PopeWatch: Ed Feser

Catholic philosopher Ed Feser’s comments on the heresy letter:


What should we think of the recent open letter accusing Pope Francis of heresy, signed by Fr. Aidan Nichols, Prof. John Rist, and other priests and academics (and for which Prof. Josef Seifert has now expressed his support)?  Like others who have commented on it, I think the letter overstates things in its main charge and makes some bad arguments, but that it also makes many correct and important points that cannot reasonably be dismissed merely because the letter is seriously deficient in other respects. 


As to the main charge, it is true that a pope can fall into doctrinal error, even material heresy, when not speaking ex cathedra. However, whether and how a pope can be charged with formal heresy, and what the consequences would be if he were guilty of it, are simply much less clear-cut canonically and theologically than the letter implies. Some of the Church’s greatest theologians have speculated about the matter, and while there are serious arguments for various possible positions, there is no theological consensus and no magisterial teaching which resolves the issue. Moreover, a pope falling into formal heresy would be about as grave a crisis for the Church as can be imagined. So, maximum caution is called for before making such a charge, and in my opinion it is simply rash flatly to accuse the pope of “the canonical delict of heresy,” as the letter does.

Some of the arguments deployed are also ill-advised, to say the least. For example, it was foolish to appeal to the allegedly sinister shape of the staff that the pope used in a particular mass as evidence of heretical intent. To be sure, the open letter does not make much of this, but it is a bad argument, and the letter’s critics have understandably pounced on it.

I would guess that these serious problems with the letter are one reason that it did not gather more signatures, though it is certainly significant that it attracted signatories as formidable as Nichols and Rist. (This is not meant in any way as a slight against the other signatories, some of whom are also formidable scholars. But most of them have signed several other public statements critical of Pope Francis, so the fact that they signed this one is less noteworthy than the fact that Nichols and Rist signed it.)

Another reason, I suspect, is that by now it seems that there is little point to further public letters and petitions critical of Pope Francis, when several others have already been issued and simply ignored by the pope, the cardinals, and the bishops. (I signed one of them myself.) I realize that the signatories to this latest open letter do not suppose they are likely to move the bishops to action, but merely want to get into the historical record a summary of the problems with some of Pope Francis’s words and actions and the fact that there were faithful Catholic scholars who criticized them. But there is a point to doing even that much only if the letter adds something new and significant to the previous letters and petitions, and the main thing this one adds is a charge that is, as I say, rashly made.

Having said all that, it simply will not do for critics of the letter to point to its deficiencies and then roll over and go back to sleep. The letter, however problematic, is a response to statements and actions of the pope that are also seriously problematic. And if its rashness reflects a kind of exasperation on the part of the signatories, it cannot reasonably be denied that the pope can indeed be exasperating.

For example, Pope Francis has made many statements that at least seem to contradict traditional Catholic teaching on divorce and remarriage, conscience, grace, the diversity of religions, contraception, capital punishment, and a variety of other topics. The open letter is right about that. Indeed, at least where the number of problematic statements from Pope Francis is concerned, the open letter actually understates the case, because it does not address the pope’s remarks about contraception, capital punishment, or certain other issues. The sheer volume of these problematic statements is alarming in itself, whatever one thinks of any one of them considered in isolation. You can find previous popes who have made a theologically problematic statement here or there. You cannot find a previous pope who has made so many theologically problematic statements.

It is true that the pope’s defenders have come up with ways to read some of these statements so as to reconcile them with traditional doctrine. But there are two general problems with such attempts, even apart from the fact that not all of the proposed readings are terribly plausible.

First, and as I have pointed out before, when defending the doctrinal soundness of a statement, it does not suffice to come up with some strained or unnatural interpretation that avoids strict heresy. That is a much lower standard than the Church herself has applied historically, and would rule out very little.

To take an example I have used in the past, even the statement “God does not exist” could be given an orthodox interpretation if you strain hard enough. You could say: “What I mean when I say that is that God does not ‘exist’ in the sense of merely having or participating in existence, the way other things do. Rather, he just is Subsistent Being Itself and the source of the existence of other things.” The trouble is that the average person would not understand such a high falutin’ interpretation even if it occurred to him. The average person would naturally hear the statement in question as an expression of atheism. He would be especially likely to do so if the statement was addressed to a mass audience rather than to an audience of academics, and if the person who made the statement did not himself clarify things by explicitly giving a non-atheistic interpretation.

A theological statement – especially when made by a churchman to a mass audience – should be clearly orthodox on a natural reading, not merely arguably orthodox on some creative reading. This is why the Church has traditionally held that being strictly heretical is only one of several ways that a statement can be doctrinally objectionable. Even a statement that is not explicitly heretical might still be erroneous, or proximate to heresy, or rash, or ambiguous, or “offensive to pious ears,” or subject to one of the other theological censures with which the Church has in the past condemned various theological opinions.

Go here to read the rest.  Pope Francis may or may not be a heretic.  Certainly, beyond question, he is a lousy Pope.

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  1. The letter could have been much better written. If it were going to be a Condition Report or Deviation Event Report in my regulated industry, then it would not pass muster. But the letter is still basically correct: that Argentinian Marxist Peronist Caudillo is a heretic. And that’s the condition, the deviation which the Episcopate must resolve.

  2. As a practical matter all Catholics should consider Pope Francis a material heretic until proven otherwise. In addition, it would be wise not to consider Pope Francis a legitimate Pope at all regarding him as a usurper based on Ann Barnhardt’s rationale. If you do not agree with Ann we must nevertheless conclude there is a serious problem with this Papacy whether it be heresy, megalomania, or simple madness. Therefore we must consider PF”s situation, at a minimum, uncertain and unresolved all all of his words and actions void of legitimacy and consequently not binding.

  3. A simpler explanation would be to use the analogy that if you ask a person directions, and that person’s directions are consistently distorted or just flat out wrong, only once in a while correct—-you don’t listen to that person anymore and disregard him.

    Pope Francis is that person. And most persons in fact treat him as in fact a heretic and that he effectively has lost his papal office. All technically excellent canonical explanations aside.

  4. Academics slay me.

    The real Church had a mechanism (The Inquisition) and organization (inquisitors appointed from mendicant religious orders with active, physical force provided by civil authorities and the people) to deal with heretics.

    N.B., a person denounced to the Inquisition was removed from the population (dungeons not dragons) and presumed guilty until guilt not proven – very rare – there was no exoneration or not guilty finding.

  5. I agree with Stephen Phoenix. The technical explanations don’t matter any longer. Every time that Argentinian opens his mouth, at best something confusing and ambiguous issues forth if not downright contradictory to Sacred Scripture and 2000 years of Sacred Tradition.

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