Prognostications are a dangerous pastime for commentators, and in the papacy of Pope Francis the business of making predictions seems a particularly dangerous one. Back in April, when Francis issued a document called Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”), I warned readers to expect ongoing controversy around an unanswered question. This time I was not wrong.
The unanswered question was the one which had been hotly debated at the two consecutive synods of bishops held in 2014 and 2015 – namely, whether divorced and remarried Catholics might be admitted to the Eucharist in certain circumstances. At the two synods the proposal, pushed by prelates handpicked by Francis, faced strong opposition from many bishops and failed to achieve the necessary consensus. The document produced by the 2015 meeting came up with an ambiguous formula, essentially fudging the issue.
After the synod all eyes were on Francis to see if he would intervene with a clear decision. Popes usually publish “post-synodal exhortations” after these gatherings. Most are anodyne and soon forgotten, but this one aroused feverish hopes and anxieties in a polarised Church. When it arrived, readers thumbed hastily through more than 300 pages to find the eagerly awaited response. That answer, hidden away in two footnotes, was once again ambiguous.
The past six months have seemed at times like a war of attrition. The controversy has centred largely on how the Pope’s words are to be interpreted. Some national bishops’ conferences – Germany, for example – seem more or less united in favour of liberalising the discipline, while others – such as Poland – insist that nothing has changed. The bishops of Buenos Aires produced a document suggesting that the way is now open for Communion for the remarried in some cases where subjective guilt might be diminished. The Pope responded with a private letter commending this interpretation as the right one. In what has become a familiar aspect of disputes around the Pope’s real intentions, the purportedly private exchange was leaked – a transparent attempt to give momentum to the liberalising tendency.
The division doesn’t just run between national groups; it also divides episcopal conferences internally. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia published norms for his diocese which made it clear that the discipline there would remain unchanged. Those in irregular unions might receive Communion only if they lived in continence. His compatriot Cardinal Kevin Farrell, head of the new Vatican body overseeing family issues, criticised Chaput for jumping the gun on what should have been, according to him, decided collegially by the American bishops. Farrell clearly implied that such a policy should be more open to Francis’s favoured “option of mercy”. Amoris Laetitia, he said, was the Holy Spirit speaking.
Amid these manoeuvrings, a bombshell exploded. A letter was made public, addressed to the Pope by four cardinals known to be hostile to any change in the discipline. It took the form of dubia, “doubts”, traditionally addressed to the competent Roman authority by those seeking clarification of points of Church teaching or canon law deemed insufficiently clear.
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