03 October 2023, The Tablet

Synod analysis – what we learnt from the Pope’s dubia reply

Francis’ replies effectively set out the theological principles which underpin the debate about reform and renewal in the Church. 

Synod analysis – what we learnt from the Pope’s dubia reply

Pope Francis, flanked by children, addresses the faithful last Sunday.
AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca

Pope Francis’ answers to a series of questions – or doubts – sent to him by a group of cardinals offer some important openings for the hotly contested topics under discussion at the synod. Francis’ replies effectively set out the theological principles which underpin the debate about reform and renewal in the Church. 

Cardinal Raymond Burke, the prelate from the United States who is a longtime critic of Francis, and four other cardinals sent in questions (known as dubia) to the Pope on same-sex blessings, women’s ordination and the scope of Church reform. 

So, what did we learn from Francis’ reply

The most striking element is the Pope’s opening to blessings of same-sex couples, provided this does not become confused with marriage. 

“Pastoral prudence must therefore properly discern whether there are forms of blessing, requested by one or more people, that do not convey a misconception of marriage,” he writes.

“Because, when a blessing is requested, it is 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.”

Francis's opening is carefully and cautiously worded. He points out that Church law and bishops’ conferences do not need to focus excessively on developing unique regulations for conducting such blessings, and a certain amount must be left to pastors' discernment.

His remarks are not endorsing some German efforts for official, liturgical blessings of same-sex couples and appears more supportive of Belgian bishops’ moves in this area.

But his response contrasts to the Holy See’s doctrine office’s response in 2021 to a question about whether Catholic clergy can bless gay unions. The answer was “negative” because God “cannot bless sin”.

Francis (who later distanced himself from that 2021 ruling) is striking a very different tone on same-sex blessings and is opening up discussion. It is part of a longer term shift. 

Another significant element in the Pope’s response is his remarks about the priestly ordination of women. While Francis emphasises that St John Paul II taught in a “definitive manner” that women cannot be ordained to the priesthood, this is not the same as a “dogmatic definition”.

In other words, this teaching does not constitute one of the revealed truths of the Christian faith, which the Church teaches is binding. As a result, the Pope points out that while the ban must be complied with, “it can be the object of study”. 

While in the past, the question of women’s ordination was considered “case closed, discussion over”, Francis’ remarks show that discussions cannot be closed down.

He also likened the ban on women’s ordination to Pope Leo XIII’s ruling that Anglican ordinations are invalid. In his dubia response, the Pope reveals publicly for the first time that this ruling is also the object of study, as The Tablet has reported.

Elsewhere, Francis makes the important broader point to the cardinals that while divine revelation – the central truth of Christianity – is unchanging, the Church needs to grow in its understanding of revelation. 

“A single formulation of a truth will never be properly understood if it stands alone, isolated from the rich and harmonious context of the whole of Revelation,” Francis says.

“The ‘hierarchy of truths’ also implies placing each one of them in proper connection with the more central truths and with the totality of Church teaching.” 

Scripture and tradition also need to be interpreted, the Pope explains, pointing out some of the Biblical passages concerning women and the toleration of slavery by Pope Nicholas V. 

Finally, Francis’ response reflects the impact of Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernández as the Holy See’s new doctrine prefect. It seems likely that he had a strong hand in formulating the responses (written in Spanish), and it was remarkable that the cardinals received a response to their dubia a day after submitting them.

Their dubia are not the only ones answered since Cardinal Fernández, known as “Tucho”, took up office over the summer.

The new prefect has also replied to the Czech Cardinal Dominik Duka, who submitted a series of questions on divorced and remarried Catholics, centring on the Pope’s family life teaching in Amoris Laetitia. With his reply to Cardinal Duka, the doctrine prefect states authoritatively that remarried Catholics can receive the sacraments, something the Pope ruled on in 2016.

The impact Cardinal Fernández is having shows that Francis only now has a doctrine prefect ready to communicate the teaching of this pontificate pro-actively. Cardinal Gerhard Müller’s tenure as prefect was problematic while Cardinal Luis Ladaria largely kept a low profile. 

This is not the first set of dubia from cardinals that Francis has received. In 2016, Cardinal Raymond Burke and three other cardinals submitted a series of questions on Francis’ teaching in Amoris Laetitia, asking for “yes or no” answers. The Pope did not reply

On this occasion, the cardinals initially submitted general queries. But after receiving the Pope’s reply, they then re-formulated the questions but asked for “yes or no” responses. They then published these dubia without including Francis’ earlier response.

The cardinals’ request for one-word responses suggests they do not want to continue the dialogue. It’s hard not to liken their approach to that of the doctors of the law who sought to trap Jesus with questions. 

“Instead of publishing [Pope Francis’] answers, they are now making new questions, as if the Pope were their slave for errands,” Cardinal Fernández said after the dubia were released.

As the synod gets underway on 4 October, the Pope and his doctrine prefect have put a marker in the sand.

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