Action Alert!

The rhetorical strategy to debunk the dubia

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Dec 16, 2016

At this point it’s quite clear: close associates of Pope Francis, defenders of Amoris Laetita and critics of the four cardinals who submitted the famous dubia are all reading from the same script. When you notice that many different people are using the same arguments—in fact the same phrases, even the same words—you know that someone, somewhere at the Vatican, has put together “talking points” for those who want to debunk the dubia.

We could probably speculate about the source of this media strategy. But first, notice that it is a media strategy. Prelates and pundits have been making public statements about Amoris Laetitia and its critics, clearly intending to reassure the public and to diminish the impact of the dubia. Taking a careful look at those statements, and noticing the arguments that keep appearing, we can easily discern the main talking points:

  1. Don’t talk about the dubia. The goal of this coordinated activity is not to answer the dubia but to sweep them off the table. So don’t mention the questions that the four cardinals actually asked; they might sound too reasonable. Instead, do your best to convey the impression that the cardinals were asking trick questions, or probing into arcane possibilities. Above all, don’t let on that each of the dubia would allow for a simple Yes/No answer.

  2. Say that Amoris Laetitia is perfectly clear. Point to others who have remarked on the document’s clarity. Don’t mention those who have said the opposite. Don’t call attention to the fact that different bishops have issued contradictory interpretations. If you want to push the argument further, accuse the four cardinals of spreading confusion. They say that Amoris Laetitia is the source of the confusion; let’s take the offensive, and steal that argument away from them. Remember how, in high school, your teacher said, “There’s no such thing as a stupid question?” Forget that.

  3. Poke fun at the traditional Church teaching and at the old-fashioned pastors who uphold it. If you’re speaking through the mass media, this will be easy, because you can play upon popular ideas, prejudices, and sympathies. Everyone has friends who are divorced; aren’t they nice people? Do we want to punish them? Does anyone still believe that Catholics in a state of sin should not receive Communion before making a sacramental confession? Heck, who goes to confession anymore? Even a priest can write, in a (theoretically) Catholic newspaper, that the requirement for a divorced and remarried Catholic to abstain from sex is “not only absurd, it is unjust.” That’s the message we need to convey: that Church teaching must change, because today people think it’s absurd.

  4. Say that the dubia reflect a simplistic approach. The document is perfectly clear, but the recommendations call for a more nuanced understanding. Thus The Australian Archbishop Coleridge says that the four cardinals are seeking a “false clarity”, which is not compatible with the reality of married life. Dublin’s Archbishop Martin chips in that some people “are unsettled by the ability of the Pope to place himself in the midst of the uncertainties of people’s lives.” Writing in L’Osservatore Romano, the Spanish Cardinal Fernando Sebastian Aguilar observes that the cardinals “do not understand what Francis wanted to say” (a bit of a slip, there, since if they don’t understand, it would seem reasonable to ask questions). Then, in a nastier tone, he adds: “If those who doubted would save some paper and hear more confessions, then they would understand better.” You see, this deeper understanding of the complexities comes from hearing confessions, counseling, and other pastoral involvement. Skip lightly over the fact that when priests hear confessions and counsel couples, they apply principles that they derive from Church teaching—so that although the circumstances of individual cases may be murky, the teaching in papal documents should be clear. Emphasize that the Pope writes as a pastor. But…

  5. Come down hard on papal authority. Especially if you are not a bishop—and therefore will probably not be seen as an authority figure in the Church—act astonished that anyone would dare to question what a Roman Pontiff has written. Never mind that the four cardinals are only asking questions. Never mind that you yourself have probably questioned papal statements in the past. Never mind that in its most contentious recommendation, Amoris Laetitia seems to be a direct contradiction of previous papal documents, so some papal teaching must be questioned. Never mind that Pope Francis himself has called for free debate and encouraged people to “make a mess.” Hammer away on papal authority. Take as your model this argument by Austen Ivereigh, who suggests that we should move on and leave the dubia behind. “Roma locuta, causa finite, as Catholics used to say,” Ivereigh writes—notwithstanding the fact that this whole debate is caused by the fact that Roma has not “locuta’d” clearly on the key issue.

  6. Don’t be afraid to impugn the integrity of people who disagree. Again, follow Ivereigh’s example. He wrote of an “anti-Francis revolt” that had taken on “a newly vicious tone.” And then he proceeded with his own vicious attack on critics of Amoris Laetitia. (That’s always an effective rhetorical tactic, you know: accuse the other guys of doing precisely what you’re doing yourself.) So write angry Tweets, saying that the other side is writing angry Tweets. We’ll be speaking a lot about “accompanying” couples in troubled relationships. But we don’t want to “accompany” the people who disagree with us. Shout them down. Ridicule them. Don’t give them a chance.

  7. Paint a rosy picture of relationships between Catholics and their pastors. The “Kasper option” presumes that a divorced and remarried Catholic has engaged in a deep, lengthy examination of conscience, aided by a discerning pastor. Portray that sort of penitent-confessor relationship as the norm, even though we all know it’s the exception. Don’t get bogged down worrying about the lackadaisical priests who will quickly tell people not to worry about the “old rules” against adultery—or the divorced couples who will seek them out, avoiding the more conscientious priests who might be more demanding. Insist that the question of whether or not someone receives Communion should be strictly between the individual and his pastor. Does that argument have a familiar ring? Yes, you’ve heard it before: the claim that government shouldn’t set rules, because the question of abortion should be “between a woman and her doctor.” You might not be entirely at ease with the comparison, but the argument is a proven rhetorical winner.

As you read through these talking points, you might notice some contradictions. We’re saying that it’s all very simple, yet we’re saying that it’s all very complex. We’re insisting that “Rome has spoken,” yet the whole point is that Rome has not spoken, leaving fundamental questions up to individual priests. We’re inveighing against “clericalism,” yet giving priests enormous new powers with no means of accountability. We’re saying that the Pope is a pastor rather than a lawmaker, yet we’re trying to lay down the law. We’re telling people that Amoris Laetitia upholds the traditional Church teaching, yet we’re making fun of that teaching. These are not comfortable arguments to make. That’s why we’re trying to end the debate quickly. When in doubt, remember point #1: Don’t talk about the dubia.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: mdepietro - Dec. 19, 2016 11:20 AM ET USA

    The obvious conclusion is that we have a crisis. The Pope and some in the Vatican want to reverse the teaching regarding divorce and remarriage, and perhaps other teachings as well. The problem is the minute they succeed, they erase papal authority as they would clearly be contradicting prior magisterial teaching. I wonder if they realize that if Pope Francis demonstrates Papal authority is so malleable why would one care what he says about any issue like Climate change, or the death penalty etc

  • Posted by: - Dec. 17, 2016 10:00 PM ET USA

    The four cardinals are within their right to want clarification on the issues surrounding this document and until it is clarified, no one should criticize them.

  • Posted by: feedback - Dec. 17, 2016 2:25 AM ET USA

    All Bishops in the US, and around the world, who responded to Amoris Laetita with clarifying statements for their people that there is no change in moral teachings and discipline of the Catholic Church, in actuality have taken side of the four Cardinals and the "dubia."

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Dec. 17, 2016 1:05 AM ET USA

    Great article!

  • Posted by: MatJohn - Dec. 16, 2016 10:12 PM ET USA

    Intimidation by obfuscation requires relentless pressure for simplification. There are enough CATHOLIC bloggers to maintain and accelerate the dubia position until real answers are given.

  • Posted by: bernie4871 - Dec. 16, 2016 9:24 PM ET USA

    We are in grave times. A schism, in fact seems apparent to anyone listening. It is not a Western geographic split as with Luther or Henry VIII, nor is it an East West split as with the "Orthodox". It is far more insidious: Diocese vs Diocese. San Diego and Chicago vs Omaha and Philadelphia, those who try to live the Catholic life vs those many who have already largely left its practice, Pope vs Cardinal. Help us O Lord, the night is far spent. We are lost without You. Libel fills the air.

  • Posted by: extremeCatholic - Dec. 16, 2016 8:54 PM ET USA

    Phil, that's a great list. One item I would add is that the dubia represents "a distraction" from the Pope's busy agenda and a waste of his time to descend into a petty theological debate. "Nothing to see here - move along."

  • Posted by: filioque - Dec. 16, 2016 6:36 PM ET USA

    This says it all. What a despicable display of dishonest and uncharitable mendacity. The Vatican's talking points must have been approved by someone. Who could that have been? Oh, he still isn't talking.