On June 21, Pope Francis fielded questions from journalists aboard the volo papale from Geneva, Switzerland to Rome. A German reporter named Roland Juchem asked him about a proposal of some of the bishops of his country to admit the Protestant spouses of Catholics to sacramental communion.
The question has a backstory.
Last February, the Deutsche Bischofskonferenz – under the direction of Cardinal Reinhard Marx – approved by majority vote a pastoral guide for inter-communion. The document, entitled in German ‘Mit Christus gehen,’ ignited controversy and a small but vocal minority of German bishops, led by the Cardinal of Cologne Rainer Maria Woelki, appealed the matter to the Holy See.
Some months later on May 3, Pope Francis summoned representatives of the German bishops’ conference to the Vatican to meet with authorities responsible for ecumenism and doctrine. That summit resulted in a directive from the head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then Cardinal-elect Luis Ladaria, instructing the German bishops to permit the question to come to maturity as they continue to seek a universal consensus among themselves.
The final word from the Vatican suggested an official response from the Holy Father only in the event that certain conditions were met. Taken together, the conditions reflect the Pope’s understanding of his authority and the role of synodality in the life of the Church.
Here’s the principle in full: Pope Francis would judge the matter only if an episcopal conference had arrived at general agreement on a matter of universal doctrine or if the subject under review hinged on the Church’s relations with other Christian communities.
That principle likely guided the Pope’s approach to another set of questions: the infamous dubia.
Almost two years ago, four cardinals submitted five questions on the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia to Pope Francis and Cardinal Gerhard Müller, then Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The group included Italian Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, American Cardinal Raymond Burke and German Cardinals Walter Brandmüller and Joachim Meisner. Amongst themselves, they did not constitute an episcopal conference.
Ostensibly, the cardinals submitted their questions – or, dubia – out of “deep pastoral concern,” according to a letter that accompanied them. Specifically, they sought clarity on paragraphs 300-305 from the document’s eighth chapter. (Matters of universal ecumenical concern were not on the radar.)
But in the weeks and months that followed, the cardinals – chief among them Raymond Burke – made it clear that they intended to use the questions as leverage.
Circling the globe, fielding questions from journalists and headlining conferences, Burke and company never passed up an opportunity to talk about the dubia.
Even while they orchestrated a global campaign, their communication with the Pope was considerably less coordinated, however. Reuters’ Philip Pullella reports on a recent interview of the Pope in which he “said he had heard about the cardinals’ letter criticizing him ‘from the newspapers … a way of doing things that is, let’s say, not ecclesial.’”
The cardinals’ dramatics had the combined effect of short-circuiting the teaching authority of the bishops and evidencing a preference for centralized authority and Enlightenment-era Cartesian mathematicism with its clear and distinct ideas.
To stand the point on its head: The Burke agenda sought dogmatic fist-pumping while relying heavily upon full-throated denial of the theology of the body of Christ.
Pope Francis never did respond to the four cardinals’ doctrinal inquests. Most probably because he had something different in mind: the joy of the Gospel.
In his first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis had written that “the papal magisterium should [not] be expected to offer a definitive or complete word on every question which affects the Church and the world.” He had added that “It is not advisable for the Pope to take the place of local Bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory.” And so he concluded in favor of “the need to promote a sound ‘decentralization.’”
He made the same points and drew the same conclusion in the opening salvo of Amoris Laetitia itself, adding that “Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it.”
Apparently these finer points got lost in Burke’s football field-long cappa magna, but I digress.
In sourcing his ecclesiology of unity-in-diversity, Pope Francis could not have done better than Scripture. In the fourth chapter of his Letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul remarks that “grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.”
Pauline ecclesiology recognizes that Christ “gave some as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers, to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the extent of the full stature of Christ.”
To be sure, fullness of faith does not derive from the doctrinal subpoenas of four cardinals. Genuine ‘unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God’ require the entirety of the Church – with all her diversity of gifts and offices – journeying together in parrhesia and synodality toward the ‘full stature of Christ.’
In point of fact, it takes more than a day to build Rome.
True unity of faith takes time to attain. It requires a process that preferences time over space, and eschews the inanity of instant replies. Such an order of priorities “enables us to work slowly but surely, without being obsessed with immediate results,” according to the Joy of the Gospel. To round out the point, “It helps us patiently to endure difficult and adverse situations, or inevitable changes in our plans.” And “It invites us to accept the tension between fullness and limitation.”
Pope Francis understands his Petrine ministry to be president over this process, which is best understood and experienced as a journey of the whole Church, not a communique handed down from Rome that plays to the private interests of a handful of semi-inactive bishops.
On the night of his election, Pope Francis committed the universal Church to “A journey of fraternity, of love, of trust among us” for the sake of “the evangelization of this most beautiful city.”
In October 2015, during the course of the fourteenth ordinary Synod of Bishops, Pope Francis renewed his invitation to that journey. At a one-day conference commemorating Blessed Paul VI’s foundation of the Synod of Bishops, the Pope emphasized that “We must continue along this path,” noting that “The world in which we live, and which we are called to love and serve, even with its contradictions, demands that the Church strengthen cooperation in all areas of her mission.” He said that “It is precisely this path of synodality which God expects of the Church of the third millennium.” And he took a further decisive step, describing ‘synodality’ as a “constitutive element of the Church” that “offers us the most appropriate interpretive framework for understanding the hierarchical ministry itself.”
Thus, it is through the prism of synodality that one must study the ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council as set forth in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium).
That Dogmatic Constitution definitively teaches that “The pastoral office or the habitual and daily care of their sheep is entrusted to them completely.” More than this, the text notes that bishops should not “be regarded as vicars of the Roman Pontiffs, for they exercise an authority that is proper to them.” For this reason, they “are quite correctly called ‘prelates,’ heads of the people whom they govern.” Thus, the legitimate authority of the bishops “is not destroyed by the supreme and universal power, but on the contrary it is affirmed, strengthened and vindicated by it, since the Holy Spirit unfailingly preserves the form of government established by Christ the Lord in His Church.”
Responding to the dubia of the four cardinals might have offered Enlightenment-era Cartesian clarity about particular questions. But that clarity would have come at the cost of violating the office of the bishops and the synodality of the Church. It would have denied authentic agency to the bishops, making them little more than subservient extensions of the Petrine ministry.
‘Clarity’ that requires an act of ecclesial self-denial can only befuddle and darken the Church’s collective consciousness. It shimmers, but does not shine. Ultimately, it can never offer true light that overpowers darkness.
Moreover, bowing to the inquests of the four cardinals would have meant violating a chief tenet of Pope St. John Paul II’s landmark encyclical letter on Catholic morality, Veritatis Splendor. For, it would have meant adhering to the fallacy that the ends justify the means.
But, Pope Francis seems very intent on re-focusing the Church on the reality of her doctrine about herself: that is, her ecclesiology. To his mind, how the Church speaks in the voice of both Peter and Paul – Pope and bishops – is as important as what she says.
The Church belongs to God. It is not a club called upon to champion a particular ideology. Her divinely-instituted constitution cannot be changed, ignored, or violated without either insulting God or doing lasting damage to herself.
Back in the 1980s, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger made these points himself in his book-length interview, The Ratzinger Report.
There, he told his interviewer, Vittorio Messori, that “the alarm must focus before all else on the crisis of the understanding of the Church, on ecclesiology: ‘Herein lies the cause of a good part of the misunderstandings or real errors which endanger theology and common Catholic opinion alike.’”
It is time for Catholics desiring to honor the legacy of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI in the age of Francis to take the dubia off the table and get back to the sanctifying work of being the Church.
We must get out of the boat of doubt (dubia) and dive deeply into the water of the listening Church (ecclesia discens).
For, we don’t need simplistic answers and instant replies to questions that require the thoughtful theological synergy of the whole Church. We do need to enter into the dialogue of parrhesia and synodality, working toward universal consensus, and showing due deference to the office of Peter and all the bishops.
To be sure, that’s a project that requires a maturity of faith that is capable of rejecting the false allure of something Pope Francis once called ‘declarationist nominalism’ that merely ‘assuages our consciences.’ But it is a project that well understands that, if we do not speak as Catholics, we are better off not speaking at all.
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John Paul Shimek holds ecclesiastical degrees from the graduate schools of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, and is a 2003 honors graduate of Saint Anselm College in Manchester, NH. John Paul has provided special counsel to numerous Church leaders, including both the former and current archbishops of Milwaukee, Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Archbishop Jerome Listecki, including as a technical theological assistant to Abp. Listecki during the preparation of a pastoral letter for the Year of Faith. He has been interviewed and has written on a wide spectrum of religious and public forum issues for numerous media outlets, including CNN, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Telemundo, Zenit, the Catholic News Agency, the National Catholic Register, Catholic Exchange, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. John Paul writes on a wide spectrum of religious and public forum topics, centering on the relationship between faith and reason, the enduring presence of Catholicism in American and Western culture, contemporary Vatican affairs, the legacy of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and the theological foundations of the Francis Revolution.