Pope Francis responds to dubia submitted by five cardinals

(Note on the five cardinals: German Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, American Cardinal Raymond Burke, Mexican Cardinal Juan Sandoval Íñiguez, Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah and Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen. All five are retired and have been publicly critical of Pope Francis in the past. None of the cardinals were invited to participate in the synod’s Roman meeting this year. Only Cardinals Sarah and Burke are below the age of 80 and thus eligible to vote in a conclave. – America Magazine)

The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith has published Pope Francis’ response to “dubia” (questions; literally “doubts”) presented by five Cardinals. The questions concerning the interpretation of Divine Revelation, the blessing of same-sex unions, synodality as a constitutive dimension of the Church, the priestly ordination of women, and repentance as a necessary condition for sacramental absolution.

Vatican News

Pope Francis has responded to five Dubia [questions; lit. “doubts”] that were sent to him last July by Cardinals Walter Brandmüller and Raymond Leo Burke supported by three other Cardinals, Juan Sandoval Íñiguez, Robert Sarah, and Joseph Zen Ze-kiun.

The questions, in Italian, and the Pope’s responses in Spanish, were published on Monday on the website of the 

Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith

Below is the text, with our provisional English translation of Pope Francis’ response to the Dubia:

Response of Pope Francis to Dubia submitted by several Cardinals

Dear brothers,

Although I believe it is not always prudent to respond to questions directly addressed to me, and it would be impossible to answer all of them, in this case, given the proximity of the Synod, I have deemed it appropriate to do so.

1. Dubium regarding the assertion that the Divine Revelation should be reinterpreted based on current cultural and anthropological changes.

Following the statements of some bishops, which have neither been corrected nor retracted, we ask whether the Divine Revelation should be reinterpreted in the Church according to the cultural changes of our time,  and the new anthropological vision promoted by these changes. Or if, on the contrary, the Divine Revelation is binding forever, immutable, and therefore not to be contradicted, in accordance with the dictum of the Second Vatican Council, which states that “the obedience of faith” must be given to God who reveals, (Dei Verbum 5); that what is revealed for the salvation of all nations must remain “forever whole and alive”, and be “handed on to all generations” (7), and that progress in understanding does not imply any change in the truth of things and words because faith is “handed on once and for all ” (8), and the Church’s Magisterium is not above the Word of God, but only teaches what has been handed on (10).

Response to the first Dubium

a) The answer depends on the meaning you give to the word “reinterpret.” If it is understood as “interpret better,” the expression is valid. In this sense, the Second Vatican Council affirmed that it is necessary that with the work of exegetes – and I would add of theologians – “the judgment of the Church may mature” (Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum, 12).

b) Therefore, while it is true that the Divine Revelation is immutable and always binding, the Church must be humble and recognize that she never exhausts its unfathomable richness and needs to grow in her understanding.

c) Consequently, she also matures in her understanding of what she has herself affirmed in her Magisterium.

d) Cultural changes and new challenges in history do not modify Revelation but can stimulate us to express certain aspects of its overflowing richness better, which always offers more.

e) It is inevitable that this can lead to a better expression of some past statements of the Magisterium, and indeed, this has been the case throughout history.

f) On the one hand, it is true that the Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but it is also true that both the texts of the Scripture and the testimonies of Tradition require interpretation in order to distinguish their perennial substance from cultural conditioning. This is evident, for example, in biblical texts (such as Exodus 21:20-21) and in some magisterial interventions that tolerated slavery (Cf. Pope Nicholas V, Bull Dum diversas, 1452). This is not a minor issue given its intimate connection with the perennial truth of the inalienable dignity of the human person. These texts need interpretation. The same applies to certain considerations in the New Testament regarding women (1 Corinthians 11:3-10; 1 Timothy 2:11-14) and other texts of Scripture and testimonies of Tradition that cannot be materially repeated today.

g) It is important to emphasize that what cannot change is what has been revealed “for the salvation of all” (Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum, 7). Therefore, the Church must constantly discern between what is essential for salvation and what is secondary or less directly connected with this goal. In this regard, I would like to recall what St. Thomas Aquinas affirmed: “The more one descends to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter defects” (Summa Theologiae I/II q. 94, art. 4).

h) Finally, a single formulation of a truth can never be adequately understood if it is presented in isolation, detached from the rich and harmonious context of the entire Revelation. The “hierarchy of truths” also implies placing each of them in proper connection with the central truths and with the entirety of the Church’s teaching. This can ultimately lead to different ways of presenting the same doctrine, even though “for those who long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance, this might appear as undesirable and leading to confusion. But in fact such variety serves to bring out and develop different facets of the inexhaustible riches of the Gospel” (Evangelii gaudium, 40). Every theological current has its risks, but also its opportunities.

2. Dubium regarding the assertion that the widespread practice of blessing same-sex unions is in accordance with Revelation and the Magisterium (CCC 2357).

According to the Divine Revelation, attested in Sacred Scripture, which the Church teaches, “listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit” (Dei Verbum, 10),  “In the beginning,” God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them, and blessed them to be fruitful (cf. Genesis 1:27-28) and hence, the Apostle Paul teaches that denying sexual difference is the consequence of denying the Creator (Romans 1:24-32). We ask: can the Church deviate from this “principle,” considering it, in contrast to what was taught in Veritatis splendor, 103, as a mere ideal, and accept as a “possible good” objectively sinful situations, such as unions with persons of the same sex, without departing from the revealed doctrine?

Pope Francis’s Response to the Second Dubium

a) The Church has a very clear understanding of marriage: an exclusive, stable, and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to procreation. Only this union can be called “marriage.” Other forms of union realize it only in “a partial and analogous way” (Amoris Laetitia 292), so they cannot be strictly called “marriage.”

b) It is not just a matter of names, but the reality we call marriage has a unique essential constitution that requires an exclusive name, not applicable to other realities. It is undoubtedly much more than a mere “ideal.”

c) For this reason, the Church avoids any type of rite or sacramental that might contradict this conviction and suggest that something that is not marriage is recognized as marriage.

d) However, in our relationships with people, we must not lose the pastoral charity, which should permeate all our decisions and attitudes. The defence of objective truth is not the only expression of this charity; it also includes kindness, patience, understanding, tenderness, and encouragement. Therefore, we cannot be judges who only deny, reject, and exclude.

e) Therefore, pastoral prudence must adequately discern whether there are forms of blessing, requested by one or more persons, that do not convey a mistaken concept of marriage. For when a blessing is requested, it is expressing a plea to God for help, a supplication to live better, a trust in a Father who can help us live better.

f) On the other hand, although there are situations that are not morally acceptable from an objective point of view, the same pastoral charity requires us not to simply treat as “sinners” other people whose guilt or responsibility may be mitigated by various factors affecting subjective accountability (Cf. St. John Paul II, Reconciliatio et paenitentia, 17).

g) Decisions that may be part of pastoral prudence in certain circumstances should not necessarily become a norm. That is, it is not appropriate for a Diocese, a Bishops’ Conference, or any other ecclesial structure to constantly and officially enable procedures or rituals for all kinds of matters, because not everything that “is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances can be elevated to the level of a rule” as this “would lead to an intolerable casuistry” (Amoris laetitia, 304). Canon law should not and cannot cover everything, nor should Episcopal Conferences with their varied documents and protocols claim to do so, as the life of the Church flows through many channels other than normative ones.

3.Dubium regarding the assertion that synodality is a “constitutive dimension of the Church” (Apostolic Constitution Episcopalis communio, 6), such that the Church is by nature synodal.

Since the Synod of Bishops does not represent the episcopal college but is merely an advisory body of the Pope, as bishops, witnesses of the faith, cannot delegate their confession of the truth, it is asked whether synodality can be the supreme regulatory criterion of the permanent governance of the Church without distorting its constitutive structure desired by its Founder, whereby the supreme and full authority of the Church is exercised both by the Pope by virtue of his office and by the college of bishops together with their head, the Roman Pontiff (Lumen gentium, 22).

Pope Francis’s Response to the Third Dubium

a) Although you acknowledge that the supreme and full authority of the Church is exercised both by the Pope by virtue of his office and by the college of bishops together with their Head, the Roman Pontiff (Cf. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium, 22), with these very questions, you manifest your need to participate, to freely express your opinion, and to collaborate, thereby requesting a form of “synodality” in the exercise of my ministry.

b) The Church is a “mystery of missionary communion,” but this communion is not only affective or ethereal; it necessarily implies real participation. Not only the hierarchy but the entire People of God in various ways and at different levels can make their voices heard and feel part of the Church’s journey. In this sense, we can say that synodality, as a style and dynamism, is an essential dimension of the Church’s life. On this point, St. John Paul II said some very beautiful things in Novo millennio ineunte.

c) It is quite another thing to sacralize or impose a particular synodal methodology that appeals to one group, turning it into a norm and an obligatory path for everyone, because this would only “freeze” the synodal journey, ignoring the different characteristics of the particular Churches and the varied richness of the universal Church.

4. Dubium regarding the support of pastors and theologians for the theory that “the theology of the Church has changed,” and thus, the sacramental ordination of women can be conferred.

Following the statements of some prelates, which have neither been corrected nor retracted, claiming that with Vatican II, the theology of the Church and the meaning of the Mass have changed, it is asked whether the dictum of the Second Vatican Council is still valid, which states that the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial priesthood differ essentially and not only in degree (Lumen gentium, 10), and that priests, by the “sacred power of the order to offer sacrifice and forgive sins” (Presbyterorum ordinis, 2), act in the name and person of Christ the Mediator, through whom the spiritual sacrifice of the faithful is made perfect? It is also asked whether the teaching of St. John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis is still valid, which teaches as a truth to be held definitively the impossibility of conferring priestly ordination on women, so that this teaching is no longer subject to change or free discussion by pastors or theologians.

Pope Francis’s Response to the Fourth Dubium

a) “The common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial priesthood differ essentially” (Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium, 10). It is not appropriate to assert a difference in degree that implies considering the common priesthood of the faithful as something of a “second class” or of lesser value (“a lower grade”). Both forms of priesthood illuminate and support each other.

b) When St. John Paul II taught that we must affirm “definitively” the impossibility of conferring priestly ordination on women, he was in no way denigrating women and giving supreme power to men. St. John Paul II also affirmed other things. For example, when we speak of priestly authority, “we are in the realm of function, not of dignity and holiness” (St. John Paul II, Christifideles laici, 51), words that we have not sufficiently embraced. He also clearly held that while the priest alone presides at the Eucharist, the tasks “do not favour the superiority of one over the other” (St. John Paul II, Christifideles laici, note 190; cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration Inter insigniores, VI). He also stated that if the priestly function is “hierarchical,” it should not be understood as a form of domination but “is totally ordered to the holiness of the members of Christ” (St. John Paul II, Mulieris dignitatem, 27). If this is not understood, and practical consequences are not drawn from these distinctions, it will be difficult to accept that the priesthood is reserved only for men, and we will not be able to recognize the rights of women or the need for them to participate in various ways in the leadership of the Church.

c) On the other hand, to be rigorous, let us recognize that a clear and authoritative doctrine on the exact nature of a “definitive statement” has not yet been fully developed. It is not a dogmatic definition, and yet it must be adhered to by all. No one can publicly contradict it and yet it can be a subject of study, as with the case of the validity of ordinations in the Anglican Communion.

5. Dubium regarding the assertion that “forgiveness is a human right” and the insistence of the Holy Father on the duty to absolve everyone always, so that repentance is not a necessary condition for sacramental absolution.

It is asked whether the teaching of the Council of Trent, which states that contrition of the penitent, consisting of detesting the sin committed with the purpose of not sinning again, is necessary for the validity of sacramental confession, is still in force, such that the priest must defer absolution when it is clear that this condition is not met.

Pope Francis’s Response to the Fifth Dubium

a) Repentance is necessary for the validity of sacramental absolution and implies a resolution not to sin. But there is not mathematics here, and once again I must remind you that the confessional is not a customs house. We are not masters but humble stewards of the Sacraments that nourish the faithful because these gifts of the Lord, more than relics to be preserved, are aids of the Holy Spirit for people’s lives.

b) There are many ways to express repentance. Often, in people who have a very wounded self-esteem, declaring themselves guilty is a cruel torment, but the very act of approaching the confessional is a symbolic expression of repentance and of seeking divine help.

c) I also want to recall that “sometimes we find it hard to make room for the unconditional love of God” in pastoral care (Amoris laetitia, 311), but we must learn to do so. Following St. John Paul II, I maintain that we should not demand from the faithful overly precise and certain resolutions of amendment, which ultimately become abstract or even narcissistic, but that even the predictability of a new fall “does not prejudice the authenticity of the purpose” (St. John Paul II, Letter to Card. William W. Baum and participants in the annual course of the Apostolic Penitentiary, March 22, 1996, 5).

d) Finally, it must be clear that all the conditions usually attached to confession are generally not applicable when a person is in a situation of agony, or with very limited mental and psychological capacities.

Provisional translation by Vatican News

Unofficial working translation.

Commentary in America Magazine:

Same-sex blessings, women’s ordination and whether doctrine can change: What Pope Francis said to the ‘dubia’ cardinals

Link to article:


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  1. Pat Savage says:

    It’s amazing the headliner grabbers are out this morning alongside very educated clergy and former politicians sharing their views.But for all their wise education and headline grabbing the fundamental point that Francis has said is marriage is between “a man and a woman”.

  2. Joe O'Leary says:

    Pope Francis shows up the narrow magisterial fundamentalism of his opponents by giving them a basic lesson in theology. He took their dubia as bona fide inquiries rather than gotcha questions and made them an occasion for valuable catechesis.

    Today is a day of hope: the Synod opens, and Laudate si’ Part II sees the light.

    St Francis of Assisi, pray for us.

    1. Pat Savage says:

      Fundamentalism as defined in the dictionary: “form of a religion, especially Islam or Protestant Christianity, that upholds belief in the strict, literal interpretation of scripture.”

      Very strong language to use from all those who want us all to make sure the doors of church are not closed to anyone and further more to define the Pope as giving us valuable catechesis. Well very loose I think or as one commentator on RTÉ today pointed out, the the words used by the pope would only cause more confusion for priests.

      But sure the media in the west of Ireland will give us a looser interpretation of what’s been said or written.

      1. Joe O'Leary says:

        Pat Savage, “magisterial fundamentalism” is a phrase often used to describe those who adopt a stiff literalism toward texts of the Catholic past including papal texts. Pope Francis quotes texts upholding slavery, one from Exodus and the other a papal text, reminding the dubitators of the fatal consequences of their fundamentalist hermeneutics. The Development of Doctrine (a deeply Catholic and orthodox theorem, most famously advanced by St John Henry Newman) is one of the chief antidotes to this rigidity. Pope Francis expounds it in its most gentle form, using the language of St John XXIII. If the words of the Pope only cause confusion of priests, I suggest that the priests in question need to take basic lessons in theology from Newman, John XXIII, Pope Francis, and Vatican II. Is that too much to ask?

        The RTÉ person sounds as if he or she considers priests to be incapable of thought and incapable of giving competent instruction even with papal help. Religious commentators in Ireland love to talk as if the church has not advanced an inch in its understanding of the faith since 1962, constantly quoting Archbishop John McQuaid, or acting with fake shock at the idea that belief in the Devil has waned (Patsy McGarry in a recent column), a story that would have been new in 1962 but now is as dead as a doornail (except for readers of Dan Brown). And note that for all the points he makes in his patient and intelligent response to the Dubia Pope Francis also quotes St John Paul II, so he has three St Johns on his side. To whom we may add St John the Evangelist and the great promise that the current Synod must draw on in prayer and hope: “I have yet many things to teach you, but when the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth comes, he will lead you into all truth.”

  3. Paddy Ferry says:

    Joe@5, excellent, absolutely excellent.
    This kind of contribution from you — and there have many over the years — is this ACP site at it’s very best.
    Thank you, Joe and God bless the Pope — at least this Pope.

  4. Soline Humbert says:

    Church history and the way the cruel teaching of damnation/limbo for unbaptised children came and went (not before causing untold suffering to parents, mothers especially) gives hope for change in our own time.
    What is closed can suddenly spring open…

    1. Joe O'Leary says:

      Soline, thanks for that brilliant article. Here is another piece on limbo: https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/limbo-remains-a-possible-theological-hypothesis-1.2097118

      Clergy caught in dogmatic binds indeed caused great havoc in ordinary people’s lives over many centuries. A hardliner, Gregory of Rimini, was called “the torturer of infants” https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/gregory-rimini/

      Bishop Lucey’s successor, Bishop Michael Murphy, asked me one evening: “Was it your friend, St Augustine, who got us into all this mess?… Or was it St Paul?”

      We cannot undo the mistakes of the past, but we can learn from them.

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