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The doubts of the five cardinals


On Monday 2 October 2023, just two days before the opening of the recently concluded Synod on Synodality, five senior Cardinals — German Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, United States Cardinal Raymond Burke, Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah, Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen and Mexican Cardinal Juan Sandoval Ìñiguez — brought to public notice the five ‘Dubia’ (Doubts) which they had directed to Pope Francis initially on 10 July.

They were prompted to do so because, although they had received a response from the Pope on 11 July, neither their dubia nor the papal response had been made public. They were dissatisfied with the papal response and had submitted a revised version of the initial dubia to the Pope on 21 August. The revised version had sought to reformulate the questions so that they should be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. No papal response to this revised version had been provided to the Cardinals by 2 October.

When the Cardinals published their initial 10 July dubia on 2 October, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith responded virtually immediately by publishing the papal response of 11 July. Both the Cardinals’ dubia and the extended papal response were included in the Dicastery’s publication.

The Cardinals’ dubia were as follows.

The first of the five dubia asked the Pope whether it is possible for the Church today to teach doctrines contrary to those which she has previously taught in faith and morals; that is, whether Divine Revelation as previously articulated by the Church’s Magisterium in authoritative statements can be re-interpreted to accommodate contemporary cultural and anthropological changes.

The second dubium was more specific. It asked whether it is possible in some circumstances for a pastor to bless unions between homosexual persons.

The third dubium asked about the authority of the upcoming Synod on Synodality in Rome. Could it arrogate to itself in doctrinal and pastoral matters the same teaching authority of the Church which hitherto had been reserved exclusively to the Pope and the College of Bishops?


'To each of these dubia the Pope played a straight bat, repeating Church doctrine. But in the extended responses there were tweakings — nuances and qualifications.'


The fourth dubium was again quite specific. It asked whether in the future the Church could have the faculty to confer on women the priestly ordination which hitherto had been reserved exclusively to men.

The fifth and final dubium concerned the validity of absolution in the Sacrament of Penance. Could a penitent who, while confessing a sin, refuses to signify in any way the intention not to commit it again, validly receive sacramental absolution?

To each of these dubia the Pope played a straight bat, repeating Church doctrine. But in the extended responses there were tweakings — nuances and qualifications. May I have the temerity (for the sake of brevity) to simplify the papal responses?

In an eight-part response to the first dubium, the Pope reminds the Cardinals that Church doctrines — to use Newman’s phrase — ‘develop’, to respond to emerging questions and concerns: ‘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 … Cultural changes and new challenges in history do not modify Revelation but can stimulate us to express better certain aspects of its overflowing richness.’

To the second dubium regarding the possibility of a blessing for homosexual unions, the Pope suggests that it may be possible, at least in a particular situation (but not as an established or prescribed Church ritual), to confer such a blessing on a homosexual couple provided that this blessing could not be construed as an alternative form of marriage, and the singularity of the Sacrament of Marriage is not thereby compromised.


'On the possibility of ordaining women as priests, the Pope stands with his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, in affirming ‘definitively’ the impossibility of conferring priestly ordination on women. But then, somewhat surprisingly, in a final paragraph he casts some doubt on what ‘definitively’ really means and suggests that ongoing discussion on this issue is not necessarily proscribed.'


On the teaching authority of the synodal process, the Pope does not reply directly. He cites the orthodox doctrine, reiterated at the Second Vatican Council, that teaching authority resides uniquely with the Pope and the College of Bishops. But he also insists that synodality is a constitutive dimension of the Church, that ‘missionary communion necessarily implies real participation … not only the hierarchy but the entire people of God.’

On the possibility of ordaining women as priests, the Pope stands with his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, in affirming ‘definitively’ the impossibility of conferring priestly ordination on women. But then, somewhat surprisingly, in a final paragraph he casts some doubt on what ‘definitively’ really means and suggests that ongoing discussion on this issue is not necessarily proscribed. ‘On the other hand, to be rigorous, let us recognize that a clear and authoritative doctrine on the exact nature of a “definitive statement” has not yet been fully 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 a subject of study, as with the case of the validity of ordinations in the Anglican Communion.’

Finally, on the necessity of a traditional ‘firm purpose of amendment’ for valid absolution, the Pope is exemplarily orthodox: ‘Repentance is necessary for the validity of sacramental absolution and implies a resolution not to sin.’ But then he adds: ‘But there is not mathematics here, and once again I must remind you the confessional is not a customs house’, and that ‘there are many ways to express repentance … the very act of approaching the confessional is a symbolic expression of repentance and of seeking divine help … Following St John Paul II, I maintain that we should not demand from the faithful overly precise and certain resolutions of amendment which ultimately become abstract or even narcissistic, but that even the predictability of a new fall “does not prejudice the authenticity of the purpose”.’

So, in response to each of these dubia, the Pope is doctrinally orthodox. It was the nuances and qualifications that he added by way of commentary that presumably exasperated the Cardinals and spurred them to reformulate the dubia in their 21 August submission. They wanted ‘yes’ or ‘no’ responses, unqualified and without nuance.

These five Cardinals, of course, all emerge out of the unqualified certainties of the John Paul II and Benedict XVI papacies. The Mexican Cardinal Ìñiguez was inducted into the Cardinals’ rank under John Paul II in 1994, and the other four were inducted under Benedict XVI. Indeed, Burke, Brandmüller and Sarah all received their cardinalitial insignia at the same consistory on 20 November 2011. It is not altogether surprising, then, that they find Pope Francis’ nuances and qualifications unconvincing. Burke and Brandmüller also have form when it comes to papal-directed dubia. They were two of the four Cardinals who in 2016 directed five dubia to Pope Francis concerning paragraphs 300–305 in Chapter eight of the papal exhortation Amoris Laetitia. These paragraphs seemed to them to countenance the possibility that divorced and remarried Catholics in a stable second union, in certain difficult circumstances, might receive valid absolution and be admitted to receive Communion. Indeed, the fifth of the 2023 dubia could be construed as a thinly disguised repeat of the five 2016 dubia; i.e. is a firm purpose of amendment (code: separation of bed and board from remarried spouse) necessary for valid absolution?


'While what the Cardinals invoke is true in general, when we descend to particular cases we need to be more attentive to the singularity of the detail. The simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ binary of conformity or non-conformity to the general law is not the only assessment to be taken into consideration'


In these disputes between the Pope and the Cardinals two different variations of Christian moral reasoning are at issue. The Cardinals’ paradigm is universal law. It admits of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers according as the conduct is, or is not, in conformity with the general prescriptions of Church law. Drawing extensively on the 1993 John Paul II papal encyclical Veritatis Splendor, in their 2016 set of dubia the Cardinals submit that certain acts are intrinsically evil, they are always wrong, and there are never circumstances in which they may be permitted if done knowingly and intentionally. These prohibitions are expressed in the universal precepts of Church law.

Pope Francis, particularly in Chapter eight of his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, does not resile from this. But, following St Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica I–II, q 94, art 4), he submits that, while what the Cardinals invoke is true in general, when we descend to particular cases we need to be more attentive to the singularity of the detail. The simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ binary of conformity or non-conformity to the general law is not the only assessment to be taken into consideration. In addressing ‘irregular’ cases we need to be sensitive to the detail of the irregularity, which may exempt the case from the strictures of the general law. General laws are applicable to a particular case if and only if the range of cases from which the general law is abstracted does comprehend all the particular dimensions and circumstances of the specific case under review. Each ‘irregular’ case needs to be examined in its particularity rather than assumed to be simply a standard instance at variance with the general law.

St Thomas’ example illustrates this point. There is a general law that all loans should be returned to the original owner. If a friend loans me $500, I must at some point return him $500. But if he lends me an axe, am I under obligation to return it to him if I know that he purposes to use it as soon as it is returned to decapitate his mother-in-law? Surely not. Such a situation escapes the general law. Similarly, Pope Francis suggests in Amoris Laetitia that in some cases of divorced and remarried Catholics who are in a stable and loving union with their second partner and where there are significant familial responsibilities that have emerged from this second ‘marriage’, the general Church law requiring separation of bed and board arguably may not apply. It is not that their situation is ideal, but it may be the best ‘gradual’ possible in the circumstances. Perhaps only God can judge, and the Pope advises confessors to be slow to apply hard and fast general laws to such ‘irregular’ cases.

Pope Francis is inspired to insist on this more expansive view of moral assessment not only because, with St Thomas, he believes that particular cases have dimensions which may not be comprehended by the general law, but also because of four further principles which he outlined in his first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium: time is greater than space; unity prevails over conflict; realities are more important than ideas; the whole is greater than the part. Rather than dismissing those in ‘irregular’ situations — for example, divorced and remarried Catholics, and those in LGBTIQA+ partnerships — as sinners needing repentance to renew their connection with the Church, the Pope sees them not as disconnected but as pilgrims on the way to realising the ideals which the general law prescribes (unity prevails over conflict). Because of the particularities of their subjective situation and the responsibilities it may create, such as a new family, they are not able to conform to the general law, but this does not necessarily disqualify them from membership of the ecclesial community (realities are more important than ideas) and even access to its privileges, the sacraments.

The Pope elaborates what he calls this ‘logic of pastoral mercy’ more fully in the eighth chapter of his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, and it is on this moral logic that he draws in his extended commentary responding to the dubia of the Cardinals. While he certainly does not contest the legitimacy of universal moral rules, he does not see them as the only consideration to be taken into account in the definitive moral assessment of what appear, at least initially, to be irregular and sinful situations. If we are committed to the four principles which he enunciated in Evangelii Gaudium, the exclusive invocation of universal moral laws may well seem to be not only legalist but even simplistic and, worse still, at odds with Christian charity.

The Pope’s approach to those in ‘irregular’ situations is inclusive, personal and subjective rather than exclusionary, abstract and objective (realities are more important than ideas). He wishes to reconcile the ‘sinners’ (unity prevails over ideas) rather than judge and condemn them. There is a gulf between the presuppositions that underlie the Cardinals’ dubia and the commentary with which the Pope nuances his assent to the universal moral laws.

It was not surprising, then, that the Cardinals were dissatisfied with the Pope’s 11 July response, nor that in the 21 August reiteration they requested ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers. And it is not surprising, granted the four principles that he enunciated in Evangelii Gaudium, that the Pope refuses to engage the Cardinals further on these terms.




Bill Uren, SJ, AO, is a Scholar-in-residence at Newman College at the University of Melbourne. A former Provincial Superior of the Australian and New Zealand Jesuits, he has lectured in moral philosophy and bioethics in universities in Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth and has served on the Australian Health Ethics Committee and many clinical and human research ethics committees in universities, hospitals and research centres.

Main image: Cardinals face the altar during the Mass of The Lord's Supper in St Peter's Basilica, Vatican City. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Bill Uren, Synod, Cardinals, Church



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Existing comments

This article, and John Warhurst’s current article at Eureka St, reminds me somewhat of the interaction between the arch conservative Sydney Anglicans and many of the good citizens of Sydney who favoured a more liberal outlook whilst living in the Emerald City. I’m not sure I would view Pope Francis as a liberal. Rather I would describe him as a leader who takes his unique position seriously however brings his humanity to the task. With a couple of billion Catholics in the world there must necessarily be great diversity within its ranks. On a recent voyage (by boat) to Iceland we collided with a fierce low pressure system which really tested our large vessel, not to mention the nervous and digestive systems of the passengers. We all landed safely though.

Pam | 16 November 2023  

Bill – a timely exploration of Francis' response to the concerns of the five Cardinals. Could I add an irony, sourced in Veritatis Splendor, which undermines a key element of the Quintet's worries and indirectly supports future developments.

Nestling among a list of intrinsic evils cited by John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor is slavery. Now, few would quibble with this designation of such an appalling treatment of fellow human beings, yet, John Paul II was the first to make the explicit link – slavery as being an intrinsic evil. The tolerance for the continuation of slavery shown in the New Testament, along with conciliar and papal permission statements had acted as impediments to an outright condemnation – a hesitancy which continued into modern times.
Newman felt unable to attach a claim of development of doctrine to the issue,given the weight he attributed to the several New Testament references. And while Gaudium et Spes was fulsome in its condemnation of slavery, it held back from invoking intrinsic evil terminology – given the sensitivity to creating a clear break with previous teachings of the magisterium. John Paul II's decision to take the next step was built on Gaudium et Spes, but, nonetheless provides evidence of a capacity to reconsider an issue and render a new and distinct judgement. That this move transpired without a flurry of dubia at the time is matter for another time. Sufficient for the moment to note that Francis is not engaging in some novel activity.

Bill Burke | 20 November 2023  
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'John Paul II was the first to make the explicit link – slavery as being an intrinsic evil.'

On page 62, JP II was quoting Vatican 2. But, the Vatican 2 list in which 'slavery' appears also contains 'deportation'. Is 'deportation' an intrinsic evil?

roy chen yee | 04 December 2023  

A useful question but perhaps not as apposite as the one about slavery. In the current refugee environment, while (some) polities search frantically for third party jurisdictions in which to dump their unwanted, the judiciary has generally disagreed with the executive (and, ipso facto, the legislature) on sound common law grounds to maintain a 'stay-of-execution' because of habeas corpus.

By this Roy will surely agree is meant that they who are without criminal conviction, since it isn't a crime to seek asylum, may not be deported.

Incidentally this doctrine also arises out of Catholic Social Teaching which states that the goods of the earth belong to God and God alone and, accordingly, may not be sequestered or arrogated for selfish usage: a general principle that has consistently provided the bedrock of the Church's teaching on immigration (St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, in the First part of the Second Part, question 105, article 3 (I-II, Q. 105, Art. 3)).

While St Thomas sanctions the deportation of 'hostile migrants', he certainly doesn't sanction the deportation of those persons who notionally cannot be deported once it is proven that they are stateless.

Aquinas wastes no time on the trivia currently obsessing anti-asylum seekers.

Michael Furtado | 12 December 2023  

Roy -You raise an issue that is sourced in another of John Paul II's writings, Evangelium Vitae

I noted my comments were sourced from Veritatis Splendor, where the issue of intrinsic evil arises, and accordingly, creates procedural problems for the doubting Cardinals. (Cf para 80 of VS)

Bill Burke | 15 December 2023  

It's hard to understand what exactly the Pope means in his response regarding the blessing of homosexual couples. Can anyone give a specific example of wording for a blessing that that cannot be construed as an alternative form of marriage, and does not compromise the singularity of the Sacrament of Marriage?

Marita | 24 November 2023  
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The key difference between a wedding and a blessing is you don't get married. A blessing ceremony is an additional part of a wedding, rather than a wedding itself and is designed for couples that don't get married in a Church or have a faith-based ceremony.

A blessing for two persons prevented from a Church and notionally a sacramental (as is the case for Catholics) wedding is akin to a blessing given to a person who approaches the Eucharistic Table but who may not wish to receive the Sacrament because they are not Catholic.

While the Church properly does not police the reception of Communion (and all Catholics are encouraged to approach the Table of the Lord to do so) it is commonly the case in Catholic schools and at Masses celebrated elsewhere, say in parishes or Nursing Homes, that non-Catholics approach the Table for a Blessing.

The most common form of Blessing that I have heard used by the Eucharistic Minister is: 'I Bless You in the Name of the Father, the Son & the Holy Spirit.'

The prescribed form of wording for a Catholic Marriage, invoking precise conditions for marriage, is highly specific, as you appear to know.

Michael Furtado | 13 December 2023  

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