The anti-Francis revolt spearheaded and legitimated by four mostly retired cardinals has acquired a newly vicious tone. A line has been crossed.
I don’t just mean the line of good manners and respect. That was crossed some time ago, when the four cardinals made public their letter challenging Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, and threatened him with a kind of public censure. Since then the tone of disrespect and contempt of some writers who back them has plumbed shocking new lows.
But far more important than tone, the critiques have crossed a frontier into a territory marked “dissent”.
Dissent, to be clear, is not the same as disagreement. Catholics often disagree with this or that decision or statement of a pope, object to his theology, or don’t share his priorities. And pope Francis is not only relaxed about disagreement, but positively encourages it.
Dissent is different. Dissent is to disagreement what disbelief is to doubt.
Dissent is, essentially, 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.
Dissent is nothing new. At the time of the Second Vatican Council, the dissenting party set its face against its pastoral direction, as well as key developments in liturgy, religious freedom and ecumenism.
Under John Paul II, on the other hand, the dissenters were convinced he had betrayed the Council. They argued for women priests, an end to mandatory celibacy and an opening in areas such as contraception.
Now, under Francis, the dissenting party opposes the synod and its major fruit, Amoris Laetitia.
Because dissenters almost always end up looking and sounding like each other, the four cardinals and their supporters look every day more like those lobbies under the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI calling for liberal reforms.
Catholics know that going against the pope is a serious matter, and so when they dissent they adopt a regretful, pained tone that stresses conscience and the impossibility of betraying whatever they have absolutized — their idea of unchanging tradition, say, or their version of the Second Vatican Council.
What they have in common is that they are almost always lay, educated and from the wealthy world or the wealthy parts of the developing world. They are mostly intellectuals and lawyers and teachers and writers who put great store in their reason.
What to them seems entirely self-evident — arguments, logically developed from absolute first principles, backed by a few emeritus bishops, building to a case that cries out to be answered — almost always meets with silence from Rome. At this point there is a reaction of anger and stupefaction which over time coagulates into suppurating resentment.
Some will break off, claiming the one true Church lies elsewhere or nowhere, but most resentfully stay, “clinging onto my faith by my fingertips” as they like to say, or “still a Catholic — despite the pope’s best efforts to drive me out.”
Clinging to the pain of their betrayal, they take refuge in their progressive or traditionalist liturgies and incandescent websites, firing off letters and petitions from lobbies and associations, vainly demanding, as “faithful Catholics” that the pope do this, that, or the other.
But even as they insist that there is a debate to be had, a case to answer, a matter to be settled, the train is leaving the station, and they are left on the platform, waving their arms.
The Second Vatican Council set the Church on a path of pastoral conversion. John Paul II united the Church around an understanding of the Council based on a hermeneutic of continuity. In both cases, there was strong resistance, but most Catholics recognized the development as legitimate, as Peter acting for the good of the Church, as a doctrinally faithful response to the signs of the times.
The same is true now. Most Catholics understand the synod, and Amoris Laetitia, as an inspired response to our times, a means both of rebuilding marriage and of helping to bandage those wounded by the failure of marriage.
This is why Francis can no more respond to the cardinals’ dubia than Benedict XVI could answer a petition to ordain women as deacons: because the Catholic Church has its own mechanisms of development, based on consultation and spiritual discernment.
Put another way, whether it is a conclave or a synod, the Catholic Church likes to lobby-proof its deliberations, precisely to allow the Holy Spirit space to breathe.
Francis cannot answer the cardinals directly — although he has done indirectly countless times — without undermining that action of the Holy Spirit present in the most thorough process of ecclesial discernment since Vatican II. 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.
Roma locuta, causa finita, as Catholics used to say. And the case is even more closed this time, because it is the universal Church which has spoken, not just the pope.
To respond to the cardinals would be tantamount to rewinding the clock, to refuting the very process of the synod, in order to rehearse arguments that the synod settled, if not resolved.
Let’s remember what happened. At the start of the two-year synod process, there were two groups wanting to resolve the question of access to the Eucharist for the divorced and remarried one way or the other.
One group wanted to open up an Orthodox-type pathway back to the sacraments, the other wished to restate and reaffirm the teaching and discipline of Familiaris Consortio (John Paul II’s 1980 exhortation, which on that topic calls for discernment of different situations, but precludes any return to the sacraments unless the couple promises to live together as brother and sister.)
Faced with that yes/no question, of precisely the sort that the cardinals have put to Francis, the synod rejected a yes/no answer. The synod affirmed the general principles of FC but developed John Paul’s teaching on the discernment of situations while refusing to impose the same blanket ban on readmission in all cases.
The synod decided, by a two-thirds majority, that they wanted both to preserve the doctrine of indissolubility in the current discipline of the Eucharist while at the same time creating sufficient pastoral latitude in the application of the Church’s law to allow pastors to respond to situations where there was a subjective lack of culpability.
Which situations? AL doesn’t specify, which has allowed the four cardinals and their supporters to claim the document is ambiguous and confusing. But how could it spell it out, without becoming a manual of casuistry?
The whole point is that there is no new law, no new doctrine, no new norms, because the synod determined that there should not be. “There is no general norm that can cover all the particular cases,” as Cardinal Christoph Schönborn says, adding: “The general norm is very clear; and it is equally clear that it cannot cover all the cases exhaustively.”
And that’s the heart of the matter. The synod kept the law — how could it not? It’s the law of Jesus — but defended a latitude in its application, recognizing, as did Jesus, that the law is necessary but insufficient, and has to be applied in such a way that respects the particularity of each person’s story.
Amoris Laetitia took the synod’s settlement — forged, by all accounts, in the white heat of the German group — and asks the Church to create mechanisms of accompaniment that will allow for this discernment.
It says: Let’s hear this particular couple’s history and see where sin has created blockages and wounds, and where God’s grace is needed.
And on the way, what will happen? It might mean ending a relationship and returning to a valid marriage; it might lead to an annulment; in some cases it might lead to re-integration into a parish, but not the sacraments; in some cases it might require living as brother and sister, and a return to the sacraments.
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, where the marriage is irrecoverable, where there are children by a new union, where a conversion has taken place in a person that creates a new state, and where the notion of ‘adultery’ simply fails to capture a reality. (Father Thomas Reese has suggested the kinds of distinctions Pope John Paul II had in mind in Familiaris Consortio.)
One bishop in South America whom I recently interviewed, when I asked about Chapter Eight of Amoris in an interview, kindly but firmly cut me short. “I can’t talk about that,” he said. “Every case is different.”
There speaks a pastor. There speaks the synod. There speaks the pope.
The one message I’ve had from other bishops and cardinals I have spoken to this year in preparation for a new book is that what AL calls for can only be grasped by a pastor.
Only one who understands the complexities of the workings of sin and grace in a person’s life grasps the paradox: that to insist on the universal, equal application of the law in all circumstances is to contradict God’s supreme law of mercy, which puts the individual before — not above, but before — the law.
The four cardinals, with their heavily loaded binary questions carefully crafted to exclude precisely that paradox, reject the synod’s settlement of this question, and in so doing they reject the validity of the Holy Spirit’s action.
They are trying to return to the logic of the liberal media and the hysterical pro-family groups who descended on the first synod to defend Christian teaching on marriage. Yet the synod rejected that logic in favor of an ancient tradition of pastoral theology.
To the four cardinals, three of whom wrote a book prior to the first synod insisting that nothing could change, this of course looks like capitulation. (Cardinal Burke, it is worth remembering, was removed as head of the Vatican’s highest court because he rejected any reform to the annulment process — a reform sanctioned by the synod — on the grounds that it would undermine marriage).
And they will continue to see it that way.
So, too, will the lay elite intellectuals and journalists who continue to scream that the entire edifice of Catholic teaching on indissolubility will unravel as a result, and construct elaborate arguments that AL cannot possibly say what it says.
It is not easy for young converts fleeing the Anglican doctrinal muddle in search of rock-like objectivity, and who saw the synod through that prism. Nor is it easy for the culture warriors, who are all too happy to look away from the pain of people’s shattered marriages to focus on the defense of the institution of marriage faced with divorce and the hook-up culture.
And it is not easily grasped by those Pope Francis calls the “doctors of the law” in whom fear of being swamped or contaminated by a world of relativism and sin is so great that it becomes the single driving focus of their attention.
They suspect that Amoris undermines the affirmation of objective truth in Veritatis Splendor (which it doesn’t, but it certainly shifts the focus away from the defense of truth to the defense of the way Grace works in a soul.)
Many are good people, clever people, faithful Catholics, who want to defend the Church and promote the Good and the True. Some I consider friends. And as their friend, I have to tell them that in their anxiety and fear they have been tempted down the road of dissent, rejecting a Spirit-filled process of ecclesial discernment.
(They argue, naturally, that the synod was ‘manipulated’ or ‘steamrolled’, and therefore merely political. But these are not arguments, but stories dissenters need to tell each other.)
More importantly, as their friend, I have to warn them: the train has left the station, the Church is moving on. And they will end up like the betrayed progressives of the John Paul era, locked into a kind of resentment that made them poor heralds of the Gospel.
Just last week, the Congregation for the Clergy released a comprehensive new format for seminary formation. The priest of the future, formed by Amoris Laetitia, will learn to walk with people “with a disposition of serene openness and attentive accompaniment in all situations, even those that are most complex, showing the beauty and demands of Gospel truth without falling into legalistic or rigorist obsessions.”
Long after the cardinals’ dubia are no more than a footnote in the history of this papacy, long after Ross Douthat’s predicted schism from the columns of the New York Times has failed to materialize, the next generation of priests will be applying the magnificent teaching of Amoris Laetitia, and the noisy, angry strains of dissent will have faded into a distant memory.
Francis expected protest, especially from this quartet of red hats, and is saddened by it. But he is not alarmed or shocked. He sees it, as Father Antonio Spadaro told Crux, as the outworking of a Spirit-filled process.
He knows that the dissenters have dug their trench, and many will stay firmly in it, glowering while the rest of the Church develops a new pastoral strategy for marriage and family. But Francis also knows that this is their choice, which is the choice of every dissenter.
And he knows that, in order to be faithful to the Holy Spirit’s action, his own choice can only be to ignore the cardinals and press on.