The Morality of Correcting the Pope

Editor’s note: with the apparent attempt of the Roman Pontiff to suppress the traditional Roman rite, the following text may prove helpful from OnePeterFive contributing editor, Michael Sirilla of Franciscan University. Originally published in 2017 in the context of the Correctio Filialis, the fundamental principles elucidated here continue to provide moral guidance for Catholics.

There is a good bit of confusion currently among faithful Catholics about whether it was morally licit for the pastors and theologians to make public their filial correction of the Holy Father regarding portions of Amoris Laetitia and his actions that, in their estimation, propagate heresy; or the liceity of Prof. Seifert’s public expression of grave concerns about the same.  It is unfortunate that their actions and those of others such as Germain Grisez and John Finnis have been impugned by other theologians, Catholic pundits, and even some bishops who have claimed publicly and in Catholic media that these persons acted immorally and are causing damage to the unity of the Church, even inciting the faithful to disobedience to the Apostolic See.  It seems as though more ink has been spilled over the fact that there is a filial correction than on the content of the correction itself.  My sole intention in this article is to show that the public expression of these concerns and corrections of the Holy Father is morally licit, prescinding entirely from the question of whether any particular interpretation of AL or of the Holy Father’s other words and deeds is correct.

St. Thomas Aquinas, drawing from the rich tradition of the Church’s history, specifically from St. Paul’s account of rebuking St. Peter in Galatians 2 as commented upon by St. Augustine, shows quite clearly that not only is it permissible for a subordinate to correct fraternally his prelate, but that it is also necessary for him to do so publicly in certain circumstances.  And this, notwithstanding the alleged prohibition in “Donum Veritatis” (hereafter DV) a. 30 of theologians expressing their concerns in the mass media; below, it will be made clear that DV was not firmly prohibiting every instance of making concerns public.  In his treatise on the theological virtue of charity, an act of which is “fraternal correction,” a spiritual work of mercy, Aquinas argues that correcting the sinner is an act of love, helping to save one’s brother from sin and for virtue.  One may even be bound to correct one’s superior in the Church because he is bound to him by charity; though he must do so “not with impudence and harshness, but with gentleness and respect” (Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 33, a. 4, corp.).  Under very specific conditions, this correction may have to be given to a prelate publicly.  Aquinas argues:

It must be observed, however, that if the faith were endangered, a subject ought to rebuke his prelate even publicly. Hence Paul, who was Peter’s subject, rebuked him in public, on account of the imminent danger of scandal concerning faith, and, as the gloss of Augustine says on Galatians 2:11, “Peter gave an example to superiors, that if at any time they should happen to stray from the straight path, they should not disdain to be reproved by their subjects.”
Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 33, a. 4, ad 2

The basis in divine revelation for the proper exercise of the duty of fraternal correction is found in St. Paul’s narrative in Galatians 2:11 (“But when Cephas was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed”) and more generally in Christ’s words in Matthew 18:16-17 where He instructs the disciples to make known to the Church (i.e., publicly) the fraternal correction they gave to an errant brother, failing the first two attempts at private remonstration (“And if he will not hear thee, take with thee one or two more: that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may stand.  And if he will not hear them: tell the church. And if he will not hear the church, let him be to thee as the heathen and publican”).  While Christ’s words form the basis for the Dominical directive of proper fraternal correction, St. Paul’s narrative constitutes the basis for the divinely-inspired directive of appropriate correction of superiors by subordinates.

The current Code of Canon Law recognizes that at certain times it is a duty, not just a right, for competent persons to make known to the faithful (again, that would be publicly) their opinion on matters pertaining to the good of the Church:

§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.
– CIC, can. 212, § 3 (emphasis added)

Whether one agrees with the assessment found in any of the corrections or concerns made public so far (the “filial correction,” Prof. Seifert’s letters, etc.), a fair reading and plain interpretation of those texts – one that avoids groundless conspiracy theories – shows that they meet the criteria mentioned so far: 1) competent, knowledgeable persons; 2) matters pertaining to the good of the Church; 3) maintaining reverence towards their pastors and especially the Holy Father; 4) attentive to the common good and the dignity of persons. Along these same lines, it should be noted that canonist Dr. Edward Peters recently published an essay on his blog, “On arguments that may be, and sometimes must be, made,” arguing that the filial correction seems to fall within the boundaries of Canon 212, wherein it is stated that “in regard to persons with special knowledge, competence, and prestige in regard to ecclesiastical matters, that they ‘have the right and even at times the duty‘ to express their views on matters impacting the well-being of the Church”.

One canonical argument that has surfaced recently in the Catholic press against the filial correction is that it serves to incite animosity or malice among the faithful against the Pope. Canon 1373 has been cited to this effect:

A person who publicly incites among subjects animosities or hatred against the Apostolic See or an ordinary because of some act of power or ecclesiastical ministry or provokes subjects to disobey them is to be punished by an interdict or other just penalties.

The public corrections in question do not incite such odium, unless by “odium” here one means that it would be hateful to say, contrary to some alleged claims in Amoris Laetitia, that it is not permissible for divorced-and-remarried Catholic living in more uxorio (i.e., as if they were husband and wife) to receive Communion.  In other words, it would be hateful to say that the Pope is wrong to propose such a solution for those persons and that doing so would incite others to disregard the Pope’s teaching. (What would that say about Paul correcting Peter?)

On the contrary, the authors of all the documents mentioned do not incite hatred but explicitly affirm that they are moved by love of Christ, the Holy Father, and the good of souls in expressing their corrections because, in their estimation, proposing Communion for those living in more uxorio, some of them “knowing full well” that their situation is a problem (as AL rightly says), is a danger to the faith.  The authors take great pains to demonstrate their love for the doctrine of Christ and the Church, for the current Holy Father himself, and for the good of souls.  The souls of persons who are not instructed of the gravity of their actions, who are told to receive Communion without repentance are imperiled and the souls of pastors who fail in their regard are more gravely imperiled by committing scandal in the strict sense (i.e., proposing that someone commit a sin; see Matthew 18:6).  The attempt to correct these errors is an act of charity to lead others, including our prelates, to divine truth and to a life of holiness in Christ.

Some intelligent and faithful Catholics think that AL and the Holy Father do not propose this pastoral approach.  But others in the Church do, such as those bishops and episcopal conferences (such as Malta and Germany) who propose precisely this and who have the public support of the Pope.  The diocese of Rome itself has adopted this policy.  But if those who have publicly corrected the Pope are right, then the danger to the faith that this proposal presents is real and grave and thus their public correction is warranted.  On the other hand, if the writers and signers misunderstood the Holy Father, it should not be impossible to clear this up and the Holy Father, whose principal duty as holder of the petrine office is to secure the unity of the Church, ought to do so or explain why doing so is not necessary.  He is not bound to do so by any earthly authority since he holds supreme jurisdiction in the Church on earth.  Rather, the Lord Himself binds Peter and his successors to instruct the errant in matters of faith and morals as a matter of charity (Jn 21:15ff., “Do you love me?…Feed my sheep”).  It is hard to imagine a graver situation: to very many faithful Catholics it seems that we must choose to disregard either the Pope’s apparent directives in AL or those of Christ and St. Paul, consistently upheld by the Church’s magisterium up to the present.  Christ teaches that divorce and remarriage is adultery (Mt 5:32) and St. Paul teaches that receiving Communion unworthily is condemnable (1 Cor 11:29).  It is a matter of whether our Lord’s teaching and that of St. Paul and the Church in this regard is being respected or spurned.  The Holy Father seems to affirm Christ’s teaching on divorce in AL; but the apparent pastoral proposal seems to fall afoul of St. Paul’s teaching on worthy reception of Communion.  And this is not a matter of private judgment regarding Mt 5 and 1 Cor 11 since the Church has publicly and definitively affirmed the interpretation that divorce and unworthy reception of Communion is gravely sinful (e.g., Trent, Vatican II, Familiaris Consortio, etc.).

Still, serious confusion persists among faithful Catholics about whether or not theologians and other competent persons in the Church are permitted publicly to express their grave concerns about a non-definitive magisterial teaching.  In light of this dilemma and the one precipitated by various interpretations of AL (and whether or not one agrees with the assessment of the “correctors”) there is a way to judge between licit and illicit ways of going to the mass media, and the Church herself has given us at least some guidance on this.

A passage from the 1990 CDF document “Donum Veritatis” has been cited recently and mistakenly in the Catholic press in order to condemn the actions of the signatories of the filial correction.  Speaking of situations in which faithful theologians find non-definitive magisterial teachings problematic or erroneous, “Donum Veritatis,” a. 30 states:

In cases like these, the theologian should avoid turning to the ‘mass media’, but have recourse to the responsible authority, 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.

Going back a few articles to number 27 we read:

The theologian will not present his own opinions or divergent hypotheses as though they were non-arguable conclusions. Respect for the truth as well as for the People of God requires this discretion (cf. Rom 14:1-15; 1 Cor 8; 10: 23-33). For the same reasons, the theologian will refrain from giving untimely public expression to them.

These two articles make it clear that going public is not licit when the intention is to exert public pressure on the Church to change her teaching (especially teaching that cannot be changed) and when the theologian has not made known his concerns to the “responsible authority” first.  It is also clear in this article that theologians must avoid “untimely” public expression of their concerns.  Does this mean that there may be “timely” public expressions of concerns?  The document does not give many explicit criteria for determining timeliness, but “exerting public pressure” (DV, a. 30) is certainly one criterion.  As it stands, DV is arguably too vague to resolve this.

However, in 1990, during the official press conference on the release of DV, then-Cardinal Ratzinger himself (the co-author of DV) publicly affirmed that there may be licit public expression of grave concerns made by theologians regarding problems in magisterial statements.  When questioned about theologians going public with a criticism of non-definitive magisterial teaching, Ratzinger replied:  “We have not excluded all kinds of publication, nor have we closed him up in suffering. The Vatican insists, however, that theologians must choose the proper place to expound their ideas.”  His comments are published in the July 5, 1990 edition of the journal “Origins” (page 119), a publication of the USCCB documenting official acts of the Church’s prelates and related articles.  The issue here is not solely which venue is used to express public concerns since whether one shares them in a scholarly journal or a conference presentation or in a widely-read publication such as an op-ed section of a newspaper the net result is similar: the concerns are made public.  The issues are also how one expresses the concerns (e.g., with respect, cogency, and humility) and to whom one expresses them.  On the latter point, different circumstances will dictate different approaches.  For instance, while it could be scandalous to air concerns to non-experts on a matter understood mainly by theologians (such as the metaphysical status of Christ’s Body in the Eucharist), it could be scandalous not to air concerns to non-experts on a fundamental matter easily understood (such as the sin of active divorce or the need to receive Communion in a state of grace).

Lacking further official guidelines for communicating problems with non-definitive magisterial teachings, the current state of the Church’s directives is summarized as follows: going to the media to put pressure on the Church to change or correct her unchangeable doctrine is clearly illicit.  Going public with a concern about an error in non-infallible doctrine or praxis put forth by persons in the magisterium may be done licitly as long as charity and prudence are followed.  Due to the constraints of space, it is not possible to cite all the other relevant portions of DV that ground this summary; the reader should consult the entire document, but especially aa. 24 through 31 (especially note the section that begins with the words, “When it comes to the question of interventions in the prudential order, it could happen that some Magisterial documents might not be free from all deficiencies”).

But, it is argued, aren’t the “correctors” illicitly expressing merely their “opinion” or “divergent hypotheses” as “non-arguable conclusions” (as prohibited by DV, a. 27, cited above)?  On the contrary, they are reiterating what the Church has publicly, definitively, and consistently taught.  It is not their private opinion that Christ says that divorce is gravely sinful (Mt 5), the Church publicly and consistently has taught this (Trent, Gaudium et Spes, Familiaris Consortio, the CCC, etc.).  It is not their private opinion that Paul teaches that unworthy reception of Communion is gravely sinful (1 Cor 11), but the Church again has publicly and consistently taught this.  It is also not merely their private opinion that the Holy Father has publicly supported those bishops and episcopal conferences who permit reception of Communion by those divorced and remarried Catholics living in more uxorio.  He has done so publicly.  Where they may “diverge” at all is when they “diverge” from the implicit liceity of such permission arguably granted in AL and clearly granted by some episcopal conferences (Germany, Malta).

Neither do they fall afoul of the concluding formula of the “Professio Fidei” nor of the last part of the “Oath of Fidelity” since in this matter they are, in fact, assenting to a definitive public teaching of the Church (on divorce and Communion) and at most refusing to assent to the recent but ambiguous pastoral directives to the contrary.  It is a well-known principle of theological hermeneutics that ambiguous claims are to be interpreted in light of the unambiguous; and that non-definitive teaching in light of definitive teaching on the same matters of faith or morals.  Of course, if AL is not giving that pastoral directive, then they are not even refusing to assent to AL.

Surely, the “correctors” have privately discussed and debated their concerns with each other and they first approached the Holy Father privately with their letter before releasing it publicly.  They consistently maintain a position of respect and reverence for the Pope.  And the matter is timely, as discussed above.  Great damage is already occurring in the Church with particular churches and national episcopal conferences suffering a balkanization such that “what is permissible in Germany is gravely sinful in Poland.”  Thus, regardless of whether one concurs with their assessment, it should be easy to recognize that they acted morally licitly, if not heroically.

A final point of clarification: the filial correction does not accuse Pope Francis of heresy.  Rather, it claims that Pope Francis has propagated heresy in his public approval and support of those bishops and episcopal conferences who are now permitting divorced and remarried persons living in more uxorio to receive Communion.  More precisely, the “correctors” are pointing out that they consider the Pope to be failing in his duty to preserve, defend, and explain divinely-revealed truth in the area of marriage and the Eucharist by supporting those bishops who are granting such permissions.  There are ways to propagate heresy other than by teaching heresy; for instance, promoting and approving others who do so.  This is not an act of heresy but of negligence.  Pope Honorius was posthumously condemned by Constantinople III (680-681AD) for allowing heretical teaching. This is truly distinct from actually teaching heresy.

This is a rather painful issue about which the brightest lights and authorities in the Church disagree.  Many faithful Catholics hope and pray that the Holy Father, as our loving spiritual Father, would kindly reach out to these individuals and help them and all of us understand better and more clearly the deposit of faith and morals regarding marriage, divorce, and the proper dispositions for fruitful reception of the Eucharist.  They implore him to secure the supernatural unity of the Church in faith, hope, and charity which is the principal duty of the petrine office.  Those who have made public their concerns and corrections with these precise intentions have acted uprightly for the good of the Church and the honor of Christ.

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Dr. Michael Sirilla is a professor of dogmatic and systematic theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is the author of “The Ideal Bishop: Aquinas’s Commentaries on the Pastoral Epistlespublished by The Catholic University of America Press (2017).  The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.  

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