The publication of a new set of questions addressed to Pope Francis by five longtime cardinals has once again turned the focus of Catholics to the place of “dubia” in the life of the Church.

What are dubia?  

The word “dubia” — plural for a “dubium” — literally means, from the Latin, “doubts.” But another way of translating it is to see the word meaning “questions that seek clarification.” A dubium, then, is a request for clarity from a dicastery or office of the Roman Curia or even of the Holy Father himself on a matter of Church teaching, a liturgical issue, or a fine point of interpreting canon law. The questions most often arise from the daily issues of Church governance and liturgical and sacramental practice. In fact, dubia are a regular feature of the interaction between the Vatican’s various dicasteries and Catholic dioceses around the globe.

What questions are submitted? 

A dubium is most often sent to one of three Vatican offices: the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, and especially the Dicastery for Legislative Texts, which is asked to interpret the meaning or applicability of a canon in the Code of Canon Law.

Dubia can cover almost every imaginable topic. A few of the questions asked in recent decades include: “Can the title of minor basilica be granted to a cathedral?”, submitted to the Congregation for Divine Worship; “Are Mormon baptisms valid?”, sent to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; and “Are already-married candidates for the permanent diaconate required with their wives to practice perfect and perpetual continence after ordination?”, submitted to the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts.

Most often, dubia are submitted by bishops, bishops’ conferences, or religious communities, but any Catholic may send them, as was shown in 2021 when three German lay Catholics from the Diocese of Essen submitted a dubium to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith asking if the Church in Germany is in a state of schism as a result of the German Synodal Way. 

Who responds to dubia? 

The three German Catholics expressed at the time a realistic expectation about hearing back from the Vatican dicastery, saying to EWTN News’ German-language news agency CNA Deutsch that they had “no sense of entitlement” to a reply. The laypeople were correct in their expectation, as the Vatican offices are not required to respond to any dubium sent for consideration. Certainly, the submission of dubia by bishops and bishops’ conferences is more likely to elicit a response, as are questions that emerge out of matters of grave importance to the Church. Members of the College of Cardinals, such as the so-called dubia cardinals of 2016 and now 2023, can also have some anticipation of a response given they are by tradition considered close advisers to the pope. Nevertheless, the Holy Father is not required to respond and might also reply in a manner or through a representative of his choosing.

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By custom, when a Vatican dicastery does answer a dubium, it is through a “Responsum ad dubium” (literally, a response to the doubt), and customarily, the response can be answered in the affirmative or the negative, “yes” or “no.” Almost always, the terse reaction is accompanied by a fuller explanation or commentary.

Very often as well, the answer from a dicastery is considered a “private response,” meaning it is not universally applicable nor can it be applied to address a situation in some other forum, even if the facts or circumstances are similar. How the response is issued matters as well, as a private reply by way of a letter has far less weight and far narrower applicability than a formal instruction or notification. Traditionally, the Dicastery for Divine Worship has published its “responsa” in the Notitiae, a publication issued bimonthly that until recently contained all important statements, documents, and responses pertaining to the liturgy and the sacraments. For those questions that require a formal statement, dicasteries will issue them publicly.

What are some of the most notable dubia?   

Over the decades, there have been several controversial or important dubia and responsa. In 1995, for example, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith answered a significant dubium with a resounding yes: “Whether the teaching that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women, which is presented in the apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis to be held definitively, is to be understood as belonging to the deposit of faith.” Its prefect, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, included a brief explanatory note affirming further that the “teaching requires definitive assent” by the faithful.

Similarly, in early 2021, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith made public its negative responsum to a dubium, asking: “Does the Church have the power to give the blessing to unions of persons of the same sex?” The declaration and accompanying explanatory note were widely criticized by Catholic progressives, but included in that explanatory note by the prefect of the congregation, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, was the line: “The Sovereign Pontiff Francis, at the audience granted to the undersigned secretary of this congregation, was informed and gave his assent to the publication of the above-mentioned Responsum ad dubium, with the annexed explanatory note.” 

That same year, following the publication of Pope Francis’ apostolic letter Traditionis Custodes that limited the use of the so-called Traditional Latin Mass, the Congregation for Divine Worship received several requests for clarification on how it should be applied. The response, which was posted on the congregation’s website, noted that questions had been raised “from several quarters and with greater frequency,” and so it was deemed necessary to give a response to the 11 most-asked questions. Like the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith earlier that year, the prefect for the Congregation for Divine Worship, Cardinal Arthur Roche, declared that the responses were published after “having informed the Holy Father and having received his assent.” Notably, the “responsa ad dubia” were addressed to the presidents of the world’s episcopal conferences.  

Finally, there were the now famous dubia submitted to Pope Francis in 2016 by four cardinals who asked five questions about the interpretation of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’ controversial apostolic exhortation on love and its approach to Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. To this date, as is his right, Pope Francis has chosen not to respond. The Holy Father did choose to answer the latest dubia from the cardinals.

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