Why does Pope Francis refuse to respond?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Sep 28, 2017

As Jeff Mirus has already pointed out, there was never any reason to think that Pope Francis would respond to the “filial correction” made by several dozen Catholics. After all the Holy Father has already received and ignored similar pleas from thousands of concerned lay Catholics, from distinguished theologians, and—most notably—from four cardinals. If he planned to answer such questions, he would have answered long ago.

This week the Pope’s surrogates—the prelates and pundits who have made it their mission to defend Pope Francis (and attack his critics)—have adopted a new strategy, explaining that the Pope is not required to answer. That’s certainly true—there’s nothing in canon law requiring the Roman Pontiff to answer his mail—but it’s an odd argument to invoke on behalf of a Pope who speaks so often about dialogue and pastoral concern and accompanying the alienated and reaching out to the peripheries.

Andrea Tornielli of La Stampa, who has excellent contacts inside the apostolic palace (or should I say the St. Martha residence?), helpfully reminds us that the “filial appeal” is not unprecedented. Pope Benedict XVI was sometimes accused of spreading heresy, he recalls. So was St. John Paul II. Yes, but there are always people saying that the Pope is a heretic. But in the past it has usually been easy to identify the accusers as cranks, or at least as something other than faithful, orthodox Catholics. It’s not so easy to dismiss theologians of the stature of Josef Seifert and Germain Grisez and John Finnis, not to mention Cardinals Burke and Meisner and Caffara and Brandmüller.

Massimo Faggioli, who is quickly climbing up the list of papal surrogates, commented on his Twitter account that in the past, questions directed at Vatican dignitaries were sometimes met with a statement of non esse respondendum, indicating that it would not be appropriate to respond to the question. This non-response, Faggioli wrote, was “an acknowledgment of institutional Church that some issues were too complicated, too controversial, impossible to give clear answers.” Well, let’s see: Is it impossible to give a clear answer to the dubia submitted by the four cardinals because the answer would be too complicated? They are clear enough questions, allowing for a simple yes/no answer. Or is the subject too controversial? Again, the need to avoid controversy is an odd argument to invoke on behalf of this particular Pope.

Faggioli goes on to say that the non esse respondendum could reflect “institutional humility,” since in many cases the Vatican did not have the information and expertise that would be necessary to give a proper answer. In many cases, an appeal to Rome might be an attempt to do an end-run around local pastors, who were better equipped to answer the specific questions.

Exactly. That’s why, in the past, the Vatican set out general principles, and asked local pastors to apply those principles to specific cases. Now, with Amoris Laetitia, the Pope has stressed that every case is different—underlining the importance of the local pastor. But when asked whether the general principle has changed, the Holy Father is silent.

In the absence of any plausible explanation, the Pope’s silence looks more and more like a tacit argument from authority. Sure enough, the surrogates are also becoming more strident in denouncing the impertinence of those who would dare to question the Pope’s authority. Yet again, that’s an odd argument to make for this Pope—and a particularly odd argument for these pundits to make. But it also misses the point, because the most pressing questions, the dubia, do not question the Pope’s authority. The cardinals (unlike the authors of the filial appeal) are not contending that the Pope’s teaching is wrong; they’re asking him to clarify: exactly what is he teaching? Silence is no answer to that question.


Oh, and by the way, Libero Milone, the ousted Vatican auditor-general, discloses that he wrote to Pope Francis in July, saying that the charges that prompted his resignation were the result of a “set-up” by his rivals in the Roman Curia. This might surprise you, but Milone reports that the Pope has not replied.

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: Retired01 - Oct. 03, 2017 2:09 PM ET USA

    Although I, and I suspects most people, do not know all the facts, it is worth noticing how quickly Pope Francis reacted to the firing of the Order of Malta executive that was blamed for the distribution of contraceptives. Very quickly this executive got his job back and the head of the Order lost his. Will Pope Francis nominate a commission to investigate Mr. Milone's firing?

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Sep. 30, 2017 12:34 AM ET USA

    In one way the Pope has responded to all the questions asked. His silence speaks loud and clear that the members of the Body of Christ, and by extension the head of the Body of Christ, Christ himself, are of no worth and therefore have no right to question him.

  • Posted by: claude-ccc2991 - Sep. 29, 2017 5:45 PM ET USA

    As stated in another blog, "the pope answers to nobody" is a juridical argument which is true only as far as it goes. In the broader picture, he is obligated to all by God to correctly teach the Commandment against adultery, and that the role of conscience/discernment is not to justify pseudo-morality, but instead to act in accord with objective morality established by God, and defined by intent and act, rather than circumstances.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Sep. 28, 2017 9:43 PM ET USA

    Silence may be quite the answer. For starters, it might indicate this Holy Father answers to no one. If so, each step into uncharted territory is expected to be irreversible. The longer the silence, the exponentially more difficult the extrication. Silence and patience animated with indomitable perseverance. This is the antidote to rigidity.

  • Posted by: feedback - Sep. 28, 2017 8:52 PM ET USA

    The good news is that the dubia questions and all other doctrinal concerns eventually will be answered and properly clarified. If not by Pope Francis then by his successor.

  • Posted by: shrink - Sep. 28, 2017 7:30 PM ET USA

    "... silence looks more and more like a tacit argument from authority." I see what you mean, but this pontificate is actually dismantling the teaching authority on sex. This is a pontificate of skepticism. Leave things in doubt, up in the air, and throw yourself at the mercy of God. This way, Christians will learn NOT to turn to the magisterium, but will turn to society for answers, those answers that are blowin in the wind.