written, in a very realistic way, about the many cases, many millions of cases, where families fracture, break down, divide. What to do in such cases? How to treat such people?
Francis writes (and this is one of his most controversial paragraphs): “A pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in ‘irregular situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives. This would bespeak the closed heart of one used to hiding behind the Church’s teachings, ‘sitting on the chair of Moses and judging at times with superiority and superficiality difficult cases and wounded families.'(349)… Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin — which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such — a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.(351) Discernment must help to find possible ways of responding to God and growing in the midst of limits. By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God. Let us remember that ‘a small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order, but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties.'(352) The practical pastoral care of ministers and of communities must not fail to embrace this reality.”(Amoris Laetitia, Paragraph 305)
It is in this paragraph that the Pope gives us his most controversial footnote, Footnote 351, which seems to suggest that remarried couples whose first marriages have not been annulled can receive Communion — something traditional Catholic teaching has always regarded as a sacrilege, because, without an annulment, the relationship is adulterous, and so objectively sinful, and thus barring reception of communion.
Francis writes in footnote 351: “In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, ‘I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy’ (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium [24 November 2013], 44: AAS 105 , 1038). I would also point out that the Eucharist ‘is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak’ (ibid., 47: 1039). (Amoris Laetitia, Paragraph 305, Footnote 351)
Still, having given here a pastoral suggestion that seems to open the way for “Catholic divorce” and for the reception of communion by the divorced and remarried, the Pope returns to his first theme just one paragraph later:
“In order to avoid all misunderstanding,” Francis writes, “I would point out that in no way must the Church desist from proposing the full ideal of marriage, God’s plan in all its grandeur: ‘Young people who are baptized should be encouraged to understand that the sacrament of marriage can enrich their prospects of love and that they can be sustained by the grace of Christ in the sacrament and by the possibility of participating fully in the life of the Church.'(354) A lukewarm attitude, any kind of relativism, or an undue reticence in proposing that ideal, would be a lack of fidelity to the Gospel and also of love on the part of the Church for young people themselves. To show understanding in the face of exceptional situations never implies dimming the light of the fuller ideal, or proposing less than what Jesus offers to the human being. Today, more important than the pastoral care of failures is the pastoral effort to strengthen marriages and thus to prevent their breakdown.” (Amoris Laetitia, Paragraph 307)
So What Are the Four Cardinals Asking For?
Cardinal Burke has said that he and the three other cardinals are acting to bring an end to “tremendous confusion” in the Church.
“The initiative is aimed at one thing only, namely the good of the Church, which, right now, is suffering from a tremendous confusion on at least these five points,” Burke said in the November 15 interview. “We as cardinals, judged it our responsibility to request a clarification with regard to these questions, in order to put an end to this spread of confusion that is actually leading people into error.”
Burke and the other cardinals are saying that there is “tremendous confusion” on these points, and they say they are acting to end the confusion.
But spokesmen around the Pope, and many Church leaders around the world, are saying there is not this confusion, but that the four cardinals, by their actions, are fanning the fires of confusion.
This is a key issue: is Amoris Laetitia causing confusion, or it it not?
There is a sharp disagreement on this point.
In any case, here are the 5 questions the four cardinals have asked the Pope to answer:
The Dubia (Doubts) of the Four Cardinals, sent to the Pope on September 19, and, after the Pope did not answer, made public on November 14
(1) It is asked whether, following the affirmations of Amoris Laetitia (300-305), it has now become possible to grant absolution in the sacrament of penance and thus to admit to holy Communion a person who, while bound by a valid marital bond, lives together with a different person more uxorio without fulfilling the conditions provided for by Familiaris Consortio, 84, and subsequently reaffirmed by Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 34, and Sacramentum Caritatis, 29. Can the expression “in certain cases” found in Note 351 (305) of the exhortation Amoris Laetitia be applied to divorced persons who are in a new union and who continue to live more uxorio?
(2) After the publication of the post-synodal exhortation Amoris Laetitia (304), does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor, 79, based on sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, on the existence of absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts and that are binding without exceptions?
(3) After Amoris Laetitia (301) is it 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 (Matthew 19:3-9), finds him or herself in an objective situation of grave habitual sin (Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, “Declaration,” June 24, 2000)?
(4) After the affirmations of Amoris Laetitia (302) on “circumstances which mitigate moral responsibility,” does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor, 81, based on sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, according to which “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”?
(5) After Amoris Laetitia (303) does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor, 56, based on sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, that excludes a creative interpretation of the role of conscience and 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?
The Silence of the Pope
Yet Pope Francis is silent.
And in this time of silence, the divisions in the Church seem to be growing, and threaten to turn into a schism.
The Pope, as the chief teacher of the Church, as the “father” of the household of the faith, could perhaps answer these doubts by saying, quite simply, that of course the previous teaching still holds, but that the pastoral situation requires dramatic new pastoral actions.
He could draw on the insight of British Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton, who said that the paradoxical quality of essential Catholic truths is a central characteristic of their nature. Thus, in the doctrine of the incarnation, Catholics hold that God truly became man, and yet truly remained God. Jesus was truly man, and truly God. Any diminution of either term leads to error — to heresy. Each term must be held fully, even if each term seems to contradict the other.
Regarding Amoris Laetitia, and the whole question of Catholic moral teaching in this troubled age, the Pope could perhaps draw on this teaching. He could say the the perennial teaching of the Church about marriage and its indissolubility is true, and ennobles mankind, while at the same time saying that the requirement of following the supreme law of the Church, the requirement to reach out to sinful and lost souls in all circumstances, to bring healing and forgiveness, applies in cases when the truth of marriage has been violated, when marriages (and families, and hearts) are broken and suffering.
He could answer the five questions, by calling upon and embracing the paradoxical nature of many Catholic truths.
Such an answer could allow him to continue to accompany the divorced and remarried, while conserving the whole depositum fidei (as is the duty of the Pope, first of all, and also of every cardinal, bishop, priest and layman in the Church).
There is a precedent for being willing to die for a point of doctrine, for the truth about the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Many of the early martyrs gave their lives rather than infringe on a teaching of the faith, refusing, for example, to offer a pinch of incense to Caesar “as to a god” (which they could not do, they felt, without denying the sole lordship of the divine crucified and risen one, Jesus Christ); for their “impertinence,” they were executed.
There is also a precedent for seeking out the lost, for finding ways to minister to sinners — which means, all men and women, without exception. The quotation cited above from St. Paul, where be made himself “all things to all men,” testifies to this truth.
The dispute between Pope Francis and the four cardinals also involves ultimate categories: the categories of time and eternity.
Pope Francis made “mercy” the central word of his pontificate (as it is the central word in his coat-of-arms), reflecting his conviction of the importance of expressing the truth that without God’s mercy, our own efforts to escape from our sins, to atone for our sins, to conquer our sins, would fail, and we would experience the wages of sin, eternal death.
The Pope’s teaching in this regard has been received with great joy by millions.
Yes, a perplexity remains.
The perplexity arises from the fact that the central word of the Gospel, and of the Scriptures, always connected with God’s mercy, is not mercy, but, in fact, “holiness.”
God is “He who is holy.” Holiness is His being. He is holy and He is holiness.
Our “sanctification” is our “being made holy.”
The ultimate reality, beneath all the movement and change of waves and particles, of matter and energy and empty space, is a reality, unchanging, inexhaustible and incorruptible, which we call “holiness.”
And this reality, whose essence is holiness itself, as a substance but beyond substantiality as we normally, or carnally, understand it, is personal, and as personal, is loving and merciful toward all.
This last point has been the burden of the teaching of Pope Francis for almost four years now.
Francis has told us to approach God, the Holy One, and receive His mercy.
He has told us to come into His presence, whether in a Church, or in the desert, whether in a crowd, or alone, whether in joy, or in sorrow, whether in confident hope, or in desperate fear, and to receive from The One Who Is that forgiveness, that mercy, that grace, which opens the way to holiness, which is the way to life itself, in its very essence… for any other way is the way to death.
Now what has arisen in the Church is a great dispute over whether the mercy extended by the Father can be extended even in situations which seem, objectively, to remain marked by sinful conduct.
Can those in irregular marital situations receive the sacrament of Communion, which in Catholic faith and tradition is granted only to those with a clear conscience, who have confessed their sins and made a promise of amendment of life, of rejection of sinful conduct?
The words of Jesus, which are binding on the Church and all Christians, seem clear: he who leaves his wife and lives with another commits adultery.
So can there be any way toward holiness found in these many “irregular” situations and relationships?
Perhaps in the great sea of eternity which surrounds this present world of time, the sins committed and the mercies shown in time will be seen in a different perspective in eternity, in God’s perspective, not in a human perspective…
The Christian is to be made holy in order to live eternally, forever, with the Holy God, in a form of existence totally passing human understanding.
The Christian is to be made holy. This means that the Christian is to be conformed to Christ, the Holy One, the very Son of God, from all eternity.
By the sacraments, first by baptism, then by confession of our sins and repentance and absolution, then by communion, then by confirmation, and finally by the last rites, we sinful mortals are “incorporated” into Christ. We are made into Christ. And for this reason, we can be present with him in the presence of the Father, the All-Holy One.
And this is why St. John Damascene prayed: “God, my God, inextinguishable and invisible fire, You make Your angels flaming fire. Out of Your inexpressible love You have given me Your divine Flesh as food, and through this communion of Your immaculate Body and precious Blood You receive me a partaker of Your divinity. Permeate all my body and soul, all my bones and sinews. Consume my sins in fire.”
Somewhere along this path may lie the possibility of resolving the dispute between the Pope and the four cardinals.
A Passage from the British Catholic author G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy:
People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe.
There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy.
It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad.
It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic.
The Church in its early days went fierce and fast with any warhorse; yet it is utterly unhistoric to say that she merely went mad along one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism.
She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles.
She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly.
The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly.
The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable.
It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians.
It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination.
It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic.
It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own.
It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob.
To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom — that would indeed have been simple.
It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands.
To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame.
But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect. (Link)
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What is the glory of God?
“The glory of God is man alive; but the life of man is the vision of God.” —St. Irenaeus of Lyons, in the territory of France, in his great work Against All Heresies, written c. 180 A.D.