Doctrinal chief dismisses idea of ‘fraternal correction’ of pope

VATICAN CITY — The Catholic Church is "very far" from a situation in which the pope is in need of "fraternal correction" because he hasn't put the faith and Church teaching in danger, according to Cardinal Gerhard Muller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Interviewed Jan. 9 on the Italian all-news channel, TGCom24, Cardinal Muller said Pope Francis' document on the family, "Amoris Laetitia," was "very clear" in its teaching.

In the document, the cardinal said, Pope Francis asks priests "to discern the situation of these persons living in an irregular union — that is, not in accordance with the doctrine of the Church on marriage — and asks for help for these people to find a path for a new integration into the Church according to the condition of the sacraments (and) the Christian message on matrimony."

In the papal document, Cardinal Muller said, "I do not see any opposition: On one side we have the clear doctrine on matrimony, and on the other the obligation of the Church to care for these people in difficulty."

The cardinal was interviewed about a formal request to Pope Francis for clarification about "Amoris Laetitia" and particularly its call for the pastoral accompaniment of people who are divorced and civilly remarried or who are living together without marriage. The request, called a "dubia," was written in September by Cardinals Raymond L. Burke, patron of the Knights of Malta; Carlo Caffarra of Bologna; Walter Brandmüller of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences; and Joachim Meisner of Cologne. They published the letter in November after Pope Francis didn't respond.

"We have noted a grave disorientation and great confusion of many faithful regarding extremely important matters for the life of the Church," the cardinals wrote. "Even within the episcopal college, there are contrasting interpretations of Chapter 8 of 'Amoris Laetitia,'" the chapter dealing with ministry to the divorced in his exhortation on the family.

In releasing their letter and accompanying explanations Nov. 14, the cardinals stated, "The Holy Father has decided not to respond. We have interpreted his sovereign decision as an invitation to continue the reflection and the discussion, calmly and with respect. And so we are informing the entire people of God about our initiative, offering all of the documentation."

In an interview later, Cardinal Burke said the pope must respond to the "dubia" because they directly impact the faith and the teaching of the Church. If there is no response, he said, a formal "correction of the pope" would be in order.

Cardinal Muller told the Italian television that "a possible fraternal correction of the pope seems very remote at this time because it does not concern a danger for the faith," which is the situation St. Thomas Aquinas described for fraternal correction. "It harms the Church" for cardinals to so publicly challenge the pope, he said.

In his letter on the family, Pope Francis affirmed Church teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, but he also urged pastors to provide spiritual guidance and assistance with discernment to Catholics who have married civilly without an annulment of their Church marriage. A process of discernment, he has said, might eventually lead to a determination that access to the sacraments is possible.

The cardinals suggested the possibility reflects a change in Church teaching on the indissolubility of marriage and the sinfulness of sexual relations outside a valid marriage. They noted that St. John Paul II's 1981 apostolic exhortation "Familiaris Consortio," affirmed the Church's practice of "not admitting to eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried" because "their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist."

Receiving absolution and Communion, St. John Paul wrote, would be possible only for couples who could not return to their sacramentally valid marriages, promised to forego sexual relations and live as "brother and sister" and would receive the sacraments in such a way as to not give scandal to others.

In their letter, the four cardinals said that in their opinion, if Pope Francis meant to change those rules, in effect it would change Church teaching about marriage, sexuality and-or the nature of the sacraments. 

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