Joseph Shaw

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Can Pope Francis really be accused of committing heresy?

May 7, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – For any Catholic of the last two or three centuries, the idea that one might accuse the Pope of heresy seems almost unthinkable: almost a contradiction in terms. The Holy Father is the guarantor of the Faith, the recipient of the gift of infallibility; union with the Pope is union with the Church.

Nevertheless, it is not quite unthinkable.

When Jesus Christ gave St Peter the Keys, to bind and loose, and the guarantee that the gates of Hell would not prevail over the Church which would be built upon the ‘rock’ of Peter (Matthew 16:18-19), the very next thing he said to him was to call him ‘Satan’ (Matthew 16:23), for trying to divert Christ’s mission in a worldly direction. When the Risen Christ gave St Peter the mission of feeding his sheep, he did so in the context of a thrice-repeated question, ‘Do you love me?’ (John 21:15-17), a question recalling, and undoing, St Peter’s thrice-repeated denial of Christ in the house of the High Priest (John 18:17, 25-27).

We are called to accept this painful paradox, of the Pope’s supreme spiritual authority, and his infallibility in solemn acts of teaching, along with his limitations as a member of the fallen human race. History tells us that popes have been guilty of all kinds of sins, including sins against the Faith. It is unsurprising that popes have tended to be theologically sound, politically astute, and morally upright. But there is no supernatural guarantee that they must be. 

The recently published letter accusing Pope Francis of the crime of heresy makes for uncomfortable reading. Most readers will know that Pope Francis’ Post-Synodal Exhortation Amoris Laetitia (2016) contained passages which were troubling to many orthodox theologians. Many people, including me, thought that those passages could be explained in an orthodox sense. The difficulty with this approach, as time has worn on, is that Pope Francis has given no indication that such orthodox readings are correct. On the contrary, the whole tenor of papal remarks, documents of varying levels of official status, and the guidance given to and conclusions drawn from bishops’ synods in Rome, has tended to undermine those orthodox readings.

It is this complex situation which is addressed in the letter. The signatories, who include a number of extremely distinguished Catholic academics, such as Fr Aidan Nichols OP, Professor Claudio Pierantoni and Professor John Rist, make the case that, taken as a whole, Amoris Laetitia and the subsequent verbal and practical papal commentary, so to speak, upon it, constitute a set of claims which are, in the last analysis, clearly heretical. 

Thus, for example, Amoris suggests that a couple in an irregular union might undermine their relationship by abstaining from adulterous sex, and that this might be bad for the children: a claim backed up by a bizarre misquotation from Vatican II. This appears to be the kind of consideration behind the Buenos Aires ‘guidelines’ about who can receive Holy Communion, which itself received the official approbation of the Pope. Taken together, this suggests the mind-boggling idea that people can do right by committing adultery, and be in a state of grace without repenting of it, and that those who habitually commit adultery would sin by obeying God’s command not to commit adultery. If you’re not confused at this point, you’ve not been paying attention.

In order to uncover the Pope’s intentions, the letter has to make what its authors think are reasonable interpretations of different documents and papal actions, such as of promoting or praising individuals known to have certain views. If this is a promulgation of heresy, it is promulgation by drift: it is the drift of papal works, papal actions, and papal policy, which is the problem. 

The lack of clarity here is one reason why I, and no doubt others, have not signed this letter, although I signed earlier documents (and here) calling on Pope Francis to clarify his teaching. It seems to me to go beyond what can be clearly and simply stated about Pope Francis’ teaching. And yet, I have to admit, first, the lack of clarity is evidently an intentional feature of Pope Francis’ style, and no unfortunate accident, and, second, that this makes the situation more, rather than less, dangerous. Pastoral policies all over the Catholic world are being based on a reading of Amoris which are out of line with the Faith, and they are not being corrected. As time goes on, it is becoming harder and harder to say something as simple as ‘the Church teaches that adultery is always wrong’, without fear of contradiction.

I would like, therefore, to thank those who created and have signed this letter, even if I do not feel able to join them, for contributing to a debate which is urgently necessary in the Church, and for urging the bishops of the world to consider what is their duty at a time of confusion.

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Joseph Shaw

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Dr Joseph Shaw has a Doctorate in Philosophy from Oxford University, where he also gained a first degree in Politics and Philosophy and a graduate Diploma in Theology. He has published on Ethics and Philosophy of Religion and has edited a forthcoming book on the liturgy: The Case for Liturgical Restoration: Una Voce Position Papers on the Extraordinary Form (Angelico Press). He is the Chairman of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales and Secretary of Una Voce International. He teaches Philosophy in Oxford University and lives nearby with his wife and eight children.