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The Big Story: Academics accuse the Pope of heresy

Pope Francis prays (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

What happened?

A group of academics and priests have accused Pope Francis of committing the canonical crime of heresy.

The group, which includes the prominent Dominican theologian Fr Aidan Nichols, have put their names to a letter arguing that the Pope has “denied truths of the faith”.

They say that his words, combined with his actions, express “persistent” disbelief of Catholic doctrines about the moral law and divine grace.

They ask the world’s bishops to admonish the Pope, and – if he does not repudiate his alleged heresies – to “declare that he has committed the canonical delict of heresy.”

If a “substantial and representative number” of bishops were to declare the Pope a heretic, the writers say, it would make “the Pope’s heresy a juridical fact, a fact from which his loss of office ensues”.

They reject the “sedevacantist” theory that the Pope could cease to be pope simply because he had committed heresy.
A declaration by the bishops, they say, is necessary.

What commentators said

At Catholic Culture, Philip Lawler wrote that the “frustration” of the signatories was understandable.

“The silence of the Catholic hierarchy, in the face of confusion that is tearing the Church apart, is maddening.”

But the letter shows “a lack of prudence” by its scattershot approach, including some unpersuasive complaints alongside their more serious arguments.

It’s a pity, Lawler wrote, because there is a real problem here. “While the claim that the Pope has committed heresy is at best a leap of logic, the charge that he has allowed – in fact caused – confusion is irresistible.” Bishops have a duty to clarify Church teaching – but by going too far, the letter has “given timid bishops one more excuse for their silence.”

At The Wanderer, the theologian Fr Brian Harrison said he had been asked to sign the letter, but had declined to. This was partly because the Pope’s statements might have been misinterpreted, or might only have been examples of him expressing himself carelessly.

Moreover, establishing the heretical character of statements “can often be tricky. It might be the kind of error which is only proximate to heresy, or one on which different approved theologians have different opinions regarding its degree of gravity.”

But at LifeSite, the signatory Peter Kwasniewski said that amid “the misleading of countless souls”, the signatories could not join those who “see what the Pope is saying and doing, but who shrug their shoulders and figure that it won’t redound to lasting damage”.

A more detailed debate broke out between Kwasniewski and the writer Jimmy Akin. Akin argued that the letter failed to prove any heresy had been committed, as heresy means the denial or doubt of a dogma – “that is, a truth the magisterium has infallibly defined to be divinely revealed”. But the letter did not show that dogmas were involved.

Kwasniewski responded in a public Facebook post: “By his exceedingly narrow definition of dogma, Akin shifts the goalposts to such an extent that a vast number of actual condemnations for heresy in Church history would be excluded by it.” For instance, if the Pope had taught that “sinning is sometimes the best God asks of some people”, even a well-catechised child could tell you that this was heresy.

But Akin replied that catechisms do “not train children to be experts in diagnosing heresy”.

Church documents showed the narrower definition to be the correct one. And so, even the idea that “sinning is sometimes the best God asks of some people” wasn’t necessarily heresy. Although the Council of Trent infallibly condemned the idea, “it does not indicate that Trent is saying this matter is divinely revealed and thus a dogma”.

Also, Akin said, Pope Francis had not taught that sinning might the best that God asks of some people – even if Amoris Laetitia might seem to say that rhetorically, it couldn’t be shown from the text that this was definitely the Pope’s view.

Mark Brumley, CEO of Ignatius Press, said the letter hadn’t quite persuaded him, but it “should be taken seriously” and deserves an official response from the Vatican.