Edward Feser: The Five Dubia and the Silence of the Pope

I found Edward Feser’s essay on Schadenfreude to be especially helpful after the election of Donald J. Trump as President of These United States of America after the humiliating defeat of Hillary and everything she stands for.   Truly helpful.

Feser has a piece right now that you might find helpful: Denial Flows Into The Tiber

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He is riffing on the title of an exceptionally useful book about how Northern Europeans hijacked the Second Vatican Council by Ralph Wiltgen.  (UK HERE).  Clever.

It is about just about the only thing that matters right now, Amoris laetitia.

Fever’s piece is really long.  However, I hope you will tackle it.  Jumping into the middle, here are my bullet points, which are his subheadings, of what he deals with.


If all that makes the current situation sound serious, that is because it is.  Yet there seems to be, in certain sectors of the Church, an air of unreality or make believe surrounding the crisis.  With the honorable exception of Rocco Buttiglione, defenders of Amoris have not even attempted to respond to the substance of the four cardinals’ questions.  They have instead resorted to abuse, mockery, and threats – all the while claiming to champion mercy and dialogue.  They assure us that the four cardinals and others who have raised questions about Amoris are comparable to rigid and legalistic Pharisees and acting contrary to the gentle mercy of Christ.  Yet as a matter of historical fact it was the Pharisees who championed a very lax and “merciful” attitude vis-à-vis divorce and remarriage, and Christ who insisted on a doctrine that was so austere and “rigid” that even the apostles wondered if it might be better not to marry.

Others suspect that there is something wrong, but refuse to express their concerns on the assumption that a Catholic must never say anything that might seem to imply criticism of a pope.  They simply refrain from thinking or talking about the crisis, or they do so only when they can put a positive if tortuous spin on some problematic statement, or they badmouth as disloyal those who raise even politely expressed worries.  “We are at war with Eastasia, and always have been!We are through the looking glass!  Denial is just a river in Egypt!

Several reasons are often put forward for taking these various attitudes toward the crisis.  All of them are bad.  Let’s consider each one and what is wrong with it:

  1. “To ask the pope for a Yes or No answer misses the point.” […]
  1. “Those who support the four cardinals are dissenters from Church teaching.” […]
  1. If the pope says it, it can’t be contrary to traditional teaching.” […]
  1. But there is a way to readAmoris that really is plausibly consistent with traditional teaching.” […]
  1. Criticism of the pope should not be made in a public way.” […]


Quo vadis, Petre?

It is hard to see how a continued failure to respond to the four cardinals and the other critics could be justified.  Ensuring doctrinal clarity and unity within the Church are two of the chief reasons why the papacy exists in the first place.  And both doctrinal clarity and unity are now in danger.  There is no agreement on the meaning of Amoris.  Some claim that it is a revolutionary breach with tradition, others that it is perfectly in continuity with tradition.  Different bishops in different dioceses are implementing different interpretations of the document, some maintaining previous practice, some departing from it.  Some Catholics regard Amoris’s defenders as dissenters from binding teaching, while others regard the critics of Amoris as dissenters.  Some worry that Francis is, with Amoris, undermining the authority of the Church and the papacy.  Others seem to think that upholding the authority of the papacy requires punishing the critics of Amoris.  Tempers are high, and many fear that schism is imminent.

There is only one man who can resolve the crisis, and that is Pope Francis.  And resolving these sorts of crises is at the very top of the list defining the job description for any pope.  When such a crisis has arisen precisely as a consequence (however unintended) of a pope’s actions, his obligation to resolve it is surely even graver.

There is also the consideration that, just as Arianism was the main challenge to the Faith at the time of Liberius, and Monothelitism was the main challenge to the Faith at the time of Honorius, so too is the sexual revolution arguably the main challenge to the Faith today.  The modern, liberal, secular Western world regards the Catholic Church as an obstacle to progress in many respects, but there is nothing for which the Church is hated more than her stubborn insistence on the indissolubility of marriage and the intrinsic immorality of contraception, abortion, fornication, homosexual acts, and the like.  Secularists and progressives have for decades dreamed of finding a way finally to break this intransigence and bring the Church to heel on these matters.  Their greatest weapon has been the rhetoric of mercy, forgiveness, and non-judgmentalism.  That is to say, they have used (a distortion of) one part of Christian teaching as a bludgeon with which they might shatter another part.


To quote a progressive theologian, Harvey Cox: “Not to decide is to decide.”  Though, the longer a decision is delayed, perhaps the question of what Pope Francis will do will become less important.  As Honorius could tell you, sometimes it is what the next pope does that matters most.

You might also want to check out Edward Feser’s books.  He’s real smart.


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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. CradleRevert says:

    Feser’s The Last Superstition is indispensable reading for anyone looking for a rebuttal to the intellectually-bankrupt “New Atheist” movement.

  2. Scott W. says:

    There is nothing impertinent about the dubia even at the molecular level. Now there may be aspects of the concept manliness that are incompatible with Christianity, but expecting straightforward answers sans hemming and hawing to good faith questions isn’t one of them.

  3. Atra Dicenda, Rubra Agenda says:

    Feser captures the nidus for the disorientation and angst I have been feeling.

  4. Eonwe says:

    Dr. Feser knows his stuff cold and his analysis of topics are rigorously logical and they are extensively explored. His blog is a great read (though it is a mental workout).

    He dealing with this topic is no exception and a great challenge to those who deny the issues at hand with Amoris laetitia.

  5. Benedict Joseph says:

    “…an air of unreality or make believe…”
    There is an enormous irony in watching the denizens of heterodoxy, garbed in fraudulent open-mindedness, sporting a baseless superiority complex, gilded with counterfeit scholarship, propounding a toxic mercy, anointed with hubris, all the while cocooned in the bogus comfort provided by pretending what is wrong is right.
    The dilemma upon us appears increasingly to me to have psychological origins rather than any genesis in objective research, speculative theology let alone authentic theological reflection.
    Keep clicking those heals, gentlemen.
    Who know where you will end up? Or maybe we do.
    And God reward Dr. Feser.

  6. bombcar says:

    I also recommend his long and well-researched post on papal fallibility.

  7. AveMariaGratiaPlena says:

    I’ll be sure to read this, Fr. Z. I only recently learned of Edward Feser when I came across a snarky atheist’s blog mocking recent atheist converts to Catholicism!

  8. Christ_opher says:

    Prayer crusade here for the truth to prevail. The faith is the truth and so finally it is a confrontation with the interference and manipulation that has occurred that even affected our previous Popes and the error that was made has to be thinking that AL would go through without a challenge when in fact it is the contrary.

  9. Thomistica says:

    I’m shamelessly reposting something I posted to Fr. Z’s posting about the expected, but very major, news at LSN yesterday, namely: Burke has signaled that he’s going to issue a fraternal correction.

    I repost below since it’s clear to me that below needs to be addressed in what is to come very soon. Plus, Fr. Z’s posting about this is now moving down on the page with new postings. So I ask the good father’s indulgence!

    Re. below, anyone know how to reply to Kainz?
    The authors of the Dubia and their supporters need to be at the ready for a blistering and vitriolic attack on the fraternal correction, and consistently take the high road. Talking points have to be at the ready for this attack, with easily understood and brief retorts ready for media consumption.
    E.g., I still am not clear on what Howard Kainz is saying, in of all places, The Catholic Thing: https://www.thecatholicthing.org/2016/04/27/the-internal-forum-and-catholic-remarriage/
    Kainz says: “Under Canon Law, there are still legitimate uses of the internal forum in absolving divorced and remarried Catholics. If the ‘external forum’ of ecclesiastical tribunals cannot be used because of lack of witnesses, lack of evidence, or unavailability, the internal forum would be the place of last resort. Also, in cases of impending death, last rites and absolution can be given to a penitent.”
    I assume this cannot be correct as an interpretation of canon law, but don’t have any expertise in this area. In any case, Kainz’s comment has to do with very liminal cases.
    This Dec. 13 article also caught my eye, for a particular reason.
    You’ll see that it quotes some passages (see addendum to the article) from the following: Cardinal Ratzinger, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: Concerning Some Objections to the Church’s Teaching on the Reception of Holy Communion by Divorced and Remarried Members of the Faithful (1998). Perhaps Fr. Spadaro’s crowd will cite it after the fraternal correction is issued. (I was unaware of this 1998 document!)
    I think the strategy here will be to point out the following, from Kainz’s article:
    “2005: The 2005 Synod on the Eucharist reaffirmed the 1981 decision of Pope John Paul II in Familiaris consortio.
    2007: Pope Benedict XVI in the apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis reiterates the decision of the 2005 Synod.”
    Anyhow, the author of this Patheos article strikes me as wrong to think that the Pope has a limited and not a very latitudinarian view of Communion for the ‘remarried’. The whole tenor of this pontificate cuts against the grain of the author’s interpretation.
    There is a good chance that the circle surrounding the Pope never really grasped or imagined the magnitude of the discord and disunity they have unleashed. Nonetheless, that circle is no doubt at the ready with a highly orchestrated media/social media campaign to vilify the four Cardinals and their supporters. Thus easy to understand replies to these attacks need to be in the can for release to the media, already–including (perhaps especially) replies to articles like the ones above.

  10. boxerpaws63 says:

    “As Honorius could tell you, sometimes it is what the next pope does that matters most.”this should give us hope.

  11. Farmer0831 says:

    As I understand it, a bad pope, an obviously immoral pope, a materially (but not formally) heretic pope – are all still the pope. But a pope who refuses to be the pope cannot be the pope.

    As I understand it, the pope is “the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful” (CCC 882). If the pope acts as a visible source and foundation of unity and is wrong, he is still the pope.

    If the pope refuses to be a visible source and foundation of the unity of the…company of the faithful, such as by refusing to answer explicit questions about basic tenets of Church doctrine which have been called into question by his own words…is he still the pope?

    My understanding is that the answer is “no”. My understanding is that the pope can be the hierarchical authority of the ecclesial church and be wrong, and that’s fine, one simply doesn’t do those things that a pope orders which are clearly wrong. In other words if a pope exercises his authority to settle a doctrinal dispute and the pope is wrong (so obviously not speaking from the chair, and so on), that’s okay, all is well, the dispute is settled and the pope is the pope (and still wrong – which, again, is fine.) But if the pope simply out-and-out refuses to settle a doctrinal dispute, which (as I understand it) would be to refuse to be the pope – then he can no longer be considered the pope.

    Is my understanding incorrect? If so how? Please note that lest I be lumped in with the sede v’s I am NOT saying this has happened yet.

  12. CharlesG says:

    If the Pope is supportive of the Kasper line, as I think there are reasonable grounds to believe given the whole Synod process, AL and the Pope’s statements denigrating opponents, I still don’t quite understand the Four Cardinals’ strategy in pressing for clarification from the Pope on the dubia. Wouldn’t things be worse if the Pope explicitly came out and endorsed in a magisterial statement communion for divorced and remarried not living chaste lives? I worry if the Cardinals’ clarification is issued, the Pope will be so ticked off, he may decide to issue such a statement rather than remain silent as heretofore. Isn’t ambiguity that can be cleaned up by a future pope better than clearly heretical teaching?

  13. Sonshine135 says:

    Say what you will, but 2016 has been a year of irony.
    The longer the Pope lets this issue fester, the more discontent his fermenting. Truly, I am starting to question if the Pope uses any reasoning in the decisions he makes, or is he simply using the gut feelings that he has on what being merciful means. Is being Catholic nothing more than being compassionate to people, and is correction not at all compassionate? I simply don’t get it. What about St. Dominic Savio’s statement, “Death before sin”? I really just don’t get it. AL is just compassion redefined to suit non-confrontational need. Do we just need to stop confronting the world, lay down our arms, and fall in line like good little subjects? Like the Cardinal’s Dubia though, I fear the Pope would see these questions as those of faithless rigor- like the judgement bomb thrown by so many liberals who cannot offer a compelling, logical argument.

  14. Sword40 says:

    The whole concept of A.L. is very Orwellian. I cannot influence the document or events in any manner, therefore all I can do is put 5 to 5 and pray and stick to our EF Mass.

  15. tskrobola says:

    I am inclined to agree with CharlesG that the Dubia and Fraternal Correction are naïve mistakes that could take a problematic and vague footnote in an Apostolic Exhortation and turn it into a much more significant problem if the Pope decides to “ratchet up” his defense.

    Whatever misbegotten teaching and pastoral direction may have stemmed from AL in various dioceses and on various issues, it could be a whole lot worse if the Pope decides to issue a definitive statement on the Internal Forum as applied to divorced/remarried Catholics, or possibly even expand the Internal Forum to effectively undermine all Catholic moral teaching.

    I trust that the Holy Ghost will preserve the Pope from formal doctrinal error, but the Pope can do a lot more damage than he has already and still not cross that bright line. My fear is that the Dubia/FC will lead the Pope closer and closer to that line, and that’s a bad thing.

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