Leading Catholics react to Open Letter accusing Pope Francis of heresy
Update May 7, 2019: This report has been updated with reactions from philosopher Edward Feser and Fr. Thomas Weinandy, OFM.
May 6, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – Catholic philosophers, theologians, apologists, canonists, and journalists have responded to the April 30 “Open Letter to the Bishops” where 19 prominent clergymen and scholars accuse Pope Francis of committing heresy. Reaction to the Open Letter, which now has 77 signers, is across the board. Even those known for their defense of orthodox faith are by no means united in support for the document. A few pundits strongly support the Open Letter ― or at very least its authors. Others are reluctant to endorse its charge that Pope Francis is guilty of the "delict of heresy" and that he must "suffer the canonical consequences of this crime."
Support for the Open Letter
Renowned philosopher Dr. Joseph Seifert has recently signed a petition calling on the world’s bishops to examine the Open Letter and “investigate Pope Francis for heresy”, saying that he believes it is the “holy duty” of the hierarchy to examine the serious charge of heresy against the pontiff. The petition has been signed by over 4,200 as of this writing.
"I sign this petition because I agree with the bulk of the letter signed by 20 distinguished Catholics and because I believe, as they do, that it is a holy duty of all Cardinals and Bishops of the Catholic Church, as successors of the Apostles, to examine carefully any serious charge of heresy committed by the Pope," the president of the new laity-led Academy for Life and close friend of the late Pope St. John Paul II wrote.
“If they find these accusations correct, they have the further duty as brothers in the apostolic Office to tell the Pope without any false and cowardly fear, in all frankness and filled with the same Holy Spirit in which St. Paul publicly criticized and reprimanded the first Pope Peter, whom Christ Himself had chosen, that he strayed far from God’s truth and will,” he added.
Last week, both the founder and the CEO of Ignatius Press, Fr. Joseph Fessio and Mark Brumley, stated that the open letter should not be ignored by Catholic leaders in Rome. “It’s an important document,” Fessio said. Brumley said that his first reaction was that the letter was “something that someone of some significance at the Holy See should address.”
“As I read through it, I wasn’t quite persuaded that we had formal heresy or even that the statements [cited] of the Holy Father were materially heretical… But because of the arguments in the document and the persons making the argument, I think this is something that should be taken seriously,” he said.
Fessio said that his first thoughts when reading the document was that it would be ignored if its authors weren’t significant. “But as a matter of fact these authors ― some of them, anyway ― are quite reputable,” he said.
One of the signers includes Fr. Aidan Nichols, a leading theologian in the English-speaking world.
Dr. Christopher Manion, a member of the board of the Population Research Institute, wrote in The Wanderer that the authors of the Open Letter had written it because “we cannot remain silent” about the historic crisis in the Church.
Describing a Catholic who continues to give money to the Church despite disliking the actions of the bishops, Manion wrote:
“The signers of this latest letter seem to be motivated by the same sense of duty. They are morally obligated to tell the truth. They know there’s nothing they can do to correct the manifest errors their letter alleges. Our bishops can, they explain, so the letter respectfully requests that they [do] their duty as our shepherds. The truth-tellers have done their job, and it’s up to the bishops to do theirs.”
Writing for The Stream website, journalist John Zmirak praised the courage of the signers of the “Open Letter,” saying that Francis is “a pope who feels empowered to rewrite ancient doctrines, and rely on his own authority to reverse the teachings of his predecessors.”
“So it’s heartening that these Catholics are willing [to] stand up against this pope and his agenda,” Zmirak continued.
“[Pope Francis] gives every sign of preferring the approval of elites, of the princes of this world, to faithful witness to doctrine. He presides over a regime of corruption unmatched since the Renaissance. As I wrote here a year ago: ‘It has all the corruption, hubris, sodomy and worldliness of the original. But none of the art,’” he added.
Writer Charles Coulombe gave an interview in which he voiced his belief that the signers of the Open Letter must have known that they were risking professional ruin and therefore thought “that their silence would lead to something worse.”
He suggested that the Open Letter might have been issued to prevent Pope Francis from ordaining deaconesses, an act that would overthrow the sacrament of orders.
Novelist Stephen O’Reilly wrote in his “Roma Locuta Est blog that the Open Letter was a “must read for all Catholics.
“It provides a very strong case for the accusation it makes, one which the cardinals and bishops of the Church would be derelict not to take up and sincerely consider,” he wrote.
“Unfortunately, for all the early talk about a ‘formal correction’ of the Pope from Cardinal Burke, the leadership in the Church has for the most part been quite disappointing during this prolonged moment of crisis.”
Reservations about the Open Letter
In last week’s episode of “The World Over”, EWTN host Raymond Arroyo interviewed Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J. of Ignatius Press about the “Open Letter.” Fessio pointed out that Catholic theologians and cardinals have asked for clarifications of Pope Francis’ teachings before now. He also called Open Letter signer Fr. Aidan Nichols a “renowned, serious theologian.” Fessio cited St. Ignatius of Loyola’s dictum that “every good Christian ought to be more willing to give good interpretation to the statement of the other than to condemn it as false” and said that this applied not only to Pope Francis but to the writers of the Open Letter.
Arroyo stated that there is no mechanism to make the pope resign and that he didn’t know how the bishops could discipline Francis, even if he were a heretic.
“I just think it’s very dangerous territory here,” he said. Although sympathetic to previous requests for papal clarification, Arroyo believes the Letter, which he summarized as “You’re a heretic, and you should resign” has a “very different posture.”
“I’m just not sure this is the vehicle to promote change for the good,” Arroyo said and added that, given its refusal to acknowledge earlier requests for clarification, he didn’t believe the Vatican will respond to the document.
Writing in his Catholic Culture blog, Phil Lawler, editor-in-chief of Catholic World News, indicated that he had great respect for those who signed the letter, but that he worried the letter “does more harm than good, compounding the problem that loyal Catholics now face.”
Lawler addressed the problem of who, if anyone, can “make the authoritative judgement that the Pope has fallen into heresy and therefore lost his authority.” He believes that the authors of the Open Letter ought to have appealed privately to bishops.
“To their credit, the authors of the Easter Letter recognize the need for an authoritative statement, for a judgment by the world’s bishops,” Lawler wrote.
“But if that is their goal, should they not have approached sympathetic bishops privately, quietly, to make their case? Because by taking their arguments to the mass media, they have made it less likely that bishops would support them.”
Lawler also believes that from now on anyone who challenges the pontiff will, like the writers of the Open Letter, be charged with “infidelity and schism and rash judgement.”
“Those charges—aimed at suppressing discussion—are now much easier to sustain, because the authors of the Easter Letter have made themselves such tempting targets,” he wrote.
“It will be easier, now, to classify anyone who challenges the Pope as a member of the same group that is making charges of heresy. Consequently life will be more difficult for those of us who are not calling for the deposition of the Roman Pontiff, but simply for a clarification of Church teaching.”
This also means that the “timid bishops” will be even less likely to speak out, Lawler believes.
Dr. Klaus Obenauer, a professor of Theology at the University of Bonn, said in Kath.net that he had expected Francis to be accused of heresy since 2013. However, Obenauer believes the Open Letter’s charges of heresy to be overstated, and that Francis is not guilty of “direct heresy.” The professor stated that for heresy to exist, there must be a stubborn denial or inability to believe in a truth of faith, and this denial and doubt must be clear. In the case of the Abu Dhabi Declaration, Pope Francis distanced himself from a clearly heterodox proposition at the insistence of Bishop Athanasius Schneider.
Canonist Ed Peters indicated on Twitter that he will offer a “thoughtful rebuttal” of the Open Letter:
“Interesting to see how 'the Right' is offering thoughtful rebuttals of the Easter Open Letter (and yes, mine is coming shortly), while “the Left” is engaged mostly in ad hominem sniping against the signatories,” Peters wrote.
Steve Skojec, editor of the “One Peter Five” blog, wrote that the Open Letter was “an interesting document” although he was surprised that it had omitted mention of Pope Francis’ protegé Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia and the pontiff’s “attempt to categorize the death penalty, at least implicitly, as an intrinsic evil.”
Skojec is inclined to believe, with Bishop Athanasius Schneider, whose essay on the topic he cited, that nobody can depose a ruling pope.
On May 6, philosopher Edward Feser wrote that, despite its flaws, the Open Letter should not be dismissed.
“Like others who have commented on it, I think the letter overstates things in its main charge and makes some bad arguments, but that it also makes many correct and important points that cannot reasonably be dismissed merely because the letter is seriously deficient in other respects,” Feser wrote on his blog.
Feser agrees that a pope can fall into material heresy when not speaking ex cathedra (from the chair) but says it is less clear that a pope can be charged with formal heresy. The philosopher also counseled “maximum caution” before making such a serious charge. He believes that the authors have been “rash”.
Nevertheless, Feser agrees that some of Pope Francis’ words and actions have been “problematic” and deserve a response.
“... It simply will not do for critics of the letter to point to its deficiencies and then roll over and go back to sleep,” he wrote.
“The letter, however problematic, is a response to statements and actions of the pope that are also seriously problematic. And if its rashness reflects a kind of exasperation on the part of the signatories, it cannot reasonably be denied that the pope can indeed be exasperating.”
Feser then stated that Pope Francis has made “many statements that at least seem to contradict traditional Catholic teaching on divorce and remarriage, conscience, grace, the diversity of religions, contraception, capital punishment, and a variety of other topics.”
The philosopher then said that the Open Letter “actually understates the case, because it does not address the pope’s remarks about contraception, capital punishment, or certain other issues.”
Strongly Oppose the Open Letter
Writing in the National Catholic Register, Catholic Answers’ Jimmy Akin stated that the letter fails to sustain the charge of heresy. He believes that the 19 signers, who include not only Fr. Aidan Nichols but also Professor John Rist, lack the qualifications to know what heresy actually is.
Akin holds that to be a heretic a Christian must doubt or deny a truth that the “Magisterium has infallibly defined” to be “divinely revealed.” He believes that the signers of the Open Letter failed to demonstrate that Pope Francis obstinately doubts or denies dogmas that the Magisterium has infallibly defined to be divinely revealed.
Fr. George W. Rutler, author and pastor of St. Michael’s parish in New York, critiqued Akin's dismissal of the original signers of the letter as “incompetent and unqualified,” saying that Akin is an amateur of uncertain academic achievements whereas Fr. Aidan Nichols is “one of the most distinguished theologians in the English-speaking world.”
The Catholic News Agency’s Ed Condon argued that the signers of the Open Letter had failed to make a distinction between the “crime of heresy” and “what their letter actually appears to allege ― material heresy.”
Condon stated that “few experts have concluded that it serves to demonstrate the obstinate manifestation of heretical beliefs by the pope in law or fact.” He did not, however, name them.
Writing in The Wanderer, theologian Fr. Brian Harrison revealed that he had been asked to sign the Open Letter, but declined to do so because he believed it was unfair.
“I declined, because I don’t think you can judge someone — especially a Pope! — to be a formal (i.e., pertinacious or obstinate) heretic without first hearing what he might have to say in his self-defense. That’s an elementary question of due process!” Harrison wrote.
“The Church (via the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) always does this with any theologian suspected of heresy, so how much more should the Pope himself be given a chance to explain himself before being publicly branded as formally heretical!” he continued.
Harrison said that although Francis has said things that Harrison believes to be heretical, and although Harrison suspects Francis may be “formally heretical,” the theologian would not “assert that he definitely is.” Harrison believes it is not clear that Pope Francis actually knows that his statements and actions are heretical. The priest also argued that some statements Pope Francis has said may have been misreported, and pointed out that Francis often makes “off-the-cuff” statements whose implications he hasn’t thought out.
Harrison argued also that Francis’s errors may be only “proximate to heresy,” and that that it has not been shown that Francis “obstinately” adheres to formal heresy―a condition necessary for a judgment that someone is a formal heretic.
American Dominican scholar Fr. Thomas Petri, OP sharply criticized the writers of the Open Letter on Twitter and predicted that they would receive severe canonical punishments. He too believes that Francis is not guilty of material heresy.
“Many theologians and clerics agree that Amoris Laetitia is a locus of concern and debate, especially in how chapter eight is to be interpreted. But it’s not at all clear to me that anything @pontifex has said on the matter rises to material heresy,” Petri wrote.
In an article that appeared in First Things on May 7, theologian Fr. Thomas Weinandy, O.F.M., Cap. stated that many of the concerns mentioned in the Open Letter are valid but that it is “almost impossible” to accuse him justly of heresy.
“ ...The fact that Pope Francis articulates these positions in an ambiguous manner makes it almost impossible to accuse him rightly of heresy,” Weinandy wrote.
“Those who interpret his ambiguous teaching in a manner not in keeping with the Catholic faith may be heretical, but the pope is not, even if the pope appears to give silent approval to their erroneous interpretations,” he continued.
“Thus, I think that the letter's authors have gone beyond what is objectively warranted.”
Like Phil Lawler, Weinandy believes that the Open Letter makes it more difficult to “for others to appropriately critique the ongoing doctrinal and moral chaos within the Church.” Weinandy called this “a disorder that will continue to intensify as this pontificate progresses.”
The Capuchin theologian believes also that whether or not Francis can be called a heretic is a side issue distracting from the “doctrinal and moral chaos” in the Church “where the real battle must be fought.”
Weinandy concluded that “...while the open letter hopes to be a clarion call to rectify a grievous situation within the Church, it may have unintentionally contributed to making the victory of faith even more difficult.”
Signers defend themselves
Philosopher Professor John Rist, one of the original 19 signatories of the “Open Letter”, told LifeSiteNews by email today that he expected that there would be “little support even among conservatives” for the initiative.
“In the present situation there is no need for the Bergoglians to say much; their work is being done for them by those who should be the friends of the letter writers. Often they are making rather bureaucratic suggestions rather than facing the real issues in the Church, such as that one of the reasons I signed the letter was because it renewed the ignored plea of the dubia cardinals for 'clarification'.”
Rist believes that commentators are “merely evading the issue” when they concentrate on the canonical accuracy of the Open Letter’s charge against Pope Francis or the number of canonists or scholars with doctorates in theology on the list.
“On that last point, in view of the present situation in theology generally, having more people with doctorates might have been a positive disadvantage,” Rist said.
“What has happened, I think, is that these commentators have used feeble objections on minor points to avoid the main issue,” he continued.
‘This perhaps could be summed up by my view that [Pope] Bergoglio wants to transform the Church into a mildly spiritually flavoured NGO.”
Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, one of the original Open Letter signers, defended his action, stating in an article that the document “furnishes clear evidence of heretical (not just erroneous) statements that may be found in the approved writings of Pope Francis, as well as evidence—in the form of repeated acts and omissions of governance—that he is fully aware of what he is promoting.”
“Many people have been asking: What’s the good of taking a step like this? Will it not further polarize the situation? Will it not offer excuses to the Bergoglio party to intensify their confinement and persecution of Catholics? Is it not overwhelmingly likely to be ignored? Can anyone do anything about a wayward pope—mustn’t we just wait until God sorts it out for us? And besides, aren’t the signatories lacking in sufficient theological qualifications,” he writes.
In answer to these questions, Kwasniewski provides three reasons why the document is “good and valuable.”
Signing the document is a “step we take before God, as a testimony of our conscience,” he wrote.
“Perhaps there are others who can sleep like babes without raising a voice of protest to the autodemolition of the Faith and the misleading of countless souls; who see what the Pope is saying and doing, but who shrug their shoulders and figure that it won’t redound to lasting damage. I am not such a person, and I think the same is true of the other signatories,” he added.
“From those to whom more has been given, more will be expected. If we have been given to see a wolf in shepherd’s clothing, we are expected to do something about it. We will cry “Wolf!” to the vulnerable sheep, and pray fervently that other true shepherds will come to the rescue, in ways that we cannot. If they fail to do so, that is not our problem, but theirs to answer for,” he said.