News Analysis

Pope Francis: Dead letters

The Pope is deluged with mail

Why are vital documents not reaching the Holy Father?

Pope Francis’s recent interview with Philip Pullella, Rome bureau chief of the Reuters news agency, has caused quite a stir. Other news outlets have picked up the story and engaged in everything from straight reporting to analysis to tea reading. One question that one quoted remark of Pope Francis has raised is: what happened to the letter?

“The letter” refers to the one four cardinals submitted to Pope Francis in September 2016, along with formal requests for clarification of certain doctrinal issues. Known as dubia in technical parlance, the requests for clarification regarded points of Catholic teaching in connection with Pope Francis’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, while the letter explained their reasons for posing the questions.

Reuters quoted Pope Francis as saying that he learned of the 2016 letter written by Cardinals Walter Brandmüller, Raymond Burke, Carlo Caffarra and Joachim Meisner, “from the newspapers”.

The surviving “dubia cardinals” – Burke and Brandmüller – were quick to state for the record that they delivered the letter and the dubia to Pope Francis nearly two months before they published their correspondence. “The late Cardinal Carlo Caffarra personally delivered the letter containing the dubia to the papal residence,” Cardinal Burke told LifeSiteNews, “and at the same time to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on September 19, 2016, as he also delivered subsequent correspondence of the four Cardinals regarding the dubia.”

Cardinal Brandmuller told the website OnePeterFive: “The dubia were first published after – I think it was two months – after the Pope did not even confirm their reception. It is very clear that we wrote directly to the Pope and at the same time to the Congregation for the Faith.”

Cardinal Burke suggested that a simple misunderstanding might explain the discrepancy. “If the question of the journalist is referring to the formal presentation of the dubia or questions regarding Amoris Laetitia by Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, the late Cardinals Carlo Caffarra and Joachim Meisner, and myself, then Pope Francis must not have understood him,” the cardinal said.

It bears mention that issues of narrative manipulation by way of selective quotation have arisen since the original Reuters piece appeared. Critics including Breitbart’s Thomas Williams contend that Reuters painted Pope Francis as having taken a more starkly critical stance toward US President Donald Trump and his administration’s immigration enforcement policy than warranted by the Holy Father’s full remarks.

In its original story, Reuters quoted Pope Francis as having said, “I am on the side of the bishops’ conference,” in their opposition to the Trump administration policy of separating children from parents who claim asylum after crossing the border illegally. In ample excerpts Reuters sent to journalists, Pullella pressed the Pope on the point: “You have always been concerned with immigration and with the separation of families.” Francis is amply quoted as having responded: “Yes, it is for this [reason] that I stand with the [US] bishops,” who have condemned the current policy of separation. “But, in the days of Obama I celebrated Mass in Ciudad Juárez, on the border, and on the other side 50 bishops concelebrated, and in the stadium many people were present. The problem was there already, then – it is not only Trump’s problem, but also one of prior administrations.”

So, it is reasonable to wonder what was on either side of the sentence fragment regarding the letter the dubia cardinals delivered, which Reuters quoted in its story.

In any case, it is fair to ask what Pope Francis meant – and if he said anything like what he is quoted as having said, then it is more than reasonable to wonder what happened to the letter – especially since this is not the first time a letter on an important Church matter apparently never got to Pope Francis.

We still do not know what happened to the letter from the Chilean abuse victim, Juan Carlos Cruz, which Cardinal Seán O’Malley, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, supposedly delivered to Pope Francis in 2015 – three years before the Holy Father’s claims in January 2018 to the effect that no one had ever come directly to him with evidence in connection with the “Barros affair” that was the catalyst for the ongoing clerical abuse scandal in Chile.

Perhaps Pope Francis misunderstood the question from Pullella. Maybe he momentarily forgot about the letter from Mr Cruz. Maybe the Pope’s handlers mishandled both letters before Pope Francis ever saw them. Popes receive lots of letters every day, but the mere possibility that two letters delivered by high-ranking churchmen in regard to major issues of Church governance might never have reached the Holy Father’s hands, raises serious questions on its own.

If there is any truth to the notion that the governed have a right to know the character and conduct of their governors, then everyone Pope Francis governs has a right to know what happened to those letters. Even if the governed did not have such a right, the reputations of several public men as truth-tellers – many of them churchmen, including Pope Francis, himself – deserve vindication.