On October 2, 2023, the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith made public Pope Francis’ letter of July 11, responding to five cardinals who had sent the Pope a message expressing their doubts — “dubia” in Latin — in the run-up to the opening of the Synod on the future of the Church.
Relying heavily on the writings of John Paul II, the Argentine Pontiff responded to the questions one by one.
In response to the five questions posed on July 10 by these cardinals — Brandmüller, Burke, Sandoval Íñiguez, Sarah, and Zen — the Pope reacted the very next day with an eight-page reply written in Spanish. The cardinals, dissatisfied with this letter which was still private at the time, decided to write to the Pope again on August 21 asking for a “yes” or “no” answer to each of their five questions.
“Although it does not always seem prudent to answer questions directed directly at me, and it would be impossible to answer them all, in this case it seems important to do so, given the proximity of the Synod,” writes the Pope in the preamble to this message addressed to his “dear brothers.”
The Vatican has not yet released an English translation so the quotes here are our own translation from the original Spanish.
Blessings for homosexual unions?
When asked about the question of homosexual unions, Pope Francis insists that “the Church has a very clear conception of marriage: an exclusive, stable, and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to the begetting of children.” With this in mind, “the Church avoids any type of rite” for couples in an irregular situation that might “contradict this conviction,” he adds.
The Pope’s answer on this issue is in the context of certain countries having tried to establish a blessing for homosexual unions, and a 2021 answer from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that the Church can’t perform a rite of blessing on these partnerships.
Still, a request for a blessing, the Pope clarifies, is a request for God’s help.
He says that “pastoral prudence” can discern if there are “forms of blessing” for people who are seeking blessings, which do not convey “an equivocal conception of marriage.”
While acknowledging that some situations confronting pastors “are not morally acceptable from an objective point of view,” Francis draws on John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Reconciliatio et Pænitentia (1984) to recall that the “guilt or responsibility” of some people can be mitigated “by various factors that influence subjective responsibility.”
Acknowledging theological pluralism
In response to the cardinals’ first question on the “new anthropological vision” that they say will guide the Synod, the Pope questions the understanding the cardinals have of “reinterpret” divine Revelation. There is the sense of “interpreting it better,” he says.
“Cultural changes and the new challenges of history do not modify Revelation, but can stimulate us to better explain certain aspects of its overflowing richness,” says Francis.
“It is true that the Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but it is also true that both the texts of Scripture and the witnesses of Tradition need an interpretation that allows us to distinguish their perennial substance from cultural conditioning,” says the Pontiff.
In particular, he notes that the tolerance of slavery expressed by Pope Nicholas V in his Dum Diversas bull of 1452 is no longer acceptable today, as is this passage from the Book of Exodus, verses 20 and 21: “When a slaveowner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property.”
The Pope also notes that some of St. Paul’s statements on women “require interpretation.” Faced with all this complexity, “the Church must constantly discern between what is essential for salvation and what is secondary,” according to a “hierarchy of truths” that can lead to “different ways of expressing the same doctrine.”
“Every theological approach has its risks, but also its opportunities,” Pope Francis explains.
The Pope recognizes the legitimacy of expressing various opinions in the Synod — including here, therefore, expressions of skepticism — but he refuses to impose a methodology that would lead to “freezing” this process by “ignoring the different characteristics of the distinct particular Churches and the varied richness of the universal Church.”
The cardinals’ own questions, he says, show their need to “participate, to express opinions freely and to collaborate” and are thus an expression of a desire that the pope exercise his ministry in a synodal way.
On the priestly ordination of women
The Pope also returns to the impossibility of granting priestly ordination to women established by John Paul II in the 1990s. This position of his predecessor was a “definitive statement.”
He emphasizes in particular the complementarity and not the inferiority of the “common priesthood” of the faithful in relation to the “ministerial priesthood” of priests.
Referring to John Paul II’s apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem (1988), Francis reminds us that the Polish pope’s vision of the priestly function is “totally ordered to the holiness of the members of Christ,” and is not based on the idea of male domination over women.
If this isn’t understood, and if the practical consequences of this aren’t lived, then it is difficult to understand a priesthood reserved to men, he warned.
The Pope added a final point, noting that strictly speaking John Paul II’s definition is definitive but not “dogmatic” and that there is still not a clear and exhaustive doctrine on the exact nature of this type of definition. It cannot be “publicly contradicted” but can be “studied,” he assures the cardinals.
Contrition and the sacrament of reconciliation
With regard to the validity of the sacrament of reconciliation, the Pope acknowledges that “repentance is a necessary condition for the validity of sacramental absolution, and implies the resolution to sin no more.”
Still, he reminds the cardinals that confessors must be flexible, taking into account that “approaching confession is a symbolic expression of repentance and of seeking divine help.”
The theoretical conditions for the validity of confession “are not applicable when the person is in agony, or with very limited mental or psychological capacities,” Francis also points out.
Continuity with opposition during the Synod on the Family
Back in 2016, four cardinals — Brandmüller, Burke, Caffarra and Meisner — published a letter to Pope Francis in which they expressed their doubts about the interpretation of the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia on the family. In particular, they wished to know whether a person who is divorced and civilly remarried could receive communion. Pope Francis never answered these questions. Cardinals Caffara and Meisner are now deceased.
Among the five cardinals voicing these new doubts are still German Cardinal Walter Brandmüller (94) and American Cardinal Raymond Burke (75), a strong critic of the current synodal process. Having joined them now are Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah (78) and former Hong Kong bishop Joseph Zen (91), along with Cardinal Sandoval Íñiguez (90), former archbishop of Guadalajara, Mexico.