You may find this a bit surprising (!), but “Pope Francis” is causing some trouble. Of course the New York Times has positioned this as “a race against time”, with the suggestion that, if “Pope Francis” lives long enough, he can replace all of the “conservative” cardinals named by his predecessors with “liberal” cardinals. Of course, the man is 79 years old, and he seems destined to lose that race (by their reckoning). Literally. Can he “appoint enough like-minded cardinals to assure that his vision of the church will endure after he dies?” The ostensible news event to prompt this kind of ghoulish speculation is a “consistory of cardinals” that will be held today, in which another 17 cardinals will be named, from all over the world.
But the deeper intrigue meshes with some of the back story, the not-so-easy-to-follow rumblings that are going on in public, but somewhat behind the scenes. The NY Times subhead is, “Pope Francis Has Appointed About a Third of the Cardinals Eligible to Choose the Next Pope”. That may be true enough – after today he will have appointed 44 of the 121 who are eligible to vote (they become ineligible to vote after age 80).
Back in September, a “baker’s trio” (my adaptation of a “baker’s dozen”) of seemingly washed-up cardinals took advantage of a rarely used protocol of church discipline to ask “Pope Francis” to clarify the meaning of some of the footnotes found in the recent statement, “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”).
They did so by asking “Pope Francis” to clarify, by asking five “yes-or-no” questions. “Pope Francis” has not responded.
“Amoris Laetitia” is an “Apostolic Exhortation”, and it has a certain amount of “authority” in the pecking order of the Roman Catholic category of documents. It is certainly not an “ex cathedra” statement (even though the pope is sitting while he writes it – or while someone else writes it). Nor is it necessarily doctrinal or theological in nature, as an encyclical would be. Still, it has a certain amount of authority.
Now, other dead popes still have authority. And that is important to note, because these questions basically ask, “which pope should we believe”. And the reason they are asked, is because, “Pope Francis” has, for the first time, in these footnotes in question introduced some “wiggle room” into fairly firm doctrinal statements that have existed in Roman Catholicism about Marriage (a Sacrament, and therefore with doctrinal ramifications).
For about the 1700 years prior, since they started messing with marriage (“Pope Callistus”, 217-222) changed the rules to allow wealthy Roman women in the church to retain their social status by living “in concubinage”, or marrying lesser-born men (“in the Church”), without going through a civil ceremony – see Peter Lampe, “From Paul to Valentinus”, pg 119 – this is why Rome has an entirely separate but parallel structure about marriage, and it is the root of their understanding that they can’t divorce but they can get “annulments”).
In our day, Roman Catholics who divorce civilly, without getting annulments, have traveled one of the great avenues of exodus out of the Roman Catholic Church. It would not surprise me if “Pope Francis” is instigating his whole avenue of “mercy” to stanch this flow out of Roman Catholicism, and hence, to stop a severe form of bloodletting of Roman Catholics. Yet, the Roman Catholic rules have for hundreds of years, prohibited these divorced-and-remarried individuals to have access either to the sacraments of Confession or Communion. This is because, according to Roman Catholic dogma, no Roman Catholic “sacramental” marriage can ever come to an end. So that when they “divorce-and-remarry”, they are de facto entering into a period of adultery.
This teaching on marriage has been a “de fide” teaching of Rome’s for hundreds of years. As a pronouncement of a pope, it carries “de fide” authority:
"of the faith" (de fide), requiring the assent of Catholics by reason of the virtue of faith's obligation to God revealing. Among such de fide teachings will be those which have been solemnly defined (such as the divinity of Christ, or, the Immaculate Conception of Mary), and those which, while they have not been solemnly defined, belong to the infallible ordinary Magisterium, having been taught "semper et ubique" (always and everywhere). Examples of the latter include the evil of certain sins, such as abortion or adultery, or the restriction of the priesthood to men.
For those married “in the Church”, civil divorce, and remarriage after a civil divorce (without an annulment) is and has been “adultery” for hundreds of years.
Since this is “de fide” teaching, prior encyclicals of “Pope John Paul II” have already reiterated and “clarified” some of these teachings. With his “Apostolic Exhortation”, “Pope Francis” makes exceptions. And the cardinals, now, essentially are asking, “should we believe the teaching, or the exceptions?”
In any event, here are the questions:
1. It is asked whether, following the affirmations of "Amoris Laetitia" (nn. 300-305), it has now become possible to grant absolution in the Sacrament of Penance and thus to admit to Holy Communion a person who, while bound by a valid marital bond, lives together with a different person "more uxorio" (in a marital way) without fulfilling the conditions provided for by "Familiaris Consortio" n. 84 and subsequently reaffirmed by "Reconciliatio et Paenitentia" n. 34 and "Sacramentum Caritatis" n. 29. Can the expression “in certain cases” found in note 351 (n. 305) of the exhortation "Amoris Laetitia" be applied to divorced persons who are in a new union and who continue to live "more uxorio"?
2. After the publication of the Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation "Amoris Laetitia" (cf. n. 304), does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II’s Encyclical "Veritatis Splendor" n. 79, based on Sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, on the existence of absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts and that are binding without exceptions?
3. After "Amoris Laetitia" (n. 301) is it still possible to affirm that a person who habitually lives in contradiction to a commandment of God’s law, as for instance the one that prohibits adultery (cf. Mt 19:3-9), finds him or herself in an objective situation of grave habitual sin (cf. Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, Declaration, June 24, 2000)?
4. After the affirmations of "Amoris Laetitia" (n. 302) on “circumstances which mitigate moral responsibility,” does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II’s Encyclical "Veritatis Splendor" n. 81, based on Sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, according to which “circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act ‘subjectively’ good or defensible as a choice”?
5. After "Amoris Laetitia" (n. 303) does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II’s encyclical "Veritatis Splendor" n. 56, based on Sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, that excludes a creative interpretation of the role of conscience and that emphasizes that conscience can never be authorized to legitimate exceptions to absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts by virtue of their object?
This is an ongoing story insofar as these cardinals have sought to follow the church discipline procedure outlined in Matthew 18: “If your brother will not listen to you, take with you two or three witnesses. If then he will not listen even to them, tell it to the assembly.” These questions were first asked in September, and the “witness” in this case was Cardinal Gerhard L. Müller, prefect of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith (another recipient of the letter).
Now that the pope has not responded, and apparently, Muller has not responded, these cardinals are “telling it to the assembly”.
Of these four cardinals – three of them, by the way, are “ineligible to vote”, and the fourth of them is the marginalized Cardinal Raymond Burke – a Canon Lawyer and the former “Cardinal Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura”, something like “the Supreme Court” for the Roman Catholic Church, now relegated by Francis to be the “the patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta”. (You may have noticed that Malta is not really a great military power these days, and that’s the point – Burke has been moved to the sidelines by “Pope Francis” – interesting to see that the unique form of vindictiveness that we see among Catholic Converts has its basis at the highest levels of the Roman Catholic Church).
It is telling that “Pope Francis” has not responded. These are “yes or no” questions, and for “Pope Francis” to take sides is to say either “My word supersedes that of Pope John Paul the Great”, or, “I back down”.
Either response will be a profound embarrassment.
The fires have just in the last day or so been turned up. The cardinals are noting that this is not an act of defiance:
In their Nov. 14 statement, the four Church leaders stress they are above all acting out of “justice and charity” — justice because they profess through the dubia [questions] the Petrine ministry of unity and confirming the faith; and charity because they want to “help the Pope to prevent divisions and conflicts in the Church, asking him to dispel all ambiguity.”
The cardinals also say they are carrying out their duty in accordance with Canon 349 of the Code of Canon Law: to help the Pope “care for the universal Church.” And they stress that their initiative should not be interpreted “according to a progressive/conservative paradigm,” as they say that would be “completely off the mark.”
Rather, they underline that their motives are that they are “deeply concerned about the true good of souls, the supreme law of the Church and not about promoting any form of politics in the Church.”
“We hope that no one will judge us unjustly, as adversaries of the Holy Father and people devoid of mercy,” they continue. “What we have done and are doing has its origin in the deep collegial affection that unites us to the Pope and from an impassioned concern for the good of the faithful.”
However, Burke has also said:
these five critical points have to do with irreformable moral principles. So we, as cardinals, judged it our responsibility to request a clarification with regard to these questions, in order to put an end to this spread of confusion that is actually leading people into error….
Priests are divided from one another, priests from bishops, bishops among themselves. There’s a tremendous division that has set in in the Church, and that is not the way of the Church. That is why we settle on these fundamental moral questions which unify us….
The issue is the truth. In the trial of St. Thomas More, someone told him that most of the English bishops had accepted the king’s order, but he said that may be true, but the saints in heaven did not accept it. That’s the point here.
Burke also suggests that if the pope does not answer, “Then we would have to address that situation. There is, in the Tradition of the Church, the practice of correction of the Roman Pontiff. It is something that is clearly quite rare. But if there is no response to these questions, then I would say that it would be a question of taking a formal act of correction of a serious error.”
Meanwhile, Bergoglio has shot back, suggesting “they are acting in bad faith to foment divisions.”
Oh how well we remember the “Called to Communion” gang telling us that the papacy, and the pope’s alleged “infallibility” represent the one thing that we Protestants don’t have:
[the ability to distinguish] the propositionally expressible content of divine revelation itself—assuming there is such a thing as divine revelation—from mere theological opinions, and thus to facilitating the assent of faith as distinct from that of opinion. Now as you say, if Catholicism is true, the answer to that question is obvious. But if Catholicism is false, we are left only with provisional opinions. And if we are left only with provisional opinions, then we have no reliable way to distinguish from human opinion that which God actually wants us to believe.