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Why I Didn’t Sign The Open Letter Accusing The Pope Of Heresy

May 3, 2019 Frontpage No Comments

By FR. BRIAN W. HARRISON, OS

(Editor’s Note: Fr. Brian W. Harrison, a noted theologian, offered the following comments about the open letter denouncing Pope Francis as a heretic. See page 1 of this week’s issue for more on this issue.)

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I was one of those invited to sign this new statement publicly denouncing Pope Francis to the world’s Catholic bishops as a formal heretic. However, I declined, 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!
The Church (via the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) always does this with any theologian suspected of heresy, so how much more should the Pope himself be given a chance to explain himself before being publicly branded as formally heretical!
To be a formal heretic, you not only have to hold a certain opinion that contradicts what the Church has declared is revealed truth, to be believed with Divine and Catholic Faith; you also have to know that the Church condemns your opinion for that reason, and yet still stubbornly refuse to admit your mistake and retract it.
Pope Francis has indeed said some things I believe to be heretical, and I suspect he may well be formally heretical, but I would not be so rash to assert that he definitely is, much less publicly. The authors of this document just presume that he knows these statements/actions are heretical because he’s had a good theological education. But the Vatican never acts on a mere presumption with a suspect theologian. They always listen to what he/she might have to say in reply. That can often clarify certain things.
First, there’s the question of fact: Did the person really say or do what he was reported to have said or done? Francis was reported in 2017 as saying to a newspaper interviewer that nobody goes to Hell, and that those who die with unrepented mortal sin are just annihilated. The Vatican neither confirmed nor denied the substantial truth of this report — only that these were not the exact words of the Pope. Of course, if it was false, there was a grave duty for the Pope to tell the whole Church and the world immediately that he never said this and doesn’t believe it.
So you have to suspect strongly that he said and holds this heretical doctrine of annihilation. But a suspicion isn’t enough to convict anyone of heresy — or of any other offense or crime, for that matter.
Next, supposing the heretical statement has in fact been reported accurately, there’s still the question of whether the person expressed his/her own thinking accurately on that occasion. We often say things hurriedly, which means we sometimes say things we don’t really mean, or that we wouldn’t have said if we’d stopped to think a little more carefully. And Francis is notorious for frequently speaking “off the cuff!” even in his homilies.
(E.g., I strongly suspect that when he in effect denied the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in a homily of a few months ago, saying that: “No one, not even Joseph or Mary, is born as a saint,” he just didn’t think through carefully the implications of his words. I’d be willing to bet that if he were asked, “Holy Father, in saying Our Lady wasn’t ‘born as a saint,’ did you mean to teach that she was born with the stain of original sin like all the rest of us, even though the Church has solemnly defined that she was conceived without sin?,” he would probably reply that, No, he didn’t mean to say that: Rather, what he had in mind was he something to the effect that Our Lady faced temptations [as even Jesus did in the desert] and sometimes had to struggle against them. In other words, holiness wasn’t just a “cakewalk” for her and in some ways she grew spiritually throughout her life as she matured as human being and a believer.)
Next, even when conversation or correspondence between Church authority and the person suspected of heresy establishes that he/she was accurately reported and really did mean what he/she said, the question still remains as to whether the controversial opinion in question really does contradict something the Church has taught as revealed truth, to be believed with divine and Catholic faith.
When it’s a question of a truth that has never been solemnly defined by a Pope or Council, but has been taught rather by the universal and Ordinary Magisterium, establishing its heretical character 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.
Finally, supposing all this has been clarified and a really heretical opinion has been shown to have been taught by the suspect, it has to be seen if he/she still remains stubborn and obstinately refuses to retract and correct said opinion. Only if he/she remains obstinate can the Church then declare him/her to be a formal heretic, earning the canonical penalty for this crime.
But with Pope Francis, certainly, no such critical discussion has ever taken place with regard to nearly all the shocking statements that he has made. So I think it’s very premature, unfair, and disrespectful to the Supreme Pontiff for these 19 Catholic scholars [Editor: More have signed it since this commentary was written] to jump straight to the conclusion that he’s a formal heretic, and urge the world’s bishops to treat him as such.
Indeed, in the one instance I know of when Pope Francis replied personally to a direct question about the meaning of one of his shocking statements — the Abu Dhabi document saying that the existing pluralism and diversity of religions is something “willed by God” — he eventually explained it to Bishop Schneider, face-to-face, in a doctrinally acceptable way that I had already suspected was what he quite likely meant.
See first the article I wrote for The Wanderer (February 14, 2019, p. 5A) immediately after the Abu Dhabi statement came out. Then look at the LifeSiteNews.com report about what the Pope told Bishop Schneider some weeks later about what he meant to say (see LifeSiteNews for March 7, 2019).
Yet the scholars who are now calling Francis a formal heretic ignore this clarification given by the Pope himself, and include the Abu Dhabi statement as the last of the seven heresies which they say Francis is formally guilty.
Is that fair?

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