The recent dismissal of Professor Josef Seifert, an outstanding Catholic scholar, can be seen as a particularly acute symptom of at least three distinct, but interdependent, maladies that have been afflicting the Church for many decades now, but which are becoming critical under the unprecedented pontificate of Pope Francis.
First, at the level of Dr. Seifert’s own sphere of professional expertise, philosophy, we are seeing a crisis of natural, rationally knowable truth. When a philosopher is removed from office for pointing out that premises inexorably produce logical conclusions, the very foundations of all philosophy are being undermined – and in this case by the Church’s own leaders. Unlike Luther, who railed against human reason as being “the Devil’s whore” ever since the Fall, the Catholic Church has always understood that the credibility of Catholic doctrine rests on its harmony with sound philosophy. Therefore, when leading prelates brush aside the importance of logic, revealed truth is also undermined.
This in fact is the second malady now afflicting us. If the Church were to formally contradict what it had always taught emphatically about moral principles and specific norms regarding marriage and sacramental life, it would not be an infallible Church. It would be reduced to a protestantized community wherein the individual’s private judgment ultimately reigns supreme: a community in which the ‘depositum fidei‘ is increasingly relativized by what the present Pontiff likes to call the ‘depositum vitae‘. But a so-called “deposit of life” is by nature indefinable and indeterminate. Appealing to it thus leaves everyone free to subjectively apply, adapt, or reinterpret the moral law according to the way each person evaluates his or her “real life circumstances.”
In the essay that provoked the wrath of his superiors, Professor Seifert pointed out that if God could sometimes “ask” a person in a particular “life situation” to continue violating a norm of sexual ethics which the Church has always taught allows for no exceptions, that novel principle would flow over catastrophically to influence other areas of conduct.
Perhaps even more ominous is the passage of Amoris Laetitia which says that in some circumstances a person might incur “further sin” (supposedly against the children springing from an adulterous union) by compliance with the norm against sexual intimacy outside of a valid marriage. But to say that in some circumstances one could be guilty of sin, and thus offend God, precisely by OBEYING a Commandment of the divinely revealed Decalogue, would not only be ruinous to all Christian morality; it would also verge on blasphemy by seeming to impugn the veracity of God himself.
The above-mentioned philosophical and theological maladies have to do with the Church’s doctrinal, magisterial function – her role as ‘Ecclesia docens‘. The third malady of which Dr. Seifert’s dismissal is symptomatic is located in the Church’s pastoral, administrative and disciplinary function: the ‘Ecclesia gubernans‘. But it follows inevitably from the two previous afflictions. If logical coherence, the law of self-contradiction, and doctrinal consistency are now no longer to be absolute standards for Catholic thought and practice, but are to be continually adapted to a supposed “deposit of life” by which one “reinterprets” the deposit of faith according to ever-changing circumstances, then order and unity in the Church will have to be maintained by the simple exercise of power, authority, jurisdiction.
So the spectre of a new era of ecclesial voluntarism looms before us, in which the primacy of the Intellect – always recognized by the ‘philosophia perennis‘ championed by St. Thomas Aquinas – may give way to the primacy of Will. The fact that Professor Seifert’s ecclesiastical superior in Spain felt no need to offer any reasoned rebuttal of his criticism of Amoris Laetitia is ominous. The mere fact that he had openly charged the Supreme Pontiff with error was deemed sufficient cause for his removal from office. That was traditionally a reasonable procedure when the Supreme Pontiff’s teaching was always backed up by a massive and solid wall of agreement on the part of all his predecessors. But Dr. Seifert was pointing out that Pope Francis was DEPARTING from the teaching of his predecessors! “No matter”, was the implied response: “The present pope says what he says, and that settles it!” This is to convert legitimate papal authority into Papal Positivism: the sheer Will of the present pontiff defeats all his predecessors and defeats all contrary arguments. Indeed, it makes any contrary argument simply irrelevant.
May heaven preserve us from this threatening Triumph of the Will over both faith and reason!
The Rev. Brian W. Harrison, O.S., M.A., S.T.D., a priest of the Society of the Oblates of Wisdom, is a retired Associate Professor of Theology of the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico in Ponce, P.R. In 1997 he gained his doctorate in Systematic Theology, summa cum laude, from the Pontifical Athenæum of the Holy Cross in Rome.
Since 2007 Fr. Harrison has been scholar-in-residence at the Oblates of Wisdom Study Center in St. Louis, Missouri, is well-known as a speaker and writer. He is the author of three books and over 130 articles in Catholic books, magazines and journals in the U.S.A., Australia, Britain, France, Spain and Puerto Rico.