Several days have now gone by since the release of an open letter to the world’s Catholic bishops which accuses Pope Francis of the delict of heresy (see “Prominent clergy, scholars accuse Pope Francis of heresy in open letter”). The full document issued by these scholars may be found here. As I said in a prior article about this “Open Letter” (see “Regarding the Open Letter accusing Pope Francis of Heresy”), “it provides a very strong case for the accusation it makes, one which the cardinals and bishops of the Church would be derelict not to take up and sincerely consider” (1).
Pages 1–3 of the Open Letter include its introduction and a list of seven heretical propositions. On page 4 of the Open Letter, the authors begin to set out out their evidence that Pope Francis adheres to these heretical propositions. This evidence in the Open Letter takes two forms. The first type of evidence is in Section A (entitled “Pope Francis’s public statements contradicting truths of the faith”) where the authors provide twelve quotes from Pope Francis, six of them from his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia. The second type of evidence is found in Section B (entitled “Pope Francis’s public actions that indicate a rejection of truths of the faith”) which sets out to demonstrate the Pope’s “public actions serve to establish that the public statements … were meant by him to be understood in a heretical sense.”
There was one bit of evidence in the second category (Section B) I was surprised not to see with regard to Pope Francis’s public actions which might help give a sense of how to understand his words with regard to the several of the seven propositions. This missing evidence is a letter/preface written by Pope Francis to the author (Stephen Walford) of the book The Pope, The Family and Divorce. A substantial portion of this papal letter was used as the preface to Mr. Walford’s book and is included in the book’s appendix. One can reasonably presume Mr. Walford included it in his book with the Pope’s permission. In his letter to Mr. Walford, and in his words appearing in the preface, Pope Francis wrote, “I feel certain that your book on Amoris Laetitia will be helpful to families. I pray for this” (2). I will have some additional comments on the Pope’s preface to The Pope, The Family and Divorce at the end of this article, but first we must examine some of Mr. Walford’s book in light of several of the Open Letter’s seven propositions.
Here, I will focus only on one relatively brief passage of Mr. Walford’s book, though for those interested, I have provided a rather detailed rebuttal of his entire work (see “The Errors of Mr. Walford’s ‘Pope Francis, The Family and Divorce’”; “Part II: The Development of Mr. Walford’s Errors”; “Part III: Mr. Walford and the Magisterium”). I believe this three-part rebuttal of Mr. Walford’s book identified serious problems with it.
In his book, Mr. Walford argues that there are certain cases when a divorced and remarried spouse — with an existing, valid marital bond to another person — can still receive sacramental Confession and the Eucharist without having to abstain from adulterous sexual relations. What are these “certain cases,” these situations? Mr. Walford presents one detailed example of such an adulterous couple and the proper intention whereby these adulterous “spouses” could receive Holy Communion while continuing their sexual relationship. He writes (emphasis added):
So what exactly is this situation to which we allude? It would be the case where children are born out of a civil, invalid union. The couple have at some stage returned to the faith and seek a loving relationship with Jesus. They know and accept their union is wrong, but there is no going back. Former marriages are irreparably damaged. In this new union they have tried hard to live as brother and sister, but their attempts have caused great tension and constant arguments. The husband is now fighting temptations against impurity of various kinds. The peace of the home if fragmenting and the children are being affected. No longer are the arguments kept behind closed doors, but abuse is being hurled across the room while the children play. There is a real danger of the home becoming a quasi-war zone, and possibly a family break-up is imminent. Not only have the children had to experience this, but they have also not experienced for a considerable time any affection between their parents; on the contrary, coldness has been apparent even in “good” times. They are confused; what they hear preached at Church is not replicated at home. The older ones are asking questions why mom and dad no longer love each other, and there is the distinct possibility they begin to see nothing beneficial in Catholicism based on their experience at home, in fact, there is the danger of blame being attributed to the faith.
At this point, the parents make the decision that living celibate lives is unworkable. They say to God: “We cannot continue like this, we don’t have the strength even though we have tried. For our children, we are now witnesses for the devil more than you. We are spreading poison and it is ruining them. If we continue like this, we are causing greater evil, and we feel we may turn the children away from the faith. Our conscience tells us we risk breaking the fifth commandment and in real sense, destroying their emotional and spiritual lives. It is our honest intention to flee from all these evils including the sexual relationship, and we long to live lives of purity. We ask your constant forgiveness even though our weakness means we cannot fulfill what you desire from us. We shall strive in whatever way we can to respond to your grace knowing that your love and mercy will lead us toward salvation. As proof of our good intention, what we lack now, we will make up for in other areas; in almsgiving and fasting. (p. 102–103)
There are a lot of problems with this passage from Mr. Walford’s book (addressed here in more detail). But this article, as said, will focus on a comparison of Mr. Walford’s example of the adulterous couple above with several of the Open Letter’s seven heretical propositions — which the Open Letter’s authors claim Pope Francis holds. The first of these heretical propositions is as follows:
I. A justified person has not the strength with God’s grace to carry out the objective demands of the divine law, as though any of the commandments of God are impossible for the justified; or as meaning that God’s grace, when it produces justification in an individual, does not invariably and of its nature produce conversion from all serious sin, or is not sufficient for conversion from all serious sin. (Open letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church, Easter Week 2019, p. 1)
As the authors of the Open Letter note, this proposition is heretical, among other things, because it is contrary to teaching of the Council of Trent: “If anyone says that the commandments of God are impossible to observe even for a man who is justified and established in grace, let him be anathema” (3). Now, if we examine Mr. Walford’s example, it appears to depart from this teaching of the Council of Trent in that the theology underlying his example favorably describes the moral thought process of the adulterous couple (emphasis added):
At this point, the parents make the decision that living celibate lives is unworkable. They say to God: “We cannot continue like this, we don’t have the strength even though we have tried. For our children, we are now witnesses for the devil more than you … We ask your constant forgiveness even though our weakness means we cannot fulfill what you desire from us.
In Mr. Walford’s example, we see that the members of this adulterous couple are conscious of what God wants of them, but they express that God’s commandment is impossible to fulfill (“we cannot fulfill what you desire”). Thus, we see here that Mr. Walford’s thinking behind this example shares the error of the first heretical proposition found in the Open Letter.
Continuing, we find that the second heretical proposition outlined in the Open Letter also applies to Mr. Walford’s example. The second heretical proposition is as follows:
II. A Christian believer can have full knowledge of a divine law and voluntarily choose to break it in a serious matter, but not be in a state of mortal sin as a result of this action. (Open letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church, Easter Week 2019, p. 2)
The second heretical proposition appears to be found in the thinking behind Mr. Walford’s example. Mr. Walford’s couple have full knowledge of the divine law (“They know and accept their union is wrong, but there is no going back”). Yet, despite knowing they are wrong with respect to divine law, the adulterous couple of the example do not find themselves bound by the 6th Commandment. Even so, Mr. Walford cites this within an example where the couple can receive Holy Communion — i.e., thus not being in a state of mortal sin. Therefore, the theology underlying Mr. Walford’s example directly contradicts the teaching of the Council of Trent: “If anyone says that a justified man, however perfect he may be, is not bound to observe the commandments of God and of the Church but is bound only to believe, as if the Gospel were merely an absolute promise of eternal life without the condition that the commandments be observed, let him be anathema” (4).
Moving on again, Mr. Walford’s example of an adulterous couple also seems in accord with the third heretical proposition outlined in the Open Letter. This third heretical proposition is stated as follows:
III. A person is able, while he obeys a divine prohibition, to sin against God by that very act of obedience. (Open letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church, Easter Week 2019, p. 2)
Mr. Walford’s book certainly appears to share the same sentiment as the heretical proposition above. Indeed, the adulterous couple in Mr. Walford’s book says (emphasis added):
For our children, we are now witnesses for the devil more than you. We are spreading poison and it is ruining them. If we continue like this, we are causing greater evil, and we feel we may turn the children away from the faith. Our conscience tells us we risk breaking the fifth commandment and in real sense, destroying their emotional and spiritual lives.
That is to say, the adulterous couple in Mr. Walford’s example essentially reasons, “If we continue not engaging in adulterous sexual acts, we are causing a greater evil.” Thus, the couple may say they sin by keeping a commandment! The authors of the Open Letter show that such a view is heretical by citing various sources, including Scripture (Ps. 18:8: “The law of the Lord is unspotted, converting souls”) and Clement XI’s Unigenitus (Condemnation of the Errors of Paschasius), which condemned the proposition “For the preservation of himself man can dispense himself from that law which God established for his use.”
Considering that the members of Mr. Walford’s adulterous couple judge that they can continue to have sexual relations without sinning mortally, it certainly appears his theological explanation shares the view stated by the fourth heretical proposition outlined in the Open Letter, namely:
IV. Conscience can truly and rightly judge that sexual acts between persons who have contracted a civil marriage with each other, although one or both of them is sacramentally married to another person, can sometimes be morally right, or requested or even commanded by God. (Open letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church, Easter Week 2019, p. 2)
The authors of the Open Letter cite various sources to demonstrate that this statement is heretical. A couple of these many sources include, but are not limited to, the following canons from the council of Trent: “If anyone says that Jesus Christ was given by God to men as a redeemer in whom they are to trust but not also as a lawgiver whom they are bound to obey, let him be anathema” (5) and “If anyone says that it is lawful for Christians to have several wives at the same time, and that this is not forbidden by any divine law, let him be anathema” (6). And, we saw earlier in Mr. Walford’s example, the couple’s members’ consciences have decided that it is morally right to have sexual relations with each other for the sake of their happiness, from which their kids are said to benefit, etc.
And finally, the logical consequence of Mr. Walford’s example — as it allows sexual relations in certain cases among civilly married adulterers — is a practical denial that adultery is absolutely forbidden because it is “always gravely unlawful.” Thus, the theology underlying Mr. Walford’s example clearly appears to share in the error of the sixth heretical proposition outlined in the Open Letter, namely:
VI. Moral principles and moral truths contained in divine revelation and in the natural law do not include negative prohibitions that absolutely forbid particular kinds of action, inasmuch as these are always gravely unlawful on account of their object. (Open letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church, Easter Week 2019, p. 2)
This sixth heretical proposition above, among other things noted by the authors of the Open Letter, contradicts the following teaching of John Paul II (emphasis added):
Each of us knows how important is the teaching which represents the central theme of this Encyclical and which is today being restated with the authority of the Successor of Peter. Each of us can see the seriousness of what is involved, not only for individuals but also for the whole of society, with the reaffirmation of the universality and immutability of the moral commandments, particularly those which prohibit always and without exception intrinsically evil acts. (Veritatis Splendor, 115)
In this article I pulled out one passage from Mr. Walford’s book to demonstrates some of its key errors, though I am of the opinion there are other deficiencies in it (7). I cited Mr. Walford’s own example of how an adulterous couple might yet receive the sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist without having to refrain from adulterous sexual acts. At least several components of this one example, and the theology underlying it, are consonant with the propositions listed in the Open Letter (pp. 1–3), and therein suggested and demonstrated to be heretical.
The Pesky Preface
If, in fact, the propositions outlined in the Open Letter (pp. 1–3) are heretical, then it seems probable if not certain that Mr. Walford’s example and the theology underlying it are heretical as well. This raises a number of problems. One of the problems that needs to be addressed are the Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur given to the book (The Pope, The Family and Divorce) by Cardinal Tobin. These should be rescinded.
The second of the problems is the preface to Mr. Walford’s book. This preface was written by Pope Francis. In this preface, Pope Francis expresses his certainty “that this book will be helpful to families. I pray for this.” Now, if the book is erroneous — indeed, if it is heretical in parts — then what to make of such words from Pope Francis? Well, for one, his words are certainly not magisterial. Furthermore, in the pope’s defense, he actually wrote the letter — from which the preface is extracted — a year before the book was published.
Yet pesky questions remain. Did the pope know Mr. Walford’s (8) views when he provided the letter and approved of its use in the book? If the pope did not really know Mr. Walford’s views, why would Francis write the letter, which certainly suggests his approbation of them?
As I note above in the pope’s defense, he wrote the letter/preface a year before the publication of the book. But if he did not know Mr. Walford’s views before publication, the pope would at least know them after the book was published, presuming he read it. If the pope disagreed with these erroneous views, why didn’t he withdraw the permission to include his letter in the book and its preface?
But, it might be objected, ‘perhaps the pope did not read Mr. Walford’s book at all.’ That is certainly possible, in which case the pope might not be aware of Mr. Walford’s views to object to them. However, the problem with that line of defense is that Mr. Walford wrote an essay which appeared in L’Osservatore Romano (November 30, 2018). In this essay, entitled In Defense of Truth and Mercy, Mr. Walford briefly summarizes his main arguments in defense of Amoris Laetitia found in his book, The Pope, the Family and Divorce (9). Given that L’Osservatore Romano is the ‘pope’s newspaper,’ it seems difficult to credibly maintain that the pope is still unaware of Mr. Walford’s views. Thus, we wonder…has Pope Francis ever tried to retract his letter and its use in the preface of The Pope, the Family and Divorce?
Final Thoughts and Conclusions
This returns me to my earlier comment about being surprised the preface was not among the types of evidence included in part B of the Open Letter by its authors. Now, to be clear, I am not stating that Francis is a heretic. What I am saying is this…
If one or more of the seven propositions outlined in the Open Letter are IN FACT heretical, and if the book The Pope, the Family and Divorce in its theological explanations and defense of Amoris Laetitia proposes or advocates one or more of these heresies as true, then what do we say of the Pope favoring this book? On the face of it, the options, in my opinion, are limited — and broadly boil down to two: (1) either the Pope agrees with the book’s interpretation of Amoris Laetitia as being his own; or (2) the Pope — perhaps being unaware of some or all of what’s in the book — was negligent in allowing his name to be associated with it. If #2, the pope should disassociate himself and his name from the book The Pope, The Family and Divorce. If #1, I shudder to think — but perhaps the authors of the Open Letter can use this information if they ever update their Open Letter.
Let us pray for Pope Francis that he remembers the Lord’s words to Peter: “Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you like wheat. But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou being once converted, confirm thy brethren” (Luke 22:31–32).
- At least one omission from the Open Letter was surprising, such as leaving out the question of Pope Francis’s statements regarding the death penalty.
- This quote is found in both the preface (p. xii) and the appendix (p. 207) of Mr. Walford’s book. The full letter is found on pp. 206–207 of the appendix.
- The “Open letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church” (Easter Week 2019, p. 1) citing Council of Trent, session 6, canon 18 (DH 1568).
- The “Open letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church” (Easter Week 2019, p. 2) citing Council of Trent, session 6, canon 20 (DH 1568).
- The “Open letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church” (Easter Week 2019, p. 2) citing Council of Trent, session 6, canon 21 (DH 1571).
- The “Open letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church” (Easter Week 2019, p. 2) citing Council of Trent, session 24, canon 2 (DH 1802).
- Mr. Walford’s treatment of his subject matter is stilted and one-sided, and thus is both unfair to his reader and a disservice to the truth. He makes no real attempt in his book to rebut the substantial counter-arguments to the position he defends. While, for example, he tips his hat at various points to John Paul II and his writings (e.g., Familiaris Consortio and Veritatis Splendor), he neither quotes them extensively nor sufficiently explains how, for example, the argument he defends can be reconciled with John Paul II, who wrote (emphasis added):
In teaching the existence of intrinsically evil acts, the Church accepts the teaching of Sacred Scripture. The Apostle Paul emphatically states: “Do not be deceived: neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the Kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:9–10).
If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. They remain “irremediably” evil acts; per se and in themselves they are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person. “As for acts which are themselves sins (cum iam opera ipsa peccata sunt), Saint Augustine writes, like theft, fornication, blasphemy, who would dare affirm that, by doing them for good motives (causis bonis), they would no longer be sins, or, what is even more absurd, that they would be sins that are justified?
Consequently, circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act “subjectively” good or defensible as a choice. (Veritatis Splendor 81)
Thus, we see in this example above, Pope John Paul II states that adulterous acts cannot be justified either as subjectively good or as a defensible choice. In fact, Pope John Paul II quotes St. Augustine, who condemns those who would dare say that for “good motives” these sins would either “no longer be sins” or “what is even more absurd, that they would be sins that are justified.” However, it is precisely this “absurdity” Mr. Walford proposes and defends. Mr. Walford is sincere — but he is sincerely wrong. The argument he defends cannot be reconciled with Sacred Scripture, the constant and universal practice of the Church, Tradition, St. Thomas Aquinas, or the papal magisterium (e.g., John Paul II, Benedict XVI) or the Catholic Catechism.
- See the blog site Where Peter Is and its interview with Mr. Stephen Walford. In it, the writer and interviewer, Mr. Mike Lewis — who is more than favorably inclined towards Mr. Walford — makes this observation of Mr. Walford (emphasis added): “Catholic websites such as La Stampa and Crux often refer to him as a ‘theologian,’ which immediately garners negative responses on social media, usually along the lines of ‘he’s a piano teacher, not a theologian.’ Walford doesn’t refer to himself as a theologian, although he doesn’t seem to mind when others use that title to describe him.”
- I wrote a rebuttal to Mr. Walford’s essay. The rebuttal is entitled “What You Gotta Believe…if you believe Mr. Walford.”
Originally published at Roma Locuta Est. Reprinted with permission.
Steven O’Reilly is a graduate of the University of Dallas and the Georgia Institute of Technology. He and his wife, Margaret, live near Atlanta with their family. A former intelligence officer, he has written apologetic articles and is working on a historical-adventure trilogy, set during the time of the Arian crisis. The first book of the trilogy should be out later this summer or by early fall. He asks for your prayers for his intentions. His articles can be read on www.RomaLocutaEst.com. He can be contacted at [email protected] (or follow on Twitter: @S_OReilly_USA)