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A Brief Update on the Open Letter on Papal Heresy

There have been a number of developments on the Open Letter accusing the pope of heresy since I first summarized it in this space on April 30.

The first of these is that the number of scholars who have signed it has gone from 15 to 81. (At LifeSite, Maike Hickson has been updating the list daily, so check back there for future additions.)

One of the most significant new additions to the list of signatories of a petition in support of the Letter is Dr. Josef Seifert, a world-renowned Catholic philosopher and personal friend of the late Pope John Paul II. Seifert was punished for his earlier criticisms of Amoris Laetitia (A.L.) with the loss of his chair and teaching position at the Institute of Philosophy “Edith Stein” in Granada, and his later removal from what was to have been his lifetime post at the Pontifical Academy for Life. Seifert had said at the time that A.L. appeared to claim a “totally objective divine will for us to commit, in certain situations, acts that are intrinsically wrong, and have always been considered such by the Church.”

“If this is truly what AL affirms,” Seifert wrote, it would represent “a moral theological atomic bomb that threatens to tear down the whole moral edifice of the 10 commandments and of Catholic Moral Teaching.”

In his statement about why he decided to sign the petition in support of the Open Letter, Seifert wrote:

I sign this petition because I agree with the bulk of the letter signed by 20 distinguished Catholics and because I believe, as they do, that it is a holy duty of all Cardinals and Bishops of the Catholic Church, as successors of the Apostles, to examine carefully any serious charge of heresy committed by the Pope[.]

If they find these accusations correct, they have the further duty as brothers in the apostolic Office to tell the Pope without any false and cowardly fear, in all frankness and filled with the same Holy Spirit in which St. Paul publicly criticized and reprimanded the first Pope Peter, whom Christ Himself had chosen, that he strayed far from God’s truth and will[.]

The amount of commentary being generated around the letter is growing exponentially, and it would be impossible to summarize it all here. Of those in favor, particular note goes to Dr. Claudio Pierantoni, whose May 7 interview with LifeSiteNews is a particularly informative and clarifying piece of the puzzle.

Dorothy Cummings McLean, also of LifeSite (they have really been fantastic in their coverage of this story), offers a more detailed rundown of other commentary on the letter — those who support it fully, those who have some reservations (I find myself categorized here), and those who strongly oppose it.

Of those with reservations, three stand out as having opinions worth reading: Dr. Joseph Shaw (who signed and even acted as spokesman for previous efforts at correcting papal errors), Edward Feser, and Fr. Thomas Weinandy — whose own 2017 letter in criticism of Pope Francis cost him his position as a theological consultant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Shaw says a “lack of clarity” in the Open Letter is why he didn’t sign. “It seems to me to go beyond what can be clearly and simply stated about Pope Francis’ teaching.”

“And yet,” Shaw concedes, “I have to admit, first, the lack of clarity is evidently an intentional feature of Pope Francis’ style, and no unfortunate accident, and, second, that this makes the situation more, rather than less, dangerous.”

Feser — himself a noted papal critic — notes that “it is true that a pope can fall into doctrinal error, even material heresy, when not speaking ex cathedra.” “However,” Feser observes, “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.”

“In my opinion,” Feser writes, “it is simply rash flatly to accuse the pope of ‘the canonical delict of heresy,’ as the letter does.” And yet Feser goes on to note that “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.”

Feser believes that had the letter accused the pope of encouraging doctrinal error or negligence rather than outright heresy, it would have been harder to mount a defense of the pope, because such charges would be “milder.”

Fr. Weinandy concurs. “Many of the concerns addressed in the open letter are valid,” Fr. Weinandy says, “some more than others. However, the fact that Pope Francis articulates these positions in an ambiguous manner makes it almost impossible to accuse him rightly of heresy.”

Fr. Weinandy also shares Feser’s concern that by potentially overstating the case, the letter muddies the waters. “The open letter,” Fr. Weinandy writes, “makes it more difficult for others to appropriately critique the ongoing doctrinal and moral chaos within the Church, a disorder that will continue to intensify as this pontificate progresses.”

Among the most cited critics of the letter has been Fr. Brian Harrison. (Fr. Harrison is not a stranger to papal criticism; he has contributed a number of excellent pieces here at 1P5, and he signed the theological censures document against Amoris Laetitia.) Writing for The Wanderer, Fr. Harrison says:

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!

This is one sentiment that I must admit I cannot wrap my mind around.

I think that we would all like to hear “what he might have to say in his self-defense.” Wasn’t that, in part, what the censures document — and certainly the dubia — was about? Getting answers? Wasn’t that the point of the filial appeal to Pope Francis? The one that amassed nearly 800,000 signatures by the time it was presented, including over 200 cardinals, archbishops, and bishops? It begged him to offer “a clarifying word” to dissipate the “widespread confusion arising from the possibility that a breach has been opened within the Church that would accept adultery — by permitting divorced and then civilly remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion[.]”

And didn’t Cardinals Meisner and Caffarra, in fact, die while waiting for an audience with Francis to discuss the dubia? Aren’t Cardinals Burke and Brandmüller still waiting? Has Archbishop Viganò received an answer for his charges that the pope was involved in the cover-up of McCarrick’s crimes?

For his part, Fr. Weinandy was disciplined, but he never received a response to his letter of critique. Both the censures document and the filial correction fell on deaf ears. Bishop Schneider asked Francis to correct the Abu Dhabi statement formally, and he refused to do so, instead sending the unamended text of the document to Catholic universities to be promulgated (after telling Bishop Schneider with what might as well have been a wink and a nudge that he could tell people he meant the diversity of religions was part of God’s permissive, not positive will.) Even the group of Muslim converts to Catholicism who begged Francis for an audience to hear their concerns over his stance toward Islam never received a reply.

Maike Hickson has come up with a list of 35 different attempts to reach Pope Francis with concerns, and the list is by no means exhaustive.

So I ask, for those who believe that the pope hasn’t been given due process: how many chances should he get? When does silence signal his consent to our worst concerns, which we have only asked him to put to rest?

Personally, I argued that the Galatians 2:11 moment should have come years ago, back when Pope Francis was openly promoting contraceptive use.

But it won’t come. Which of our bishops will rebuke him to the face, because he is to be blamed?

In the absence of their leadership, the reality is this: eighty-one Catholic scholars from around the world are accusing the pope of heresy. 

Tell me: when has anything like this ever happened before?

When has a pope ever given the faithful so many reasons to suspect him of heresy, even if he isn’t guilty of it?

We can argue about the finer points of how the letter was handled. We can talk strategy until we’re blue in the face. But there is no serious Catholic who can be utterly dismissive of the fact that things have come to this point. Disagree with the signers of the letter all you like. They didn’t cause the confusion. Francis did. And the Church will never begin to heal until he is corrected, and the errors he promotes are condemned, whether it happens now or when he’s gone.

Correction: We originally reported that Dr. Josef Seifert had signed the Open Letter. He in fact signed the petition in support of the Open Letter. The text has been amended. 

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