Cardinals’ Dubia and Papal Silence: The Silver Lining

**NB Some further thoughts can be found here.**

The five questions, or dubia, submitted by Cardinals Caffarra, Burke, Meisner and Brandmüller to Pope Francis regarding his Apostolic Exhortation on family life, Amoris Laetitia, have been mentioned here before. Many commentators have expressed frustration that the pope has yet to answer them. Plain rude, some say. Probably quite a few liberals also would like Pope Francis to answer the dubia, and make the de facto practice in many places de iure: that divorcees who have entered into a subsequent civil remarriage might be allowed to receive Holy Communion.

So far the pope has been silent, and his defenders—not a few of them self-appointed and self-serving—have taken it upon themselves to attack i quattro cardinali, and even to advocate what it is said the pope thinks but has never quite said: that civilly-remarried divorcees should receive Holy Communion, as part of the Church’s “accompaniment” of them. There is a supremely strong case that the Chief Shepherd of the Flock should answer the dubia and clarify once and for all the Church’s teaching.

However, if Pope Francis really does think remarried divorcees should be admitted to Holy Communion, do we really want him to say so? If it is contrary to revelation and the consistent teaching of the Church, why would we want him to commit himself definitively to error? What a crisis it would provoke in the Church, and crises are not something to be sought.

The papal silence, especially if it is true that Pope Francis thinks this teaching should be changed (and that is still a big if at the moment), is surely not to be lamented but embraced. Why?

My new “crush” (well, an old crush actually, but the flame has been rekindled), Frank Sheed, has given me the answer. Sheed, a lay Australian apologist and publisher, got me my STB in Rome summa cum laude, but that is another story. I am reading, as relief from pressing work work and life’s stresses, his ecclesial autobiography, The Church and I. I just chanced upon something in it that made me stop and think of the dubia. Sheed was writing about the objections raised to papal infallibility when he was preaching on the soapbox in Hyde Park. I quote:

…we came upon the illustration used by the Jesuit Father Rickaby. It seems he would put to his students the question—if the Pope were infallible in algebra, how many marks would he get in an algebra exam? They all said 100, whereupon Father Rickaby gave them 0. He explains: For the rest of men there are three possibilities—we can give the right answer, the wrong answer or no answer. Infallibility means that the Pope cannot (in the appropriate circumstances) give the wrong answer—the Holy Spirit will not let him. That leaves him with two possibilities as against our three—he can give the right answer, or no answer. What decides? Whether he knows: infallibility does not in itself mean inspiration. The Holy Spirit might in a given situation enlighten the Pope’s mind, but that is now what infallibility is about. In the general way what a Pope does not know he must find out, like anyone else. (pp.59-60)

You see what Sheed is revealing. Infallibility is a gift that works negatively, as it were: it does not guarantee that the pope will always teach the right thing, but it does guarantee that he will never teach the wrong thing. If a pope holds a personal opinion that is contrary to revelation, then the Spirit will never allow him to teach it magisterially, ie infallibly.

So, if Pope Francis really does believe that remarried divorcees should be admitted to Holy Communion, despite the implications of our Lord’s explicit teaching and the unchanging doctrine of the Church, then it is better that he keep silent. It is not ideal, of course, but in the world of fallen human nature the ideal is rarely realized. Sometimes we have to settle for the sufficient.

So, if the ideal is not yet achievable (but are we praying for it?), then let us settle for the sufficient. Let the pope keep silence. If it is the best we can hope for, let it be done. We can cope for now.

Pope Francis attends his general audience in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican

Could I ask for your prayers at this time? On the one hand I have a looming deadline; on the other a sort of existential crisis. I could with some grace for both!

Pax!

18 thoughts on “Cardinals’ Dubia and Papal Silence: The Silver Lining

    1. I suspect he prefers to let the bishops infer what he has implied without stating it and stubbing his toe. The ones who wish to go with the supposed zeitgeist know they will not be denied while Francis is Pope and the hope probably is that the next pope will not change what will then be perceived an “established” practice.

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  1. And if he doesn’t uphold church teaching, what do you suggest then?

    Wait for him to stuff the college of cardinals withmore heretics, retire and leave us with Tagle?

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  2. The system is working! Pope Francis tried to teach heresy in Amoris Laetitia, but the Holy Spirit prevented him and his words came out a muddle. Also, the Holy Spirit keeps him from answering the dubia, precisely because he would give a heretical answer.

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  3. Unfortunately, I don’t think silence necessarily works in quite the way you want it to, as St Augustine points out in “Answer to the Pelagians III” (Book IV, 15). Keeping silent can be a fault that promotes error.

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  4. Silence simply won’t make the heresy go away. At some point the matter has to be confronted and the longer it is left the fewer Catholics will come out of the open schism. But we will have an open schism sooner or later. The sooner we find our backbones, the better.

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  5. “Infallibility is a gift that works negatively, as it were: it does not guarantee that the pope will always teach the right thing, but it does guarantee that he will never teach the wrong thing. ”

    Trouble is, by releasing Amoris Laetitia, he has already taught (the wrong thing.)

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      1. So, if it’s ambiguous that’s okay with you? A sufficient exercise of the papal office from yor perspective?

        Surely, though, the bishops of Malta have cleared things up for you sufficiently?

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      2. If you had read what wrote you should know the answer to those sarcastic questions of yours. So let me refresh you with some things to note in what I wrote:

        There is a supremely strong case that the Chief Shepherd of the Flock should answer the dubia and clarify once and for all the Church’s teaching.

        So, if Pope Francis really does believe that remarried divorcees should be admitted to Holy Communion, despite the implications of our Lord’s explicit teaching and the unchanging doctrine of the Church, then it is better that he keep silent. It is not ideal, of course, but in the world of fallen human nature the ideal is rarely realized. Sometimes we have to settle for the sufficient.

        And as I wrote today:

        …the papacy does not exhaust the teaching authority of the Church. Historically popes have not been doctrinally very active, save as courts of final appeal. The dubia were presented to Pope Francis precisely in his capacity as the final and magisterial arbiter of doctrinal contention. It would be wonderful if he answered them by reaffirming the teaching of Christ.

        The first responsibility for teaching and defending the faith and practice of the Church is the local bishop’s. If the pope is silent, nothing is stopping the bishops of the world from reaffirming the teaching of Christ. As we have been seeing, many have been doing so, while a few are temporising. There is nothing like a crisis to sort the sheep from the goats.

        So while we should be praying for the pope, and praying that he bring to an end the current fractious debate, we can be also praying that our local bishops step up to the plate and start hitting some doctrinal home runs. Pope Francis has expressed esteem for collegiality. So the bishops can start employing it to a good end, teaching clearly and with charity what Christ has revealed as the truth on marriage and family life, and human sexuality. The combined weight of their positive teaching will itself encourage the strengthen the pope to do the same. This presents at least one positive aspect to the often problematic conception of collegiality.

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