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Seeking Clarity: Four cardinals send plea to Pope Francis to “untie the knots in Amoris Laetitia”

“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.”

VATICAN CITY — Motivated by pastoral concern, four cardinals have formally asked Pope Francis to “resolve the uncertainties” concerning the correct interpretation of certain controversial passages in his Apostolic Exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia.

They are now also making public their “plea to untie the knots” in AL, as the Holy Father has not responded.

The four cardinals — Germans Walter Brandmüller, eminent historian and emeritus of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences, and Joachim Meisner, emeritus of Cologne; American Raymond Burke, emeritus of St. Louis and former head of Apostolic Signatura; and Italian Carlo Caffarra, emeritus of Bologna — sent a letter with five questions, in the form of dubia (Latin for “doubts”), to Pope Francis on September 19, 2016.

The letter and dubia were also sent to Cardinal Gerhard Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

“Dubia are formal questions brought before the Pope and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith asking for clarifications on particular issues concerning doctrine or practice,” the cardinals explained in a November 14 statement titled, ‘Seeking Clarity: A Plea to Untie the Knots in Amoris Laetitia.’ They are designed to elicit a “yes” or “no” answer, without theological argumentation, and are an “age-old” way of having recourse to the Apostolic See.

The goal of the dubia is to seek clarity amid “contrasting interpretations” of Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, particularly paragraphs 300-305 which deal with the question of admitting divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to the sacraments, and other fundamental principles of the Christian moral life.

“For many — bishops, priests, faithful — these paragraphs allude to or even explicitly teach a change in the discipline of the Church with respect to the divorced who are living in a new union, while others, admitting the lack of clarity or even the ambiguity of the passages in question, nonetheless argue that these same pages can be read in continuity with the previous magisterium and do not contain a modification in the Church’s practice and teaching,” the signatories explain.

But the cardinals maintain that there is more at stake in Amoris Laetitia than the question of whether or not the divorced who have entered into a new union can — under certain circumstances — be readmitted to the sacraments.

Rather, they say, “the interpretation of the document also implies different, contrasting approaches to the Christian way of life.” They have therefore used a classic method (in the dubia) to clarify what they regards as “extremely important matters for the life of the Church.”

As the pope has not responded to their questions, the cardinals say they have now decided to inform “the entire people of God about [the] initiative, offering all of the documentation,” in order “to continue the reflection, and the discussion, calmly and with respect.”

Questions posed in the dubia

The five dubia are very concise questions focused on numbers 300-305 of Amoris Laetitia.

The first question asks whether it has “now become possible” for divorced persons who are in a new union and who continue to live more uxorio (i.e. engaging in sexual relations) to be absolved in the Sacrament of Confession and admitted to Holy Communion.

Question two regards the existence of so-called intrinsically evil acts, asking if one needs to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor n. 79, based on Sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, on the existence of absolute more norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts and that are binding without exception?

Question three asks if, after Amoris Laetitia (n. 301), it is 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 (cf. Mt 19:3-9), finds him or herself in an objective situation of grave habitual sin.

Question four concerns “circumstances which mitigate moral responsibility” and asks if, in light of Amoris Laetitia, Pope St. John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor’s teaching that “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” is still valid.

Finally, in question five the cardinals ask if, “after Amoris Laetitia (n. 303) one still needs 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 emphasizes that conscience can never be authorized to legitimate exceptions to absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts by virtue of their object?”

Justice. Charity. Duty.

The four cardinals underscore that they are acting out 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.”

They also highlight their duty as cardinals (articulated in canon 349) to help the Pope “care for the universal Church.”

In their November 14 statement, the four signatories state: “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.”

They add: “We hope that no one will judge us, unjustly, as adversaries of the Holy Father and people devoid of mercy,” they add. “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.”

A respectful letter to Pope Francis

In their letter to the Holy Father, the four cardinals set the problem before the pope, noting that “theologians and scholars have proposed interpretations that are not only divergent, but also conflicting, above all in regard to Chapter VIII.” Moreover, the say, “the media have emphasized this dispute, thereby provoking uncertainty, confusion, and disorientation among many of the faithful.”

They go on to acknowledge that they, “along with many bishops and priests, have received numerous requests from the faithful of various social strata on the correct interpretation to give to Chapter VIII of the Exhortation.”

The cardinals therefore write: “Compelled in conscience by our pastoral responsibility and desiring to implement ever more that synodality to which Your Holiness urges us, with profound respect, we permit ourselves to ask you, Holy Father, as supreme Teacher of the Faith, called by the Risen One to confirm his brothers in the faith, to resolve the uncertainties and bring clarity, benevolently giving a response to the Dubia that we attach the present letter.”

Click here to read to read the letter of the cardinals to the Holy Father, the dubia, and explanatory documentation.

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Diane Montagna

Diane Montagna is Rome correspondent for Aleteia’s English edition.