There’s a controversy going on, covered breathlessly at places like Life Site News, One Peter Five, Rorate Caeli, and various other conservative news outlets, though more or less ignored by the general public. I suspect it’s a tempest in a teapot. But it’s colorful and growing more exotic by the day. And there may be a few lessons in here somewhere, or at least some interesting illustrations, so let’s take a look at it.

The protagonists are four cardinals: Walter Brandmüller, president emeritus of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences; Raymond Burke, patron of the Knights of Malta; Carlo Caffarra, Archbishop emeritus of Bologna, and Joachim Meisner, Archbishop emeritus of Cologne. They have thrown down the gauntlet to Pope Francis over Amoris Laetitia—the gauntlet being a letter in which they demand answers to questions. The technical term for the queries they present is dubia which means doubts. They warned that if their questions were not answered, they would have no choice but to go public. And if they still get no answer, they will “correct the pope” formally (or perhaps seek to depose him, but this isn’t agreed by all the sources).

It’s doubtful to this reader that the foursome actually has any doubts at all, except for doubting that the Pope is Catholic. Yet with theatrical obsequiousness (“compelled in conscience by our pastoral responsibility and desiring to implement ever more that synodality to which Your Holiness urges us, with profound respect we permit ourselves to ask you, Holy Father, as supreme teacher of the faith, called by the Risen One to confirm his brothers in the faith, to resolve the uncertainties and bring clarity, benevolently giving a response to the dubia that we attach the present letter.…”) they stated their dubia.

The five questions they put to Francis are pretty insulting, actually. Things like: Are we no longer to believe that there is such a thing as “the existence of absolute moral norms”? [bold in the original] and: Is it still possible to say that “a person who habitually lives in contradiction to a commandment of God’s law… finds him or herself in an objective situation of grave habitual sin”? [bold in the original]. Each question demands a yes-or-no answer. Does it sound like they are trying to pin Francis to the wall? You betcha. For the good of souls, of course.

OK, so they cross examine the Pope—pardon me, they voice their dubia for the good of souls—and Francis ignores them. This is hardly surprising. Is the Pope going to allow himself to be cornered and forced into retreat from his pastoral position by his own cardinals? After he held not one but two Synods to sort the whole thing out, and wrote and promulgated an apostolic exhortation on the subject? Of course not. (They copied their message to the Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, and got no change out of him either.)

Thus the dire result they threatened came to pass. They went public. The announcement was made with a good deal of pride (“Ours is… an act of justice and charity.”… “We are deeply concerned about the true good of souls”), and no obvious regret. It also disingenuously presents the step as a civil gesture (“The Holy Father has decided not to respond. We have interpreted his sovereign decision as an invitation to continue the reflection and the discussion… And so we are informing the entire people of God…”). What humbug. They are carrying out a threat, not “interpreting” the Holy Father’s “sovereign decision” as an “invitation to discussion.”

In fact, the whole thing is transparently fraudulent. According to their own account, the cardinals have encountered doubts out there and doubts are bad for the faithful so they are worried. After they get nowhere with the Pope, far from worrying over the questions and doubts of the little people (this “worry” was always a sham), they decide it’s time to stir the pot and spread their questions and dubia far and wide? Let me translate: They have a case against the Holy Father’s teaching, and they are going to try to prove it and make as much trouble as they can until they are appeased.

The response from their base has been predictable: a frisson of excitement, followed by efforts to drum up public support for the four cardinal-heroes. (I note in passing that these four were part of a group of thirteen who had signed a letter to Pope Francis during the Synod on the Family, voicing concerns. Evidently nine abandoned ship.) Since they went public, a number of extremely conservative scholars and one more cardinal signed on to their cause. A surprise endorsement even came from David Berger. Remember him? He is the gay man who wrote a tell-all best-seller in Germany about the wickedness of the Catholic far-right after he got the sack for coming out. Now he is in the news saying he agrees with the four cardinals about marriage. It might not have been the endorsement they all were waiting for, but there it is.

What has been more interesting, however, is the reaction against the cardinals’ initiative. I’ve sometimes wondered whether Pope Francis has any defenders. He has sympathizers, to be sure: people who will stand together with him and work behind the scenes for his efforts to succeed. But who has gotten out front to face down the opposition? Are they all watching their own backs, rather than watching the Pope’s back?

This is where we have seen some new developments. Interesting reactions have been bubbling up from separate quarters and in different forms. Father Antonio Spadaro, editor-in-chief of Civilta’ Cattolica, after defending the Pope’s decision not to respond (saying the questions were already asked and answered before), was confronted on Twitter by some of the supporters of the four cardinals. After Spadaro’s responses and arguments made no dent in their thinking, he posted a still shot from Lord of the Rings that said you can’t argue with “witless worms.” They immediately interpreted this to mean that he was saying the four Cardinals were witless worms, rather than (as looks obvious to me) that this was an unflattering characterization of the Twitter warriors. Spadaro took the post down, but their indignation knew no bounds and the Tweet will never be forgotten or forgiven, so let’s at least give the man credit for providing us with the most colorful episode in this whole tale: Jesuit Publicist Suggests Dissenting Cardinals (and/or their Twitter pals) Are Witless Worms.

Second, a Roman Catholic Greek bishop, Frangiskos Papamanolis, responded to their initiative with a scorching attack. The bishop, who serves as chair of the Greek conference of bishops, penned an open letter that would singe your fingertips if you tried to pick it up (fortunately, I read it on line). He accuses the four cardinals of the sins of heresy, possible apostasy (he notes that this is how schisms start), and scandal. After first opining that they ought to have resigned their red hats before making such a scandalous statement, he expresses concern not for the souls of the poor confused flock out there, but for their souls. Here is a bit of it.

It is clear from your document that, in practice, you do not believe in the Pope’s supreme magisterial authority, backed up by two Synods of Bishops coming from the whole world. Obviously the Holy Spirit inspires only you, and not the Vicar of Christ, nor even the Bishops gathered in Synod. . .  .

I fear your mental categories will find sophisticated arguments to justify what you are doing, so that you will not even consider it a sin to be dealt with in the sacrament of penance, and you will continue to celebrate Holy Mass each day and receive the Sacrament of the Eucharist sacrilegiously, while you claim you are scandalized if, in specific cases, a divorced person receives the Eucharist and you accuse Holy Father Francis of heresy.

It’s all like that. Honestly, if I were one of the four cardinals, I would not plan a holiday in Greece any time soon.

Then, Father Pio Vito Pinto, head of the Roman Rota, which is the Vatican’s high court, expressed an opinion on the question of whether or not Pope Francis could actually strip these guys of their cardinalate (as has been done sometimes in history, though rarely). Burke is the only cardinal of the four who is young enough to vote in a conclave, but all four enjoy the prestige of their office. Speaking at a conference in Spain, Father Vito Pinto discussed the question of whether the Pope can take that status and prestige away from them. Answer: Yes, he can. Opinion: No, he won’t.

Of course we don’t see Vito Pinto saying that Francis should or will take away their status as cardinals. He is much too correct for that. Nevertheless, the fact that someone in his position is discussing it at all should be considered a little bit chilling, don’t you think? He was clearly appalled by their actions and he didn’t mince any words: “What Church do these cardinals defend? The pope is faithful to the doctrine of Christ. What they have done is a very grave scandal.”

Finally, here’s one more, for good measure. It isn’t on the level of “witless worms” or “heresy” or re-possessing red hats, but I add it as a bonus. South African Cardinal Napier, on Twitter, replied to someone who asked (persistently) why Francis had not replied to the dubia, by saying that Jesus didn’t answer all the questions put to him, either. Zing!

Cardinal Burke, who is fond of giving interviews, seems happy as a lark. He has been busy making his case in as many interviews as possible, to whoever will listen. His threats are being reported too: In the New Year, there will be consequences for Pope Francis, should he fail to answer the dubia! Meanwhile, all is not well at the Knights of Malta, which is Cardinal Burke’s actual (or supposed) place of ministry. A high profile firing has provoked a constitutional crisis for the Order, and has now also called forth an urgent Vatican investigation. Was Burke behind the firing? Or was he just not minding the store because he was too busy writing dubia? We shall find out eventually, I suppose.

So, what are we to learn from all this?

Here are my own takeaways. First of all, I think it would be a mistake to get too excited over it. This isn’t a major source of unrest unless you inhabit the very, very far right wing of the Church. It just isn’t. Is Burke going to contrive somehow to formally censure the Pope? Could he ever succeed in getting him deposed? He may indeed try, and it would be unfortunate and deeply divisive if he tried. But he won’t succeed in changing Francis and he will never succeed in removing him from office. Never in a million years. Sadly, there is a small group in the Church that might indeed follow into schism someone as single-minded and ideologically rigid as Burke, but if he is aiming for that he hasn’t said so. He wants Francis to capitulate to his way of thinking because he identifies his way of thinking with divine revelation, full stop. We should pray for him, as his situation is a brittle one psychologically. I am more concerned that he will crack up than that the Church will crack under pressure from him.

Second, Twitter is a tool of the devil. Nobody can express thoughts of any complexity in that medium. It therefore lends itself to superficiality, misunderstanding, offense, verbal drive-by shooting, harassment, and meaningless noise. As much as I chuckled at “witless worms” and “Jesus didn’t answer questions either,” I don’t think that religious issues ought to be thrashed out in Tweets. Maybe I am wrong, and I welcome other points of view, but it seems to me that the people most likely to succeed in the use of Twitter are the ones who appeal to ideology, which is why the ideologues never change their minds as a result of a Twitter exchange. The health of the Church isn’t served by trading Tweets with them.

Third, I think the four cardinals need to study up on real humility, instead of merely practicing theatrical obsequiousness. I get it that they disagree with the pastoral direction the Pope has taken in interpreting the proper approach to marriage questions. It’s too soft for them; it doesn’t emphasize sin enough for them. But their initiative has to be one of the most arrogant exercises I’ve ever seen, all dressed up in fine language preening about their own “charity and justice.” It’s appalling, and it is a scandal. They should have the humility to notice that, although they can quote canon law with the best of them, they don’t have a monopoly on the truth. As Father Vito Pinto wisely observed, “law is a necessary tool” but it is not the foundation of Christian life.

Finally, I’ve wondered whether Pope Francis could have avoided all this hoo-ha by calling them in one at a time for a little chat, and telling them directly to chill out and let him do his job. Usually there’s a point at which you see a conflict coming, and can defuse it before it blows up. But after reading a number of these accounts, interviews, and reports, I suspect this would not have worked. They live in an echo chamber that reinforces their views, and it’s hard to break someone out of that. Francis’s judgment in not responding was probably the right one. At this point, sadly, it seems to me that the four cardinals are burning bridges. But all that this means is that they will be left on their own island, while Francis remains on the mainland, with the rest of the Church.  


Rita Ferrone is the author of several books about liturgy, including Pastoral Guide to Pope Francis’s Desiderio Desideravi (Liturgical Press). She is a contributing writer to Commonweal.

Also by this author
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.