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St. Athanasius, St. Bruno, Pope Benedict XII

December 14, 2016 (LifeSiteNews) — The four cardinals who have been chastised by top Catholic leaders for asking Pope Francis to clarify if his Exhortation Amoris Laetitia conforms to Catholic teaching join the singular ranks of a number of faithful bishops and cardinals who have faced excommunication, demotion, and censure from popes because of their faithfulness to the truths of the faith. 

The four stand accused of being “troublesome,” in need of “conversion,” of committing “apostasy” and “scandal,” of giving the pope a “slap in the face,” of creating “difficulty and division,” and of crossing a line into “dissent” for respectfully following a standard procedure within the Church to settle questions about the pope’s interpretation of Catholic teaching regarding marriage, admittance to Holy Communion, and the role of conscience in moral decisions. 

It was not only high ranking prelates who criticized the Cardinals for asking questions. Pope Francis himself offered veiled criticism of them in an Avvenire interview following the release of the dubia.


Under Francis, Cardinal Burke – the lone dubia signer who is not retired – has been removed from numerous key positions, including his role at the Congregation for Bishops and the Congregation for Divine Worship, but most especially from his assignment as prefect of the Vatican's highest court.

But if history has anything to say about the chastisement Cardinals Walter Brandmüller, Raymond Burke, Carlo Caffarra, and Joachim Meisner are currently experiencing, it is that being faithful to the truth, often purchased at a great personal cost, wins out in the end. The following are three historical examples of faithful prelates who were wrongly censured by various popes after they refused to budge from the true faith. In every case, faithfulness to the truth won out in the end and the faithful prelates were vindicated. 

St Athanasius

The ‘Father of Orthodoxy’ who was condemned by a pope for remaining faithful

St. Athanasius, hailed as the “greatest champion of Catholic belief on the subject of the Incarnation that the Church has ever known” and revered as the “Father of Orthodoxy,” was allegedly condemned by Pope Liberius in the fourth century after the pope was induced to sign an ambiguous formula that supported the Arian heresy which Athanasius vigorously opposed (it remains unknown to this day what doctrinal formula the pope signed). 

The bishop Athanasius, who would become a Doctor of the Church, writes that the Arians relentlessly schemed to draw Pope Liberius into their nets, calculating that if they could but persuade the pontiff to join their side, all existing opposition would fail and they would soon have everyone supporting their notion that Jesus of Nazareth was not truly God, but was created by and is therefore subordinate to the Father. 

IMPORTANT: To respectfully express your support for the 4 cardinals' letter to Pope Francis asking for clarity on Amoris Laetitia, sign the petition. Click here.

But the Arians did not count on the faithfulness of Athanasius. He defended Jesus as true God and true man. He held firm to the faith as handed down from the Apostles, even when he was condemned by the pope and suffered exile up to five times (17 years) by various rulers because of his orthodoxy. 

St. Bruno, Bishop of Segni

Writes Butler in his Lives of the Saints: “The greatest man of his age and one of the greatest religious leaders of any age, Athanasius of Alexandria rendered services to the Church the value of which can scarcely be exaggerated, for he defended the faith against almost overwhelming odds and emerged triumphant.”

The saint demoted by a pope after exposing his heresy

St. Bruno, Bishop of Segni, stands out as an example of a holy man who did not remain silent in the face of a pope in error and who was humiliated for doing so. It was in 1107 that Bruno, who was recognized as a great theologian and exegete well-versed in doctrine, was appointed Abbot of Montecassino. The office made him one of the most authoritative ecclesiastical personalities of his time. When Pope Paschal II conceded to a German King the pope’s right of investiture of ring and crosier upon bishops in a treaty, Bruno vigorously protested the move and promoted a movement of resistance against what he said amounted to “heresy.” 

“Whoever defends heresy is a heretic. Nobody can say that this is not heresy,” he wrote in a letter to a fellow bishop, Peter of Porto.

Bruno made it clear in a letter to the pope that while he loves the Holy Father, he must obey God first. 

Benedict XII

“My enemies say that I do not love thee and that I am speaking badly of thee behind thy back, but they are lying. I indeed, love thee, as I must love a Father and lord. To thee living, I do not desire another Pontiff, as I promised thee along with many others. Nevertheless, I obey Our Savior Who says to me: ‘Whoever loves father and mother more than me, is not worthy of me.’ (…) I must love thee, but greater yet must I love Him who made thee and me,” he wrote at that time. 

When Bruno encouraged Pope Paschal II to revoke the treaty and set the error to right, the pope answered him by demoting him from his office as Abbot of Montecassino. Eventually, at the insistence of other prelates who were inspired by Bruno’s example, the pope withdrew the treaty. 

The cardinal who opposed a heretical pope and then became pope

In the early 1300s, when Pope John XXII denied in three sermons the doctrine that the souls of the just are admitted to the beatific vision after death, teaching instead that heaven is delayed until the general resurrection at the end of time, he was publicly opposed by cardinals, bishops, and lay theologians. 

The error was not something new. The angelic doctor of the Church St. Thomas Aquinas had already cleared the matter up years ago, teaching that the souls of the just do in fact see God face to face after death. 

But John XXII would not be convinced of his error. He was openly criticized by the Bishop of Meaux who accused the pope of re-proposing the Catharist heresies. One English Dominican, Thomas Waleys, suffered trial and imprisonment for his public resistance to the pope’s teaching. Two Cardinals, Schuster and Jacques Fournier, opposed the pope and earned his disfavor. Cardinal Fournier's position was made more difficult by the fact that he was a pontifical theologian. 

John XXII eventually retracted his error on his deathbed. When Cardinal Fournier was elected pope in 1332 — taking the name Benedict XII — he dogmatically defined as true that the souls of the just “have seen and see the divine essence with an intuitive vision and even face to face.”

While Pope Benedict XII is not revered as a saint, the Catholic Encyclopedia states: “But history offers a vindication and testifies that, though he failed to cope successfully with the political difficulties to which he fell heir, his piety, virtue, and pacific spirit, his justice, rectitude, and firmness in ruling, his zeal for doctrinal and moral reform, and his integrity of character were above reproach.”

Writing on the matter some 280 years later St. Robert Bellarmine admitted that John XXII held a materially heretical opinion with the intention of imposing it on the faithful, but was not permitted to do so by God’s grace.

Defending the four

Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, a Catholic professor at Wyoming Catholic College who was one of the 23 scholars to sign a letter supporting the four cardinals, told LifeSiteNews that the Cardinals have “certainly done nothing wrong” in expressing their concerns about the moral integrity of Amoris Laetitia to Pope Francis. 

“On the contrary, their intervention is a sign of the desperation and difficulty to which Catholics who wish to be faithful to Christ and the constant teaching of the Church have been reduced in this bewildering pontificate,” he said. 

RELATED: Who are these four cardinals who wrote the ‘dubia’ to the Pope?

John Paul Meenan, a professor of Theology and Natural Science at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom in Barry's Bay, Ontario, told LifeSiteNews that the cardinals’ actions of submitting the questions are backed by Catholic teaching. 

Meenan said that if Canon Law gives laypeople what it calls the “right and even at times the duty” to “manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church,” then one would think that bishops, who have the task of guarding and expounding Revelation as handed on from the Apostles, can also make known to their fellow bishops, including the pope. 

Meenan drew attention to the Vatican II decree on bishops titled Christus Dominus which states that bishops are “responsible for the Church” and that they “should manifest a concern” when the need arises. 

“Bishops have the right and duty to be solicitous for the universal Church, for the clarity and purity of her doctrine,” said Meenan. “There is, therefore, in the Church the long and venerable tradition of submitting dubia to the Apostolic See, wherein pastors may request clarifications on certain points of doctrine, previously ambiguous, or not clarified sufficiently for whatever reason.” 

One recent example of a pope responding to a dubium happened when Pope St. John Paul II was asked in 1995 if his teaching that only men could be ordained to the priesthood “is to be understood as belonging to the deposit of faith.” The question was answered in the “affirmative” by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which stated that the teaching “requires definitive assent, since, founded on the written Word of God, and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.”

Faithful Catholics hope that the pope will answer the dubia according to the teachings of the Catholic Church and thus put an end to the immoral practices and abuses that are popping up in various dioceses due to interpretations of Amoris Laetitia that are at odds with Catholic teaching. San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy has used the exhortation as justification for his diocese to embrace “LGBT families” and to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion in certain cases.

Italian Catholic historian Roberto de Mattei told LifeSiteNews that the situation of Catholic bishops using the exhortation to justify immoral practices within their dioceses “obliges” the pope to answer the dubia. 

“Can the pope be silent when he sees how Amoris Laetitia is being applied in cases like this?” de Mattei said. 

Professor de Mattei said that the Cardinals make it clear that they have “great respect and veneration” for the divinely appointed Petrine office. They also make it clear, he said, that they will not stand by if a pope’s words appear to be leading the faithful astray from the perennial teachings of the Catholic faith. 

As well as receiving the dubia from the four cardinals, the pope has also been asked by numerous Catholics around the world following the publication of Amoris Laetitia in April to end the doctrinal confusion they see infiltrating the Church by clearly affirming the teachings of Christ and his Church, teachings which Catholic hold to be the same, yesterday, today, and forever. 

Those who have respectfully asked the pope for clarity include: sixteen international life-and-family leaders who have asked the pope to respond to criticisms of his exhortation by unambiguously speaking the truth of the Catholic faith; one renowned Catholic philosopher who has asked the pope to correct ‘heretical’ statements in the exhortation; forty-five Catholic academics who have urged the College of Cardinals to ask the pope to fix the exhortation’s errors; twenty-three prominent Catholic academics who have signed a letter warning of a “metastasizing crisis” within the Church over the pope’s refusal to answer the dubia; and twenty-two thousand Catholic men and women who have signed a LifeSiteNews petition urging the pope to dispel confusion by responding to the dubia.


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