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SYDNEY, Australia, February 23, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – Pope Francis’ “ambiguous” teaching is not only causing “division” and “disorder” within the Catholic Church, but it is threatening to obscure the “defining ecclesial marks” of the Church, namely that she is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic, said the former doctrine chief for the U.S. bishops in a lecture. 

Catholic priest and theologian Fr. Thomas Weinandy, a member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission, said that a crisis has been unleashed upon the Church which consists in the four marks of the Church coming under “subtle, but well-defined, attack.” He spoke this week at Australia’s Notre Dame University in a lecture titled The Four Marks of the Church: The Contemporary Crisis in Ecclesiology.

Weinandy was sacked by the U.S. bishops in November after releasing a letter he wrote to Pope Francis. He told the Pope that his papacy was marked by “chronic confusion” and that he teaches with “a seemingly intentional lack of clarity.”

The theologian expanded on this theme in his Australian address. 

“I will contend that these four defining ecclesial marks are presently at risk.  This threat comes not only from within the Catholic theological community, but even and regrettably from within Church leadership,” he said. 

The theologian said that while disputes “over doctrine, morals and the liturgy” have been present in the Church since Vatican II, however, “at no time during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI was there ever any doubt as to what the Church teaches concerning her doctrine, morals, and liturgical practice.”

“Both recognized that what truly made the Church one is her unalterable apostolic and universal faith, and her sacraments, especially the Eucharist, as fount and means of her holiness.  They, therefore, faithfully taught, clearly developed, and ardently promoted the Church’s doctrinal and moral teaching, and her authentic sacramental practice – all for the sake of guaranteeing and fostering her ecclesial communion,” he continued. 

“Such is not the case, in many significant ways, within the present pontificate of Pope Francis,” he added. 

The division is perhaps most pronounced in moves by various bishops to use Pope Francis’s teachings as found in his 2016 Exhortation Amoris Laetitia to allow “remarried” couples to receive Holy Communion. 

“For Pope Francis … as seen in Amoris Laetitia, to re-conceive and newly express the previously clear apostolic faith and magisterial tradition in a seemingly ambiguous manner, so as to leave confusion and puzzlement within the ecclesial community, is to contradict his own duties as the successor of Peter and to transgress the trust of his fellow bishops, as well as that of priests and the entire faithful,” he said.

“It would appear that Pope Francis identifies himself not as the promoter of unity,” he concludes, “but as the agent of division.”

The Four Marks of the Church

“The Nicene Constantinopolitan Creed (381 AD) professes that we believe in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church,” said Weinandy, laying the groundwork for his talk.  

“Each mark, in its fullness, must be properly conceived and articulated, and yet only together, in their perichoretic relationship, do they form the theological foundation of the Church’s authentic self-understanding,” he said. “Without them the Church’s own self-identity would become opaque, possessing no discernable defining character, and so would be exposed to any and every imposed guise – either by herself or from without.  Moreover, these four ecclesial marks are most fully expressed and most abundantly nurtured within the Eucharist liturgy.”

Quickly turning to the application of these truths to troubling recent developments in Rome, Weinandy warns that, “these four defining ecclesial marks are presently at risk.  This threat comes not only from within the Catholic theological community, but even and regrettably from within Church leadership.”

“Because of this danger I will conclude by advocating the need to mount a robust defense and clear advocacy of the Church’s four marks,” he continued.  “Without such an apology, the Church’s identity – what she truly is – will become disordered, and so will enfeeble her ability to live and to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”  

“This enfeeblement, then, will also be most visibly enacted within the Eucharistic liturgy which will not only cause scandal but also, and more importantly, demean the Eucharistic liturgy as the supreme enactment of the Church being One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.” 

Referring to the seeds of confusion that have been sewn through ambiguous passages in Amoris Laetitia which some bishops have interpreted as giving license to permit the “remarried” to receive communion, Weinandy turned to the writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch.  

“Ignatius was acutely aware of the destructiveness of heretical teaching, for such erroneous teaching eliminated the very ecclesial marks that defined the Church,” he said. “Simply put, such a heretical bishop would no longer bear within himself as a bishop the four defining marks of the Church and, therefore, he could no longer justifiably act as an ecclesial member within the Church. He may continue to act outside the Church, or even within the Church, but his actions would lack a genuine ecclesial character, for the essential and indispensable four marks of the church would be absent within his specious ministry.”

Weinandy went into detail explaining that the current papacy challenges all four of the foundational marks of the Church found in the Nicene Creed.  

Pope Francis’ pontificate challenges Church’s oneness 

Weinandy warned that the Pope’s approach “strikes at [the] very essence of the Petrine ministry as intended by Jesus and as continuously understood by the Church.”

“The successor of St. Peter, by the very nature of the office, is to be, literally, the personal embodiment and thus the consummate sign of the Church’s ecclesial communion, and so the principle defender and promoter of the Church’s ecclesial communion.  Thus, a manner of proceeding that allows and even encourages doctrinal and moral divergences undermines the whole of Vatican II’s teaching on ecclesial communion, as well as that of the entire magisterial and theological tradition going back to Ignatius.  By seeming to encourage doctrinal division and moral discord within the Church the present pontificate has transgressed the foundational mark of the Church – her oneness,” he said.

Challenge to Church’s Apostolicity

Weinandy warned that the Pope’s “ambiguous teaching at times appears to fall outside the magisterial teaching of the historic apostolic ecclesial community’ for it “fosters division and disharmony rather than unity and peace within the one apostolic Church.  There appears to be, as a consequence, no assurance of faith.”

“At least heresy is a clear denial of the apostolic faith and so can be clearly identified and as such properly addressed.  Ambiguous teaching, precisely because of its murkiness, cannot be clearly identified, and so is even more troublesome for it fosters uncertainty as to how it is to be understood and thus how it is to be clarified,” he said.

“Moreover, for Pope Francis to then take sides in the ensuing debate, a debate for which he himself is responsible, concerning the proper interpretation of the uncertain teaching is disingenuous,” said Weinandy.  “He has now allowed others to be the arbiter of what is true, when it is precisely the apostolic mandate of the pope to be the one who confirms the brethren, both episcopal and laity, in the truth.” 

Challenge to Church’s Catholicity

The theologian said that a “theological anarchy that the pope himself, maybe unwittingly, has initiated by advocating a flawed conception of synodality” is undermining the Catholicity of the Church. 

“[T]he entire visible hierarchical governance of the universal Church is structured precisely to maintain and promote ecclesial communion – a communion that embodies the one apostolic faith.”  Yet Pope Francis’ approach, says Weinandy, undermines and sanctions divisions within the Church.

“We are presently witnessing the disintegration of the Church’s catholicity, for local churches, both on the diocesan and national level, are often interpreting doctrinal norms and moral precepts in various conflicting and contradictory ways.  Thus, what the faithful are instructed to believe and practice in one diocese or country is not in conformity with what the faithful are instructed to believe and practice in another diocese or country,” he said.

Challenge to Church’s Holiness

Weinandy said the Church's holiness is “under siege, most especially, but not surprisingly, in relationship to the Eucharist. “

Much of the controversy surrounding Amoris Laetitia focuses on a footnote in which it appears that the Pope allows the sacraments, including Communion, to be given to those in irregular marital situations. 

Weinandy stressed that to allow Catholics to receive Holy Communion whose outward conduct is “seriously, clearly and steadfastly contrary to the moral norm” is to tarnish the Church's holiness. 

“For one to receive communion in a disgraced state enacts a lie, for in receiving the sacrament one is asserting that one is in communion with Christ, when in actuality one is not.”

“This is an “offense against the holiness of the Church,” he said.

The priest said that no interpretation of “mercy” can change this.

“To allow those who persist in manifest grave sin to receive communion, seemingly as an act of mercy, is both to belittle the condemnatory evil of grave sin and to malign the magnitude and power of the Holy Spirit,” he said.  “Such a pastoral practice is implicitly acknowledging that sin continues to govern humankind despite Jesus’ redeeming work and his anointing of the Holy Spirit upon all who believe and are baptized.  Jesus is actually not Savior and Lord, but rather Satan continues to reign.”

Weinandy addressed what many see as rising “scandal” within the Church.

[S]candal is the public pastoral consequence of allowing persons in unrepentant manifest grave sin to receive Holy Communion.  It is not simply that the faithful members of the Eucharistic community will be dismayed and likely disgruntled, but, more importantly, they will be tempted to think that they too can sin gravely and continue in good standing with the Church.  Why attempt to live a holy life, even a heroic virtuous life, when the Church herself appears to demand neither such a life, or even to encourage such a life?  Here the Church becomes a mockery of herself and such a charade breeds nothing but scorn and disdain in the world, and derision and cynicism among the faithful, or at best, a hope against hope among the little ones.

The priest said that it is through a defense, proper knowledge of, and love for the Eucharist that the “four marks of the Church are most fully expressed and abundantly nourished.”

“In the Eucharist above all the Church’s identity is most clearly enacted and made visible.  For in the Eucharist we are made one with Christ and one with one another as together we profess and joyfully acclaim our one apostolic and universal faith, a faith that is imbued with the holiness of the Spirit, and so as one ecclesial community we worship and glorify God the Father – the source and end of all.  Within the Eucharist, then, the Church’s four marks most beautifully shine,” he said.

Weinandy concluded by calling his audience to pray for the Pope. 

“As stated earlier there is much in the character of Pope Francis to admire, and we owe him our daily prayers for strength in facing the burdens of his ministry.  However, that cannot excuse us from speaking the truth in love,” he said. 

“Anyone experienced in religious life – or for that matter, in a marriage – will understand that sometimes the truth must be spoken bluntly – not out of bitterness, but out of fidelity to the persons involved and to safeguard the purpose they share,” he added.