The maxim is “Qui tacet consentire videtur”: the maxim of the law is “Silence gives consent”. If therefore you wish to construe what my silence betokened, you must construe that I consented, not that I denied.
-St. Thomas More, A Man for All Seasons
It is not without a sense of irony that I have chosen to quote from this famous scene in the excellent 1966 film about St. Thomas More — a saint who died a cruel death to preserve the divinely instituted teaching on marriage against the selfish machinations of his sovereign, King Henry VIII. In it, Thomas is depicted as morally upright man with a fierce intellect; direct when needed, but also cunning. When he is placed on trial for not supporting the usurpatious claims of his king against the authority of Rome, he tells the court — still hoping to avoid an open confrontation with Henry — that the law required his silence not be construed as opposition, but consent.
Ultimately, as we all know, St. Thomas was forced to withhold his blessing upon Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn against the king’s insistence; it was a protest that would send him to his martyrdom. As he came before the executioner’s block, he famously stated — both in film and in historical fact — “I die the King’s good servant, and God’s first.”
This morning in Rome, it was revealed that four Catholic cardinals — Walter Brandmüller, Raymond Burke, Carlo Caffarra, and Joachim Meisner — had written a letter to Pope Francis on September 19th, 2016 — just ten days after the emergence of Francis’ own letter affirming the sacrilegious interpretation of Amoris Laetitia by the bishops of the Buenos Aires region. In the letter (the full text of which is available here), the four cardinals state the reason for their inquiry:
The sending of the letter to His Holiness Pope Francis by four cardinals derives from a deep pastoral concern.
We have noted a grave disorientation and great confusion of many faithful regarding extremely important matters for the life of the Church. We have noted that even within the episcopal college there are contrasting interpretations of Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia.
The great Tradition of the Church teaches us that the way out of situations like this is recourse to the Holy Father, asking the Apostolic See to resolve those doubts, which are the cause of disorientation and confusion.
Ours is, therefore, an act of justice and charity.
Of justice: With our initiative, we profess that the Petrine ministry is the ministry of unity, and that to Peter, to the Pope, belongs the service of confirming in the faith.
Of charity: We want to help the Pope to prevent divisions and conflicts in the Church, asking him to dispel all ambiguity.
We have also carried out a specific duty. According to the Code of Canon Law (349) the cardinals, even taken individually, are entrusted with the task of helping the Pope to care for the universal Church.
They submitted five questions in the form of “dubia“ — the formal method by which theologians and prelates can seek clarifications on matters of Church teaching from Rome. These dubia were written in such a way that they can be answered simply with a “yes” or “no.” The five dubia are as follows:
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?
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?
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)?
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”?
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?
Nearly two months later, they have received no answer. They write:
The Holy Father has decided not to respond. We have interpreted his sovereign decision as an invitation to continue the reflection and the discussion, calmly and with respect.
And so we are informing the entire people of God about our initiative, offering all of the documentation.
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.
Their stated interpretation of the Holy Father’s failure to respond appears deeply incongruous with the urgency of their request. If they truly believe that a “grave disorientation and great confusion grave of many faithful” has resulted from Amoris Laetitia, they cannot content themselves with being ignored. It is, after all, only necessary for them to ask whether the Church is embracing doctrinal error in her recent teaching because it appears to be so.
And yet, the cleverness of this work lies in what it accomplishes, not in the deferential diplomacy with which it was written. These cardinals have effectively pushed Pope Francis into a corner; if he affirms the plain interpretation of Amoris Laetitia, it is heresy; if he denies it, then he undoes the sacrilegious work of the Synods and the exhortation which is even now being imposed in dioceses around the world. He has been forced to admit that he is a heretic, or to combat the heresy he has invited into the Mystical Body of Christ. To fail to respond in either way is to implicitly endorse heresy. After all, “The maxim of the law is ‘Silence gives consent’.”
His failure to respond in private speaks volumes. And so it has become necessary for the cardinals to raise the issue in public. As Sandro Magister observed:
[O]ne thinks right away of Matthew 18:16-17: “If your brother will not listen to you, take with you two or three witnesses. If then he will not listen even to them, tell it to the assembly.”
This is not the first time Francis has chosen to show his hand by refusing to offer clarity where the only alternative is heresy.
We saw this in his refusal to respond to the 19 theological censures against Amoris Laetitia authored by 45 theologians and Catholic scholars around the world.
We saw it when he chose to ignore the Filial Appeal signed by over 800,000 Catholics, asking him to uphold Church teaching on marriage and the family.
And if what has been reported to us is true, we know how angry such efforts make him. How he is alleged to have lashed out at the 13 cardinals who confronted him with yet another letter before the second synod — and how he scolded them in public when the synod was done.
It is of vital importance that these four cardinals, having released this document to the public, do not back down. Three of the four are already retired; Cardinal Burke is the lone exception, and he already lives in political exile for his efforts.
St. Thomas More allowed his life to be taken rather than accept a distortion of the Church’s teaching on marriage and the papal authority bound by God to uphold it. No consequence should deter these prelates — or any others — from standing their ground. The faithful are desperate for leadership from their shepherds. Career implications are a pittance in comparison to an executioner’s axe.
We have a pope who has given every indication that he welcomes and embraces material heresy; it is long past time that he be tested for the obduracy of his adherence to it.
The cardinal authors of the letter take pains to make their allegiance clear:
We hope that no one will judge us unjustly, as adversaries of the Holy Father and people devoid of mercy. What we have done and are doing derives from the deep collegial affection that unites us to the Pope, and from an impassioned concern for the good of the faithful.
Indeed. We are loyal papists all, and we ask the man currently occupying the throne of St. Peter to show similar docility to the majesty of his august office.
After all, we are the pope’s good servants, but God’s first.
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.