MOST of the world’s one billion Catholics are missing it, but the big news in the Vatican these days is about two letters, both asking clarifications from Pope Francis.
About what? His apostolic exhortation “Amoris laetitia” (The Joy of Love), issued on March 19, Saint Joseph’s feastday, and expounding on family and sexuality issues deliberated in the Synods of Bishops in 2014 and 2015.
In July, 45 theologians and clergy from around the world wrote to all 218 Cardinals and patriarchs of the Church, warning that “the apostolic exhortation … has caused grief and confusion to many Catholics on account of its apparent disagreement with a number of teachings of the Catholic Church on faith and morals.”
“This situation,” they added, “poses a grave danger to souls” <http://2n613ar7ekr056c3upq2s15c.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/45-theologians-censure-AL.pdf>.
Then this month, four senior Cardinals—Carlo Caffarra, archbishop emeritus of Bologna; Raymond Burke, former head of the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican supreme court; Walter Brandmüller, president emeritus of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences; and Joachim Meisner, archbishop emeritus of Cologne—made public their five questions, or “dubia” (Latin for “doubts”), on Amoris laetitia.
The Cardinals released their letter after the Pope had not replied since receiving it in September <http://www.ncregister.com/blog/edward-pentin/full-text-and-explanatory-notes-of-cardinals-questions-on-amoris-laetitia>.
They expressed deep concern over the “uncertainty, confusion and disorientation among many of the faithful” spawned by conflicting interpretations of Amorislaetitia, including the Chapter 8 discussion on whether one may give communion to divorced Catholics who remarry without their first marriages being annulled.
Many readers might beg off now. The faithful usually leave hierarchy and academe to sort out matters of doctrine, liturgy and morals.
But what if the Pontiff in white, the Cardinals in red, and the theologians in togas can’t resolve matters, especially if the Holy Father won’t address issues put to him? How are ordinary Catholics supposed to know what’s what and what’s not in seeking holiness and heaven?
Francis urges discernment, not ‘legalism’
Rather than responding point by point to the theologians and the Cardinals, Francis seemed to portray those raising questions as failing to accept Church reforms under the Second Vatican Council, held in 1962-65. His remarks in a recent newspaper interview, translated from Italian by the Vatican Insider journal:
“During the Council, the Church felt it had the responsibility to be a living sign of the Father’s love in the world. … This shifts the axis of Christianity away from a certain kind of legalism, which can be ideological, towards the Person of God, who became mercy through the incarnation of the Son. Some still fail to grasp the point. They see things as black or white, even though it is in the course of life that we are called to discern.”
As this theologically untrained believer understands from his remarks, the Holy Father argued that since the Council shifted away from “legalism”—presumably meaning strict doctrine and morality—toward the merciful God, questions about fine points of belief and liturgy show a failure to appreciate that fundamental change in Catholicism.
Put simplistically, Francis may be saying that God’s all-embracing love and mercy won’t be blocked by Church strictures, which should be adjusted, so to speak, through discernment amid life’s burdens and complexities.
For some theologians, that view, if it is indeed the Pontiff’s perspective, echoes the paramount Protestant tenet that salvation is by faith in Jesus Christ alone, diminishing the need for good works heeding divine commandments.
Meanwhile, papal defenders insist there is nothing to clarify in Amorislaetitia. And in an open letter last Sunday, a retired Greek prelate, FrangiskosPapamanolis, president of the Bishops’ Conference of Greece, accused the four Cardinals of apostasy and scandal, two of the worst sins Church leaders can commit.
Absolute no more?
So, are the four Princes of the Church remiss in raising questions, along with the 45 theologians, including professors in Oxford, Cambridge, and other leading universities?
Not if one believes that fine points of doctrine, liturgy and morality are crucial in following God’s will, obtaining His mercy and grace, and saving one’s soul.
Take the five dubia. The Cardinals ask if centuries-old doctrines are no longer absolute and may be set aside under certain conditions without peril to souls.
For Catholics dutifully following long-established tenets of faith and morals, it is only right, just and charitable for the Church to unequivocally and explicitly state whether such fundamental principles no longer hold sometimes, depending on one’s situation and discernment.
For instance, if one may paraphrase the Cardinals’ questions for laymen, is the Church rule that divorced and remarried Catholics receiving communion commit mortal sin, no longer valid in all circumstances?
Are there acts condemned as intrinsically evil by Scripture and Church law, which are now deemed allowable or even desirable, depending on one’s conscience, circumstances and motives?
The Cardinals argue that Catholics need clear answers to these questions, or else they may commit grave sins and imperil their souls, wrongly thinking that mortal sins absolutely forbidden before are now selectively allowed under Amorislaetitia.
Is that too much to ask, many believers may wonder, especially of Pope Francis, who constantly urges mercy and compassion toward those in need, including believers grappling with doubt and sin?
Indeed, at least three prelates have expressed support for the Cardinals’ call for clarity: Jan Watroba, president of the Council for the Family of Poland’s Conference of Bishops; his fellow Pole JozefWrobel; and Athanasius Schneider of Astana, Kazakhstan.
What about Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI? As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, one of the foremost theologians of our time, he headed the International Theological Commission drafting or advising on Pope Saint John Paul II’s encyclicals and other pronouncements, including those seemingly watered down or set aside by Amorislaetitia.
Surely, some of the Cardinals and theologians consulted him about their issues with his successor’s exhortation. Will he keep silent?
In this time of divisive, unsettling controversy, may the Holy Spirit inspire all to seek and speak for the truetenets and will of our Lord. Amen.