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Rocco Buttiglione’s Response to the Four Cardinals’ Dubia

The noted Italian Catholic politician and philosopher Rocco Buttiglione has emerged as one of the most prominent defenders of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia (AL).  Well, even the most brilliantly qualified apologist is going to have an uphill battle if he seeks – as Buttiglione does – to demonstrate that this very confusing document is perfectly in line with traditional Catholic doctrine.

Buttiglione has recently weighed in over the now-famous Four Cardinals’ Dubia: that is, the submission of Cardinals Walter Brandmuller, Raymond Leo Burke, Carlo Caffarra, and Joachim Meisner to Pope Francis, asking for a clear confirmation of five vital points of Catholic moral teaching which appear to be cast in doubt by AL. The Holy Father has declined to answer Their Eminences; but Professor Buttiglione has now stepped up to the plate with his own response.

Here are some critical observations on what he says:


This has to do with the most immediately pressing practical question arising from AL: Is the exhortation to be understood as permitting Holy Communion to some divorced and invalidly remarried Catholics who live more uxorio (i.e., who remain sexually active)?  Buttiglione says – and I think rightly – that the response to this dubium must be affirmative, i.e., that AL does indeed permit this in certain cases. And how does he argue that this hitherto unheard-of permission is in line with traditional doctrine? “A clear distinction”, he says, “needs to be made between the act, which constitutes a grave sin, and the agent, who may find themselves bound by circumstances that mitigate their responsibility for the act or in some cases may even eliminate it completely. Consider, for example, the case of a woman who is completely financially and mentally dependent on someone and is forced to have sexual intercourse against her will” (emphasis added).

This strikes me as a red herring which avoids the point at issue and just confuses the whole discussion.  Buttiglione is in fact describing someone who is a ‘sex slave’ undergoing rape (see italicized words above). But if the intercourse is “against her will”, it is not even a human act on the part of the woman, much less a sin; and so theologians across the board would agree that she would not need to confess it in the sacrament of Penance. But that is simply not the situation the Holy Father is talking about in AL, as Buttiglione ought to be aware. Francis has in mind invalidly ‘remarried’ persons who  willingly live more uxorio and want sacramental absolution and the Eucharist without any commitment to live in continence.

Buttiglione then goes on to acknowledge that a firm purpose of amendment from sin is necessary in order to receive sacramental absolution. But he continues: “However, this person may not be able to achieve this detachment and regain self-ownership immediately. Here, the ‘situation of sin’ concept illustrated by John Paul II, is important. One cannot plausibly promise never to commit a certain sin if they live in a situation in which they are exposed to the irresistible temptation of committing it.”

Again, this just confuses the issue. A necessary element of the required firm purpose of amendment – an element commonly expressed in the penitent’s Act of Contrition – is a resolve to avoid the near occasions of sin. If a remarried penitent confessing to illicit intercourse is not yet willing to separate from his/her civil spouse, and if living under the same roof constitutes for him/her an “irresistible temptation” to adulterous acts, then that penitent must be denied absolution, just as an habitual drunkard must be denied absolution if he tells the priest he is not willing to stop frequenting bars with his buddies after work. Contrary to what Buttiglione says, it’s not that this penitent is unable at that moment to make the decision to separate from his/her civil spouse, but rather, he/she is unwilling to do so. God never commands the impossible, and offers us the necessary grace to fulfill his will. As St. Paul assures the Christians at Corinth: “No trial has come to you but what is human. God is faithful, and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out” (I Cor. 10: 13-14).


Buttiglione’s seven-line comment on this dubium – as to whether, in the light of AL #304, Veritatis Splendor #79 is still valid in teaching the existence of exceptionless prohibitions of intrinsically evil acts – is very superficial. He replies, “It certainly is [still valid]”, on the grounds that Pope Francis is not giving a “different valuation of the act” from that of John Paul II, but only recognizing the differing subjective circumstances that may sometimes diminish imputability for such intrinsically evil acts.  If only it were that simple! Buttiglione completely fails to recognize what prompted the Four Cardinals to formulate this dubium. In AL 304, Pope Francis is not merely saying that imputability for breaches of the moral law against adultery can sometimes be diminished by subjective factors. He appears to be saying there can be exceptions to the law itself. For he appeals here to a passage of the Summa (Ia IIae, Q. 94, a. 4) in which St. Thomas is not talking about subjective imputability, but about general rules of conduct that do not apply in every particular situation. In the context of Chapter 8 as a whole, the Holy Father seems to be implying in #304 that, on the basis of St. Thomas’ teaching, we can classify the moral law forbidding sexual intimacy outside of valid marriage as one of these “general law[s] or rule[s]” to which there can be exceptions in particular cases. Indeed, in the preceding article of AL (#303), Pope Francis says that the “conscience” of someone living in an irregular sexual relationship “may come to see with a certain moral security that [this relationship] is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits” (emphasis added). Since God could never “ask” us to do what contradicts his own commands, the sexual acts in question would in that event have to be objectively justifiable, not just subjectively excusable. In other words, Pope Francis appears to be teaching in AL 303-304 the shockingly novel thesis that people’s “conscience” can rationally discover true exceptions, applying to themselves, to the divine law which prohibits all sexual intimacy outside of a valid marriage.

Moreover (as various Thomist scholars have pointed out), Aquinas neither states nor implies that this can ever happen, so the appeal to his authority in AL #304 is misplaced. Here in Q. 94, a. 4 he is focusing on positive precepts of the natural law, to which, indeed, there can sometimes be exceptions. This is clear from the one concrete example he gives: while it is true as a general rule that “Goods entrusted to another must be restored to their owner”, there may be particular circumstances, he notes, in which it would not be right to do so: for instance, if it were clear that a loaned weapon would be used for an evil purpose if it were returned to its owner at that moment. St. Thomas never suggests that there can be exceptions to negative precepts such as “Thou shalt not commit adultery”. Indeed, in the very next article of the Summa (Q. 94, a.5) he makes it clear that even the special revelation given to the prophet Hosea to “take a wife of fornications” is not to be understood as an exception to the divine law against adultery.


Here the cardinals ask whether, after AL #301, we can still affirm that those who live in contradiction to a commandment of God’s law (such as the Commandment against adultery) are in “an objective situation of grave sin”. Buttiglione answers “Yes” to this question, provided the distinction is made between “grave sin” (the objective evaluation of a person’s immoral conduct) and “mortal sin” (the subjective loss of sanctifying grace, which would not occur when there is lack of full knowledge or consent). But Buttiglione again only skims the surface of the problem, and so fails to discern the reason for this dubium. Pope Francis, speaking of divorced and invalidly remarried Catholics who remain sexually active, makes the shocking statement in #301 that some of them can “be in a concrete situation that does not allow [them] to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin” (emphasis added). But if it were sinful for people in that “concrete situation” to abstain from sex with the partner who is not their true spouse, then their continuing sexual relationship with that partner would not in fact be “an objective situation of grave habitual sin”, much less a subjectively culpable situation of mortal sin.  On the contrary, it would be morally obligatory!

Also, Buttiglione’s understanding of why folks in that situation have perennially been denied absolution and Communion is very superficial and defective. He says, “Canon 915 excludes those persevering in manifest grave sin from the sacraments irrespective of the fact (recognised as a possibility) that they may not be in a condition of mortal sin. Public scandal is, obviously, the reason.” But in regard to the exclusion from those sacraments of civilly remarried and sexually active divorcees, “public scandal” is only a secondary reason, according to Pope St. John Paul II. The primary reason is by its very nature strictly doctrinal, and therefore not a matter of changeable ecclesiastical law. John Paul affirms:

“However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried [with no commitment to practice continence]. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage” (Familiaris Consortio [FC], #84, emphasis added).

It should be emphasized that the Pontiff’s words emphasized above imply that no mitigating circumstances can ever justify granting sacramental absolution and Communion to the people in question, even supposing that scandal to others could be completely avoided. Since their exclusion from the Eucharist is grounded first and foremost on “their state and condition of life”, which “objectively contradict” the profound nuptial meaning of the Eucharist, and since that objective contradiction clearly remains even if they are subjectively free of mortal sin because of diminished imputability (lack of full knowledge and/or consent), it follows that no priest faithful to St. John Paul’s teaching may ever open the way to the Eucharist for such persons by giving them sacramental absolution. John Paul reinforces this in the same paragraph by explicitly affirming that they may be absolved “only” if they make a commitment to live in continence. It amazes me that a scholar of Buttiglione’s eminence shows himself completely oblivious to these teachings of FC #84, and indeed, does not even refer to this key magisterial text.


I would agree with Buttiglione here that if AL #302 (the paragraph mentioned by the cardinals in this dubium) is taken in isolation, it probably allows for an affirmative answer to their question as to whether it still allows us to hold, with John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor (VS) #81, that circumstances and intentions can never transform an intrinsically evil act into a good or defensible act. However, the statements in AL ##301, 303 and 304 discussed above seem to call this radically into question.


The Four Cardinals finally ask whether, in the light of AL #303, we can still hold, with John Paul II in VS #56, that conscience does not have a “creative” role which could “legitimate exceptions to absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts by virtue of their object”. Buttiglione answers a facile “Yes”, without coming to grips in any way with the statements in AL ##303 and 304 that have prompted the cardinals’ concern (see discussion of the Second Dubium above).

Rocco Buttiglione concludes by affirming, “It seems obvious to me, therefore, that Amoris Laetitia is perfectly in keeping with the doctrine and sacred tradition of the Church”. His confidence strikes me as remarkably misplaced, and unwarranted by the shallow arguments he adduces in defense of this deeply problematical apostolic exhortation.

23 thoughts on “Rocco Buttiglione’s Response to the Four Cardinals’ Dubia”

  1. ” the case of a woman who is completely financially and mentally dependent on someone and is forced to have sexual intercourse against her will” (emphasis added).”—–This does paint a picture of sex slavery. Yet, I think those who support AL will argue to be “forced” doesnt always involve a physcial beating. Sometimes you can be forced by your economic and social situation (which is what they have seemed to be saying)….I think this is the route they are going to take. But, this doesnt hold any water in the light of all Scripture and Church Tradition. For many martyrs and saints could have argued the same but they found the grace God gave them to overcome. Furthermore, if they are living in a union which resembles a “marriage” but one “spouse” is forced to treat the other as a “spouse” then it is the Church’s duty and even the government’s duty to help bring such a situation to an end. But, as many know, this isnt the case the Holy Father has in mind.

  2. Thanks, Father. I read Buttiglione’s article a few days ago, and was hoping for someone to address it.

    But props to Dr Buttiglione for at least attempting to answer the dubia, and for doing so without resorting to insults, threats, or character assassination. If the pope had responded with these answers–weak as they are–a large contingent of the respectable Catholic commentariat would have gratefully grasped at the figleaf offered them in order to proclaim a satisfactory end to the controversy.

    As it is, it’s now dragged on to the point where even Patheos (delenda est!) bloggers are expressing unease with the pope’s apparent intention to foment confusion and disorder in Catholic teaching. It really seems like the brain trust in the Vatican have boxed themselves in, and don’t know what to do next.

    • I concur with your assessment and I do think that many would, as you so adroitly put it, have grasped at the fig-leaf, but I also think that the four Cardinals would not be so easily swayed and would have addressed these feeble answers in a way that would have further weakened what PF and the supporters of AL are actually trying to do. Thus, they remain silent and appoint someone from outside the Church to give anemic responses.

      I also believe that their first strategy to engage in ad hominems in order to discredit the Cardinals is backfiring showing the Pope of Mercy to be anything but merciful.

  3. Re. the first dubium. The same could be said of prostitutes or porn actors whose economic situation and duty to care for themselves and their families force them to have sex against their will. Or even professional hit men who are economically dependent on killing people in order to provide for their family. This is where the real fault line in AL lies: Pope Francis seems to be saying that if one finds oneself unable to overcome temptation because of worldly concerns then one is no longer culpable for giving in to it. This basically means that sometimes God’s grace isn’t enough to save us from sinning.

    Re. the second dubium. The whole point of the Church’s doctrine regarding intrinsically evil acts is that they are NEVER justified under any circumstances. To argue that intrinsically evil behaviour is what God might be satisfied with simply because it doesn’t necessarily constitute mortal sin (which is itself a questionable claim) misses the whole point of why some sins are considered to be intrinsically evil.

    • You said that so well: “Pope Francis seems to be saying that if one finds oneself unable to overcome temptation because of worldly concerns then one is no longer culpable for giving in to it.”

      In short, it is license.

  4. The dubia were not designed to clear up any “confusion.” Nor did the 4 Cardinals really expect Pope Francis to answer them. We all know what Pope Francis intends at this point. He wants to push through a revolution in Church teaching without formally and explicitly saying it because to do so would destroy his own credibility. The plan is to just push forward and eventually it will be accepted and then all will be confirmed explicitly in retrospect, after the new morality has been approved in practice for 10, 20 or 30 years.

    But the 4 Cardinals are not letting him get away with a stealth revolution. Thus, rather than seeking to clear up confusion, the dubia were designed to publicly demonstrate to the world that the Emperor has no clothes. And they have already had their intended effect. They are devastating, just from the fact of having been asked – and particularly from the fact that Francis will not answer them. The Pontiff’s refusal to answer exposes the reality of what is going on for all to see.

    It is a blow from which Francis can never recover in the eyes of any believing Catholic. The only question is, how far is he willing to go now that he has been checkmated? One suspects he is willing to burn down the entire Church to get his way. The progressives did not wait 35 years on the “outside looking in” to waste this opportunity. It is all or nothing for them now.

  5. St. Thomas’s observations regarding conscience (an act, not a power) are extremely interesting in the context of AL. In stating that a person “may come to see with a certain moral security that [this relationship] is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits,” it’s possible to interpret this, not as implying that one’s conscience can alter objective reality, but as a simple acknowledgement that sometimes (indeed, perhaps often) human reason errs—and therefore conscience errs—in evaluating one’s situation in life, so much so that one might conclude that God wants this or that of us. Of course we Catholics should know better 🙂

    In my own experience I have found this particularly true among Protestants. I briefly knew a young married man whose wife was unable to conceive. They wanted to do IVF. I explained as best I could the Church’s teaching and that doing so would be intrinsically evil. While the man appreciated my honesty and conviction, his reply was simply that he and his wife prayed about it, and that he was “certain” that God was leading them. Typical Protestant nonsense, but, as St. Thomas teaches, even an “erring conscience binds” the subject! And, as he further concludes, acting contrary to an erring conscience is subjectively evil. “[A]bsolutely speaking,” he says, “every will at variance with reason, whether right or erring, is always evil.” (I-II, Q.19, art. 5, a.) St. Paul gives interesting advice in this regard. The Apostle affirms that eating certain meat is not intrinsically evil, as the Jews believed, but rather a morally indifferent act. Nonetheless, we are to abstain if it causes scandal. “Destroy not the work of God for meat. All things indeed are clean: but it is evil for that man who eateth with offence” (Rom 14:20). Thus St. Paul admonishes: “But he that discerneth, if he eat, is condemned; because not of faith. For all that is not of faith is sin.” Note the emphasis on discernment, which St. Thomas (I think rightly) interprets as acting against conscience, even when it errs!

    Therefore, regarding conscience, what Pope Francis might be saying is that a person “may come to see with a certain moral security,” i.e., an erring conscience, “that [this objectively adulterous relationship] is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits.” In this vein, we can affirm the fifth dubium: it would be erroneous to speak of a “creative” conscience that can find “exceptions” to the negative precepts of the natural moral law. That’s not at all what’s happening. “Although the judgment of an erring reason is not derived from God,” St. Thomas explains, “yet the erring reason puts forward its judgment as being true, and consequently as being derived from God, from Whom is all truth.” (I-II, Q.19, art. 5, adv. 2).

    Anyway, I’m not advocating that canon 915 should be set aside for the divorced and remarried or any irregular unions for that matter.

  6. Regarding the fourth dubium and Veritatis Splendor (#81), compare St. Thomas’s answer in I-II, Q.19, article 5, in which he asserts that something “which is evil, can receive the character of goodness, on account of the reason apprehending it as such.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t give an example of this scenario, but only how something good in itself (e.g., refraining from fornication) can be apprehended as evil.

    Note that St. Thomas here discusses fornication—an intrinsically evil act always and everywhere forbidden by a negative precept of the natural moral law. If an intrinsically evil act can receive the “character of goodness” it is not because of good intentions (that would be situation ethics, or doing evil that good might come), but because of an intellectual error. Of course, that doesn’t mean the act was not objectively evil; it was, and it did grave harm, even though the actor doesn’t think so. In the very next Article St. Thomas offers a strange example of how an intrinsically evil act—adultery—could be rendered SUBJECTIVELY excusable. He says, “But if a man’s reason errs in mistaking another for his wife, and if he wish to give her her right when she asks for it, his will is excused from being evil: because this error arises from ignorance of a circumstance, which ignorance excuses, and causes the act to be involuntary.”

    Wow. How exactly does one confuse one’s wife? Identical twins?

    AL speaks of “circumstances” that mitigate moral responsibility. As I understand it, falsely apprehending a thing as either good or evil would qualify as a “circumstance,” as that term was understood by the Schoolmen. Cf. ST, I-II, Q.7, art. 1. Of course, none of that matters in the confessional.

    • “How exactly does one confuse one’s wife?”
      In any case of marriage nullity the presumptive spouses are objectively fornicating.

  7. Intentional & deliberate ignorance reflects a terrible waste of the intellect God gave us. It’s a deliberate self-abuse of his mind to defend the indefensible.


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