The practice of issuing dubia has come to the fore during this pontificate. In 2016, Cardinals Burke and Brandmüller along with late Cardinals Carlo Caffarra and Joachim Meisner submitted a set of five dubium to Pope Francis seeking clarification on the interpretation of Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, particularly regarding the admission of divorced and remarried Catholics to the sacraments. They did not receive a direct response to their questions.
In 2021, the DDF issued a “responsa ad dubium” giving a simple “no” to a dubium on whether the Church has “the power to give the blessing to unions of persons of the same sex.” That same year, the Dicastery for Divine Worship issued a responsa ad dubia on various questions relating to the implementation of Traditionis Custodes, Pope Francis’ motu proprio restricting the Traditional Latin Mass.
Then in January of this year, Jesuit Father James Martin directly sent Pope Francis a set of three dubium seeking clarification of comments the Holy Father had given the Associated Press on the issue of homosexuality. The pope replied to the questions with a handwritten letter two days later.
What both dubia contain
The first dubium (question) concerns development of doctrine and the claim made by some bishops that divine revelation “should be reinterpreted according to the cultural changes of our time and according to the new anthropological vision that these changes promote; or whether divine revelation is binding forever, immutable and therefore not to be contradicted.”
The cardinals said the pope responded July 11 by saying that the Church “can deepen her understanding of the deposit of faith,” which they agreed with, but that the response did “not capture our concern.” They reinstated their concern that many Christians today argue that “cultural and anthropological changes of our time should push the Church to teach the opposite of what it has always taught. This concerns essential, not secondary, questions for our salvation, like the confession of faith, subjective conditions for access to the sacraments, and observance of the moral law,” they said.
They therefore rephrased their dubium to say: “Is it possible for the Church today to teach doctrines contrary to those she has previously taught in matters of faith and morals, whether by the pope ex cathedra, or in the definitions of an Ecumenical Council, or in the ordinary universal magisterium of the bishops dispersed throughout the world (cf. Lumen Gentium, 25)?”
In the second dubium on blessing same-sex unions, they underscored the Church’s teaching based on divine revelation and Scripture that “God created man in his own image, male and female he created them and blessed them, that they might be fruitful” (Gen 1:27-28), and St. Paul’s teaching that to deny sexual difference is the consequence of the denial of the Creator (Rom 1:24-32). They then asked the pope if the Church can deviate from such teaching and accept “as a ‘possible good’ objectively sinful situations, such as same-sex unions, without betraying revealed doctrine?”
The pope responded July 11, the cardinals said, by saying that equating marriage to blessing same-sex couples would give rise to confusion and so should be avoided. But the cardinals said their concern is different, namely “that the blessing of same-sex couples might create confusion in any case, not only in that it might make them seem analogous to marriage, but also in that homosexual acts would be presented practically as a good, or at least as the possible good that God asks of people in their journey toward him.”
They therefore rephrased their dubium to ask if it were possible in “some circumstances” for a priest to bless same-sex unions “thus suggesting that homosexual behavior as such would not be contrary to God’s law and the person’s journey toward God?” Linked to that dubium, they asked if the Church’s teaching continues to be valid that “every sexual act outside of marriage, and in particular homosexual acts, constitutes an objectively grave sin against God’s law, regardless of the circumstances in which it takes place and the intention with which it is carried out.”
Question about synodality
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In the third dubium, the cardinals asked whether synodality can be the highest criterion of Church governance without jeopardizing “her constitutive order willed by her Founder,” given that the Synod of Bishops does not represent the college of bishops but is “merely a consultative organ of the pope.” They stressed: “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 its head the Roman pontiff (Lumen Gentium, 22).”
The cardinals said Pope Francis responded by insisting on a “synodal dimension to the Church” that includes all the lay faithful, but the cardinals said they are concerned that “synodality” is being presented as if it “represents the supreme authority of the Church” in communion with the pope. They therefore sought clarity on whether the synod can act as the supreme authority on crucial issues. Their reformulated dubium asked: “Will the Synod of Bishops to be held in Rome, and which includes only a chosen representation of pastors and faithful, exercise, in the doctrinal or pastoral matters on which it will be called to express itself, the supreme authority of the Church, which belongs exclusively to the Roman pontiff and, una cum capite suo, to the college of bishops (cf. can. 336 C.I.C.)?”
Holy Orders and forgiveness
In the fourth dubium, the cardinals addressed statements from some prelates, again “neither corrected nor retracted,” which say that as the “theology of the Church has changed,” so therefore women can be ordained priests. They therefore asked the pope if the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and St. John Paul II’s apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which “definitively held the impossibility of conferring priestly ordination on women, is still valid.” They also sought clarification on whether or not this teaching “is no longer subject to change nor to the free discussion of pastors or theologians.”
In their reformulated dubium, the cardinals said the pope reiterated that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis is to be held definitively and “that it is necessary to understand the priesthood, not in terms of power, but in terms of service, in order to understand correctly Our Lord’s decision to reserve holy orders to men only.” But they took issue with his response that said the question “can still be further explored.”
“We are concerned that some may interpret this statement to mean that the matter has not yet been decided in a definitive manner,” they said, adding that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis belongs to the deposit of faith. Their reformulated dubium therefore comprised: “Could the Church in the future have the faculty to confer priestly ordination on women, thus contradicting that the exclusive reservation of this sacrament to baptized males belongs to the very substance of the sacrament of orders, which the Church cannot change?”