Four cardinals ask pope to clarify teaching on Communion for divorced

| Cindy Wooden | November 14, 2016 | 11 Comments
Faithful receive Communion in Bangkok Dec. 25, 2015. Four cardinals said they formally asked Pope Francis to clarify his teaching on Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried and have not received a response in two months. CNS

Faithful receive Communion in Bangkok Dec. 25, 2015. Four cardinals said they formally asked Pope Francis to clarify his teaching on Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried and have not received a response in two months. CNS

Four cardinals said they formally asked Pope Francis to clarify his teaching on Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried and, not receiving a response after two months, they released their letter to the press.

“We have noted a grave disorientation and great confusion of many faithful regarding extremely important matters for the life of the church,” the cardinals said. “Even within the episcopal college, there are contrasting interpretations of Chapter 8 of ‘Amoris Laetitia,'” the chapter dealing with ministry to the divorced in his exhortation on the family.

The four who signed the letter are: Cardinals Walter Brandmuller, a German and former president of the Pontifical Commission for Historical Sciences; Raymond L. Burke, a U.S. cardinal and patron of the Knights of Malta; Carlo Caffarra, retired archbishop of Bologna, Italy; and Joachim Meisner, retired archbishop of Cologne, Germany.

In releasing their letter and accompanying explanations Nov. 14, the cardinals said, “The Holy Father has decided not to respond. We have interpreted his sovereign decision as an invitation to continue the reflection and the discussion, calmly and with respect. And so we are informing the entire people of God about our initiative, offering all of the documentation.”

Using “Amoris Laetitia” to affirm church teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, Pope Francis also wrote that because every situation is different, he would not provide new rules on ministry to the divorced and civilly remarried. However, he urged a new commitment on the part of pastors to provide spiritual guidance and assistance with discernment. A process of discernment, he has said, might eventually lead to a determination that access to the sacraments is possible.

The cardinals noted that St. John Paul II’s 1981 apostolic exhortation “Familiaris Consortio,” affirmed the church’s practice of “not admitting to eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried” because “their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist.”

Receiving absolution and Communion, St. John Paul wrote, would be possible only for couples who could not return to their sacramentally valid marriages, who promised to forego sexual relations and live as “brother and sister” and who would receive the sacraments in such a way as to not give scandal to others.

In their note, the four cardinals said that in their opinion, if Pope Francis meant to change those rules, in effect it would change church teaching about marriage, sexuality and-or the nature of the sacraments.

According to the four cardinals, a change would seem to indicate: “people who are not married can under certain circumstances legitimately engage in acts of sexual intimacy”; “the divorced and remarried are legitimate spouses and their sexual acts are lawful marital acts”; or that “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.”

When pressed on the question of the variety of interpretations being given to “Amoris Laetitia,” Pope Francis has pointed people to Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, whom the pope chose to present the document to the media.

No one has “a right to receive the Eucharist in an objective situation of sin,” the cardinal said, which is why the pope did not grant a blanket permission and insisted that civilly remarried people go through a whole process of discernment and repentance under the guidance of a priest.

The discernment called for by Pope Francis, he said, “takes greater account of those elements that suppress or attenuate imputability,” that is, moral responsibility, and seeks a path that would move a person closer to the fullness of what the Gospel demands.

Although not yet meeting the “objective ideal,” such couples would be helped to move closer to perfection, which, Cardinal Schonborn said, “is no small thing in the eyes of the Good Shepherd.”

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  • Charles C.

    The Pope is famous for his love for the poor and excluded. He has also become famous for speaking and writing “off the cuff” and with statements leading to confusion on many issues.

    I hope the Pope will take the opportunity to explain his meaning on this subject; the faithful and clergy would appreciate clear guidance instead of what we have now. It may be that Pope Francis has some deeply wise and Spirit-filled wisdom on the subject but he has to be able to communicate that to the flock. Responding to the Cardinals’ five questions in their letter would resolve the issue.

  • Mark johnson

    What love these cardinals have for their flock and for their Holy Father! What a beautifully written and respectful letter from men who have obviously ignored the temporal risks and given their entire lives to Jesus. I can only hope to some day be blessed with a minuscule portion of the holiness of these men and I am overjoyed to live in the same time as them.

    I hope they know many Catholics love them and are praying for them. I know they must feel the weight of the suffering of Catholics around the world and we feel it too.

    To the end of time the unlimited power of The Cross of Christ is ALIVE AND WELL and sanctifying those who suffer for love of His church. May we all be blessed with a deep-to-the-core-of-the-soul knowledge and wisdom of the eternal benefit of our suffering in true love for our fellow baptized brethren!

    I can’t wait to see you in heaven!

    • Charles C.

      Dear Mark,

      One of the things your note makes clear to me is the power of Love and Truth. It is rare in this world, at least as far as the world recognizes it and reports on it.

      As you point out, Holiness and true and complete Love walk hand in hand. Indeed, they might even be the same thing expressed in different ways. The Cardinals’ example is inspiring, reminding me that such goodness does exist. They show love for God, the Pope, and the Faithful, while seeking nothing for themselves.

      I see them as a sign from God that He is still actively loving us and drawing men’s hearts to Him. We, and the entire world are His. May we be worthy of being with Him eternally.

      See me in Heaven? A wonderful wish, but I don’t think I’ll be there. God is merciful but . . . Blessings and strength to you and your family.

      With respect,

  • Charles C.

    Oh my. This is getting bad. This Pope is famous for love, acceptance, and mercy, right? Here are some reports I saw just today.

    “Pope Francis has criticized the “legalism” of Catholics raising concern about his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia mere days after four cardinals went public with their request that he clarify it.

    “ ‘Some, as with certain responses to Amoris Laetitia, persist in seeing only white or black, when rather one ought to discern in the flow of life,’ Pope Francis said in an interview with Avvenire. ‘But these critiques – if they’re not from an evil spirit – do help. Some types of rigorism spring from the desire to hide one’s own dissatisfaction under armour.’ ”

    What can His Holiness mean by “The flow of life?” It’s not in the Bible, the Catechism, or anywhere else Catholic, but it does show up in several New Age books. And if I am wrong please correct me, but the Pope seems to be saying that people requesting a clarification are either asking for one, prompted by an evil spirit, or are dishonestly hiding their disagreement and dissatisfaction.

    In another report:

    “A Jesuit priest often described as Pope Francis’ ‘mouthpiece’ has deleted a tweet in which he appeared to compare cardinals of the Church to the character Wormtongue from the Lord of the Rings.

    “Fr. Antonio Spadaro’s tweet came amidst a stream of posts criticizing four cardinals for raising concerns about the Pope’s exhortation Amoris Laetitia.

    “Spadaro began criticizing those who ‘don’t like what they hear’ in a series of more than a dozen tweets beginning Monday Nov. 14, the same day the cardinals’ went public with their letter asking Francis to answer five ‘yes or no’ questions (Dubia) to clarify what they called “uncertainty, confusion, and disorientation” in the Exhortation.

    “#AmorisLaetitia: The Pope has ‘clarified’. Those who don’t like what they hear pretend not to hear it! Just read… — Antonio Spadaro (@antoniospadaro) November 15, 2016

    “The following day, Spadaro ramped up his criticism, calling the Pope’s exhortation an ‘act of the Magisterium,’ a point largely contested by Cardinal Burke, one of the signers of the ‘Dubia.’ Spadaro stated that those who find the exhortation problematic should stop asking the ‘same question until you get the answer *you* want.’

    “Only hours later that same day Spadaro tweeted a screenshot from the Lord of the Rings Trilogy where the hero Gandalf confronts the traitor Wormtongue for poisoning the King’s ear to accept the reign of evil. In the screenshot, Spadaro
    included the subtitle of Gandalf stating, in reference to the traitor, that he refuses ‘to bandy crooked words with a witless worm.’ ”

    If all of the reports are accurate, including the Holy Father’s continued silence on the questions raised, then my confusion has just had fear added to it. These responses don’t seem to be Christian let alone Catholic. They sound quite a bit like a politician’s response when being questioned over a questionable act or arrangement.

    I would like my bishop to encourage the Pope to answer the questions raised by the Princes of the Church before damage (more damage?) is done to the Faithful.

    • Michael Anderson

      Charles–they are hiding their disagreement and dissatisfaction but at least they are being civil about it. To me it seems they are miffed because they didn’t get a personal reply from the Holy Father. When I write to him, I *never* expect a persona reply. 😉 I don’t think “the flow of life” is a proprietary descriptor and I have no doubts that the same terminology has been used countless times by theologians, homilists, faithful Catholics and just generally, anyone with the perceptiveness to realize that human life does, indeed, “flow like a river.” Water is powerful spiritual metaphor in philosophy, religion, art and elsewhere and I would not want to abandon it simply because it is available for use by anyone! Water or lack thereof is universal in the scripture of all religions, as far as I know. The Holy Father is correct in saying we must withdraw from legalism and “black and white.” Neither was the teaching of Jesus and a formed Catholic conscience is better suited to negotiating a complex world.

      • Charles C.

        Dear Mr. Anderson,

        You are quickly becoming one of my favorite correspondents, thank you.

        May we dispense with “The flow of life” question? It has a questionable parentage, but it is not central to my thinking, it was tossed in (unfortunately?) as a garnish.

        You’re correct, and kindly, in noting that the Four Cardinals are being civil, as opposed to those who disagree with them. I do wonder if you are being quite fair in saying they are hiding their disagreement and dissatisfaction. Isn’t it possible that they are simply noting the confusion caused by the document and are honestly concerned for the flock?

        There is one place I have some disagreement with you, and that is:

        “To me it seems they are miffed because they didn’t get a personal reply from the Holy Father. When I write to him, I *never* expect a persona reply.”

        They are Cardinals with a specific duty and role in the Church. There are only, what, 213 of them? Granted, the CEO of Apple doesn’t answer the letter of every customer, but it would be surprising if he didn’t answer letters from board members, vice-presidents, or similarly situated individuals.

        As the Cardinals said in their letter:

        “The great Tradition of the Church teaches us that the way out of
        situations like this is recourse to the Holy Father, asking the
        Apostolic See to resolve those doubts which are the cause of
        disorientation and confusion.

        “Ours is therefore an act of justice and charity.

        “Of justice: with our initiative we profess that the Petrine ministry
        is the ministry of unity, and that to Peter, to the Pope, belongs the
        service of confirming in the faith.

        “Of charity: we want to help the Pope to prevent divisions and conflicts in the Church, asking him to dispel all ambiguity.

        “We have also carried out a specific duty. According to the Code of
        Canon Law (cc. 349) the cardinals, even taken individually, are
        entrusted with the task of helping the Pope to care for the universal Church.”

        The Bible tells us to go to our brother privately, if there is some problem, then go with a small number of witnesses, then finally to the Church as a whole. This is what the Cardinals have done.

        Besides all of that, even if the Pope didn’t want to answer the cardinals’ letter, how would that explain his silence in the face of some very un-Christian comments by members of the priesthood and bishops (and now, cardinals)?

        There may be very good reasons for His Holiness’ silence, but the results include anger and division. Surely he will want to correct that as soon as possible.

        Finally, if you are right that there is no black or white in this situation, then the Pope could have answered the five questions asked very easily. Simply say,

        “Concerning your five questions: Yes, No, No, No, No.”

        That would be the end of it.

        • Dominic Deus

          Charles–You have a point. Being a cardinal is not the same as being a blogger (meaning me) and though I have no expectation of a reply, one could say they had “a reasonable expectation” of some kind of response. Correct me if I am wrong but I believe they received a reply but not directly from the Holy Father and it was not what they wished to hear.

          I think there is another way of looking at this; I learned it from our Buddhist brothers and sisters.

          Silence *is* a response. When it comes from a source of wisdom and knowledge it is likely best interpreted as an injunction to go back and rethink your self-proclaimed inability to understand. Or it might be a discrete chiding that says, “Do I have to spell everything out for you?” It could be a way of saying, “There is more than one way to interpret almost anything. Come up with some ideas then contact me.” Sadly, Rome being the way it is, it could also mean, “Trying to trap me are you? Well, I’m not going to answer your question directly. I’m going to go straight to your motivation and question your legalistic approach or your insistence that everything is black or white.”

          Now about the Four Cardinals helpful self-proclamation of justice and charity:

          “Ours is therefore an act of justice and charity.
          “Of justice: with our initiative we profess that the Petrine ministry
          is the ministry of unity, and that to Peter, to the Pope, belongs the
          service of confirming in the faith.
          “Of charity: we want to help the Pope to prevent divisions and conflicts in the Church, asking him to dispel all ambiguity.”

          It occurs to me that lecturing the Pope on his duties and claiming such pedantry as virtues of “justice” and “charity” practically invites a chilly silence and removal from the Vatican social calendar. And it does sound like a canon lawyer reading his brief. No wonder they were called legalistic. They *were* legalistic.

          Finally, the kind offer of help to “dispel ambiguity” implies that it is the duty of the Holy Father to do so and that ambiguity is bad. Maybe Francis is trying to make the point that the Church’s centuries long drive toward certainty hasn’t worked in all cases.

          Maybe he is pointing out that it is a part of being human to live with ambiguity. Maybe he knows that whatever the answers to the five questions are, those answers are not yes or no but “Yes…and no.”
          Or maybe “It is different from one Catholic conscience to another.”
          Or maybe the answer is, “You know, the Church *could* be wrong about this. We should never forget Galileo.”

          • Charles C.

            I appreciate that your mind is free to create and explore options, we are more likely to get somewhere than if we both limit ourselves to one possible position or explanation.

            Well, let me get at it, and we’ll see what we can dig up together.


            From looking around on the Internet I get the impression that the Cardinals dated their letter September 19, didn’t get any response for two months, and released it to the world November 14.

            (I also learned that a group of 45 theologians had written privately to all of the Cardinals on the 29th of June. That letter expressed some similar concerns to the Cardinals’ letter.)

            After the letter was released to the public there was quite a response, but I have not seen any indication of a response prior to the letter’s release. I’d be happy to hear of it if you have any information about one. Besides, if there had been a response, some Vatican secretary could simply show the correspondence to the world and say that the Cardinals had already been answered.


            Perhaps it is a response in the Buddhist tradition, but that’s not what we’re dealing with. The Church comes out of a Greco-Roman-Jewish tradition which lived and breathed argument, dispute, and philosophical exploration. Neither Pope Francis, the Cardinals, or the rest of the Church has Buddhism as a first language. This is a time for clarity, and for the Western world, silence is usually taken to mean “Buzz off! You don’t matter so I’ll ignore you.” (Unless, of course, the silence is part of pleading the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination. “Billy, did you take the cookie?” “I’m not going to talk, you can’t make me talk.”)

            You point out, rightly and cleverly, that even outside the Buddhist tradition silence can mean many things. Therefore, silence has no particular meaning to an audience until the silence is broken and someone explains what the silence meant in that particular case. All that the silence accomplishes is to add to the confusion over the original question the additional confusion concerning the meaning of the silence.


            I don’t know why we shouldn’t take the Cardinals at face value when they explain their reasons for writing the letter. Everyone knows that some theologians, priests, and laymen have been (and still are) confused by the pope’s position. I believe that this is an honest confusion.

            I see no harm in the Cardinals asking for clarification. Cardinal Cupich does, but I don’t think you belong to that school. If Cardinals are allowed to ask for guidance on knotty questions, does it matter that they say, in effect, “Listen, Pope, we’re not trying to start a fight. We know you’re the boss, but we don’t get what you meant in that last memo. Unfortunately, a bunch of other people in our department don’t get it either. Could you send out a follow-up clarifying these few points? On the surface they look pretty bad, but we know you didn’t mean that, we’re just not sure what you did mean.”

            PART FOUR DUTIES

            One particularly appropriate duty is spelled out in Canon Law Section 768:
            “Those who proclaim the divine word are to propose first of all to the Christian
            faithful those things which one must believe and do for the glory of God and
            the salvation of humanity.

            §2. They are also to impart to the faithful the
            doctrine which the magisterium of the Church sets forth concerning the dignity
            and freedom of the human person, the unity and stability of the family and its
            duties, the obligations which people have from being joined together in
            society, and the ordering of temporal affairs according to the plan established
            by God.”

            If the Cardinals and other members of the Priesthood are confused over the Pope’s teaching, they need to have it clarified if they are to fulfill their responsibility properly. The Pope has the same obligation.


            Many thanks. The idea that he is purposely creating an ambiguous teaching is one which had not occurred to me, but that doesn’t explain why he has failed to respond to the dubia. Frankly, if that was his intention, his silence seems cowardly and shameful.

            I know that is a terrible thing to say, which is why I have a hard time believing the Holy Father has embarked on a policy of intentional ambiguity.

            Consider. The five questions can be (recklessly and probably inaccurately0 summed up as asking:

            “After Amoris Laetitia, do we still have to accept the teaching of the Church on sin as expressed in various places?”

            The Pope, if he were manfully pushing for ambiguity, could simply say, “Those old teachings no longer must be followed. We need discernment and individual judgment now instead of rules. Each Priest or Bishop can decide for himself what the rule should be after thinking about the situation. Further, each individual Catholic can decide, after thought and introspection, if they have sinned or not.”

            But he hasn’t even said that. Confusion will continue to reign until the questions are answered either officially or with a wink and a nod.


          • Dominic Deus

            Charles–I believe it was the Austrian Cardinal who responded to The Four Cardinals”. His name eludes me at the moment.

            Regarding Buddhism, I’m not Buddhist either but I described them as our “brothers and sisters”, which they are and offered that we can learn from them, which we can. You are correct in identifying our western heritage as being so steeped in the influence of Aristotle to the point we don’t even realize it. The problem is, it doesn’t always work. Sometimes the answers it provides are deeply unsatisfying though their internal construction is perfectly logical and their facts are true. The Catholic Church recognized this in the first four centuries of it’s existence and that realization was one reason the Church incorporated mysticism into faith. It recognized there were matters of the head and of the heart and the two could clash. The Church, therefor, created a “skillful teaching” which allowed the two to coexist in the cannon of the Church. Just one example: the “Mysteries of Faith.”

            As it turns out, Buddhism is a master class in skillful teaching and there are many thousands of Buddhist skillful teachings which resolve innumerable apparent contradictions in day to day as well as spiritual life. My contention is that since the Church has already adopted skillful teaching as a way to make the teaching of Jesus and the Church understandable, we should make more and better use of it. Our use of it predates Buddhism by about two centuries.

            Finally, Jesuits know about Buddhism. They often study it. My conclusion is therefore, that the Holy Father knows that silence is powerful response and used it.

          • Charles C.

            Dear Dominic,

            I realize that I wrote quite a bit, but even touching on your many points took some space. On the Buddhism issue I agree that anyone can learn from anyone else. God speaks to all mankind and gives them the Truth. Whether they can hear it, or their culture allows for full reception of that truth is another question, but all have at least some of it in their hearts.

            Please allow me to be unusually frank and blunt. Yes, silence is a powerful response. A screwdriver is a powerful response to a loose screw. But if one is faced with driving a nail, using a screwdriver is the wrong response no matter how powerful it may be.

            From the international response, His Holiness appears to be driving a nail with a screwdriver. Perhaps it will work out for the best, but it’s causing difficulties in the short term.

          • Dominic Deus

            Peace to you. I am old and my bed is calling.