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Could a pope be brought to book?

Amoris Laetitia is launched in Rome in April 2016 (CNS)

The old joke about Pope St John Paul II – referring to his time as a keen footballer – went: “He’s a goalkeeper and he’s infallible. How is that fair?” But confusions about infallibility go further than that. Most Catholics have been asked by Protestant or atheist friends what would happen if the Pope suddenly announced that some doctrine was false. Even some Catholics have an expansive view of the Pope’s role – I have seen someone tell other believers that “only the Pope can change dogma”.

In a speech last week which made waves, the distinguished theologian Fr Aidan Nichols observed that papal infallibility does not mean a pope cannot make “doctrinal howlers”. And therefore, Fr Nichols went on, canon law could include a procedure to correct such mistakes.

The prompt for Fr Nichols’s intervention was, of course, Amoris Laetitia, that sprawling, multifaceted, enigmatic papal exhortation. And he is not the first thinker to express concerns about its contents – in particular, its much-debated statements about marriage, Communion for the divorced and remarried, and the moral law.

Fr Nichols was one of 45 priests and theologians who last year asked the College of Cardinals to ask Pope Francis for a clarification. Germain Grisez and John Finnis, two well-known philosophers, have made a similar request. So has the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy, and the international Filial Appeal, signed by 35,000 Catholics including 10 bishops. And so, of course, have the four dubia cardinals (now three since the death of Cardinal Meisner).

What is new about Fr Nichols’s intervention is, first, that he does not speak of ambiguity but error. The other appeals just said that Amoris Laetitia was too vague on some points, and that these points should be restated. And some say these appeals are based on a misapprehension: Amoris Laetitia just restates Church teaching, they argue.

But Fr Nichols seems to believe Amoris Laetitia may just be erroneous. This is partly because of reports that the Pope ignored the amendments suggested by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Moreover, the Vatican (apparently with the Pope’s blessing) congratulated the Maltese bishops on their highly controversial guidelines, which said that in some cases avoiding adultery might be “impossible”.

As several commentators have pointed out, statements like this seem hard to reconcile with the teaching of the Council of Trent that it is always possible to keep the Commandments.

The other novelty is that Fr Nichols has proposed a practical step: that canon law should be amended to permit an enquiry into a pope’s doctrinal errors.

Fr Nichols did not go into great detail about how the process of enquiry might work. He also left open the question of whether the enquiry could take place into the errors of a reigning pontiff. His only comment was that the process might be less “conflictual” if it took place during a future pontificate.

There are precedents: Pope Honorius was condemned by the sixth general council, and by Popes St Agatho and St Leo. The latter said Honorius “did not attempt to sanctify this Apostolic Church with the teaching of Apostolic tradition, but by profane treachery permitted its purity to be polluted.” By contrast, Pope John XXII retracted his false teaching in his lifetime, after some theologians quietly registered their concerns.

Edward Peters was the first canonist to respond to Fr Nichols’s proposal, on his In the Light of the Law blog. He noted that canon law, while stating that the Pope himself can never be judged, already includes limits on the pope’s power: “for example, Canon 336 which recognises the college of bishops (properly understood) as also a subject of full and supreme power in the Church.”

However, Dr Peters said the Church’s tradition might be a more powerful check against papal overreach than is canon law. He pointed out that according to traditional teaching, a publicly heretical pope can be declared to have lost his office.

But this is a separate point from Fr Nichols’s, which was not about declaring a pope heretical – an extremely drastic step which neither Fr Nichols nor the dubia cardinals nor any of the other figures mentioned in this article have even discussed.

Fr Nichols’s suggestion is much more modest. Nevertheless, it does indicate how much anxiety there is in the Church about doctrinal errors.