Superstition, Dissent, and Scandal? A brief defense of Fr. Thomas Weinandy

Image: Left: Fr. Thomas Weinandy, OFM Cap. (CNS); top right: Fr. James Martin, S.J. (Wikipedia); bottom right: Msgr. John Strynkowski (YouTube)

Fr. Thomas Weinandy, OFM Cap., is owed a debt of gratitude for his courage and forthrightness in making public his letter to Pope Francis respectfully criticizing and encouraging the Holy Father to fulfill his principal charge: to secure the unity of Christ’s Church in faith, charity, and holiness.

Weinandy’s letter comes at a time marked by widespread doctrinal confusion in the Church to a degree heretofore unknown in living memory. Ours is a time when the fierce and beautiful truth of Christ’s saving Gospel is being eclipsed and the Church is undergoing balkanizing fissures threatening her very stability. His letter is important because it comes from a man with a distinguished career as a faithful Catholic theologian and a doctrinal guardian for the Church in the United States. In it, Fr. Weinandy identifies five problematic areas, indicates how he thinks the Holy Father is involved in them, and encourages the Holy Father to fulfill his mandate from Christ. After receiving no response of any substance he made the letter public and in doing so has edified the faithful by reaffirming the solemn duty of the papal office, the truth and relevance of Christ’s doctrines to the spiritual life, and the need for the Holy Father to make wise episcopal appointments.

Some pundits from both progressive and orthodox quarters have been quick to criticize and even condemn Fr. Weinandy and his missive to the Pope. The condemnations I am aware of seem unjust and libelous (more on those in a moment). The criticisms seem to come either from an unreasonable eagerness to defend every word and deed of the Holy Father or from a fear of scandalizing the faithful by publicly expressing disagreement with the Pope (on account of his behavior or his non-definitive and problematic teachings). Thus, a brief defense of Fr. Weinandy is in order.

“Superstition” and “dissent”

In his opinion piece in America magazine online titled “Dissent, Now & Then: Thomas Weinandy and the meaning of Jesuit discernment,” Fr. James Martin, SJ, claims that Weinandy “dissented from Pope Francis’ teachings” – something Martin finds ironic since Weinandy led the committee that scrutinized Sr. Elizabeth Johnson’s Quest for a Living God and found it wanting, doctrinally. Martin also charges Weinandy with the sin of superstition and he expresses acute fear about the way Weinandy asked for a sign from God before composing his letter.

First, a couple of points on the matter of superstition. The sin of superstition has a very precise meaning in Catholic moral teaching: it is a vice contrary to the virtue of religion in which a person “offers divine worship either to whom he ought not, or in a manner he ought not” (Aquinas, Summa Theologiae II-II, q. 92, a. 1). The three classic species of this vice are idolatry, making a compact (explicitly or implicitly) with demons for divination, and performing ritualistic observances contrary to reason, for example, using religious ceremonies not approved by the Church. Weinandy’s account of his prayerful discernment doesn’t fall under any of these species or the genus of the vice of superstition. The prudence in asking God for a sign in particular cases is surely a matter of debate, but a simple act of asking God for a sign is not something immoral per se (see, for example, Isaiah 7, where Ahaz is instructed by Isaiah to ask God for a sign; or the instances of this in the New Testament, such as when the Apostles sought a sign from God in selecting a replacement for Judas in Acts 1:26 or when God himself provided signs for the faithful, such as in Luke 2:34, etc.).

When it comes to dissent, the CDF’s 1990 document, Donum Veritatis (Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, hereafter “DV”), explains that dissent is “public opposition to the Magisterium of the Church” and it “must be distinguished from the situation of personal difficulties treated above” (a. 32). That is to say, “dissenting” is an act distinct in kind from one in which a person expresses difficulties with magisterial teachings. It is clear from a fair reading of his letter that Weinandy has not opposed Francis’ magisterium; rather, he asks the Pope to correct five matters of concern:

(1) the well-known ambiguities in “Amoris Laetita” (hereafter, “AL”) chap. 8;
(2) those statements of the Pope which seem to demean the importance of Church doctrine;
(3) the Pope’s appointment of bishops who have supported and defended those who “hold views counter to Christian belief”;
(4) the Pope’s emerging brand of “synodality” that has resulting in fracturing the unity of faith and praxis in the Church; and
(5) the atmosphere of fear of retribution brought about in no small part by the actions of the Pope and his surrogates.

Say what you will about Fr. Weinandy’s concerns, but not one of them amounts to anything approaching dissent. Asking for clarification of ambiguous statements in a magisterial document hardly constitutes dissent. And his second concern is actually about preserving respect for the teachings of the Magisterium. What magisterial doctrine is Fr. Weinandy even calling into question let alone opposing? In fact, it is precisely his concern for the Church’s doctrine and its importance for the salvation of souls that clearly motivated him to implore the Pope to make a course correction. As the former chief of doctrine for the Church in the United States, Weinandy is a man sensitive to the potential for pastoral disaster caused by the rejection of sound doctrine. So much for Fr. Martin’s preposterous condemnation of Fr. Weinandy’s “dissent” and “superstition.”

Monsignor Strynkowski’s response

Fr. Weinandy has also been impugned by Msgr. John Strynkowski, one of his predecessors at the position of the Secretariat of Christian Doctrine at the USCCB. In an America article (“An open letter to Father Weinandy, from his predecessor, on ‘Amoris Laetitia’ and Pope Francis”), Strynkowski attempts to redress each of Weinandy’s five concerns, prefacing his remarks by claiming that AL is “an act of ordinary Magisterium, and thus enjoys presumption as having been guided by the Spirit of the Lord.” To be sure, Weinandy knows that even non-definitive magisterial teachings “are not without divine assistance and call for the adherence of the faithful” (DV, a. 17). The Church’s indefectibility would be imperiled by a substantive amount of errors in such teaching.

And yet this does not preclude all possibility of error in non-infallible magisterial statements, as the CDF points out in DV, 24: “It could happen that some Magisterial documents might not be free from all deficiencies.” Some claims found in AL reaffirm infallibly defined doctrine; others are not magisterial in the strict sense. Still others appear to run contrary to infallible dogma. The Holy Spirit guarantees that any error in non-definitive magisterial teachings will not destroy the Church. Situations like these, thankfully, are painful and rare but such is our lot. And publicly identifying problems in non-definitive teachings (such as critical ambiguity) in no way entails a failure to recognize God’s assistance to those who exercise magisterial authority. It is beyond facile for Strynkowski to imply otherwise.

Most of Strynkowski’s criticisms are not worth dwelling on at length as they are brief and dubious and, thus, easily dismissed. The sheer number of articles, open letters, books, episcopal statements, and press releases displaying a conflicting variety of theological interpretations of AL on the pastoral care of divorced and remarried Catholics living in more uxorio suffices to belie Strynkowski’s bald assertion that most bishops and theologians do not agree with Weinandy’s perception of ambiguity in chapter 8 of AL. The Holy Father frequently signals that he is no fan of dogma which he regularly portrays as antithetical to mercy and pastoral accompaniment. The Pope’s record of episcopal appointments, promotions, and firings speaks for itself. Weinandy charitably exercised restraint by not including a laundry list of well-known problematic bishops and I will follow suit.

For evidence that Pope Francis has promoted a range of problematic “doctrinal and moral options within the Church” under the rubrics of a flawed “synodality” we need look no further than the current balkanization of the Church under his leadership where what is a mortal sin in Poland and Philadelphia is permissible in Germany and Malta regarding Communion for divorced Catholics living in more uxoriowith their civil partner. Finally, while there are plenty of instances of the Holy Father not welcoming but perhaps resenting criticism (some of which are plausibly deniable), the recent humiliation of Cardinal Sarah suffices to show why there is an atmosphere of fear among bishops and theologians who dare to disagree with Pope Francis.

Scandalizing the faithful?
This leaves us with the final and, in my estimation, the most important point of criticism, one shared by Catholics of varying dispositions – lay and expert, progressive and orthodox alike. Some faithful Catholic thinkers have publicly expressed concerns that the publication of Fr. Weinandy’s letter might scandalize the faithful—but without specifying exactly how. For his part, Msgr. Strynkowski closes his letter by warning Fr. Weinandy that “Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, urged that dissent from ordinary Magisterium should be disclosed privately to church authority—see ‘Donum Veritatis’ (No. 30).”

Aside from the false suggestion that Fr. Weinandy is dissenting from Church teaching (refuted above), the striking fact in Strynkowski’s parting shot is that Ratzinger and “Donum Veritatis” said no such thing! In his prepared remarks delivered publicly in 1990 at a press conference upon the release of DV, Ratzinger is on the record as saying precisely the opposite. Here is what he actually said:

Taken out of context, in fact, they [namely, articles 29 through 31 of DV] can give rise to the impression that the Instruction allows the theologian the sole option of submitting divergent opinions to the magisterial authorities in secret…. It is quite obvious that the Instruction is not proposing ‘secret’ communications but dialogue which remains on an ecclesial and scientific plane and avoids distortions at the hand of the mass media…. In actuality, the point is precisely to use arguments instead of pressure as a means of persuasion”. (Emphasis added. Cited in the July 5, 1990 issue of the USCCB publication Origins and in the book The Nature and Mission of Theology [Ignatius Press, 1995], p 117.)

This citation comes from a section of Ratzinger’s public address entitled “The Magisterium, the university, and the mass media,” in which he specifies the precise and narrowly-circumscribed limits of the directive regarding the mass media. One should avoid using the media as a means to exert political pressure on the Church; yet one may use media outlets to pursue reasoned argumentation in the light of faith. The entire section of his press release comments are worth reading through carefully several times. It bears emphasizing: The Church and the CDF do not prohibit faithful Catholics from expressing grave concerns about the Church and the Magisterium in public fora. But when using public media, the Church requires the faithful to mount charitable and reasoned arguments rather than rhetoric of political machination, the latter being a hallmark of the kind of dissent that was ongoing from Humanae Vitae up to the publication of DV in 1990. DV explains exactly when and why, “the theologian should avoid turning to the ‘mass media’” by adding this qualification, “for it is not by seeking to exert the pressure of public opinion that one contributes to the clarification of doctrinal issues and renders service to the truth” (30).

This explains the paradox that puzzles folks such as Fr. Martin: the theologians scrutinized under Fr. Weinandy’s tenure at the USCCB were actually dissenting from Church doctrine and some of them used the media as a tool to manipulate the faithful. Whereas those who publicly express problems with Pope Francis’ pontificate, like Fr. Weinandy himself, are not dissenting but are serving the truth of the Gospel by contributing to the clarification of doctrinal issues. The difference is stark and should be obvious to all.

In his letter to Pope Francis, Fr. Weinandy adheres faithfully to the Church’s directives by expressing cogent reasons for the five principal issues he raises with the Pope. He is clearly concerned for the success of Francis’ pontificate, the Gospel of Christ, and the good of souls. It has been pointed out correctly that letters like Weinandy’s also fall under the duties specified in canon 212 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law:

§3. According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons. (Emphasis added)

Here we see the Church stating that sometimes the faithful have a duty to make known publicly (“to the rest of the Christian faithful”) their opinions on matters pertaining “to the good of the Church.” When the integrity of Church’s moral and sacramental teachings is threatened, this duty ought to be engaged. For his part, Fr. Weinandy has fulfilled this mandate and has respected the directives of DV and CIC can. 212 “to a T.”

With respect to scandal, in the current crisis what actually scandalizes souls — in the strict sense of providing the occasion for sin — is the sense of many faithful Catholics that the Holy Father is promoting a pastoral policy that no longer requires all divorced and remarried Catholics living in more uxorio to repent of adultery and commit to live in strict continence in order to receive the sacraments of Reconciliation and Communion. If this sense is mistaken, it is easily redressed: the Holy Father can simply answer the dubia! The real scandal here is the occasioning of thoughts and desires to commit the objectively grave sins of active divorce and adultery and material sacrilege.

What scandalizes souls is not the reasoned and charitable criticism of the Pope (see Gal 2:11) but the silence of bishops and theologians who do not respectfully, charitably, and publicly express grave concerns about this confusion and who do not reaffirm the Church’s perennial doctrine and practice regarding marriage and reception of the Eucharist. At the very least, the publication of Fr. Weinandy’s letter mitigates these and other scandals. I have treated at length the conditions for a morally licit public correction of a pope in another article, but the bottom line is that subordinates have a duty to fraternally correct their superiors (even the Pope) out of charity and in public when the faith is publicly endangered (see Aquinas, Summa Theologiae II-II, q. 33, a. 4 where he treats of St. Paul publicly correcting St. Peter as recounted in Gal 2:11). In his exhortation to the Holy Father, Fr. Weinandy has met all of the criteria established by the Church’s tradition and by her moral and canonical directives.

A final thought: The “irony meter” broke when Fr. Weinandy was asked to resign as a doctrine consultant for the USCCB because he expressed criticisms and grave concerns in a respectfully-written letter in which he points out, among other things, that the Holy Father has contributed to an atmosphere where the faithful fear being punished for expressing criticisms and grave concerns. May courageous bishops support Fr. Weinandy out of true Christian charity for the Holy Father and for the faithful; may they reaffirm Christ’s moral teachings and implore the Holy Father to boldly and unambiguously strengthen the brethren in the fullness of the faith of Christ.

 Originally published at Catholic World Report. Reprinted with permission. 
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