Amoris and the Dubia: The Controversies Explained



Some Catholics may be unaware of, or are possibly confused by, the controversy following the release of Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia, and the new letter and dubia which in response have been submitted to the Pope asking for confirmation of various aspects of Catholic doctrine. To help make the faithful aware of this situation, and hopefully to understand it better, here is a summary of the situation.

Amoris Laetitia: The Main Issues

When Amoris Laetitia was first released, many praised the document as an outreach to families and for its emphasis on pastoral help for those who were suffering in irregular relationships outside the Church. And it is true, there are many beautiful insights and helpful ideas expounding on The Joy of Love. However, there were also many who pointed out certain ambiguities and misapplication of earlier theological ideas which they said would lead to misinterpretation and a ultimately an effective change in doctrine. What seemed to be suggested in Amoris was that someone who was divorced and remarried without an annulment could in some circumstances receive absolution even if they were not living as “brother and sister,” as Pope St. John Paul II had reiterated in Familiaris Consortio. It was said that the document would allow this to be determined between individuals and their pastors in the “internal forum” as a matter of conscience, even though the person remained in a state of public objective sin.

These assertions were roundly debated in the Catholic world, with many sources dismissing these concerns saying the Amoris should be interpreted in a “hermeneutic of continuity,” meaning that the ambiguity should be interpreted in light of earlier, unambiguous magisterial documents. The Pope himself ambiguously suggested that there would be pastoral changes, and referred questions to Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, who was also ambiguous about what specific changes were coming.

In the months following, what appears to be unfolding is what the critics of Amoris feared, leading to apparent growing divisions in the Church. In several dioceses, including San Diego and Rome, it appears that Amoris is being implemented as the original critics confirmed. No official pronouncements by the Pope or the Vatican have been made in support of these moves, but there is a documented private letter from the Pope to a group of Argentine bishops who published norms along these lines stating that “there is no other interpretation.” Other dioceses, such as Portland, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Lincoln have made public statements that the new interpretation would not be implemented. Prominent writer Scott Eric Alt, one who formerly rejected the interpretation of the critics, effectively summarizes how much of this has unfolded and led us to the point where we are now.

The Dubia and the Response

This growing divide and disagreement in the Church caused by this ambiguity is what prompted four cardinals privately to send a letter and a document containing five questions, or dubia (expressing doubts), to the Pope, asking for clarification on five questions of doctrine. The text of the letter and five dubia can be found in this article by journalist Edward Pentin.

The most notable response is the Pope’s lack of an official public response. He has said in various unofficial public statements and interviews that those who are concerned with these new practices are legalists, or rigid “black and white thinkers” who are hiding their own dissatisfaction and “acting in bad faith to foment divisions.” Fr. Antonio Spadoro, SJ, said to be a major contributor to Amoris, has said that the dubia have already been “answered” in responses already given. Newly promoted Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago suggested that Cardinal Burke and the others were in “need of conversion.” One Greek bishop went so far as to accuse Cardinal Burke and the other cardinals of “heresy” and “apostasy.” And Cardinal Kevin Farrell, one day after the recent consistory at which he was created a cardinal, criticized Archbishop Charles Chaput, OFM Cap. of Philadelphia for implementing standards which do not include the new provision discussed above. Much of this negative reaction to the questions creating what is being called a “climate of fear” by one anonymous Vatican official was captured in a recent article by Steve Jalsevac of LifeSiteNews. Several other cardinals and bishops, and a group of 23 prominent theologians, have come out in support of the dubia. The theologians in particular warned of an alarming “metastasizing crisis.” Whether or not one accepts the veracity of these statements, or the news agencies from which they come, one thing is quite clear: the divisions are growing while no official papal public clarification (which could be interpreted as tacit approval) to heal the rift has been forthcoming.

Cardinal Burke has asserted in a recent interview on EWTN that the questions were sincere and motivated by a concern for the souls of the faithful who are at risk of being led into sin by unclear or errant teaching on marriage and the sacraments, and that this was an exercise of their function as cardinals to be advisers to the Pope. The texts of the letter and five dubia do not lend credence to the notion that they were presented in bad faith. A cursory layman’s analysis suggests that the questions do fall within the bounds of canon law, specifically Canon 212. Canon 212 asserts that the faithful are bound to follow what the sacred pastors (the bishops) teach, balanced by an emphasis of the right and obligation of all the faithful to provide intellectual input to the governance and life of the Church.

Can. 212 §3 They have the right, indeed at times the duty, in keeping with their knowledge, competence and position, to manifest to the sacred Pastors their views on matters which concern the good of the Church. They have the right also to make their views known to others of Christ’s faithful, but in doing so they must always respect the integrity of faith and morals, show due reverence to the Pastors and take into account both the common good and the dignity of individuals.

Canon 212 originates from the Vatican II document Lumen Gentiuim, paragraph 37, which reflects the fact that the faithful, as members of the Church community, have the right to provide input into the life of the institutional Church. The right to share information and opinions is extended between the faithful (lay and cleric) and the bishops as well as among the faithful themselves.

So What’s the Big Deal?

The main problem expressed by critics of Amoris is that in order for absolution to be given in confession, the teaching of the Church has always been to require a firm purpose of amendment, meaning that they repent with no intention of continuing to engage in this sin. Being sacramentally married to Person A while having sex with Person B is, in fact, objectively and intrinsically evil, even if the person has reduced culpability. “Reduced culpability” in this context is attributed to the person’s lack of full knowledge and consent (two of the three conditions for mortal sin), e.g. that the person didn’t know Church teaching on marriage, was coerced or had no other choice, or the situation is such that they can’t stop having sex with their new partner now that they’re married and have a family without grave damage to their marriage and family. However, the rule of reduced culpability has never been applied in this way to adultery, which is always objectively evil and has a public dimension to it which can bring scandal to others.

Additionally, some argue that even if there were reduced culpability in the original act (because they were coerced, weren’t Catholic at the time, or didn’t know), culpability in fact is not reduced for the future acts of adultery if the couple remains sexually active. To do so is a denial that the act constitutes grave matter (the third condition for mortal sin).  Even if the man or woman were unable to live as brother and sister without harming the marriage or family harmony, the objectively sinful act will continue to happen. This is a conundrum for priests, who can only give absolution for sins for which a firm purpose of amendment can be honestly given.

There is also the aspect of public scandal which doesn’t seem to be addressed. The concern is that when the first spouse, or the faith community, sees that the divorced and remarried individual (without an annulment and presumably not living in continence) has returned to the sacraments, they will be led into sin, their faith in the sacraments may be reduced, and confidence in the teaching of the Church eroded. People may not be as hesitant to get divorces if this path is now available. This idea of public scandal is mentioned by Pope St. John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio.

There is also the issue of allowing someone in a state of mortal sin to receive the Eucharist, which has also never been allowed. In 1 Corinthians 11, St. Paul warns those that those who are not disposed to receiving the Eucharist and who receive it anyway eat and drink condemnation upon themselves. Some also argue that this approach really is allowing an evil so that a good may happen. “The ends justify the means” is not a part of Catholic teaching–and is in fact identified by Pope Benedict XVI and others as part of the “tyranny of relativism.”

A full theological treatment of these issues was produced by 45 prominent theologians back in July.


Its very unclear at this point how all of this will conclude, or how long it will take. It is clear that the Pope is seeking fresh solutions to bring back people who are alienated from the Church, who are perhaps locked in by earlier decisions. It’s a tender and important sojourn for the lost sheep who are wounded and in need of mercy. The problem lay in ambiguity inherent in Amoris which has allowed the implementation of erroneous practices which lead people away from truth. This ruptured interpretation of Amoris asserts that in the name of mercy, one’s conscience can in fact nullify what has always been an intrinsic moral evil–namely, adultery–and absolution can be granted to someone who hasn’t demonstrated a firm purpose of amendment. The implications to the unchanging and universal nature of Catholic teaching appear to be at stake, with one diocese differing from another in the way this teaching is handled. Unfortunately, the longer these questions go unresolved, the more and more lines of division will be drawn between the pope, bishops, cardinals, and the faithful, as we have already seen.

More and more prelates are sounding off in support or against the four cardinals and their dubia. It is an unseemly public scandal that is growing. Only an affirmative answer to the dubia, or some other kind of correction, will dispel this cloud hanging over the Church, and only the Pope can settle the issue which is causing so much division. In a recent interview, Cardinal Burke suggested that it may come down to a formal correction of the problematic interpretations of Amoris, a rare instrument of the Magisterium, being issued, perhaps sometime after Christmas. Let us pray daily for the Holy Father that his goal of reconciliation finds a true expression in unchanging Catholic teaching and that divisions are quickly healed.

As we celebrate the Christmas season, let us follow the example we see in Acts 1:14: “These all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer.”


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10 thoughts on “Amoris and the Dubia: The Controversies Explained”


  2. Thank you for laying everything out so concisely and respectfully. One thing I know, even as this fight happens… the gates of hell shall not prevail. I will continue to keep the Pope and Cardinals and Bishops in my prayer.

    1. But its not like watching your parents fight as a child, when fear is induced ; no, its like viewing it as an adult with your own set of values and faith secure. It’s the kids walking out shaking their heads because the semantics of the issue and subsequent fallout has nothing to do with them.

  3. Admittedly the life of faith doesn’t happen all at once, and pastors must be merciful as the Father is merciful (Luke 6:36). However, that doesn’t mean that it is appropriate to endorse a lifestyle contrary to the Gospels. The Lord himself sets the example, saying to the adulterous women: “Neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:11). This is very pastoral, and there is not one ounce of dubia as to what is required of the woman.

    My concern over Amoris Laetitia is: Whether it is an exhortation for the Church to put our trust in Jesus and his sacraments (according to what is traditionally taught about them), or does it exhort us to place our trust in our own resources? Here is a fuller version

    1. I agree. We must not lose faith that grace can fix these tough problems, in combination with a firm application of will.

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