Analysis: What to expect from a weekend conference on Church ‘confusion’

By Andrea Gagliarducci

Vatican City, Apr 6, 2018 / 11:05 am (CNA).- Before he died, the late Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, emeritus Archbishop of Bologna, told friends that he wished for a conference that would gather bishops and other Catholics to reflect on the state of the Church.

The conference “Church, where do you go?,” scheduled for April 7 in Rome, can be considered the fulfillment of Cardinal Caffarra’s wish.

Not by chance, the conference is dedicated to his memory. Not by chance, the subtitle of the conference is “only the blind would deny there is confusion in the Church,” a passage of one of his latest interviews.

A number of significant topics that have arisen during Pope Francis’ pontificate will be discussed: the 50th anniversary of the Humanae Vitae; questions about the Church’s doctrine on matters of sexual morality; the issue of conscience, which was crucial during the 2015 synod on family, and the concept of “discernment,” which is sometimes used in arguments justifying more open access to communion for divorced and remarried Catholics.

The topics of discussion will also include the limits of the papal authority and infallibility.

There are all the ingredients of a rich food for thought.

Relators of the conference are Cardinals Raymond Leo Burke, Walter Brandmueller and Joseph Zen Zekiun; Bishop Athanasius Schneider; philosopher Marcello Pera; professors Renzo Puccetti and Valerio Gigliotti; and journalist Francesca Romana Poleggi.

The titles of the lectures touch critical issues, and also explore the possibility of correcting the pope, if his statements seem to contradict Catholic doctrine. This demonstrates the increasing preoccupation in some circles with the protection of the deposit of faith.

Though some presentation titles might seem harsh, the topics are real, and they are intended to be part of an attempt to respond to open issues, such as those put forth by the 2016 dubia of four cardinals, that asked the pope certain questions about the doctrine of the Church, in light of the different ways Amoris Laetitia was being interpreted.

The late Cardinal Caffarra was one of the signatories of those dubia, and his approach to the issue provides a good way to glimpse into the conference, beyond any possible vis polemica.

Cardinal Caffarra always underscored he was not against the Pope, but he was merely seeking clarity on issues of faith. His signature at the end of the dubia, and the following letter he sent to the Pope to solicit a response, was intended as a search for the guidance of Peter on questions on faith and doctrine.

The Apr. 7 conference will be concluded by a short video interview Cardinal Caffarra granted on the issue of Humanae Vitae, one of the increasingly controversial topics of the moment.

Presenting a book on the contribution of Cardinal Karol Wojtytla (then Pope John Paul II) to the preparatory commission of Humanae Vitae, Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Mueller, emeritus prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, stressed that overturning the teaching of the Bl. Paul VI encyclical would be “a crime against the Church,” and denounced the work of a “secret commission” to re-write Humanae Vitae.

The commission is a study group led by professor Gilfredo Marengo, that is said to be looking back to the genesis of the encyclical.

The genesis of Humanae Vitae is one of main topics of discussion, and Renzo Puccetti, one of the lecturers, described it very well in the book “I veleni della contraccezione” (“The poisons of contraception”) that explains how the contraceptive pill was invented, developed and spread, describes the work of the lobbies of demographic control and how Catholics responded with natural family planning, and describes the struggle between bishops, theologians, doctors, and association of lay people over contraception.

This struggle poisoned the years before and after the Second Vatican Council, but Paul VI resolved to staying faithful to the doctrine.

The rebellion that followed provides a lot of clues about what is going on now. The encyclical was strongly resisted by a group of theologians that grabbed the headlines, and the pope was subjected to strong pressures.

The first step was to question the authoritativeness of the encyclical, saying that norms of contraception were not mandatory, as the document did not present a solemn declaration of infallibility.

This is the reason why Cardinal Wojtyla, who took part the in the preparatory committee, recommended that Paul VI clearly express the infallibility, not of the encyclical, but of the teaching expressed in the encyclical, a part of deposit of faith that needed to be preserved to stay faithful to the Gospel.

If the story behind Humanae Vitae says a lot about how campaigns against Catholic teaching is carried on even nowadays, the issue of pope’s infallibility is another interesting topic.

Is Amoris Laetitia or any other Papal document beyond the possibility of any mistake? To this extent, it is worthy to note that Cardinal Walter Brandmueller, another of the speakers, wrote in 1992 a book titled “The Church and the right to be wrong” about the Galileo case.

Cardinal Brandmueller took the example of Galileo to stress that the Church does not claim any infallibility except in some, well defined cases. Things can be discussed, in the end. Noting this is also an indirect response to those who blame any critic of Amoris Laetitia as a critic of papal authority itself.

Cardinal Burke is a very well known personality, and on numerous occasions he has addressed the problems of confusion over Catholic teaching. and the need to tackle that issue for the sake of the faithful.

Cardinal Zen has become the loudest voice in the defense of the Church’s freedom in China. While a discussion on the China-Vatican deal on the appointment of bishops is underway, Cardinal Zen has expressed the concern of many Catholics of China, and decried a return to Ostpolitik, the label given to Holy See’s policy with Eastern bloc countries on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

Ostpolitik was a diplomacy of dialogue and concessions, developed in the 60s by Msgr. Agostino Casaroli, later St. John Paul II’s Secretary of State.

Ostpolitik was also strongly criticized from the Cardinals of the Church of Silence, i.e., Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, Primate of Poland, and above all Cardinal Jozef Mindszenty, Archbishop of Budapest-Esztergom, that both considered the Holy See’s approach as amounting to too much dialoguing with the countries of the Soviet bloc.

Bishop Schneider of Astana, Kazakhstan, has been one of the strongest defenders of  Catholic teaching and a promoter of the Kazakhstani profession of truths on marriage.

Is the current approach on issues of doctrine and morality a replica of the Ostpolitik approach? Is the Church dialoguing too much with the world, giving up the primary task of evangelization?

Those are issues that will be explored during the April 7 discussion.

The conference will end with a declaration, which will likely restate the truth of faith regarding doctrine on marriage and sexuality.

According to the veteran Vatican watcher Sandro Magister, “this ‘declaratio’ will be the polar opposite of that ‘Kölner Erklärung’ – the declaration signed in Cologne in 1989 by German theologians now in the good graces of Francis – which concerned the principles later reaffirmed by John Paul II in the 1993 encyclical “Veritatis Splendor.”

It remains to be seen how much the conference will garner attention and make an impact. It is likely it will be labeled as an “anti-Francis” conference, but it is also likely that there will be a poor response to the hard-hitting questions raised during the lectures.


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  1. May we hope for a yet another shifting Paradigm Lost?

    “Philosophy always buries its undertakers” (Etienne Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience, 1937). And, “’If the whole world were to be covered with asphalt, one day a crack would appear in the asphalt, and in that crack grass would grow.’ (an Gulag inmate defending the forbidden Boris Pasternak to his prison guard–quoted in Whittaker Chambers, Cold Friday, 1964).

    Likewise today (?) for Veritatis Splendor (1993): “The Church is no way the author or the arbiter of this [moral] norm” (n. 95).

  2. Jesus was a source of confusion to the Pharisee, Sadducee, the Levite, the Tax Collector, and the scripture scholars of his time.

    • Yes, Christ had this seemingly confusing way of avoiding slogans and of dealing with more than one idea at a time: rather than mercy, both mercy and truth; rather than peace, both repent and go in peace; and rather than a paradigm shift–“Enter by the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many” (Matt 7:13). Rather than yet another “anthropological change”, Christ is the Word yesterday, today and forever–and was not at all “a source of confusion” for his followers. As for confused tax collectors, today’s tax collectors in Germany ought not to excommunicate for “apostasy(!)” those who simply opt not to check the “religion” box(7% surcharge awarded to the Church)on their state income tax forms. Mercy?

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