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Canonist: Open letter accusing pope of heresy ‘thought-provoking’ but ‘unconvincing’

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May 14, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) — The open letter accusing Pope Francis of heresy is “thought-provoking” and “instructive” but ultimately “unconvincing,” says renowned American canonist Ed Peters.

The letter asks the world’s Catholic bishops to “take the steps necessary to deal with the grave situation” of a pope committing heresy, and its original 19 signatories — who include Dominican theologian Fr. Aidan Nichols, Professor John Rist, and Dr. Peter Kwasniewski — have burgeoned to 87 since its April 30 publication.

It’s also sparked wide-ranging responses in the Catholic world. Peters, who holds the Edmund Cdl. Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, weighed in May 9 in the U.K.-based Catholic Herald.

While the authors have the right under Canon 212 §3 to publish their “contentious opinions,” the letter “stumbles in several crucial respects” in outlining a canonical case for heresy against the pope, Peters said. “Most seriously, it fails to grapple with the ‘principle of benignity’ in the interpretation of law and evidence.”

The principle that the accused in a criminal case be granted “the benefit of the doubt” is “fundamental to the Western legal tradition,” Peters said. And canon law has for centuries “expressly demanded that ‘in penal matters the more benign interpretation must be followed’ (Regula Iuris 49),” he noted.

That means one must “construe penal norms as narrowly as is reasonably possible (c 18) and judge the accused only and strictly in accord with law (c 221 §3).”

But the letter “consistently fails to appreciate, or even allude to, the principle of benignity as it impacts any penal matter, let alone one involving a pope,” said Peters.

Moreover, the assertion that several statements of Pope Francis are “heretical” as “understood in their most obvious sense” is “canonically irrelevant,” he observed.

According to “the principle of benignity, if an orthodox interpretation exists for an ambiguous theological assertion, that benign interpretation must be ascribed to the words of the accused,” he said.

“Heresy cases are not impossible under canon law, but they are, and are meant to be, very difficult,” Peters noted.

“As a brief against the pope for, say, chronic misuse of his office (c 1389, a crime for which a pope cannot be tried), I find the letter thought-provoking; as an admonition to His Holiness that his words and actions have attracted serious, unprecedented, negative attention, I find the text instructive,” he said.

“But as a canonical brief for a papal heresy case, I find it unconvincing.”

Peters pointed out the “principle of benignity” protects the letter’s signatories as well, and he rejected the view they can be punished for this action.

“The letter, though wrong-headed, can, and thus should, be taken in an ecclesially acceptable sense,” he said.

But Brian McCall, editor-in-chief of Catholic Family News and one of the original signatories of the letter, argues that the time to give Pope Francis the “benefit of the doubt” has passed.

The open letter outlines seven propositions that “appear to be held by the pope” that “appear to contradict the faith[.] … There seems to be enough evidence here that this is worthy of an investigation,” McCall said in a video interview with Matt Gaspers of Catholic Family News, a traditionalist Catholic newspaper associated with the late Fr. Nicholas Gruner.

Taken together, the propositions Pope Francis is alleged to hold are “really an underlying denial of the Catholic doctrine of justification,” which teaches that “following baptism and with the grace of God, it is possible to comply with the Commandments,” McCall said.

The pope’s understanding of justification seems to be “in many ways based on a Lutheran understanding” of this doctrine, he said.

Pope Leo X’s bull Exsurge Domine condemning Martin Luther as a heretic included Luther’s contention that Catholics could receive Holy Communion “without confession and proper preparation” (no. 15), observed McCall.

As to the letter accusing Pope Francis of heresy, “[t]here’s some who have have said, you know, you can’t really even make this accusation because many of the pope’s statements are ambiguous, and the principle of Catholic law is that you have to give the benefit of the doubt,” he said.

But the pope has in many cases “resolved the doubt” as to what he “really believes,” McCall contended.

The “strongest example” of this is Francis endorsing the letter by the bishops of Buenos Aires on Amoris Laetitia and ordering it be part of the “official acts of the magisterium,” he said. The Buenos Aires letter asserts that Catholics in marriages not recognized by the Church can receive Holy Communion in certain circumstances.

“He’s just eliminated the doubt,” McCall said. “So now we’re in a whole new world.”

The bishops, “if they act, need to confront” the pope, he said.

“That’s the whole point of confronting an accused heretic. To say, here’s what you’re supposed to believe: accept or deny,” said McCall.

“And hopefully, they’ll do that.”

Canonist Peters has written elsewhere that the “crucial question” from a canonist’s perspective is “who would determine whether a given pope has fallen into heresy,” a question he says canon law is silent about, but not canonical tradition.

Franz Wernz — a famed canonist who was elected as the superior general of the Jesuit order in 1906 — expressed that tradition in his work Ius Canonicum.

Wernz speculated that while no one on Earth can remove power from a pope since there is no higher office than “Roman pontiff” that is capable of passing such judgment, nevertheless, a general council could determine that a pope had committed heresy, and in doing so, had effectually cut himself off from the true vine, thereby forfeiting his office.

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