Conservative Cardinals Challenge Pope Francis on Faith and Morals

LISBON, PORTUGAL - AUGUST 02: Pope Francis (Jorge Bergoglio) meets in a one-on-one with Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa (not seen) in Belem Presidential Palace during the Pope's courtesy visit to the Portuguese President on the State Visit to Portugal of His Holiness Pope Francis on August 02, 2023 …
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ROME — Five prominent cardinals have challenged Pope Francis to clarify apparent ambiguities in his teaching regarding topics such as blessings for gay couples, the ordination of women, and the authority of the synod of bishops.

The cardinals originally presented their five “dubia” (an ecclesiastical word for formal questions or doubts) in a July 10 letter to Pope Francis, which he immediately answered in a letter dated the following day.

The cardinals in question are German Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, president of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences; American Cardinal Raymond Burke, former head of the Vatican’s highest court; Cardinal Joseph Zen, former bishop of Hong Kong; Cardinal Juan Sandoval, former archbishop of Guadalajara; and Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah, former prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Divine Worship.

Veteran Vatican journalist Sandro Magister has proposed that the pope’s swift response to the cardinals was most probably written by his trusted friend and ghostwriter, Father Victor Manuel Fernández, who was recently named prefect of the Vatican’s doctrinal office.

In response to the pope’s July 11 letter, the five cardinals have reformulated their queries, insisting that the pontiff never really answered the questions they posed. In the new formulation, the cardinals request that the pope simply answer yes or no.

In their first question, the cardinals ask if “the cultural and anthropological changes of our time should push the Church to teach the opposite of what it has always taught,” as some prelates have recently suggested.

The question likely stems from statements by the Jesuit Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, who has argued that the Church needs to update its teaching on gay sex to keep up with modern cultural developments.

“I believe that the sociological-scientific foundation of this teaching is no longer correct,” Hollerich said in 2022, while calling for an about-face in Church teaching on homosexual relations.

Hollerich’s statement was echoed by San Diego Cardinal Robert McElroy, who similarly suggested rewriting the Catholic Catechism to allow greater moral leeway for gay sex.

In his original response to the cardinals’ doubt, Francis said the Church must “constantly discern between that which is essential for salvation and that which is secondary or less directly related to this goal,” suggesting that certain teachings could change over time.

The cardinals’ second question dealt with the legitimacy of Church blessings for gay couples, a practice already formally excluded by the Vatican’s doctrinal office.

Nonetheless, in his response, Pope Francis never expressly replied to the doubt, suggesting instead that if such a blessing were to be given it should be clear that the blessing was not comparable to the sacrament of marriage.

This ambiguity has led several mainstream media outlets to contend that Francis has now tentatively opened the door for Church blessings of gay couples.

In its original 2021 response to this question, the Vatican’s doctrinal office (CDF) issued a document declaring that the Church has no authority to bless homosexual unions, adding that God Himself “does not and cannot bless sin.”

Blessings require both “the right intention of those who participate” and “that what is blessed be objectively and positively ordered to receive and express grace, according to the designs of God inscribed in creation,” declared the text, which was published with the express approval of Pope Francis.

For this reason, it is not licit to impart a blessing on relationships that involve “sexual activity outside of marriage,” it read, “as is the case of the unions between persons of the same sex.”

Blessing such a union would be “to approve and encourage a choice and a way of life that cannot be recognized as objectively ordered to the revealed plans of God,” it said.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, homosexual persons “are called to chastity.”

“By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection,” it states.

In his July 11 response, Pope Francis told the cardinals that it is not good to be “afraid” of the questions that people pose, to which the cardinals replied that it was “not out of fear of dialogue with the people of our time, nor of the questions they could ask us” that moved them to express their concerns.

Rather, they did so because “there are pastors who doubt the ability of the Gospel to transform the hearts of men and end up proposing to them no longer sound doctrine but ‘teachings according to their own likings.’”

In an open letter to the Catholic faithful released on October 2, the cardinals added that they had expressed their concerns to the pope “in view of various declarations of highly-placed Prelates,” which “are openly contrary to the constant doctrine and discipline of the Church.”

These declarations, which have not been clearly refuted by Rome, “have generated and continue to generate great confusion and the falling into error among the faithful and other persons of good will,” they said.

“Given the gravity of the matter of the dubia, especially in view of the imminent session of the Synod of Bishops, we judge it our duty to inform you, the faithful, so that you may not be subject to confusion, error, and discouragement but rather may pray for the universal Church and, in particular, the Roman Pontiff, that the Gospel may be taught ever more clearly and followed ever more faithfully,” they concluded.


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