The Synod, the Dubia, and the Pope to come

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by Roberto de Mattei

On Oct. 4, the solemnity of St. Francis of Assisi, the 16th Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on “synodality” opened. Many opposing statements and controversies have preceded and are accompanying the event.  On October 2, in the face of “various statements by some senior prelates (… ) blatantly contrary to the constant doctrine and discipline of the Church, and which have generated and continue to generate among the faithful and other people of good will great confusion and the fall into error,” five cardinals made it known that they had expressed their “deepest concern to the Roman Pontiff.” submitting to Pope Francis five dubia on certain issues concerning the interpretation of Divine Revelation, the blessing of same-sex unions, synodality as a constitutive dimension of the Church, the priestly ordination of women and repentance as a necessary condition for sacramental absolution.

The five cardinals are Germany’s Walter Brandmüller, American Raymond Leo Burke, Mexican Juan Sandoval Íñiguez, Guinean Robert Sarah, and China’s Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, who in turn say they are certain that the late Cardinal George Pell also “shared these ‘dubia’ and would have been the first to subscribe to them.”

On Oct. 2 itself, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith published a response by Pope Francis to the dubia, which, however, like the dubia themselves, was prior to publication.

In fact, on July 10, 2023, the five cardinals delivered their dubia to the Pope and the prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. The next day, July 11, Francis responded with a seven-page, Spanish-language letter. The response was deemed unsatisfactory by the five cardinals, who reformulated their dubia on Aug. 21 in such a way that the pope should respond to them with a “yes” or “no,” “in order to elicit a clear answer based on the perennial doctrine and discipline of the Church.” Having received no response, the five cardinals decided on Oct. 2 to make their dubia public.

However, the chronology of events is of secondary importance. The fact of the matter is that, according to Francis, his July 11 letter is also meant to respond to the new dubia of August 21. The Pope’s response, however, raises even greater questions than those that provoked the cardinals’ dubia. The Pope, in fact, uses the dialectical expedient used in Amoris laetitia to contradict, or at least weaken, through the concrete case, the general rule of faith. An example is given by one of the most controversial points, that of blessings to homosexual couples. The pope first seems to confirm traditional doctrine, but then adds that, in “certain circumstances,” it would be left to the discernment of priests to depart from the rule. So at least his ambivalent language has been interpreted, without denial, by the international press.

On the eve of the opening of the Synod, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith responded in similar terms to Archbishop Emeritus of Prague, Dominik Duka, who, on behalf of the Czech Bishops’ Conference, asked ten questions regarding access to the sacraments for remarried divorcees. The Dicastery responded that the Pope “allows in certain cases, after appropriate discernment,” the possibility for remarried divorcees to have access to the sacraments, even without remaining chaste, stating that this indication should be considered “ordinary magisterium of the Church.”

Faced with this situation, someone observed that the presentation of dubia is useful when it allows the Pope to clearly reiterate Catholic doctrine, but not when it results in increasing confusion among the faithful. Someone else objected that five cardinals, out of 242, as many as there are in the College of Cardinals today, represent an insignificant minority. Moreover, none of the five cardinals occupy positions of responsibility in the Curia or dioceses, and what is more, three of them are over 90 years old. On the other hand, all must admit that the dubia are reasonable, well constructed and above all consistent with the perennial Magisterium of the Church. Their importance lies in what they manifest: the existence of a strong unease in the face of the revolutionary process that is assaulting the Church.

Some have noted that the dubia model is not the highest form of dissent one can lawfully have toward ecclesiastical authorities. The Correctio filialis of July 16, 2017 ( was the strongest expression of resistance to Pope Francis within what canon law allows. However despite the great impact the Correctio filialis had, the strength of the dubia is far more relevant, because the authors are not theologians or scholars, but cardinals of the Holy Roman Church, direct collaborators of the Pope, who have among their tasks the very high task of electing the Vicar of Christ. No voice, therefore, could have spoken more authoritatively. It should be added, moreover, that Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, former prefect of the Doctrine of the Faith, who was invited by Pope Francis to participate in the Synod, although not one of the signatories of the document, publicly endorsed it. Nor can it be ruled out that other cardinals or bishops may in the coming days or weeks express their endorsement since, as Cardinal Burke said in his Oct. 3 address to the Nuova Bussola conference [in Rome], “many brothers in the episcopate and even in the College of Cardinals support this initiative, even if they are not on the official list of signatories.”

It should also be noted that Francis did not treat the five cardinals as rebels or heretics, but showed that he took their questions seriously. In his answer to the cardinals’ third question, Francis addressed them, saying, with a hint of irony, “With these questions themselves you manifest your need to participate, to freely express your opinion and to collaborate, thus asking for a form of ‘synodality’ in the exercise of my ministry.” It is evident that in Pope Francis’ “political” perspective there is the idea of turning the Synod into a “parliament” of the church, with parties and currents facing each other dialectically, but it is also true, that no censorship can be exercised at this point against those who publicly express their fidelity to the doctrine of all time.

There are, still, those in the traditionalist camp who criticize the cardinals for not having explicitly stated that the synod’s deviations are a consequence of the errors of the Second Vatican Council. Of course, it is true that the working group that assisted the cardinals, especially in the dissemination of the document is made up of clergy and lay people who are followers of the so-called “hermeneutics of continuity.” However, the dubia do not express this line, which has historically failed and is incapable of aggregating around it an authentic resistance to the process of self-demolition of the Church, and can be shared by a wide array that includes, not only traditionalists and conservatives, but also every Catholic who judges the events of the Church in the light of true faith and sound reason.

On the other hand, at this time of confusion, every army deploys its troops and every regiment raises its flags. It is no coincidence that on the same day that the cardinals published their “Notification,” Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò published a speech in which he expresses his convictions about the invalidity of Pope Francis’ election due to a “vice of consent.” Francis, according to Msgr. Viganò, allegedly obtained the election by malice, setting out to do “the exact opposite of what Jesus Christ mandated St. Peter and his Successors to do: to confirm the faithful in the Faith.”

Between those who consider Francis to be the legitimate pope, albeit unworthy, and those who consider him to be a usurper, elected with the intent to destroy the Church, there is a distinction that is not only of language, but of content. In this hour of deep affliction for the Church there is a ditch, between those who consider Francis an “antipope” and those who pray, as we do, that the Lord “non tradat eum in ánimam inimicórum éius.” 

In Rome, meanwhile, as Guido Horst writes in the Tagespost (here), the main question being asked by the assembled bishops, archbishops and cardinals is not about the issues being discussed at the Synod, but another one: “Who will be the next pope?

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