Is Etiquette More Important Than the Good of Souls?

Are the three remaining “dubia” cardinals – Cardinals Burke, Caffara, and Brandmüller – at fault for publicizing the five questions they posed to Pope Francis, and for publicizing the fact that the pope did not respond either to those questions or to a later request for an audience?

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna thinks they have done a disservice to the Church and to the Holy Father. Speaking in Limerick, Ireland on July 13th he said: “The question of these dubia is for me mainly a question of procedure. That cardinals, who should be the closest collaborators of the pope, try to force him, to put pressure on him to give a public response to their publicized, personal letter to the pope – this is absolutely inconvenient behavior, I’m sorry to say. If they want to have an audience with the pope, they ask for an audience; but they do not publish that they asked for an audience.”

Cardinal Schonborn is not alone in this criticism. Is he right? Were the cardinals wrong?

I do not think so. The dubia cardinals judged that the unsettled atmosphere in the Church following the publication of Amoris Laetitia called for a clarification from the author himself, in order to resolve the doubts of many people as to the meaning and intent of certain passages.

The dubia cardinals came to the conclusion that various interpretations of AL that plainly contradicted the previous teaching and discipline of the Church were intolerable and a threat to the good of souls. Their process of discernment included a judgment that this matter was not simply a private concern of theirs, but rather a matter of great importance to the faithful who look to their shepherds for guidance, seeking confirmation that what they had been previously taught as true was still held by the Church to be the truth, and was not being cast aside by AL.

The fact that numerous authoritative figures in the Church were claiming that the Church now allows Catholics living in invalid marriages more uxorio to receive Holy Communion was, and remains, shocking to Catholics knowledgeable of and faithful to the perennial teaching and practice of the Church, most recently reaffirmed on various occasions by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

The heart of the debate on the question of going public with both the dubia and the lack of a response by Pope Francis is this: does the good of souls require that legitimate concerns and questions be treated as a matter solely for private discussion, or is there a prophetic role for authoritative and learned churchmen to approach the pope in a public way on a matter of ultimate importance – that is, the good of souls?

Cardinal Christoph Maria Michael Hugo Damian Peter Adalbert, Count of Schönborn

During his time in Ireland, Cardinal Schönborn had this to say about the role of discernment according to Pope Francis: “the question of discernment is the key question for the right handling of right relation between principles and concrete application.”

The principle of good order in the Church needs to be applied to the concrete situation at hand. Confusion and doubt about a papal teaching document has led to open contradiction between different authorities in their interpretations of that document. The dubia cardinals wanted to hear from the pope himself as to which interpretations accurately reflected his intent in chapter 8 of AL.

Rather than simply acquiescing to a situation in which the matter would remain in a state of contestation and even acrimonious debate, they appealed to Peter for an answer, and they wanted the concerned faithful to know that they were speaking for them.

What is more important in the Church: the setting aside of “procedural” custom concerning communications with the pope, which may be criticized as being unsuitable, impolite, or “inconvenient” when examined apart from the living context in which this unusual act takes place; or the pastoral judgment of distinguished cardinals that the faithful ought to know that their concerns and questions have been brought to Pope Francis’ attention?

Cardinal Schönborn also stated that AL upholds the indissolubility of marriage but added that: “giving this answer is not an answer to all the single situations and cases that in everyday life we have to deal with. Much more difficult is discernment because you have to look closely, yes, in the light of the principles, but also at reality, where people stand, what is the drama of how did they come to a separation, to a new union, and so on.”

Prescinding from the questionable inference that the indissolubility of marriage as taught by Christ may not apply equally “to all the single situations,” I submit that the dubia Cardinals were acting for the good of the whole Church in seeking a papal clarification that Catholic doctrine and practice are indeed upheld in AL.

Such a needed clarification would then silence the various interpreters of AL who have described it as a departure from past practice, and even a new teaching.

The drama of AL in the life of the Church at present should not be underestimated. Things are not serene and pacific as concerns people’s understanding of what the Church teaches about indissolubility, divorce and remarriage, mortal sin, the worthiness required for the fruitful reception of the sacraments, and the pastoral vigilance required of priests regarding the withholding of the sacraments from people whose public behavior contradicts the words of Christ on divorce and remarriage.

As a parish priest, and as a sometime commentator on TV and radio, I know that people are unsettled by what is happening and want clear and consistent answers.

In such a situation, it is understandable, and surely excusable, that the dubia cardinals found this whole matter of clarifying the meaning of AL so important for the Church that ordinary ways of proceeding were set aside in favor of making known that they, and countless other Catholics, look to Pope Francis to confirm them in the Faith.

Fr. Gerald E. Murray

Fr. Gerald E. Murray

The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D. is pastor of Holy Family Church, New York, NY, and a canon lawyer.