[This story has been updated — see below]

ROME— According to a senior Vatican judge, four cardinals, including American Raymond Burke, who recently published a letter in which they asked Pope Francis to clarify his document on the family, Amoris Laetitia, could lose their red hats over what he termed the “very grave scandal” they’ve caused.

“What Church do these cardinals defend? The pope is faithful to the doctrine of Christ,” said Father Pio Vito Pinto.

“What they [the cardinals] have done is a very grave scandal, which could even lead the Holy Father to take away their red hats, as it’s happened already in some other times in the Church,” Vito Pinto said.

The priest, appointed in 2012 by emeritus Pope Benedict XVI as head of the Vatican’s main working court, also known as the Roman Rota, was quick to clarify that his words don’t mean Francis has made such a decision, simply that he could.

Vito Pinto was in Spain in late November to give a talk at the University of San Damaso in Madrid, as part of a broader conference on Pope Francis’s marriage annulment reforms.

He gave his comments regarding the letter, formally called a dubia, from cardinals Walter Brandmüller, Raymond Burke, Carlo Caffarra and Joachim Meisner, to the Spanish news site Religión Confidencial.

The site quotes Pinto as saying that the four cardinals and others within the Church who are questioning Pope Francis’s reforms and his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia are questioning “two synods of bishops on marriage and family. Not one but two! An ordinary and an extraordinary one. The action of the Holy Spirit is beyond doubt!”

In the talk Vito Pinto gave, which is quoted by various Spanish outlets, the priest said that in countries such as Italy, Spain or Poland, religious marriage is still highly valued, but “the truth is that many baptized celebrate civil marriages or live together out of wedlock.”

Faced with what the Church calls “irregular situations”– which he didn’t specify, but which could run from divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to gay Catholics in a civil marriage — Vito Pinto asked: “What do we do? Turn the Church into a prison? Stand at the door of the parish and say: ‘You yes [can go in], you no?'”

As a solution, the dean of the Roman Rota underlined the importance of “discernment,” upholding that after Amoris Laetitia nothing has changed in terms of Church teaching. Yet, he added, “Not everything is black or white, there are shades of gray,” something the Argentine pontiff himself has said on more than one occasion.

The criterion, Vito Pinto said, has to be to “facilitate everything that leads to the health of souls.”

Regarding the juridical repercussions of Amoris Laetitia, Vito Pinto said that canonists (experts in Church law) are also called to “conversion” because, even if during the second millennium “a juridical interpretation of everything” was imposed on the Church, in reality, “law is a necessary tool,” but it’s not the foundation of the faith.

By way of background, a dubia is a document bishops send to the pope or the Vatican asking for clarification on a specific issue. It’s fairly routine, and rarely generates headlines.

The four cardinals’ dubia relates to the sacraments, asking Francis to clarify if there are still “absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts and that are binding without exceptions.”

They also asked if it’s now possible to grant absolution in the sacrament of Penance and thus Communion to divorced and civilly remarried couples who don’t fulfill the conditions laid down by St. Pope John Paul II’s document on the family Familiaris Consortio.

One of those requirements is that couples in such a situation live chastely, “as brothers and sisters.”

The full text of their letter, with the five yes or no questions the prelates submitted to the pope last September, was voluntarily made public by the group earlier this month after Francis informed them he wouldn’t respond.

Asking for their move not to be seen as a “conservative” attack on “progressives,” the cardinals said they were motivated by their concern for “the true good of souls” and their “deep collegial affection that unites us to the pope.”

“Seeking Clarity: A Plea to Untie the Knots in Amoris Laetitia” is what the four titled the dubia and its “necessary foreword.”

Soon after, Burke gave an interview to the National Catholic Register in which he said that if the pope’s silence continues, they might have to issue a “formal act of correction of a serious error.”

Some figures in the Church have lined up behind the four cardinals, asking for the pope to clarify his apostolic exhortation, in particular footnote 351, which is the one that’s generated the debate regarding the access to the sacraments for the divorced and remarried.

Such is the case of Kazakhstan Bishop Athanasius Schneider, who submitted a post to the traditionalist blog Rorate Caeli calling the four cardinals’ letter “a prophetic voice.”

Others, such as Father Antonio Spadaro, editor-in-chief of Civilta’ Cattolica, an authoritative Jesuit journal previewed by the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, have said that Francis has already answered the questions addressed in the dubia, and in a recent op-ed for CNN defended the pope’s decision not to do so again.

Among other examples, this second group claims the pope answered the dubia in a letter – which was leaked to the press — to the bishops of his former archdiocese, Buenos Aires, in which he greenlights a document in which the Argentine prelates state the door has been open for divorced and remarried Catholics to access Communion.

Should Pope Francis do what Vito Pinto hinted at and remove the four prelates from the College of Cardinals, it would be a rare move, though not entirely unprecedented.

There’s the case of French Jesuit Louis Billot, made a cardinal by Pius X in 1911, but who resigned that status in 1927. Billot was a strong supporter of the conservative French movement Action Française, which caused tensions between him and the Vatican.

Pope Pius XI banned the movement’s newspaper from all Catholic homes. Billot disagreed with the pope’s decision and eventually presented his resignation, although some historians believe the pope demanded he do so.

The other two recent cases are those of Vienna’s Hans Hermann Groër and Edinburgh’s Keith O’Brien, who relinquished all rights and privileges as a cardinal, the first under St. Pope John Paul II and the second under Francis, in both cases because of matters of sexual misconduct.

However, as canon lawyer Kurt Martens, of the Catholic University of America told Crux, both Groër and O’Brien actually kept their red hats, losing only the privileges and responsibilities cardinals have, such as participating in a conclave to elect the pope.

Theoretically, a pope creates cardinals and therefore can remove them, though, as these examples show, generally cardinals in hot water will return their red hat voluntarily before it comes to that.

Father Francis G. Morrisey, also a canon law expert, told Crux that “the cardinalate has nothing to do with the priesthood, or the episcopate.  It is an honor that can be taken away.”

This means that if a bishop is made a cardinal and then has that honor taken away, he is still a bishop, just as a priest would remain a priest, Morrisey noted.

Though it’s impossible to predict what Pope Francis will do, both Martens and Morrisey agree he shouldn’t take the red hats from the four cardinals who presented the dubia.

Morrisey’s argument is that it would “make them into victims among the arch-conservative factions, and this could easily lead to schism.”

He doesn’t believe Francis should answer the questions either, because they’re all “trick questions like the Pharisees asked Jesus.”

Martens didn’t use the word “schism,” but he did say Francis taking away the cardinals’ red hats would create “a total war.” Even though only four cardinals have come forward, he said “they’re not the only ones” who have doubts, and they have many followers who agree with them that Amoris Laetitia leaves open some question marks.

“Whether you [or the pope] agree with what the cardinals asked, it wouldn’t be wise [to ask for their resignations] because they’re asking questions that many people have, both ‘left’ and ‘right,'” he said, adding that at the end of the day, the cardinals did what they’re supposed to do: “Advise the pope.”

Martens said that if consulted by Pope Francis, he would advise him to invite the four cardinals for a conversation, because among other reasons, by taking the red hats away, he would be doing the opposite of what he preaches, which is inviting people to dialogue.

UPDATE: Since this article was published, the website carrying Father Pinto’s reported remarks has clarified that the Dean added that Pope Francis, unlike popes of previous eras, would never remove the cardinals’ red hats.  In the corrected version of its report of his remarks, described as a ‘rectification’, the website Religión Confidencial writes:

“What Church do these cardinals defend? The pope is faithful to the doctrine of Christ. What they have done is a very grave scandal.” He added that, nevertheless, Pope Francis is not a pope from the past who could take the red hat away, as Pope Pius XI did with famed Jesuit French theologian Louis Billot. “Francis won’t do it,” he said.