This week’s beginning of the Synod on Synodality evinced stark contrasts. Timothy Radcliffe, OP, former master of the Dominican Order and one of the great spiritual writers of our time, gave an illuminating retreat for Synod participants. At the same time, a group of Cardinals released a statement saying that they had submitted dubia to Pope Francis concerning the Synod and issues to be discussed there, and that after receiving what they considered to be an inadequate response, they had resubmitted with a request for a “yes/no” answer. These events—and the response the Cardinals received from the Pope—tell us something about inquiry in good and bad faith.
Radcliffe, a former student of the great Hebert McCabe, OP and heir to the English Dominican tradition of intellectualism, is no stranger to learned inquiry, and his role as retreat leader sought to connect mind and heart. Radcliffe notably prayed that members of the Synod would have their hearts freed from fear. This, of course, is easier said than done—truly freeing our hearts from fear requires immense spiritual discipline. He also noted that “orthodoxy is spacious and heresy is narrow,” arguably one of the themes of Pope Francis. Radcliffe further dwelt on the nature of disagreement in the Church, pointing out the need especially to listen to one another yet also refusing a bland “both sides” approach in pointing out the hurt that so many people in marginalized communities have felt from the institution of the church.
The dubia Cardinals, including the American Raymond Cardinal Burke, an implacable critic of Pope Francis, were engaged in a different mode of discourse clearly geared to their press release just ahead of the Synod. This is seen in the phrasing of the four questions they posed. The clear intent was to pose leading questions in order to show the Pope’s unwillingness—read inability—to answer forthrightly. This would enable them to raise the alarm about the project of the Synod and to fearmonger—the quest for “yes/no” answers and the timing of their release on the Monday before the Synod began speaks to this.
This kind of bad faith “gotcha” questioning is endemic to our politics, particularly as it plays out on social media. So much of what passes for political discourse in certain sectors consists of “just asking questions,” serving to stir doubt and derision without spelling the likely consequences of such a position or laying out any constructive alternative. This approach to vaccines alone has cost many thousands of lives. Such questioning is poisonous to inquiry and corrosive to faith.
By answering the dubia, Pope Francis demonstrated shrewdness in the face of cynicism. When the Cardinals came out with their statement, he was prepared to make public his own response to their questions. Thus, rather than leave room for speculation about what he said that the Cardinals found so inadequate, Francis left people free to read it for themselves. In so doing, Francis trusted that people of good will would understand that the questions the Cardinals posed do not lend themselves to simple “yes/no” answers but must be dealt with in their complexity.
Beyond political deftness, however, what Francis demonstrated is his openness to good faith questioning and discussion. While it is not in the scope of this column to get into the substance of the answers that Francis gave to the dubia, what they clearly demonstrate is a sympathy and inclination toward inquiry. Thus, on matters such as women’s ordination where he and other Popes have staked out a clear though widely controverted position, he thus indicates it is possible to study the question and that prior statements fall short of dogmatic definition. This may seem obvious to many readers of this forum, but many Catholics—whether they agree or disagree—likely viewed the Cardinals’ approach as closer to the stated teaching of the Church on these matters. The Synod will, of course, have to take its own approach to the possibilities on such issues, but what Francis offers in his letter is a path forward for good-faith inquiry.
Good faith questioning leads to insight and spiritual nourishment; bad faith questioning leads to cynicism and despair. So much discourse about Pope Francis from his enemies has taken this form, and the dubia represent a kind of culmination. Radcliffe’s retreat provides us with the wisdom we need to pursue this questioning. This is seen especially in his evocation of the road to Emmaus: “A real conversation cannot be controlled. One surrenders oneself to its direction.”
Open inquiry is challenging; it’s much easier to set everything up so you know the answers in advance. I learn this twice a week when teaching an undergraduate seminar asking students to think for themselves about texts and important issues without my providing comfortable conclusions. Inquiry requires discipline to resist cynicism, to keep an open mind and open heart. Let us pray with Radcliffe that the Synod takes this to heart.
Daniel A. Rober is a systematic theologian and Catholic studies professor at Sacred Heart University.