The Personalist Project

Following their "dubia," the Cardinals offer what they call "an explanatory note." It too warrants some examination and critique.

It begins:

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.

Comments (8)

Rhett Segall

#1, Dec 8, 2016 8:52am

Katie your incisive analysis is to the point,i.e. are the Cardinals engaging in  "an excessive objectivism"? Are they failing to differentiate between subjectivism and subjectivity? Your point about the forum of the Cardinals' dubia is important. Perhaps the internal form of a personal communication would have been more appropriate.

Where I differ with you is on the responsibility of a Catholic towards the Petrine ministry. You note:

"The laity are not the Pope's constituents; we have no right of oversight in his exercise of the Petrine ministry".

You will recall Catherine of Siena's 1376 letter to Pope Gregory Xl bluntly telling him to act manly and return from Avignon to Rome! To say that the laity have no right to oversight is to put them into that master/slave dynamic you so arduously strive to awaken people to.

Shalom, Rhett

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Dec 8, 2016 9:11am

Once again, a good challenge, Rhett.

But let me counter:

1) St. Catherine was not exercising oversight over the Pope's teaching ministry. She was challenging him on the matter of his residence.

2) Like Joan of Arc, who stepped outside the normal range of religious action, she was responding to a direct, mystical call from God.

3) (Most important for the context) In claiming that the laity have no right of oversight over the Pope's Petrine ministry, I don't mean that the laity have no rights. We have, for instance, the sovereign right of conscience. Even the Pope cannot order me to disobey my conscience. Also, the Petrine ministry is not boundless. It is, for instance, limited to the sphere of faith and morals. If the Pope were to step outside that, we would be right to criticize him. So, for instance, if he were to teach that there is no difference between and circle and a square, we could deny it. If he were to say that Catholics must vote for higher taxes, we can say, "Not your purview, Holy Father."

But when the Holy Father is exercising his ministry within its given limits, we are bound to obey.

Rhett Segall

#3, Dec 8, 2016 3:28pm

What you say about Catherine's "geographic critique" is correct. What I would underscore with her is the example of courage in speaking out and forthrightly in areas that are not infallibly taught. The issue of divorce, remarriage and communion is a question of disciple which admits of differing opinions.  Dietrich Von Hildebrand differed very much with the liturgical practices post Vatican ll and spoke vigoriously against them while respectfully obeying them. Many differ with Pope Benedict's change of words at the consecration (From this is my blood which will be shed "for all": to  "for the many" as ambiguous). Here's the point, voicing one's opinion  on the matter is genuine Christian maturity. It's inconceivable that any Christian today could go along with Pius IX's "Syllabus" against freedom of conscience, democracy, religion etc.I've always appreciated Pope Benedict's assertion that papal infallibility is narrowly defined.

Katie van Schaijik

#4, Dec 8, 2016 3:37pm

I would rather say we should look to her example of courage in following the promptings of grace, even when it meant challenging a Pope.

But I wouldn't want to draw the line between what "infallibly taught" and "taught", since that seems to me too narrow. I think we owe the Pope deference in his ordinary teaching ministry in the areas of faith and morals.

To voice our personal preferences is fine, provided it's done with due deference and in a way that doesn't cause scandal. To dismiss or correct or even disagree with the Pope's teaching (in the sense of suggesting he is wrong) seems to me out of bounds, not courageous.

Sam Roeble

#5, Dec 14, 2016 12:48pm

I submit Fr. Z's story of Pope John XXII as a possible precedent of dubia (granted, Fr. Z can at times be objectively solipsistic).

Katie van Schaijik

#6, Dec 14, 2016 12:51pm

Where has the Pope suggested that priests can replace tribunals and canon lawyers?

Katie van Schaijik

#7, Dec 14, 2016 1:08pm

About the story related by Fr. Z, it certainly isn't an example of formal dubia being submitted. It tells us nothing about whether or not they are traditionally given in a yes/no form, for example.

And while it's an interesting historical comparison, I don't think it measures up to the present situation. 

As I read it, it was not a case of a Pope offering a formal teaching in communion with the bishops of the world. It was case of a Pope enunciating a private opinion in a series of homilies, which was immediately rejected by "the Catholic world" as not in accord with Catholic doctrine.

AL is the fruit of a two-years long Synod of the bishops, one where the views of Cardinal Burke et al. were aired and considered. And, at least the way I see it, it is being embraced by the Catholic world and rejected by a faction within that world, just as Vatican II was.

Rhett Segall

#8, Dec 17, 2016 7:30pm

Just came across this EWTN panel discussion of Amoris Laetitia which is very worth while!

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