Just before Christmas last year, a number of conservative cardinals went public about their frustration at getting no response from the Pope to a request in April for clarification on 5 points arising from “Amoris Laetitia”. These points have caused them, they say, “confusion and disorientation”. There does not seem to me to be much to debate, but I wonder whether they have read John 8:7-
The five points or doubts (dubia) are these:
- can the adulterous (those currently in an unrecognised marriage, more uxorio) receive holy communion?
- are there absolute moral norms that must be followed without exception?
- is adultery an “objective situation of grave habitual sin”?
- can “circumstances or intentions” make an “intrisically evil act” something that is “subjectively good”? (this seems, they say, to contradict the John Paul II encyclical “Veritatis Splendor”
- can one act on conscience against “absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts”?
The first of the 5 dubia is a pastoral question and specifically refers to a request for confession prior to receiving communion. In fact, Pope John Paul II already allowed for the remarried to return to the Church in “Familiaris Consortio” if they decided no longer to live together more uxorio (not a big issue after a few years, maybe), and they tried to avoid scandal. In fact this is no more than a clarification of Canon 915 that communion should only be witheld from those who “obstinately persist in manifest grave sin.” But it is not at all clear from what Pope John Paul writes whether abstinence or the avoidance of scandal is the more important issue.
What Pope Francis has done consistently, however, is to promote a Catholic version of Orthodox “economia” with his statement “who am I to judge?” That, in turn, has a fairly strong biblical backing in John 8:7. It is also rooted deeply in Catholic pastoral work and can be found throughout the Church. It is this principle, for example, that allows a Priest I know in Poland, for instance, to live as a parent (and a very good parent) during the week, while still saying Sunday Mass – esssentially, it is a matter of his discretion and Parish acceptance. Not only does he take communion- he officiates, but he avoids scandal. Whether he lives with the mother of his child more uxorio is a matter for them. Similarly, it was not the fact that he lived with his housekeeper that caused the downfall of the late prelate of St Etheldreda’s – that relationship was never spoken about and did not cause scandal – what went on or did not behind closed doors was a matter for the individuals concerned, and God.
People, and certainly people in the Church, make too many assumptions about what happens in the bedroom. John Paul II has already provided an answer. It needs clarification and Pope Francis has made a small move towards that clarification.
The 4 subsequent “dubia”, however, are loaded and so far, the Pope has failed to respond.
For what it counts, I think the second point is also an instance of “economia”- that there is a difference between the way we understand and implement the law and the way God might. If we take the Christian emphasis on love seriously, we cannot be so judgemental. I would also question whether the acts in question could ever be described as “intrinsically” evil. Adultery might be unwise, improper, unfair, selfish- but rarely “intrinsically evil”! Meanwhile, the Church has tried to weather the storm, insisting on the one hand that essential doctrine has not changed and on the other hand allowing civilly-divorced and remarried couples to communion in Argentina (at the specific request of Bishop Angel José Macin), Malta, Germany and Belgium. Bishops in Canada and Poland (however muvch they may turn a blind eye to what their own Priests are doing) continue to take a more stringent view leading the 4 Cardinals to conclude, “And so it is happening — how painful it is to see this! — that what is sin in Poland is good in Germany, that what is prohibited in the archdiocese of Philadelphia is permitted in Malta. And so on. One is reminded of the bitter observation of B. Pascal: ‘Justice on this side of the Pyrenees, injustice on the other; justice on the left bank of the river, injustice on the right bank.'”
What the 4 Cardinals want is not in fact clarification, but rather, in Cardinal Raymond Burke’s words, for the Pope to make “A formal act of correction of a serious error”.
I am sure this is not the only issue the Cardinals have with the current Pontiff. A few months ago, he condemned attempts by Catholics to convert the Orthodox as a “grave sin”. That did not stop a scurrilous Catholic press from digging around to unearth the details of canon 751 which states, “schism is the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.”
Now, I should have thought that bullying the reigning Pontiff to retract details in his own encyclical comes fairly close to a statement that the Pope is in error- more than a whiff of schism in its own right, then from this mitred quartet!
Now, in fact, the Pope answered the Dubia in an interview with “Avvenire”. He spoke fairly generally but he went on record with the following statement,
“The Church exists only as an instrument for the communication of God’s merciful plan to the people. During the Council, the Church felt it had the responsibility to be a living sign of the Father’s love in the world. In the ‘Lumen Gentium’, it went back to the origins of its nature, the Gospel. This shifts the axis of Christianity away from a certain kind of legalism which can be ideological, towards the Person of God, who became mercy through the incarnation of the Son. Some still fail to grasp the point. They see things as black or white, even though it is in the course of life that we are called to discern.”
Of course, if the 4 Cardinals so wished, I suppose they could persuade Benedict to emerge from his library and tell the world he was still Pope and had been coerced into resigning. That would make “Amoris Laetitia” null and void and poses a much more interesting question about what we should do with the AntiPope Francis… but somehow, (a) I do not think this is a realistic scenario and (b) I rather like the Franciscan emphasis on mercy above all else.
Let the doubters believe! Who are we to cast the first stone?