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, when combined with his public actions, express “persistent” disbelief of Catholic doctrines about the moral law and divine grace.
They ask the world’s bishops to take action by admonishing the Pope, and – if he does not repudiate his alleged heresies – to “declare that he has committed the canonical delict of heresy and that he must suffer the canonical consequences of his crime.”
These consequences would potentially include the loss of the papal office, the letter-writers say. Citing theologians such as Francisco Suárez and St Robert Bellarmine, they write: “The Church’s determining that a pope is a heretic, and the announcement of his heresy by the bishops of the Church, is what makes 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. But it would not need to be “a majority” of bishops who took action, only “A substantial and representative part of the faithful bishops of the Church”.
Such a development currently seems unlikely, as only a handful of bishops have signed previous doctrinal declarations such as 2017’s “Profession of immutable truths about sacramental marriage”, reaffirming Church teaching on Communion for the remarried. Bishop Athanasius Schneider, a co-author of the Profession, said he had talked to “bishops and cardinals” who told him: “I agree with your text, it is completely good, but I cannot sign. I am afraid of persecution.”
The theologians accuse Pope Francis of denying seven truths which Catholics are obliged to believe. For instance, they allege that the Pope has, in effect, rejected the Church’s teaching that sexual acts outside marriage are always wrong.
As evidence, they point to passages in Amoris Laetitia which have been interpreted as meaning that such acts can be morally legitimate or even necessary. Pope Francis has not corrected those interpretations, they say. The dubia, addressed to the Pope by four cardinals, asked him to clarify his meaning, but he has not replied.
Moreover, the letter-writers say, “Canon law has always admitted non-verbal actions as evidence for heresy”, and Pope Francis’s actions include the appointment of figures such as Fr Maurizio Chiodi who dissent from Church teaching.
They also suggest that the recent Abu Dhabi statement, which stated that “the diversity of religions” is “willed by God”, effectively denies that Christ is the only way to salvation. Although Pope Francis “has offered some informal explanations of this statement,” they write, “none of these explanations offers an unambiguous interpretation that is compatible with the Catholic faith. Any such interpretation would have to specify that God positively wills the existence only of the Christian religion.
“Since the statement is a joint statement with the Grand Imam, it cannot be interpreted in a sense that the Grand Imam would reject. Since the Grand Imam rejects the position that God positively wills only the existence of the Christian religion, it is not possible to give an orthodox interpretation to the statement.”
The signatories include academics such as Professor John Rist, Professor Emeritus of Classics at the University of Toronto, and Dr Claudio Pierantoni of the University of Chile. Several of them signed last year’s “filial correction” of Pope Francis, which accused him of helping heresies to spread, but stopped short of saying that he had committed the canonical crime of heresy.
So far, this letter has acquired fewer signatories. One of them, the author and academic Dr Peter Kwasniewski, told the website One Peter Five: “I regret that it did not garner more signatures. As a theologian, I can’t see a single thing in it to disagree with.”
The letter includes a survey of Catholic teaching on papal heresy, which points out that theologians and canonists have often debated the possibility. The Third Council of Constantinople condemned a deceased Pope, Honorius, as a heretic; from the 12th to the 19th century, the accepted text of canon law stated that the Pope could “be judged by none, unless he be found straying from the faith”.
The letter’s signatories argue that it is no longer enough to decry errors without being specific: “In so grave and unprecedented an emergency we believe that it will no longer suffice to teach the truth as it were abstractly, or even to deprecate ‘confusion’ in the Church in rather general terms.
“For Catholics will hardly believe that the pope is attacking the faith unless this be said expressly; and hence, merely abstract denunciations risk providing a cover for Pope Francis to advance and to achieve his goal.”
Like the “filial correction”, the letter does not accuse Pope Francis of the sin of heresy, which is a separate question from the canonical crime.
They also say that the question of papal infallibility does not arise: “We do not claim that he has denied truths of the faith in pronouncements that satisfy the conditions for an infallible papal teaching. We assert that this would be impossible, since it would be incompatible with the guidance given to the Church by the Holy Spirit.”