Surveying the hostilities, the anger, and the division in the country after the presidential election, someone sarcastically wrote the other day that “at least all is calm in Rome.”
That comment was both sarcastic and ironic as — at the very time the world needs to hear the clarity of the Catholic faith expounded by those charged with teaching — confusion seems to be the default option in the Eternal City.
Some are even describing what is happening in the church as “civil war,” with Pope Francis and various cardinals and bishops locked in mortal combat with a group of (apparently) intransigent, cold-hearted, legalistic clerics. A well-known supporter of Pope Francis, the Jesuit Fr. Antonio Spadaro, even went on Twitter describing one cardinal as a “witless worm.”
Back in September, a group of four cardinals, three retired, but one — Cardinal Raymond Burke — still active as the senior cleric in the Knights of Malta, wrote to Pope Francis with a list of five “Dubia,” or questions that needed clarification following the publication of the pope’s letter on marriage and the family.
That letter had followed the two highly contentious “Synods” — or gatherings, of many of the world’s bishops to discuss church teaching on marriage and the family. Much reporting at the time focused on an attempt by a certain group, spearheaded by German Cardinal Walter Kasper, to relax church discipline on re-admitting the divorced and remarried congregants to Holy Communion.
It appeared at the time that Pope Francis favored this relaxation. There was also much controversy about more “openness” to people in “irregular situations,” including those cohabiting and those in homosexual unions.
The publication of the letter did not solve the confusion. In fact it greatly increased it. Although Pope Francis did not clearly change church teaching, a “footnote” in one of the chapters seemed to allow that interpretation — and he later confirmed in a letter to Argentinian bishops that he did, indeed, mean what people were interpreting.
Since then, bishops in different parts of the world have been publishing guidelines on the document, with different interpretations, sometimes from one diocese to the next. Now, some people might be thinking that this is the usual Catholic “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” nonsense; but the reason for the confusion, and why the four cardinals wrote to the Pope for clarity, is deadly serious.
It is about whether Christ’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage is true and valid — as the church has taught from the beginning — or whether that has “changed.” It also concerns the teaching office of the Church’s chief shepherd, the pope.
The cardinals are the pope’s chief advisers — they are not a cabinet — but their advisory role is crucial. Romano Guardini, a theologian who died in the 1960s, and a favorite of both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict, once wrote that the purpose of the church is to “hold out to man the final verities, the ultimate image of perfection, the most fundamental principles of value, and must not permit herself to be confused by any passion, by any alteration of sentiment.”
It is precisely because those “ultimate verities” are now the subject of passion, sentiment, and confusion that the cardinals asked for clarity. They have received no formal response from the pope, in itself quite without precedent; moreover, the group — and particularly American Cardinal Raymond Burke — have been the subject of outrageous attacks.
There is a climate of fear among many bishops and priests, not only in Rome but throughout the church, that if they ask for clarity they are disloyal — and may be banished or punished.
Cardinal Burke is a gentle and faithful man, who sees his duty as an adviser to the pope with great clarity. He has spoken of the “tremendous confusion and division” in the Catholic Church at this time. Great leaders are able to surround themselves with able advisers who often do not agree with them. Pope Francis has called for such open dialogue.
It is unfortunate that such dialogue is perceived as divisive and disloyal. It is, in fact, a sign of the greatest loyalty and service to the “ultimate verities” upon which everything stands or falls. Cardinal Burke actually embodies Chesterton’s description of a patriot — someone who loves his country (or church) so much that he is a “discontented man.”
The opposite, Chesterton said, is a “courtier” — an “upholder of present conditions.” It seems, at the moment, that the courtiers have the upper hand.
Fr. Benedict Kiely is a Catholic priest and founder of Nasarean.org, which is helping the persecuted Christians of the Middle East.