The Conclave Of Cardinals Have Elected A New Pope To Lead The World's Catholics

VATICAN CITY, VATICAN – MARCH 13: Newly elected Pope Francis I appears on the central balcony of St Peter’s Basilica on March 13, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican. Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected as the 266th Pontiff and will lead the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Denial flows into the Tiber


Pope Honorius I occupied the chair of Peter from 625-638.  As the 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia notes in its article on Honorius, his chief claim to fame is that “he was condemned as a heretic by the sixth general council” in the year 680.  The heresy in question was Monothelitism, which (as the Encyclopedia notes) was “propagated within the Catholic Church in order to conciliate the Monophysites, in hopes of reunion.”  That is to say, the novel heresy was the byproduct of a misguided attempt to meet halfway, and thereby integrate into the Church, an earlier group of heretics.  The condemnation of Pope Honorius by the council was not the end of the matter.  Honorius was also condemned by his successors Pope St. Agatho and Pope St. Leo II.  Leo declared:

We anathematize the inventors of the new error… and also Honorius, who did not attempt to sanctify this Apostolic Church with the teaching of Apostolic tradition, but by profane treachery permitted its purity to be polluted.
and also:

Honorius… did not, as became the Apostolic authority, extinguish the flame of heretical teaching in its first beginning, but fostered it by his negligence.

It is uncontroversial that Honorius was (as the second quote indicates) at the very least guilty of failing to reaffirm orthodoxy in the face of the Monothelite heresy, and it is commonly held that, at least materially even if not formally, he was guilty of the heresy himself.  The eminent Catholic theologian Abbot John Chapman, writing in the Dublin Review in 1906, judged:

[U]nquestionably no Catholic has the right to deny that Honorius was a heretic… a heretic in words, if not in intention… It would no doubt be uncharitable to regard the Pope as a “private heretic”; but his letters, treated as definitions of faith, are obviously and beyond doubt heretical, for in a definition it is the words that matter.

This passage is quoted by Dom. Cuthbert Butler in his 1930 book The Vatican Council 1869-1870 (at p. 370), in the context of noting the sorts of considerations that guided the Fathers of Vatican I when they formulated the doctrine of papal infallibility.  Honorius’s error did not conflict with papal infallibility as the Fathers defined it, because his problematic statements vis-à-vis Monothelitism were not proclaimed ex cathedra.  (Abbot Chapman reiterated his judgement in the Catholic Encyclopedia article quoted above, of which he was the author.)

Pope John XXII occupied the chair of Peter from 1316-1334.  Catholic historian James Hitchcock judges in his History of the Catholic Church that John is “the clearest case in the history of the Church of a possibly heretical pope” (p. 215), the heresy in question in this case being the denial of the doctrine that the blessed in heaven immediately enjoy the beatific vision after death.  The Catholic Encyclopedia describes the controversy caused by John XXII as follows:

Before his elevation to the Holy See, he had written a work on this question, in which he stated that the souls of the blessed departed do not see God until after the Last Judgment.  After becoming pope, he advanced the same teaching in his sermons.  In this he met with strong opposition, many theologians, who adhered to the usual opinion that the blessed departed did see God before the Resurrection of the Body and the Last Judgment, even calling his view heretical.  A great commotion was aroused in the University of Paris when the General of the Minorites and a Dominican tried to disseminate there the pope’s view…  Before his death [the pope] withdrew his former opinion, and declared his belief that souls separated from their bodies enjoyed in heaven the Beatific Vision.

As the passage indicates, the pope recanted his error, and did so precisely as a consequence of the vigorous criticism raised against him by theologians of the day.

Pope Liberius occupied the chair of Peter much earlier than either of these popes, from 352-366.  He was pope at the height of the Arian crisis, and under duress temporarily acquiesced to an ambiguous doctrinal formula of dubious orthodoxy, and to the unjust condemnation of St. Athanasius – so that it was Athanasius, and not the pope, who would come to be known to history as the chief upholder of Trinitarian orthodoxy.  As the Catholic Encyclopedia notes, St. Jerome accused Liberius of “subscribing to heretical wickedness.”  But as John XXII would centuries later, Liberius repented of his error, and as with John and Honorius, his problematic actions were not incompatible with papal infallibility as it was defined by Vatican I.

Now, as the Catholic Encyclopedia also notes, “historians and critics have been much divided as to the guilt of Liberius.”  But what matters for present purposes is that, as the Encyclopedia goes on to observe, “it should be carefully noted that the question of the fall of Liberius is one that has been and can be freely debated among Catholics.”  For there is nothing in the Catholic understanding of the papacy that rules out the possibility that Liberius was indeed guilty of what he was at the time accused of.

The same thing is true of the cases of Honorius and John XXII.  Occasionally one finds Catholics, zealous to uphold the honor of the papacy, who argue that the failings of these popes have been exaggerated.  But nothing in Catholic teaching about the papacy requires one to accept such arguments.  The question is purely historical, not doctrinal.  For the Church herself has never claimed that a pope cannot fall into heresy when not teaching ex cathedra.  Indeed, Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) held that “only on account of a sin committed against the faith can I be judged by the church” – a statement which presupposes that a pope can indeed sin against the faith, i.e. with respect to matters of doctrine.   (Innocent’s statement is quoted in J. Michael Miller, The Shepherd and the Rock: Origins, Development, and Mission of the Papacy, at p. 292.)

The Church has for centuries allowed among theologians free discussion of the possibility of a heretical pope.  Cajetan, Suarez, and Bellarmine are among the eminent theologians who have entertained this possibility and debated its ramifications.  (Canon lawyer Ed Peters offers a primer on the matter.)   Once again to quote the Catholic Encyclopedia:

[An] exceptional situation might arise were a pope to become a public heretic, i.e., were he publicly and officially to teach some doctrine clearly opposed to what has been defined as de fide catholicâ… [I]n this case many theologians hold that no formal sentence of deposition would be required, as, by becoming a public heretic, the pope would ipso facto cease to be pope.  This, however, is a hypothetical case which has never actually occurred…

In an earlier post I discussed in some detail the conditions under which a pope speaks infallibly, the many ways a pope may fall into error when his words do not meet those conditions, and many further examples of popes who have fallen into error and done grave damage to the Church.  As I there emphasized, one cannot properly understand the authority of the pope and the doctrine of papal infallibility unless one also understands the limits of papal authority and the ways in which a pope is fallible.

I have quoted extensively from the 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia for a reason.   There is a certain kind of well-meaning but overzealous and under-informed Catholic whose theological horizon does not extend beyond the debates that have riven the Church since Vatican II.  When you tell him that it is possible for a pope to fall into doctrinal error, his hackles rise and he assumes that you simply must be either a Lefebvrist traditionalist or a dissenting theological liberal.  As the example of the Catholic Encyclopedia shows, nothing could be further from the truth.  The Encyclopedia predated by many decades Vatican II and the progressive and traditionalist movements that arose in reaction to it.  It was an ecclesiastically approved work by mainstream Catholic scholars loyal to the Magisterium, and intended to be a reliable resource for the faithful.  And it quite matter-of-factly allows for the possibility of popes committing doctrinal errors when not speaking ex cathedra.

Nor is the possibility of correction of the pope by his subordinates some post-Vatican II progressive or traditionalist novelty.  As Cardinal Raphael Merry del Val wrote in his 1902 book The Truth of Papal Claims, responding to caricatures of the doctrine of papal infallibility:

Great as our filial duty of reverence is towards what ever [the pope] may say, great as our duty of obedience must be to the guidance of the Chief Shepherd, we do not hold that every word of his is infallible, or that he must always be right.  (p. 19)

After noting that St. Paul “had resisted even Peter” and then recounted this resistance in the Letter to the Galatians, the cardinal says:

[E]ven to-day a Bishop might… expostulate with a Pope, who, in his judgment, might be acting in a way which was liable to mislead those under his own charge, and then write to his critics that he had not hesitated to pass strictures upon the action of the successor of S. Peter… The hypothesis is quite conceivable, and in no way destroys or diminishes the supremacy of the Pope.  And yet an individual Bishop does not occupy the exceptional position of S. Paul, a fellow-Apostle of the Prince of the Apostles.  Even a humble nun, S. Catherine of Siena, expostulated with the reigning Pontiff, in her day, whilst full acknowledging all his great prerogatives.  (p. 74)

From Honorius to Amoris?

As Ed Peters argues, one ought to be very cautious about accusing Pope Francis (or any other pope) of heresy.  But one need not think the pope guilty of heresy to see that there are some striking parallels between the current controversy over Amoris Laetitia and the historical events summarized above.  Pope Honorius and Pope John XXII faced criticism and resistance as a result of statements perceived to be doctrinally problematic — in Honorius’s case from the bishops of his day (at the sixth general council) and in John XXII’s case from the theologians of his day.  Similarly, Pope Francis faces criticism and resistance as a result of statements perceived to be doctrinally problematic – from the four cardinals, the forty-five theologiansGrisez and Finnis and other “new natural lawyers,” and other bishops, theologians, and Catholic philosophers.  Some claim that Amoris contains heretical statements.  Others do not go that far, but do claim that some of the document’s statements are dangerously ambiguous between heterodox and orthodox readings.  Still others avoid focusing on deficiencies of the document itself and merely ask for clarification and for a condemnation of errors which are being, or might be, propagated in the name of the document.  But all of these critics are agreed that, one way or the other, the pope has generated a doctrinal crisis and needs to resolve it.

A second parallel: The errors of which Pope Liberius and Pope Honorius were accused stemmed from ambiguous doctrinal formulations intended to accommodate those resistant to orthodoxy and thereby to reintegrate them into the Church.  In the case of Liberius, the ambiguous language he temporarily consented to was meant to mollify the Arian heretics, and in the case of Honorius, Monothelitism was meant to mollify those sympathetic to the Monophysite heresy.  The trouble is that these ambiguous formulations essentially gave away the store to the heretics.  Similarly, Pope Francis is accused of trading in ambiguities in the interests of “accompanying and integrating” Catholics who do not accept the Church’s teaching on divorce and remarriage.  And the problem, the critics hold, is that Amoris’s way of accommodating these dissenters makes of that teaching a dead letter, or even implicitly contradicts it.

A third parallel between the cases has to do with the motivations of the parties in question.  With Liberius, Honorius, and John XXII, it can hardly be flatly asserted that any of them intended to teach heresy.  On the contrary, Liberius was clearly acting under duress; Honorius, as the Catholic Encyclopedia suggests, “was not a profound or acute theologian, and… allowed himself to be confused and misled”; and John XXII was willing to listen to his critics and to reconsider his teaching.  Their intentions did not prevent them from facing severe criticism, though, because (as Chapman put it above) “it is the words that matter” where doctrinal statements are concerned.

Similarly, the critics of Pope Francis mentioned above are not or need not be accusing him of intending to contradict past teaching.  Indeed, doctrine does not seem to be something the pope is especially interested in.  When making statements having theological import, Francis often seems less concerned with how doctrinally precise they are than with how his statements might be pastorally useful, or with how rhetorically striking and thus thought-provoking they might be.  The trouble is that, whatever one’s purposes when speaking or writing, the specific words one chooses always have certain logical implications, whether or not one is aware of or would welcome all of those implications.  Hence, Pope Francis’s critics too have insisted that “it is the words that matter,” whatever the intentions behind them.  And some of the pope’s words seem to be interpreted even by some of his own defenders in ways that simply cannot be squared with traditional Catholic teaching.

For example, as the Catholic Herald has noted, Pope Francis’s friend and advisor Fr. Antonio Spadaro appears to claim in a recent interview that Amoris Laetitia teaches that “it may not be practicable” for some Catholics living in an adulterous union to refrain from sexual intercourse, and that such Catholics may persist in this adulterous sexual relationship if they “[believe] they would fall into a worse error, and harm the children of the new union” if they refrained from sex.  Now, if – I repeat, IF — this is really what Fr. Spadaro is asserting, then he is essentially attributing to Amoris the following two propositions:

(1) Adulterous sexual acts are in some special circumstances morally permissible.

(2) It is sometimes impossible to obey the divine commandment against engaging in adulterous sexual acts.

But these propositions flatly contradict irreformable Catholic teaching.  Proposition (1) contradicts not only the perennial moral teaching of the Church, but the teaching of scripture itself.  As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

Adultery refers to marital infidelity.  When two partners, of whom at least one is married to another party, have sexual relations – even transient ones – they commit adultery.  Christ condemns even adultery of mere desire.  The sixth commandment and the New Testament forbid adultery absolutely.  (Paragraph 2380)

Proposition (2) contradicts the decrees of the Council of Trent, which declare:

God does not command impossibilities, but by commanding admonishes thee to do what thou canst and to pray for what thou canst not, and aids thee that thou mayest be able.


If anyone says that the commandments of God are, even for one that is justified and constituted in grace, impossible to observe, let him be anathema.

Now, again, perhaps Fr. Spadaro did not mean to assert or imply the propositions in question.  But that is what his remarks seem to be saying on a natural reading, and it is not obvious what else he could have meant.  Perhaps, even if he did mean to assert or imply these propositions, he is mistaken in attributing them to Amoris.  But he is very close to the pope, so that it would be odd if even he misunderstood what the pope was saying.  Nor has the pope issued any disavowal of Fr. Spadaro’s remarks.

Then there is the fact that the Argentine bishops’ directive for implementing Amoris also appears to be saying that “living in continence” – that is to say, refraining from sexual intercourse — “may not, in fact, be feasible” for some couples living in an adulterous relationship, and that the couple “would fall into a subsequent fault by damaging the children of the new union” if they did so refrain.  That is to say, the directive seems to be saying the same thing Fr. Spadaro appears to be saying.  And in this case, not only has Pope Francis not rejected the Argentine bishops’ interpretation, he has warmly endorsed it.

This does not entail that Pope Francis really is committed to propositions (1) and (2) or to any other proposition that contradicts Church teaching.  After all, in a now famous interview with Fr. Spadaro three years ago, the pope said that while he has “not spoken much about” the Church’s controversial teachings vis-à-vis sexual morality, nevertheless “the teaching of the church… is clear and I am a son of the church.”

The trouble is that if the pope would reject (1) and (2), then it is simply not clear exactly what Amoris is teaching, especially if the Argentine bishops’ interpretation is correct, as the pope has said it is.  There is cognitive dissonance here that needs to be resolved.  Suppose I say: “All men are mortal, and Socrates is a man.”  Suppose you respond: “Oh, so you think that Socrates is mortal?”  And suppose I indignantly reply: “I never said that!” but also refuse to deny that Socrates is mortal or even to address the question of his mortality one way or the other, and also refuse to explain exactly what I did mean when I said that Socrates is a man and that all men are mortal if I wasn’t intending to imply that Socrates is mortal.  Naturally, you would be very puzzled and want some clarification of what is going on.  And it would only make things worse if I stomped my foot and insisted that what I had said was already perfectly clear, accused you of rigidity and bad faith in pestering me with such questions, etc.  I was the one who caused the problem, because I was the one who initiated the conversation and said something to you that would ordinarily be taken to imply that Socrates is mortal.  Hence the burden is on me to explain what I meant, not on you to try to figure it out for yourself.

Now, the four cardinals, the forty-five theologians, and the other critics of Amoris are essentially simply asking the pope to resolve just this sort of cognitive dissonance.  Notice that in the scenario I just painted, you would not necessarily attribute ill will to me.  You might instead just conclude that I am very confused.  Similarly, a critic of Amoris need not go so far as to accuse the pope of intending to teach heresy.  The critic can instead suppose that, as the Catholic Encyclopedia says of Honorius, the pope is merely “not a profound or acute theologian, and [has] allowed himself to be confused and misled.”

The main difference between the current situation and the earlier cases described above is that the problem with Amoris is in fact not limited merely to one or two problematic propositions like (1) and (2).  The four cardinals, the forty-five theologians, and Grisez and Finnis have asked the pope to condemn whole series of heterodox propositions that might be or have been defended in the name of Amoris – propositions concerning worthiness to receive Holy Communion, the existence of absolute moral norms, the possibility of eternal damnation, and so on.  By contrast, with Liberius, Honorius, and John XXII, what was at issue in each case was essentially only a single problematic proposition.

But who are we to judge?

If all that makes the current situation sound serious, that is because it is.  Yet there seems to be, in certain sectors of the Church, an air of unreality or make believe surrounding the crisis.  With the honorable exception of Rocco Buttiglione, defenders of Amoris have not even attempted to respond to the substance of the four cardinals’ questions.  They have instead resorted to abuse, mockery, and threats – all the while claiming to champion mercy and dialogue.  They assure us that the four cardinals and others who have raised questions about Amoris are comparable to rigid and legalistic Pharisees and acting contrary to the gentle mercy of Christ.  Yet as a matter of historical fact it was the Pharisees who championed a very lax and “merciful” attitude vis-à-vis divorce and remarriage, and Christ who insisted on a doctrine that was so austere and “rigid” that even the apostles wondered if it might be better not to marry.

Others suspect that there is something wrong, but refuse to express their concerns on the assumption that a Catholic must never say anything that might seem to imply criticism of a pope.  They simply refrain from thinking or talking about the crisis, or they do so only when they can put a positive if tortuous spin on some problematic statement, or they badmouth as disloyal those who raise even politely expressed worries.  “We are at war with Eastasia, and always have been!  We are through the looking glass!  Denial is just a river in Egypt!

Several reasons are often put forward for taking these various attitudes toward the crisis.  All of them are bad.  Let’s consider each one and what is wrong with it:

  1. “To ask the pope for a Yes or No answer misses the point.”

Some defenders of Amoris seem to think that the problem with critics of the document is that they are demanding Yes or No answers, when the pope’s whole point is that Yes or No answers are not possible in this case.  The idea seems to be that those asking the pope for clarification of Amoris are like the lawyer who asks a witness “Are you still beating your wife?”, where the witness will look bad either way he responds.

But this is not a serious objection.  There is a Yes or No answer to the lawyer’s question, and if the witness is not and never was beating his wife, then the right answer is “No.”  If the lawyer is fair, he will allow the witness to go on to say “No, but I was never beating her in the first place.”  But whether he allows this or not, it is simply not the case that neither Yes nor No is the correct answer.  After all, the question corresponds to the declarative sentence “You are still beating your wife,” and if the witness is not and never was beating his wife, then that sentence is false (rather than being neither true nor false).

Similarly, if Amoris is not asserting either proposition (1) or (2) above, then there is no reason not to say so explicitly, even if one thinks that further comment is necessary beyond saying so.  For example, the pope can say “No, of course adulterous sexual acts are never under any circumstances morally permissible, but…,” and then go on to explain exactly what Amoris is asserting if it is not asserting proposition (1).

Now, it is true that the four cardinals’ dubia are formulated as simple Yes or No questions.  The cardinals are indeed asking for a Yes or a No, without further commentary.  But there is nothing stopping the pope from answering them in a “Yes, but…” or “No, but…” fashion if he prefers.  To suppose that the only options facing the pope are either responding with simple and unqualified Yes or No answers, or not responding at all, is itself to commit a False Dichotomy fallacy.

  1. “Those who support the four cardinals are dissenters from Church teaching.”

In response to the four cardinals’ dubiaAusten Ivereigh proclaimsRoma locutacausa finita est – “Rome has spoken, the matter is closed.”  Hence those who continue to raise questions are, Ivereigh suggests, “dissenters” from settled teaching, comparable to those critics of Pope John Paul II who “argued for women priests, an end to mandatory celibacy and an opening in areas such as contraception.”

There are several problems with these claims.  First, the reason there is a controversy in the first place is precisely because Rome has not spoken.  Consider again the scenario I described above, wherein you ask me if I am asserting that “Socrates is mortal” and I refuse either to confirm or deny that I am.  It would be ridiculous for me to accuse you of dissenting from my assertion if you keep asking me to clarify it.  In fact, what you are doing is trying to find out what my assertion is in the first place.  Until you know that, the question about whether you agree with it or dissent from it cannot arise.

Similarly, what the four cardinals and other critics of Amoris are doing is asking the pope to explain exactly what he is saying.  They can hardly be accused of dissenting from what he is saying if they aren’t clear about what it is.

A second problem with Ivereigh’s position is that it is simply not the case that anyone who raises critical questions about some statement that comes from the Magisterium counts as a “dissenter.”  The Church herself tells us so.  The 1990 document Donum Veritatis, issued by then-Cardinal Ratzinger while acting as Prefect of the CDF under Pope John Paul II, states:

The willingness to submit loyally to the teaching of the Magisterium on matters per se not irreformable must be the rule.  It can happen, however, that a theologian may, according to the case, raise questions regarding the timeliness, the form, or even the contents of magisterial interventions…

[T]he possibility cannot be excluded that tensions may arise between the theologian and the Magisterium…  If tensions do not spring from hostile and contrary feelings, they can become a dynamic factor, a stimulus to both the Magisterium and theologians to fulfill their respective roles while practicing dialogue

The preceding considerations have a particular application to the case of the theologian who might have serious difficulties, for reasons which appear to him wellfounded, in accepting a non-irreformable magisterial teaching

If, despite a loyal effort on the theologian’s part, the difficulties persist, the theologian has the duty to make known to the Magisterial authorities the problems raised by the teaching in itself, in the arguments proposed to justify it, or even in the manner in which it is presented.  He should do this in an evangelical spirit and with a profound desire to resolve the difficulties.  His objections could then contribute to real progress and provide a stimulus to the Magisterium to propose the teaching of the Church in greater depth and with a clearer presentation of the arguments

End quote.  So, the Church herself tells us that respectfully raising questions about the form or content of some magisterial statement, and indeed even the existence of “tensions” between the questioning theologian and the Magisterium, can be a “stimulus” to the Magisterium to provide a “clearer presentation” of her teaching, “greater depth” in understanding, and “real progress.”  Indeed, the critical theologian can even have a “duty” to make known to the Magisterial authorities the problems he sees in the teaching.

Now, far from constituting “dissent,” the criticisms raised by the four cardinals, the forty-five theologians, Grisez and Finnis and others, seem in tone and content to be textbook examples of what Donum Veritatis is talking about.  The action of the four cardinals also seems to be a textbook example of the sort of thing Cardinal Merry del Val was talking about when (in the passage quoted above) he wrote that “even to-day a Bishop might… expostulate with a Pope, who, in his judgment, might be acting in a way which was liable to mislead those under his own charge.”

A third problem with Ivereigh’s remarks is that there is an obvious and crucial difference between the four cardinals on the one hand and those “dissenters” who call for women priests, contraception, etc. on the other.  The latter reject the perennial and irreformable teaching of the Church.  The former are trying precisely to uphold the perennial and irreformable teaching of the Church.  But that brings us to a further assumption that some defenders of Amoris seem to be making:

  1. If the pope says it, it can’t be contrary to traditional teaching.”

Some Catholics seem to judge that Amoris simply must be unproblematic precisely because it was issued by a pope.  Hence they dismiss a priori all criticisms of the document, whether or not they have any way of answering those criticisms.  But there are several problems with this attitude.

First, as we have already seen, the Church herself acknowledges that there have in fact been popes guilty of doctrinal errors, and she has never denied that it is possible in theory for a pope to fall even into heresy when not speaking ex cathedra.  And again, Donum Veritatis allows that magisterial documents can under certain circumstances be deficient in form or content.  Hence there is no basis for judging a priori and dogmatically that Amoris simply must be consistent with past teaching or otherwise free of any deficiency.

Second, the Church explicitly teaches that popes are not permitted to teach just any old thing they like, and in particular that they cannot contradict what has been handed on and cannot make up new doctrines out of whole cloth.  The First Vatican Council taught that:

[T]he Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles.

The Second Vatican Council taught in Dei Verbum that:

[T]he living teaching office of the Church… is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully…

Pope Benedict XVI taught that:

The Pope is not an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law…  He must not proclaim his own ideas, but rather constantly bind himself and the Church to obedience to God’s Word, in the face of every attempt to adapt it or water it down…

It is incumbent upon him to ensure that this Word continues to be present in its greatness and to resound in its purity, so that it is not torn to pieces by continuous changes in usage.

End quote.  Now, there would be no point in making statements like this if it weren’t the case that a pope in theory could (even if he should not) say something at odds with traditional teaching.  If everything a pope said were ipso facto consistent with tradition, then he would never need to consult past teaching, or his advisors, in order to decide what to say.  He could just teach whatever popped into his head and – Voila! – you’d automatically have “traditional” teaching.

That brings us to a third problem, which is that supposing that a statement can be made consistent with traditional teaching simply by virtue of being uttered by a pope would force Catholic claims about the papacy into a No True Scotsman fallacy.  The claim that popes never contradict past teaching would become utterly unfalsifiable.  Even if a pope explicitly denied the doctrine of the Trinity, Catholics would have to insist, absurdly, that such a denial must “really” be consistent with past Trinitarian teaching given that a pope said it.

(A similar fallacy is committed when people play fast and loose with Newman’s concept of the “development of doctrine,” as they sometimes do when they want to paper over what is really a rejection of past teaching.  To say that Catholic doctrine can “develop” means that implications of existing doctrine that were previously only implicit can be made explicit.  It does not mean that past teaching might be reversed or contradicted and that this is OK as long as we slap the label “development of doctrine” on it.  That would not be a “development” of doctrine in Newman’s sense at all, but an abandonment of doctrine.)

  1. But there is a way to readAmoris that really is plausibly consistent with traditional teaching.”

Philosopher Rocco Buttiglione thinks that Amoris can be read in a way consistent with past teaching, and his opinion certainly carries weight.  Perhaps he is correct.  But whether or not he is, it is important to emphasize that it is not good enough for a document to be readable in a way that is consistent with tradition if that requires ignoring what seems to be the plain meaning of the text, or even if the text permits the orthodox reading but also permits some other, heterodox reading.

In fact it isn’t always all that difficult for a statement to pass that sort of test.  For example, take the statement “God does not exist.”  Surely, you might think, there is no way to read that statement consistent with traditional Christian teaching!  But in fact there is, if you strain hard enough.  You could argue, in Paul Tillich style: “Ah, but what that really means is that God is not merely one existent thing among others, like a stone or a tree.  He does not merely ‘have’ existence the way that other things do, but rather he just IS Being Itself.  So, there is no inconsistency in believing in God while denying that God ‘exists’ in the sense of merely ‘having’ existence the way other things do!

The right answer to that, of course, would be: “That’s all well and good, but it remains extremely misleading to make the point by saying ‘God does not exist.’  For obviously the most natural way to read that statement is as an expression of atheism, rather than as an expression of some sophisticated form of theism.  And that is how the average listener is bound to take it, so that if you don’t want people to think you’re an atheist, you’d better not go around tossing out remarks like ‘God does not exist.’”

In the same way, in Catholic theology it has always been understood that doctrinal statements can be severely deficient even if there is some way to give them an orthodox reading.  That is why the Magisterium of the Church and Catholic theologians have traditionally recognized a variety of theological censures.  In particular, a statement may not be strictly heretical, but nevertheless might be condemned by the Church on some other grounds – for example, on the grounds that it is “ambiguous,” or “offensive to pious ears,” or “scandalous,” or “dangerous to morals” (to cite some of the categories discussed in the article linked to).

One reason for this is that statements that are not necessarily strictly heretical but nevertheless ambiguous or in some other way potentially misleading can give aid and comfort to heretical views.  Another reason is that the average person does not have the education or appreciation of nuance that the theologian has.  If a churchman says, for example, that sometimes “it may not be practicable” to avoid adulterous sexual intercourse and that a person might even “fall into a worse error, and harm the children of the new union” if he tries to avoid it, then the average listener is bound to conclude that that churchman is saying that it is sometimes OK to commit adultery, even if this is not what was meant.  The average Catholic might be led into sin by a statement even if the statement could in theory be given an innocent reading by someone sufficiently clever.

Furthermore, even if an interpretation like Buttiglione’s is plausible, what matters at the end of the day is not what Buttiglione says, but what Pope Francissays.  And Pope Francis at least seems to endorse readings like Fr. Spadaro’s and that of the Argentine bishops – readings which, the critics of Amoris have argued, are not orthodox.  The only way to clarify the situation, then, is for the pope himself to put forward or endorse some orthodox interpretation, whether Buttiglione’s or some other interpretation.

  1. Criticism of the pope should not be made in a public way.”

Some maintain that even if Amoris is defective and even if the pope ought to clarify things in the way the critics are asking, these critics should not be saying so publicly.  They should either try to make their concerns known in some private fashion, or maintain a reverent silence.

Now, it is certainly true that some of the public criticism of Pope Francis has been uncharitable, rhetorically excessive, and in some cases even vulgar and childish.  This is indefensible.  The pope, whatever his real or imagined faults, is still the pope.  He is the Holy Father and the Vicar of Christ, and must always be treated with the reverence and charity that the dignity of his office entails.  All Catholics are bound earnestly to pray for him, to express their concerns in a respectful and non-polemical way, and to give him the benefit of the doubt.

It is not the case, however, that Catholic teaching forbids all public criticism of a pope.  The bishops who condemned Pope Honorius did so publicly, and the theologians who criticized Pope John XXII did so publicly.  Aquinas holds that although in general the rebuke of a prelate ought to be carried out in private, there is an exception to be made precisely where matters of grave doctrinal error are concerned:

It must be observed, however, that if the faith were endangered, a subject ought to rebuke his prelate even publicly.  Hence Paul, who was Peter’s subject, rebuked him in public, on account of the imminent danger of scandal concerning faith, and, as the gloss of Augustine says on Galatians 2:11, “Peter gave an example to superiors, that if at any time they should happen to stray from the straight path, they should not disdain to be reproved by their subjects.”  (Summa Theologiae II-II.33.4)

The current Code of Canon Law states at Canon 212:

The Christian faithful are free to make known to the pastors of the Church their needs, especially spiritual ones, and their desires.

According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons.

It seems that some Catholics who deny that the pope can ever be criticized publicly base this opinion on a misunderstanding of Donum Veritatis, which, when discussing the legitimacy in some cases of criticizing Magisterial statements, says that “the theologian should avoid turning to the ‘mass media’” or “exert[ing] the pressure of public opinion.”  As theologians with a reputation for faithfulness to the Magisterium have argued, however, it is a mistake to read Donum Veritatis as ruling out all public criticism.  As William May writes:

[T]he Instruction obviously considers it proper for theologians to publish their “questions,” for it speaks of their obligation to take seriously into account objections leveled against their views by other theologians and to revise their positions in the light of such criticism — and this is normally given only after a theologian has made his questions known by publishing them in professional theological journals.  (An Introduction to Moral Theology, Revised edition, pp. 241-42)

Similarly, Cardinal Avery Dulles writes:

Archbishop Quinn, in my opinion, is correct in pointing out that the “public dissent” repudiated by the instruction has to do with organized opposition and pressure tactics, and that the instruction does not discountenance expression of one’s views in a scholarly manner that might be publicly reported.  (The Craft of Theology, New expanded edition, p. 115)

It is crucial to keep in mind the context in which Donum Veritatis was issued.  Progressive theologians such as Hans Küng and Charles Curran had in the preceding decades been openly and vigorously challenging longstanding and settled doctrines concerning papal infallibility, sexual morality, and so forth.  Progressive theologians had a tendency to pit themselves as a kind of counter-magisterium of experts against what they portrayed as an authoritarian, blinkered, and anachronistic Roman bureaucracy that needed to be dragged into the modern world.  They could count on liberal journalists to further this narrative and to help rally public opinion behind the progressives.  The hope was that the Church might be intimidated into changing its long-standing teachings, just as a government might be intimidated into changing its policies by a sufficiently sizable and angry populace.

This politicization of theology in the interests of overturning Church teaching is the kind of thing Donum Veritatis was reacting to in its remarks about mass media, public opinion, etc.  What is going on with the four cardinals, the forty-five theologians, Grisez and Finnis, et al. is very different.  They are asking the pope to uphold traditional and settled teaching, not to overturn it, and their mode of discourse is scholarly, dispassionate, and respectful.

Quo vadis, Petre?

It is hard to see how a continued failure to respond to the four cardinals and the other critics could be justified.  Ensuring doctrinal clarity and unity within the Church are two of the chief reasons why the papacy exists in the first place.  And both doctrinal clarity and unity are now in danger.  There is no agreement on the meaning of Amoris.  Some claim that it is a revolutionary breach with tradition, others that it is perfectly in continuity with tradition.  Different bishops in different dioceses are implementing different interpretations of the document, some maintaining previous practice, some departing from it.  Some Catholics regard Amoris’s defenders as dissenters from binding teaching, while others regard the critics of Amoris as dissenters.  Some worry that Francis is, with Amoris, undermining the authority of the Church and the papacy.  Others seem to think that upholding the authority of the papacy requires punishing the critics of Amoris.  Tempers are high, and many fear that schism is imminent.

There is only one man who can resolve the crisis, and that is Pope Francis.  And resolving these sorts of crises is at the very top of the list defining the job description for any pope.  When such a crisis has arisen precisely as a consequence (however unintended) of a pope’s actions, his obligation to resolve it is surely even graver.

There is also the consideration that, just as Arianism was the main challenge to the Faith at the time of Liberius, and Monothelitism was the main challenge to the Faith at the time of Honorius, so too is the sexual revolution arguably the main challenge to the Faith today.  The modern, liberal, secular Western world regards the Catholic Church as an obstacle to progress in many respects, but there is nothing for which the Church is hated more than her stubborn insistence on the indissolubility of marriage and the intrinsic immorality of contraception, abortion, fornication, homosexual acts, and the like.  Secularists and progressives have for decades dreamed of finding a way finally to break this intransigence and bring the Church to heel on these matters.  Their greatest weapon has been the rhetoric of mercy, forgiveness, and non-judgmentalism.  That is to say, they have used (a distortion of) one part of Christian teaching as a bludgeon with which they might shatter another part.

Rightly or wrongly, they have seen in Pope Francis’s various controversial remarks on matters of sexual morality and marriage, and especially in Amoris, the sort of opening they have long hoped for.  St. Jerome famously remarked, of the time of Liberius, that “the whole world groaned and marvelled to find itself Arian.”  Today it seems the world groans and marvels to find that we are all sexual revolutionaries now.

Except that Catholics are not and never can be, any more than they can be Arians.  Pope Liberius was not an Arian, and Pope Francis is not a sexual revolutionary (as is obvious when one considers all the things he has said on the subject of sexual morality, many of which are very traditional).  He is, as he has said, “a son of the church” for whom “the teaching of the church is clear.”  Arianism once seemed invincible, the wave of the future.  Now few people even remember what the fuss was about.  The sexual revolution too will someday be looked back upon as the temporary and freakish aberration that it is.  Its challenge to the Church will fail, just as Roman persecution, Arianism and other heresies, the Muslim conquests, the Protestant revolt, the French Revolution, communism, etc. have all failed to destroy the Church.  The pope could not prevent that happy outcome even if he wanted to.  But he can decide what role he will play in securing it, just as it was up to Liberius to decide what role he would play in the resolution of the Arian crisis.

It would seem that history has now very clearly set out for the pope exactly what his options are, in the guise of the four cardinals’ dubia.  He can either (a) answer them in a way that overturns traditional teaching, (b) answer them in a way that reaffirms traditional teaching, or (c) continue, until the end of his pontificate, to refrain from answering them.  

The pope is surely not going to opt for (a).  For example, he is not flatly going to declare that adulterous sexual acts are now sometimes morally permissible.  Even if he wanted to teach such a thing – and I do not believe that he does – it would be suicidal for him to do so.  What has to this point in Church history been merely an abstract theoretical scenario debated by theologians would suddenly become a terrifying reality, and the Church would be thrown into perhaps the greatest crisis in her history.  

If the pope opts for (b), the current, more moderate crisis will end.  The progressives will of course be extremely disappointed.  There will be recriminations, whining, and foot-stomping.  But that will peter out, because their position requires ambiguity, and if the pope explicitly reaffirms that adulterous sexual acts are always and absolutely impermissible, that ambiguity will have been taken from them.  Moreover, the progressives have, after all, claimed not to be reversing past teaching, so they can hardly complain if the pope reaffirms it.  They will simply have to put up and shut up.

It would seem, however, that to opt for (b) might essentially make of Amoris (or at least of chapter 8, its best known and most controversial section) a dead letter.  For if, despite all the talk about “discerning, accompanying, and integrating,” couples living in adulterous relationships are told unambiguously that they still must refrain from all sexual activity on pain of mortal sin (and thus on pain of unworthiness to receive communion), then it will be undeniable that Amoris doesn’t change anything.  What had seemed a revolutionary development and Pope Francis’s signature achievement will turn out to have been much ado about nothing.  

That might make option (c) tempting.  But it is a temptation that must be resisted.  Taking option (c) will only cause the current crisis to deepen and fester.  And, in light of the larger cultural context within which that crisis is occurring, it might reinforce the false impression that the Church can and will accommodate herself to the sexual revolution.  As Pope Felix III declared, in words quoted by Pope Leo XIII: “An error which is not resisted is approved; a truth which is not defended is suppressed.”

To quote a progressive theologian, Harvey Cox: “Not to decide is to decide.”  Though, the longer a decision is delayed, perhaps the question of what Pope Francis will do will become less important.  As Honorius could tell you, sometimes it is what the next pope does that matters most.  

Edward Feser at 3:12 PM

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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