Papal Heresy Open Letter: Was It a Bridge Too Far?

Many Church leaders agree that doctrinal confusion needs to be addressed, but strongly disagree that accusing Pope Francis of heresy will help remedy the situation.

(photo: Bohumil Petrik/CNA)

DETROIT — Last week, a 20-page letter accused Pope Francis of “the canonical delict of heresy” and urged the “bishops of the world” to take all necessary action “to deal with the grave situation of a heretical pope.”

The letter can’t be dismissed as uninformed grumbling, as its 19 original signatories include several prominent figures, including Dominican Father Aidan Nichols, a noted theologian, and philosopher John Rist, a research professor at The Catholic University of America.

But the names of most of the 62 scholars who had signed a similar 2017 “filial correction,” which called on the Pope to address doctrinal problems posed by his 2016 apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), among other issues, are notably absent, suggesting Catholics who are concerned about correcting the Pope’s controversial legacy on sensitive doctrinal matters are divided over the best way to advance and resolve their concerns.

And according to a number of prominent Catholic commentators, the open letter’s publication actually is likely to make the world’s bishops more reluctant to speak out forcefully about the doctrinal confusion that persists in the wake of the publication of Amoris Laetitia.

A central difference between the open letter and the filial correction, as well as the dubia that were submitted to Pope Francis by four cardinals in 2016, requesting the clarification of five doctrinal questions generated by Amoris Laetitia, is that neither of those earlier expressions of concern directly accused the Pope of heresy. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines heresy as “the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same” (2089).

The immediate reaction to this public accusation of papal heresy suggests it is a bridge too far, even for those who agree on the need for unambiguous papal teaching.

“I fully concur that greater clarity is needed in respect to some of the proposals and teachings in Pope Francis’ documents and talks,” Janet Smith, a moral theologian at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, told the Register.

“But I think the ambiguity of his teachings will not support a charge of heresy.”

Smith expressed doubt that “even a few bishops will respond favorably to [the signatories’] plea — it is too unprecedented and radical.”

Philip Lawler, the author of Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis Is Misleading His Flock, warned that the letter may do “more harm than good” in a May 3 column.

Lawler acknowledges that he shared the signers’ frustration with various papal documents and initiatives. But speaking with the Register via email, he cited both canonical and practical difficulties associated with leveling a charge of papal heresy and requesting the world’s bishops to take action to address that accusation.

“While the charges against Pope Francis are serious, I question whether the letter makes a convincing charge of heresy,” Lawler said. “I’m not a canon lawyer, so I wouldn’t want to make a judgment on the case. But it’s obvious even to an amateur that the charge of heresy is much more difficult to prove than the charge of causing — or, at a bare minimum, allowing — confusion. The latter case, I would argue, is compelling.” 

Added Lawler, “As a practical matter, I doubt that many bishops can be convinced to accuse the Pope of heresy. I’d much rather try to persuade bishops to make clear statements of Church doctrine, to eliminate some of the confusion that undoubtedly reigns today. I’m fearful that this letter, by asking bishops to do too much, might have the unhappy result of giving them an excuse for their failure to do the minimum, in terms of fulfilling their teaching office.”


Rist’s Reasons for Signing

But CUA’s John Rist defended his actions without apology.

Rist argued that previous formal requests for clarification regarding a variety of contested papal documents, statements and initiatives had yielded little result, and he saw “no other option” as he pondered ways to stir action from the bishops.

“Whether it was the right move remains to be seen, but, to me, doing nothing was not an option,” Rist told the Register.

“My own decision to sign the new document was partly based on the total unwillingness of Pope Francis to reply to the dubia of the four cardinals,” Rist told the Register. “That refusal suggested to me that he could not clarify his views without indicating the difference of his position from the traditional teaching of the Church.”

The unanswered questions addressed to the Pope in the cardinals’ dubia center on Amoris Laetitia’s ambiguous language regarding Church discipline on reception of the Eucharist for divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholics. The 2016 apostolic exhortation has also been criticized for other passages that have been used by some Church leaders to promote acceptance of same-sex unions.

But the open letter, published April 30, has been criticized for broadening the range of papal actions under harsh scrutiny, beyond the concerns associated primarily with Amoris Laetitia.

The additional papal actions cited in the letter include the appointment of bishops, cardinals and priests whom the authors claim are themselves heretical; the signing of a 2016 joint statement with Lutheran leaders commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation; the Holy See’s 2018 treaty with China acceding to government control over the appointment of Chinese bishops; Francis’ signing of a February 2019 declaration on interreligious cooperation, which states that the “pluralism and the diversity of religions [is] willed by God”; and some papal liturgical actions, such as Francis’ decision to wear a multicolored cross at the 2019 World Youth Day in Panama, which the signatories view as an endorsement of the “LGBT” movement’s rainbow-hued flag.


Canon-Law Considerations

But, most significantly, the new letter raises the stakes for papal critics by introducing the complex and explosive claim of heresy — an accusation rejected as canonically unfounded by many canon-law experts.

Under Church law, “heresy is a very specific crime,” Dominican Father Pius Pietrzyk, a canon lawyer at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, California, told the Register. “I am not convinced that the writers of that letter have made their case, and I think that much of what they point to, even if true, would never be characterized as heresy.”

Like other canonists, Father Pietrzyk also pointed to the Pope’s unique authority as the Roman Pontiff, and thus the virtual impossibility of bringing such a case to trial.

“The law of the Church is clear: There is no earthly authority that may judge the Pope as a legal matter,” he said, citing Canon 1404. “The only ways in the law that he can be removed [are] death or his resignation.”

Father Pietrzyk speculated that the authors of the letter understood the overwhelming impediment to such a trial and “had less a judicial and more of a political solution in mind,” aiming to stir corrective action from bishops. And Father Pietrzyk wondered if the authors “hoped that a swell of outrage from bishops regarding the alleged heresy would help to convince the Holy Father to resign from his office.” 

But one of the signers, Peter Kwasniewski, an independent scholar, insisted in an online post that the letter “is good and valuable,” he said, “[f]irst because it documents instances of heresy that cannot be denied, taking the textual evidence together with supportive actions. The truths at stake are not minor ones, nor are they hazy, debatable propositions.”


Addressing the Confusion

Even if they don’t endorse the accusation of papal heresy, other concerned Catholic scholars agree that some of the matters cited in the open letter involve major issues that deserve attention.

The five dubia “should have received a reply,” moral theologian Christian Brugger told the Register. “Each deals with an issue central to the teaching of Jesus Christ; they treat genuine doctrinal ambiguities on marriage, sin and the Holy Eucharist from the ecclesial document Amoris Laetitia; they bear upon practical matters pertaining here and now to the salvation of souls. And all that each requires is a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer.” 

Brugger noted that he was not asked to sign the letter and knew nothing of it until it was published. But given “the reputation and stature of some of the signatories, I believe a serious response would be a service to the unity of the Church and help to Catholics who are honestly confused.”

Likewise, Mark Brumley, the CEO of Ignatius Press, urged the Vatican to break its silence.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith “could take up the most serious arguments and questions” posed in the letter, Brumley told the Register.

“The longer there’s a delay, the deeper will be the confusion and even disaffection among many Catholics,” said Brumley, who commented about the letter earlier in a Facebook post as well as alongside Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, the founder of Ignatius Press, in a video posted on YouTube.

At one time, before the internet and the rise of social media, Rome could more easily ignore such public challenges — or wait years before responding. But Brumley questioned whether that was still advisable.

Priests as well as lay Catholics “repeat stories and arguments they encounter on the internet,” he noted. Whatever the flaws of the new letter, there remains an overwhelming need for a “clear, timely, cohesive” response from Rome.


Father Weinandy

A key question, however, is whether the open letter will facilitate such a constructive response, or inhibit it.

In a May 7 commentary in First Things, Capuchin Father Thomas Weinandy, who served as the executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Doctrine and Pastoral Practices from 2005 to 2013, argued that while “many of the statements Pope Francis has made are ambiguous, and therefore troubling — for they can be interpreted in both an orthodox and a heterodox manner,” their ambiguity “makes it almost impossible to accuse him rightly of heresy.”

According to Father Weinandy, who wrote a personal letter to the Pope in 2017 articulating his own concerns over the damage caused by the “chronic confusion” that he said was characteristic of the current pontificate, the open letter is “extreme in its appraisal and intemperate in its approach.” He echoed the predictions of the letter’s other critics who contended that it will discourage bishops and cardinals from taking action, because they would likely be dismissed as supporters of an “extremist” position if they did so.

And, Father Weinandy warned, “if we focus on whether or not the pope is heretical, the more pressing issue confronting the Church is pushed to the background: The doctrinal and moral chaos this pontificate has nurtured regarding such issues as the sacramental nature of marriage, the intrinsic evil of homosexual acts, and whether Judaism and Christianity are merely two of the many religions that God willed. This doctrinal and moral chaos is where the real battle must be fought.”

Catholic author Russell Shaw, who served as secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/U.S. Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987, expressed similar misgivings.

“I think it would be advisable for U.S. Church leaders to advise the Pope, privately and candidly, that many Catholics in the United States are confused by what has been happening, and it is part of pastorally responsible leadership to relieve their confusion by giving a specific and reasonably detailed response,” Shaw told the Register. “As a matter of fact, I hope they already have told the Pope that, though I have no indication they have.”

“One might hope the letter would make such a clarification more likely, but looking at the situation realistically, I doubt that it will,” Shaw said. “Unfortunately, it is more likely to have the opposite effect.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.

This story was updated on May 10.