Discerning the really real: dubia, popes and dissent

The flu has hit me, and sitting at a desk for more than 10 or so minutes has been nigh impossible. That has been all the more galling seeing some of the latest developments in Dubiagate. Even prelates for whom I had conserved some respect are managing the amazing feat of supporting the insupportable.

In fact, one wonders if irony is finally dead. Thus, from America magazine,

Archbishop Mark Coleridge thinks some of his fellow prelates are afraid of confronting reality.

Now one might have assumed he was going to state the obvious: that those prelates and curial apparatchiks chiding i quattro cardinali for publishing their five dubia regarding the papal exhortation Amoris Laetitia in the wake of their being ignored by Pope Francis are very much out of order, and refusing to face the reality that pragmatic perversion of general pastoral policy cannot supplant the teaching of Christ.

But no, His Grace of Brisbane is chiding those prelates, and by implication i quattro cardinali, for seeking clarity in Church teaching and practice. Yes, irony must be dead.

At times at the synod I heard voices that sounded very clear and certain but only because they never grappled with the real question or never dealt with the real facts… So there’s a false clarity that comes because you don’t address reality, and there’s a false certainty that can come for the same reason… I think what Pope Francis wants is a church that moves toward clarity and certainty on certain issues after we’ve grappled with the issues, not before… In other words, he wants a genuine clarity and a genuine certainty rather than the artificial clarity or certainty that comes when you never grapple with the issues.

A (C)hurch that moves towards clarity. On some issues there is an authentic lack of clarity, such as the population of hell. Is it full or is it empty? The Church has made no definitive statement, and for the obvious reason that it cannot make one. However, with regard to the Lord’s teaching on marriage, there is not much in the gospels that has more clarity.

And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?”They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (Mark 10:2-12)

This passage from St Mark will reward careful and prayerful meditation. The Pharisees are out to test Jesus, by yet again trying to trap him in the tangled web of the Law of Moses (tangled by them, not Moses). Would Jesus dare to contradict the great lawgiver Moses? Instead Jesus gives the “pastoral reality” behind the teaching of Moses: the people’s hardness of heart. Then he reminds the Pharisees that God’s original law was clear, that by marriage a man and a woman become one flesh, by God’s grace and not merely human will.

St Paul will later explain this union of man and woman as one flesh in marriage as a sacrament of Christ’s eternal union with his Body the Church. Marriage has a cosmic significance. Which is why marriage is not a vocation, despite the modern approach (so disastrous to real vocations); it is the default setting hardwired into humanity, and only a divine vocation legitimately calls us from that default setting.

Our Lord teaching, not offering pastoral pragmatism

But back to Jesus. Our Lord has acknowledged the pastoral reality, and responded with a new and dazzling clarity that supersedes the permissiveness with which the Pharisees have self-interestedly corrupted the law of Moses, making of an exception a norm. Later with the disciples, he confirms the full import of his teaching: that to divorce and then to attempt to marry another is to commit adultery, because man cannot separate what God has joined.

Is our Lord being cruel? Unjust? Rigid? Cruel and unjust, no. Rigid, yes. Sometimes rigidity is necessary. Drink-driving, which is to say, driving over the prescribed level of alcohol in the blood-stream, is always wrong. It mortally endangers both the driver and innocent bystanders and road-users. In most countries the law on this is applied rigidly, precisely because of the danger involved. There is no let-off with a warning. For their own ultimate good, the guilty are prosecuted. The penalty may show some leniency but the prosecution is relentless, and rigid.

In attempted remarriage after civil divorce (for there is no Christian divorce) there is effectively both an act of sacrilege against the sacrament of marriage, and an act of lése-majesté against God who has made the married couple into one flesh as a sacramental icon of Christ’s union with his Church, with us. These are serious sins, and the Church would be a negligent mother indeed if she did not warn us against them. Likewise, to receive the Lord’s Eucharistic Body while in a state of unrepented and unmitigated serious sin is a sacrilege, always and without exception, making of the Eucharist poison to the soul. The Church would be a negligent mother indeed not to warn us against it.

So are Christ and his Church without mercy, without pastoral insight into the “reality” of people’s lives? Brave, and foolishly so, is the person who says so. The Church has made clear for some time that living separately, especially in the case of an abusive or unfaithful spouse, is a legitimate pragmatic response to a dire situation. Perhaps even civil divorce, to achieve a purely civil resolution, might be permissible. Attempting remarriage is not. “For better or for worse” the original marriage remains the only possible marriage till the death of one of the spouses. It is a hard truth, but truth nevertheless. It is not God or his Church that introduces the pain here, but fallen humanity.

This is the clear reality that the Church does not need to “move toward” but it has already arrived at it, and arrived at it from the moment Jesus uttered his definitive teaching. Our Lord does not give us an “artificial clarity”, but a divine clarity by which we can guide our living so that we find true life.

All this is without prejudice to the manifold complications and mitigations that might attend an individual’s situation. The Church allows for the fact that sometimes for an individual subjective guilt might not match objective guilt, and this is something a faithful and honest confessor can discern when he has full and deep knowledge of an individual’s situation. But this is not something that can be legislated for, and even then the confessor has limited options.

It is rather dubious to assert, as Archbishop Coleridge and others have done, that Pope Francis is “bringing out into the very public setting of the papacy what any pastor does in his parish or diocese… Some people expect from the pope clarity and certainty on every question and every issue, but a pastor can’t provide that necessarily”.

The fault here is to equate the Bishop of Rome with any other diocesan bishop or pastor of souls. The petrine office is not a normal pastoral one. He has responsibility for the entire Church, not some portion of it, and in particular is tasked with safeguarding the deposit of faith and “confirming the brethren” (cf Lk 22:32) in it. In fact, it is not merely a task of the papacy, it is a duty. Paul accosted Peter to his face when he failed in this duty; why should we believe Peter’s successors are immune from similar failures? This is why we pray for our popes, not just for their physical welfare but that they might live up to their office. It is hardly worth praying if every individual pope is guaranteed infallibility in everything he does. But of course he is not; infallibility is rarely exercised, and only within a carefully prescribed fidelity to established Church teaching.

We need only look to the liturgy, in particular the votive Mass For the Pope. There are three collects available. Each is telling in what it prays for in the pope’s behalf:

“… grant that he, whom you have made Peter’s successor, may be for your people a visible source and foundation of unity in faith and communion.”

“… grant, we pray, that by word and example he may be of service to those over whom he presides so that, together with the flock entrusted to his care, he may come to everlasting life.”

“… grant that, as Vicar of Christ on earth, he may confirm his brethren and that the whole Church may be in communion with him in the bond of unity, love and peace, so that in you, the shepherd of souls, all may know the truth and attain life eternal.”

Since we must pray for these things, it is obviously not certain that each individual pope will always be a “visible source and foundation of unity in faith” (though invisibly, by his office, he must always be), nor that his “word and example” will serve to bring him and his flock “to everlasting life”, nor that he will always “confirm his brethren” so that “all may learn the truth and attain life eternal”.

So Austen Ivereigh reveals a disturbing ignorance of authentic teaching on the Church and the papacy when he accuses the four cardinals, and those who are slowly but surely supporting their search for clarity from the pope, of “dissent”. He uses this is in a political, not a theological sense, and comes up with the astounding definition that it dissent is to “question the legitimacy of a pope’s rule. It is to cast into doubt that the development of the Church under this Successor of St. Peter is a fruit of the action of the Holy Spirit.”

But those who are seeking clarity from the pope are hardly questioning his legitimacy or authority as pope. In reality they are asking him to exercise it, fully and properly. Dissent, in an ecclesial rather than a political view, is to reject or disagree with the teaching of the Church. The four cardinals, and the other pastors and theologians now speaking out in agreement with them, are dissenting from no teaching of the Church but are asking the pope to confirm it.

Is every papal act or document a legitimate development that must be seen as “a fruit of the action of the Holy Spirit” as Mr Ivereigh claims? Fr Hunwicke explains with vigour that historically the Church has always viewed the pope as speaking with the voice not of the Holy Spirit but of St Peter:

Believe me, we do not need some new and horrible dogma that the voice of Bergoglio is the voice of the Holy Spirit. For two millennia, Roman Pontiffs, in harmony with Churches of the East and of the West, have been content with the notion that Ss Peter and Paul are sub Christo the basis of their authority. And the First Vatican Council put this beyond denial when it infallibly defined that the Holy Spirit does not inspire the Pope to teach new doctrine; the claim made by the church’s authentic Magisterium is that He helps the Successors of S Peter to guard the Apostolic Tradition, the Depositum Fidei.

Likewise when Pope Francis claimed that Vatican II was “a beautiful work of the Holy Spirit,” and that there are “stubborn” members who who want to “tame the Holy Spirit”, he goes too far. He seeks to canonise a self-proclaimed pastoral (not doctrinal) council, but the Holy Spirit is not the guarantor of our pastoral strategies. A tree is judged by its fruit, and the fruit of the Council is so mixed as to preclude it as being the fruit of the Holy Spirit. It is important not confuse the Council with its implementation. The texts of the Council are consistent with previous Church teaching and tradition; what has been done in the Council’s name has very often not been so.

So let us leave aside claims to possess the voice of the Holy Spirit, and go back to the basic issue in question: that the cardinals and others seek only for the pope to act as pope, to confirm the brethren in the truth, to bring clarity where darkness has been introduced not by the messiness of human life but the misuse of a papal document which was poorly composed. If the pope spent less time obsessing about what the clergy wear (saturnogate!) and more about what the Church must teach then this crisis might not have arisen. Never has a pope had such a worldly focus. He ventures onto safer, and richer, ground when he offers us tantalising glimpses of his ecumenism of blood. Glimpses only, never systematically developed, and there is something there that if developed would be truly petrine.

Perhaps all this serves as a healthy corrective to what has become perhaps an excessive focus on the person of the pope. The popes of the 20th century, and indeed up to Pope Benedict, have been impressive men, capable, devoted and holy. They have conformed themselves to their office. In them we have been spoilt, so much so that any idea of criticising a pope seems almost blasphemous to some. Historically such a succession of fine popes is not the norm. This was never a problem as previously popes were rarely heard and even more rarely seen. They did not seek to be the world’s parish priest but served as the court of final appeal, and the quiet animator and facilitator of the life and growth of the Church.

We now have popes in our eyes and ears in real time as they stride the public stage on a scale never before seen. We no longer kiss their feet in awe of their office but grab and claw at them, take selfies with them, as if they were little better than Justin Bieber. Perhaps this is not healthy. Perhaps Benedict XVI, if he had remained in office but reduced his schedule and public appearances and concentrated on the core business of the papacy and not the extraneous trivia modernity has imposed upon it, might have given us a corrective to this tendency, as St John Paul II began to do in his last days of secluded illness. Perhaps now Pope Francis is offering us an unwitting and unexpected corrective to this trend to hyperpapalism, which has now been embraced by theological and moral liberals when it seems to be of service to their cause.

Like most crises, it will probably get worse before it gets better. The sheep will be sorted from the goats, and the wheat from the tares, in good time. Choose wisely.

Hopefully the inquisition will take my flu into account when reading the above.

31 thoughts on “Discerning the really real: dubia, popes and dissent

  1. It’s odd, from the way some people talk about AL, you’d think that the issue of hard pastoral situations is something that’s only just started to happen, as opposed to something the Church has had to face from the beginning.

    Anyway, I noticed a rather odd assertion in Austen Ivereigh’s piece:

    As he last week told the Belgian Christian weekly Tertio, everything in Amoris Laetitia – including the controversial Chapter 8 – received a two-thirds majority in a synod that was notoriously frank, open and drawn out.

    Maybe I’m misremembering here, but wasn’t AL released after the synod had ended? So how could the synod have voted on it what Pope Francis says in it, much less by a two-thirds majority?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. @theoriginalmrx: You have not misremembered. There are matters in Amoris Laetitiae which were voted down in the final relation of the Synod so it is quite untrue to say that AL had a two-third majority vote in the Synod.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. My only guess is that he is attempting to claim that the principles contained in AL were approved by a two-thirds majority, rather than the text itself. We ca safely say, I think, that there is no way the synod approved the notorious footnote!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I do not understand the concept of a majority in a synod voting for an issue as quoted by the pope to defend AL. I always thought the pope had the final decision. I always thought that after discussion by a synod and after listening to both sides that a pope then decided what was right. What if a synod voted in favour of something against Catholic teaching and the pope knew this, would he then agree with the majority?


      2. The important thing to remember is that a synod does not equate to a council, and it cannot define, let alone change, doctrine. But one of the confusing things is that many of the cardinals maintain that AL does not reflect the majority view of the synod at all. Mind you, the post-synodal exhortation does not have to, though it is rather redundant if it does not. Put it another way: it can be ignored if it is not helpful. Pax!


  2. there is so much to say, but where to start….??
    as the current path of the Church is more than disconcerting…
    but for the time being… be well Father…tamiflu or if you’re too late for that… rest and a strong hot toddy!! medicinal you know …prayers for a return to health!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dear Fr Hugh,
    I hope you are feeling better soon. As much as I prefer the Catechism of Trent to the current one (for its clarity and simplicity), I think I wise to take the current view that marriage is a vocation. That is, true Christian marriage (Sacramental marriage) is a vocation; finding God through the uniting with one’s spouse. Indeed it is the most fraught of vocations because it is the one the devil got into from the very beginning because he could forsee its terrifying potency if approached properly. This leaves us in the uncomfortable position that there are “marriages” and there are “marriages” and not all are equivalent. But I think this lies at the heart of the mess over AL, and why so many of us feel so much heartache over it.


    1. Salve.

      I have to disagree with your reasoning. In fact, it is the marriage-as-vocation approach that allows the reasoning by Pope Francis that most marriages are invalid! If marriage is normative, the default, hard-wired into humanity then invalid marriages will always be the exception, and that is clearly in accord with scripture and Christ’s explicit teaching.


      Liked by 1 person

      1. I would love to read more on this if you could point me in any particular direction. I remember vividly a thesis defense at the unregenerate undergraduate institution I attended, where one of the elderly founding professors insisted that marriage is not a vocation — or rather pressed the student who was defending his thesis to give an argument that it was.

        The student was caught completely off guard and had no answer, since the language of ‘marriage as vocation’ is so common that it doesn’t even occur to one that it could be questioned.

        The professor pointed out that the ‘call’ of the priestly vocation is quite literally voiced by the bishop in the rite of priestly ordination — and puckishly asked what one might identify as the corresponding ‘call’ to marriage. Again, the student had no answer.

        This brief episode changed the whole way I think about the term ‘vocation’. It’s very helpful, I think, to recognize that it is the *Church*, in the person of the ordaining bishop, who calls a man to the priesthood. And yet here again, the popular language of vocations ignores this monumentally important distinction. If the Holy Spirit does the calling by some mysterious, private, and interior process — rather than the bishop by a very straightforward, public, and external process — then who is to say that women cannot be ordained? Etc.

        Separately, it seems that the language of ‘marriage as vocation’ has now spilled over into the utterly gruesome concept of the ‘vocation to be single’. Even many who assume that marriage is a vocation have not fallen for that one, but it pops up pretty often all the same in catechetics, popular preaching, chancery flyers, and the like.


  4. I hope you are feeling better, Father. I have been thinking about something you wrote which is so very helpful. “…God… has made the married couple into one flesh as a sacramental icon of Christ’s union with His Church …and us.” It directs the gaze to the spiritual. The two in one flesh has always been hard for me to grasp. I settled upon my own idea in accepting it in that we could see the physical sameness in the sweet little faces of our grand children. They are two in one flesh and they all look alike. Simplistic? We never received a real spiritual teaching about, as you so well say, hard-wired into humanity. God’s grace has been upon us for no other way could we have done it all these years. It is actually a supernatural phenomenon! No? Yes?


  5. Father do you not know that Austen Ivereigh is a co-founder of ‘Catholic Voices’ and therefore cannot possibly have a disturbing ignorance of authentic teaching? He makes Amoris Laetitiae on the subject of communion for the divorced and remarried perfectly clear in the following extract from his article in Crux (I have added my comments in brackets []):

    “And in some, rare cases it might lead, yes, to being admitted to Communion where the lack of subjective culpability is beyond doubt, where, for example, an annulment is impossible [So where there is no doubt about the validity of the first marriage adultery is okay], where the marriage is irrecoverable [So if you are careful to make it irrecoverable adultery will be okay], where there are children by a new union [I wonder if this works retrospectively or does it only apply to the adultery after that in which the child was conceived] , where a conversion has taken place in a person that creates a new state [What state – la la land?], and where the notion of ‘adultery’ simply fails to capture a reality [This must be the final get out clause; it doesn’t feel like adultery].

    I would have thought that explanation should satisfy the four Cardinals!


    1. Is it possible that we are all dealing with the twisting of language which follows trying to listen to and read from … those who are speaking to and writing from … the effects on our thought processes of modernism, situation ethics, and, other “pernicious poisons” (papal expression of old). Injections of it have been being administered to us over a long time.

      he who is in the details also is present.

      “Modernism is “a morbid state of conscience among Catholics, and especially young Catholics, that professes manifold ideals, opinions, and tendencies. From time to time these tendencies work out into systems, that are to renew the basis and superstructure of society, politics, philosophy, theology, of the Church herself and of the Christian religion” Abbate Cavallanti.

      “The avowed modernists” says M. Loisy “form a fairly definite group of thinking men united in the common desire to adapt Catholicism to the intellectual, moral and social needs of today.”op. cit., p. 13

      “Our religious attitude (Il programma dei modernisti p. 5 note1 ) states is ruled by a single wish to be one with Christians and Catholics who live in harmony with the spirit of the age.:

      Catholic Encyclopedia

      Essentially these systems teach that truth is in flux. However truth can never change. If it could, what would become of todays ‘truths’ in a year? Most important: What Would Become of Doctrine? It is already being mauled as we speak and write.

      Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus No Salvation Outside the Church

      “Tolle Missam, tolle Ecclesiam” Destroy the Mass, and you destroy the Church
      Father Gommar A. De Pauw, J.C.C.

      We need to hold fast to Tradition or we risk the loss of our soul.

      Catholicism is not a rocket science.


      1. There is certainly a compelling argument to be made that the 50s and 60s breathed new life into Modernism under the guise of modernity. More and more we look back and see too many missed opportunities! Pax.


  6. Several millions of Catholics in 2013 prayed that “the right man” would be elected to succeed Pope Benedict. Perhaps there was some type of presumption that these prayers would be answered. Why would God not answer the prayers of so many on such an important matter? Unfortunately for the Church, the College of Cardinals chose a man with significant inadequacies of personality, which many people have now realised make that man not well suited to the Office he holds (although not everyone would agree with that assertion).

    How can a situation exist where the Pope is allowing people to embrace false teaching, because he does not wish to teach clearly? Obviously, God permits this, not intends it. For many people, this is the cause of terrible confusion and disillusionment. For others, the Church has finally “got it” and will throw out its outdated morality in due course.

    Are there lessons which God is wishing us to draw from this situation? Perhaps God wishes us not to place too great an emphasis on the Pope the man, but on the Office of Peter. Perhaps there is also a great need for the nature and limits of the Petrine Office to be explicitly discussed, at a Synod or Council, so that in future we might be served more by a Successor of Saint Peter rather than a Global Superstar and Populist.

    Well, that is my hope, in the midst of many discouraging “Bergoglio moments”.


    1. StBede: we live in an age of unparalleled licentiouosness. Perhaps all this is a wakeup call to make us think where we stand and what we should do about it. We either go down the primrose path as some interpret Amoris Laetitiae or we stick with the teaching of Christ and study the moral law.


    1. You are right. Only She can help us now. As I understand … it is She who will destroy the head of satan at the end of our world. She will crush the ‘head’ of all this evil. God has so ordained it from the beginning in the book of Genesis, and, confirmed it through time with apparitions of Our Lady.

      The reason was explained to us by Our Lady of Fatima: God wants the miraculous conversion of Russia to be recognized as a result of the Papal consecration of that poor country to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. He wants the world to honor this Immaculate Heart equally with the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

      One glory of Catholicism is the supernatural aids given to us to support our faith.


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