Then in January of this year, Jesuit Father James Martin directly sent Pope Francis a set of three dubium seeking clarification of comments the Holy Father had given the Associated Press on the issue of homosexuality. The pope replied to the questions with a handwritten letter two days later.
What both dubia contain
The first dubium (question) concerns development of doctrine and the claim made by some bishops that divine revelation “should be reinterpreted according to the cultural changes of our time and according to the new anthropological vision that these changes promote; or whether divine revelation is binding forever, immutable and therefore not to be contradicted.”
The cardinals said the pope responded July 11 by saying that the Church “can deepen her understanding of the deposit of faith,” which they agreed with, but that the response did “not capture our concern.” They reinstated their concern that many Christians today argue that “cultural and anthropological changes of our time should push the Church to teach the opposite of what it has always taught. This concerns essential, not secondary, questions for our salvation, like the confession of faith, subjective conditions for access to the sacraments, and observance of the moral law,” they said.
They therefore rephrased their dubium to say: “Is it possible for the Church today to teach doctrines contrary to those she has previously taught in matters of faith and morals, whether by the pope ex cathedra, or in the definitions of an Ecumenical Council, or in the ordinary universal magisterium of the bishops dispersed throughout the world (cf. Lumen Gentium, 25)?”
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In the second dubium on blessing same-sex unions, they underscored the Church’s teaching based on divine revelation and Scripture that “God created man in his own image, male and female he created them and blessed them, that they might be fruitful” (Gen 1:27-28), and St. Paul’s teaching that to deny sexual difference is the consequence of the denial of the Creator (Rom 1:24-32). They then asked the pope if the Church can deviate from such teaching and accept “as a ‘possible good’ objectively sinful situations, such as same-sex unions, without betraying revealed doctrine?”
The pope responded July 11, the cardinals said, by saying that equating marriage to blessing same-sex couples would give rise to confusion and so should be avoided. But the cardinals said their concern is different, namely “that the blessing of same-sex couples might create confusion in any case, not only in that it might make them seem analogous to marriage, but also in that homosexual acts would be presented practically as a good, or at least as the possible good that God asks of people in their journey toward him.”
They therefore rephrased their dubium to ask if it were possible in “some circumstances” for a priest to bless same-sex unions “thus suggesting that homosexual behavior as such would not be contrary to God’s law and the person’s journey toward God?” Linked to that dubium, they asked if the Church’s teaching continues to be valid that “every sexual act outside of marriage, and in particular homosexual acts, constitutes an objectively grave sin against God’s law, regardless of the circumstances in which it takes place and the intention with which it is carried out.”
Question about synodality
In the third dubium, the cardinals asked whether synodality can be the highest criterion of Church governance without jeopardizing “her constitutive order willed by her Founder,” given that the Synod of Bishops does not represent the college of bishops but is “merely a consultative organ of the pope.” They stressed: “The supreme and full authority of the Church is exercised both by the pope by virtue of his office and by the college of bishops together with its head the Roman pontiff (Lumen Gentium, 22).”
The cardinals said Pope Francis responded by insisting on a “synodal dimension to the Church” that includes all the lay faithful, but the cardinals said they are concerned that “synodality” is being presented as if it “represents the supreme authority of the Church” in communion with the pope. They therefore sought clarity on whether the synod can act as the supreme authority on crucial issues. Their reformulated dubium asked: “Will the Synod of Bishops to be held in Rome, and which includes only a chosen representation of pastors and faithful, exercise, in the doctrinal or pastoral matters on which it will be called to express itself, the supreme authority of the Church, which belongs exclusively to the Roman pontiff and, una cum capite suo, to the college of bishops (cf. can. 336 C.I.C.)?”
Holy Orders and forgiveness
In the fourth dubium, the cardinals addressed statements from some prelates, again “neither corrected nor retracted,” which say that as the “theology of the Church has changed,” so therefore women can be ordained priests. They therefore asked the pope if the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and St. John Paul II’s apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which “definitively held the impossibility of conferring priestly ordination on women, is still valid.” They also sought clarification on whether or not this teaching “is no longer subject to change nor to the free discussion of pastors or theologians.”
In their reformulated dubium, the cardinals said the pope reiterated that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis is to be held definitively and “that it is necessary to understand the priesthood, not in terms of power, but in terms of service, in order to understand correctly Our Lord’s decision to reserve holy orders to men only.” But they took issue with his response that said the question “can still be further explored.”
“We are concerned that some may interpret this statement to mean that the matter has not yet been decided in a definitive manner,” they said, adding that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis belongs to the deposit of faith. Their reformulated dubium therefore comprised: “Could the Church in the future have the faculty to confer priestly ordination on women, thus contradicting that the exclusive reservation of this sacrament to baptized males belongs to the very substance of the sacrament of orders, which the Church cannot change?”
Their final dubium concerned the Holy Father’s frequent insistence that there’s a duty to absolve everyone and always, so that repentance would not be a necessary condition for sacramental absolution. The cardinals asked whether the contrition of the penitent remains necessary for the validity of sacramental confession, “so that the priest must postpone absolution when it is clear that this condition is not fulfilled.”
In their reformulated dubium, they note that the pope confirmed the teaching of the Council of Trent on this issue, that absolution requires the sinner’s repentance, which includes the resolve not to sin again. “And you invited us not to doubt God’s infinite mercy,” they noted, but added: “We would like to reiterate that our question does not arise from doubting the greatness of God’s mercy, but, on the contrary, it arises from our awareness that this mercy is so great that we are able to convert to him, to confess our guilt, and to live as he has taught us. In turn, some might interpret your answer as meaning that merely approaching confession is a sufficient condition for receiving absolution, inasmuch as it could implicitly include confession of sins and repentance.” They therefore rephrased their dubium to read: “Can a penitent who, while admitting a sin, refuses to make, in any way, the intention not to commit it again, validly receive sacramental absolution?”
The public release of the documents, obtained by the Register and other news outlets, comes two days before the opening of the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, a pivotal and highly controversial event in the Catholic Church.
The gathering in Rome marks a historic moment for the Church because for the first time in its history, laypeople, women, and other non-bishops will participate as full voting synod delegates, though the pope will ultimately decide whether to accept any of the assembly’s recommendations.
Pope Francis, either directly or through the Roman Curia, has previously addressed the topics brought up by the five cardinals and their dubia.
On the issue of the development of doctrine and possible contradictions, Pope Francis has frequently described a vision of doctrinal expansion grounded in a particular understanding of St. Vincent of Lerins’ maxim that Christian dogma “progresses, consolidating over the years, developing with time, deepening with age.” The pope has said doctrine expands “upward” from the roots of the faith as “our understanding of the human person changes with time, and our consciousness deepens.”
For instance, the Holy Father has said that while the death penalty was accepted and even called for by previous Catholic doctrine, it is “now a sin.” “The other sciences and their evolution also help the Church in this growth of understanding,” the pope said. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis said that this kind of approach might be considered “imperfect” by those who “dream of a monolithic doctrine defended by all without nuance,” but “the reality is that such variety helps us to better manifest and develop the different aspects of the inexhaustible richness of the Gospel.”
On the topic of blessing same-sex unions, which have been pushed for in places like Germany, the Vatican’s chief doctrinal office, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, weighed in on the matter in 2021, clarifying that “the Church does not have, and cannot have, the power to bless unions of persons of the same sex.” However, some have speculated that, in spite of the DDF text referencing his approval, Pope Francis was displeased by the document. Relatedly, Antwerp’s Bishop Johan Bonny claimed in March that the pope did not disapprove of the Flemish-speaking Belgian bishops plan to introduce a related blessing, although this claim has not been substantiated and it is not clear that the Flemish blessing is, in fact, the kind explicitly disapproved by the DDF guidance.
Regarding the DDF text, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin cited it in his criticism of the German Synodal Way’s decision to move forward with attempted blessings of same-sex unions, but he also added that the topic would require further discussion at the upcoming universal synod. More significantly, new DDF prefect Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernández, a close confidant of Pope Francis, stated in July that while he was opposed to any blessing that would confuse same-sex unions with marriage, the 2021 DDF guidance “lacked the smell of Francisco” and could be revisited during his tenure.
Regarding the authority of the forthcoming synod, although Pope Francis has expanded voting rights in the Synod of Bishops beyond the episcopacy, he has also repeatedly emphasized that the synod “is not a parliament” but a consultative, spiritual gathering meant to advise the pope. The pope did adjust canon law in 2018 to allow for the final document approved by a Synod of Bishops to “participate in the ordinary magisterium of the successor of Peter,” though only if “expressly approved by the Roman pontiff.”
On the possibility of the sacramental ordination of women, Pope Francis reaffirmed in 2016 that St. John Paul II’s clear “no” via Ordinato Sacederdotalis (1994) was the “final word” on the subject. In 2018, then-DDF prefect Cardinal Luis Ladaria confirmed that the male-only priesthood is “definitive.” In a 2022 interview with America magazine, Pope Francis again affirmed that women cannot enter ordained ministry and said that this should not be seen as a “deprivation.”
The pope has established two separate commissions to consider the question of a female diaconate, but the first, historically-based commission did not come to any definitive consensus and the second, focusing on the issue from a theological perspective, seems similarly unlikely to offer univocal support for a female diaconate. However, the synod’s Instrumentum Laboris does ask if “it is possible to envisage” women’s inclusion in the diaconate “and in what way?”
Finally, regarding withholding absolution in the confessional, the pope has previously referred to priests who refrain from offering absolution for certain moral sins without the bishop’s permission as “criminals” and told the Congolese bishops in February that they must “always forgive in the sacrament of reconciliation,” going beyond the Code of Canon Law to “risk on the side of forgiveness.”
Jonathan Liedl, senior editor of the National Catholic Register, contributed to this story.