On the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a score of Catholic academics and pastors—of whom I am one—spoke out, in an open letter, in support of the “Four Cardinals” who submitted and then made public five “dubia” (doubts or questions) to Pope Francis on issues raised by his post-synodal exhortation Amoris Laetitia. The four cardinals—Raymond Burke, Carlo Caffarra, Walter Brandmüller, and Joachim Meisner—have taken a step that has few, if any, precedents.

As canonist Edward Peters has noted, the Four Cardinals’ letter is a “textbook” example of what one should do when in a state of perplexity about serious matters, according to Canon 212. What is unprecedented is that the problem should have escalated to this point, and have continued to escalate thereafter. That the pope should have declined—and made clear that he was declining—to answer such eminent petitioners, is extraordinary. That the Four Cardinals should have felt it necessary to go public is, in terms of the political expectations of the Roman Curia, little short of the nuclear option—even if the biblical, as well as the canonical, textbook would say it was their right and perhaps duty to do so (Matthew 18:15-17; Canon 212 §3). A group of academics and pastors weighing in on the Four Cardinals’ side, as certain bishops have, with a number of clerical and lay supporters of Pope Francis attacking them, would seem to be adding fuel to the flames.

The signatories to this letter have not acted lightly. A number of the signatories of a previous letter—an appeal to cardinals to seek clarification, an appeal that has been answered by the actions of the Four Cardinals—swiftly suffered for it in career terms. The urgency of supporting the Four Cardinals arises from the objectively verifiable fact that the Church is in a state of complete confusion over some very fundamental issues. It is no longer a question of exactly who may receive Holy Communion, and in what personal circumstances—but instead of whether sex outside marriage is always wrong, whether sacramental marriage is truly indissoluble, and whether the constant teaching of the Church on matters of sexual morality and the sacraments necessarily demands Catholics’ assent.

The seriousness of these questions, and the depth of the division over them which is present in the Church at this moment, seem to have escaped many of the pope’s self-described supporters. Fr. Antonio Spadaro, a favored interviewer for Pope Francis, declared that the Four Cardinals’ questions had been debated sufficiently during the two Synods on the Family. Fr. Spadaro later further explained that the pope had addressed the Four Cardinals’ concerns in his approval of the pastoral guidelines of the Bishops of Buenos Aires. In short, there is no confusion: Everything is already perfectly clear.

By contrast, Fr. Spadaro and others have accused those who ask questions of bad faith, heresy, being under demonic influence, or attempting to strong-arm the magisterium in the manner of supporters of female ordination, often without addressing the substantive issues.

The wisdom of the name-calling line of defense is demonstrated by the difficulties experienced by those partisans of Pope Francis who have attempted to descend to details. Rocco Buttiglione, writing in L’Ossovatore Romano, set out a minimalist interpretation of the latitude Amoris Laetitia gives to couples in irregular unions, which, he suggests, is in “perfect harmony” with the teaching of Pope St. John Paul II, appealing to factors limiting moral responsibility. As Ross Douthat has pointed out, one gets a very different line in pastoral guidelines coming from bishops such as Robert McElroy of San Diego, a Pope Francis appointee who told his priests to permit Holy Communion to those couples who simply “conclude that God is calling them to return to full participation in the life of the Church and the Eucharist.” Likewise, the guidelines of the Bishops of Buenos Aires, approved specifically by Pope Francis, declare frankly that “[i]n more complex cases, and when a declaration of nullity has not been obtained, the above mentioned option [i.e. continence] may not, in fact, be feasible. Nonetheless, a path of discernment is still possible.”

This, to repeat, is just a sample of the confusion to be found among liberal interpretations of Amoris. The positions taken by conservative bishops around the world add a vast extra dimension to the range of views. The issue is emphatically not one of differing pastoral conditions or strategies. The more extreme liberal interpretations can be justified only by a particular theology of grace, free will, and intrinsically evil acts—and if you ask theologians who support those positions, that is exactly what they will tell you. (Samples of such reasoning are plentiful in sources such as the liberal British weekly The Tablet.) Conservative bishops reject even a moderate liberal view on Amoris, not because of their view of what will work best in their corner of the world, but because of their contrasting understanding of these same issues. Those who think that, in view of fundamental principles of moral theology, giving Holy Communion to those in irregular situations (under some slightly more detailed description) would be both a sacrilegious act by the priest and a further mortal sin for the communicant, will simply not perceive any pastoral situations in which doing so is going to be a good idea.

Today we see the beginnings of a breakdown of the unity of Faith which characterizes the Church, not just at the level of the personal views of parish priests, but at the level of the public policy of bishops and episcopal conferences. Since the unity of Faith is not an accidental characteristic of the Church, but an essential one, it is not extravagant to say that we are facing a situation of schism. If bishops and dioceses lose the one Faith, they can no longer be said to be part of the Church. It is difficult to think of terms too extreme to describe the seriousness of the situation.

There is only one thing that can resolve this crisis: a decisive intervention by the pope. This is what is requested by the Four Cardinals and by those, including the signatories of this latest letter, who support them. It is evident that if this intervention comes only from a future pope, then the crisis will continue until that time. In the meantime, what is at stake is the very fabric of the Church, considered as a human institution.

Joseph Shaw is a senior research fellow at St Benet's Hall, Oxford University.

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Update: An earlier version of this article mistakenly attributed a position taken by Cardinal Blase J. Cupich to Archbishop Charles J. Chaput. It has been corrected.

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