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May 24, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) — In the recent “Open letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church,” a number of Catholics accused Pope Francis of the canonical delict of heresy and asked the bishops to take action to address this situation. The letter has not surprisingly been the target of a number of criticisms.

These criticisms are not always easy for the general Catholic reader to assess, because the document is long, precisely rather than accessibly formulated, and sometimes technical in its language. These features of the letter are required by its purpose; a legal accusation against a Pope must be careful, detailed, and sometimes technical in its facts and arguments. It may, therefore, be helpful to offer an explanation of some of the aspects of the letter that its critics have attacked. As a signatory of the letter, and a theologian who had some input into its drafting, I offer the remarks below with the intention of indicating why these criticisms lack any force.

A) What is the crime that Pope Francis is being accused of?

The letter accuses Pope Francis of having committed the canonical delict of heresy. A delict is a crime in canon law; an external violation of a law or precept that is gravely imputable by reason of malice or negligence. The canonical delict of heresy is not the same as the personal sin of heresy. A Catholic can commit the personal sin of heresy by deliberate, obstinate, but purely internal doubt or disbelief of a truth of the Catholic faith. If this doubt or disbelief is never shown by word or deed, the canonical crime of heresy is not committed. Canon law deals only with sins that are outwardly manifested and that can be established through publicly available evidence. The canonical crime of heresy requires public manifestation of doubt or disbelief in some teaching of the Catholic faith, in circumstances where it is clear that the person expressing disbelief knows that the teaching he is rejecting is a part of the Catholic faith. One can reasonably suppose that when the canonical crime of heresy is committed, the personal sin of heresy has been committed as well; but a condemnation for the canonical crime of heresy is not in itself a condemnation for the personal sin of heresy. The two offenses are dealt with by different tribunals. The canonical crime of heresy is judged by a canonical, non-sacramental act of ecclesiastical authority; the personal sin of heresy is judged (if it is ever presented for judgment) in the sacrament of penance.

B) Are the views that Pope Francis is accused of maintaining really heresies?

Some opponents of the letter have denied that the positions listed as heretical are in fact heresies. The letter’s explanation of the canonical crime of heresy contains an account of the nature of heresy:

For the canonical delict of heresy to be committed, two things must occur: the person in question must doubt or deny, by public words and/or actions, some divinely revealed truth of the Catholic faith that must be believed with the assent of divine and Catholic faith; and this doubt or denial must be pertinacious, that is, it must be made with the knowledge that the truth being doubted or denied has been taught by the Catholic Church as a divinely revealed truth which must be believed with the assent of faith, and the doubt or denial must be persistent.

According to this passage, a heresy is a proposition that contradicts a truth that is divinely revealed, and that has been taught by the Catholic Church as a divinely revealed truth that must be believed with the assent of faith. This is the generally agreed definition of a heresy that is  offered by canonists and theologians. The question is thus whether the propositions that are given in the letter as heresies satisfy this definition. These propositions are the following:

I. A justified person has not the strength with God’s grace to carry out the objective demands of the divine law, as though any of the commandments of God are impossible for the justified; or as meaning that God’s grace, when it produces justification in an individual, does not invariably and of its nature produce conversion from all serious sin, or is not sufficient for conversion from all serious sin.

II. A Christian believer can have full knowledge of a divine law and voluntarily choose to break it in a serious matter, but not be in a state of mortal sin as a result of this action.


III. A person is able, while he obeys a divine prohibition, to sin against God by that very act of obedience.


IV. Conscience can truly and rightly judge that sexual acts between persons who have contracted a civil marriage with each other, although one or both of them is sacramentally married to another person, can sometimes be morally right, or requested or even commanded by God.


V. It is false that the only sexual acts that are good of their kind and morally licit are acts between husband and wife.


VI. Moral principles and moral truths contained in divine revelation and in the natural law do not include negative prohibitions that absolutely forbid particular kinds of action, inasmuch as these are always gravely unlawful on account of their object.


VII. God not only permits, but positively wills, the pluralism and diversity of religions, both Christian and non-Christian.

The only proposition in these seven that involves some sort of theological sophistication is the first one. It describes theses concerning justification that were asserted by some Protestants. It was condemned as heretical by the Council of Trent. All of the other six propositions concern fundamental aspects of Christian life and morals. They are denials of things that most adult Catholics need to explicitly grasp, believe, and practice in order to lead Christian lives and get to heaven.

So the fact that these propositions are false, and that they must be held to be false by Catholics, cannot reasonably be denied. The question is whether they are not just false, but heretical; that is, whether their contradictories are truths that have been taught by the Church as being divinely revealed, and as calling for the assent of faith. For each one of these propositions, the open letter provides texts of the divinely revealed Scriptures that condemn them, and magisterial texts that condemn them as contrary to the faith. They thus satisfy the conditions for being heresies.

There is a further point to be made about the Catholic teachings denied by I) to VII). They are so fundamental that if you accept IV) and V), you will be left with no true moral principles about sexual behavior at all; if you accept VI) you will be left with no true moral principles, full stop; if you accept I), II), and III) you will be left with no connection between acting rightly and eternal salvation; and if you accept VII), you will be left with no true worship of God, and no true religion. So if the claims described by the letter as heresies are accepted, every other teaching of divine revelation will be either falsified, or made pointless and powerless to redeem. As a result, if we hold that I) to VII) are not divinely revealed and proposed by the Church for belief, we will have to conclude that what is divinely revealed and taught as such by the Church is on its own useless for salvation. But this consequence is absurd.

C) Has Pope Francis in fact committed the crime of heresy?

The evidence for Pope Francis having maintained the heresies listed above is set out in the letter. It is not a complete description of the evidence for his heresy, and does not claim to be one. It simply claims to be sufficient to establish that he has publicly maintained these heresies. Catholics must judge for themselves in reading the letter whether this evidence is sufficient or not.

To assist Catholics in making this judgment, it can be pointed out that although much of the evidence consists of statements or actions that could individually be given a Catholic interpretation, for each of the numerous pieces of evidence a Catholic interpretation would be strained or improbable to a greater or lesser degree. From this it follows that it is beyond a reasonable doubt that all of this evidence taken together cannot be given a Catholic interpretation. One should keep in mind a principle of the probability calculus; if the probability of event A is .25 (25 percent), and the probability of event B is .25 (25 percent), then the probability of A and B together is .25  multiplied by .25 = .05 (5 percent). If the probability of event C is .25 (25 percent), then the probability of A, B, and C  together is (.25 times .25 times .25) = 0125 (1.25 percent); and so on. So even if there is a 25 percent chance of a given word or action by Pope Francis not being heretical, the probability of three words or actions with this chance of being Catholic all having an orthodox meaning is 1.25 percent. Since he is the Pope, we should make every effort to understand the words and actions of Pope Francis in an orthodox sense. But even with the most strained, charitable and generous interpretation of the words and actions listed in the letter, after a certain point the weight of probability in favor of his being a heretic becomes overwhelming. Only a prior decision to never accept the conclusion that Pope Francis is a heretic can resist this weight of evidence.

We should therefore accept that Pope Francis has publicly and persistently upheld the heresies listed above. It cannot be seriously questioned that Pope Francis knows that these heresies are contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church. He is the Pope. The charism of office given to him as Pope has the specific purpose of ensuring that he knows what the Catholic faith contains. He has taught Catholic theology for many years, as the letter documents. The heresies are not arcane or remote ones — it is not a question of his advancing the Monothelite heresy, or the Christological positions of Theodore of Mopsuestia. The heresies in question have been at the heart of theological debate — a debate in which he has taken part — for decades.

At this point, the ambiguity of most of Pope Francis’ heretical actions can be seen as a strategy rather than an excuse. Pope Francis is following the method of Arius, Nestorius, and other heretics in advancing his heretical views. He expresses himself in a plethora of words, confessing Catholic doctrine and the need for adherence to it in a general way, while undermining or denying it with other, more specific expressions and actions. Thus he will couch his heretical utterances in words which are naturally understood to express heresy, while admitting of an orthodox meaning if they are given a strained and non-natural interpretation. He will allow others to take the lead at times in promoting heresy and show his approval of their views without necessarily endorsing their statements explicitly. These tactical oscillations are a most effective way for him to promote the heresies in which he manifests his belief. If he were to repudiate the Catholic faith in an open and straightforward manner, he would lose the power and the opportunity to exercise influence that stems from his office; his ability to advance his heretical views would be largely eliminated.

D) Is the course of action that the bishops are requested to take a reasonable or legitimate one?

To address this question, we must specify what exactly is being requested of the bishops. When a crime is committed and then dealt with by the law, three things occur. There is the commission of the offense itself; the judgment that the offender is guilty of the offense; and the punishment imposed for the offense by a legal sentence.

The signatories of the letter are not attempting to pass a judgment or a sentence on the crime of heresy. They are reporting to the responsible authorities — the bishops of the Catholic Church — that a crime has been committed. They assert that there is sufficient evidence to show that the crime has been committed, but they are not asking these authorities to rule that Pope Francis is a heretic on the basis of this evidence alone, strong as it is. They ask the bishops to take further steps to determine with complete certainty whether or not Pope Francis is a heretic. This determination, following the canonical tradition of the Church, is to be done by the bishops formally requesting Pope Francis three times to abjure these heresies and withdraw the words and actions that indicate his belief in them.   

If these steps are taken, and Pope Francis persists in his heresy, the bishops will then have both the right and the duty to judge that Pope Francis is a heretic, and to announce their judgment to the faithful. This judgment would not be an exercise of superior jurisdiction, but the recognition of a public fact. The role of this judgment would be to give the public fact a juridical force; it would not be an exercise of authority that would create this fact or its consequences.

The sentencing for this crime can only be done by Pope Francis’ superior. This superior is God. We cannot expect a direct divine intervention to carry out this sentencing, but we do not need such an intervention, because God has made His will concerning heretics known to us through His law. The divine law concerning heretics is given in the Holy Scriptures. “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach a gospel to you besides that which we have preached to you, let him be anathema. As we said before, so now I say again: If anyone preach to you a gospel, besides that which you have received, let him be anathema” (Galatians 1:8–9). “A man that is a heretic, after the first and second admonition, avoid: knowing that he that is such an one, is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned by his own judgment” (Titus 3:10–11). A heretic is thus separated from the Church, and a fortiori from any office in the Church. If Pope Francis chooses to persist in heresy in such as way as to make this persistence a juridical fact, through the decree of the divine law he separates himself from the Church and from the papal office. The letter is not intended to bring about this lamentable result. It is issued in the hope that the legal punishment that is due for the crime of Pope Francis will exercise its medicinal purpose of withdrawing a sinner from his sin through anticipation, rather than through actual infliction.