One year ago today, on November 14, 2016, four cardinals took formal step of publishing a set of five dubia — inquiries about doubtful theological propositions — that they had issued directly to Pope Francis two months earlier. The dubia pertained to the pastoral guidelines for divorced and “remarried” Catholics living more uxorio (engaging in sexual relations) as outlined in the pope’s magnum opus, the 264-page, nearly 60,000 word post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (AL). Today, after an intervening year without a single response or audience granted — a year in which two of the four dubia cardinals have died — Cardinal Burke in a new interview indicated that the pope’s silence is an insufficient response to the grave confusion and concern his exhortation has caused.
In a November 14 interview with the National Catholic Register, Cardinal Burke made a “final plea” to Pope Francis, citing the “continually worsening” gravity of the situation that has followed in the wake of the exhortation.
Burke says that the concern of the dubia cardinals has always been “to determine precisely what the Pope wanted to teach as Successor of Peter”, and he reiterated his initial analysis of the document, saying that “By their very nature, affirmations that lack this clarity cannot be qualified expressions of the magisterium.” Burke continues:
It is evident that some of Amoris Laetitia’s indications regarding essential aspects of the faith and of the practice of the Christian life have received various interpretations that are divergent and at times incompatible with each other. This incontestable fact confirms that these indications are ambivalent, permitting a variety of readings, many of which are in contrast to Catholic doctrine. The questions we Cardinals have raised thus regard what exactly the Holy Father has taught and how his teaching harmonizes with the deposit of the faith, given that the magisterium “is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed” (Vatican Council II, Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum, n. 10).
Seemingly referring to Professor Josef Seifert’s analysis that the logical consequence of the application of certain principles suggested in AL would be a destruction of the entire edifice of Catholic moral teaching, Burke said that “To understand how far-reaching these proposed changes are, it is enough to think of what would happen if this reasoning were to be applied to other cases, such as that of a medical doctor performing abortions, of a politician belonging to a ring of corruption, of a suffering person deciding to make a request for assisted suicide…”
Saying that the “sense of the ecclesial sacramental practice is increasingly eroding in the Church,” Burke admitted that he was making, as interviewer Edward Pentin asked him, a “final plea” to the pope, perhaps signaling that the next step would not simply be another warning:
Yes, for these grave reasons, one year after rendering public the dubia, I again turn to the Holy Father and to the whole Church, emphasizing how urgent it is that, in exercising the ministry he has received from the Lord, the Pope should confirm his brothers in the faith with a clear expression of the teaching regarding both Christian morality and the meaning of the Church’s sacramental practice.
Since its publication in April 2016 as a reflection upon two synods on marriage and family held in 2014 and 2015 respectively, AL has stirred up more controversy among theologians, bishops, and pastors than any papal action in living memory.
Many milestones have taken place since AL first made its public debut last year — too many to count. Among the most significant, in chronological order:
- On June 29, 2016, an international group of 45 Catholic theologians, pastors, and scholars issued a letter and theological analysis to the college of cardinals pertaining to Amoris Laetitia. The signatories outlined 19 theological censures — 11 of which were labeled as heretical — based on a “natural reading” of AL. On July 26, 2016, their document and the letter with their signatures was published after being leaked to the press, presumably by one of the recipients.
- On September 19th, 2016 — ten days after the pope’s letter affirming the sacrilegious interpretation of Amoris Laetitia by the bishops of the Buenos Aires region — four Catholic cardinals — Walter Brandmüller, Raymond Burke, Carlo Caffarra, and Joachim Meisner — sent a letter to the pope noting “grave disorientation and great confusion of many faithful regarding extremely important matters for the life of the Church”. The letter included five dubia — the formal method by which theologians and prelates can seek clarifications on matters of Church teaching from Rome.
- On November 14th, 2016, after receiving no response from the pope, the four “dubia cardinals” published their letter, including the five dubia pertaining to Amoris Laetitia’s various propositions.
- On December 7, 2016, Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Astana, Kazakhstan — one of the most outspoken orthodox voices in the Church — claimed in an interview with a French television station that if the dubia remained unanswered there was “not only a risk of schism” but that “a certain type of schism already exists in the Church”. “We are witnessing today,” Bishop Schneider said, “a bizarre form of schism. Externally, numerous ecclesiastics safeguard formal unity with the pope, at times for the good of their own careers or out of a kind of papolatry. And at the same time they have broken ties with Christ, the Truth, and with Christ, the true Head of the Church.”
- On December 13, 2016, I outlined the five simple one-word answers that could put an end to the dubia controversy once and for all.
- On December 19, 2016, Cardinal Burke — the most prominent dubia cardinal in the English speaking world, said in an interview with Lisa Bourne of LifeSiteNews that the dubia “have to have a response because they have to do with the very foundations of the moral life and of the Church’s constant teaching with regard to good and evil”. Asked about the timeline for a proposed “formal correction” of the pope in the absence of a response to the dubia, Burke indicated that should such an action become necessary, it would most likely take place some time after Epiphany in 2017.
- Also On December 19, 2016, Cardinal Burke explained in an interview with Catholic World Report that there was a scriptural basis for rebuking a pope (Gal 2:11) and indicated that there were more prelates than the four cardinals who supported the dubia. When asked if it were possible for the pope to “separate himself from communion with the Church” through “schism or heresy,” Burke responded, “If a pope would formally profess heresy he would cease, by that act, to be the Pope. It’s automatic. And so, that could happen.”
- On December 24, 2016, the major German newspaper Der Spiegel published an article in which it was claimed that among a “very small circle” of people close to the pope, Francis explained that it was possible he would “enter history as the one who split the Catholic Church.”
- On January 11, 2017, John F. Salza, co-author of the book True or False Pope, outlined in an article for The Remnant (later reprinted at 1P5) what might happen, juridically speaking, if Pope Francis were to continue to refuse to answer the dubia.
- On January 17, 2017, three of the Kazakhstani Bishops — Tomash Peta, Metropolitan Archbishop of the archdiocese of Saint Mary in Astana, Jan Pawel Lenga, Archbishop-Bishop emeritus of Karaganda, and Athanasius Schneider, Auxiliary Bishop of the archdiocese of Saint Mary in Astana — issued a joint statement requesting prayers from the faithful that Pope Francis would “confirm the unchanging praxis of the Church with regard to the truth of the indissolubility of marriage.” The bishops gave specific examples of how Amoris Laetitia contains “pastoral guidelines” which contradicted “in practice” certain “truths and doctrines that the Catholic Church has continually taught as being sure.”
- On March 25, 2017, Cardinal Burke gave a talk at a parish in Springfield, Virginia, in which he spoke of the spread of a very “harmful confusion in the Church” and the need for the dubia to be answered. Asked what would happen if the pope failed to respond, Cardinal Burke said, “we simply will have to correct the situation, again, in a respectful way … to draw the response to the [dubia] questions from the constant teachings of the Church and to make that known for the good of souls.”
- On June 8, 2017, the Polish Bishops’ Conference completed its general assembly, whereupon their spokesman, Pawel Rytel-Andrianik, said that “the teaching of the Church with regard to Holy Communion for those people who live in non-sacramental relationships ‘has not changed’ after the papal document Amoris Laetitia.”
- On June 19, 2017, veteran Vatican-watcher Sandro Magister published a letter from dubia Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, written on April 25th, 2017, in which he requested “that a papal audience be granted so that they might discuss the dubia which have not yet been answered.” At the date of the publication of the letter, two months had passed with, again, no response from the pope to the request for an audience.
- On July 5, 2017, Cardinal Joachim Meisner, one of the four dubia cardinals, passed away while on holiday in Bad Füssing, Germany at the age of 83. At the time of his passing, no response to the request for an audience was yet received. In a message read at Meisner’s funeral, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI reminded those who were mourning his friend that “The Lord does not abandon His Church.”
- On August 31, 2017, the eminent Austrian Catholic philosopher, Professor Josef Seifert, was forcibly “retired” by his archbishop from his position as Dietrich von Hildebrand Chair at the International Academy of Philosophy in Granada, Spain, in response to his second critique of Amoris Laetitia. Catholic scholars and even one bishop immediately reacted to the injustice of this action.
- On September 6, 2017, almost two months to the day from the passing of Cardinal Meisner, Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, another of the four dubia cardinals, passed away at the age of 79. No message from the pope emeritus was read at the funeral of Caffarra.
- On September 12, 2017, Gabriel Ariza of the Spanish-language publication Infovaticana revealed that the late Cardinal Caffarra had confirmed just months before his death that he knew the dubia cardinals were being “monitored” and that they “had their communications tapped” and could “do little more than seek some form of more secure communication.”
- On September 27, 2017, a group of Catholic clergy and lay scholars made public a “Filial Correction” that was first delivered to the pope on August 11th, after they, too, received no response. Their letter took the unprecedented step of using the word “heresy” in reference not just to possible interpretations of the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, but also to other recent “words, deeds and omissions” of the pope. Since its publication, the list of clerical or scholarly signatories has grown to 250, while two petitions (here and here) in support of the Filial Correction have garnered over 20,000 additional signatures from the laity.
- On September 29, 2017, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said in an interview with Edward Pentin that “people working in the Curia are living in great fear: If they say one small or harmless critical word, some spies will pass the comments directly to the Holy Father, and the falsely accused people don’t have any chance to defend themselves.” When asked by Pentin about the phrase “reign of terror,” which had been used by one senior Church figure, Müller responded, “It’s the same in some theological faculties — if anybody has any remarks or questions about Amoris Laetitia, they will be expelled, and so on.”
- On November 1st, Fr. Thomas Weinandy — a Capuchin friar who formerly served as chief of staff for the US Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine and is also a current member of the International Theological Commission at the Vatican — published a letter he had sent to the pope — which also received no response — outlining concerns he had about the “chronic confusion” that he believes marks “this pontificate”. The first of his five critiques was aimed at Amoris Laetitia, about which he says the pope’s “guidance at times seems intentionally ambiguous, thus inviting both a traditional interpretation of Catholic teaching on marriage and divorce as well as one that might imply a change in that teaching.” He later spoke of a climate of fear in the Church, saying that “Many fear if they speak their mind” on matters of concern about what is happening in the Church, “they will be marginalized or worse.” After the publication of his letter, Fr. Weinandy was proven correct when he was asked to resign his position with the USCCB — a request with which he complied.
The absence of a formal correction in October — marking the 100th anniversary of the final Fatima apparition — left many Catholics wondering if action would be taken at all. Today’s revelation, however, makes clear that the dubia effort — as well as the formal correction that necessarily was to follow — is on track and moving forward.
This post has been updated to include additional information. The title has also been modified for clarity.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have eight children. You can find more of his writing at his Substack, The Skojec File.