Fr. Thomas Weinandy is a Capuchin friar who formerly served as chief of staff for the US Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine. He is also a current member of the International Theological Commission at the Vatican. Like Fr. Brian Harrison, OS, Fr. Weinandy is not a supporter of the Filial Correction despite his own misgivings. In an interview with Crux, he said of the correction, “I don’t think it was theologically helpful, or presented in an effective manner”. As a theologian with noteworthy credentials, strong views on other corrective efforts, and a prestigious position to lose, Father Weinandy might not, at first glance, appear to be the sort of priest one would expect to write and publish a strongly-worded letter to the pope about the “chronic confusion” he is causing in the Church.
And yet, he has. And it’s very well done.
We’ll examine the contents of that letter in a moment, but the reason he did so is what particularly fascinates me about this story. In his interview with Crux, he indicates that the need to say something had been on his mind for a while, but he was conflicted. So he asked for a sign from God — not just any sign, but something incredibly specific:
Weinandy said his decision to write the letter was not easy, and resulted from what he regards as a moment of inspiration.
It came last May, he said, when he was in Rome for a meeting of the International Theological Commission. He said he spent two different sessions in prayer at St. Peter’s Eucharistic Chapel, struggling to decide if he should speak up. In the middle of a sleepless night, he said, he basically gave God an ultimatum.
“If you want me to write something, you have to give me a clear sign,” Weinandy recalls saying. “Tomorrow morning, I’m going to Saint Mary Major’s to pray, and then I am going to Saint John Lateran. After that, I’m coming back to Saint Peter’s to have lunch with a seminary friend of mine.”
“During that interval, I must meet someone that I know but have not seen in a very long time, and would never expect to see in Rome at this time. That person cannot be from the United States, Canada or Great Britain. Moreover, that person has to say to me, ‘Keep up the good writing’.”
Sure enough, Weinandy said, exactly that happened the next day, in a chance meeting with an archbishop he’d known a long time ago but not seen for over twenty years, who congratulated him for a book on the Incarnation and then said the right words, “Keep up the good writing.”
“There was no longer any doubt in my mind that Jesus wanted me to write something,” Weinandy said. “I also think it significant that it was an Archbishop that Jesus used. I considered it an apostolic mandate.”
The letter itself (you can read the full text here) begins:
I write this letter with love for the Church and sincere respect for your office. You are the Vicar of Christ on earth, the shepherd of his flock, the successor to St. Peter and so the rock upon which Christ will build his Church. All Catholics, clergy and laity alike, are to look to you with filial loyalty and obedience grounded in truth. The Church turns to you in a spirit of faith, with the hope that you will guide her in love.
Yet, Your Holiness, a chronic confusion seems to mark your pontificate. The light of faith, hope, and love is not absent, but too often it is obscured by the ambiguity of your words and actions. This fosters within the faithful a growing unease. It compromises their capacity for love, joy and peace.
He goes on to give examples. Of Amoris Laetitia, he says that the pope’s “guidance at times seems intentionally ambiguous, thus inviting both a traditional interpretation of Catholic teaching on marriage and divorce as well as one that might imply a change in that teaching.” “The Holy Spirit,” he continues,
is given to the Church, and particularly to yourself, to dispel error, not to foster it. Moreover, only where there is truth can there be authentic love, for truth is the light that sets women and men free from the blindness of sin, a darkness that kills the life of the soul. Yet you seem to censor and even mock those who interpret Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia in accord with Church tradition as Pharisaic stone-throwers who embody a merciless rigorism. This kind of calumny is alien to the nature of the Petrine ministry.
His second criticism concerns the manner in which the pope approaches doctrine, which Fr. Weinandy says “seems to demean” its importance.
Again and again you portray doctrine as dead and bookish, and far from the pastoral concerns of everyday life. Your critics have been accused, in your own words, of making doctrine an ideology. But it is precisely Christian doctrine – including the fine distinctions made with regard to central beliefs like the Trinitarian nature of God; the nature and purpose of the Church; the Incarnation; the Redemption; and the sacraments – that frees people from worldly ideologies and assures that they are actually preaching and teaching the authentic, life-giving Gospel.
Third, he takes aim at the pope’s appointment of bishops who “seem not merely open to those who hold views counter to Christian belief but who support and even defend them.” Weinandy says that the pope’s silence in the face of the actions taken by the men he’s chosen “scandalizes believers” and “even some fellow bishops.” He says that this failure to address these matters “weakens the zeal” of those who “have championed authentic Catholic teaching over long periods of time, often at the risk of their own reputations and well-being,” and leads to the faithful suffering a loss of confidence in “their supreme shepherd.”
Fourth, Weinandy approaches the topic of unity within the Mystical Body of Christ. “You are commissioned by the Lord himself to promote and strengthen her unity,” he writes, “but your actions and words too often seem intent on doing the opposite.” Weinandy highlights the pope’s encouragement of “synodality” that decentralizes the doctrinal and moral teaching of the Church, leading to confusion and discord.
Finally, Fr. Weinandy addresses the climate of fear in the Church when it comes to the freedom to speak out about what is happening:
You have frequently encouraged, particularly during the two past synods, all persons, especially bishops, to speak their mind and not be fearful of what the pope may think. But have you noticed that the majority of bishops throughout the world are remarkably silent? Why is this? Bishops are quick learners, and what many have learned from your pontificate is not that you are open to criticism, but that you resent it. Many bishops are silent because they desire to be loyal to you, and so they do not express – at least publicly; privately is another matter – the concerns that your pontificate raises. Many fear that if they speak their mind, they will be marginalized or worse.
For his part, Weinandy told Crux that he’s not concerned about consequences for his own critique. “I am more concerned,” he said, “about the good that my letter might do”. He said that the reason he chose to go public with the letter is that it “expresses the concerns of many more people than just me, ordinary people who’ve come to me with their questions and apprehensions.” Unlike the pope, Fr. Weinandy appears to understand the importance of addressing those concerns: “I wanted them to know that I listened.”
In the conclusion of his letter, Fr. Weinandy asks a question — and reaches a conclusion — that many of us are forced to confront:
I have often asked myself: “Why has Jesus let all of this happen?” The only answer that comes to mind is that Jesus wants to manifest just how weak is the faith of many within the Church, even among too many of her bishops. Ironically, your pontificate has given those who hold harmful theological and pastoral views the license and confidence to come into the light and expose their previously hidden darkness. In recognizing this darkness, the Church will humbly need to renew herself, and so continue to grow in holiness.
There seems to be no other answer. As Catholic Herald deputy editor Dan Hitchens wrote at First Things this week:
[I]n this time of anxiety, the words of St. Vincent of Lerins may offer some comfort. If a heresy spreads and acquires strength, St. Vincent says, it is “because the Lord your God does make trial of you, whether you love Him or not.” St. Paul said that “there must needs be heresies, that they who are approved may be made manifest among you.” So each doctrinal crisis, St. Vincent tells us, is a chance to renew our love for Our Lord: “If the authors of heresies are not immediately rooted up by God … [it is] that it may be apparent of each individual, how tenacious and faithful and steadfast he is in his love of the Catholic faith.”
UPDATE: Fr. Weinandy has resigned his position as consultant to the US Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine at the specific request of the USCCB following the publication of his letter.