Climate of fear: the new crackdown on Catholic theologians

Cartoon by Christian Adams

Orthodox Catholics are facing “persecution” – and not from secularists, but from their fellow believers. That’s the startling claim made last week by Professor Josef Seifert, the philosopher and friend of St John Paul II. His remarks echoed some recent comments from Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who told the National Catholic Register that Vatican officials and university teachers were “living in great fear”. And Seifert and Cardinal Müller are only saying publicly what many will say in private.

In researching this article, I have heard from priests and academics on four continents who, as soon as I raised the subject of intimidation, immediately requested anonymity. Some referred to their need to earn a living or support a family. One professor quipped: “I am not ready for white martyrdom” – a theological term for the acceptance of great (but non-fatal) suffering for the faith.

As is often the case with inquisitions, the exact crime is hard to pin down. It relates to those questions which have caused so much unrest of late. The Church has always taught that one must confess serious sins before receiving the Eucharist, and that when the sin is public – for instance, divorce and remarriage – the priest should deny one Communion. Those teachings have been challenged in recent years, with both sides claiming the support of Pope Francis; and, inevitably, this debate has led to further questions: is adultery always a serious sin? Can one make general statements about sin? And so on.

Seifert’s case, described in his article last week for First Things, shows how serious the debate has become. Only two years ago Seifert’s relationship with his local archbishop, Javier Martínez of Granada, was one of mutual admiration. Seifert was impressed by Archbishop Martínez’s energetic leadership; the archbishop appointed Seifert to a specially created chair at Granada’s International Academy of Philosophy.

Everything changed in April 2016, with the publication of Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. Seifert’s view is that, while the text “contains many beautiful thoughts and deep truths”, it is also potentially dangerous. There is, for instance, an ambiguous sentence suggesting that conscience can identify “what for now is the most generous response”, and that “God himself is asking” for this response. One possible implication is that God could be asking someone to, say, continue committing adultery because the “more generous response” of stopping is impossible.

Seifert wrote an article for the journal Aemaet in which he said that this implication was so dangerous that he hoped the Pope would rule it out. His point was not that the Pope was wrong, but that the sentence needed to be clarified. For this, he says, he was sacked by Archbishop Martínez. Seifert claims that the archbishop did not tell him directly: he found out through a few hints and from a public statement in which the archbishop said Seifert had “confounded the faith of the faithful”. Seifert is taking legal action for unfair dismissal. (The archdiocese has not yet responded to a request for comment.)

Seifert is not the only example of a scholar clashing with the local hierarchy. One academic in the United States, who asked not to be named, has been harried by his bishop for his criticism of Amoris Laetitia. He fears that his experience will be replicated elsewhere in open or subtle forms of coercion, a severe limiting of free speech, and a renewed effort to marginalise orthodox Catholics.

Amoris Laetitia seems to have been a turning point. The text is highly ambiguous, and different readers come up with very different interpretations. Just as literary critics have argued for centuries about Iago’s motives and Hamlet’s hesitation, so it is possible to find a variety of meanings in Amoris Laetitia – and just as Shakespeare is silent, so the Pope seems content to let the discussion develop.

This might have been part of a new era of untrammelled debate – something the Pope seemed to signal at the start of the family synod in 2014, when he told cardinals: “One general and basic condition is this: speaking honestly. Let no one say: ‘I cannot say this, they will think this or this of me.’ ”

But the Pope’s statements may have instead created a vacuum of authority, into which figures with their own agendas have inserted themselves. So the story of Church debate since Amoris Laetitia has also been a story of silencings and crackdowns.

Four months after the exhortation was published, 45 priests and theologians signed a letter to the college of cardinals. The document identified some of the wilder interpretations of Amoris Laetitia – those obviously contrary to Church teaching – and suggested that the Pope might condemn these readings. It did not accuse the Pope of spreading errors; in fact, it did not even address the Pope, but asked the cardinals to consider making the request to him.

But when the letter was leaked, some of the signatories faced pressure. One, the Cistercian monk Fr Edmund Waldstein, withdrew his signature at his abbot’s request. Another priest was visited by his bishop for a dressing-down. A third signatory was demoted from a senior post at his university; another suddenly found teaching and writing work was drying up, and narrowly avoided losing his main job. (These last three cannot be named, for obvious reasons.)

While this has been going on, many Vatican officials are reportedly living in fear for their jobs. Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who until this year was the Vatican’s chief doctrinal official, tells me this is “a natural reaction to the badly communicated and unjustified dismissals of competent cooperators”. During the cardinal’s tenure, three officials at his Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith were dismissed without his agreement.

Many who have spent time around the Vatican, permanently or temporarily, speak of an atmosphere of fear. Anna Silvas, who teaches at the University of New England, was in Rome in April for a conference which raised questions about Amoris Laetitia’s possible dangers. The evening before the conference began, five of the speakers were at a restaurant when a young priest came over to their table. He blessed the meal and the academics who were present, then paused to say something. “The message I got from him,” Silvas remembers, “was this: ‘There are a lot of priests and bishops out there, behind all this, hidden. They are keenly interested in what you have to say. But they cannot show themselves at the conference because identities could be noted, names could be taken. There could be … repercussions.’ ” The priest added: “That you lay scholars are courageous enough to speak up in the present situation, I would say to you, is a sign of predilection” – that is, of divine favour.

On request, Silvas had undertaken a serious reading of Amoris Laetitia within a month of its publication. Her (critical) article eventually reached a worldwide audience. Recently, she heard from a bishop – she prefers not to say from what country – who told her that when he read the article he was very angry. “But, he said, with all that has happened since, he now regards all that I said as absolutely true. He had also experienced at first hand the toxic atmosphere of intimidation. I asked him, ‘But what about the silence of bishops? It is a scandal to us, the lay faithful.’ ‘But of course,’ he said, ‘we’re all afraid.’ ”

The atmosphere may have worsened after last year’s publication of the dubia, in which four cardinals (two of whom have since died) asked Pope Francis whether he would reaffirm traditional teachings about Communion and the moral law. There was no response, and supporters of the Pope have accused the cardinals of disloyalty.

Bishop René Henry Gracida, a retired American bishop, believes that the dismissals of Cardinal Müller and of Cardinal Raymond Burke – both of whom had proclaimed the traditional teaching – have made other prelates too scared to say anything. “Why are they silent?” he asks. “There seems to be no other explanation than that they do not want to suffer the humiliation experienced by Cardinals Burke, Müller, et al. And those bishops who aspire to the scarlet zucchetto do not want to jeopardise their chances.”

Bishop Gracida notes that careerism is something the Pope himself has often warned of; so did Jesus, when he reminded James and John that the Cross, not earthly glory, is the way of the Christian disciple. “Throughout the history of the Church men have been tempted to let ambition for promotion, careerism, cast a dark shadow over their ministry,” the bishop says.

Bishop Gracida has signed the recent “filial correction” of the Pope, along with more than 200 academics and pastors. The “correction” said that the Pope’s actions could help heresies to spread. For example, last year the two bishops of Malta issued a document claiming that adultery might be unavoidable. This was published in the Vatican’s own newspaper, and a representative of the Pope congratulated the Maltese bishops on the text. The “correction” suggested that this kind of move had helped to confuse Catholic teaching.

Claudio Pierantoni, a philosophy professor at the University of Chile, told that he had asked 10 fellow academics to join him in signing the “correction”. Seven, he claims, told him they would like to but were too scared. Fr Ray Blake, an English priest, blogged that “cowardice” held him back: “I admit it, I am afraid to sign and I know other priests who share my fear.”

Fr Cor Mennen, who lectures at the Major Seminary of ’s-Hertogenbosch Diocese in the Netherlands, wrote on his blog: “There are many people who agree with [the “correction”] but for various reasons want to keep a low profile. There is an atmosphere of fear, and ‘exile’ always lies ahead.”

I ask Fr Mennen how many agree. His reply surprises me: “I think most of the Dutch bishops are in favour of the filial correction, as are many priests – certainly most of the younger ones – but people are afraid of Rome, afraid for their positions.”

Some will respond to all this with a shrug. Isn’t it just the flipside of what happened to certain progressive theologians under John Paul II and Benedict XVI? And there is a risk, in presenting these stories, of giving the impression that people like Josef Seifert are right simply because they are persecuted. Few things are more tedious in modern debate than the struggle to win the argument by claiming victim status.

That said, there are important differences between today and yesterday. As Michael Sirilla of the Franciscan University of Steubenville observes: “In the aftermath of Humanae Vitae, many of the priests and theologians who feared reprisals rejected the traditional teaching of the Church on the intrinsic immorality of contraceptive acts. Presently, however, the fear is on the part of those priests and theologians who unswervingly adhere to the traditional teaching of the Church on the immorality of divorce and remarriage, and on the conditions for worthy reception of Penance and the Eucharist. Many of them worry that their local ordinary will revoke their mandatum [bishop’s approval to teach] or their priestly faculties.”

There is a further difference. Those disciplined under John Paul II could expect a sympathetic hearing in the secular press, and often – like Hans Küng – went on to enjoy successful careers outside official Catholic institutions. For the silent figures in today’s Church, however, no secular institution will back their cause; and they believe they could face financial ruin if their superiors take against them.

“Many academics,” says one professor, “are just resisting quietly: we teach the truth in the classroom without making a song and dance about it. But many of us suspect that, even then, our days in Church institutions are numbered.”

Some believe this strong-arming vindicates their cause. “It’s because there are no good arguments against our position,” says one theologian. Others take consolation from the life of St Athanasius, who among the bishops of the 4th century stood almost alone against the Arian heresy, and endured exile, attempts on his life, and even an excommunication from the pope.

But the parallel is not exact: many bishops have reaffirmed the traditional teaching against Communion for the remarried.

Cardinal Müller believes that things are not as dramatic as some make out. “There are plenty of bishops who are very clear,” he says. The cardinal hopes that Catholics can “overcome controversial and polemical discussion” and “speak the truth with respect and pastoral sensitivity for those who are in difficulties in their marital and family life”.

The cardinal suggests that the way to peace lies in a shared commitment to orthodoxy. “Nobody who interprets Amoris Laetitia in the context of the orthodox tradition should be disciplined,” he says. “Only if one denies the principles of the Catholic faith can he be censored. The burden of proof lies on those who want to interpret Amoris Laetitia in a heterodox way that is in contradiction to the words of Jesus and the dogmatic decisions of the Magisterium.” And doctrine and pastoral care cannot be separated, he says: “Jesus Christ is at the same time the teacher of the Kingdom of God and the good shepherd laying down his life for the sheep.”

Dan Hitchens is deputy editor of the Catholic Herald

This article first appeared in the October 13 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here