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Colleen DulleOctober 02, 2023
U.S. Cardinal Raymond L. Burke, patron of the Knights and Dames of Malta, talks with Pope Francis during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Sept. 2. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) See POPE-AUDIENCE-SMILE Sept. 2, 2015.

This morning, two days before the opening of the Synod on Synodality, news broke that a group of retired cardinals had asked Pope Francis about church teachings against same-sex marriage and women’s ordination in a list of questions submitted to the pope on July 10. The cardinals also asked the pope to say whether “Divine Revelation is binding forever, immutable, and therefore not to be contradicted”—essentially asking whether doctrine can change—as well as whether synodality contradicts the authority of bishops and whether a priest can withhold absolution if the penitent does not have the intention of “not sinning anymore.”

Pope Francis responded to all of the questions the next day; his answers took the form of paragraphs, rather than categorical affirmations or denials. The cardinals, not satisfied with this, wrote back to him Aug. 21, rewording the questions to ask explicitly for “yes or no” answers. The pope did not respond to this second letter, and today the cardinals published those questions—but not the pope’s original replies—as a “Notification to Christ’s Faithful” on the Italian blog of Sandro Magister, an influential Vatican-watcher.

In response, the Vatican published the pope’s initial responses to the July round of questions, in the form of a letter from the new prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez, asking the pope’s permission to quote from them and possibly expand on his answers.

Who were the cardinals who wrote the letter?

Mr. Magister’s blog cites five cardinals as authors of the “Notification to Christ’s Faithful”: German Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, American Cardinal Raymond Burke, Mexican Cardinal Juan Sandoval Íñiguez, Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah and Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen. All five are retired and have been publicly critical of Pope Francis in the past. None of the cardinals were invited to participate in the synod’s Roman meeting this year. Only Cardinals Sarah and Burke are below the age of 80 and thus eligible to vote in a conclave.

Cardinals Burke and Brandmüller were signatories of a previous set of five “dubia” (literally, “doubts”), yes-or-no questions that were sent to Pope Francis following his 2016 apostolic exhortation, “Amoris Laetitia.” Those dubia centered on the pope’s footnote that said Catholics who were divorced and remarried could receive Communion in some cases after working with a priest to discern whether they are being called back to the sacrament. Pope Francis never responded to those dubia.

Interestingly, the Vatican’s copy of the pope’s responses to the July 2023 dubia included a scanned copy of the July dubia, and although there were places denoted for all the cardinals to sign, the only signatures on the document were those of Cardinals Burke and Brandmüller.

What did the pope say?

Pope Francis responded to the cardinals’ question about same-sex marriage by affirming the church’s teaching that marriage is an “exclusive, stable and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to conceiving children,” adding that the church avoids “rites and sacramentals” that could “imply that it is recognizing as a marriage something that is not.”

However, he added, “in dealing with people, we must not lose pastoral charity…the defense of objective truth is not the only expression of this charity, which is also made up of kindness, patience, understanding, tenderness, encouragement.” Because of this, the pope said, the church should discern “if there are forms of blessing, requested by one or several people, that do not convey a mistaken conception of marriage.” He also indicated that such discernment might not result in formal rites or changes in rules, saying that some decisions that “can be a part of pastoral prudence, do not necessarily have to become a norm.”

On the question of women’s ordination, the pope said “[n]obody can publicly contradict” the church’s ban on ordaining women as priests, “and yet it can be a subject of study, as is the case with the validity of ordinations in the Anglican Communion.”

The pope wrote that he was responding to these questions because the synod would soon begin. It is likely that the questions of blessing same-sex couples and ordaining women will be discussed.

In response to the retired cardinals’ other questions, the pope wrote that “while it is true that divine Revelation is immutable and always binding, the Church must be humble and recognize that she never exhausts its unfathomable richness and needs to grow in her understanding.” Likewise, he said, while “repentance is necessary for the validity of sacramental absolution, and implies the purpose of not sinning…we should not demand from the faithful too precise and secure purposes of amendment, which in the end turn out to be abstract or even egotistical.”

Speaking on whether the synod is overstepping its authority as a consultative body, the pope restated that synodality is “an essential dimension in the life of the church” and “implies real participation: not just the hierarchy but all the people of God.”

He added that, in posing him the questions, the retired cardinals had shown a “need to participate, to freely express your opinion and to collaborate, thus calling for a form of synodality.”

What does this mean for the synod?

Likely not much. The synod participants will remain on retreat until the synod opens Oct. 4, and they will still discuss the same topics and themes that were planned. It is likely that the pope’s “no” to women’s ordination and his cautious openness to blessing same-sex couples will come up in the synod’s conversations on those topics, but it is important to note that the pope has restated church teaching on the impossibility of ordaining women as priests several times.

The possibility of discerning some form of blessing for same-sex couples is a development that seems to conflict with the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 2021 decree that forbade priests from blessing same-sex unions, which said that God “cannot bless sin.” Although Pope Francis had approved that decree, he has since seemed to distance himself from it. Catholic bishops in Belgium have published guidelines for blessing same-sex couples while making clear that they are not sacramental marriages, and it is possible that this could be a model for such blessings going forward.

In any case, the synod’s work of discernment will continue, with only some of the focus being on hot-button issues like women’s ordination and gay and lesbian marriages. And the synod’s deliberations will almost definitely not result in a definite “yes” or “no,” just as Pope Francis’ decisions after the synod will likely take on the form of his responses to the dubia: affirming church teaching and discerning what is, as he wrote to the cardinals, “pastorally prudent.”

In other words, the synod, like the pope, does not work in terms of “yes” and “no,” but, as synod spiritual director Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., said in his opening address to the synod participants’ retreat this weekend, in terms of “yes, and.”

Correction: A previous version of this article stated incorrectly that Cardinal Joseph Zen was eligible to vote in the next conclave. Cardinal Zen is 91 years old. 

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