Four cardinals – in some ways, four usual suspects – have written to the Pope about Amoris laetitia, asking for clarification about certain issues which have given many writers a lot to write about already. And while some – although fewer than I initially expected – have chosen to see this as a challenge against Pope Francis, it is an attempt to insert some clarity into a sensitive and difficult issue.
Cardinals Walter Brandmüller (President emeritus of the Pontifical Committee of Historical Sciences), Raymond Burke (Patron of the Order of Malta), Carlo Caffarra (Archbishop emeritus of Bologna) and Joachim Meisner (Archbishop emeritus of Cologne) published their September letter to Pope Francis today, after having received no papal reply. In the foreword to the letter, which can be read in full here, they express an awareness of the risk they run of being disregarded “as adversaries of the Holy Father and people devoid of mercy”. This is a real risk, as too often any sense of apparent disagreement with Pope Francis, or even, as here, a request for more clarity, is seen as an adversarial attack on the Holy Father. What many forget is that Pope Francis has frequently asked for such debate, not least during the Synod of Bishops, but certainly also in its aftermath across the world.
The fact that this letter has received no response seems perhaps a bit at odds with this request for open and honest debate, but perhaps it is wisest to see this, as the four cardinals do, “as an invitation to continue the reflection, and the discussion, calmly and with respect.”
The format of the letter is interesting, as it does not invite for a long explanatory answer, but a simple yes or no. This reflects the fact that underneath our pastoral action, there is a solid basis of doctrine, which does not change with the situation. This basis does not exist for itself, but for us, as it shows the way towards the objective truth that is Christ and His teaching.
There is more at stake than being nice in the discussion about marriage and divorce, and sin and mercy. The letter reflects that, as it raises important questions that need asking. It is not a matter of using the writings of one Pope against that of another, but taking the writings of both seriously.
The letter of the four cardinals deserves to be taken seriously, even though it is not something that can be directly applied in pastoral practice. Rather, it concerns itself with what comes before, what dictates the forms our pastoral practice can take. Hopefully, it will one day receive an answer from either Pope Francis or Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to whose attention the letter was also addressed.