VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis’ top advisers are rallying to his defense amid an unprecedented wave of conservative criticism that represents the biggest challenge to his mercy-over-morals papacy.
In an unusual gesture, the nine cardinals from around the world who advise Francis on running the church made a public show of support for the pope and his teachings this week after posters featuring a scowling Francis appeared around Rome. The posters referenced some perceived heavy-handed moves against conservatives and asked “Where’s your mercy?”
And on Tuesday, the Vatican published a book by the Holy See’s top canon lawyer fully endorsing Francis’ controversial opening to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics — the main bone of contention between the pope and conservative and traditionalist Catholics.
The book’s author, Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, said the Vatican bureaucracy and cardinals exist to help and serve the pope. “He knows we love him and we are with him,” Coccopalmerio said in an interview with press.
He called the anti-pope posters “odious” and “from the point of view of civility and manners, not nice and not condonable.”
Conservatives and traditionalists have been wary of Francis ever since he emerged on the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica after his 2013 election without the red velvet cape of his predecessors. More recently, they have been alarmed by his takeover of the Knights of Malta sovereign religious order and the public sidelining of its conservative patron, Cardinal Raymond Burke.
But the conservatives’ greatest complaint concerns Francis’ 2016 document “The Joy of Love,” in which he seemed to open the door to letting divorced and civilly remarried Catholics receive Communion. This sparked heated debate and division within the Catholic Church and led to different interpretations from one parish to the next.
Four conservative cardinals, led by Burke, formally asked Francis to clarify certain questions, or “dubia,” raised by the document, but Francis hasn’t responded.
Coccopalmerio penned his 51-page book to help explain the text, though he said his was neither a formal response to his four fellow cardinals, nor an official document of the Vatican’s legal office. However, his book was published by the Vatican’s publishing house at the height of two years of tension over the issue, and was presented Tuesday at a press conference at Vatican Radio.
Church teaching holds that unless divorced and civilly remarried Catholics receive an annulment, or a church decree that their first marriage was invalid, they cannot receive Communion if they are sexually active. Citing Jesus’ teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, some conservatives have insisted the teaching is fixed in the Gospel and that the only way these Catholics can receive Communion is to abstain from sex. Progressives have sought wiggle room to balance doctrine with mercy and look at each couple on a case-by-case basis.
In the book, Coccopalmerio repeats church doctrine and says Francis’ text falls squarely within Catholic tradition. But he says sometimes these couples find abstaining from sex “impossible,” even if they want to, and should not be denied the sacraments as a result.
“The church therefore, must admit to confession and the Eucharist those faithful who find themselves in illegitimate unions, as long as there are two essential conditions: they want to change their situation, but they cannot act on their desire,” he wrote.
Those conditions, he stressed, must be verified by priests and bishops, suggesting that arriving at that decision in one’s own conscience isn’t enough.
The Rev. Robert Gahl, a moral theologian at the Pontifical Holy Cross University, said Coccopalmerio “has a very broad reading of impossibility” as far as abstaining from sex is concerned. And Gahl said the book, while contributing an authoritative legal voice to the debate, certainly doesn’t answer the ambiguities in the pope’s document, known by its Latin title “Amoris Laetitia.”
“The developing debate will tell, but it seems that Coccopalmerio is advancing an open contradiction for how to read Amoris Laetitia,” Gahl said. “And it’s to resolve that contradiction that the four cardinals wrote the dubia.”
American canon lawyer Edward Peters, an adviser to the Vatican’s high court, was more direct. In a blog post, Peters said Coccopalmerio’s book represented “more blows upon a swollen bruise” caused by the pope’s original document and subsequent liberal interpretations by Maltese and German bishops.