“This is not normal” – so say Donald Trump’s critics as he prepares to assume the presidency. But the U.S. republic is only the second-oldest institution facing a distinctively unusual situation at the moment. Pride of place goes to the Roman Catholic Church, which with less fanfare (perhaps because the papacy lacks a nuclear arsenal) has also entered terra incognita.
Two weeks ago, four cardinals published a so-called dubia – a set of questions, posed to Pope Francis, requesting that he clarify his apostolic exhortation on the family, “Amoris Laetitia.” In particular they asked him to clarify whether the church’s ban on communion for divorced Catholics in new (and, in the church’s eyes, adulterous) marriages remained in place, and whether the church’s traditional opposition to situation ethics had been “developed” into obsolescence.
The dubia began as a private letter, as is usual with such requests for doctrinal clarity. Francis offered no reply. It became public just before last week’s consistory in Rome, when the pope meets with the College of Cardinals and presents the newly elevated members with red hats. The pope continued to ignore it, but took the unusual step of canceling a general meeting with the cardinals (not a few of whose members are quiet supporters of the questioners).
Francis canceled because the dubia had him “boiling with rage,” it was alleged. This was not true, tweeted his close collaborator, the Jesuit father Antonio Spadaro, though he had previously tweeted and then deleted a shot of the wizard Gandalf, from “Lord of the Rings,” growling his refusal to “bandy crooked words with a witless worm.”
Meanwhile, one of those four alleged “worms,” the combative traditionalist, Cardinal Raymond Burke, gave an interview suggesting that papal silence might require a “formal act of correction” from the cardinals – something without obvious precedent in Catholic history. (Popes have been condemned for flirting with heresy, but only after their deaths.) That was strong language; even stronger was the response from the head of Greece’s Catholic bishops, who accused the dubia authors of “heresy” and possibly “apostasy” for questioning the pope.
Who was, himself, still silent. Or rather, who continued his practice of offering interviews and sermons lamenting rigidity and pharisaism and possible psychological issues among his critics – but who refused to take the straightforward-seeming step of answering their questions.
It is not that there is any real doubt about where the pontiff stands. Across a period of vigorous debate in 2014 and 2015 he pushed persistently to open communion to at least some remarried Catholics without the grant of annulment. But conservative resistance ran strong enough that the pope seemed to feel constrained. So he produced a document, the as-yet-unclarified Amoris, that essentially talked around the controversy, implying in various ways that communion might be given case by case, but never coming out and saying so directly.
This indirectness matters because within Catholicism the pope’s formal words, his encyclicals and exhortations, have a weight that winks and implications and personal letters lack. They’re what’s supposed to require obedience, what’s supposed to be supernaturally preserved from error.
So avoiding clarity seemed intended as a compromise, a hedge. Liberals got a permission slip to experiment, conservatives got to keep the letter of the law, and the world’s bishops were left to essentially choose their own teaching on marriage, adultery and the sacraments – which indeed many have done in the last year, tilting conservative in Philadelphia and Poland, liberal in Chicago or Germany or Argentina, with inevitable dust-ups between prelates who follow different interpretations of Amoris.
But the strange spectacle around the dubia is a reminder that this cannot be a permanent settlement. The logic of “Rome has spoken, the case is closed” is too deeply embedded in the structures of Catholicism to allow for anything but a temporary doctrinal decentralization. So long as the pope remains the pope, any major controversy will inevitably rise back up to the Vatican.
Francis must know this. For now, he seems to be choosing the lesser crisis of feuding bishops and confused teaching over the greater crisis that might come (although who can say for certain?) if he presented the church’s conservatives with his personal answers to the dubia and simply required them to submit. Either submission or schism will come eventually, he may think – but not till time and the operation of the Holy Spirit have weakened his critics’ position in the church.
But in the meantime, his silence has the effect of confirming conservatives in their resistance, because to them it looks like his refusal to give definitive answers might itself be the work of providence. That is, he thinks he’s being Machiavellian and strategic, but really it’s the Holy Spirit constraining him from teaching error.
This is a rare theological hypothesis that can be easily disproved. The pope need only exercise his authority, answer his critics, and tell the faithful explicitly what he means them to believe.
But until he speaks, the hypothesis is open.