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May 8, 2019 (Edward Feser) — What should we think of the recent open letter accusing Pope Francis of heresy, signed by Fr. Aidan Nichols, Prof. John Rist, and other priests and academics (and for which Prof. Josef Seifert has now expressed his support)? 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. 

As to the main charge, it is true that a pope can fall into doctrinal error, even material heresy, when not speaking ex cathedra. However, whether and how a pope can be charged with formal heresy, and what the consequences would be if he were guilty of it, are simply much less clear-cut canonically and theologically than the letter implies. Some of the Church's greatest theologians have speculated about the matter, and while there are serious arguments for various possible positions, there is no theological consensus and no magisterial teaching which resolves the issue. Moreover, a pope falling into formal heresy would be about as grave a crisis for the Church as can be imagined. So, maximum caution is called for before making such a charge, and in my opinion it is simply rash flatly to accuse the pope of “the canonical delict of heresy,” as the letter does.

Some of the arguments deployed are also ill-advised, to say the least. For example, it was foolish to appeal to the allegedly sinister shape of the staff that the pope used in a particular mass as evidence of heretical intent. To be sure, the open letter does not make much of this, but it is a bad argument, and the letter's critics have understandably pounced on it.

I would guess that these serious problems with the letter are one reason that it did not gather more signatures, though it is certainly significant that it attracted signatories as formidable as Nichols and Rist. (This is not meant in any way as a slight against the other signatories, some of whom are also formidable scholars. But most of them have signed several other public statements critical of Pope Francis, so the fact that they signed this one is less noteworthy than the fact that Nichols and Rist signed it.) 

Another reason, I suspect, is that by now it seems that there is little point to further public letters and petitions critical of Pope Francis, when several others have already been issued and simply ignored by the pope, the cardinals, and the bishops. (I signed one of them myself.) I realize that the signatories to this latest open letter do not suppose they are likely to move the bishops to action, but merely want to get into the historical record a summary of the problems with some of Pope Francis's words and actions and the fact that there were faithful Catholic scholars who criticized them. But there is a point to doing even that much only if the letter adds something new and significant to the previous letters and petitions, and the main thing this one adds is a charge that is, as I say, rashly made. 

Having said all that, it simply will not do for critics of the letter to point to its deficiencies and then roll over and go back to sleep. 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. 

For example, Pope Francis has made many statements that at least seem to contradict traditional Catholic teaching on divorce and remarriage, conscience, grace, the diversity of religionscontraception, capital punishment, and a variety of other topics. The open letter is right about that. Indeed, at least where the number of problematic statements from Pope Francis is concerned, the open letter actually understates the case, because it does not address the pope's remarks about contraception, capital punishment, or certain other issues. The sheer volume of these problematic statements is alarming in itself, whatever one thinks of any one of them considered in isolation. You can find previous popes who have made a theologically problematic statement here or there. You cannot find a previous pope who has made so many theologically problematic statements. 

It is true that the pope's defenders have come up with ways to read some of these statements so as to reconcile them with traditional doctrine. But there are two general problems with such attempts, even apart from the fact that not all of the proposed readings are terribly plausible.

First, and as I have pointed out before, when defending the doctrinal soundness of a statement, it does not suffice to come up with some strained or unnatural interpretation that avoids strict heresy. That is a much lower standard than the Church herself has applied historically, and would rule out very little. 

To take an example I have used in the past, even the statement “God does not exist” could be given an orthodox interpretation if you strain hard enough. You could say: “What I mean when I say that is that God does not 'exist' in the sense of merely having or participating in existence, the way other things do. Rather, he just is Subsistent Being Itself and the source of the existence of other things.” The trouble is that the average person would not understand such a high falutin' interpretation even if it occurred to him. The average person would naturally hear the statement in question as an expression of atheism. He would be especially likely to do so if the statement was addressed to a mass audience rather than to an audience of academics, and if the person who made the statement did not himself clarify things by explicitly giving a non-atheistic interpretation. 

A theological statement — especially when made by a churchman to a mass audience — should be clearly orthodox on a natural reading, not merely arguably orthodox on some creative reading. This is why the Church has traditionally held that being strictly heretical is only one of several ways that a statement can be doctrinally objectionable. Even a statement that is not explicitly heretical might still be erroneous, or proximate to heresy, or rash, or ambiguous, or “offensive to pious ears,” or subject to one of the other theological censures with which the Church has in the past condemned various theological opinions. 

Where the question of problematic papal statements is concerned, we might consider the cases of Pope Honorius I and Pope John XXII, who are frequently cited as the two clearest examples of popes who arguably were guilty of heresy. Their defenders have argued that the precise wording of the statements that got them into trouble could be construed as strictly heretical only in light of later dogmatic definitions, rather than in light of definitions already on the books in their day. Even if that is the case, however, the fact remains that John XXII, who had denied that the blessed in heaven immediately enjoy the beatific vision after death, recanted this error in the face of vigorous criticism from the theologians of his day. The fact remains that Honorius was condemned by two later popes for his statements, which at least gave aid and comfort to the Monothelite heresy. Pope St. Leo II declared:

We anathematize … Honorius, who did not attempt to sanctify this Apostolic Church with the teaching of Apostolic tradition, but by profane treachery permitted its purity to be polluted.


Honorius … did not, as became the Apostolic authority, extinguish the flame of heretical teaching in its first beginning, but fostered it by his negligence.

So, whether or not Honorius and John XXII were guilty of strict heresy, they were undeniably guilty of making statements that fell under one or more of the lesser theological censures cited above. Similarly, even if Pope Francis's problematic statements can be given readings that avoid strict heresy, it doesn't follow that they can avoid falling under one or more of the lesser theological censures.

The second problem with the proposed explanations of Pope Francis's remarks is that it is the pope himself, and not his defenders, who should be providing them, and he has persistently refused to do so. The open letter is right to complain about this. For one thing, upholding traditional teaching and resolving doctrinal disputes is the main job of a pope. Hence, that he has still not responded to the now famous dubia (to take just one example) is indefensible. He has in this regard clearly failed to do his duty, and it is intellectually dishonest for his defenders to pretend otherwise. Had the pope simply reaffirmed traditional teaching in response to these straightforward and respectfully presented questions from several of his cardinals, the main doctrinal controversy that has roiled his pontificate would have been swiftly resolved. 

For another thing, what a person fails to say, and how he acts, can “send a message” no less than what he does explicitly say. The open letter is also right to emphasize that. Suppose, to return to my example, that I not only publicly stated “God does not exist,” but also refused to say one way or the other whether I myself endorsed the non-atheistic interpretation of this utterance proposed by some of my defenders on my behalf. Suppose also that I frequently praised atheist thinkers like Nietzsche, Marx, Sartre, et al. and frequently criticized theistic religions and thinkers. But suppose too that, for all that, I still denied that I was an atheist. People would naturally be confused, and many would suspect that I was simply engaging in double-talk — that I really was an atheist but didn't want to be entirely frank about it.

Similarly, when the pope not only makes theologically ambiguous statements about divorce and remarriage, conscience, etc., but refuses to clarify those statements, and promotes and praises people with a reputation for departing from traditional teaching in these areas while criticizing and sidelining people with a reputation for upholding traditional teaching, it is hardly surprising if many people worry — whether correctly or not — that he does not agree with traditional teaching but doesn't want to say so directly. 

Suppose that the open letter had alleged, not that the pope is guilty of the canonical delict of heresy, but rather that the pope's words and actions have, even if inadvertently, encouraged doctrinal error, or perhaps that the pope has been negligent in his duty to uphold sound doctrine. It would be much harder to defend the pope against these milder charges, as the evidence adduced in the open letter clearly shows. These milder charges also would not raise the question of the loss of the papal office, with all of its unresolved canonical and theological difficulties and horrific practical implications. And it would also (unlike the prospect of a formally heretical pope) have clear precedents in the cases of Honorius and John XXII.

The Church famously teaches that the salvation of souls is the supreme law. She does not teach that defending the pope at all costs is the supreme law. Some of the pope's defenders seem not to know the difference. But as the precedents of St. Paul's rebuke of St. Peter, the condemnation of Pope Honorius, and the 14th-century theologians' criticism of Pope John XXII all show — and as the Church herself has always acknowledged — it can happen, albeit very rarely, that what the salvation of souls requires is precisely the correction rather than defense of a pope. The open letter is right about that too. However, such correction must be carried out with filial reverence, and with extreme caution.

Published with permission from Dr. Edward Feser.