Scholar defends letter accusing Pope of heresy: Church is facing ‘most serious crisis’ in history
ROME, May 7, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) — The recent open letter to all Catholic bishops accusing Pope Francis of heresy and urging the world’s episcopate to investigate these charges has provoked admiration and opposition among leading Catholics and drawn considerable attention in the secular media.
Notable responses to the letter have come from Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J., Fr. Brian Harrison, O.S., and Fr. Thomas Weinandy, O.F.M. Capuchin.
The letter has also left many Catholics with questions: are the signatories accusing Pope Francis of being a formal heretic? Are they contravening canon law? What will the effect be now that the word “heresy” has been used openly in reference to Pope Francis? And why did they not first seek to address their concerns with him privately, before taking this historic step?
LifeSite spoke with Professor Claudio Pierantoni, one of the lay scholars who helped to draft the open letter. Professor Pierantoni, who was born in Rome, is a professor of Medieval Philosophy in the Philosophy Faculty of the University of Chile (Santiago). He has two PhDs: in the History of Christianity and in Philosophy.
In this wide-ranging interview, Pierantoni addresses these questions, responds to critics of the open letter, and explains why he believes the Church is now passing through “the most serious crisis not only since the Protestant Reformation, but in all of her history.”
LifeSite: Professor Pierantoni, what motivated you to sign the open letter accusing Pope Francis of the crime of heresy and calling the Bishops of the Catholic Church to investigate the charges?
Prof. Pierantoni: First, a duty in conscience as a Catholic. As the Letter notes, this act follows the publication of a document on Amoris Laetitia (AL), signed by 45 scholars in 2016 that highlighted the serious ambiguity of many passages which, in their most obvious and natural sense, seemed heretical. Then, in 2017, with a larger group of 250 scholars, we published the Correctio filialis de haeresibus propagatis (Filial Correction about the Propagation of Heresies) when it was clear from various statements made by the Pope that the ambiguous passages of AL were certainly to be understood in a heretical sense. Finally, during the last period, the Pope’s will to impose a certain line of revolutionary change in sexual and matrimonial ethics has been widely confirmed, especially through the appointment of prelates favoring such a revolution to important places of the government in the Church. Therefore, we have now reached the point of affirming the heresy which is appropriate to call “obstinate” or “pertinacious.” Hence the need to have recourse to the bishops to remedy this tragic situation for the faith: the situation of a pope who falls into heresy.
Were you also involved in the drafting of the document?
Yes, I was a member of the discussion group from which the final version (laboriously) emerged. The letter was initially written by a single author but was then widely discussed in a small group for about four months, with numerous amendments made.
The summary of the open letter reads: “The present Open letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church goes a stage further [than the Filial Correction] in claiming that Pope Francis is guilty of the crime of heresy.” Many Catholics might find this language new or strange. In what sense is heresy a “crime”? And how can the Pope be guilty of heresy given the Lord’s promise to always be with His Church?
A delict (or crime) is an action that undermines the rights of others. The Catholic faithful have the right to have bishops publicly guard and teach the correct doctrine of the Church without ambiguity, change or novelty. The concept of Tradition, of the depositum fidei [deposit of faith], is very precise in the Catholic Church: it is not a generic love of the past or respect for the wisdom of one’s forefathers, but a much more specific commitment. Just as in a deposit agreement, the depositary is required to return to the depositor exactly what he received, neither more nor less, so in the Church a bishop must deliver intact to the faithful what he has received as a deposit from the Apostles, who have received it directly from Christ. He has the further duty of ensuring that no one else alters or contaminates it with strange doctrines. This duty belongs most especially to the bishop of Rome, to whom Christ himself gave the primacy in this action of feeding and tending his flock. The words of Jesus Christ to Peter reported by the beloved disciple: “Feed my sheep,” and repeated three times (John 21:15-19), are inscribed in enormous gold letters along the base of the inner frame of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. For the Pope to fail in this duty is therefore not only “a” crime but the most serious of crimes, because it endangers the salvation of souls. It empties of meaning his very essence as Shepherd, and that is why in doing so he renounces his role as such. The bishops who recognize this fact do not “depose” the Pope, because the Pope cannot be deposed: they only take note of the fact that the Pope has spontaneously renounced his office. In juridical language, we say that the act of the bishops would have a purely declarative nature.
What heresies is Pope Francis accused of in the letter? Which to your mind is the most serious?
There are seven statements contained in the letter: the first six are distilled from passages of AL and the famous dispute over Communion for divorced persons who are living together in a new union more uxorio. Two roads can be taken to affirm that it is licit to give Communion to this category of people. The first would be to deny the indissolubility of marriage. This road was tried in several studies that preceded and accompanied the two synods on the Family (2014-2015), but it was effectively refuted and this strategy was abandoned. The other road is to state that, while marriage remains indissoluble, there are cases in which sexual relations outside a legitimate marriage would still be lawful. To sum up, therefore, I would say that the main heresy resides precisely in the doctrine — today called “situation ethics” — which denies that there are acts that by their very nature are intrinsically evil, and therefore cannot in any case be considered lawful. Once this doctrine is accepted, not only is the doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage at risk but the whole of Christian ethics — and not only it, but the whole of natural ethics. In fact, on the basis of this doctrine we could say, for example, that abortion is indeed a crime, but in some cases it is lawful; that the murder of an innocent person is wrong, but not in some cases; that torture is immoral, but in particular circumstances it could be lawful; that active homosexual relationships are sinful, but not in certain cases, and so on. It is therefore a real “atomic bomb,” which entirely destroys ethics, as Prof. Josef Seifert fittingly called it in a brief but, it must be said, explosive article.
It is important to underline that the battle against this error, i.e. “situation ethics,” was one of the absolute priorities of Pope John Paul II’s pontificate. To it he dedicated one of his most important encyclicals, Veritatis splendor. This is why many thousands of the most serious and committed Catholics — and not just a “tiny fringe of extremists” or “ultra-conservatives,” as some would have us believe — have felt betrayed by this new direction inaugurated by Bergoglio, which threatens to frustrate precisely one of the most important legacies of the saintly Polish Pope. That is why Benedict XVI, in the Notes he published just a few weeks ago, also strongly emphasized that this was one of the chief errors of moral theology in the last sixty years. It is certainly a providential coincidence that these Notes came out at almost the same time as our letter.
Many people might wonder what authority a group of clergy and scholars has to accuse the Pope — the Vicar of Christ — of heresy. How do you respond?
We do not claim any particular authority, except the theological competence necessary to carry out this study to highlight a factual situation which undermines a fundamental right of all Catholic faithful. The Code of Canon Law attributes to all the faithful, in proportion to their competence, the right to speak in so far as they deem it necessary to do so in order to point out a difficulty or problem in the Church. (Can. 212 §3 reads: “According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, they have 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 and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons.”)
Nor, as someone has said (e.g. Fr. Thomas Petri OP), do we run into the prohibition, also recorded in the Code of Canon Law, of “mak[ing] recourse against an act of the Roman Pontiff to an ecumenical council or the college of bishops” (can. 1372). In fact, here it is not a matter of making recourse to the bishops to overrule an act of the Pontiff in the governance of the Church as if they were a higher authority, which is what is forbidden by the canon, but of the very serious situation, in which one must take note of the fact that the Pontiff himself has fallen into heresy, which is expressly indicated by canonical tradition as one of the three causes of loss of the papal office. As we explain in the appendix on the loss of the papal office, it is not a matter of deposing the pope, but only of declaring that he has spontaneously renounced the papacy through his adherence to heresy. Much less do we contravene Canon 1373, which punishes those who“publicly incite animosities or hatred against the Apostolic See […] because of some act of power or ecclesiastical ministry or provokes subjects to disobey […]”. On the contrary we are upholding the dignity of the Apostolic See by desiring that its occupant be free of heresy.
Are the signatories of the open letter accusing Pope Francis of being a formal heretic? If so, why did you not first present the charges to him privately, giving him a chance to respond (even if a response is unlikely). Isn’t it a part of due process to do so? The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith does so with any theologian suspected of heresy, so why shouldn’t the Pope be given a chance to explain himself?
First of all, I would like to distinguish between the accusation of heresy, and the formal declaration of someone being a heretic by the competent authority: the accusation of being a heretic is one thing, the sentence that formally declares him such is another, and that it is not up to us to issue, but precisely to the bishops to whom we have addressed the open letter. Now, if we use the term “formal heresy”, as distinguished from “material heresy”, in the sense that the person upholding it is conscious that it is a proposition opposed to a teaching of the Catholic faith, and does not uphold it out of mere ignorance of the faith, then we claim that we are speaking of “formal” heresy in this sense. However, this must still be distinguished from the situation of a person who has already been admonished by the competent authority about the incompatibility of their doctrine with the Catholic faith: this has not, of course, yet happened with the Pope, as no one with authority has still formally admonished him: so, in this sense his position is not that of “formal heresy”, and such an admonition is precisely what we are asking of the bishops.
Now, we are presenting these accusations after a great number of warnings have already been presented privately to the Pope, many more than would have been sufficient and fair.
In fact, this was already done in the theological censures presented to him by a number of us in 2016 (first privately); then with the dubia (also previously presented in private), then with the Correctio filialis (2017), which was also put directly into his hands a full month before it was published.
But this is only a part of the story. Pope Francis was already warned of these errors by many bishops and cardinals and even lay scholars during the Synods on the family; then, after the drafting of AL, by the many corrections that came from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which were all rejected. Then by a series of articles, books and open letters by important authors.
Faced with all these warnings, questions, books, articles, letters and corrections, the Pope had all the time and material to reflect and eventually to respond. But instead, he clearly and consciously chose the path of ignoring them altogether. In an answer given during a meeting with the Jesuits last year here in Chile, he stated verbatim regarding these critics that he “does not read them” because he does not find in them “spiritual goodness,” and limits himself to “praying for them” (quoted here). It remains to be explained how he knows that the critics do not have spiritual goodness, since he does not read them.
However, for our part we thank him for his prayers, which we reciprocate. But we are sadly forced to record that it is therefore a matter of a voluntary and stubborn closure to listen to these criticisms, which fully justifies our accusation of “fully conscious and pertinacious” heresy, although in the limited sense that can be applied to a person who has not yet been formally admonished, as I explained before. So, as I have already said, this does not mean at all that we claim the authority necessary to issue a sentence and thus formally declare the heresy of any person, and therefore not the Pope either; indeed, although it is already obvious in itself, we have taken care to expressly state the contrary (cf. pg. 15).
So it isn’t at all true, as for example Father Brian Harrison said in his recent article (among other inaccuracies), that we “jump straight to the conclusion that he’s a formal heretic, and urge the world’s bishops to treat him as such.” This is very inaccurate. What we are doing is simply presenting an accusation, accompanied by the evidence that we consider necessary and sufficient: it will then be up to the competent authority, in this case the bishops, to examine the evidence, admonish the Pope in an appropriate manner, give him the possibility of a retraction, and only after that, to issue the sentence. And we are not presenting these accusations lightly at all, but, as I have already said, we are doing so after having waited several years in which a long series of prior notices, letters and corrections have already been presented.
In any case, whether the judgment actually takes place during the Pope’s lifetime or not, an accusation that is based on a conspicuous series of evidence and testimonies is yet worthy of consideration by any serious person who cares about the good of the Church, beginning with the chief interested party.
What effect do you think it will have now that the word “heresy” has been openly used in reference to Pope Francis? What effect did you anticipate it would have before you decided to sign the open letter?
Well, we had foreseen that quite a few people, even among people who are sympathetic to our views and are, so to say, on our side in this wide controversy, would find this accusation overstated. So, many have argued that this was counterproductive, because it makes our own cause more vulnerable to attack. Many good theologians still argue that Francis’s texts, although very problematic, cannot be convicted of heresy because they are too ambiguous.
I challenge this claim: in fact, I maintain that Francis’s texts, in particular those contained in AL chapter VIII, are tortuous and meandering, but their aim is clear: he wanted to permit irregularly married couples to receive Communion in certain cases. And he officially confirmed his intention with his response to the Argentinian bishops, which he ordered to be included in the AAS (Acta Apostolicae Sedis). This is a historical fact and moreover, one that is in perfect consonance with too many elements in his record to be reasonably called into question.
Now, in order to find a justification for this step, he was bound to affirm a contradiction to Catholic teaching: either to the doctrine of indissolubility of marriage, or to the doctrine that some actions are always and in all cases prohibited, because they are intrinsically evil (intrinsece mala). Since he rejected the first path, he was bound to go down the other. It was a logical necessity, and so he ran headlong into a fatal contradiction with the doctrine solemnly confirmed by Veritatis Splendor. This is a position expressed with more than sufficient clarity in AL, as many theologians have already shown in their analyses of the document. The first six of our propositions are necessarily related to this error. (On the seventh we have already commented.) So, it is wholly incorrect to affirm that our case is “overstated.” It is not a rational refutation of our position (which has not been given) but only a psychological fear of the terrible consequences of admitting papal heresy that prevents many good theologians from facing the hard truth.
The signatories allege a link between Pope Francis’s rejection of Catholic teaching and the favor he has shown to bishops and other clergy who have either been guilty of sexual sins and crimes or covered them up. Can you give the most striking example?
Probably the most disturbing case is that of Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga. In the letter it is noted, among other things, that: “Maradiaga refused to investigate complaints made by 48 out of 180 seminarians about homosexual misbehavior at the Honduras seminary, and attacked the complainants. Pope Francis named Maradiaga as a member and coordinator of the council of nine cardinals that he set up in 2013 to advise him in the government of the universal church.” In this single case, the decidedly criminal inclination of a person whom the Pope insists on keeping among his closest collaborators is clear.
But, even more than a single person, what’s disturbing is the number of prelates who, having concealed, or even personally committed, serious crimes, have been promoted by the Pope to positions of the highest responsibility in the Church. As Archbishop Viganò aptly said, only one of these scandalous promotions would suffice to justify the Pope’s resignation. However, in the case of our letter, we use them mainly as evidence that the Pope doesn’t seem to consider these shortcomings particularly serious, and only proceeds to necessary censures when he is obliged to do so by circumstances, especially by pressure from civil authorities.
Is the Church in the worst crisis since the Reformation?
I believe that the Church is going through the most serious crisis not only since the Protestant Reformation, but in all of her history. One only need observe that it is the first time in history that a pope is accused of heresy in such a massive way, about a whole series of doctrines as important as these.
As I have already noted in previous talks and interviews, comparisons with the examples of the past, such as that of Pope Liberius, Honorius, or John XXII, don’t stand up at all. In the case of Liberius, the issue was a formula of Trinitarian faith that the Pope was forced to sign by the pro-Arian imperial party, at a time when the Trinitarian formula itself was not yet definitively established, and therefore there were still many terminological uncertainties. In the case of Honorius, it was a question of a single doctrinal formula on the problem of the two wills of Christ, a problem that was debated at the time and therefore also suffered a margin of terminological uncertainty. In the case of John XXII, it was a question of the denial of the doctrine of the immediate beatific vision of the blessed after death: an important doctrine to be sure, but not as vital and central as the doctrines that we are discussing here.
In the case of Francis, one has the clear impression that he wants to relativize the whole of Catholic doctrine, especially on the issues of marriage and family ethics, as we said, but also on the very important issue of the relationship of Catholicism with other religions, as we state in our seventh proposition. This came to light in the recent Abu Dhabi document, but perhaps even more dramatically, in the continuous affirmation that Catholics should not “proselytize,” in the sense that they should not worry in any way about convincing or converting non-Catholics to the true faith. It is a position that, in practice, is very close to religious indifferentism.
Many committed Catholics and even outside observers have the impression that the Pope — while certainly affirming some Catholic doctrines — deep down isn’t really Catholic. It’s interesting that Reuters, at the end of its article on our letter, in speaking about this subject, states: “Conservatives say the Roman Catholic Church is the only true one and that members are called to convert others to it.” Evidently Reuters doesn’t classify Francis as a “conservative,” so it agrees with us in saying that the Pope rejects this doctrine.
On this topic, too, Father Harrison unjustly accuses us of ignoring the verbal clarification of his statement that the Pope gave in a conversation with Bishop Athanasius Schneider, and in a public audience. In fact, in a special note of our letter (note 4), which we ask Fr. Harrison to read, we make reference to these informal clarifications, and we explain why we consider them to be totally insufficient. I would add to the reasons presented there, that it should already be self-evident that merely verbal clarifications can never be sufficient to eliminate the meaning of a statement present in an official document signed by the Pope that is clearly incompatible with the Catholic faith.
Would the signatories consider themselves “in communion with the Pope” or are you taking a sedevacantist position?
The answer can be deduced from the previous one. Since we have no authority to formally declare the Pope’s heresy, of course we cannot declare his loss of office. Besides, we have explicitly excluded the sedevacantist position in the appendix about the loss of papal office.
The open letter was published on the traditional feast of St. Catherine of Siena, and the feast of Pope St. Pius V in the new calendar. What symbolic value do you see in this?
It was an intentional choice to publish the open letter on the feast of St. Catherine of Siena. In fact, the letter was supposed to be published on April 29, then there was a brief delay. But the release still fell on the traditional liturgical feast of the saint, who lived in a time of deep crisis for the Church, as well as schism. A humble virgin, she was not afraid to speak up in order to tell the truth about the urgent reforms that the Church needed. We trust in her intercession to exit from today’s crisis, which in my opinion is even more serious and profound. We also trust in the intercession of the Pope St. Pius V, who also was able to defend the Catholic Church, and the whole of Christian civilization, against the terrible assault from the Turks.
You’ve issued the open letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church. What happens next?
It’s difficult to say what’s going to happen. I personally believe that the Catholic episcopate in general is still far from becoming truly aware of the gravity of the situation. After all, to become aware is also very uncomfortable and even dangerous: it’s much more convenient to take a sleeping pill and continue to sleep, dreaming that everything is just fine. Therefore, I believe that this is one step in what is still a long journey. There is still a good deal of work to be done to raise awareness among the hierarchy, so that it can counter the heretical drift which, even if it had already been going on for a long time in the Church, has been accentuated in alarming proportions in the last six years.
I believe it is imperative that the few cardinals and bishops who have woken up to the gravity of the situation, such as Burke, Brandmüller, Eijk, Müller, Sarah, Woelki, Schneider, Chaput, Laun, Viganò, and others, could and should begin to form a network of relationships and communication across the various countries and continents, to begin to raise awareness among the portion of the episcopate that is still healthy and would be ready to work to encourage resistance to the heretical drift that is spreading. This healthy, orthodox part of the episcopate certainly exists, and it’s not the tiny minority that some would try to make us believe it is, by taking advantage of the fact that it is less noisy and less scheming, let us say less astute than the heretical faction. The children of darkness are more cunning than the children of light. In short, this Orthodox portion of the episcopate needs to come together, to get to know and communicate with one another, to be animated and organized in order to work effectively for a true reform of the Church.
Is there anything you wish to add?
To wrap up, I would like to respond to those critics who now, as with the previous documents we have published, punctually repeat the usual script according to which we are “ultra-conservatives,” or a “tiny fringe of extremists,” as Prof. Massimo Faggioli put it.
I’ll leave aside (because it’s so blatantly obvious to any reader) the fact that it’s very convenient to slap a nice pre-packaged label on us instead of taking the trouble to refute us, which is a bit more difficult.
I would like to underline two things, which perhaps escape our critics.
The first is that they too naively let themselves be fooled by a trivial error of perspective: they are convinced that we are few, because few are those who dare to come out with a signature (although not so few, as the number of signatures has already more than tripled in a few days, today reaching 81). But a look at history is enough to recall that it has always been this way: in the year 360, when it was politically correct to be pro-Arian, how many bishops dared to refuse to sign the pro-Arian formula? Perhaps a dozen. Those who didn’t sign it lost their position. Just like now.
Their second and even more serious and fatal mistake is to confuse quantity with quality. Let’s go ahead and admit that we are a minority (even if much less sparse than they would have us believe): I say that we are in good company. For example, we are in the company of Josef Seifert, one of the philosophers closest to Pope John Paul II in the fight against situation ethics, who in more recent interventions has expressed himself in ways very similar to our document, and for this reason has been harshly punished; he has now signed the petition in favor of our letter, and has publicly stated he agrees with us on the bulk of our letter; Robert Spaemann, who called Amoris Laetitia “chaos elevated to a system”; Cardinals Burke, Caffarra, Brandmüller and Meisner, the authors of the dubia; Cardinal Müller, the man chosen by Benedict XVI to lead the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who recently stated that a bishop who changes the discipline of the Church to grant the Holy Eucharist to persons not in full communion with the Church “is a heretic and a schismatic”; with Cardinal Sarah, who already in 2014 said that dividing doctrine from the discipline of the Eucharist “is a dangerous schizophrenic disease”; finally, with the Pope emeritus himself, who in his recently published Notes, as I have already said, explained how situation ethics has been the most serious error in moral theology in the last 60 years. And the list could go on.
In short, with a “small minority” of this caliber, we feel we are in good company.
In conclusion, I would like to recall that, beyond the impact on the episcopate — for which we hope but will certainly still require a wait — we are convinced that the clear denunciation of the errors being spread today is a strong reason for hope for many thousands of Catholic faithful who are deeply concerned about a situation that many describe not only as heresy and schism, but even apostasy, who hope and pray in silence that Christ will come soon to redeem his Church. This document seeks to give voice to so many who have no voice, to send the message that, even when heresy and corruption seem to prevail, the Holy Spirit always raises up an immune response, antibodies, often even in humble people who do not occupy positions of power, but who, even against human predictions, preserve the faith and commit themselves to fighting the good fight to which we are all called.