by Deacon Nick Donnelly


It has emerged that in September 2016 four cardinals privately submitted five questions to Pope Francis asking the Holy Father to clarify his teaching in Amoris Laetitia about communion for divorced and civilly “re-married”. The cardinals submitted their questions according to the established tradition of the Church in the form of dubium (Plural. dubia), which is Latin for ‘doubt’.  There is nothing exceptional in cardinals and bishops submitting dubia to popes and congregations of the Holy See. It has happened for centuries. It is the established way that the Church clarifies confusion and resolves division caused by papal or episcopal teaching.


As the Auxiliary Bishop Józef Wróbel of Lublin, Poland, put it in comments supporting the four cardinals submission of dubia:


“They have done well and they have exercised correctly the provisions of canon law. I think it is not only a right, but even a duty. A clarification on the document, and especially on chapter 8 is opportune. There is a need to bring these questions to the Vatican and to the collaborators in whom the Pope has confidence. Drawing up such important texts [Amoris Laetitia] in haste does not render good service to the Church."


The traditional form of such questions is expressed as “responsum ad dubium”, the setting out of the doubt [dubium]and the giving of a response [responsum]. For the sake of clarity the dubium is expressed in terms of the Sacred Scripture and Holy Tradition in such a way that the response is expressed as “Yes” or “No”, affirmative or negative. Countless dubium have been submitted to popes over the centuries as the basic way of helping God’s faithful think with the mind of the Church.


In 1995 a bishop submitted a dubium to Pope St John Paul II asking if his apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotali, on why priesthood is reserved to men, was definitive for the Church. Cardinal Ratzinger, as Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, answered “affirmative” on behalf of the Holy Father. 


Pope Francis’ unprecedented decision to refuse to answer 


What is unprecedented is that Pope Francis has refused to answer the dubia submitted to him.  This is particularly extraordinary because they have come from his own cardinals. These cardinals have spent their lives in service to the Holy See and the Church and deserve respect from Pope Francis. The names of the four cardinals are: Carlo Caffarra, archbishop emeritus of Bologna, Raymond Burke, patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, Walter Brandmüller, president emeritus of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences, and Joachim Meisner, archbishop emeritus of Cologne.


On Monday the 14th November 2016 the cardinals informed the people of God that they had submitted their dubia to Pope Francis and that he had refused to answer them. They explained this in a letter accompanying the publication of their historic document:


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. […] 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.”


Having waited two months for Pope Francis to respond to their dubia, Cardinal Burke had a private audience with the Holy Father on 10th November. The following day Pope Francis held a private audience with Cardinal Müller, Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who would, in the normal course of events, have responded to the dubia on behalf of the Holy Father. Two days later, on the 14th November, Cardinal Burke and the others released the dubia to the people of God. On the 18th November the Italian catholic daily, Avvenire, published an interview with Pope Francis in which he harshly criticised those who sought “black and white answers”, questioning their motives and integrity:


“Some, as with certain responses to Amoris Laetitia, persist in seeing only white or black, when rather one ought to discern in the flow of life. But these critiques – if they’re not from an evil spirit – do help. Some types of rigorism spring from the desire to hide one’s own dissatisfaction under armour”.


It also emerged that Pope Francis had taken the unusual step of cancelling the consistory meeting with the College of Cardinals that he had convoked for Saturday 19th November. Moreover, Edward Pentin, the respected Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Register, reported that sources within Santa Marta, Pope Francis’s residence, had told him that as a consequence of the cardinals’ dubia the Holy Father is “not happy at all, that he’s boiling with rage”.


The four cardinals have gone out of their way to express respect and consideration towards Pope Francis, as is only to be expected from faithful Catholics. They have made it clear that their dubia have not been framed in the context of political conflict, but should only be seen in terms of pastors' concern for the salvation of souls:


"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.”


By raising genuine questions about the confusion contained within chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, the cardinals are fulfilling their duty according to canon law of “assisting the Roman Pontiff especially in the daily care of the universal Church” (Can. 349). Clearly the dubia manifests those exceptional qualities that are expected of cardinals, “truly outstanding in doctrine, virtue, piety and prudence in practical matters” (can. 351§1). 


The five dubia


In their letter accompanying the dubia the cardinals explain that they have submitted their questions because the worldwide Church is being divided by divergent and conflicting interpretations of chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia regarding the divorced and civilly “re-married” and Holy Communion. For example, the bishops of Buenos Aires have implemented the novelty of allowing divorced and remarried to receive Holy Communion following a penitential process culminating in confession and admission to Holy Communion. While Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia upholds the perennial doctrine of the Church (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1650) that because of the sin of adultery divorced and remarried couples cannot receive the sacraments of confession or communion unless they live together as brother and sister. Clearly, the confusion and disorientation caused by the reception of Amoris Laetitia is breaking the communion of the universal Church.


The five dubia raise very serious questions concerning fundamental moral doctrines of the Church: 


The first dubium questions the paragraphs of Amoris Laetitia dealing with pastors “accompanying” divorced and “remarried” Catholics that propose in “certain cases”  (AL footnote 351) those bound by a pre-existing valid marital bond can receive both the sacrament of confession and communion. The dubia points out Amoris Laetitia contradicts the magisterial teaching of the Church set out in Pope St John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio (84) and Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (34) and Pope Benedict XVI’s Sacramentum Caritatis (29).


The second dubium asks Pope Francis if Pope St John Paul II’s teaching on the existence of absolute moral norms prohibiting intrinsically evil acts in all circumstances (Veritatis Splendor, 79) remains the valid teaching of the Church. In particular, in light of Amoris Laetitia allowing divorced and “remarried” to receive absolution and communion does the prohibition of adultery remain an absolute moral norm because it is always and everywhere intrinsically evil?


The third dubium questions paragraph 301 of Amoris Laetitia that states that couples in irregular situations, such as those committing adultery or fornication, can no longer simply be said to be “living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace.” The cardinals ask Pope Francis if, in light of this, it is still possible to affirm that persons who habitually live in “contradiction to a commandment of God’s law”(e.g. Matthew 19:3-9) are in an “objective situation of grave habitual sin?”


The fourth dubium questions Pope Francis’ teaching in Amoris Laetitia, section 302, that individual circumstances can mitigate, or lessen, moral responsibility for committing intrinsically evil acts. The cardinals point out that the perennial teaching of the Church is that no circumstances can ever excuse or render good intrinsic evils such as adultery, murder, theft, or perjury. They ask the Holy Father if such intrinsic evils could ever be a cause of good and not profound injury?


The fifth, and final, dubium questions Pope Francis’ presentation of the role of conscience in Amoris Laetitia (303) that proposes that “sincerity and honesty” are enough to permit conscience to allow individuals not to live according to the “ideals” of God’s law in their particular circumstances. The cardinals ask the Holy Father, does this mean that the perennial teaching of the Church is no longer valid that conscience can never allow individuals to disobey God’s laws? By allowing conscience to be the final arbiter of whether adultery or fornication are right or wrong Amoris Laetitia opens the door to the absurdity of “virtuous adultery, lawful murder and obligatory perjury.”


The correction of serious error of a Roman Pontiff


Considering the seriousness of the questions put to him by the cardinals, Pope Francis’ decision not to respond is incomprehensible. The cardinals have cautioned the Holy Father that consequences will follow his refusal of their dubia. Cardinal Burke explained in his interview with Edward Pentin that the Pope's lack of response may trigger a formal act of correction. Pentin asked, “What happens if the Holy Father does not respond to your act of justice and charity and fails to give the clarification of the Church’s teaching that you hope to achieve?"  To which Cardinal Burke replied, “Then we would have to address that situation. There is, in the Tradition of the Church, the practice of correction of the Roman Pontiff. It is something that is clearly quite rare. But if there is no response to these questions, then I would say that it would be a question of taking a formal act of correction of a serious error…”. Pentin asked a follow up question, “If the Pope were to teach grave error or heresy, which lawful authority can declare this and what would be the consequences?” Cardinal Burke replied, “It is the duty in such cases, and historically it has happened, of cardinals and bishops to make clear that the Pope is teaching error and to ask him to correct it.”


Cardinal Burke rightly points out that instigating a formal act of correction of a serious error by a Roman Pontiff is rare. In fact we have to look to the 14th century and the Church’s response to a serious error promulgated by Pope John XXII.


The Church corrected the serious error of Pope John XXII


Pope John XXII’s serious error was in the area of eschatology, not moral theology, and in particular he proposed his own idea that after death the righteous soul did not immediately enjoy the reward of the Beatific Vision. Instead, he favoured the novel idea that the soul waited until the resurrection of the body, and the final, universal judgement to enjoy the beatific vision of God. Pope John XXII’s speculative proposition is against the established and continuous teaching of the Church, as now expressed in the Catechism of the Church as follows:


Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven — through a purificationor immediately,or immediate and everlasting damnation. (CCC 1022).


Eight years into his pontificate, disturbing rumours began to circulate in Europe’s universities and throughout the Church that Pope John XXII was ‘favouring’ a serious error contrary to the teaching of the Church. By November 1331 these rumours transformed into alarm following John XXII’s delivery of three homilies proposing that his new teaching was supported by a ‘reading’ of Scripture and the Church Fathers. The Catholic world outside of the papal court of Avignon was profoundly and deeply disturbed by the news that the Head of the Church was proposing a teaching contrary to magisterial teaching. However, the pope’s novel ideas found favour among some within his court who sought the Holy Father’s patronage and preferment. 


Faced with growing protests from clergy throughout Christendom Pope John XXII sought to defend his innovation in two ways: he claimed it was not his own teaching but the teaching of scripture and the Church Fathers and he asserted that it was only his private opinion as a theologian, and not taught in his role as Head of the Church. The pope further claimed that the question was open to discussion and every clergyman was free to accept or reject whichever side of the controversy he judged as true.


However, the Holy Father’s actions belied his words. Pope John XXII’s treatment of supporters and opponents showed his preference for those who upheld his “new” teaching. Supporters received honours and preferment, while those who opposed Pope John XII, either informally or formally, experienced papal disfavour, and even punishment. He also sought to disseminate his erroneous teaching by commanding that copies of his sermons were distributed to his supporters.


But the more Pope John XII and his supporters sought to promulgate his error, the greater the uproar and resistance from the Church beyond the papal court. King Phillip VI of  France and the Dominican faculty of the university of Paris were Pope John XXII’s most implacable opponents, despite the Holy Father’s personal rebukes and imposition of ‘yes’ men. As Fr. Victor Francis O’Daniel, O.P. put it, “Neither fear of feeling the weight of papal displeasure, nor hope of reward, had any influence… when there was question of an error against Catholic faith.”


Determined to meet the challenge of Pope John XXI’s error head on, King Philip VI called a meeting of the theological faculty of the University of Paris. On December 19, 1333 a commission of 23 masters of theology assembled under the presidency of the Dominican patriarch of Jerusalem, Peter de la Palud, and in the presence of the kings of France and Navarre, and many bishops, priests, and lay faithful. They unanimously declared their firm belief in established and continual Catholic teaching on the righteous soul’s immediate reward of the Beatific Vision on death and individual judgement. 


The commission drew up a profession of faith which they signed, and submitted to Pope John XII. The profession of faith was accompanied with a letter to the Holy Father which was polite and respectful, but also expressed clearly and firmly the result of their deliberations. They reminded Pope John XXII that he had declared that he had spoken as an individual theologian, not as Head of the Church infallibly defining a doctrine. They also expressed the hope that the Holy Father would give his apostolic sanction to their decision.


Following his receipt of the signed profession of faith and letter Pope John XXII immediately convoked a consistory in January 1334 during which he displayed openness and tolerance towards those who opposed him, and repeated his assertion that he had never intended to dogmatically settle the question, but rather that he had sought an open discussion. He also sent letters admonishing those supporters that the King of France judged had overstepped the mark in their zeal to promote his “new” teaching, and he released from prison those opponents investigated by the Inquisition. Later in the year, sensing his death was imminent, John XXII retracted the serious error he had preached or had caused others to preach or teach that was not “in perfect conformity with Catholic belief.” 


Blessed Cardinal Schuster OSB (Cardinal and Archbishop of Milan, d. 1954) wrote the following assessment of this formal correction of the serious error of Pope John XXII:


John XXII has the gravest responsibilities before the tribunal of history… since he offered the entire Church, the humiliating spectacle of the princes, clergy and universities steering the Pontiff onto the right path of Catholic theological tradition, and placing him in the very difficult situation of having to contradict himself.