On Charging a Pope with Heresy

If you are going to charge anybody (especially the pope) with heresy, you need to prove your case, and this letter doesn’t.

Pope Francis preaches at his cathedra in the Basilica of St. John Lateran on January 21, 2017.
Pope Francis preaches at his cathedra in the Basilica of St. John Lateran on January 21, 2017. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)

There are multiple problems with the recent Open Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church that charges Pope Francis with heresy, but here we will focus on the core problem: the letter fails to sustain the charge of heresy.

This fault is likely due to the lack of familiarity that the 19 signatories have with the details of the concept.

A cursory review of the list of signatories indicates that none have doctorates in the relevant fields of canon law or sacred theology, though a few have licentiates (the equivalent of master’s degrees).

None seem to be specialists in ecclesiology—the branch of theology that deals most directly with the Magisterium of the Church—and none seem to have published a book on the Magisterium and how it engages its infallibility.

From this perspective, some of the flaws in the letter may be understandable, but from another perspective, they are not.

If you are going to charge anybody with heresy—but especially if you are going to charge a pope with it—you need to prove your case, and this letter doesn’t.


What Heresy Is

According to the Code of Canon Law, “heresy is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith” (CIC 751; cf. CCC 2089).

For heresy to occur, the following conditions must be met:

  1. The person committing it must be baptized
  2. Afterward, he must refuse to believe (doubt or deny) a particular truth
  3. He must do so obstinately
  4. The truth in question must be one that is to be believed by “divine and Catholic faith”


What Divine and Catholic Faith Is

“Divine and Catholic faith” is a term of art that is explained in the previous canon:

A person must believe with divine and Catholic faith all those things contained in the word of God, written or handed on, that is, in the one deposit of faith entrusted to the Church, and at the same time proposed as divinely revealed either by the solemn magisterium of the Church or by its ordinary and universal magisterium (CIC 750 §1).

This requires some unpacking, but for a truth to require divine and Catholic faith, the following conditions must be met:

  1. It must be divinely revealed (i.e., be found in Scripture or Tradition)
  2. The Magisterium must have proposed it to be divinely revealed
  3. The Magisterium must have done so, either by (a) the solemn magisterium or (b) the ordinary and universal magisterium.

“The solemn magisterium” means an infallible definition issued either by a pope or an ecumenical council.

“The ordinary and universal magisterium” means an infallible exercise of teaching performed by the bishops in union with the pope, even though they are not gathered in an ecumenical council.

Consequently, a truth that requires divine and Catholic faith is a truth that, one way or another, the Magisterium has infallibly defined to be divinely revealed.

We have a name for such truths: dogmas.


What Dogma Is

A dogma is a special kind of Church teaching. Any time the Church authoritatively teaches something, it is a doctrine (Latin, doctrina = “teaching”).

Within the set of doctrines is a smaller set of teachings that have been infallibly defined by the Magisterium. These are infallible doctrines.

Within the set of infallible doctrines is a smaller set that consists of those infallible teachings that the Magisterium has infallibly defined to be divinely revealed. These are the dogmas.

Note that just because something is infallible, that doesn’t make it a dogma. The Magisterium has to have infallibly said that it is divinely revealed for that to be the case.

The distinctions between these categories, as well as examples of doctrines that belong to them, are discussed in a 1998 commentary by Joseph Ratzinger and Tarcisio Bertone.

They are also discussed, at length, in my book Teaching With Authority: How to Cut Through Doctrinal Confusion & Understand What the Church Really Says.

To give one example of how a doctrine can be infallible but not a dogma, Ratzinger and Bertone note that the Magisterium has infallibly defined that the priesthood can be conferred only on men, but it has not yet defined that this truth is divinely revealed.

Consequently, the reservation of the priesthood to men is an infallible doctrine but not a dogma—at least not yet.


Preliminary Consolidation

Putting the above together, the following conditions need to be met to sustain a charge of heresy:

  1. The person committing it must be baptized
  2. Afterward, he must refuse to believe (doubt or deny) a particular truth
  3. He must do so obstinately
  4. The truth in question must be a dogma—that is, a truth the Magisterium has infallibly defined to be divinely revealed.

This is where the flaws in the Open Letter come in.


Failing to Demonstrate that Dogmas are Involved

The Open Letter lists seven propositions that the signatories take to be heresies, or denials of dogmas.

To support each claim, they cite various biblical passages and Church documents.

The biblical passages are neither necessary nor sufficient to demonstrate a dogma. They are not necessary because a dogma can be based in Tradition rather than Scripture.

They are not sufficient because, at most, they show that a truth is found in divine revelation. They do not show that the Magisterium has infallibly defined it to be divinely revealed.

This means that, to demonstrate a dogma, we need to focus on the Church documents.

Unfortunately, many of the documents they cite are simply not relevant to this endeavor. Many do not contain any infallible definitions, and nobody has ever claimed that they do.

Others do contain infallible definitions, but it is not clear that they give rise to dogmas. Remember: To be a dogma, the Magisterium must infallibly define that a truth is divinely revealed, not just that it is true.

In some cases, the documents use language indicating infallibility (e.g., the word “anathema,” though one has to be careful about this word, as it is sometimes used without making a definition, see Teaching With Authority §§480-488).

But to create a dogma, the Magisterium needs to go further and, in some way, indicate that a truth is divinely revealed (e.g., by saying “is divinely revealed” in the case of a positive expression of dogma or by saying “is heretical” in the case of a doctrinal violation).

The signatories of the Open Letter make no attempt to do the needed work. They either do not quote the language used by Church documents or they do not argue that the language they do quote shows that a truth has been infallibly defined as divinely revealed.

Instead, they cite passages as if the sheer number of them proves their case, which it doesn’t.

Indeed, it isn’t even clear that the passages they cite mandate the specific propositions they have in mind.

This is sloppy. It may sound impressive to someone not familiar with this area, but it is simply inadequate to the task they are attempting.


Failure to Demonstrate the Allegation

In addition to failing to demonstrate dogmas, the Open Letter also fails to demonstrate that Pope Francis obstinately doubts or denies dogmas.

One of the requirements for doing this is showing that his statements or actions cannot be understood in another sense.

If they can be understood consistently with dogma then the obligation of charity—and Pope Benedict’s “hermeneutic of continuity”—requires that they be taken this way.

Many of the Open Letter’s charges deal with the issue of divorce and civil remarriage, as discussed in the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, but as Cardinal Gerhard Müller has shown, the relevant statements in this document can be understood in harmony with Church teaching.

You can’t make a successful charge of heresy as long as this is the case.

Neither does the piling up of questionable staffing decisions—which the Open Letter does at length—prove the case. Staffing decisions are influenced by multiple factors, and you can’t cherry pick the data to support a claim of heresy, especially when the person in question is on record supporting Church teaching (e.g., regarding homosexuality).


Summing Up

The Open Letter has many other flaws, but its chief one is that it fails to make the case that the present pope is guilty of heresy. To do that, it would need to show the following:

  1. The Magisterium has infallibly defined some specific truth
  2. It has infallibly defined that this specific truth is divinely revealed, creating a dogma
  3. The pope has been baptized (that’s easy)
  4. The pope’s words or actions indicate that he refuses to believe the dogma
  5. His words or actions cannot be understood in a way consistent with the dogma
  6. He does so obstinately

If you can’t do those things, then don’t waste the public’s time.

In particular, don’t waste our time citing irrelevant documents that don’t prove your point, and don’t waste our time—as the signatories of the Open Letter do—with loopy charges regarding a pastoral staff that the pope has carried or a cross he has worn.

It’s one thing to ask for clarifications, voice concerns or express disagreement, but making charges of heresy is another matter.

It’s gravely reckless and irresponsible to charge anyone with an ecclesiastical crime as serious as heresy if you can’t prove it, and it’s even worse to do so with regard to the pope, given the scandal, confusion, and risk of individual schism that it will create for the faithful.

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