Earlier today, while looking for something else entirely, I came across an interesting sentence on the website of the Liturgy Office of the Bishops’ Conference:
Following a request for information the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales submitted a dubium to the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei which confirmed that in the Roman Rite, whichever Form of the liturgy is being celebrated, the Holydays of Obligation are held in common.
Note the casual use here of that technical term, dubium. The root Latin meaning is “doubt” (hence “dubious”), but in this context a better translation is probably simply “query” or “request for clarification”. In any case, as this example demonstrates, the submission of dubia to Rome is, in and of itself, a perfectly run-of-the-mill Church affair.
Such dubia can, and are, submitted by bishops (or groups of bishops, as above) on all sorts of topics. After all, Church doctrine and canonical legislation can be complicated to navigate. Quite what the specific wording of a phrase does or does not mean, or quite how it ought most faithfully be applied in certain “grey area” cases, are not always immediately transparent. In such cases, rather than wing it, clarification may be sought with a short, to-the-point (in some cases, “yes” or “no”) inquiry, directed to the competent office.
Such issues don’t only come up in the Catholic Church, let us not forget. The recent Supreme Court ruling on Brexit, for example, offers a fairly useful secular comparison here.
Some real examples, chosen more or less at random:
Dubium: Do Holydays of Obligation differ in the Ordinary or Extraordinary Form, given that the Feasts corresponding to those Holydays often do?
Responsa: No, answered the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei. (That is to say, a person who normally attends the EF on a Sunday, but who fails to do so on Ascension Thursday, hasn’t thereby missed his or her obligation.)
Dubium: Are already-married candidates for the permanent diaconate – and therefore their wives – obliged to practise “perfect and perpetual continence” after ordination?
Responsa: No, answered the Prefect for the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts.
Dubium: Are Mormon baptisms valid?
Responsa: No, answered the Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with the explicit approval of the Supreme Pontiff. (Incidentally, the CDF also issued an interesting commentary as to why not, despite the fact that Mormon baptisms look like they might be valid).
My point here is simply this. In matters where there exists a legitimate question as to what precisely is the valid teaching and/or practice of the Church, the submission of a dubium (or indeed a concise set of related dubia) by one or more bishops is absolutely standard practice.
So too, though, is the concomitant expectation that they will receive a clear and unambiguous answer, from the relevant authority, for the purposes of settling confusion once and for all.
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