“We also find it hard,” says the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (37) “to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations.”
It is indeed strange, amongst endless ecclesiastical discussions on “mercy”, “dialogue”, and the insistence that we can and should make critical moral decisions according to conscience, that restrictions on academic freedom now grow progressively tighter against such expressions of conscience. That is to say, restrictions applied to to well-formed, orthodox scholars who speak out — in conscience — against theological developments in the Church they find troubling.
When the esteemed Austrian philosopher, Josef Seifert, wrote an article questioning the damaging logical consequences to the Church’s moral teaching that he believed would follow from Amoris Laetitia, the response he received from his Archbishop — Don Javier Martínez — was swift and merciless. His retirement was immediately forced from the the Dietrich von Hildebrand Chair at the International Academy of Philosophy in Granada — a position created explicitly for him — without so much as a direct, personal conversation about the decision. In an article at First Things entitled, “The Persecution of Orthodoxy,” Seifert recounted that this disciplinary action “was never communicated” to him directly, but instead “by some hints in emails and telephone conversations, and by a salary receipt”. The receipt, Seifert said, was dated the same day as a press release that communicated to the world “the immense sadness of the diocese” over his article, and accused — without any justification — that he had “damaged the community of the Catholic Church,” “confounded the faith of the faithful,” and finally, “undermined the authority of the Pope, and served more the world than the Church.”
Was this what was meant in Amoris Laetitia (60) when the pope spoke of “the gaze of Jesus” and how He “looked upon the women and men whom he [sic] met with love and tenderness, accompanying their steps in truth, patience and mercy as he [sic] proclaimed the demands of the Kingdom of God”?
It would seem not.
Bishop Athanasius Schneider, in an interview with OnePeterFive’s Dr. Maike Hickson, said that “The punitive measure against Professor Seifert on behalf of an ecclesiastical office holder is not only unjust, but represents ultimately an escape from truth”. Schneider was not alone in his critique. Statements from a number of Catholic scholars decrying the move accumulated in short order.
Robert Spaemann, himself a renowned philosopher from Germany, said that he was “shocked” by the retributive action of the diocese. “The archbishop,” said Spaemann, in a separate interview with Hickson, “writes that he has to make sure that the faithful are not getting confused because Seifert is undermining the Church’s unity.” And yet, Spaeman continued, “The unity of the Church is based upon the truth.” Spaemann concluded his interview with a truly jarring statement: “It was easier during Nazi times to be a faithful Christian than today.”
This week, another academic was castigated, this time for his signature on the Filial Correction. On October 15, 2017, the the Philosophical-Theological University [Hochschule] Benedict XVI Heiligenkreuz in Austria published a statement on its website*:
Since its foundation in 1802, it is part of the profile of the philosophical-theological University [Hochschule] Benedict XVI Heiligenkreuz, to teach and to act loyally “cum Petro and sub Petro.” Thus we distance ourselves decisively from the fact that a scholar who has taught for a period of time at our Institute signed the public criticism of Pope Francis which euphemistically calls itself “Correctio filialis de haeresibus propagatis.” Even if the concerned person is only teaching as a guest professor and has given his signature solely in his own name, we still cannot accept that this casts a shadow upon our University. We thus clarify that the University Heiligenkreuz is in everything closely bound to the Roman Magisterium and that we consider it as our greatest honor and supreme duty to be faithful to each successor of Peter, that is to say to our Holy Father, Pope Francis.
No name is mentioned. But there is only one signatory of the Filial Correction from the faculty at Heiligenkreuz: Dr. Thomas Stark.
OnePeterFive reached out to the Institute for clarification on their statement. They responded:
The clarification on the University’s homepage did not mention the visiting professor — who works full-time at another university — by name, since he gave his signature — as we also explain [in the official statement] — in his own name and since he does essentially not belong, as a visiting professor, to our University. The clarification intends to clarify the PROFILE of the university which always distinguished itself by a loving and respectful communion with the Petrine office.
Further requests for clarification on whether it is the intention of the University to dismiss Dr. Stark have not received a response as of press time. OnePeterFive also reached out to Dr. Stark, and will update this story if he provides us with a statement. As of this writing, Dr. Stark’s faculty bio still appears on the University’s website.
Amoris Laetitia (265) tells us that
Doing what is right means more than “judging what seems best” or knowing clearly what needs to be done, as important as this is. Often we prove inconsistent in our own convictions, however firm they may be; even when our conscience dictates a clear moral decision, other factors sometimes prove more attractive and powerful. We have to arrive at the point where the good that the intellect grasps can take root in us as a profound affective inclination, as a thirst for the good that outweighs other attractions and helps us to realize that what we consider objectively good is also good “for us” here and now. A good ethical education includes showing a person that it is in his own interest to do what is right. Today, it is less and less effective to demand something that calls for effort and sacrifice, without clearly pointing to the benefits which it can bring. [emphasis added]
Does “Doing what is right” because “our conscience dictates a clear moral decision” even when “other factors” that can “prove more attractive and powerful” (like losing one’s job) apply to Catholic theologians and philosophers who make use of their many years of training in the Church’s teachings to confront deviations from those teachings, even when they come from the highest reaches of the Church?
These men and women risk their entire professional careers, their means of providing for their families, and their own good name, only to speak out in defense of something with no temporal reward. It seems, then, that these individuals should be held up as models who understand the importance of “effort and sacrifice” on behalf of their Divine Lord and His teaching, and who know the clear “benefits” of such action — even if they will never see them in this life.
It is here once again of benefit to reflect on the warning of Sister Lucia of Fatima to the late Cardinal Carlo Caffarra over a quarter of a century ago:
The final battle between the Lord and the reign of Satan will be about marriage and the family. Don’t be afraid, she added, because anyone who operates for the sanctity of marriage and the family will always be contended and opposed in every way, because this is the decisive issue.
The contention and opposition have only just begun. But we must have hope. As Sister Lucia reminded us, “Our Lady has already crushed its head.”
UPDATE – 10/21/2017: The Philosophical-Theological University [Hochschule] Benedict XVI has released a new statement, following reports in some outlets insinuating that Dr. Stark had been dismissed (translated by Google):
The news spread by a website that – according to the clarification given below to a guest professor – “confusion in the Stift Heiligenkreuz” or ” this guest professor was dismissed” is simply wrong. The canonical dismissal of a professor falls into the competence of the institution in which he teaches on the whole. They are fake news, fake news, which even reveal a high degree of confusion or perhaps even create a break in the church.
+ Doctor Maximilian Heim OCist
Rector Prof. P. Dr. Karl Wallner OCist
*Translation by Maike Hickson, who also contributed to this report.
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 eight children.