Theologian Fr. Brian Harrison responds to critics of the Filial Correction and provides guidelines to help Catholics navigate Pope Francis’ challenging papacy.
ROME, October 31, 2017 (LifeSiteNews) — Earlier this year, a group of over 60 scholars issued an almost unprecedented ‘filial correction’ to Pope Francis, charging him with permitting the spread of seven heresies. This measure, unseen since the fourteenth century, has generated controversy around the world, while the number of signatories has risen to 250 professors and priests since it was made public on September 24.
Some writers, however, have accused the signatories of the Filial Correction of transgressing the requirement of a 1990 document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — Donum Veritatis — which lays down the circumstances in which scholars might legitimately draw the attention of the Holy See to “deficiencies” in an official teaching document. On this basis, these critics accuse the authors and signatories of the Filial Correction of being ‘dissenters.’
We spoke to renowned theologian Father Brian Harrison, who himself declined to sign the Filial Correction, about the merits of this accusation. In this interview, Fr. Harrison says he is far from convinced such accusations are legitimate. He says they betray a conception of the doctrine of papal infallibility that “exaggerates to the point of absurdity the authority of papal pronouncements,” and maintains that contemporary theologians are faced with an almost unprecedented “nightmare” situation (wholly unforeseen in 1990) in which “an energetic and authoritarian innovator” has taken possession of the throne of St. Peter.
Here below is our interview with Fr. Harrison.
LifeSite: Fr. Harrison, can you please explain to our readers the nature and purpose of Donum Veritatis? Can you offer an example of a prominent case of theologians dissenting from Magisterial teaching that DV would address? Would it have applied to the dissenting response to Humanae Vitae, for instance?
Fr. Harrison: Yes, it certainly did apply to that, and to other widespread dissent from Catholic doctrines.
The Instruction Donum Veritatis was published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in 1990 with the general purpose of explaining the relationship between the theologian’s vocation and the role of the Magisterium; but the particular historical context in which it was issued is very important in understanding and applying its more specific norms. The two decades following Humanae Vitae (1968) witnessed an outburst of sustained dissent against the Church’s perennial teaching about human life and sexuality from very prominent theologians such as Charles Curran, Richard McCormick, Bernard Haering, Joseph Fuchs, and many others. They wanted the Church’s perennial teaching to change substantially so as to admit not only unnatural birth control, but also, at least in some cases, direct sterilization, masturbation, homosexual acts, pre-marital sex, women’s ordination, and Communion for divorced and invalidly remarried Catholics. At a more basic level, these dissident theologians were denying the very existence of intrinsically evil acts — acts that can never be justified under any circumstances — and pushing for the replacement of this fundamental doctrine by the pernicious alternatives known as consequentialism and proportionalism. These challenges led to a series of strong responses from the CDF under Paul VI and John Paul II, and then the latter’s encyclicals Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae in the 1990s.
Does a Catholic have to give religious submission of mind and will to the teachings of his diocesan bishop?
Vatican Council II answers this question affirmatively in Lumen Gentium #25, but the preceding sentence makes it clear that this presupposes that the diocesan bishop is “teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff.”
But a diocesan bishop can err?
Certainly, and in the event that his teaching is at variance with the papal magisterium, then according to Vatican II it does not require this religious submission of mind and will. In earlier times when there was mass illiteracy, few or no newspapers, and no radio, television or internet, this norm of submission to the local bishop’s teaching probably had greater practical relevance than it does today, because he was the only representative of the magisterium to whose teaching most Catholics had access — usually via their parish priest. But today, except in very poor countries, Catholics can readily find out with their smart-phones or lap-tops, and from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, what the Roman Pontiff himself teaches about almost any given doctrinal issue.
So religious submission of mind and will does not in itself presuppose the soundness of the teaching in question?
It does presuppose that the teaching is sound — or at least, very probably sound. But as I’ve said, the duty of submission simply doesn’t apply in regard to a particular doctrinal issue on which one’s diocesan bishop is himself not “teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff.” (Actually, very few bishops openly and explicitly teach heterodox doctrine. If they are dissenters they are much more likely to undermine orthodoxy indirectly, by failing to teach it clearly, failing to correct abuses, promoting dissenters to key positions, firing or marginalizing those who are outspokenly orthodox, and screening out orthodox candidates for the priesthood on the pretext of their alleged “rigidity”.)
But what should a Catholic do if the Roman Pontiff himself teaches something contrary to sound doctrine? Is that even possible?
It is possible, but throughout most of church history it has been rare. The famous examples of Pope Honorius’ letter supporting the Monothelite heresy and John XXII’s homilies teaching an error about the beatific vision were often quoted as evidence that not everything popes say about faith and morals is infallible. But unfortunately, Pope Francis has already in his first four years made many statements that do not sit well with the doctrine of his predecessors — for instance, his recent speeches and letters asserting that capital punishment is as such always “a mortal sin,” and is “in itself contrary to the Gospel.”
This confusing cascade of papal novelties is of course the context of the Filial Correction we’re discussing in this interview. Fortunately, the magisterium itself gives us some helpful guidelines in evaluating the greater or lesser degree of authority of different papal statements on faith and morals (which sometimes are basically just expressions of opinion). Vatican II says that in order to understand the mind and intention of the Pope, we have to take into account “the character of the documents in question, the frequency with which a certain doctrine is proposed, and the manner in which the doctrine is formulated” (Lumen Gentium, 25). So, for instance, when Pope Francis said in an airplane interview that a husband may use a condom to prevent the transmission of the Zika virus to his wife, that kind of spontaneous, informal comment cannot override our duty to assent to the much more authoritative contrary teaching of the encyclical Humanae Vitae, wherein Paul VI teaches that each and every marriage act “must per se be open to the transmission of life” (no. 11).
What do you think of the claim made in the recent article by Emmett O’Regan that Donum Veritatis “illegitimatizes” the Filial Correction?
First, I should mention that although I was invited to sign the Filial Correction (FC) addressed to Pope Francis in response to Amoris Laetitia, I declined to do so. For while I agree for the most part with FC’s content, and am happy that its authors’ cri-de-coeur has rapidly gained worldwide attention, I think some of their complaints about the Holy Father’s words, deeds and omissions are overstated and not entirely fair. If Mr. O’Regan, in the October 3 Vatican Insider posting you refer to, had limited himself to pointing out such defects in FC, I would have no quarrel with him. However, he goes much further, and brings charges against the authors that I think are not well-founded.
For instance, he exaggerates to the point of absurdity the authority of papal pronouncements which, like Amoris Laetitia, do not contain any ex cathedra (infallible) definition. He accuses the FC authors of denying “one of the essential truths behind the teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, who is granted Divine assistance which prevents him from erring in matters of faith and morals, even when teaching non-infallibly.” The words I have italicized in that sentence are not found in the relevant magisterial documents (cf. Donum Veritatis, #17, Catechism of the Catholic Church, #892). By adding them, Mr. O’Regan in effect makes the nonsensical, self-contradictory claim that when popes speak about faith and morals, they teach infallibly even when they teach non-infallibly. In fact, the limited “Divine assistance” given to the pope in his non-infallible ordinary magisterium does not necessarily “prevent” him from erring; it only makes it very unlikely that he will err. That’s precisely why such teaching requires only a “religious assent of mind and will,” and not the absolute, irrevocable assent due to infallible teaching.
In the same article, Mr. Emmett argues that: “Since the authors of the Filial Correction have turned directly to the mass media in order to present their dissent to Amoris Laetitia (which is part of the Ordinary Magisterium of Pope Francis), this action was made in direct contravention of the guidelines for dissenting theologians outlaid in Donum Veritatis (DV), and should therefore be considered illicit.” However, the authors did not turn directly to the Mass media, but delivered the Filial Correction to the Pope’s residence at Santa Marta on August 11, 2017. Did their act contravene the guidelines for dissenting theologians outlaid in DV?
You’re right that the FC authors didn’t “directly,” in the sense of “immediately,” post their submission on the Internet. But they eventually took that step, thereby opening the FC up for mass media publicity. And I think that’s the main thing that Mr. O’Regan thinks “illegitimizes” their action. Dr. Robert Fastiggi, an old friend of mine, and Dawn Eden Goldstein (whom I have also met, and admire) have co-authored another critique of the FC that makes much the same claim. But whether these and other like-minded critics are substantially right will I think depend on further considerations, notably, whether the FC authors can be fairly called “dissenters,” and just how relevant and applicable DV is to the kind of submission they have made now, in 2017, in a very different historical and ecclesial context to the one in which DV was promulgated more than a quarter-century ago.
Can you say a little more, then, about that original purpose of Donum Veritatis?
This CDF document reaffirms some well-known doctrinal teachings about faith and reason, and the authority of the magisterium; but I understand its primary purpose to be that of providing pastoral, prudential norms as to how Catholic theologians, in carrying out their scholarly role, should – and should not – interact with the Church’s pastors, who are her official teachers. DV neither enacts new legislation nor hands down new doctrinal decisions on points of faith and morals.
As regards its historical context, you’ve raised the question as to how much its disciplinary norms are applicable to the Filial Correction in a new situation that has arisen twenty-five years later. Can you elaborate on this?
Well, as I mentioned at the beginning of this interview, DV came out in response to the post-Vatican II epidemic of dissent against many authentic or even infallible Catholic doctrines, especially moral teachings. And that context has influenced the content of the document and the assumptions that underlie it. Again and again DV makes clear the CDF’s fundamental, ‘goes-without-saying’ premise the that teachings of the popes and bishops at that time (1990) are, as always, in continuity with what has been handed down from the past, while the divergent theological opinions it is concerned about are not. On the contrary, the latter are avowedly innovative in nature – they’re prodding the Church to “correct” her “outdated” doctrine in line with supposed modern ‘insights’ and public opinion.
Can you quote some examples of that from DV?
Sure, there are plenty of them. I’ll place in italics the words that bring out the way in which the CDF takes for granted that those teaching with magisterial authority are upholding Catholic tradition while the theologians causing concern are advocates of novelty and change:
- In article 11 we read that theologians must offer the People of God “a teaching which in no way does harm to the doctrine of the faith. . . . Thus, while the theologian might often feel the urge to be daring in his work, this will not bear fruit or ‘edify’ unless it is accompanied by that patience which permits maturation to occur.”
- Theology is “a rational discipline whose object is given by Revelation, handed on and interpreted in the Church under the authority of the Magisterium” (art. 12).
- (The following opening sentence in DV’s section on the role of the Magisterium cites Vatican II’s Constitution on Divine Revelation): “God graciously arranged that the things he had once revealed for the salvation of all peoples should remain in their entirety, throughout the ages, and be transmitted to all generations” (art. 13, citing Dei Verbum, 7).
- “By its nature, the [Magisterium has the] task of religiously guarding and loyally expounding the deposit of divine Revelation (in all its integrity and purity)” (art. 16).
- “The pastoral task of the Magisterium is one of vigilance. It seeks to ensure that the People of God remain in the truth which sets free” (art. 20).
- “The living Magisterium of the Church and theology, while having different gifts and functions, ultimately have the same goal: preserving the People of God in the truth which sets free” (art. 20).
- In rebuking “public opposition to the Magisterium of the Church, also called ‘dissent’,” DV identifies as one of its major contributing factors “the ideology of philosophical liberalism, which permeates the thinking of our age…. [and according to which] freedom of thought comes to oppose the authority of tradition which is considered a cause of servitude. A teaching handed on and generally received is a priori suspect and its truth contested” (art. 32).
- “[Among dissenters] the view is particularly promoted that the Church should only express her judgment on those issues which public opinion considers important and then only by way of agreeing with it. The Magisterium, for example, could intervene in economic or social questions but ought to leave matters of conjugal and family morality to individual judgment” (art. 32).
Isn’t it true, however, that at the time DV was issued there also existed ‘anti-liberal’ dissent from certain magisterial teachings? For instance, Archbishop Lefebvre and the Society of St. Pius X were claiming that some teachings of Vatican Council II contradicted traditional doctrine.
That is certainly true, but such anti-Vatican II traditionalists are not mentioned at all in Donum Veritatis. After all, they were (and still are) a tiny minority – maybe 1% of all Catholics – while the tsunami of liberal, novelty-pushing dissent the CDF is tackling in DV had deeply permeated our theological faculties, seminaries, chanceries and catechetical programs throughout the world, and was corrupting sound faith and morals among hundreds of millions of Catholics. In any case, the CDF has always rejected accusations that some Vatican II documents and the post-conciliar liturgy are in conflict with the Church’s traditional doctrine.
So why is that historical context of DV and its overwhelmingly anti-liberal emphasis relevant for evaluating the recent Filial Correction?
I’d say it’s very relevant because, frankly, a ‘palace revolution’ occurred in Rome in 2013 that has sent earthquake tremors throughout the worldwide Church and has seriously altered the way in which the Magisterium is functioning in practice. To put it simply, the Vatican scenario in 1990 was the time-honored one in which the chief exponents of the Church’s teaching office, the Pope and the CDF, were the conservatives, and those resisting their strictures were the innovators. Now, the tables have been turned so dramatically that the supreme teaching office itself is in the hands of an energetic and authoritarian innovator! There’s no time or space here to begin citing the long and ever-growing list of Pope Francis’ anti-traditional statements, gestures and decisions that have deeply shocked so many faithful Catholics. For starters, readers can take a look here at your recent LifeSiteNews piece, the “A to Z” of concerns about the present Holy Father.
When they promulgated Donum Veritatis in 1990, St. John Paul II and then-Cardinal Ratzinger would never in their worst nightmares have dreamed that a man would soon ascend the throne of Peter who, as an archbishop, had already shown his colors by actively promoting dissent and disobedience to their magisterial insistence that Catholics living publicly in illicit sexual relationships may never be given Holy Communion. (Buenos Aires priests have testified that then-Cardinal Bergoglio authorized them to do this when celebrating Mass out in the poor ‘peripheries’ of the archdiocese.) Now, it seems to me that this radically new situation casts doubt on the present-day applicability of DV’s norm that those disagreeing with papal teaching should not make their concerns known to the mass media, as the authors of the Filial Correction have done. The time-honored principle of epikeia in Catholic moral theology allows that a norm of human law does not necessarily have to be obeyed in exceptional circumstances that were not envisaged by the legislator. Obedience to a higher law can then take precedence; and it seems to me that would include the right and duty of priests and theologians to openly defend the perennial magisterial teaching that Pope Francis’ has effectively called into question via Amoris Laetitia and its aftermath. The FC authors themselves rightly appeal to St. Thomas Aquinas’ teaching in the Summa that subjects can and should correct their superiors even publicly when the faith itself is in danger. And c. 212 §3 of the Code of Canon Law allows competent members of the faithful to respectfully make known their views regarding the good of the Church not only to “the sacred Pastors” but also “to others of Christ’s faithful” – which would include the public diffusion of those views.
So if, as you say, the FC authors are actually striving to defend traditional, orthodox doctrine, is it accurate to depict them, as Emmett O’Regan does, as being “dissenters”?
No, I think such criticism is inaccurate and unfair. After all, the very idea of doctrinal dissent presupposes, first, a clear teaching of the Magisterium, and secondly, an equally clear disagreement with it. But that clarity seems to me lacking, both in Pope Francis’ language in Amoris Laetitia and in one of the propositions the FC authors accuse him of “upholding” and “propagating” (they don’t say “teaching”). I agree that those seven propositions contradict infallible Catholic doctrines (assuming that in no. 2 the word “nature” is taken to mean “grave sinfulness”) so that if Pope Francis did clearly teach them, he would be the one guilty of public dissent, not his FC critics. In any case, theirs is a sort of ‘umbrella’ complaint: they make no claim that he formally and unambiguously enunciates any of these heterodox propositions; rather, he “propagates” them “directly or indirectly” and “by words, deeds and omissions”. (My parenthetical comment in answering Q. 4 above seems relevant here.) I think for the most part this complaint is justified, though not entirely. But while I can therefore give only give a qualified support to the FC authors’ initiative, I do think Mr. O’Regan is quite unjustified in labelling them as the kind of “dissenters” who are rebuked by Donum Veritatis.