Four cardinals openly challenge Francis over 'Amoris Laetitia'

This story appears in the Amoris Laetitia feature series. View the full series.

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Four semi-retired cardinals have publicly questioned Pope Francis' most recent teachings on family life, issuing an open letter to the pontiff with five yes or no questions about how he understands church teaching following the publication of his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia*.

While the cardinals say they are writing the note in "an act of justice and charity" to allow the pope to "dispel all ambiguity" about his exhortation, they take a defiant tone and pit Francis' document against others written by his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Publication of such an open challenge to a Catholic pontiff from some of his cardinals, who normally act as the pope's staunchest defenders, is exceedingly rare.

Although 13 cardinals were reported to have questioned Francis in a letter during the 2015 Synod of Bishops, their letter was only made public after it was leaked to the press. Once it was public, several of the prelates attached to the note publicly distanced themselves from it.

The new letter on Amoris Laetitia* was published openly Monday after it was given to a number of news organizations. The full text was posted by the National Catholic Register. The four cardinals say they decided to make their letter public after their original Sept. 19 note to Francis and to Cardinal Gerhard Muller, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, did not receive a response.

"The Holy Father has decided not to respond," they state. "We have interpreted his sovereign decision as an invitation to continue the reflection, and the discussion, calmly and with respect. And so we are informing the entire people of God about our initiative, offering all of the documentation."

The four prelates signing the document are: Carlo Caffarra, former archbishop of Bologna; Raymond Burke, spiritual patron of the Order of Malta, Walter Brandmüller; former president of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences; and Joachim Meisner, former archbishop of Cologne.

The cardinals focus their questions on whether there are now circumstances under which divorced and remarried persons can receive communion, whether there are still "absolute moral norms" that prohibit Catholics from taking certain acts, and how the pope understands Catholic teaching on the role of conscience in making moral decisions.

In his exhortation, released in response to the 2014 and 2015 Synods on family life, Francis wrote that Catholic bishops and priests should no longer make blanket moral determinations about so-called "irregular" situations such as divorce and remarriage.

While the pope did not specifically issue a new law or regulation allowing remarried Catholics writ-large to have the Eucharist, he called for "pastoral discernment" of individual situations and proposed "the logic of pastoral mercy" in working with remarried persons.

In September, Francis wrote a note to a group of bishops in Argentina, thanking them for providing their priests with concrete guidelines for implementing the section of the exhortation about circumstances in which divorced and civilly remarried couples might eventually be allowed to receive Communion.

At least one archbishop publicly downplayed the importance of Monday's letter from the four cardinals.

"Pastoral care moves within ambiguity," Brisbane, Australia Archbishop Mark Coleridge tweeted Monday. "We now need a pastoral patience not the quick-fix anxiety voiced here."

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

*An earlier version of this article misspelled the document's name.

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