The four cardinals and their five doubts

by Michael Sean Winters

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The case of the four cardinals and their five dubia has been well reported and garnered plenty of commentary. Cardinals Brandmüller, Burke, Caffarra and Meisner decided to publish their letter containing the dubia, openly challenging the pope to clarify parts of Amoris Laetitia that they find to be a source of confusion. The whole episode is painful and put me in mind of an earlier and similarly painful episode in the history of the Catholic church in the United States.

In the post-war years, Jesuit Fr. Leonard Feeney ran the Saint Benedict Center in Cambridge, Mass., adjacent to the campuses of Harvard University and Radcliffe College. A charismatic man, Feeney attracted young minds to his brand of extreme Catholicism and, specifically, his interpretation of the doctrine "extra Ecclesiam nulla salus" — "no salvation outside the Church." Feeney managed to get his center accredited to teach courses by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts even though he had no such authority from either his Jesuit superiors or from the Archdiocese of Boston. He began convincing his young devotees to drop out of Harvard and Radcliffe and enroll at his center.

Needless to say, this made for some angry parents, and Fr. Feeney was summoned to a meeting with the archdiocese. Historical footnote: The auxiliary bishop with whom he met was then-Bishop, later-Cardinal John Wright. When Wright became Bishop of Pittsburgh and then Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, his secretary was then-Father, now-Cardinal Donald Wuerl, one of Pope Francis' staunchest defenders and one of the most effective participants in the two synods that led to Amoris Laetitia. Feeney agreed to notify parents before their children withdrew from the more prestigious schools and also to submit his newsletter to Jesuit censors.

The great historian of the church in the U.S., Jesuit Fr. Gerald Fogarty, picks up the story. He writes:

But Feeney's attacks became broader. In dealing with Protestants he was virulent in asserting that only in the Catholic Church could one be saved. His followers at Boston College even charged the president of the institution with heresy. He also alienated many of the students who used to frequent St. Benedict's Center, which now became a closed group of "family," totally convinced that it alone represented the truth of Catholicism. The American Church had its own Port Royal.

Bingo! How many times in these pages have I observed that a key hermeneutic in understanding both Pope Francis and his critics is to grasp that he is an old Jesuit and that old Jesuits contend with Jansenists. That is precisely the dynamic at work with these four cardinals.

Feeney continued to cause scandal. A 1949 decree from the Holy Office about Feeney stated: "Therefore, let them who in grave peril are ranked against the Church seriously bear in mind that after 'Rome has spoken,' they cannot be excused even by reason of good faith. Certainly, their bond of duty of obedience toward the Church is much graver than that of those who as yet are related to the Church 'only by an unconscious desire.'" That is to say, the Protestants Feeney thought damned had a better shot at heaven than he did because of his disobedience! He was eventually suspended from the Society of Jesus and excommunicated in 1953. For insisting on an unduly narrow interpretation of the doctrine that there is no salvation outside the church, Feeney found himself outside the church. Thanks be to God, he finally was reconciled in 1972, although he never formally recanted his interpretation of the doctrine.

Doctrines are made to be wide enough to find application in a variety of complex and different human circumstances. This is the thing that the four cardinals, like Feeney, cannot accept. They believe that their way of reading the prior teachings of the church is the only way, even though the esteemed scholar of the theology of St. John Paul II, Rocco Buttiglione has again explained that Amoris Laetitia is in full continuity with the whole of the teachings of Familiaris Consortio, St. John Paul II's prior apostolic exhortation of the same subject. The four cardinals focus on parts of that latter text, and neglect others. The synod fathers, and Pope Francis, offer a different interpretation, one that I believe is more cognizant of the entire prior teachings, and one that is not the least bit confused about doctrine.

The problem, I think, is that the four cardinals believe Pope Francis is muddying the waters by reclaiming the church's long standing teachings on conscience, on the difference between objective and subjective guilt, on the application of the church's twin teachings on marital indissolubility and God's superabundant mercy to the human details of a situation, that is discernment, and perhaps most especially, that the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect, the most Jansenistic of the positions put forward by the critics of Amoris Laetitia. They want to look upon the world through the lens of church teaching and see only black and white, but human lives are grey and when seen through the lens of church teaching, that human greyness should invite compassion not judgment from a Christian pastor. Their approach works for an accountant but not for a pastor.

In his Apologia pro vita sua, Blessed John Henry Newman writes of his conversion to Catholicism and, specifically, his ability to acquiesce to Catholic understandings of certain doctrines. And, as ever, Newman writes beautifully:

Nor had I any trouble about receiving those additional articles, which are not found in the Anglican Creed. Some of them I believed already, but not any one of them was a trial to me. I made a profession of them upon my reception with the greatest ease, and I have the same ease in believing them now. I am far of course from denying that every article of the Christian Creed, whether as held by Catholics or by Protestants, is beset with intellectual difficulties; and it is simple fact, that, for myself, I cannot answer those difficulties. Many persons are very sensitive of the difficulties of Religion; I am as sensitive of them as any one; but I have never been able to see a connexion between apprehending those difficulties, however keenly, and multiplying them to any extent, and on the other hand doubting the doctrines to which they are attached. Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt, as I understand the subject; difficulty and doubt are incommensurate. There of course may be difficulties in the evidence; but I am speaking of difficulties intrinsic to the doctrines themselves, or to their relations with each other. A man may be annoyed that he cannot work out a mathematical problem, of which the answer is or is not given to him, without doubting that it admits of an answer, or that a certain particular answer is the true one. Of all points of faith, the being of a God is, to my own apprehension, encompassed with most difficulty, and yet borne in upon our minds with most power.

"Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt." It seems to me the four cardinals have five difficulties, but not five doubts. Perhaps they have more difficulties than that. I fear that in their zeal to defend the doctrine on marital incommensurability, they neglect other equally vital doctrines on conscience, mercy, and the sacraments. I certainly had difficulties with some of the interpretations placed upon the teachings of St. John Paul II. We all have difficulties. But to publicly voice doubts about the magisterial teaching of the church is not something a cardinal should be doing or, if he does, he should have the decency to include his red hat with the submission of his dubia. Cardinal Burke likes to fret about lax Catholics causing scandal, but in his case, as in that of Fr. Feeney, it is sometimes the most extreme Catholics who cause the worst scandal. 

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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