Catholic Scholars vs. the Pope Who, They Charge, Is ‘Propagating Heresies’

The last time this type of formal challenge to Rome occurred was nearly 700 years ago.

The controversy surrounding Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia escalated last week. Sixy-two Catholic scholars, clerical and lay, have published a “filial correction” in which they accuse the Holy Father of “propagating heresies” in his remarks on divorce and remarriage.

This type of challenge to a pope hasn’t happened in nearly 700 years. Writing that they are moved by “fidelity to our Lord Jesus Christ,” the signers identify in Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”) seven teachings that they suspect are heretical. Saint Thomas Aquinas refers to heresy as infidelity committed by those who profess the faith but corrupt its divinely revealed truths.

Catholic thought “has been devastated both by the modern tendency to deify irrational and arbitrary feeling” and by the insistence on stressing “‘the practical,’ ‘the pastoral,’ and ‘whatever works,’” John Rao, one of the signers, told me via email. “Both these influences have built a world shaped not by Faith and Reason but whatever the strongest forces” happen to be “in any given place.”

The filial correction is bold but has precedent. As the document notes, Catholic faithful challenged Pope John XXII in the 14th century for wrongly teaching that people who died in God’s grace did not see his presence until the final judgment. He eventually recanted that position, on his deathbed.

Neither Pope Francis nor the Vatican has issued a comment on the current filial correction. Clergy have been divided on how to interpret Francis’s comments.

The text in question occurs in sections 295–311 of Amoris Laetitia. There Francis addresses the pastoral approach to divorced and remarried Catholics and other Catholics in “irregular” relationships. According to the Council of Trent (1545–63), divorce cannot legitimately break a marriage. Rather, the marriage remains valid, and subsequent sexual relationships, such as in a second civil marriage, are adulterous unless the spouse from the true, sacramental marriage has died. If his spouse is still living, a Catholic can remarry licitly only if his first marriage has been annulled — that is, the Church judges it to have been invalid from the beginning.

Francis seems to suggest that some Catholics in adulterous situations may receive Communion. That has left some of the faithful scratching their heads. Receiving Communion in a state of mortal sin compounds the sin, as it constitutes sacrilege, a grave offense against God.

In the pope’s words

Francis argues that Catholics in a new union after a divorce should not be “pigeonholed.” Rather, he prefers that they and their pastors undergo a process of discernment. After discernment, he says, some of the divorced and civilly remarried can more fully integrate into Christian communities.

Francis rejects uniform enforcement of rules because he says that not all persons in irregular unions are equally culpable. “Discernment can recognize that in a particular situation no grave fault exist,” he argues, adding that “it cannot be said” that all persons in irregular unions are “living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace.”

In some complex situations, he maintains, such persons will recognize in good conscience, along with their pastor, that they are doing what they can even without fully meeting the gospel’s demands. Francis goes on to offer that acceptance of their situation may be what God is asking of them at the time.

Francis concludes that sacraments, including the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, may aid people in some irregular situations. “The Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect,” he writes.


The alleged heresies

The filial correction lists seven alleged heresies. They are, according to the document, either explicitly promoted or tacitly implied by the lack of formal clarification by the pope despite numerous requests for it from the faithful, including informed scholars.

The alleged heresies include the assumption that a justified person may be unable to follow God’s commands and, specifically, that a person who knowingly rejects God’s commands against adultery might not be in a state of mortal sin. Anyone who says that it is impossible for a person justified in God’s grace to observe God’s commandments is anathema, according to the Council of Trent.

Francis concludes that Holy Communion may aid people in some irregular situations. ‘The Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect,’ he writes. ​​​​​​

Another heresy allegedly promoted by Francis’s arguments is the idea that natural law does not expressly show certain acts to be gravely immoral in all circumstances and, therefore, to be prohibited. Finally, the signers of the correction allege, Francis asserts that Christ wills that the Church permit Holy Communion to the divorced and remarried even if they are without sincere contrition and intent to reform, which would entail their decision to leave off all sexual relations.

The signers of the filial correction ask the pope to uphold what they say are the true teachings of Christ and the Church. They maintain that every part of the Catholic faith has been communicated by God and that, in faith: “God is believed when he says something.” It follows that a Catholic believer has no rational ground for disbelieving a Church teaching. “A person who has this virtue,” or faith, “but then freely and knowingly chooses to disbelieve a truth of the Catholic faith sins mortally and loses eternal life.”

Francis will “warmly praise doctrine” when convenient, Anna Silvas, one of the signers of the filial correction, told me via email. But then he smoothly omits it “all in a new regime of ‘mercy,’” she added.

Father James Martin, S.J., a consultant to the Vatican’s secretariat for communications, calls the allegations of heresy “false.” “Pope Francis is not obviously denying any ‘revealed truths’ so he’s not propagating any heresy,” Martin tells me via email. “You can’t use that rather loaded word, which has a rather specific theological meaning, every time you disagree with the Pope.”

Martin notes that the filial correction was signed by no bishop or cardinal, except for the bishop of a group that is “schismatic.” That would be Bishop Bernard Fellay of the Society of Saint Pius X, whose communion with Rome is only partial because of its disagreement with certain Church teachings and practices since the Second Vatican Council. “This should tell you what weight we should give this letter,” Martin says.

Since my exchange with Martin, a retired American bishop, René Gracida of Corpus Christi, Texas, has asked that his name be added to the list of signers to the filial correction.

What happens next?

Four cardinals (two of whom have since died) earlier this year signed a document expressing doubt, for similar reasons, about the pope’s comments in Amoris Laetitia. Francis has not yet answered them, but one of the signers, Cardinal Raymond Burke, has announced that the cardinals will issue a formal correction of the pope’s comments.

Massimo de Leonardis, a signer of the recent filial correction, tells me via email that he is pessimistic on the question of whether Francis will respond to the filial correction, given that the pope hasn’t even answered the cardinal’s concerns. “It is sad that the Holy See answers only when economic issues are at stake and keeps silence on Doctrine and Morals,” he writes. “I hope that Cardinals and Bishops will find the courage to stand up and defend the true doctrine. Everybody must pray for the Pope and the Church.”

Rao said he hopes that the laity continue to express concern. But the Church is hierarchical, he notes, and so the heart and the mind of the pope must change if the filial correction is to have its intended effect.

Silvas doesn’t see the answer coming from any of the clergy. “Thinking in this-worldly terms of a ‘solution’ to this crisis, as if in some venal power-play, misses the truth entirely,” she writes. “Our Lord is the Bridegroom of his Church, and it is he who will have the last word on all this, as he wills and as he knows how. Maranatha, come Lord Jesus!”


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