Father Weinandy: We Are Witnessing the Disintegration of the Church’s Catholicity
In a landmark speech, the former head of the USCCB’s doctrinal committee says the Church’s leadership is attacking her identity and calls on the faithful to mount a ‘robustly positive’ response.
Only when Catholics grasp that the Church’s unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity are under attack by the Church’s current leadership will they be able to respond to the present ecclesial crisis and find positive solutions to it.
This was the thrust of a significant talk given today by Capuchin Father Thomas Weinandy, a member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission and former chief of staff for the U.S. Bishops' committee on doctrine (see the full text below).
Speaking at the University of Notre Dame in Sydney, Australia, Feb. 24, Father Weinandy centered his talk on the “Four Marks” of the Church, expressed in the Nicene Creed as the “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.”
Each of the four marks, he said, must be properly conceived and articulated together, and are most fully expressed and nurtured within the Eucharistic liturgy. To underline their significance, he drew on St. Ignatius of Antioch’s seven letters, Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, and Pope St. John Paul II’s 2003 encyclical on the Eucharist, Ecclesia de Eucharistia.
Father Weinandy, who criticized the current pontificate as causing “chronic confusion” in an open letter to Pope Francis last year, said these “four defining ecclesial marks are presently at risk” and the threat is coming, not from Catholic theologians, but “even and regrettably from within Church leadership.”
He therefore believes a “robust defense and clear advocacy” of the four marks is necessary otherwise the Church’s identity “will become disordered” and thus “enfeeble” her ability to proclaim the Gospel. This will not only “cause scandal” but “more importantly, demean the Eucharistic liturgy as the supreme enactment” of the four marks.
Father Weinandy drew first on 2nd century St. Ignatius of Antioch because he believes him to be, among having other attributes, “the most prophetically advanced” of the Church’s theologians and with his “seven letters” developed an ecclesiology that “embodied the four ecclesial marks.”
Most significant, he said, is St. Ignatius’ emphasis on unity which, for the saint, is the Church’s “supreme present expression” and definitive goal, with its source coming from faith. St. Ignatius emphasized the importance of unity with the bishop, which means unity with the Church and so with Jesus and His Father. Such unity, Father Weinandy observed, “empowers Christians to perform the deeds of holiness” and accomplish “acts of love.”
For St. Ignatius, this ecclesial oneness, he continued, is expressed and enacted within the Eucharist which “supremely embodies” and actualizes most fully the four marks. Therefore only those in a state of grace and “co-joined to the Church” can participate in this “supreme sacrament of faith” and heretics who reject the four marks “render themselves incapable of receiving Jesus in communion.”
With all this in mind, Father Weinandy said that for Ignatius heresy is “fundamentally destructive” as it “destroys the oneness of the Church.” It is “absolutely detestable” for the saint, he said, “precisely because it abolishes the unity of the Church, and it does so by denying the Church’s one, catholic and apostolic faith.”
The highly respected American theologian pre-supposed that Ignatius had never met an heretical bishop as he gives the impression he could never have conceived of one, but were he to have done so, he would have contended he was no longer “in union” with the Church. Based on Ignatius’ teaching, Father Weinandy said such a bishop would no longer bear the four marks of the Church and so could not fulfill his ministry as a bishop.
“Such, I believe, would be Ignatius’ rejoinder to a heretical bishop,” Father Weinandy said, adding it is an argument he would “similarly employ in face of our contemporary ecclesial crisis.”
Turning to Lumen Gentium, the Capuchin systematic theologian said that surprisingly the document does not specifically deal with the four marks, and yet their importance is “evident throughout” and “in accord” with the thoughts of Ignatius. The document emphasizes the importance of “oneness” from the outset, he said, and underlines how bishops have an obligation to foster and safeguard “the unity of faith.” The Constitution also stresses the “one visible and invisible Church.”
The American theologian then turned to the current crisis in which he believes the four marks are under “subtle, but well-defined, attack.”
In Ecclesia de Eucharistia, he said John Paul II “steadfastly holds that oneness is the fundamental and indispensable mark of the Church.” Father Weinandy then went on to note that, although the post-conciliar Church has been “rife with divisions,” there was never any doubt over where John Paul II and Benedict XVI stood regarding the Church’s “doctrine, morals, and liturgical practice.”
“Such is not the case, in many significant ways, within the present pontificate of Pope Francis,” Father Weinandy continued.
He praised Pope Francis, saying that “much” of his pontificate is “admirable and praiseworthy,” and noted in particular his “defense of the sanctity of life, his concern for the poor and the marginalized, and his encouragement to the young.”
But he also observed that “at times” the Holy Father appears to identify himself “not as the promoter of unity but as the agent of division,” and that his desire to — in the Pope’s own words — “make a mess” in the belief that a greater unifying good will emerge, is a cause for great concern.
Such an approach, he said, “strikes at very essence of the Petrine ministry as intended by Jesus and as continuously understood by the Church.” The Successor of St. Peter is the “consummate sign of the Church’s ecclesial communion” and so its principle defender, he added, and so if a pope even encourages doctrinal and moral divergences, he “undermines the whole of Vatican II’s teaching on ecclesial communion, as well as that of the entire magisterial and theological tradition going back to Ignatius.”
“By seeming to encourage doctrinal division and moral discord within the Church, the present pontificate has transgressed the foundational mark of the Church – her oneness,” Father Weinandy asserted, adding that in turn, this destabilizes the other three marks of the Church.
He said her apostolic nature is undermined when, with regard to Francis’ 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, he appears to “re-conceive and newly express” the apostolic faith and magisterial tradition in an “ambiguous manner,” puzzling the ecclesial community, and thereby contradicting “his own duties” by transgressing the trust of bishops, priests and the “entire faithful.”
“Ignatius would be dismayed by the situation,” Father Weinandy said.
“If, for him, heretical teaching espoused by those who are only loosely associated with the Church is destructive to the Church’s unity, how much more devastating is ambiguous teaching when authored by a bishop who is divinely charged to ensure ecclesial unity,” he said. “At least heresy is a clear denial of the apostolic faith and so can be clearly identified and as such properly addressed. Ambiguous teaching, precisely because of its murkiness, cannot be clearly identified, and so is even more troublesome for it fosters uncertainty as to how it is to be understood and thus how it is to be clarified.”
Father Weinandy said the magisterium “simply cannot fundamentally contradict itself concerning matters of faith and morals,” and even if the Pope might call it magisterial, it cannot be “precisely because it is not in accord with previous magisterial teaching.” Because Pope Francis’ ambiguous teaching “appears to fall outside” magisterial teaching, it’s a cause for concern because it “fosters division and disharmony rather than unity and peace within one apostolic Church,” he explained.
The Church’s catholicity is undermined by Francis’ concept of synodality, Father Weinandy continued, whereby decentralization is applied to doctrine, leading to a kind of "theological anarchy."
“We are presently witnessing the disintegration of the Church’s catholicity,” he said, “for local churches, both on the diocesan and national level, are often interpreting doctrinal norms and moral precepts in various conflicting and contradictory ways.”
He added that the Church’s holiness is “equally under siege” most especially when it comes to the Eucharist. Father Weinandy argued that the ambiguities in allowing some civilly remarried divorcees to receive Holy Communion not living in continence permits a “pastoral situation to evolve” whereby “almost every divorced and remarried couple will judge themselves free to receive Holy Communion.” The Commandments become no longer absolute moral norms never to be trespassed but “moral ideals” leading to a number of “detrimental and moral consequences.”
The first is an “overt public attack on the holiness of what John Paul terms ‘the Most Holy Sacrament,’” he said. This is an offense against the holiness of the Church, and the enactment of a lie (receiving Holy Communion testifies to being a living member of the ecclesial community, which cannot be so if one receives in a state of mortal sin).
The second is that a priest, by allowing someone to persist in manifest grave sin and to receive Holy Communion, implicitly acknowledges that “sin continues to govern humankind despite Jesus’ redeeming work.”
Lastly, Father Weinandy pointed to the scandal caused by allowing persons in unrepentant manifest grave sin to receive the Eucharist. Not only does it dismay the faithful, but tempts others into thinking that they can gravely sin and “continue in good standing with the Church.” This leads the Church to become a mockery of herself and such a “charade breeds nothing but scorn and disdain in the world and derision and cynicism among the faithful,” he said.
Father Weinandy concluded by underlining the importance of praying for the Pope, but also the need to speak the “truth in love,” not out of bitterness but fidelity to the leaders involved.
“The Church’s very identity, our ecclesial communion, is being assailed, and because she is the Church of Christ, Jesus himself is being dishonored along with his saving work,” he said in closing. “What is presently being offered in its place is an anemic Church, a Church where the Holy Spirit is enfeebled, and so a Church that is incapable of giving full glory to God the Father.”
He said he hoped that by pinpointing the “perilous nature of the crisis” it would encourage all the faithful “to embark on an adequate response.” That cannot be merely negative, he said, but “robustly positive” by proclaiming “the good news of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church” and defending and promoting “a proper knowledge of and love for the Eucharist, for here, as we saw, the four marks of the Church are most fully expressed and abundantly
“Within the Eucharist,” he concluded, “the Church’s four marks most beautifully shine.”