Update: Vatican News has now published a “provisional English translation”.

This morning, Cardinal Raymond Burke and four other Cardinals published two sets of “dubia” that they sent to Pope Francis this summer. They submitted the first set of dubia on July 10, and received a response from Pope Francis on July 11. Unsatisfied with his responses, they sent him “reformulated” dubia on August 21.

They did not publish the pope’s responses. Later today, a PDF of the pope’s responses, published at the request of the prefect for the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Victor Fernandez, was published on the Vatican website. Because the document is not in English and is a scanned copy, we provide below an unofficial translation of Cardinal Fernandez’s letter and Pope Francis’s responses to the the dubia. There may be typographical and translation errors. We are publishing this as a service to English-speaking Catholics. —ML

[Update: Following the publication of the pope’s responses on the Vatican website, the text was posted on Cardinal Burke’s website in eight languages, including English. The official response has only been published by the Vatican in the original Spanish, and therefore the translation from Cardinal Burke is also unofficial.]

Cover Letter of Cardinal Fernandez

September 25, 2023

Dear Holy Father, 

Having received from you a copy of your letter of July 11, 2023 in which you respond to five dubia of Cardinals Burke and Brandmuller, I ask your authorization so that the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith may take into consideration and possibly quote some paragraphs of these responses in order to better clarify the questions submitted to you.

+ Victor Manuel Fernandez

Response to the dubia Pope Francis (unofficial)

Dear Brothers,

While I do not always find it prudent to answer questions addressed directly to me, and it would be impossible to answer them all, in this case I thought it appropriate to do so because of the proximity of the Synod.

Question 1

a) The answer depends on the meaning you give to the word “reinterpret”. If it is understood as “to interpret better” the expression is valid. In this sense, the Second Vatican Council affirms that it is necessary that with the work of exegetes – I would add of theologians – the Church’s judgment should mature” (Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum, 12).

b) Therefore, while it is true that divine Revelation is immutable and always binding, the Church must be humble and recognize that she never exhausts its unfathomable richness and needs to grow in her understanding.

c) Consequently, she also matures in her understanding of what she herself has affirmed in her Magisterium.

d) Cultural changes and the new challenges of history do not modify Revelation, but they can stimulate us to make more explicit some aspects of its overflowing richness, which always offers more.

e) It is inevitable that this can lead to a better expression of some past statements of the Magisterium, and in fact this has been the case throughout history.

f) On the other hand, it is true that the Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but it is also true that both the texts of Scripture and the testimonies of Tradition need an interpretation that makes it possible to distinguish their perennial substance from cultural conditioning. It is evident, for example, in the biblical texts (such as Ex 21:20-21) and in certain magisterial interventions that tolerated slavery (cf. Nicholas V, Bull Dum Diversas, 1452). This is not a minor issue given its intimate connection with the perennial truth of the inalienable dignity of the human person. These texts are in need of interpretation. The same is true for some New Testament considerations on women (1 Cor 11:3-10; 1 Tim 2:11-14) and for other texts of Scripture and testimonies of Tradition that today cannot be materially repeated.

g) It is important to emphasize that what cannot change is what has been revealed “for the salvation of all” (Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum, 7). For this reason the Church must constantly discern between what is essential for salvation and what is secondary or less directly connected with this goal. In this regard, I would like to recall what St. Thomas Aquinas said:

“the more one descends to 10 particulars, the more indeterminacy increases” (Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 94, art. 4).

h) Finally, a single formulation of a truth can never be adequately understood if it is presented in isolation, isolated from the rich and harmonious context of the whole of Revelation. The “hierarchy of truths” also implies situating each of them in adequate connection with the more central truths and with the totality of the Church’s teaching. This can finally give rise to different ways of expounding the same doctrine, even though “to those who are satisfied with a monolithic doctrine defended by all without nuance, this may seem an imperfect dispersion.

But the reality is that this variety helps to better manifest and develop the various aspects of the inexhaustible richness of the Gospel” (Evangelii Gaudium, 49). Each theological line has its risks but also its opportunities.

Question 2

a) The Church has a very clear conception of marriage: an exclusive, stable and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to the begetting of children. Only this union is called “marriage”. Other forms of union are realized only “in a partial and analogous way” (Amoris laetitia 292), which is why they cannot strictly be called “marriage”.

b) It is not a mere question of names, but the reality that we call marriage has a unique essential constitution that demands an exclusive name, not applicable to other realities. It is undoubtedly much more than a mere “ideal”.

c) For this reason the Church avoids any kind of rite or sacramental that could contradict this conviction and give the impression that something that is not marriage is recognized as marriage.

d) In dealing with people, however, pastoral charity, which must permeate all our decisions and attitudes, must not be lost. The defense of objective truth is not the only expression of this charity, which is also made up of kindness, patience, understanding, tenderness and encouragement. Therefore, we cannot become judges who only deny, reject, exclude.

e) For this reason, pastoral prudence must adequately discern whether there are forms of blessing, requested by one or more persons, that do not transmit a mistaken conception of marriage. Because when a blessing is requested, one is expressing a request for help from God, a plea to be able to Live better, a trust in a Father who can help us to Live better.

f) On the other hand, although there are situations that from the objective point of view are not morally acceptable, pastoral charity itself requires us not to treat as “sinners” other people whose guilt or responsibility may be attenuated by various factors that influence subjective imputability (cf. St. John Paul II, Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 17).

g) Decisions which, in certain circumstances, can form part of pastoral prudence, should not necessarily become a norm. That is to say, it is not appropriate for a Diocese, a Bishops’ Conference or any other ecclesial structure to constantly and in an official way enable procedures or rites for all kinds of matters, since everything “that which is part of a practical discernment in a particular situation cannot be elevated to the category of a norm”, because this “would give rise to an unbearable casuistry” (Amoris laetitia 304). Canon Law should not and cannot cover everything, nor should the Episcopal Conferences claim to do so with their various documents and protocols, because the life of the Church runs through many channels in addition to the normative ones.

Question 3

a) Although you recognize that the supreme and full authority of the Church is exercised either by the Pope because of his office or by the college of bishops together with its head, the Roman Pontiff (cf. Conc. Ecumen. Vat. II, Const. dogm. Lumen gentium, 22), nevertheless with these dubia you yourselves manifest your need to participate, to give your opinion freely and to collaborate, and thus you are claiming some form of “synodality” in the exercise of my ministry.

b) The Church is “mystery of missionary communion”, but this communion is not only affective or ethereal, but necessarily implies real participation: that not only the hierarchy but all the People of God in different ways and at different levels can make their voices heard and feel part of the Church’s journey.

In this sense we can say that synodality, as a style and dynamism, is an essential dimension of the life of the Church. On this point St. John Paul II has said very beautiful things in Novo Millennio Ineunte.

c) It is quite another thing to sacralize or impose a particular synodal methodology that pleases one group, to make it the norm and obligatory channel for all, because this would only lead to “freezing” the synodal journey, ignoring the diverse characteristics of the different particular Churches and the varied richness of the universal Church.

Question 4

a) “The common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial priesthood differ essentially” (Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, 10). It is not convenient to maintain a difference of degree that implies considering the common priesthood of the faithful as something of “second category” or of lesser value (“a lower degree”). Both forms of priesthood enlighten and sustain each other.

b) When St. John Paul II taught that the impossibility of conferring priestly ordination on women must be affirmed “definitively,” he was in no way disparaging women and giving supreme power to men. St. John Paul II also affirmed other things. For example, that when we speak of priestly power “we are in the realm of function, not dignity or holiness” (St. John Paul II, Christifideles Laici, 51). These are words that we have not sufficiently embraced. He also clearly maintained that while the priest alone presides at the Eucharist, the tasks “do not give rise to superiority of one over the other” (St. John Paul II, Christifideles laici, note 190; cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration inter /risi9n/ores, VI). He also affirmed that if the priestly function is “hierarchical,” it should not be understood as a form of domination, but “is totally ordered to the holiness of the members of Christ” (St. John Paul II, Mulieris dignitatem, 27). If this is not understood and the practical consequences of these distinctions are not drawn, it will be difficult to accept that the priesthood is reserved only to men and we will not be able to recognize the rights of women or the need for them to participate, in various ways, in the leadership of the Church.

c) On the other hand, to be rigorous, let us recognize that a clear and authoritative doctrine about the exact nature of a “definitive statement” has not yet been exhaustively developed. It is not a dogmatic definition, and yet it must be adhered to by all. No one can publicly contradict it and yet it can be the subject of study, as is the case with the validity of ordinations in the Anglican Communion.

Question 5

a) Repentance is necessary for the validity of sacramental absolution, and implies the intention not to sin. But there is no mathematics here and once again I must remind you that the confessional is not a customs house. We are not owners, but humble stewards of the Sacraments that nourish the faithful, because these gifts of the Lord, more than relics to be guarded, are aids of the Holy Spirit for people’s lives.

b) There are many ways of expressing repentance. Often, in people who have a very wounded self-esteem, to plead guilty is a cruel torture, but the mere fact of approaching confession is a symbolic expression of repentance and of seeking divine help.

c) I would also like to recall that “sometimes it is very difficult for us to make room in pastoral ministry for the unconditional love of God” (Amoris laetitia 311), but we must learn to do so. Following St. John Paul II, I maintain that we should not demand from the faithful too precise and sure resolutions of amendment, which in the end can end up being abstract or even egotistical, but that even the foreseeability of a new fall “does not prejudge the authenticity of the resolution” (St. John Paul II, Letter to Card. William W. Baum and the participants of the annual course of the Apostolic Penitentiary, March 22, 1996, 5).

d) Finally, it should be clear that all the conditions that are usually placed on confession are generally not applicable when the person is in a situation of agony, or with very limited mental and psychic capacities.

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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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