Further Thoughts on Papal Silence

 from Fr. Hugh Somerville-Knapman OSB


Recently I made use of Frank Sheed to suggest that the cloud of papal silence over the Amoris Laetitia crisis, and in particular the dubia of i quattro cardinali, might perhaps carry with it a silver lining. In a nutshell, Sheed explained that papal infallibility can be secured by the Holy Spirit in a positive way, definitive teaching for example such as that on Our Lady’s assumption, or in a negative way, in that even the most scandalous of popes were preserved from teaching error ex cathedra. In that case, their silence was at least silver, if not golden. So too now, papal silence might not be as bad as we think.

For we do well to remember that the papacy does not exhaust the teaching authority of the Church. Historically popes have not been doctrinally very active, save as courts of final appeal. The dubia were presented to Pope Francis precisely in his capacity as the final and magisterial arbiter of doctrinal contention. It would be wonderful if he answered them by reaffirming the teaching of Christ.

However his silence is not the end of the world, nor grounds for his deposition as a heretic as some commenters have suggested.

Bishops are also teachers of the faith, with magisterial authority especially when they teach as a college. The first responsibility for teaching and defending the faith and practice of the Church is the local bishop’s. If the pope is silent, nothing is stopping the bishops of the world from reaffirming the teaching of Christ. As we have been seeing, many have been doing so, while a few are temporising. There is nothing like a crisis to sort the sheep from the goats.

So while we should be praying for the pope, and praying that he bring to an end the current fractious debate, we can be also praying that our local bishops step up to the plate and start hitting some doctrinal home runs. Pope Francis has expressed esteem for collegiality. So the bishops can start employing it to a good end, teaching clearly and with charity what Christ has revealed as the truth on marriage and family life, and human sexuality. The combined weight of their positive teaching will itself encourage the strengthen the pope to do the same. This presents at least one positive aspect to the often problematic conception of collegiality.

And instead of searching out scandal like bloodhounds—and if we have to search for it then there is probably little scandal in the proper canonical sense of the word—let us examine the Church’s teaching and the current situation in western society and what how we might both uphold Christ’s teaching and deal with real pastoral care for those who have entangled themselves, or been entangled, in complex and morally problematic relationships.

To that end, may I recommend you all go and read an article by Christopher Altieri, recently of Vatican Radio and now of Vocaris Media. He parses the controversy, and very helpfully, by identifying two basic camps and doing so without casting one or other of them as agents of darkness. Rather he identifies what the motivating principle is for both of them. Then he sets about trying to reconcile them in light of the teaching of Christ and the Church.

The article is long but lucid, and I need to reread it to comprehend more adequately the lineaments of his argument. He raises pertinent issues such a motivation, firmness of intent in repentance, and other categories of sinner who, it might reasonably be argued, get off much lighter than some remarried divorcees of goodwill.

Mr Altieri also implies that the role of conscience needs to be more fully and adequately taught. For many conscience is little more than a manipulable inner voice that we invoke to get us off hooks we find too uncomfortable. But when we invoke personal conscience we must remember it comes inevitably with personal responsibility. Are we truly confident that we can stand with heads held high before the Judgment Seat of God with the various decrees of our personal conscience in hand? Are we truly sure that God will see it our way? Are we truly sure, indeed, that we see it God’s way?

Therein lies what should always be our first prayer, or first quest: Lord, what is Your will? Let Your will be done, not mine.

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4 Responses to Further Thoughts on Papal Silence

  1. Dear Dom Hugh,
    Many kind thanks for your words, which are too high praise.
    I hope I do hear from your readership, as I’m quite sure my own thinking on this matter will benefit from the thoughtful engagement that is your readers’ wont.

  2. mary salmond says:

    Fr. Hugh,
    I read Chris’ article which he does go into great detail about sin, scandal, law, and sacraments.
    I can relate to his talking about adultery since my daughter is in this situation, and I can’t stop thinking about it. I’ve been told about St. Monica twice! But I’ m not writing for that reason. Some things not mentioned that perhaps Pope Francis was thinking was when Jesus met the woman to be stoned and told her to go and sin no more; we don’t know the rest of the story. Or when Jesus met the women at the well, and he says tells her what she thinks he doesn’t know. Any priest, no matter how big his parish, has the crushing burden of trying to save everyone – the pope is in that same situation. I am in that situation with my daughter. Then what about God the Father who loves us all, He loves us and wants us to make good decisions. He is disappointed by all of us everyday. So is that the situation Pope Francis put himself in – wanting to forgive the adulterous sins so people can move on with their lives? I don’t know. I do know that many people have forgotten the word “sin” since most of the priests we’ve been around do not use the word in sermons. I suggested to our parish priest that for Reconciliation he go over what sin is in an adult’s life – the waters become less clear as an adult and most of us return to the second grade list. He didn’t. Many adults do not know how to examine their conscience since they don’t know the commandments, virtues, vices, beatitudes. Many adults can not truthfully do self-analysis since rationalizing is the easy way out; we can’t face our demons so we turn the other way. Some Catholics are in relations with a non-Catholic and that presents many problems: embarrassment, denial, don’t seek help, ashamed, guilt – the list goes on. SO nothing is resolved for them. No, I don’t know the answer about the Pope’s Amoris Laetitia. But I do know it has awakened an enthusiasm among the conscientious laity. And perhaps this is the work of the Holy Spirit to have our hearts burning for more. I’m not sure how concerned the bishops of the U.S., but only a few (Bishop Chaput comes to mind, and the list of 5-12? cardinals). Our priest has not talked about it, and our bishop has not addressed it with any concerns in our weekly paper. This seems to tell me that they are too busy: either to read and respond, too much administration to do, not much personal contact with common people, the subject isn’t brought up, they’re burned out, or are not sure how to respond. It seems analogous to the topic of birth control, no priests talked about it, except in the confessional, never in a sermon, for the past 50 years. So, I don’t have any answers, I give the Pope the benefit of the doubt since it’s not ex cathedra, use common sense, and hope for less confusing statements. Peace to you,

  3. Robert Killoren says:

    Who am I to listen to? Christopher Altieri? Cardinal Burke? Cardinal Müller? Cardinal Kasper? George Weigel? Or the Holy Father, Vicar of Christ, Pontifex Maximus? I have always listened to the Pope first and foremost. In my life: Pius XII, St John XXIII, St Paul VI, St John-Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and now we have Francis I. I think when people say they are confused by Pope Francis it means they do not like what he is saying. If I don’t understand a teaching a Pope I usually attribute it to my own ignorance. Let me end with a Bible quote using Douhey Rheims version since that is what “real Catholics” use:

    Romans 11
    33 O the depth of the riches of the wisdom and of the knowledge of God! How incomprehensible are his judgments, and how unsearchable his ways! 34 For who hath known the mind of the Lord? Or who hath been his counsellor? 35 Or who hath first given to him, and recompense shall be made him? 36 For of him, and by him, and in him, are all things: to him be glory for ever. Amen.

  4. Listen to the Pope, Mr. Killoren: first, last, and always.

    The “problem” at present is that we have listened to him, and don’t know what he means.

    Even if we exclude the heterodox and/or antinomian interpretations out of hand – and I do, as the HF says I ought (though I would even if I were not instructed to do so) – I do not know which of the remaining orthodox constructions to put on what the HF has said.

    The difficulties are compounded when the Pope tells us to attend to others, e.g. Card. Schönborn, and I do, and hear Card. Schönborn saying several different things about AL, not all of them equally reconcilable with doctrine and discipline, or even with each other.

    So, we muddle.

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