By Elise Ann Allen
ROME (Crux) — Responding to a group of five conservative cardinals who posed critical questions about his upcoming Synod of Bishops on Synodality, Pope Francis largely upheld the Church’s ban on women priests, while suggesting the doctrine can still be studied, but signaled openness to giving blessings to same-sex couples provided that doing so is not confused with the sacrament of marriage.
The pope issued his replies in July, but they were made public only on Oct. 2.
On Friday, the five conservative cardinals published what are technically known as “dubia,” or “doubts,” which they said they had submitted to the pontiff over the summer, and which focus on women’s ordination, the blessing of same-sex unions, and the authority of the synod to issue binding teaching.
In their announcement, the cardinals said they had submitted the questions to the pope July 10 and received a response the next day, on July 11. However, since Pope Francis did not respond in the traditional “yes or no” formula, they reworded the “dubia” and submitted them again Aug. 21.
After receiving no response, the cardinals made the “dubia” public on the eve of the Oct. 4-29 Synod of Bishops on Synodality.
A Sept. 25 letter to Pope Francis from new Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, prefect of Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, was published Oct. 2 and included the pope’s responses to the original set of “dubia” presented in July.
On whether the practice of blessing same-sex unions is in keeping with Catholic revelation and the Church’s magisterium, Pope Francis said, “The Church has a very clear concept on marriage: an exclusive, stable, and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to begetting children.
“Only this union is called ‘marriage.’ Other forms of union are only realized ‘in a partial and analogous way,’ which is why they cannot strictly be called ‘marriage,’ ” the pope said.
Sacramental marriage “is much more than a mere ‘ideal,’ ” he said, adding this is why the Church “avoids every type of rite or sacrament that can contradict this conviction and imply that something is recognized as marriage which is not.”
However, Pope Francis stressed the need for compassion in the Church’s pastoral care of homosexual individuals, and signaled an openness to blessing same-sex unions on a case-by-case basis.
“In dealing with people we must not lose pastoral charity, which must pass through all of our decisions and attitudes,” he said, adding, “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.”
“Consequently, we cannot become judges who only reject, deny, and exclude,” he said.
For this reason, the pope said, “pastoral prudence must adequately discern if there are forms of blessing, requested by one or various people, which do not convey a wrong concept of marriage.”
This, he said, is because “when we ask for a blessing, we are expressing a request for help from God, a prayer to be able to live better, a trust in a Father who can help us to live better.”
However, he cautioned against making any norms to this effect, saying, “Decisions which, in certain circumstances may be part of pastoral prudence, do not necessarily have to become a norm.”
In what could be interpreted as a message to the German Church’s controversial “Synodal Path,” he said, “It is not appropriate for a diocese, an episcopal conference or any other ecclesial structure to constantly and officially enable procedures or rites for every type of issue, since everything ‘that is part of a practical discernment in the face of a particular situation cannot be elevated at the level of a norm,’ because this ‘would give rise to unbearable casuistry.’ ”
Canon law, the pope said, “must not and cannot cover everything, and not even the episcopal conferences with their varied documents and protocols can claim to do so, because the life of the Church flows through many channels in addition to the normative ones.”
On whether women are able to be ordained priests, Pope Francis responded quoting the Second Vatican Council document “Lumen Gentium,” which states, “The common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial priesthood differ essentially.”
“It is not appropriate to support a difference in degree that implies considering the common priesthood of the faithful as something of ‘second category’ or of lesser value (‘a lower degree’),” he said, insisting that “both forms of priesthood illuminate and support one another.”
As he has in the past, Pope Francis referred to St. Pope John Paul II’s position “definitively” affirming “the impossibility of conferring priestly ordination on women.”
However, in saying this, St. John Paul “was in no way denigrating women and conferring supreme power on men,” he said, saying St. John Paul spoke of priestly power “in the context of function, not of dignity and sanctity.
“These are words that we have not sufficiently accepted,” Pope Francis said, and pointed to further remarks from John Paul II stating that priestly tasks “do not give rise to the superiority of some over others,” and that “if the priestly function is ‘hierarchical,’ it must not be understood as a form of domination, but ‘is totally ordered to the sanctity of the members of Christ.’ ”
Pope Francis insisted that “if is not understood and the practical consequences of these distinctions are not drawn, it will be difficult to accept that the priesthood is reserved only for men and we will not be able to recognize the rights of women or the need for them to participate, in various ways, in the leadership of the Church.”
On whether repentance is a necessary condition for a penitent to receive absolution in the sacrament of Confession, given his repeated insistence that “forgiveness is a human right,” Pope Francis said the answer is yes.
“Repentance is necessary for the validity of sacramental absolution, and implies the intention not to sin,” however, he insisted that “there is no mathematics here, and I must remind once again that the confessional is not a customs office.
“We are not masters, but humble administrators of the sacraments that nourish the faithful, because these gifts of the Lord, more than relics to be preserved, are aides of the Holy Spirit for people’s lives,” he said, noting that there are many ways to express repentance.
For people with “very wounded self-esteem,” admitting guilt or wrongdoing “is a cruel torture, but the mere act of approaching Confession is a symbolic expression of repentance and the search for divine help,” he said.
“I also want to remember that ‘sometimes it costs us a lot to give space to the unconditional love of God in our pastoral work,’ but we must learn,” he said, saying, “We must not ask the faithful for correction resolutions that are too precise and certain, which in the end, end up being abstract or even narcissistic.”