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May 31, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – In the wake of the issuance of the “Open letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church” regarding Pope Francis’ alleged guilt of heresy, critics of the letter have been eager to exploit the very real flaws in the document while evading or even distorting its many valid points. Their attempts to dismiss the letter without addressing the legitimate concerns it raises do a disservice to the Catholic faithful, who have a right to expect more of the class of theologians and professional Catholics whose responsibility it is to protect and explain the Catholic faith.

The open letter (see full text here), which has been signed by such academic luminaries as Fr. Aidan Nichols, Professor John Rist, and Dr. Claudio Pierantoni, is indeed marred by a few imprecise and even inappropriate elements that have undermined the document’s effectiveness and have given ammunition to critics eager to avoid answering its very strong points regarding Pope Francis’ increasingly destructive misbehavior in office.

The letter, for example, gives a list of misdeeds by Francis that includes low level appointments of men of questionable character and doctrinal orthodoxy, the pontiff’s failure to speak publicly in favor of some pro-life campaigns, and even his use of a staff that the letter characterizes as “satanic.” The first two items are too vague and weak to prove a charge of heresy, and the last is simply false: the staff used by Francis at the Synod on Youth in 2018 was given to him by a group of young Catholics whose intentions were to represent the cross of Christ.

The document is also undermined by its appeal to the bishops individually to pass judgment on the pope, to rebuke him and, if necessary, “to declare that he has committed the canonical delict of heresy and that he must suffer the canonical consequences of this crime,” which could include the cessation of his papacy. Historically, theologians who have contemplated the case of a heretical pope have not held that individual bishops, or small groups of bishops, could carry out such an act; an ecumenical council or a quorum of cardinals would be necessary to issue such a judgment. The reason should be obvious: without such a measure, there would be no way to designate a successor or even establish a consensus declaring a vacant papal seat. The only result would be to unleash more chaos and confusion in the Church.

However, none of these unfortunate defects invalidate the very legitimate accusations made in the letter, which contains a useful contribution to the discussion over Pope Francis’ very problematical behavior. It gives the reader far more than is necessary to conclude that the pope, at the very least, must be confronted and resisted regarding his harmful statements and administrative acts. The cardinals and the bishops, to whom the letter is addressed, have the primary responsibility in this regard. Unfortunately, instead of recognizing the letter’s legitimate concerns, the partisans and patsies of the Francis regime have done what they can to evade its main points and focus only on its defects. In so doing, they appear to be protecting their own careers and their institutional status, rather than doing their duty to protect the faithful from error.

Jimmy Akin tries to get the pope off on a technicality – and fails

Perhaps the response that has gained the most attention, and that best encapsulates the facile arguments used to dismiss the Open Letter, is one written by professional apologist Jimmy Akin, an employee of Catholic Answers. Akin’s smug and dismissive response provides a useful if extreme example of the approach taken by those who want to avoid a real discussion about Francis.

Without a hint of irony, Akin begins by claiming that the signers of the Open Letter are not competent to critically analyze the papacy of Francis because they don’t have doctorates in theology, ecclesiology, or canon law – apparently forgetting his own lack of any higher university degree whatsoever. Moreover, the claim is misleading and weak, given that Fr. Aidan Nichols did his Ph.D. dissertation on ecclesiology and has published two books on the topic, and by Akin’s own admission other signers have licentiates in theology. Following the publication of Akin’s critique, an individual with a doctorate in canon law, Fr. Gabriele Rossi, signed the open letter, further weakening Akin’s case.

Akin believes he can refute the Open Letter and rescue Pope Francis from the charge of heresy by way of technicality, noting that “heresy” is defined in the Code of Canon Law as the obstinate rejection of a dogma defined by the Church as divinely revealed, that is, as a part of the deposit of faith left to the Church by Christ and the apostles. Akin then observes that none of the texts cited by the open letter as being contradicted by Pope Francis are shown by the letter to be defined in this way, ergo there is no heresy demonstrated.

It doesn’t seem to occur to Akin that his need to make recourse to such a weak argument is terribly damning to Pope Francis’ position and suggests strongly that the Open Letter is addressing a legitimate concern. Akin doesn’t directly contest the accusation that the pope has contradicted Sacred Scripture or the solemn dogmatic canons of ecumenical councils, and doesn’t even deny that the canons in question define dogmas regarding a matter of revealed truth. The strongest response he can give in this regard is that the document doesn’t offer a citation or quotation proving they do.

Akin could have resolved the issue for himself and his readers very quickly by simply consulting the texts cited by the open letter, particularly the canons on Justification approved in session six of the Council of Trent. Those canons follow an explanatory Decree on Justification that expressly states the canons concern divinely revealed truth, declaring that “the holy, ecumenical and general Council of Trent . . . intends . . . to expound to all the faithful of Christ the true and salutary doctrine of justification, which the Sun of justice, Jesus Christ, the author and finisher of our faith, taught, which the Apostles transmitted and which the Catholic Church under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost has always retained; strictly forbidding that anyone henceforth presume to believe, preach or teach otherwise than is defined and declared in the present decree.”

Moreover, one can consult a dogmatic theology manual, such as the highly-respected Sacrae Theologiae Summa (STS), to determine if the dogmas on Justification defined at Trent have been historically regarded as being defined as divinely revealed. For example, the STS, in volume 3 on grace, treats the dogmatic declarations of Trent on Justification as matters of divinely revealed and thus having the theological note of “Divine and Catholic Faith” (see, for example, 4th edition, vol. 3, par. 253).

So it seems very difficult, if not impossible, to exonerate Pope Francis from the charge that he has effectively denied a defined dogma of a divinely-revealed truth, when he states in Amoris laetitia, “A subject may know full well the rule [against adultery], yet have great difficulty in understanding ‘its inherent values’, or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin” (italics mine). Compare this statement to canon 18 of Session 6 of the Council of Trent: “If any one saith, that the commandments of God are, even for one that is justified and constituted in grace, impossible to keep; let him be anathema.” 

There are many other statements in Amoris laetitia that appear to be heretical, particularly those that treat chastity and the avoidance of adultery as if it were an “ideal” that is not strictly obligatory, rather than affirming the Catholic Church’s perennial understanding of chastity as an absolute obligation of the moral law contained in the Ten Commandments (“Thou shalt not commit adultery”). The Open Letter presents such examples, as well as other statements by Francis that appear to endorse positions incompatible with the Catholic faith, for a total of twelve problematical quotations. Akin dismisses the proofs offered in the letter without addressing them directly, further testifying to the weakness of his position.

Akin’s impossible standard for proving heresy

Akin then effectively raise the bar for proof of heresy to an impossible height, claiming that the Open Letter fails because it does not show that Pope Francis’ “statements or actions cannot be understood in another sense.” In other words, the signers haven’t proven what is essentially unprovable: that it is impossible to interpret Francis’ words in an orthodox way. Akin does nothing to show that such a burden of proof exists in canon law or in the tradition of the Church regarding heresy, because such a burden doesn’t exist, except in the mind of Akin.

Akin’s principle would seem to nullify any charge of heresy against anyone. Words are merely conventional signs that never absolutely compel any particular interpretation, and can be used to mean anything. By Akin’s standard, no one could ever be convicted of heresy, because it is always possible to impute some orthodox meaning to the words used. In reality, what is necessary is that the acts of culprit provide morally certain proof of the intention to persist obstinately in heresy, which is the standard of proof provided in the Code of Canon Law.

A gentler and more reasonable version of this approach has been used by others who question Francis’ statements, but regard the Open Letter as excessive. Canon lawyer Edward Peters makes reference to the “principle of benignity” regarding the interpretation of Pope Francis' statements, arguing that “if an orthodox interpretation exists for an ambiguous theological assertion, that benign interpretation must be ascribed to the words of the accused.” Others, such as Fr. Thomas Weinandy, a theologian who has suffered much for the cause of protecting the faith during the Francis papacy, and Bishop Athanasius Schneider, a prelate who has worked to correct the confusion caused by Francis' statements, argue similarly that the pope's statements are merely ambiguous and may be understood in an orthodox sense. However, none of them address the specific examples of alleged heresy given in the Open Letter to show how the statements could be reasonably interpreted as such. The Letter makes a strong case that they can’t.

Moreover, it is important to note that those who act to promote the advancement of heresy, even if they do not make a formally heretical statement, are also understood to be complicit in the crime, and therefore to be held liable to the same penalties, according to traditional canon law manuals. For example, Wernz and Vidal, in Ius Canonicum, vol. 7 (Rome: Gregorian University, 1937, p. 425), hold that among these are “supporters” (fautores) of heresy, who are defined as those who, “by commission or omission give favor to heretics resulting in the promotion of heretical doctrine.” Those who commit such an offense were to be judged under the old Code of Canon Law of 1917 in accordance with canons 2209, which today have been condensed into canon 1329. The Open Letter makes a case in favor of a pattern of such support and reception in Pope Francis’ statements as well as in his high-level curial appointments. Some of the examples are weak, but others seem very strong, particularly when taken cumulatively.

The case of Pope Honorius provides a useful historical example in this regard. Honorius was anathematized for fomenting heresy by three ecumenical councils (the sixth, seventh, and eighth). This was the case even though his words in his infamous letter to the Archbishop Sergius confirming his policy of prohibiting the doctrine of the two wills of Christ, could be taken in a non-heretical sense, and were even defended by St. Maximus the Confessor. However, the pope's acts clearly favored the cause of heresy. According to the fathers of the Sixth Ecumenical Council (the Third Council of Constantinople), the declarations of Honorius were “quite foreign to the apostolic dogmas, to the declarations of the holy Councils, and to all the accepted Fathers,” and “they follow the false teachings of the heretics; therefore we entirely reject them, and execrate them as hurtful to the soul.” They therefore declared, “We define that there shall be expelled from the holy Church of God and anathematized Honorius who was some time Pope of Old Rome, because of what we found written by him to Sergius, that in all respects he followed his view and confirmed his impious doctrines.”

The Catholic Encyclopedia, in an entry displayed on Catholic Answers’ own website, agrees that Honorius was “not condemned by the council as a Monothelite, but for approving Sergius’s contradictory policy of placing orthodox and heretical expressions [about the divine and human wills of Christ] under the same ban.” Pope Leo II, who approved the condemnation of Honorius, explained that he “did not, as became the Apostolic authority, extinguish the flame of heretical teaching in its first beginning, but fostered it by his negligence.” In other words, his acts negligently facilitated the spread of heresy, and that was enough to declare him guilty of heresy. 

This point is increasingly being made by Catholic prelates who are concerned about Francis’ misleading statements but who thus far have distanced themselves from a charge of direct affirmation of heresy. For example, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, whom Akin cites to defend his claim that Amoris laetitia is orthodox, has recently admitted that parts of it require “clarification” and has called upon Pope Francis to respond to the concerns raised in the Open Letter. Fr. Joseph Fessio, founder of Ignatius Press, has also called for a papal response to the letter’s signatories, who, he says, “show where Pope Francis has made statements that seem to contradict these Church teachings.” “It’s not a document that can simply be dismissed as being by extremists,” he adds. Fr. Fessio offered a more extensive defense of the Open Letter on a recent interview with Raymond Arroyo.

Repeated attempts to alert the pope to his errors and to receive clarification regarding his troubling statements have gone unanswered. In the meantime Francis has approved or permitted interpretations of Amoris laetitia published by national episcopal conferences that seem to confirm heretical interpretations, most notably the Buenos Aires Declaration, which Francis placed into the Acts of the Apostolic See, and the Brazilian bishops’ declaration, which says that there can be “excuses” for committing adultery. Although of course the pope deserves the benefit of the doubt regarding his orthodoxy, it stretches credulity to continue supposing that Francis attaches some orthodox meaning to his statements, or is unaware of their influence over the faithful.

Until Pope Francis answers the very legitimate issues raised by the Open Letter and other similar initiatives, he will be met with growing resistance by faithful Catholics, who can never accept the egregious dogmatic and moral errors implied in his writings. For all its imperfections, the Open Letter has reminded the bishops of their obligation to protect the integrity of the faith, even in the face of a wayward superior. As St. Thomas Aquinas tells us, citing the case of St. Paul rebuking St. Peter, “If the faith were endangered, a subject ought to rebuke his prelate even publicly.” May the bishops hear this call, and may God give them the courage to fulfill this grave responsibility.

(Editor's note: This article has been updated. An earlier version of the article erroneously stated that the Open Letter was signed by Dr. Josef Seifert. Prof. Seifert however did sign a petition supporting the Open Letter. LifeSite apologizes for any trouble or confusion this error may have caused.)

Email the author at [email protected].

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Matthew Cullinan Hoffman is an essayist, journalist, and author whose articles have appeared in numerous publications worldwide, both secular and Catholic, including the Wall Street Journal, London Sunday Times, Detroit News, New York Daily News, LifeSiteNews, Catholic World Report, Crisis Magazine, and the National Catholic Register. He is the translator and author of The Book of Gomorrah and St. Peter Damian's Struggle Against Ecclesiastical Corruption (2015). He holds an M.A. in Philosophy from Holy Apostles College and Seminary, where he is certified for academic competency in five foreign languages. He currently resides in Mexico, and does specialized coverage of Latin America for LifeSite and other publications.

He can be contacted at [email protected].