At the beginning of last week four cardinals made public a private letter that they had written to Pope Francis. The four were questioning the pope’s recent document on family life entitled Amoris Laetitia. In the document, released in April after two global gatherings of bishops in Rome in October 2013 and 2014, Pope Francis offers a much more understanding and inclusive response to issues such as divorce, remarriage and the reception of communion and homosexuality. Pope Francis also emphasises the importance of individual conscience in matters pertaining to faith and morals.
The four cardinals claim that their letter is an act of “justice and charity” and is in response to the pope’s expressed wish for dialogue. They say that they are giving the pontiff an opportunity to “dispel all ambiguity” in his exhortation on the family.
A public challenge to a pope from cardinals is rare. They are meant to be his closest collaborators and defenders. One of the signatories is American Raymond Burke, whose conservatism and opposition to Francis is no secret. He has hinted at making a public rebuke of the pontiff, insisting that he could be in error and that a “formal act of correction of serious error” is needed.
The National Catholic Register’s Edward Pentin claimed that Pope Francis was “boiling with rage” over the letter. “I do understand from sources within Santa Marta [the residence of the pope] that the pope is not happy at all. In fact, he’s boiling with rage. He’s really not happy at all with this,” Pentin told EWTN (Eternal World Television Network) last week.
This has been denied by other sources close to the Pope’s residence. “Pope Francis has been his usual jovial and warm self despite all the press about this letter,” a source told Daily Maverick. “The pope has never exploded with anger, it’s all nonsense. Pope Francis lets everyone have their say. He is calm. The vociferous voices are a tiny minority blown up by an ultra-traditionalist media,” the source said.
Cardinals Carlo Cafarra (former archbishop of Bologna), Walter Brandmüller (former president of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences), Joachim Meisner (former archbishop of Cologne) and Burke, who is currently the head of the Order of Malta, claim that Francis has created “confusion” and “disorientation”.
The four cardinals say that the pontiff decided not to respond to their letter, dated Sept 19, and hence their decision to go public. The letter asks five questions – called “dubia” (“doubts” in Latin). The real issue is the question of whether, in Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis said it was admissible, in some cases, for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion without an annulment.
Some bishops believe that Francis has opened the door to allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to be readmitted to communion. He did not say this but he also did not unambiguously decree that they could not. Some bishops believe that this is incompatible with church teaching, others think that this is a legitimate and merciful pastoral practice and fits the profile of Francis who, on several fronts, is advocating for a more sensitive approach by the Catholic Church.
In the letter the cardinals ask the pope if there are still any “absolute moral norms” which prohibit Catholics from doing certain acts. They also question the pope on his understanding of the role of conscience in moral decision-making. The Catholic Church teaches that, ultimately, a formed and informed conscience is the moral determinate for any human being. The supremacy of conscience was played down in the papacy of John Paul II.
Put plainly: Pope Francis does not believe that the world or human life is black and white. Life is ambiguous and messy and this, for Francis, should invite a response that is compassionate and non-judgemental. For the four cardinals, life, it seems, is a matter of black and white: you are in or you are out. The law is to be applied, it is black and white. Sorry for you.
Earlier this week African cardinal, Robert Sarah of Guinea (who also heads up the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments). joined in the public criticism of Francis.
Sarah suggested earlier this year that priests should go back to the “ad-orientum” position of saying mass. “Ad-orientum” basically means that the priest stands with his back to the people so that all face east. This was the position that priests used up until the Second Vatican in the 1960s. At the council the church decided to change this so that the priest faced the people. Sarah, and other traditionalists, have been advocating for the reversal of this decision. Sarah suggested that the church’s new liturgical year would be the best time for this to be implemented (the new church year happens to begin on the first Sunday of Advent which is this coming Sunday). Days after his comments he was called in to see the pope. The Vatican then issued a statement saying that there would be no such changes.
Sarah (who many conservatives are punting as the next pope, the first from Africa) said church teaching on sin and communion cannot change. “Not even a pope can circumvent or alter divine law,” he insisted.
This open challenge to the pope is an interesting development in the Catholic Church. It was, in recent decades, unheard of for bishops to argue in public. Bishops always spoke with one voice. In the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI people who did not sing off the same hymn sheet were often censured. Yet, in the last few days, bishops have taken to the media to spat with the pope and each other.
Last week (just days before being made a cardinal himself by Pope Francis) the newly appointed archbishop of Newark, USA, Joseph Tobin, publicly said his American counterpart, Cardinal Raymond Burke, was “at best naïve” when he was asked to comment on the private letter made public. Tobin called the four who took to the pen “troublesome”.
Another American, the archbishop of Chicago and a personal appointee of Francis who was also made a cardinal last week, Blase Cupich, said that Catholics who have doubts about the pope’s exhortation should seek “conversion in their lives”.
On Wednesday retired Greek catholic bishop, Frangiskos Papamanolis, who is the emeritus bishop of Syros, Santorini and Crete, accused the letter-writing four of risking “schism” in the church. The Greek bishop said that he was “deeply concerned for the good of the cardinal’s souls” for “two very serious reasons” of “heresy” and “scandal”. In the strongest response yet, the bishop accused the four of them of receiving communion “sacrilegiously” – not the divorced and remarried, as they suggest.
“The fact that you are the proud holders of the title of cardinal does not change the meaning of your words, which are gravely offensive for the Bishop of Rome. If you are ‘deeply concerned for the true good of souls’ and moved by ‘an impassioned concern for the good of the faithful’, I, dearest brothers, am ‘deeply concerned for the good of your souls’, for your two very serious sins: the sin of heresy (and apostasy? This, indeed, is the way schisms begin in the church) and the more serious sin of scandal given publicly to the Christian people.”
The Greek goes on to suggest that the four cardinals should have resigned as cardinals before writing and publishing the letter.
Bishop Papamanolis concludes his letter:
“Dearest brothers, may the Lord enlighten you to recognise your sin as soon as possible, and to make good the scandal you have given.”
On Thursday morning, another response hit the news: conservative Kazakhstani bishop, Athanasius Schneider, praised the four cardinals for being courageous and said that they were victims of “hush-up strategies and slander campaigns”. Schneider went on to say, seemingly hitting back at the Greek prelate, that the reaction to the four cardinals’ letter was “unusually violent and intolerant” and that “among such intolerant reactions one could read affirmations such as, for instance: the four cardinals are witless, naive, schismatic, heretical, and even comparable to the Arian heretics”.
(The Arian heresy was an argument about the divine and human nature of Christ in 321AD. The reference to this theological battle by Schneider seems to be rather dramatic and irrelevant to the issue being argued about in Amoris Laetitia.)
Although Pope Francis has offered no formal response to the four cardinals, he has, in an interview with the Italian newspaper, Avvenire, criticised “a certain legalism” and said that some people thought issues were “black and white, even though it is in the course of life that we are called to discern”.
In the same interview Francis also dismissed critics who claimed he was trying to “Protestantise” the Catholic Church. Last month he travelled to Sweden to mark 500 years since the reformation. He urged Catholic-Lutheran reconciliation while visiting Malmo. Responding to a question about this, Francis said that he “will not lose sleep” about such comments.
How will Francis navigate this issue? Francis is not perturbed by critics; right from the beginning of his pontificate the pockets of resistance have not thrown him off course. He believes that the pastoral approach of the Catholic Church needs a make-over and he continues to shape the approach not so much by speaking and writing but by the actions he performs.
Francis has returned again and again to the question of how the leadership in the church behaves. He has challenged bishops and priests several times about their lifestyles and attitudes. Just recently he warned clergy about their use of money: “Do not allow money to become your Lord,” he said. Apart from a certain Augustinian monk named Luther who raised these questions, such issues have been raised before by early church theologians, medieval theologians (many of them saints like Gregory Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas) and contempory exponents of Catholic social ethics like Leo XIII, Pius XII and Saint John XXIII.
By writing a letter – and then making it public – did the four believe that they would corner Francis and get the answer they wanted? It is unlikely that he feels cornered. The four cardinals have now placed themselves in a rather difficult position. They are but four cardinals out of 228 from 79 countries. They are not a majority by any stretch of the imagination.
It is also ironic that when 12 cardinals wrote a letter to Francis last year, which was leaked to the media, the cardinals were most indignant and insisted on the fact that it was a private letter. They were expressing their unhappiness with the way that he decided to change the process at the Synod of bishops to allow people to speak freely. Now, it seems, it is okay for cardinals to go public on a private letter.
Francis is from the global south; the four cardinals are from the north. Francis has a specific experience and approach that is not always understood in the north. The socio-economic and political situations in Latin America have shaped the way this pope thinks. He worked as a bishop – at the coal face – for 21 years. He understands the problems and struggles of people in the Third World. His refusal to see the world in black and white is precisely because of his experience of life. The four writers are all from affluent places and cultures and certainly would not have the same experience as Francis on the ground.
The biggest challenge facing Pope Francis appears not to be the 1.2-billion Catholics he leads. His biggest challenge comes from his so-called “middle-management” – bishops and cardinals who just do not buy into his new vision of a Catholic Church that is welcoming and inclusive. Pope Francis, however, while he remains head of the Catholic Church, will continue to introduce the reforms the cardinals wanted when they elected him. Maybe they did not realise that they too would be part of the reform. DM
Photo: Pope Francis stands in front of the Holy Door at St Peter’s Basilica after closing it to mark the end of the Jubilee of Mercy at the Vatican, 20 November 2016. EPA/TIZIANA FABI POOL
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