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Leader comment: Pope Francis gives dusty answers to his dubious cardinals

06 October 2023

WHILE the Prime Minister spent most of his week trying not to say that the HS2 rail scheme was going to stop short, the Pope has had the opposite experience. Five retired conservative cardinals wrote to him this summer with their dubia or doubts — or, we would say, blatant challenges — urging him to reassert traditional Catholic doctrine, the equivalent of assuring people that trains would stop in Birmingham. In his replies, which were published this week, Pope Francis determinedly keeps the lines open. Most attention has been attracted by his remarks on blessings for same-sex couples, writing that “pastoral prudence” might permit blessings in certain circumstances. Characteristically, the sentence that appeared to rule out any official permission (having seen the mess that the Anglicans were making of it) — “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” — had the equal function of leaving the decision with parish priests. Lest this message was unclear, he continued: “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.”

Pope Francis’s responses to each of the cardinals’ dubia exhibited a similar robustness. The first dubium challenged the concept of reform per se, asking whether the Pope’s refusal to reprimand reforming bishops meant that truths supposedly revealed to the Church for all time could be reinterpreted “according to the cultural changes of our time”. Well, yes, the Pope wrote, if by “reinterpreted” one meant “interpreted better”. And he continued: “While it is true that the Divine Revelation is immutable and always binding, the Church must be humble and recognise that she never exhausts its unfathomable richness and needs to grow in her understanding.” In this light, it is possible to consider supposedly closed topics such as the ordination of women and the status of Anglican Orders as “subjects for study”, with the possibility of “a better expression of some past statements of the Magisterium”.

To the dubium that challenges the concept of synodality, the topic of the gathering that began in Rome this week, Pope Francis turns playful. If authority correctly resides solely with the Pope and his college of bishops, what are the five cardinals doing with their dubia if not “requesting a form of synodality” in the Pope’s ministry. . . ?

Carefully, even guilefully, Pope Francis ensures that each of his answers draws on scripture or the pronouncements of his predecessors. But his message is clear: during his pontificate, the lines will remain open between the Holy Spirit and the “whole people of God”, and neither he nor his cardinals ought to block them.

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