Dubia (from the Latin: "doubts") are formal questions brought before the Pope and to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith asking for clarifications on particular issues concerning doctrine or practice.
What is peculiar about these inquiries is that they are worded in a way that requires a "yes" or "no" answer, without theological argumentation. This way of addressing the Apostolic See is not an invention of our own; it is an age-old practice.
I note three things right off:
1) Dubia are traditionally questions submitted to the Pope and the CDF, which is the Vatican Congregation responsible for the defense of doctrine. They are not published to the world. And why would they be, since the world has no competence to answer them? One possibility that springs to mind is that the real aim wasn't theological clarification, but public outcry. I don't know the Cardinals' motives, but I can't help suspecting this one from both the fact and effect of their publishing it.
2) My suspicion is increased by the second anomaly the Cardinals acknowledge. The dubia, as written, are "peculiar". Unlike traditional dubia, they are written in a way that "requires" a yes or no answer. "Requiring", spiritually speaking, is rather different from "inquiring", isn't it? The latter is a question; the former is a demand. Questions and demands spring from very different inner dispositions; they indicate different kinds of interpersonal relations. (One doesn't typically require something of a superior.)
3) The line following their acknowledgment of the dubia's peculiarity contains (irony alert!) an ambiguity. They say "this way" of addressing the Apostolic See is an age old practice, without indicating clearly whether by "this way" they mean their peculiar way or the general way of submitting dubia. Since no explanation or example follows in support of the former, I gather that they mean submitting dubia is traditional. Their way of doing it isn't.
[NB: Jules thinks I am misreading the Cardinals on this point. He interprets "what is peculiar about these inquiries" to refer not their own inquiries, but to dubia as such. In other words, they are explaining that dubia are traditionally offered in a yes/no form. If he's right about that, then I have misjudged the Cardinals, and I would want to apologize and retract. I've been searching, but unable to find online historical examples of dubia. The only one I can remember from studies years ago is one offered in response to Pius IX's Syllabus of Errors. I recall its reading along these lines: "Are these proposed or imposed?", which is not a yes no format. But I am unclear on the point and would be grateful if any theologians among our readers could help with references. My point that the dubia should have been submitted to the CDF, not the public, stands.]
Next the Cardinals offer further explanation of their specific questions. The first paragraph likewise seems to me to elide a key distinction, viz. between the unchanging teaching of the Church and the oft-changing discipline and practice of the Church.
For many - bishops, priests, faithful - these paragraphs [in Amoris Laetitia] 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.
To my reading, this paragraphs suggests that the Cardinals know (at least on one level) that the theology of marriage isn't at stake, though they would like to make it seem as if it is.
Consider: There is nothing strange or scandalous about a change in practice or discipline, is there? It's the sort of thing that has gone on continuously since the beginning of the Church, and it is undoubtedly within the bounds of the Pope's authority. But by contrasting it with the term "continuity" and "previous magisterium", the Cardinals suggest (at least to the ordinary Catholic mind) that something alarming is afoot in Amoris Laetitia.
I won't go minutely into the long explanation of their first "doubt". I will only say that, as I read it, it seems to want to force the Holy Father to do just the opposite of what he (in his office and charism) is calling on Christian pastors to do.
Let me explain that a little. I think that Pope Francis, like John Paul II, though in his own way, has noticed "an excessively objectivistic" and legalistic tendency in traditional Catholic mode and practice, which concerns him. It concerns him not because he is a closet relativist, but because he sees that it interferes with the Church's evangelistic mission. We are too apt to approach the world with a set of doctrines and rules, rather than with Jesus and the good news of our redemption. We are too apt to judge people, their situations and conditions, by objective standards and norms that don't do full justice to their deepest reality as individual subjects, which is alienating rather than welcoming. A too objectivistic tendency also interferes with the spiritual life, because it inclines us to measure ourselves and others by "the law", rather than by a Person, Jesus Christ (a far more exacting measure!).
The Pope, through all his words and witness, is asking pastors and laity alike to resist that excessively objectivistic habit, and to instead learn to focus more attention on the personal, the individual, and the concrete. He wants us to remember (and realize in our way of being and acting) that devotion to Truth does not mean only upholding objective doctrines, but, even more primarily, affirming the truth of persons, the truth incarnated in the individual persons we encounter, which is unique and precious and irreplaceable.
Now come these four Cardinals trying to drag the attention of the Pope and the faithful back to the objective plane: to rules and categories and standards and norms.
My most charitable explanation is that these Cardinals—all of them elderly veterans of the liberal/conservative culture wars that erupted in the wake of Vatican II—are so accustomed to fighting relativism that they are failing to perceive the all-important difference between a focus on subjectivity and a descent into subjectivism. To them, a call for more pastoral attention to individual circumstances must seem tantamount to a rejection of the objective moral law. But it isn't. Not at all.
The solution to the manufactured theological crisis surrounding Amoris Laetitia is, ironically, given in the Cardinals' explanation of their dubia. I'll try to draw it out more fully in my next post, which I hope will be the last on this subject.
Part 1 of my critique can be found here; part 2 here.