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Pope Francis: The Charge Of Formal Heresy

May 14, 2019 Frontpage No Comments

By FR. BRIAN W. HARRISON, OS

There has been a spate of sharply critical Twitter comments in the wake of my recent Wanderer column explaining why I declined to sign the Open Letter to Bishops denouncing Pope Francis for the canonical delict of heresy. (It was originally just a private email circulated to friends, but at the request of the editor of The Wanderer I gave permission for its publication.)
Many of the criticisms were apparently prompted by my first expressed reason for declining to sign the letter, namely, “because I don’t think you can judge someone — especially a Pope! — to be a formal (i.e., pertinacious or obstinate) heretic without first hearing what he might have to say in his self-defense. That’s an elementary question of due process!”
Readers were quick to point out that for years Pope Francis has already been asked again and again to respond to criticisms of his very troubling doctrinal statements — notably via the dubia Cardinals’ submission — and that again and again he has refused to do so. Therefore, these readers conclude, it’s now quite in order accuse Francis of formal heresy because he’s had plenty of chances to respond and has ignored them all.
Sorry, but that conclusion doesn’t follow from its premises. Unlike everyone else in the Church, who can be summoned by ecclesiastical authority to answer charges of heresy, the Pope is under no canonical obligation to respond to such charges, or to answer any dubia. And remember, the Cardinals’ five dubia were not charges of heresy at all, but questions as to whether, after Amoris Laetitia, certain traditional doctrines were still to be held by Catholics. So the Pope’s silence does not necessarily imply a negative, i.e., heterodox, answer to those questions.
Likewise, in making the comment cited in the previous paragraph, I was not so naive as to expect that the Pope will in fact respond to the charges of heresy made by the authors of the new Open Letter. Indeed, I was taking for granted that he almost certainly won’t. My point was simply that, in the unique case of the Pope, his refusal to reply to those charges does not entitle his accusers to jump to the conclusion that he has no satisfactory answer and is therefore a formal heretic. Rather, when there’s no realistic possibility of hearing what Francis might have to say in his own defense, we simply have to abstain from accusing him of formal, pertinacious heresy. Using (or abusing) his supreme papal privilege, he’s stymied us, and we just have to accept that.
That doesn’t mean we have to remain silent in the face of the many objectively shocking doctrinal statements made by the current Successor of Peter. I myself have repeatedly published criticisms of such statements, in The Wanderer, The Remnant, The Latin Mass, and in postings on the OnePeterFive and LifeSiteNews websites. And I have just added my name to the 4,000 or so other signatories of the new “Appeal to the Bishops to Investigate Pope Francis for Heresy,” adding the following comment: “I am signing this petition because, while I have publicly expressed my disagreement with certain aspects of the Open Letter to Bishops accusing Pope Francis of the canonical delict of (pertinacious) heresy, I agree that the Bishops should investigate the complaints of its signatories — in the first place, by seeking responses to them from Pope Francis.”
I doubt very much that our bishops will collectively take action on the basis of this petition, but I think it is correct to ask them to do so. If they did, then as a large group of Successors of the Apostles, they would have a much better chance of persuading the Pope to respond to these charges than the simple priests and lay people who signed the Open Letter.
The other main complaint of my Twitter critics has to do with the Pope’s dangerously ambiguous Abu Dhabi statement that “The pluralism and the diversity of religions, color, sex, race, and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings.” I cited my dissatisfaction with the Open Letter’s treatment of this statement as another reason why I declined to sign it. For the authors put the worst possible interpretation on that statement by ascribing to Francis the heresy that “God not only permits, but positively wills, the pluralism and diversity of religions, both Christian and non-Christian.” Since Pope Francis himself neither used nor implied the words placed in italics here — the very words that make the proposition heretical! — this accusation would have been presumptuous and unfair even if the Pope had never clarified his meaning in an orthodox sense when talking to Bishop Athanasius Schneider. (Francis told the bishop that he could make it known that the Pope’s true meaning in regard to religious diversity was merely the permissive, not the positive, will of God.) Therefore, the complaint of my critics to the effect that the Pope has never officially and magisterially clarified the meaning of his statement, or sought to change the actual text he signed together with a leading Muslim cleric, is essentially irrelevant, at least as regards the charge of heresy. The Open Letter’s defenders are also telling me that the Pope’s statement to Bishop Schneider was just another example of his Peronista tendency to talk out of both sides of his mouth and tell people what they want to hear. But that is sheer guesswork, and certainly doesn’t do away with the need to hear his own self-defense before charging him with formal heresy.
One of the authors of the Open Letter, Dr. John Lamont (cited by one of my Twitter critics), has argued that the jointly signed affirmation necessarily implies the indifferentist heresy the authors ascribe to Pope Francis. He begins, “The context makes it clear that Pope Francis’ words state that God does will religious pluralism itself. Religious pluralism is classed together with other differences such as color, sex, race, and language that are not evil in themselves, and that are positively willed by God.” As I noted in my Wanderer article on this passage (“Did Pope Francis ‘Apostatize’ in Abu Dhabi?,” The Wanderer, February 14, 2019, pp. 5A, 7A), this “class[ing] together” is indeed shocking and misleading.
However, I also pointed out there that this defect is mitigated somewhat by the broader context of the whole paragraph, which is not principally about the truth or falsity of different religions, but about the right of their adherents to civil liberty vis-a-vis the State. And according to Catholic doctrine as developed by Vatican II, this right, at least under modern circumstances, does not belong only to those who profess the true religion. But Dr. Lamont’s comment does not take this point into account. Here is the complete relevant paragraph from the “Human Fraternity” document:
“Freedom is a right of every person: each individual enjoys the freedom of belief, thought, expression and action. The pluralism and the diversity of religions, color, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings. This divine wisdom is the source from which the right to freedom of belief and the freedom to be different derives. Therefore, the fact that people are forced to adhere to a certain religion or culture must be rejected, as too the imposition of a cultural way of life that others do not accept.”
Since, according to the Vatican II teaching taken for granted in this paragraph (cf. Dignitatis Humanae, n. 2), the truth or falsity of the religion we profess does not in itself affect our right to freedom from governmental or social harassment any more than does our “color, sex, race [or] language,” it becomes clearer why the Abu Dhabi statement could classify all these things together in such a context. This consideration also lends plausibility to the more benign interpretation of the words “willed by God” as meaning “willed only permissively by God” in the case of religious “pluralism and diversity.”
While it remains true that such juxtaposition of very different things “willed by God in critically different ways is confusing and indeed scandalous in the absence of any textual distinction or clarification, it also remains true that Popes, above all people, should be given the benefit of the doubt by Catholics. We should put the best, not the worst, interpretation on their doctrinally ambiguous statements, especially when, as in this case, they subsequently state — even just informally — that the orthodox meaning was the one they intended.
Dr. Lamont continues with another argument purporting to prove that the Pope could not truly have meant what he told Bishop Schneider he meant. He says, “The document is a joint document signed by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Mosque. As such, it expresses a conviction that is shared by both of them. We cannot reasonably attribute to the Grand Imam the view that religions other than Christianity are merely the object of God’s permissive will.”
No, we cannot reasonably attribute that view to the Grand Imam. But it’s not necessary to attribute that view to him in order to attribute it to Pope Francis.
I am a little surprised at Dr. Lamont’s sanguine assumption that the bar for transparency, clarity, and straightforwardness in modern ecumenical and interreligious dialogue is set so high that the resulting “agreed” statements can be relied on to “express a conviction that is shared by both” parties. For during half a century of such dialogue we’ve seen that what it often really does is produce vague or ambiguous formulae that paper over very real cracks in order to claim “progress” in the quest for unity: formulae that each side can understand in its own way. Think of the 1999 “agreed” Lutheran-Catholic statement on justification. Think of the Vatican statement on relations with Jews from a few years back that cheerily asserted that Jews and Christians “share” an expectation of the Messiah’s coming! (As if it scarcely mattered that the respective expectations flatly contradict each other, with one side expecting the second coming of Jesus the Messiah, and the other side still expecting the first coming of a Messiah who is emphatically not Jesus!) Therefore, I see no great difficulty in holding that the Abu Dhabi “Human Fraternity” statement, in its push to promote “World Peace and Living Together,” could come up with a superficial “agreement” that God wills the “pluralism and diversity” of religions in a merely permissive way, but with the Pope quietly holding that the only religion God positively wills is Christianity, and the Grand Imam quietly holding that it is Islam.
Does what I have said here amount to a robust defense of Pope Francis against the authors of the Open Letter, and of the Abu Dhabi statement in particular? Obviously not. I substantially share their deep concern that the present pontificate is proving to be a disaster from the standpoint of consistently feeding Christ’s sheep with the pure and clear doctrine of sound faith and morals. And now that the Open Letter is out there I have been happy to sign the follow-up “Appeal to the Bishops to Investigate” their charges against His Holiness.
Such investigation would be in order regardless of whether his apparent deviations from orthodoxy have been pertinacious and formal, or only material. For either way, they urgently need clarification and/or correction. The main purpose of my two Wanderer articles on this topic — and this one will be the last — has simply been to argue that charging Pope Francis with pertinacity in this grave matter (“the canonical delict of heresy”) has been premature and unwarranted.

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