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Pope Francis declines to answer four cardinals’ Amoris appeal

Pope Francis with cardinals at a 2015 consistory (AP)

Pope Francis has declined to answer an official appeal from four cardinals to clarify his recent apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia.

Cardinals Raymond Burke, 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 take such a step.

The letter takes the traditional form of asking theological “dubia” – questions to the Holy See which ask for a yes/no ruling on doctrinal matters. The cardinals’ dubia relate to the sacraments, and to absolute moral norms.

The first of the dubia asks whether “it has now become possible to grant absolution in the Sacrament of Penance and thus to admit to Holy Communion a person who, while bound by a valid marital bond, lives together with a different person more uxorio [as husband and wife] without fulfilling the conditions provided for by Familiaris Consortio”.

In Familiaris Consortio St John Paul II reaffirmed the Church’s practice of not admitting the remarried to Communion if they are still in a sexual relationship with their new partner.

The other four dubia relate to actions which Catholic teaching considers “intrinsically evil”. The cardinals ask whether there are still “absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts and that are binding without exceptions”, and whether those who habitually commit these acts are “in an objective situation of grave habitual sin”.

It also asks whether St John Paul II’s teaching in the encyclical Veritatis Splendor is still valid: that, in the words of the encyclical, “circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act ‘subjectively’ good or defensible as a choice”.

Finally, the cardinals ask whether Catholics should still follow Veritatis Splendor’s teaching on conscience: that, as the cardinals paraphrase it, “conscience can never be authorised to legitimate exceptions to absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts by virtue of their object”.

The cardinals say that the letter should not be seen as a “conservative” attack on “progressives”. They say they are motivated by their concern for “the true good of souls” and their “deep collegial affection that unites us to the Pope”.

The cardinals refer to “grave disorientation and great confusion” among Catholics, including bishops, about “extremely important matters”.

Amoris Laetitia makes no direct reference to Communion for the remarried. But a footnote to the document has prompted a range of interpretations. Footnote 351, which Pope Francis told a journalist he could not remember, says those in in an objective situation of sin might “receive the help of the sacraments.”

Several bishops have said this merely restates the Church teaching summed up by St John Paul. But a draft document issued by the bishops of Buenos Aires claimed the footnote meant that the teaching no longer stood. The draft document was praised by the Pope in a leaked communication.

One of the four cardinals to have signed the letter, Cardinal Raymond Burke, had a private audience with the Pope last week. The subject of their discussion is unknown.

The blogger Fr John Hunwicke said it was a cause for “sadness” that the Pope had not replied to the letter sent in September, adding: “If this pontificate was not already in crisis, it most certainly is now.”

The letter is not the first appeal to Church authority. In September, six bishops – including Cardinals Burke and Caffarra – signed a “Declaration of Fidelity” to Church teaching which has since gained 7,000 signatures. In July, 45 priests and theologians wrote to the world’s cardinals asking them to request clarification from the Pope.

One of those 45 signatories, Dr Michael Sirilla, Professor of Dogmatic and Systematic Theology, at Franciscan University of Steubenville, praised the cardinals’ letter, saying: “Faithful Catholics owe a debt of gratitude to these cardinals. The grave confusion that has followed Amoris Laetitia involves fundamental goods of the Eucharist, matrimony, and the objective standards of moral good and evil.

“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 AL.”

To read the full text of the cardinals’ letter go here