Cardinals’ Dubia and Papal Silence: The Silver Lining

from: Dom Hugh Somerville-Knapman OSB (

The five questions, or dubia, submitted by Cardinals Caffarra, Burke, Meisner and Brandmüller to Pope Francis regarding his Apostolic Exhortation on family life, Amoris Laetitia, have been mentioned here before. Many commentators have expressed frustration that the pope has yet to answer them. Plain rude, some say. Probably quite a few liberals also would like Pope Francis to answer the dubia, and make the de facto practice in many places de iure: that divorcees who have entered into a subsequent civil remarriage might be allowed to receive Holy Communion.

So far the pope has been silent, and his defenders—not a few of them self-appointed and self-serving—have taken it upon themselves to attack i quattro cardinali, and even to advocate what it is said the pope thinks but has never quite said: that civilly-remarried divorcees should receive Holy Communion, as part of the Church’s “accompaniment” of them. There is a supremely strong case that the Chief Shepherd of the Flock should answer the dubia and clarify once and for all the Church’s teaching.

However, if Pope Francis really does think remarried divorcees should be admitted to Holy Communion, do we really want him to say so? If it is contrary to revelation and the consistent teaching of the Church, why would we want him to commit himself definitively to error? What a crisis it would provoke in the Church, and crises are not something to be sought.

The papal silence, especially if it is true that Pope Francis thinks this teaching should be changed (and that is still a big if at the moment), is surely not to be lamented but embraced. Why?

My new “crush” (well, an old crush actually, but the flame has been rekindled), Frank Sheed, has given me the answer. Sheed, a lay Australian apologist and publisher, got me my STB in Rome summa cum laude, but that is another story. I am reading, as relief from pressing work work and life’s stresses, his ecclesial autobiography, The Church and I. I just chanced upon something in it that made me stop and think of the dubia. Sheed was writing about the objections raised to papal infallibility when he was preaching on the soapbox in Hyde Park. I quote:

…we came upon the illustration used by the Jesuit Father Rickaby. It seems he would put to his students the question—if the Pope were infallible in algebra, how many marks would he get in an algebra exam? They all said 100, whereupon Father Rickaby gave them 0. He explains: For the rest of men there are three possibilities—we can give the right answer, the wrong answer or no answer. Infallibility means that the Pope cannot (in the appropriate circumstances) give the wrong answer—the Holy Spirit will not let him. That leaves him with two possibilities as against our three—he can give the right answer, or no answer. What decides? Whether he knows: infallibility does not in itself mean inspiration. The Holy Spirit might in a given situation enlighten the Pope’s mind, but that is now what infallibility is about. In the general way what a Pope does not know he must find out, like anyone else. (pp.59-60)

You see what Sheed is revealing. Infallibility is a gift that works negatively, as it were: it does not guarantee that the pope will always teach the right thing, but it does guarantee that he will never teach the wrong thing. If a pope holds a personal opinion that is contrary to revelation, then the Spirit will never allow him to teach it magisterially, ie infallibly.

So, if Pope Francis really does believe that remarried divorcees should be admitted to Holy Communion, despite the implications of our Lord’s explicit teaching and the unchanging doctrine of the Church, then it is better that he keep silent. It is not ideal, of course, but in the world of fallen human nature the ideal is rarely realized. Sometimes we have to settle for the sufficient.

So, if the ideal is not yet achievable (but are we praying for it?), then let us settle for the sufficient. Let the pope keep silence. If it is the best we can hope for, let it be done. We can cope for now.

Could I ask for your prayers at this time? On the one hand I have a looming deadline; on the other a sort of existential crisis. I could with some grace for both!



About Gertrude

Sáncte Míchael Archángele, defénde nos in proélio, cóntra nequítiam et insídias diáboli ésto præsídium.
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4 Responses to Cardinals’ Dubia and Papal Silence: The Silver Lining

  1. 000rjbennett says:

    Yes, it makes sense. Better for Bergoglio not to say anything at all in response to the dubia.


  2. thecatholicvoter says:

    Reblogged this on The Catholic Voter and commented:
    A very good explanation of the “negative” (by which I do not mean detrimental) facet of papal infallibility. Well worth the read.


  3. kathleen says:

    I agree that the Pope’s silence in response to the dubia might well be preferable to having to face a Pope affirming a heresy…. although, unless he were to speak ex cathedra, he would not be speaking infallibly. However, even the thought of such a scandalous and heretical statement, contradicting unchangeable Catholic doctrine, coming from the supreme Pontiff, would cause untold damage to the Faithful all over the world, many who could not contemplate the idea that a Pope could err on such vitally important matters of Catholic teaching!

    In fact we should pray he must keep silent, for all the mountain of evidence surrounding this dilemma points to Pope Francis harbouring dangerously unorthodox views!


  4. Mary Salmond says:

    In short, silence is golden. And it could be weighing on the Pope’s mind.
    The rationale in the article was enlightening!
    The hope is well-stated …”but it does guarantee that he will never teach the wrong thing.” Thank you!


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