A group of five cardinals asked Pope Francis this summer to answer five “dubia,” or doubts, related to the synod on synodality.
The request was made public on the eve of the long-awaited gathering in Rome, which Vatican watchers say could lead to far-reaching changes in the Church.
The five dubia, presented Aug. 21 to the pope and the Vatican’s doctrine czar, posed questions about doctrinal development, same-sex blessings, the status of the synod on synodality, women priests, and the conditions for sacramental absolution.
An initial draft of the five questions — signed by the German Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, the U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, the Mexican Cardinal Juan Sandoval Íñiguez, the Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah, and Hong Kong’s Cardinal Joseph Zen — was presented July 10 to Pope Francis and Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer, the then prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The pope reportedly replied the next day with an extensive letter in Spanish. But according to the Italian Catholic journalist Sandro Magister, the cardinals believed that it did not answer their questions.
“Although signed by Francis, the letter displayed the writing style of his trusted theologian, the Argentine Victor Manuel Fernández, who would soon take on the new role of prefect of the dicastery for the doctrine of the faith,” Magister wrote in an Oct. 2 post on his Settimo Cielo blog.
The five cardinals then sought to reformulate the questions so that they could only be answered “yes” or “no.”
Pope Francis has not responded to the rephrased dubia more than 40 days after they were submitted, Magister said.
But in an Oct. 1 report, Rome’s Il Messaggero newspaper quoted Fernández, who formally took up the role of doctrinal prefect in September, as saying that the cardinals “obviously always have doubts, it’s a constant, you have to respect their passions though, everyone has their passion.”
Fernández, who received the cardinal’s red hat Sept. 30, reportedly added: “The pope has the freedom to respond or not, to consider whether to close a question or discuss it as will also be done at the synod, freely.”
In an Oct. 2 “Notification to Christ’s Faithful,” the five cardinals said they had decided to publish their questions ahead of the Oct. 4-29 synod on synodality so that Catholics “may not be subject to confusion, error, and discouragement but rather may pray for the universal Church and, in particular, the Roman Pontiff, that the Gospel may be taught ever more clearly and followed ever more faithfully.”
The cardinals’ first question asked whether it was 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”.
The second said: “Is it possible that in some circumstances a pastor could bless unions between homosexual persons, thus suggesting that homosexual behavior as such would not be contrary to God’s law and the person’s journey toward God?”
This was followed by a related question asking: “Does the teaching upheld by the universal ordinary magisterium, 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, continue to be valid?”
The third question was: “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’ [‘together with its head’], to the College of Bishops.”
The fourth asked: “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?”
The fifth and final question said: “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 five dubia echo a set of five questions presented to Pope Francis in 2016 regarding the interpretation of Amoris laetitia, his apostolic exhortation on love in the family, which received no response.
The 2016 dubia were presented by two of the five cardinals who signed the 2023 request for clarification — Cardinal Brandmüller and Cardinal Burke — as well as the Italian Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, who died in 2017, and the German Cardinal Joachim Meisner, who died the same year.
The Vatican released the pope’s eight-page response in Spanish to the initial dubia following their publication Oct. 2. An English translation of the reply was published on Cardinal Burke’s official website.
In the translation posted by the U.S. cardinal, Pope Francis said that the time of the synod on synodality, which is due to end in October 2024, was a period in which questions were being asked about the Church's structure and mission.
“With great sincerity, I tell you that it is not very good to be afraid of these question marks and questions,” the pope wrote. “The Lord Jesus, who promised Peter and his successors indefectible assistance in the task of caring for the holy people of God, will help us, also thanks to this synod, to keep ourselves always more in constant dialogue with the men and women of our time and in total fidelity to the Holy Gospel.”
“However, although it does not always seem prudent to me to respond to the questions addressed directly to me (because it would be impossible to answer them all), in this case I think it is suitable to do so because of the closeness of the synod.”
The response addressed the five July dubia one by one, beginning with the first question, “about the claim that we should reinterpret Divine Revelation according to the cultural and anthropological changes in vogue.”
The pope offered an eight-part reply, which began: “The answer depends on the meaning you give to the word ‘reinterpret.’ If you mean ‘interpret better,’ the expression is valid.”
It continued, citing the Vatican II document Dei Verbum: “In this sense, the Second Vatican Council stated that it is necessary that the work of the exegetes — I would add of theologians — ‘may help the Church to form a firmer judgment.’”
In response to the second question, on “the claim that the widespread practice of the blessing of same-sex unions would be in accord with Revelation and the Magisterium,” the pope wrote: “The Church has a very clear conception of marriage: an exclusive, stable, and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to the generation of children. She calls ‘marriage’ only such a union.”
He went on: “This is why the Church avoids any kind of rite or sacramental that could contradict this conviction and imply that something which is not marriage is recognized as marriage.”
“In dealing with persons, however, we must not lose the pastoral charity that must permeate all our decisions and attitudes. The defense of the objective truth is not the only expression of this charity which is also made of kindness, patience, understanding, tenderness, and encouragement. Therefore, we cannot make ourselves into judges who only deny, reject, exclude.”
“Pastoral prudence must therefore properly discern whether there are forms of blessing, requested by one or more people, that do not convey a misconception of marriage. Because, when a blessing is requested, it is a request for help from God, a plea to be able to live better, a trust in a Father who can help us to live better.”
Concluding his answer with reference to his 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia, the pope said: “Decisions that may be part of pastoral prudence in certain circumstances need not be transformed into a norm. In other words, it is not appropriate for a diocese, a conference of bishops, or any other ecclesial structure to authorize constantly and officially procedures or rules for every type of affair, since everything that ‘is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances cannot be elevated to the level of a rule’ since this ‘would … lead to an intolerable casuistry.’”
“Canon law should not and cannot cover everything, nor can conferences of bishops pretend to do so with their various documents and protocols, because the life of the Church runs through many channels besides the normative ones.”
Responding the third question, about whether synodality is a “constitutive element of the Church,” the pope wrote: “As you well recognize that the supreme and full authority of the Church is exercised either by the pope in virtue of his office or by the college of bishops together with its head, the Roman pontiff ... nevertheless, with these dubia, you yourselves manifest your need to participate, to give freely your opinion and to collaborate, and thus claim some form of ‘synodality’ in the exercise of my ministry.”
He went on: “The Church is a ‘mystery of missionary communion,’ but this communion is not only affective or ethereal, but necessarily implies real participation: that not only the hierarchy, but all the People of God, in different ways and at different levels, can make their voices heard and feel part of the Church’s journey. In this sense we can indeed say that synodality, as a style and dynamism, is an essential dimension of the life of the Church.”
But he said this was this quite different from trying “to sacralize or impose a particular synodal methodology that one group likes, to make it the norm and the obligatory channel for all.”
Replying to the fourth question, about a belief among pastors and theologians that priestly ordination can be conferred on women as the Church’s theology has changed, the pope stressed that “when St. John Paul II taught that the impossibility of conferring priestly ordination on women must be affirmed ‘in a definitive manner,’ he was in no way denigrating women and giving a supreme power to men.”
Referring to Pope John Paul II’s 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis, Francis added: “On the other hand, to be rigorous, we should recognize that a clear and authoritative doctrine on the exact nature of a ‘definitive statement’ has not yet been fully developed. It is not a dogmatic definition and yet it must be complied with by all. No one can publicly contradict it and nevertheless it can be the object of study, as in the case of the validity of ordinations in the Anglican Communion.”
In answer to the fifth question, about whether repentance is a necessary condition for sacramental absolution, Pope Francis wrote: “Repentance is necessary for the validity of sacramental absolution and implies the intention not to sin. But there is no mathematics here, and once again I must remind you that the confessional is not a customs house.”
“We are not masters, but humble stewards of the sacraments that nourish the faithful, for these gifts of the Lord, rather than relics to be guarded, are aids of the Holy Spirit for the life of persons.”
“There are many ways of expressing repentance. Often, in people with a very wounded self-esteem, to declare themselves guilty is a cruel torture, but the very fact of approaching confession is a symbolic expression of repentance and of the search of divine help.”
Editor’s note: This report was updated Oct. 2 with quotations from Pope Francis’ response to the July 10 dubia, taken from the English translation on Cardinal Burke’s official website.