Consultant resigns after letter criticizing pope

The resignation as an adviser to the U.S. bishops of a prominent theologian who criticized Pope Francis’ job performance has brought a persistent controversy centering on the pope to the doorstep of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. But it’s highly unlikely USCCB will choose to enter the fray.

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of USCCB, issued a statement Nov. 1 on the resignation of Father Thomas Weinandy, OFM Cap, supporting “honest and humble discussions around theological and pastoral issues” but saying the bishops “always stand in strong unity and loyalty with the Holy Father.”

Father Weinandy said in a July letter, made public Nov. 1, that Pope Francis was causing “chronic confusion” in the Church. He stepped down as a consultant to the USCCB doctrine committee after a conversation prompted by the letter with the conference’s general secretary, Msgr. J. Brian Bransfield.

The theologian’s release of the letter and his subsequent resignation came two weeks before the bishops’ scheduled fall meeting Nov. 13-14 in Baltimore.

Objections laid out

In trying to sort out all this, at least one thing is clear: Father Weinandy is the latest casualty in a larger conflict focusing on the pope that, far from disappearing, appears to be continuing and perhaps growing. The dispute concerns the interpretation of Pope Francis’ April 2016 apostolic exhortation on marriage, Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”), and especially what it says about giving Communion to divorced and remarried Catholics whose first marriages are still valid in the eyes of the Church.

As it has developed in the last year and a half, though, this argument — as the new incident involving the Weinandy letter illustrates — has raised other issues now being widely discussed in Church circles.

Father Weinandy is a Capuchin Franciscan priest who, besides serving as a consultant to the U.S. bishops’ doctrine committee, was for nine years head of the USCCB doctrine office and is a member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission, to which he was appointed by Pope Francis. His letter to the pope, a Jesuit, is dated July 31, the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, 16th-century founder of the Society of Jesus. In releasing it publicly three months later, the priest said he’d had no reply and was making it public in response to questions people asked him.

The letter lists five areas of concern:

First, that Amoris Laetitia appears to be “intentionally ambiguous” in what it says about Communion for the divorced and remarried; that the pope “too often ... seems to demean the importance of Church doctrine”; that he has chosen as bishops some men who “seem not merely open to those who hold views counter to Christian belief but who support and even defend them” (the letter does not name these bishops); that Francis has encouraged a form of “synodality” or decentralization in the Church that encourages theological and pastoral confusion; and that, while calling for “transparency” in the Church, he himself is resentful of criticism.

“Have you noticed that the majority of bishops are remarkably silent? Why is this? Bishops are quick learners,” Father Weinandy wrote. “Many fear that if they speak their mind, they will be marginalized or worse.”

Fighting ‘The Joy of Love’

The Weinandy letter is one of the clearest critiques from a scholarly source to surface in the current dispute but it’s far from the first. From the time Amoris Laetitia was first published last year, there has been criticism of what it says, or seems to say, about giving Communion to the divorced and remarried, as well as about the theological rationale it offers.

The criticism is concentrated on Chapter 8 of the document, which deals with theology, and especially on a passage saying that in particular cases people who perform acts that are gravely wrong “may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such,” and on footnote 351, which accompanies this statement. The footnote states:

Excerpt of USCCB Statement
Cardinal Dinardo
“Throughout the history of the Church, ministers, theologians and the laity all have debated and have held personal opinions on a variety of theological and pastoral issues. In more recent times, these debates have made their way into the popular press. That is to be expected and is often good. However, these reports are often expressed in terms of opposition, as political — conservative vs. liberal, left vs. right, pre-Vatican II vs. Vatican II. These distinctions are not always very helpful.

“In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, ‘I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy’ [quotation from Francis’ 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium]. I would also point out that the Eucharist ‘is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak’ [same source].”

Does this mean giving Communion to some divorced and remarried Catholics after a process of discernment to determine their eligibility? In a letter to some Argentine bishops that was leaked to the press, Pope Francis said it does. But key questions remain without official, on-the-record answers.

The pope has been urged repeatedly to clarify the disputed passages in Amoris Laetitia, especially those concerning intrinsically evil acts, but so far he hasn’t. Last year four cardinals, among them the American Cardinal Raymond L. Burke, whom Pope Francis earlier had removed as head of the Vatican’s highest court, the Apostolic Signatura, sent Francis five questions seeking clarification — technically called dubia — but the pope hasn’t replied. Two of these cardinals have since died.

Interpretation matters

Everyone agrees that people can be more or less guilty, depending on circumstances. But the teaching regarding intrinsically evil acts has been that — in the words of Pope St. John Paul II — “circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by its object into an act ‘subjectively’ good or defensible as a choice.”

Consistent with that, divorced and remarried Catholics whose first marriages haven’t been annulled have been allowed to receive Communion only if they and their second partners agree to live in a “brother-sister” relationship — without marital intimacy, that is.

In the preface to a new book, Cardinal Gerhard Müller repeats an interpretation of the papal document that he says establishes its continuity with previous teaching. Cardinal Müller was prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith until July, when Pope Francis in effect dismissed him by not renewing or extending his expired five-year term in office.

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His argument is that Amoris Laetitia should be understood as approving Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics whose first marriages haven’t been annulled provided they’re certain in conscience their first marriages were invalid even though this can’t be “canonically proven” to the satisfaction of a Church court.

If this were indeed the argument of Amoris Laetitia, it might meet the test of continuity with previous Church teaching. But up to now Pope Francis hasn’t embraced it as a correct interpretation.

And even as supporters and opponents of Amoris Laetitia argue theology, a fundamental fact of the present situation remains unchanged. Pope Francis is a strong-willed 80-year-old pontiff in a hurry to set in motion lasting changes in the Church. Many things happening these days follow from that.

Russell Shaw is an OSV Newsweekly contributing editor.