Recant! Responding to the Lutheran Heresy of Pope Francis

Editor’s note: The following comes from Paolo Pasqualucci, a retired professor of philosophy of the law at the University of Perugia, Italy.

It is impossible to forget the stunning high praise Martin Luther’s personality and doctrine won from no less than a Roman pontiff – that is, from the reigning Pope Francis, during one of his customary impromptu speeches. Conversing in Italian and Spanish with the accredited journalists while flying back from Armenia, he answered a question on the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran world in the following way:

I think that Martin Luther’s intentions were not mistaken; he was a reformer. Perhaps some of his methods were not right, although at that time, if you read Pastor’s history, for example – Pastor was a German Lutheran who experienced a conversion when he studied the facts of that period; he became a Catholic – we see that the Church was not exactly a model to emulate. There was corruption and worldliness in the Church; there was attachment to money and power. That was the basis of his protest. He was also intelligent, and he went ahead, justifying his reasons for it.

Nowadays, Lutherans and Catholics, and all Protestants, are in agreement on the doctrine of justification: on this very important point he was not mistaken. He offered a “remedy” for the Church, and then this remedy rigidified in a state of affairs, a discipline, a way of believing, a way of acting, a mode of liturgy. But there was not only Luther: there was Zwingli, there was Calvin[.] … And behind them? The princes, “cuius regio eius religio”. We have to place ourselves in the context of the times. It is a history that is not easy to understand, not easy[.] …

Then things moved on. Today, the dialogue is very good and I believe that the document on justification is one of the richest ecumenical documents, one of the richest and most profound. Right? There are divisions but they also depend on the churches[.] [1].

This sort of scandal – a pope expressing praise and even admiration for a condemned heretic – was bound to happen after the official agreement reached (after many years of mutual “dialog”) between Catholics and Lutherans on the doctrine of justification. An agreement on this delicate matter, or Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church, was indeed signed on Oct. 31, 1999.

The existence of such an agreement implies that Luther had made no mistakes in his doctrine of justification – Martin Luther, the great heretic, one of the fiercest enemies of the Catholic Church who ever appeared on Earth! But now, after 500 years, we understand that his doctrine “on the very important point of the justification” appears to be so good as to be de facto adopted in the Joint Declaration itself!

The disgraceful Joint Declaration is an unbelievable document, something undoubtedly unique in the whole history of the Catholic Church, the only and true Church of Christ. We are now being told that there are articles of faith that we share with the Lutheran heretics, on the same matters the Lutherans have been misinterpreting and distorting for 500 years.  Of course, there remain some mutual differences, the Declaration tells us, but they are obviously minimized. Since they squarely contradict the contents of the various “joint declarations” scattered in the document, they are left rotting in the cellar, so to say, while the ancient condemnations are devalued to mere “salutary warnings to which we must attend in our teaching and practice” [2]!

Let’s look at some of the Lutheran tenets shared by this Declaration.

In §3, The Common Understanding of Justification, we read, no. 15: “Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works” [3].

Same paragraph, no. 17: it is jointly declared that “God’s saving action in Christ tells us that as sinners our new life is solely due to the forgiving and renewing mercy that God imparts as a gift and we receive in faith, and never can merit in any way” [4].

Finally, there is §4.1, Human Powerlessness and Sin in Relation to Justification, no. 19, where it is jointly stated, as if it were absolutely obvious to us Catholics, that “[j]ustification takes place solely by God’s grace” [5].

As far as good works are concerned, the Declaration proclaims, in §4.7, The Good Works of the Justified, no. 37: “We confess together that good works – a Christian life lived in faith, hope and love – follow justification and are its fruits.”[6] This last sentence appears to contradict the truths defined by the Council of Trent, which has solemnly reaffirmed the meritorious character of the good works for eternal life, given the fact that, according to Holy Scripture, they necessarily concur in obtaining it.

All this considered, we cannot be amazed at Pope Francis’s devastating proclamation that “on this very important point Luther was not mistaken.” Indeed, if he was not mistaken, his doctrine of the justification was correct. If it was theologically correct, then Luther was in the right – so much in the right that this doctrine of his is nowadays clearly purported by the Joint Declaration.

Can we accept this? No. As Catholics, as milites Christi, it is our duty to proclaim that this joint profession of faith with the Lutherans openly contradicts the true doctrine of the justification solemnly defined by the dogmatic Council of Trent. At the end of its Decree on Justification, 13 January 1547, we find 33 canons that recapitulate the doctrine expounded and inflict the related anatemata.

Canon no. 9, condemning the heresy of justification sola fide:

If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema. [7]

Canon no. 11, condemning the related heresy of justification sola gratia:

If any one saith, that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favour of God; let him be anathema. [8]

Canon no. 24, condemning the heresy according to which good works are merely the fruits or consequences of justification obtained sola fide et sola gratia, with absolute exclusion of any cooperation on our part by means of our good works:

If any one saith, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema. [9]

The anonymous “one” whose heretical opinions are here condemned obviously includes Luther and all those who share and will share his opinions on these matters. Judging from the abstracts quoted above, doesn’t the Joint Declaration seem to be quite clear in its reasoning Lutherana mente?

On this appalling Declaration there is much more to say, but here I want only to make this last point: we cannot forget that this Joint Declaration is the final result of a “dialog” entertained with the Lutherans over the last decades, with the encouragement and approval of Pope John Paul II and cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, afterward Pope Benedict XVI. As far as I know, they have never found anything wrong with the joint declarations of the Joint Declaration! They have, on the other hand, repeatedly credited Martin Luther with a “profound religiosity” and a “Christ-centered spirituality” [10]!

Notwithstanding, let’s pose a humble and simple question: Is Pope Francis’s public praise of Luther’s doctrine on justification, formally condemned as heretical by the Church, to be considered heretical, too?

In fact, declaring to the whole world that Luther “was not mistaken” in his doctrine on justification sola fide et sola gratia, Pope Francis forces us to draw the only possible conclusion in accordance with elementary logic: Luther’s doctrine must be right, given the fact that in itself it is not wrong. But if the Lutheran doctrine is right, then heresy is falsely changed into right doctrine, and we must conclude that Pope Francis is subscribing to what the Church has condemned as heresy for 500 years on end.

But no pope whatsoever can approve of a heresy. By divine command (Lk. 22:32), the sovereign pontiff has the duty to maintain and defend the depositum fidei; he simply cannot modify or alter it, nor is he allowed to pretend it does not exist. Therefore, he simply cannot profess or share errores in fide or haereses, not even as a “private theologian.” If such a disgraceful event happens, the clergy and the faithful are morally obliged to ask him to recant publicly and to reaffirm the right and perennial doctrine of the Church – as it happened in the fourteenth century with reigning pope John XXII.

Against the prevailing belief, the aging John XXII suddenly began to preach in his sermons that the souls of the beati had to wait until the day of the Final Judgment to be admitted to the visio beatifica. After long, passionate, and even violent public discussions, initially promoted by the pope himself, he recanted his opinion in front of three cardinals shortly before his death. His successor, Pope Benedict XII, with the Apostolic Constitution Benedictus Deus, on 29 January 1336 defined the doctrine of the immediate vision as the sole and unique doctrine to be believed by all Christians [11].

John XXII recanted his personal unwise opinion on a matter that had not yet been formally defined as an article of faith by the supreme authority of the Church. He had proposed but not imposed a new doctrine that was in the end rejected as erroneous by the great majority of the Catholics. The famous and solitary example of John XXII – of a papal recantation – serves us as a true precedent, and especially in this sense: that a pope must recant his wrong interpretations of doctrine, even if propagated by him as a mere “private theologian.”

But John XXII never praised heresies already and formally condemned by the Church, as Pope Francis has done. It seems that his unwise and unacceptable praise of Luther’s heresy has no real precedent in the history of the Church.

In fact, thanks to his impromptu remarks, Pope Francis has heavily damaged the authority of the whole Magisterium of the Church in the eyes of world public opinion. If Luther was not in the wrong, who was? Someone must surely have been in the wrong during that great and tragic chaos known as the Lutheran schism. To declare that the heresiarch was not in the wrong implies that all those who condemned him as a formal heretic were – i.e., the three popes that excommunicated him as well as the dogmatic Council of Trent. To say Luther “was not wrong,” then, simply means to contradict five hundred years of Church Magisterium, sapping the authority of this same Magisterium, guilty (we now understand) of condemning for five centuries the righteous, very religious, Christ-centered person Luther was supposed to be.

At this point, someone might perhaps ask the following question: Is it legitimate to say that he who openly shares a known heresy proves to be a heretic himself?

Yes, absolutely. He who approves in his mind of the errors professed by a known heretic becomes his accomplice, morally and spiritually speaking. When we approve something – action or notion – being fully aware of what we are doing, it becomes ours. The alien opinion I freely share becomes my own, first in my mind and then in the eyes of the world, if I inform the public of this approval of mine.

One further objection could be the following: Pope Francis’s peculiar statements were issued while conversing as a “private theologian.” Therefore, they possess no magisterial value. Why don’t we just ignore them?

It is true that Pope Francis’s so far multifarious declarations as a “private theologian” have no magisterial value. However, since they almost always deal with relevant aspects of our faith and morals, it is not possible to ignore them. The heterodox slant they often show has a profoundly negative effect on the faithful. The fact is that a pope, even when he is releasing an interview as a private individual, can never be considered a mere private person. Even when he is not speaking ex cathedra, a pope is always the pope, in the sense that every sentence of his is always studied and weighed as if pronounced ex cathedra. The pope always embodies a superior authority: he is the authority par excellence, his being the authority of an institution (the pontificate) that represents in this world no less than the divine authority and supernatural powers of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

It is in no way acceptable, therefore, for Pope Francis, even as a “private theologian,” privately or publicly, to praise and extol well known heresies, formally damned by the Magisterium of the Church.

For the salvation of his own soul and our own, to avert the legitimate wrath of God on all of us, to repair the offense inflicted against the honor of Our Lord, Pope Francis should publicly recant his imprudent utterances as soon as possible and repeat and confirm the solemn condemnation of Lutheranism in all its aspects.


[1] In-flight Press Conference of His Holiness Pope Francis from Armenia to Rome, papal flight, Sunday, 26 June 2016,, pg. 8/12. Emphasis added. The pope was speaking in Italian. The present article is my own non-literal translation into English of a longer article, originally posted by me in Italian on the blog on 23 September 2017 and subsequently by Maria Guarini on her blog on 26 September 2017. The English text has been checked by 1Peter5 staff.

[2] Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,, §5, The Significance and Scope of the Consensus Reached, no. 42, pg. 10/20. Emphasis added.

[3] Ibidem, pg 4/20. Emphasis added.

[4] Ibidem, pg 5/20. Emphasis added.

[5] Ibidem, pg 5/20. Emphasis added.

[6] Ibidem, pg 9/20. Emphasis added. The notion of “good works” hinted at here seems vague.

[7] The Catholic Encyclopedia,, pg. 10/16. See also: DS 819/1559.

[8] Ibidem. See also: DS 821/1561.

[9] Op. cit., pg 11/18. See also: DS 834/1574.

[10] See John Paul II, letter of 31 Oct. 1983 (, letters of John Paul II, 1983); speech on 22 June 1996 (, speeches of John Paul II, 1996). And also Benedict XVI, speech in the Convent of Erfurt (, speeches of Benedict XVI, 2011).

[11] On this specific argument see Fr. Jean-Michel Gleize, FSSPX, in a collection of six short articles entitled En cas de doute…, ‘Courrier de Rome,’ Jan 2017, LII, no. 595, pg. 9-11. These articles deal with the doctrinal issue of the “heretical pope” (si deprehendatur a fide devius). See also Giovanni XXII, entry of Enciclopedia Treccani, by Charles Trottman, It. transl. by Maria Paola Arena, pg 25/45, available online. For the magisterial documentation: DS 529-531/990-991; 1000-1002. Benedict XII also confirmed the traditional belief according to which the souls of the damned are precipitated into Hell by Our Lord immediately after their death (mox post mortem suam ad inferna descendunt).

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