Soon after the publication on April 9 of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on holiness, Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and Be Glad), various scholars were invited to give their responses to the document for this Register article that was published last week.

One of them was Professor Josef Seifert, the Austrian Catholic philosopher, whose positive take on the document has been published in full on this blog here

Another was Professor Claudio Pierantoni, a patristic scholar of medieval philosophy at the University of Chile, who takes a more critical view and whose entire contribution is now published below.  

Pierantoni says the document has “beautiful and useful pages about holiness,” but on the passages that equate abortion with other social justice issues such as the suffering of migrants, he reminds readers that abortion is an “intrinsically evil action, monstrously justified” by legalization, whereas issues such as immigration are matters of “prudential judgment.”

On the section on Gnosticism and Pelagianism, he considers this to be “central” to the exhortation and its “weakest and most dangerous” part. He sees it as directed at those who adhere to “orthodox doctrine and commandments” — a “counterattack” against the cardinals who issued the dubia (a requested clarification of parts of Amoris Laetitia) and against those who issued the filial correction last year, accusing the Pope of spreading heresy, especially through Amoris Laetitia and its interpretations.

Pierantoni says such attacks on defenders of orthodoxy serve to “support the error of situational ethics,” which denies the existence of intrinsically evil acts — something he believes is the “principal heresy of our times.”

According to reliable sources, Gaudete et Exsultate was shown to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith only a very short time before it was published, so the dicastery was unable to provide few if any recommendations or amendments to the text. 

Professor Pierantoni, what is you reaction to him placing the lives of the unborn on an equal basis to other social justice issues? Can this be justified theologically?

Pope Francis says:

“Our defense of the innocent unborn needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, etc.” (101) 

There is seemingly no theological error in affirming that the life of the unborn is equally sacred as the lives of the poor, the destitute, etc. But the problem I see here is that, when we speak of the unborn, we are referring to a specific action, that is the killing of an innocent human being, i.e., assassination. That is an intrinsically evil action, monstrously justified by the law of so many “civilized” countries. On the contrary, social injustice is something we must certainly strive to overcome, but the positive political actions that really favor the overcoming of poverty are a matter of discussion among different schools of thought. 

In general, positive duties are different from negative ones (i.e. prohibitions), because they are the object of prudential judgment, and there is no positive specific action that absolutely has to be carried out in this regard. For example, it is true that we must be generous towards immigrants, but it is a matter of prudential judgment how many immigrants a country can reasonably receive in a given period of time and under which rules. Now, it is utterly disquieting that, on the one hand, the Pope has been “flexible” on matters that, according to Catholic doctrine, are the object of a specific and absolute prohibition, saying for example that “we must not insist too much on such issues [of abortion]”, or speaking favorably and even inviting hardline pro-abortion personalities such as Emma Bonino while, on the other hand, supporting in an absolute and rigid manner political decisions about immigration, that are clearly the object of a prudential judgement. In this sense, he gives the strong impression that he uses his papal influence to promote his own political ideas rather than affirming Catholic doctrine, as would be his duty. 


How would you say this is seen in Gaudete et Exsultate? 

In no. 101 of this exhortation, he laments that a “harmful ideological error is found in those who find suspect the social engagement of others, seeing it as superficial, worldly, secular, materialist, communist or populist.”

Now, it is true that on some occasions there can be an unjustified suspicion that social action is, per se, “materialist or communist, etc.”. But the fact is that an important school of thought during the last 50 years, especially in Latin America, has been Liberation Theology which has effectively supported an alliance between Catholic social doctrine and Marxism. Therefore, that such a suspicion may also quite correctly arise is more than reasonable. Bergoglio himself had opposed this tendency as archbishop in Argentina. But, as Pope, his criticisms have constantly been aimed against the dangers of capitalism and never against the dangers of Marxism. He has never criticized Marxist regimes like Maduro’s in Venezuela, and recently a stunning and quite scandalous statement was given by Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, head of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, who said the Chinese communist regime is good at applying Catholic social doctrine. His comments went uncorrected by the Pope. Of course, also in the past, some aspects of the capitalistic system had been strongly criticized by Popes, e.g. by John Paul II. But then they were balanced by an equal critique to Communism. So, once again, the Pope is giving the impression of promoting his personal ideologically left-leaning agenda rather than affirming a balanced presentation of Catholic social doctrine. He therefore laments a suspicion that he himself has given very good reason to strengthen. 


What fruit have you seen as a result of his wish to criticize those who rigidly adhere to doctrine and the commandmentsWhat do you say to the view that this strategy is aimed at moving away from making “idols” of doctrine, the law and some doctrinal formulations, (an argument of some advocates of Pope Francis’ approach) and a way to “transform the consciousness” of people to become more merciful?

I shall take into consideration these two questions together, because they are two aspects of the same problem.

I think that this is the weakest and most dangerous point in the document. It is important to note that it is not an incidental part of the document, but a central one. Practically the whole of Chapter II — more than 20 paragraphs — is dedicated to denouncing two “subtle enemies of holiness”: Gnosticism and Pelagianism. Now, what is striking in these pages is that all the visible characteristics attributed to people that are supposed to be guilty of these heresies are precisely adherence to orthodox doctrine and commandments (and liturgy), that is, the same characteristics which identify people who have strongly opposed the Pope in recent controversies and which he always calls “rigidity” or “pharisaic” attitude. So, the novelty here is that this supposedly “rigid” attitude is identified with precise heretical doctrines. It looks very much like a counterattack on the part of the Pope against those people who have suggested that he is a heretic or at least have said he has promoted or contributed to spreading heresy (especially through Amoris Laetitia and its interpretations), as did the authors of the Correctio Filialis de Haeresibus Propagatis (Filial Correction of the Pope issued last year) or, in another way, the cardinal authors of the dubia or the authors of other letters and statements, like those of Prof. Seifert, Bishop Schneider, and others, conservative journalists and bloggers, etc. 

Now, it is not the mere fact that he attacks particular persons that is most worrying: still much more preoccupying is the fact that these insults are functional to giving once more support to the error of situation ethics (the doctrine that denies the existence of intrinsically evil actions, not justifiable in any situation) which he has favored, specifically, in the field of rules related to marriage and bioethics. In fact, various passages clearly point to this. For example, in no. 173 the Pope on the one hand correctly states: 

“Naturally, this attitude of listening entails obedience to the Gospel as the ultimate standard, but also to the Magisterium that guards it, as we seek to find in the treasury of the Church whatever is most fruitful for the “today” of salvation.”

But then he goes on: 

“It is nota matter of applying rules or repeating what was done in the past, since the same solutions are not valid in all circumstancesand what was useful in one context may not prove so in another. The discernment of spirits liberates us from rigidity, which has no place before the perennial “today” of the risen Lord. The Spirit alone can penetrate what is obscure and hidden in every situation, and grasp its every nuance, so that the newness of the Gospel can emerge in another light.” (173)

In the abstract, and taken out of context, one could interpret these sentences in an orthodox way: but in practice, bearing in mind the context of the controversies during the present pontificate, especially around the two Synods on Family and AL, it is difficult to deny that a statement like this, under a thin veil, in fact strongly supports the undermining of VS and HV and all the changes, both in praxis and presented as “development of doctrine”, proposed by Card. Kasper, Schönborn, Marx, Fr. Chiodi, Fr. Martin, Mgr. Paglia, and others.

So now the promoters of these changes and errors, that sound heretical and shocking to so many faithful Catholics, are not only reassured of being right, but are now endowed with an aura of fighting a holy battle for orthodoxy against dangerous heretics. 

This is, then, the profound meaning of the Pope’s novel transforming his critics from just “rigid Pharisees” into “sinister Gnostics” and Pelagians.


How accurate are these labels of Gnosticism and Pelagianism? 

It is easy to observe that the rationale for such an identification between defenders of orthodoxy and the Commandments on one side, and Gnostics or Pelagians on the other, is very weak, not to say preposterous.

In fact, the “Gnostic” person whom the Pope illustrates has none of the specific characteristics of truly Gnostic doctrine, but has all the defects the Pope supposes to exist in his theological adversaries. For example, he (or they) has a “doctrinal and disciplinary security” (35), “analyses and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying.” (35, cit. from EG 94), “absolutize their own theories and force others to submit to their way of thinking” (39), “claim to say where God is not, because God is mysteriously present in the life of every person, in a way that he himself chooses, and we cannot exclude this by our presumed certainties” (42), “claim that our way of understanding this truth authorizes us to exercise a strict supervision over others’ lives”. (43), “long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance” (43, cit. of EG 40), etc.  

These are, of course, all the characteristics the Pope gratuitously attributes to those who oppose situation ethics, who insist that there are intrinsically evil acts and Divine Commandments that cannot be changed. Now, to attribute to all of them such a violent and inquisitorial attitude, a “narcissistic superiority” and so on, is one more insulting and offensive aggression against so many thousands of serious and sincere Catholics whose only concern is to put Jesus’ words faithfully into practice. This is not to deny that, of course someof them will have such defects or sins. Some will have other defects or sins, but to deduce generally such terrible defects or mortal sins from the mere fact that they are followers of Catholic moral tradition and supporters of Veritatis Splendor is, on the part of the Roman Pontiff, not only gratuitous, but ungenerous and gravely counterproductive. So Pope Francis — feeling himself to be the victim of the (quite reasonable) accusation of supporting situation ethics, and having refused to answer the dubia and many other questions and observations — now formulates the ludicrous accusation that such faithful Catholics would be, for some obscure reason, also “Gnostics.” That means he sees them not just as heretics, but “adherents to one of the most sinister ideologies” (40), without giving one single characteristic that is specific of true Gnosticism, and limiting himself to mentioning some general attitude of “being superior”, or “rationalist”, or “knowing more than the others” —that is, nothing specific at all. It could be just as well, or better, be applied to the learned theologian who supports situation ethics.

Last but not least, it is to be observed that throughout the document the Ten Commandments are never even mentioned, as if their observance were not the essential basis for Christian holiness — except in a cursory passage where he rebukes people who in Catholic media uphold the Commandments, because they supposedly violate the 8th, calumniating others, (no. 115). Now of course there are people that pass the limits of moderation and decency in the internet. But, with this attitude, the Pope does no justice to all those Catholics that sincerely, and with no violence, uphold the Commandments, and reinforces the already strong suspicion that for him they are not so important, especially in the case of the 6th. And this is, by the way, a symptom of truly Gnostic doctrine.        


How does he apply the term Pelagian?

Equally preposterous is the accusation that they are “Pelagians”. In this case, the argument reaches maybe its most grotesque point, when the Pope says:

“Those who yield to this Pelagian or Semi-pelagian mindset, even though they speak warmly of God’s grace, ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style”. When some of them tell the weak that all things can be accomplished with God’s grace, deep down they tend to give the idea that all things are possible by the human will, as if it were something pure, perfect, all-powerful, to which grace is then added.” (n. 49)

Here, we are informed that the Pelagian heresy infects precisely the kind of people that “speak warmly of God’s grace” and “tell the weak that all things can be accomplished with God’s grace”. Now, where is our knowledge that they are dangerous “Pelagians” supposed to come from? Well, apparently, we only have to believe the Pope — or some person of his entourage endowed with divinatory powers — that they “ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style” and that “deep down they tend to give the idea that all things are possible by the human will, as if it were something pure, perfect, all-powerful, to which grace is then added”. Using that same logic, we could well suppose that St. Augustine himself, particularly when he spoke warmly of God’s grace, “deep down” was really a Pelagian.  

In conclusion: on the one hand, this document has beautiful and useful pages about holiness. But I have not analyzed these because they have already been mentioned and appreciated, also by some papal critics, such as Prof. Seifert in his most recent interview, published here. I will only mention, as examples, the pages about the universal call to holiness — a call that is for everyone and in every situation of life — is about important decisions and all the little details of everyday life. These are the pages where the Pope exhorts the faithful to find moments of prayer and adoration; the pages where he speaks of the spiritual combat and the real existence of the devil, and so on.  

But, on the other hand, if the document is read within the context of the present controversies in the Church, especially that about Amoris Laetitia and situation ethics, one gets the strong impression that many passages are directly aimed at harshly rebuking all those people (cardinals, scholars, journalists and simple laypeople writing on blogs) that have opposed the papal agenda about giving Communion to the divorced and remarried, Communion to Protestants, permitting contraception in certain cases, too mild opposition or silence in the face of anti-family and anti-life legislation (pro-abortion, pro-birth control pro-euthanasia and pro same-sex marriage). In this sense, the document brings no progress or clarity in any of the most controversial and anti-doctrinal stances of Pope Francis. Quite to the contrary, it seems to represent one more step towards giving a kind of official approval to situation ethics. 

So, the reading of this document should once more to urge us to plead before the Pope for an answer to the dubia, and in particular to dubium no. 2 about the existence of intrinsically evil acts, which are not justifiable in any situation. We should not forget that to deny this doctrine, or sow doubts about it, in any field of ethics, is the principal heresy of our times and the most dangerous enemy of sanctity. 

Professor Claudio Pierantoni is a Patristic Scholar of Medieval Philosophy at the University of Chile and Member of JAHLF (John Paul II Academy for Human Life and Family)