ROME – At a Rome summit on Saturday of the most ardent opposition figures to Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’s controversial 2016 document on the family, lay participants issued a final declaration broadly rejecting the teaching that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics may receive Communion and imploring “the pope and the bishops to confirm us in the faith.”
Their final conclusions, issued Saturday towards the end of the summit, which attracted several hundred people to a Rome hotel near the Vatican, were the following:
- “We witness and profess in accord with the authentic confession of the faith that a consummated marriage can be dissolved only by death.”
- “Christians who unite with another person if their spouse is still living commit a great sin.”
- “We are convinced that this is a norm that applies always and without exception.”
- “We are convinced that no subjective judgment of conscience can render an evil action good.”
- “Forgiveness is based on an intention to abandon a way of life that is contrary to the divine commandments.”
- “The divorced and remarried who live together may not receive Eucharistic Communion.”
There was a strong sense at the summit that although their position may represent a minority, it cannot be ignored.
“Experience through history teaches us that truth is not necessarily with the majority, with big numbers,” German Cardinal Walter Brandmuller said. “Often in the history of the people of God it wasn’t the majority but rather a minority that authentically lived out the faith.”
He cited the case of the Arian heresy, a fourth century movement that believed Christ was not fully divine, which once was upheld by a substantial majority of Christians at the time.
One of four cardinals who asked the pope for clarification two years ago strongly hinted that the time for waiting for an answer is over.
“As history demonstrates, it’s possible that a Roman pontiff exercising his fullness of power can fall into heresy or fail in his first duty of safeguarding and preserving the unity of faith and the discipline of the Church,” said American Cardinal Raymond Burke.
Burke was one of four cardinals who submitted five critical questions to Francis after Amoris appeared, technically known as dubia. One of the other four, Brandmüller, was also on hand, while two others have died – German Cardinal Joachim Meisner and Italian Cardinal Carlo Caffarra.
It was an Italian association known as the “Friends of Cardinal Caffarra” who organized Saturday’s event. There was a strong presence of a major Italian pro-life movement, and one recurrent theme throughout the day was the importance of Humanae Vitae, Blessed Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical upholding the Church’s opposition to artificial birth control, the 50th anniversary of which falls this year.
At one point, a video commentary by Caffarra, who died in September 2017, was played, in which he said: “Humanae Vitae remains the light Paul VI turned on forever.”
The name of the event was “Catholic Church, Where are You Going?” It invoked a quote from Caffarra, “Only a blind man could deny there’s great confusion in the Church today.”
Burke insisted on the right to stand up to an erring pope.
“Since the pope can’t be subject to a judicial process, the situation has to be addressed and remedied based on natural law, the gospels, and canonical tradition, and that’s a two-step process,” Burke said, speaking to a crowd of several hundred people gathered at Rome’s Church Village Hotel, located about two miles from the Vatican.
“First, one corrects the presumed error or abandonment of duty directly to the Roman Pontiff,” Burke said. “If he doesn’t respond, then one proceeds to public correction.”
At that point, a contingent in the crowd leapt to their feet and began shouting, “People of God, stand up! We are the ones who have to act!”
“As a matter of duty, the pope can be disobeyed,” Burke said. “There’s an abundant body of literature on the theme.”
“The pope’s authority is not magical,” Burke said. “It derives from his obedience to the Lord,” once again drawing strong applause from the crowd gathered in a hotel ballroom.
Earlier, Brandmüller argued that the teaching of Amoris Laetitia cannot be considered an authentic “development of doctrine,” basing his argument on the theological writings of the 19th century English convert Cardinal John Henry Newman.
The “sense of the faithful,” Brandmüller said, “cannot be understood as a poll or a plebiscite, that’s impossible. The Church is not a democratically constituted society, it’s the corpus mysticum (“mystical body”), to which the faithful are united as members of that body.”
“What does it mean when our parish communities today applaud when our priests announce their upcoming wedding?” he asked, to strong applause. “What does it mean when at the 1968 Katholikentag,” referring to a major festival of lay Catholics in German-speaking countries, they reacted with excessive text explosions of hate against Humanae Vitae?”
The reference is to landmark 1968 encyclical letter from Blessed Pope Paul VI, affirming the Church’s opposition to artificial birth control.
“In these and analogous cases, it seems evident that the sensus fidelium can’t be compared to the general will of Rousseau,” he said, referring the “sense of the faithful,” the idea that all Catholics participate in both shaping and protecting doctrine. “For instance, there are Catholics who consider it legitimate to remarry after divorce and to use contraception.”
“Among the criteria for distinguishing organic development [of doctrine], Newman included the indispensable absence of contradiction with respect to authentic tradition,” Brandmüller said. “The authentic mode of participating in the sensus fidelium means excluding all those who call themselves Catholic but who can’t claim to have taken seriously what it means.”
Brandmüller suggested the questionnaires distributed prior to two Synods of Bishops called by Francis, in October 2014 and 2015, were not legitimate instances of the sensus fidelium, because they were subject to “manipulation” by “single groups.”
Instead, he pointed to 140,000 Catholics in Poland who signed a petition asking bishops to protect them from “German errors,” such as the teaching in Amoris Laetitia, in which German-speaking prelates are seen as having played a key role.
“These are the forms in which today the sensus fidelium is manifest, it’s the instinct of faith of believing people, and the magisterium should pay attention,” Brandmüller said, once again generating cheers.
Making a case that papal power is not absolute, Burke rejected what he called the “facile response” of many to papal teaching, “as if because the Holy Father says something, one must accept whatever papal teaching comes.”
“It’s always been clear that the Roman pontiff can dispense with the law only for the purpose of preserving its purpose, and never for subverting it,” he said, again eliciting a round of applause.
“It’s axiomatic that any power given by Christ to his Church is for the purpose of realizing the ends for which he founded it, not for contesting them,” Burke said, “It can only be exercised within these terms. It’s not a license for arbitrary government.”
Burke said that at the synod some bishops argued that the pope’s power would allow him to take the step he did in Amoris Laetitia, but he scoffed at the logic.
“As if that power would permit the pope to make a decision in open contrast to Matthew 19,” he said, referring to Christ’s prohibition of divorced in the gospels, “and the constant teaching of the Church in fidelity to those words.”
“Any act of a pope, given that he’s a human being, that’s heretical or sinful, in itself is null,” he said.
Auxiliary Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Kazkhstan, who led his country’s two other Catholic bishops in taking a strong anti-Amoris stand in January, emphasized the duty of popes to be “custodians” of authority.
Schneider then invoked a supposed oath that many traditionalist Catholics believe newly elected popes took for centuries, up to Blessed Pope Paul VI in 1963. In the form in which it’s usually cited, its first article is: “I vow to change nothing of the received Tradition, and nothing thereof I have found before me guarded by my God-pleasing predecessors, to encroach upon, to alter, or to permit any innovation therein.”
Many Church historians, however, regard the oath as myth, saying there’s no evidence it was ever administered or incorporated into papal coronation ceremonies.
Nevertheless, Schneider said, “I think it’s urgent to revive this formula of papal swearing-in in our days,” triggering another round of strong applause and cries of Bravo! Bravo!