Why hasn’t Pope Francis replied to the four cardinals’ letter?

Pope Francis arrives in St. Peter's Square for a general audience (AP)

In the Church as in politics, 2016 has been a year of anxiety, anger and sharp divisions. But whereas politics has had its moments of drama – the Brexit vote, the US election – the Church’s internal argument has been mostly confined to private discussions and the occasional leaked document.

Now, however, the controversy may be coming into the open. This week, in a highly unusual step, four cardinals revealed that they had written to the Pope asking for clarification of his recent exhortation Amoris Laetitia. Two months have gone by with no response. Now one of the four, Cardinal Burke, has told the National Catholic Register that if the Pope remains silent, they may have to take the highly unusual step of issuing him with a formal correction.

Readers of this magazine will be familiar with the divisions over Amoris Laetitia. They concern the moral law, the nature of the sacraments and the authority of previous teaching. But it comes down to the question: can remarried Catholics receive Communion if they aren’t living as brother and sister?

The Church has said no, since the first centuries. But in the last few decades there has been a movement to alter this teaching – and it now claims Amoris Laetitia as a source of support.

Cardinal Burke, along with Cardinals Carlo Caffarra, Walter Brandmüller and Joachim Meisner sent a request for clarification to the Pope in September. They received an acknowledgment but no reply, which they said they have taken as “an invitation to continue … the discussion, calmly, and with respect”, by making the appeal public. It is highly unusual for cardinals to go public like this. But then it is also unusual for a Pope not to reply to a letter of this kind.

Dr Joseph Shaw, a spokesman for the 45 priests and theologians who have previously asked for clarification of Amoris Laetitia, describes the Pope’s silence as “very troubling”. The cardinals are “men or tremendous intellectual reputation and prestige, who have held some very important posts under more than one Pope”, he says, and their claim is a serious one: “that some of the interpretations of Amoris doing the rounds are incompatible with Scripture and Tradition.”

Amoris Laetitia only alludes to Communion for the remarried in the vaguest and most indirect terms imaginable. But this question has not gone away – partly because it involves so many other issues. Dr Michael Sirilla, Professor of Dogmatic and Systematic Theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, says: “The grave confusion that has followed Amoris Laetitia involves fundamental goods of the Eucharist, matrimony, and the objective standards of moral good and evil.”

Proponents of Communion for the remarried argue that the Church’s moral teaching cannot be simply translated to its sacramental practice. Although the Church might consider an act gravely sinful – for instance, having sex outside a valid marriage – one has to examine the relationship in which the act took place. If it is loving and stable, that has to count for something, surely? So Communion discipline could be changed.

That has been the argument put forward over the last six months – most notably by the bishops of Buenos Aires in a draft document. A leaked letter from Pope Francis praised the bishops’ text.

Why didn’t the Pope openly praise the Argentine document? Perhaps because so many Catholics believe that the Church’s perennial doctrine here cannot be changed. St John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio presented the Church’s teaching as binding. A 1994 document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, signed by the future Benedict XVI, said the same.

Looking to that tradition, several bishops have said that Amoris Laetitia changes nothing. The bishops of Poland, Costa Rica, Alberta (in Canada) and elsewhere say that the divorced and remarried cannot receive Communion unless they refrain from sexual activity.

The two sides of the debate both point to Amoris as justifying their view. So the cardinals have asked the Pope for a clarification.

In Pascendi Dominici Gregis, Pius X said that one of the Pope’s chief roles is “to guard with the greatest vigilance the deposit of the faith delivered to the saints … There has never been a time when this watchfulness of the supreme pastor was not necessary to the Catholic body.” The four cardinals are looking to the Pope to be that guardian. As Dr Sirilla puts it, “Historically, a hallmark of Catholic doctrine has been its beautiful precision, directing souls to eternal salvation. Error is found rarely in the ordinary magisterium. Clarification is needed soon since episcopal conferences are deliberating about how to implement Amoris Laetitia.”

The cardinals’ letter takes a traditional form: it asks the Pope to say whether certain teachings are still valid. It asks five questions, anticipating a yes or no answer. Among these questions are (to paraphrase) “Does the teaching on Communion for the remarried still stand?” and “Are intrinsically evil acts always wrong?”

The letter gave the Pope three options. He could answer “yes” to the questions – ie, confirm that previous teaching is still valid – but that seems unlikely given his past statements. He could answer “no” – but that would pit the Pope directly against the authoritative teachings of his predecessors.

So he has chosen the third option, which is to say nothing. The risk is that the controversy – what Dorothy Day, in another context, called “guerrilla warfare in the Church” – will continue.

Fr Edmund Waldstein, author of the Sancrucensis blog, says: “The uncertainty caused by Amoris Laetitia is a grave scandal. Since it is a public scandal, I think that that the cardinals were justified in making their dubia public.”

Now that Cardinal Burke has suggested an official correction might be needed, this debate may be coming to a head. But it is unlikely to be settled for good until at least the next pontificate.