In today’s gospel reading, Matthew recounts an attempt by the Pharisees to force Jesus into a no-win situation. They ask him, “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” (Mt 22:17).

Their ulterior motive was obvious — to trap Jesus in a no-win situation. If he advocated paying taxes to Caesar, he risked alienating the Jewish crowd who despised Roman taxation. Conversely, if he rejected the idea, he could be accused of insurrection against the Roman authorities.

“Knowing their malice” (v. 18), Jesus gives an answer that confounds his critics and leaves them scrambling for another way to trip him up. He tells them, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (v. 21).

As Fr. Alex Roche put it in this morning’s scripture reflection, “Jesus refuses to play their game.”

Many have noted that Pope Francis often employs a similar approach when his critics attempt to entrap him into a false binary or when they level accusations against him.

Perhaps the clearest example of this occurred In late 2016, when four cardinals — Burke, Brandmuller, Caffarra, and Meisner — presented Pope Francis with the set of five questions (the “dubia”) related to his apostolic exhortation on marriage and the family, Amoris Laetitia. In presenting the dubia to Pope Francis, these cardinals — like the Herodians and the disciples of the Pharisees in today’s gospel — attempted to force the pope into a lose-lose position. And just as Christ did not give his interlocuters an answer they hoped for, Pope Francis did not dignify their modern counterparts with a response to their loaded questions.

Frustrated by the lack of response from the pope to the dubia, the cardinals turned to the mass media and released the dubia to the public, an unprecedented act of insubordination against a pope by the cardinals that inflicted immeasurable harm against the Church. It continues to cause damage today.

Not a simple request for clarification

American Cardinal Raymond Burke, one of two surviving dubia cardinals, often describes the idea of “dubia” in reverent — almost sacred — terms. For example, in a 2017 interview with InfoVaticana, Cardinal Burke said, “the practice of bringing dubia or questions to the Pope is a very ancient practice.” In 2019, he told interviewer Thomas McKenna, “The process of submitting formal questions is a venerable and well-established practice in the Church.”

The accompanying media coverage from like-minded outlets has at times treated the 2016 dubia letter as if the cardinals had unearthed, in response to an unprecedented crisis, an ancient and long-forgotten form of recourse against an errant pope. The truth is much more mundane. Dubia (the plural of “dubium,” meaning “questions” or “doubts”) are regularly submitted to Vatican dicasteries on questions regarding doctrine or discipline. Many are answered privately, some of the more prominent ones are published on the websites of the relevant dicasteries or by the recipient of the responsum. Those with wide-ranging repercussions on the Church are typically published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis (AAS) — the Vatican’s bulletin of official acts. Sometimes responses to dubia are passed around privately without wide attention until an interested party decides to publish it.

Dubia that receive responses are typically open-ended questions, and the response typically consists of a straightforward answer and an explanation.

A classic example of a dubium and responsum is the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s (CDF’s) 2001 answer to the question, “Whether the baptism conferred by the community ‘The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’, called ‘Mormons’ in the vernacular, is valid.” The CDF’s answer is a simple “Negative.” Further explanation on behalf of the CDF was provided in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano by two Jesuit priests who would later be made cardinals: Luis Ladaria and Urbano Navarrete. These explanations were important because the dubium’s negative response meant that not only did the Church’s practice have to change, but the Church had to address a serious pastoral issue. For years prior to the responsum, the Catholic Church had generally regarded Mormon baptisms as valid, and therefore did not re-baptize former Mormons who converted to Catholicism.

Generally speaking, actually receiving a response to a dubium — let alone a timely response — is far from guaranteed. I know several people who have sent dubia to Vatican dicasteries who have either received no response or received a polite letter thanking them for their work and informing them that no answer would be given. My observation has been that those seeking responses are typically either hoping for the Vatican to settle a dispute in their favor or to have the Vatican validate their theological position on some topic. There is typically little incentive to advertise a non-response.

The 2016 dubia were far different. Rather than posing questions that truly sought authoritative answers from the pope, the four cardinals were well aware of the answers they wanted him to give. They composed the questions in such a way that anything other than their desired response was designed to force the pope to commit heresy.

Also noteworthy is the amount of time that elapsed between the date the cardinals submitted the dubia (September 19, 2016) and when they released them to the public (November 15). This timeframe — less than two months — is incredibly short when considering the typical wait for a responsum. In his book The Orthodoxy of Amoris Laetitia, Pedro Gabriel surveyed a variety of well-known Vatican responses to dubia in recent decades. Typically, a year or more will elapse before a response is given.

This suggests that the dubia cardinals were chomping at the bit to force the pope’s hand, and their subsequent behavior — especially that of Cardinal Burke — demonstrates that they were determined to fight him until they got their way.

The false binary

In addition to the five questions, the cardinals enclosed three other documents with the dubia: “A Necessary Foreword,” a letter from the cardinals to the pope, and an “Explanatory Note.” Although the wording of the dubia alone are loaded with presumptions and ideological baggage, with these supplementary documents the cardinals overplayed their hand and made it impossible for the pope to give a concise response.

It is also important to note that the dubia cannot really be considered requests for clarification on the proper interpretation or implementation of Amoris Laetitia. Rather, they are challenges to the moral theology and doctrinal orthodoxy of the exhortation. There is very little subtlety, especially in questions 2 through 5, that the cardinals’ real intention is either to expose the pope as an adherent of proportionalism or situation ethics or to force him to renounce his teaching in Amoris.

The first dubium, however, serves as the clearest example of the way the cardinals set a trap for Pope Francis. The cardinals write (emphasis in original):

It is asked whether, following the affirmations of Amoris Laetitia (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 without fulfilling the conditions provided for by Familiaris Consortio, 84, and subsequently reaffirmed by Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 34, and Sacramentum Caritatis, 29. Can the expression “in certain cases” found in Note 351 (305) of the exhortation Amoris Laetitia be applied to divorced persons who are in a new union and who continue to live more uxorio?

The answer to this question is already clear from the text of Amoris Laetitia itself, as well as in Pope Francis’s response to the guidelines submitted by the bishops of the Buenos Aires region (which was already known by the time the dubia were made public). Many well-respected Catholic thinkers such as Rodrigo Guerra and Rocco Buttiglione — neither of whom could be called a leftist — provided responses to this dubium that reflect the approach of the Buenos Aires Bishops.

The indisputable answer to this dubium is a qualified “yes.”

The Buenos Aires guidelines explain, “If it is acknowledged that, in a concrete case, there are limitations that mitigate responsibility and culpability (cf. 301-302), especially when a person believes he/she would incur a subsequent fault by harming the children of the new union, Amoris laetitia offers the possibility of having access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist (cf. footnotes 336 and 351).”

Of course, this is not unrestricted access to the sacraments, and it requires serious discernment and the accompaniment of a pastor (chapter 8 of Amoris is written as a guide for pastors, remember). If, after an examination of conscience, it is determined that the person bears unmitigated culpability for the sin of adultery, then admission to the sacraments is not a possibility.

One might then ask, if the answer is so simple, why didn’t Pope Francis just say this?

Unfortunately, the cardinals set a trap for him in their Explanatory Note. They indicate that a “yes” answer would imply that Pope Francis has taught one of three errors. They write:

It would seem that admitting to Communion those of the faithful who are separated or divorced from their rightful spouse and who have entered a new union in which they live with someone else as if they were husband and wife would mean for the Church to teach by her practice one of the following affirmations about marriage, human sexuality and the nature of the sacraments:

  • A divorce does not dissolve the marriage bond, and the partners to the new union are not married. However, people who are not married can under certain circumstances legitimately engage in acts of sexual intimacy.

  • A divorce dissolves the marriage bond. People who are not married cannot legitimately engage in sexual acts. The divorced and remarried are legitimate spouses and their sexual acts are lawful marital acts.

  • A divorce does not dissolve the marriage bond, and the partners to the new union are not married. People who are not married cannot legitimately engage in sexual acts, so that the divorced and civilly remarried live in a situation of habitual, public, objective and grave sin. However, admitting persons to the Eucharist does not mean for the Church to approve their public state of life; the faithful can approach the Eucharistic table even with consciousness of grave sin, and receiving absolution in the sacrament of penance does not always require the purpose of amending one’s life. The sacraments, therefore, are detached from life: Christian rites and worship are on a completely different sphere than the Christian moral life.

The first theory suggests that Pope Francis has affirmed that sex between unmarried persons is morally licit. Yet throughout the exhortation — including the opening words of its controversial eighth chapter — he emphatically insists that any form of sexual sin “is against the will of God” (AL 291). Theory two suggests that Pope Francis rejects the indissolubility of marriage. This is also a falsehood, and Pope Francis affirms the teaching repeatedly in Amoris Laetitia, most emphatically in paragraph 62.

The third theory is based on two false premises. The cardinals fail to acknowledge the possibility that mitigated culpability (the discernment of which is central to chapter eight) might diminish a person’s guilt for committing a sin with grave matter. Based on this glaring oversight, the cardinals seem to presume that answering “yes” to this dubium is to sanction receiving communion while in a state of mortal sin and granting absolution to the unrepentant. Their conclusion is rash and, frankly, offensive. Pope Francis took all of this into careful account in the exhortation, yet they completely ignore his reasoning and invent their own.

Even more insulting are the other four dubia, because in them the cardinals called into doubt Pope Francis’s belief in objective morality. Honestly, if they had any dignity at all, any cardinals who would direct such an insinuation at the pope would turn in their red hats before doing so. These cardinals apparently lacked such grace. Nor, apparently, were they able to distinguish between situation ethics and the honest examination of the state of one’s soul before God.

It was deliberate

If there was ever any doubt about the dubia being a deliberate attempt by the cardinals to entrap Pope Francis, Cardinal Burke put them to rest in early 2017 in an interview with Michael Matt of the Remnant.

Michael Matt: … is it even possible for you to envision a scenario whereby you suddenly discover that you’ve missed something, that the Four Cardinals are misinterpreting it, and that you’d have to concede you were wrong? I mean if that’s not possible, then what is the point of the dubia? Don’t you already know the answers to your five questions?

Cardinal Burke: Certainly we do. But the important thing is that the pastor of the universal Church, in his office as guardian of the truths of the Faith and promoter of the truths of the faith—that he make clear that, yes, he answers these questions in the same way that the Church answers them.

In other words, they were trying to force the pope to conform to their ideology and submit to their worldview. There was not an ounce of goodwill in the dubia, these cardinals didn’t care one whit about the pope’s teaching or doctrinal authority. Much like Jesus’s interlocutors in today’s gospel, they went away frustrated when they did not receive a response that they could exploit in order to take control over the Church and force the hand of the pope.

Unfortunately for the dubia cardinals and their supporters, anything Pope Francis teaches that challenges their entrenched doctrinal ideas isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Their response to Amoris Laetitia, which reaffirms Catholic doctrine but invites us to reconsider how we approach the concrete situations of people living in irregular unions, is the most telling example of this attitude. As Cardinal Marc Ouellet wrote in L’Osservatore Romano, “Some made it impossible for themselves to appreciate anything of the new papal document because they first checked whether this chapter confirmed their pre-existing views or not.”

Sadly, Cardinal Burke has not learned his lesson. This is clear from the publication of not one, but two sets of dubia earlier this month. Further, on October 18, he was a guest on an episode of Catholic Answers Live, appearing agitated at the mere suggestion that he was undermining the pope or fomenting schism. If he continues on this path, he is in danger of being remembered as one of history’s more notorious cardinals and as a villainous foil to a holy pope.

Pope Francis’s decision not to respond to the dubia directly echoed Jesus’ approach in today’s gospel. By avoiding a simplistic “yes” or “no” answer, he refused to be boxed in by the false dichotomy presented by the cardinals. Instead, he encouraged a broader discussion within the Church, recognizing that complex pastoral issues often require nuanced responses that cannot be reduced to mere affirmations or denials.

Image: Cardinal Burke on Catholic Answers Live. Screenshot.

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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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