What if a man, a man of eminence and of great and well-credentialed education, a man of authority, a priest, even, a man who has the ear of the Pope, told you that sometimes 2 + 2 = 5? Would this man by virtue of his lofty position be correct?
What if a small child, a wretch with no virtue of schooling, a unkempt waif, told the great man, “No, sir. 2 + 2 always equals 4, even for God, who cannot change Truth”?
Hold on! What’s this untutored child doing? Doesn’t she realize her error? She has no authority to offer a correction! Why should we listen to a kid?
Here comes Massimo Faggioli, a professor at Villanova University’s Department of Theology and Religious Studies, to help us. He says the child represents a “tiny, extreme fringe of the opposition to” to our great man. The child “is clearly not a cardinal or bishop with formal standing in the Catholic Church.”
David Gibson, who is director of Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture, agrees. He says the child’s attempt at a correction is “akin to an online petition”. He also says, “It’s a great headline anytime a priest is accused of error. But these kids are really, kind of, the usual suspects of really far right types who have been upset with not only this priest, but other priests in recent years.”
Even the New York Times—the New York Times!—reminds us the child is not a cardinal. And therefore her criticism is of no consequence.
We can only conclude that because our child is not an authority, and has no right to offer a correction, she is wrong. 2 + 2 does not always equal 4. It sometimes, as the priest Antonio Spadaro (for that is his name) said, can be 5, or 3, or any number he likes. The actual figure doesn’t count as long as, presumably, the solution is merciful.
If that argument makes sense to you, as it does to folks like Faggioli and Gibson and the others who are carping from the sidelines about qualifications of those who offered the Filial Correction, then you have succumbed to the idea that the Church is really about politics. That all battles are power plays, in which the side with the superior numbers or shiftier political abilities will, and should, win.
The quotes above are real, changed only slightly to shift the emphasis from the accusations of heresy for some of Pope Francis’s statements, to our imaginary child. Faggioli and Gibson are far from alone. The Twitter spokesperson for Hope & Life Press scolded the Filial Correction signers, “You have zero authority to issue any correction whatsoever.”
Well known commentator Austen Ivereigh could also only see the political angle. He wrote “Big tactical error to include Fellay as only bishop. Signatories now clearly identified with schismatic anti-Vatican II movement.” This is spiritually akin to saying, “Big tactical error for that child not to have included a tenured math professor.”
It is also factually wrong since the Society of Saint Pius X headed by Bishop Fellay is not in schism, as acknowledged even by Pope Francis, who validated confessions given to its priests during the “Year of Mercy”. Ivereigh surely knows this, but chose to cast his “schism” aspersion anyway, because in politics as in war, all is fair.
Ivereigh’s worst error was to say numbers matter: “‘Theologians’ misnomer in most cases; 62 is a tiny number, given strength of feeling over #AmorisLaetitia; most are well-known trad critics.” Again, this is like saying, “The child was alone, so we can dismiss her criticism.” Or it’s like saying, “Only trad mathematicians hold to the old formulas.”
If Twitter were available circa 350 AD, Ivereigh might have tweeted, “Athanasius is only one man with almost no support. Dismiss him. Let’s hope rumors of Pope Liberius excommunicating him come true.”
Exclusively political reactions to the Filial Correction belie another attitude. It is as if these naysayers do not believe seriously, or at all, in the supernatural elements of the Catholic faith. The authors of the correction certainly do.
If the naysayers thought the supernatural element the most important, and not politics, there would have been immediate and lively discussion of the seven points of the Correction. Are they really heresies? All of them? Why? Why not? “Let’s dig into this most important matter,” they would have said. “The salvation of souls is paramount, and heresy cannot be countenanced. Here is where we agree, and here where we disagree on the theological points.”
Only after we figure out, really investigate, and agree on each the points are the motives of the writers and signers of the Correction up for grabs. To focus on personalities first is an inversion—and very telling.
William M. Briggs is author of Uncertainty. Previously a Professor at the Cornell Medical School, a Statistician at DoubleClick in its infancy, a Meteorologist with the National Weather Service, and a sort of Cryptologist with the US Air Force. He obtained his PhD is in Mathematical Statistics, and now works as a Data Philosopher, Epistemologist, Unmasker of Over-Certainty, and (self-awarded) Bioethicist. He also holds an MS is in Atmospheric Physics, and a Bachelors in Meteorology. Briggs has authored or co-authored 75+ papers and two books in the fields of statistics, medicine, philosophy, meteorology and climatology, solar physics, and energy use. He blogs at wmbriggs.com.