In the Church as in politics, 2016 has been a year of anxiety, anger and sharp divisions. But whereas politics has had its moments of drama – the Brexit vote, the US election – the Church’s internal argument has been mostly confined to private discussions and the occasional leaked document.

Now, however, the controversy may be coming into the open. This week, in a highly unusual step, four cardinals revealed that they had written to the Pope asking for clarification of his recent exhortation Amoris Laetitia.

Readers of this magazine will be familiar with the most divisive issues. They concern the moral law, the nature of the sacraments and the authority of previous teaching. But it comes down to the question: can remarried Catholics receive Communion if they aren’t living as brother and sister?

The Church has said no, since the first centuries. But in the last few decades there has been a movement to alter this teaching – and it now claims Amoris Laetitia as a source of support.

Cardinals Raymond Burke, Carlo Caffarra, Walter Brandmüller and Joachim Meisner sent a request for clarification to the Pope in September. They received an acknowledgment but no reply, which they said they have taken as “an invitation to continue … the discussion, calmly, and with respect”, by making the appeal public. It is highly unusual for cardinals to go public like this. But then it is also unusual for a Pope not to reply to a letter of this kind.

Dr Joseph Shaw, a spokesman for the 45 priests and theologians who have previously asked for clarification of Amoris Laetitia, calls the Pope’s silence “very troubling”. The cardinals are “men or tremendous intellectual reputation and prestige, who have held some very important posts under more than one Pope”, he says, and their claim is a serious one: “that some of the interpretations of Amoris doing the rounds are incompatible with Scripture and Tradition.”

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