Scholars Respond to Fastiggi, Rejecting Notion the Pope has Indirectly Answered the Dubia

This week has seen yet another attempt of loyal supporters of Pope Francis to calm down the concerned critics of the pope with regard to Amoris Laetitia and the papal silence with regard to the dubia of the four cardinals. The Italian newspaper of the papal friend, Andrea Tornielli, Vatican Insider (La Stampa), published on 28 November an article written by the U.S. theologian Dr. Robert Fastiggi who teaches at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. Entitled “Recent Comments of Pope Francis Should Help to Quiet Papal Critics,” the article tries to convince papal critics that the pope already answered the dubia, though indirectly, but certainly in an orthodox way.

After a short introduction, we shall present the statements of three prominent loyal and orthodox Catholic scholars – Father Brian Harrison, O.S., Professor Paolo Pasqualucci, and Professor Claudio Pierantoni – who have sent to us, upon our request, their own reflections and responses to Fastiggi’s article, which has been prominently and internationally published.

It seems that the recently-published letter to Pope Francis, as written by Father Thomas Weinandy, O.F.M., Cap., has had a strong impact on Catholic discourse, since Dr. Fastiggi mentions it both at the beginning and at the end of his new article. Fastiggi begins his arguments as follows:

Some critics of Pope Francis seem to think he cares little about doctrinal clarity, especially with regard to moral theology and conscience. Fr. Thomas Weinandy, OFMCap, for example—in his recently made public July 31, 2017 letter to the Holy Father—suggests that in Amoris laetitia Pope Francis offers guidance that “at times seems intentionally ambiguous.” The “explanatory note” on the fifth dubium of the four Cardinals sent to Pope Francis on September 19, 2016 expresses concern that Amoris laetita, 303 might imply a view of conscience “as a faculty for autonomously deciding about good and evil.”

Before we go further into the discussion of Dr. Fastiggi’s article, it might be worth mentioning in this context that the Father Weinandy letter – and the request that immediately followed that he resign from his position as a consultant to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) – had also stirred a discussion in Germany with much sympathy for Fr. Weinandy. The prominent national newspaper, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), published, on 7 November, an article about Father Weinandy’s letter and his description of the atmosphere of fear within the Catholic Church among those who disagree with Pope Francis’ path of reform. Describing Weinandy as a “man of the center,” an “internationally renowned theologian,” and a member of the International Theological Commission, FAZ’s journalist Christian Geyer said that the immediate request from the U.S. bishops that Weinandy resign from his position proves Weinandy’s point. Geyer wrote:

This incident is a symptom of that which Weinandy named in his letter: the fear of being dismissed, put aside, overshadows the willingness to express criticism freely, a criticism which in turn could at any moment by denounced as “badmouthing” of the papal agenda.

Thus, Father Weinandy’s polite critique of the strong confusion stemming from the papal document Amoris Laetitia, which drew international attention, could well have been a further invitation to Pope Francis to finally make an act of clarification. Now, in light of the international response to Father Weinandy’s prominent letter to Pope Francis and his call for a doctrinal clarification, it is even more understandable why Dr. Fastiggi felt compelled to write a defense of Pope Francis. As our scholars will show, indirect papal comments might not be a sufficient answer to the many calls for substantive clarification.

Let us first briefly (and incompletely) present some aspects of Dr. Fastiggi’s letter, while inviting our readers to read his full article. Fastiggi quotes several recent statements from the pope about Amoris Laetitia and about the question of the “remarried” and divorced couples, saying that in these papal comments, he sees an orthodox response to all the critics. Among these alleged papal signals is a 11 November video message from the pope to participants in the 3rd International Symposium on the Apostolic Exhortation. In reference to this communication, Fastiggi states:

Instead of describing conscience as an autonomous faculty for deciding good or evil, the Holy Father points to a proper conscience as an antidote for “a worship of the self, on whose altar everything is sacrificed.”

Thus, Fastiggi sees the fifth dubium answered. Fastiggi also quotes Pope Francis’ 25 November address to the Roman Rota, where the pope called for a shorter process for obtaining declarations of nullity, saying that then such couples also could again be admitted to the Holy Eucharist. Fastiggi comments:

It’s important to note that the Holy Father sees a declaration of nullity as a means to restore peace to the consciences of the divorced and remarried in order for them to have readmission to the Eucharist. This implies that those who are divorced and remarried are not admitted to the Eucharist. Some might object that Pope Francis does not actually say this, but it’s difficult to understand his statement in any other way. If admission to the Eucharist is allowed after a declaration of nullity, then it suggests that it is not possible before.

This statement is in Fastiggi’s eyes a response to the first of the five dubia. He also discusses possible objections, quoting Cardinal Müller’s own unfortunate recent statement:

Critics of Pope Francis will likely try to reassert their criticisms and point to the Holy Father’s alleged permission for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion via his letter endorsing the guidelines of a group of Argentine bishops. Cardinal Müller, however, told Edward Pentin in a Sept. 28, 2017 interview that “if you look at what the Argentine bishops wrote in their directive, you can interpret this in an orthodox way.”

With reference to some “remarried” and divorced orthodox Christians who, by Canon Law (canon 844§3), might be admitted, under certain conditions, to Holy Communion in the Catholic Church, Dr. Fastiggi also sees some ways of exceptions for the “remarried” and divorced couples who do not live in continence, while maintaining the general rule:

My only point is that such possible exceptions might exist, but they should not hinder the articulation of the general rule, which is that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics should not receive Holy Communion unless they are living in continence.

Dr. Fastiggi also points to the possibility that Pope Francis, with his footnote 351 in Amoris Laetitia about “certain cases” in which such couples could have access to the Holy Eucharist, merely thought of those couples who cannot prove, due to difficult circumstances in remote places in the world, the nullity of their marriage and thus should make use of the “forum internum” with a priest.

The final words of Dr. Fastiggi’s article are, as follows:

This is not to say he [Pope Francis] was consciously responding to these dubia. His intent was simply to teach the truth. If only the papal critics would pay more attention to the many and frequent teachings of the Holy Father that clearly articulate the truth, we would be better off. Fr. Weinandy is correct that “truth is the light that sets women and men free from the blindness of sin, a darkness that kills the life of the soul.” Pope Francis, however, has been and continues to teach the truth. It’s sad, though, that his critics fail to notice this.

In the following, therefore, we shall present the eloquent responses of three Catholics scholars (one of them also a priest) who are all well known to our readers. Fr. Harrison, Professor Pasqualucci, and Professor Pierantoni are all among the 45 signatories of the Theological Censures Document sent last year to the College of Cardinals addressing Amoris Laetitia; Pasqualucci and Pierantoni have also both signed the Filial Correction concerning Amoris Laetitia and other papal words and actions. We are grateful to them for having been willing to make this act of charity for the sake of the fuller truth.

Father Brian Harrison, O.S.

Regarding Dr. Robert Fastiggi’s claim that Pope Francis upholds orthodox sacramental doctrine and discipline:

In a November 25 address to the Roman Rota, Pope Francis referred to his own recent legislation expediting marriage nullity processes, and exhorted the canonists in his audience “to be close to the solitude and suffering of the faithful who expect from ecclesial justice the competent and factual help to restore peace to their consciences and God’s will on readmission to the Eucharist.” According to Dr. Robert Fastiggi, the Holy Father’s words imply that readmission to the Eucharist for divorced and remarried Catholics not living in continence “can only come after the declaration of nullity” (emphasis added). Not so. The word “only” is logically unwarranted here, for Francis’ words are quite compatible with his holding that while some – perhaps most – such Catholics will need a declaration of nullity of their first marriage in order to be absolved and readmitted to the Eucharist, not all of them will need it.

In other words, the Pope’s observation fails to state or imply what the dubia cardinals and others troubled by Amoris Laetitia rightly wish to hear him teach, namely, that if and only if a declaration of nullity is granted may those in question eventually be readmitted to the Eucharist. Francis’ November 25 speech leaves open the possibility that some such persons may be absolved and readmitted to the Eucharistic by a different path – one of “dialogue,” “accompanying” and “discernment” – that requires neither a commitment to continence nor the Church’s recognition that the first marriage was invalid. That the Pope intends AL’s note 351 to open up this new path “in certain cases” is shown by (for instance) Vatican approval of the Maltese bishops’ allowance of it, his praise for a top-level AL expositor (Cardinal Schönborn) who says the Pope’s exhortation “obviously” allows for it, a Vatican cardinal’s 30-page booklet allowing it, and its approved implementation in the Holy Father’s own Diocese of Rome.

The Rev. Brian W. Harrison, O.S., M.A., S.T.D., a priest of the Society of the Oblates of Wisdom, is a retired Associate Professor of Theology of the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico in Ponce, P.R. In 1997 he gained his doctorate in Systematic Theology, summa cum laude, from the Pontifical Athenæum of the Holy Cross in Rome. Since 2007 Fr. Harrison has been scholar-in-residence at the Oblates of Wisdom Study Center in St. Louis, Missouri, and is well-known as a speaker and writer. He is the author of three books and over 130 articles in Catholic books, magazines, and journals.

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Professor Paolo Pasqualucci

Did Pope Francis already answer the five dubia of the four cardinals, or some of them? No, he didn’t.

Why didn’t he? Here are some reasons.

1.) A preliminary but substantial point. The five dubia do not represent an accusation.  They are an official request of clarification by four cardinals, aiming to dissolve erroneous and heretical interpretations of what the Pope himself has written in a magisterial document (AL).  The Pope has the duty to answer in an official way, i.e. either with a document released motu proprio or through the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, stating authoritatively the authentic meaning (interpretatio authentica) of his own words; that is, an interpretation by the Lawmaker himself that eliminates any doubt as to the perfect orthodoxy of what he has written, contextually condemning any possible erroneous interpretation thereof.

Therefore, the Pope’s indirect declarations and hints related to the problems involved by AL, released in audio messages, addresses, interviews, etc., have no value as to the solution of those problems.

He has to answer ex cathedra, since the four cardinals have addressed their dubia ex cathedra too, i.e., in their capacity as high level members of the clergy directly assisting the pope in the government of the Church.

The lack of any official, magisterial answer on the part of the pope allows anyone to interpret the ambiguous parts of Amoris Laetitia the way he wants, so that confusion and anarchy continue to spread in the Holy Church.

Pope Francis can’t persist in maintaining an indirect approach — substantially a no-approach — policy on the dubia questions. In any case, independently from the dubia, the reigning, sinister confusion requires as such a magisterial pronouncement on his part, since he alone is the Vicar of Christ on earth and the Head of the visible Church.

2.) The thesis that Pope Francis does not describe “conscience as an autonomous faculty for deciding good or evil”, as the four cardinals (according to the author of the article) seem to think, overlooks the fact that the four cardinals in reality do not intimate that the Pope “describes” conscience that way; rather, that such a wrong notion of conscience may be deducted from certain ambiguous points of AL.

In addition, the papal quotation from Romano Guardini (supposedly demonstrating his orthodoxy) proposes a text that on one side is not conclusive, in the sense that it can very well suit a deistic notion of the conscience (à la Jean-Jacques Rousseau, to be clear); on the other side, it appears obscure in its final, dotted [abbreviated using multiple ellipses – Ed.] part.

3.) The quotation of art. 16 of Gaudium et Spes (GS) on the part of the pope introduces a very slippery text. This famous article deals with “the dignity of moral consciousness”. Initially, it moves along still in accordance with the right doctrine, based on Rom. 2:14-16, that notoriously confirms the existence of a moral law established by God in our conscience; a law which our conscience can (and must) comprehend and follow.  The heathens, teaches St. Paul, deprived of  Revelation, will be judged according to this law, i.e. according to how their conscience has behaved in relation to this law.

But in the second part of art. 16, it is said that “in fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals from social relationships.  Hence the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by the objective norms of morality”. (GS 16 §2)

Here the “objective norms of morality” do not result from the Revelation of Our Lord Jesus Christ or from the natural law embedded in our hearts, but from the “dialogue” with “the rest of men”, with the aim “of finding the truth”. Truth in ethics, therefore, does not result from what Our Lord, the Apostles, and the perennial Church have taught us, but from a common research with the rest of humanity, either heretical or adverse to Christianity! In this quest the guide is not the Gospel and the teaching of the Church but our individual conscience, that elaborates the truth together with all the rest of mankind while learning from them!  Here appears a notion of truth that is absolutely incompatible with the notion of a truth revealed by the true God as the only basis of our religious and moral principles.

So, to make an example, the truth about marriage how are we supposed “to find it”, since Vatican 2?  In a common research (or “dialogue”) with those who admit of divorce, repudiation, temporary marriage, poligamy, concubinate and so on? Indeed, that’s what many have done, relying on the judgement of their own conscience, and we have seen the nefarious results of this quest or research for the notion and practice of Catholic marriage.

4.) It is grand that a remark by Pope Francis to an audience of participants in the course promoted by the Roman Rota (on Nov. 25, 2017) apparently “implied that those who are divorced and remarried are not admitted to the Eucharist”. If that was the meaning of his remark — I mean, that the implicit meaning of the remark effectively coincided with the Pope’s opinion on the matter dealt with in the remark — the fact remains that the Pope has the duty to expose the right doctrine openly, clearly and, when necessary, in a magisterial statement, without compelling so frequently the faithful to dig out possible orthodox meanings from statements otherwise involved and ambiguous.

5.) In the end, the hermeneutic on Pope’s Francis ambiguous statements, via the quotation of Cardinal Müller’s interpretations and of certain non-conclusive doctrinal statements by Cardinal Ratzinger, plus the author’s own interpretation of the same problematic [statements] do not come to any real valid conclusion because they are always compelled, in the end, to make a hypothesis on what Pope Francis “perhaps” really meant.

Paolo Pasqualucci is a retired professor of philosophy of the law at the University of Perugia, Italy.

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Professor Claudio Pierantoni

What mainly strikes me about Dr. Fastiggi’s recent article is his naïveness: I can see his honesty and good faith in looking for orthodox statements by the pope. But to think that a few orthodox sentences that “could be taken” to express the correct doctrine in the disputed issues can quiet papal critics shows a thorough lack of understanding of Francis’ tactics. He has been shown on quite a number of occasions “quieting” his interlocutor with sentences that “can be taken” in an orthodox sense; but without excluding “exceptions” or “precisions” that come from the opposite point of view. That is, in fact, the typical tactic of the heretic: the heretic, by definition, is not someone that “attacks” Christian doctrine, but someone who interprets it in his own way: he is not someone that wants to be excluded from the Church, but someone who wants to stay firmly in his position. So, there is nothing surprising in the fact that he can say many things that can be, or at least sound orthodox. That’s the reason why the Church, when stating some doctrine, also formulates it in a negative way, in the form of an “anatema”, i.e., explicitly condemning the opposite error. That’s why four of the five presented dubia require a negative answer: because the exclusion of something is here the decisive thing: e.g. “divorced and remarried can in no case receive the Eucharist”; “some kind of acts may never be licitly performed”. If I express the same concept in a positive way, there’s always the possibility to later add an exception.

That is the main reason why we critics – and millions of Catholics – cannot be quieted by such statements as Dr. Fastiggi quotes, and need a clear answer to the dubia. In the absence of this, we must necessarily think, after more than one year and a series of occasions that have been given to the Pope in order that he clarify his position, that he doesn’t really maintain the doctrines to which the dubia make reference, and therefore he has fallen into heresy.

Claudio Pierantoni is Professor of Medieval Philosophy at the University of Chile, and a Former Professor of Church History and Patrology at the Faculty of Theology of the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. He is also a member of the International Association of Patristic Studies.

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