In the seemingly interminable war between Catholics and Pope Francis, another salvo has been fired. This time, it lands a bit closer to the target.
In a 20-page open letter addressed not to the pope, but to the bishops of the Church, 19 Catholic scholars, some of them clergy, state that they “accuse Pope Francis of the canonical delict of heresy” and ask the bishops of the Church to “take the steps necessary to deal with the grave situation of a heretical pope.”
The names of a number of the signatories are not unfamiliar. They are eminent theologians and priests — men who have done well in their service of the Church. Among them: Fr. Aidan Nichols, Fr. Thomas Crean, Fr. John Hunwicke, Dr. John Lamont, Deacon Nick Donnelly, and 1P5’s own Dr. Peter Kwasniewski.
“We recognise with gratitude,” they write, “that some among you have re-affirmed the truths contrary to the heresies which we have listed, or else have warned of serious dangers threatening the Church in this pontificate.”
“Yet in so grave and unprecedented an emergency,” they continue, “we believe that it will no longer suffice to teach the truth as it were abstractly, or even to deprecate ‘confusion’ in the Church in rather general terms. … Despite the evidence that we have put forward in this letter, we recognise that it does not belong to us to declare the pope guilty of the delict of heresy in a way that would have canonical consequences for Catholics. We therefore appeal to you as our spiritual fathers, vicars of Christ within your own jurisdictions and not vicars of the Roman pontiff, publicly to admonish Pope Francis to abjure the heresies that he has professed.”
In seeking redress for this matter from the bishops, the writers attempt to establish the case, citing theology and canon law, that “a pope who is guilty of heresy and remains obstinate in his heretical views cannot continue as pope” and that “theologians and canonists discuss this question as part of the subject of the loss of papal office.”
One of the reasons, they say, that a pope may lose his office, is heresy.
The authors reject the idea, put forward by sedevacantists, that “a pope automatically loses the papal office as the result of public heresy, with no intervention by the Church being required or permissible.”
“This opinion,” they say, “is not compatible with Catholic tradition and theology, and is to be rejected. Its acceptance would throw the Church into chaos in the event of a pope embracing heresy, as many theologians have observed.”
On the contrary, the authors assert, “It should instead be accepted that the pope cannot fall from office without action by the bishops of the Church.”
The authors list seven propositions (apparently distilled from various papal statements) they identify as heretical, offering numerous citations to show why each of the positions is incompatible with Catholic doctrine. “We accuse Pope Francis of having, through his words and actions, publicly and pertinaciously demonstrated his belief in the following propositions that contradict divinely revealed truth,” they say. “For each proposition we provide a selection of Scriptural and magisterial teachings that condemn them as contrary to divine revelation; these references are conclusive but are not intended to be exhaustive.”
Following this section, under the subheading “Evidence for Pope Francis’s being guilty of the delict of heresy,” there are three parts.
The first part is entitled “Pope Francis’s public statements contradicting truths of the faith.” In this section, the authors offer documentation of twelve statements and actions of Pope Francis that appear intended to correlate to the seven initial charges. (I found the lack of parity between the two lists confusing; it was difficult to be certain which piece of documentation correlated directly to each of the seven condemned propositions.)
The majority of documentation comes from the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, or other statements that appear to extend the logic of that document. Three pertain to the pope’s praise of Martin Luther and the Reformation. The twelfth pertains to the assertion made by Pope Francis in the Abu Dhabi statement, saying that “[t]he pluralism and the diversity of religions” is “willed by God in His wisdom.”
The second part of the “evidence” section is entitled “Pope Francis’s public actions that indicate a rejection of truths of the faith.” This is a list of supplementary evidence to the more specific charges of heresy. “A large number of Pope Francis’s public actions have manifested his belief in the heresies listed above,” the authors assert, and what follows is a more general list of appointments or defenses of problematic clerics, promotion of anti-Catholic public figures, the failure to answer the dubia, and other actions taken that signify, in the minds of the authors, a departure from authentic Catholic life and thought.
In the third part of the evidence section, entitled “Pope Francis’s pertinacity in adhering to heretical propositions,” the authors list the pope’s theological credentials and his work drawing citations from the very documents he is otherwise alleged to contradict. “He can therefore be presumed,” the authors assert, “to be well informed enough on Catholic doctrine to know that the heresies he is professing are contrary to Catholic doctrine. Their heretical nature was also documented and pointed out to him in a filial correction addressed to him by a number of Catholic scholars in August 2017, and made public in September of the same year.”
The authors go on to make their final appeal for the bishops to take action, and after their signatures, they provide an appendix on “[c]anon law and Catholic theology concerning the situation of a heretical pope.”
This is an interesting document. It works well as a compendium of not just the deeply problematic statements of Pope Francis, but a number of his more egregious actions. I have long believed that these actions, while not in themselves able to be defined as heretical, certainly provide a deep insight into the character of the man himself and his concern — or lack thereof — for the integrity of the Catholic faith he is charged by God with safeguarding.
There were, to my mind, some obvious pieces missing, and that surprised me. One was the omission of Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia from the list of papal villains. Another was the pope’s attempt to categorize the death penalty, at least implicitly, as an intrinsic evil. I’ve written about this before and won’t belabor it here, but it’s good to remember that Bishop Athanasius Schneider also addressed this point in his essay “On the Question of a Heretical Pope.”
That essay, in fact, is directly relevant here, inasmuch as it represents the countervailing school of thought on the crisis presented by Pope Francis. Bishop Schneider at least implicitly also places Francis in the category of “heretical pope,” if only by mentioning specific propositions of his in the context of a document about heresy in the papacy. (He, like the authors of the open letter, also cites Francis’s positions on allowing “sexually active adulterers” to receive Holy Communion and the Abu Dhabi statement.)
In his essay, however, Bishop Schneider made clear that he believes that “[t]he pope cannot be deposed by anybody, only God can intervene and He will do this in His time, since God does not fail in His Providence (‘Deus in sua dispositione non fallitur’).” He goes on to say:
The deposition of a heretical pope will ultimately foster the heresy of conciliarism, sedevacantism, and a mental attitude similar to that which is characteristic in a purely human or political community. It will also foster a mentality similar to the separatism in the Protestant world or to autocephalism in the commonwealth of the Orthodox churches.
The authors of the open letter, on the other hand, appear to support the idea of an “imperfect council” that could depose a pope. They do not say so openly, but they state:
These actions do not need to be taken by all the bishops of the Catholic Church, or even by a majority of them. A substantial and representative part of the faithful bishops of the Church would have the power to take these actions. Given the open, comprehensive and devastating nature of the heresy of Pope Francis, willingness publicly to admonish Pope Francis for heresy appears now to be a necessary condition for being a faithful bishop of the Catholic Church.
This course of action is supported and required by canon law and the tradition of the Church. We provide below a brief account of the canonical and theological basis for it.
In that brief account, the authors state that “a pope who is guilty of heresy and remains obstinate in his heretical views cannot continue as pope” and that “[t]he Fathers of the Church denied that a heretic could possess ecclesiastical jurisdiction of any kind.”
They go on to cite theologians like Cajetan, John of St. Thomas, and St. Robert Bellarmine, all of whom are known for speculating on whether or not a heretical pope might be deposed — although they stop short of citing those specific arguments. “We do not take a position on these disputed questions,” the authors conclude, “whose resolution is a matter for the bishops of the Church.”
I think this, too, is the right road to take. They defer to the bishops, because the duty to deal with this situation falls on them. This open letter, as I see it, amounts to a group of Catholics without ecclesiastical authority assembling a weapon, providing a brief instruction on how it might — in a very specific hypothetical situation — be used, then placing it on a table before the bishops of the world within easy reach.
You can lead a horse to water…
Here’s the problem, though.
You know, and I know, and we all know that the bishops aren’t going to take action. Not based on this, and not based on anything I can think of. (Remember that the majority of them don’t like weapons very much at all, and most seem never to have heard of the Christ of Mt. 10:34.)
This means that even if the authors of this letter are correct, and Bishop Schneider is not, the practical effect is the same: we have now restated, once again, more clearly and formally, what we already know, and so, the Roman standoff continues.
We can also surmise that any bishop who touches this with even a ten-foot pole will find, as a friend said to me today, “his mitred head on a platter.”
Similarly, there will almost certainly be retaliation of some kind against the signers of this document. I hope they either have very little to lose or are locked and loaded and ready for what’s coming their way, because they put a lot on the line to move the line in the sand an inch closer to Rome. Their courage is to be applauded.
I asked my friend Dr. Kwasniewski why he signed it.
It seems to me to be valuable for three reasons:
1. It documents smoking-gun instances of heresy that cannot be denied. This may not help take away the scales from the eyes of those who refuse to see, but it seems like the next step after the Filial Correction that argued that Francis supported or did not oppose heresies. This goes a step further: he is a formal heretic and can be judged as such.
2. It is something we do for the historical record, for posterity. Not everyone during Pope Francis’s reign was a wilting wallflower who refused to call out the emperor with no clothes.
3. It is something we do before God, as a testimony of our conscience.
I regret that it did not garner more signatures. As a theologian, I can’t see a single thing in it to disagree with…
I told him I was feeling very cynical, and he reminded me, in kind, that cynicism is not a Christian virtue. He then offered a useful comparison:
During his decades of fighting against Arianism, St. Athanasius had few supporters. The emperor was against him. The pope was against him. He was probably told to shut up, or to give up.
What did he do? He wrote endless letters and treatises, one after another, condemning Arians and refuting Arianism. It all looked futile, but nothing would stop him.
We look back at this period and say “Thank God for Athanasius, he never stopped. What a hero.” I’m sure it didn’t look like heroism to him — merely burning necessity.
He kept the heat on. He kept banging the drum. He never stopped sounding the alarm. We owe him a lot for that stubbornness.
Admittedly, stubbornness is sometimes the only thing that keeps me coming back to the keyboard. The idea that no matter what happens, no matter how little you think you’re moving the needle, you can’t quit the field and let the bad guys just march to victory unopposed. Like it or not, it’s a fight to the finish.
I expect that there will be some who quibble with the theology of the letter. I don’t feel qualified to make any definitive statements on that, any more than I feel qualified to sign it. It looks solid to me, but I’m not a theologian.
At the end of the day, I’m still inclined to think that, all things being equal, Bishop Schneider’s approach is the one that makes the most sense. Even if the authors of the open letter are technically correct, practically speaking, nobody is going to depose the pope, and so, as Bishop Schneider said, “only God can intervene and He will do this in His time, since God does not fail in His Providence.”
I am grateful for the efforts of those who wrote this letter, and for their Christian witness. I am also grateful, if I’m being honest, that the ultimate conclusion to this matter is out of my hands. I’ve long wanted to see the dramatic deposition of the pope, but I do wonder if it would set the stage for worse things to come. So, patience is the only choice. Patience, and trust in Divine Providence.
I am not, however, particularly hopeful — not in human terms, anyway — that our next pope will be particularly wise, holy, or traditional. We should certainly be praying fervently to that end, but we can’t expect it. The deck has been stacked. So we should steel ourselves against the likelihood that this matter may not be resolved any time soon.
“In His time” rarely means anything close to when we want it.
In conclusion, I think this letter, like so many of the efforts put forward in opposition to the errors of this papacy — among which I hope our work here at 1P5 will be included — will have little immediate practical effect, but it will not be for nothing. Ultimately, only God can set the ship aright, but we should fight to the last man until He does.
Correction: we originally posted links to PDF versions of the letter and biography; in those versions, only 13 scholars were listed, not the 19 whose names now appear on the letter. Also one signatory no longer appears on the text. His name has been removed from the post and the links and post text have been updated to reflect the most recent versions of the documents. It has also come to our attention that the documents have also been translated into Italian, Spanish, French, German, and Dutch.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.