The Personalist Project

I am with the Vicar of Christ, the objective center of unity in the Church. I am with those who think Cardinal Burke and the co-signatories of the recently published "Letter of Doubt" are causing "grave scandal" among the faithful.

The Pope's recent comment to an interviewer explaining his decision not to respond to the "Dubia" by distinguishing between criticism framed to serve and criticism framed to sow discord and division was, in my view, on target.

I agree with the canon lawyer priest who says the four questions are "trick questions like the Pharisees asked Jesus." To me they sound something like clever and subtle versions of: "Holy Father: Will you admit we are right or do you reject the teaching of the Church?"

Though they say they are offering their doubts with respect and in order to help the Pope and the bewildered faithful, the substance and tone of the document are bound to have the opposite effect. Many will be stirred up against the Pope, as we already see happening.

It's possible that these Cardinals are sincere in their good intentions. But that's beside the point at hand. I'm not speaking about what they meant to do or why they did it (which is known only to God) but about what they did. I'm speaking about their public act—its content and spirit, both of which I find deeply bad.

Take this explanation of their decision to publicize the Dubia in the face of the Pope's silence:

We have interpreted his sovereign decision [not to respond] as an invitation to continue the reflection, and the discussion, calmly and with respect.

And so we are informing the entire people of God about our initiative, offering all of the documentation.

This is disingenuous. The Pope's declining to respond cannot be justly interpreted as an "invitation" to publicize their doubts. They are disguising (perhaps even to themselves) rather than straight-forwardly owning their effort to force the Pope's hand by stirring up the faithful. They would have done better had they written something more like, "Your decision not to answer our questions increases our concern to such an extent that we have decided to take the unusual step of publishing it to the whole Church." That at least would have been honest.

Take this portion of the introductory note:

Following the publication of your Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, theologians and scholars have proposed interpretations that are not only divergent, but also conflicting, above all in regard to Chapter VIII. Moreover, the media have emphasized this dispute, thereby provoking uncertainty, confusion, and disorientation among many of the faithful.

Because of this, we the undersigned, but also 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.

Now, 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.

These paragraphs imply some falsehoods:

1) They imply that the fact that there are divergent interpretations of Amoris Laetitia means that the Pope is bound to clarify. He isn't.

There are divergent and conflicting interpretations of practically every passage of the Bible. Does it follow that the Bible is badly written, or that God is responsible to clarify what He meant, to relieve the world of confusion and doubt? No. Ambiguity—especially when it comes to high and deep matters—is sometimes the best way to express complex and delicate truth. Further, as Newman showed, ambiguity can serve the religious and pedagogical purpose of "testing the heart." Consider how Jesus often preached cryptically and using parables, so that those who heard him couldn't understand him. Consider the verse "Let him who has ears hear." Some teaching is framed to be "gotten" only by those who are inwardly receptive to it. Consider how Jesus's "hard teaching" about eating his flesh and drinking his blood brought about a winnowing of his disciples—separating out those who put their trust in him, even though they didn't always understand him, from those who walked away because not-understanding was intolerable.)

Another thing ambiguity can do is expose bad tendencies and attitudes that so easily creep into the hearts of the faithful: legalism, rigidity, arrogance and self-righteousness. 

And it can induce deeper humility, deeper study, deeper discernment, deeper faith.

In any case, if we are at all familiar with ecclesial history, we know that ambiguity on disputed issues and questions is (like passionate disagreement among theologians and bishops)  normal and not infrequently an indication of a valid development of doctrine in progress.

The Pope is responsible to teach according to his "best lights" and his charism as Successor of Peter and Pastor of the Universal Church; the rest of us (pastors and teachers above all) are responsible to receive what he teaches in in a spirit of love and faith, interpreting any ambiguous or problematic elements as best as we can and according to the hermeneutic of continuity, trusting the Holy Spirit to clear up confusions and difficulties in due course.

2) It implies that the Cardinals have the right and the duty to demand clarification from the Pope. They don't. They can ask for it, but they have no right to demand it. The Pope doesn't answer to them; they answer to him. (Cardinal Burke's public warning that if the Pope persists in refusing to answer the dubia, the Cardinals may formally censure him for serious error, reveals his presumption and bad faith—his attitude of "mastering" rather than service). He should know that he lacks the authority to censure the Pope. Nor has he shown that Amoris Laetitia contains any error. He's only shown that it's ambiguous. Ambiguity is not error. Neither is silence.)

In my next post, I'll take up the Dubia themselves.

Comments (7)

Rhett Segall

#1, Dec 5, 2016 10:04am


Thank you for your thoughtful reflections. Cardinals differing with the Pope shouldn't be a cause of scandal.  Bishops (these Cardinals are Bishops) are not representatives of the Pope but of Christ.  Pope John Paul II said that the Irag War (2003) was not justified.  Certainly, as your reflections underscore, as someone who recognizes the charism of the papacy, I  ought to respectfully weigh his opinion on that issue.  But if the teaching is not infallibly taught I need not agree. regarding the justice of that war. .I think this is applicable, mutatis mutandis, to Amoris Laetitia. The Acts of the Apostles is unequivocal on leaders in the Church taking different perspectives  on what Christ wants.

Regarding the value of ambiguity as an impetus to doctrinal development , I wonder about its application to the issues. I think Pope Francis is clear, i.e. since we cannot know all the circumstances of a divorce and remarriage for example, lets state the teaching in the proper forum and leave the rest up to the persons involved, presuming on their goodndess of heart and guidance of the Spirit

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Dec 5, 2016 11:14am

That's a good and helpful clarification Rhett.

I agree with you that Pope Francis seems to be clearly saying that from the fact that a couple is in an objectively irregular union, we cannot conclude that they are ineligible for Communion.

The ambiguity, as I see it, has to do with the practical interpretation. How free are pastors to invite those in irregular situations to receive Communion?

I am thinking there are two approaches he would dislike: The one I've heard some pastors are taking, viz. just telling everyone they can receive, without an individual discernment of their situation and interiority; the one Archbishop Chaput took, of issuing a general instruction that unless a couple commits to living as brother and sister, they are ineligible.

I think he would reject that approach, because it, too, by-passes the individual discernment and accompaniment.

He is asking pastors to attend more closely to the personal.

Theresa 27

#3, Dec 5, 2016 6:44pm

I recognize your right to ask the question " How free are pastors to invite those in irregular situations to receive Communion?" I don't think others can,just because it's not clear, accuse you of scandal. If it was your responsibility to guide the faithful  to the correct application of the answer then wouldn't it be your duty to obtain the necessary clarification?If the general clarification is incorrect- that unless a couple is committed to living as brother and sister they cannot receive communion- we need to know this With respect to a change in doctrine, if a change in doctrine is not what the document intended  clarification is urgent.

Katie van Schaijik

#4, Dec 5, 2016 6:47pm

It seems to me that what AL is calling for is particular attention to individual cases, not a blanket rule. It's not calling for a change in doctrine. Doctrines don't change. 

Katie van Schaijik

#5, Dec 5, 2016 9:25pm

Back to Rhett's comment, re: bishops disagreeing with the Pope. I agree that there is no scandal in that, as such.

My objection isn't the fact of their submitting dubia, but rather to the content of these particular dubia, and to the fact of their publishing to the whole Church rather than submitting it to the CDF.


#6, Dec 6, 2016 1:20am

Those were some great points you brought up Katie, couldn't agree more. 

Sam Roeble

#7, Dec 6, 2016 3:53pm

Wasn't the current dialogue, or lack thereof, with Pope Francis inevitable due to the publication of his letter to the Argentine Bishops prior to the Dubia?  I remember being at a friends' house at dinner, when the host asked me about the Letter...I hadn't heard of it and had no idea how to respond... (St. Paul confronted St. Peter as I believe Rhett noted above in Acts.  The Letter approves of the Argentine Bishops' interpretation as final--but, there was no dialogue on it and it was published for all to see.)

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