The Puzzling Pontificate of Pope Francis

COMMENTARY: The worthy signatories of the open letter accusing the Pope of heresy are attempting to interpret in a precise way a teaching style that is not intended to be precise.

(photo: AP photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

It’s a grave matter — and for that reason practically unprecedented — for learned and respected Catholic scholars to accuse the Holy Father of heresy, as recently was done by 19 signatories to an open letter.

The letter has occasioned much analysis. A certain consensus has emerged that where there is smoke there is usually fire, but in this case there is plenty of smoke but no real fire. And calling for the fire brigade when there isn’t a fire actually raging may lead to a certain complacency about all the smoke in the air.

I agree with the consensus that Pope Francis is not guilty of heresy, in part due to the fact his teaching style is not sufficiently clear as to sustain such a charge.

I would not make the charge myself. But if a theologian of the world-class reputation of Dominican Father Aidan Nichols and a philosopher of similar status, professor John Rist, would take this step, it is noteworthy on those grounds alone. Father Nichols and Rist are serious scholars who know the Catholic tradition far better than nearly all of their critics. They deserve to be heard.

If they are crying wolf, it is not because they are out to make mischief; it is because there are wolves about. Even if the charge that the chief shepherd is indeed a wolf is not sustainable, it does not mean that the flock is entirely safe from danger, even from the pastors of the Church.

There is here a flawed approach. The signatories of the letter are attempting to interpret in a precise way a teaching style that is not intended to be precise. To put it another way, a pontificate whose principal interpreter — Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, the editor of the magazine La Civiltà Cattolica — argues that in theology 2+2 can equal 5 is a pontificate that challenges the usual way of understanding pontifical texts.

Consider some recent examples of papal communication.

On the recent return flight from North Macedonia, Pope Francis answered a question about the study commission he had set up to investigate the history of women deacons in the Church. This was a major study of great import, which long ago reported and about which nothing has been publicly said.

Pope Francis gave a long answer, summarizing that the commission did not come to a consensus. His answer is at best confusing and does not cohere easily. At the end of the answer, it is possible to reach various, contradictory conclusions about the state of the issue.

We can think also of the Holy Father’s response to a question a few years ago about whether the non-Catholic spouse in a Catholic-Protestant marriage can receive Holy Communion. The answer was a meandering collection of half-sentences and ellipses that muddied rather than clarified an issue on which Church teaching is actually reasonably clear.

Last month, Pope Francis gave an audience in which he answered questions about the international arms trade and the “Nigerian mafia” in Italy. The Holy See Press Office thought those remarks ill-advised, and so they were simply omitted from the official transcript, despite being captured on video. The issue there was not what the Pope’s words meant, but whether they existed in the first place.

That recalls the famous incident when Pope Francis stated that the “great majority” of marriages are “invalid.” That too got ex post excision, with the official transcript rendering it that “some” marriages are invalid, completely changing the meaning of what the Holy Father said.

These examples are not the doctrinal matters raised in the accusation-of-heresy letter. Nevertheless, they indicate an informal approach to papal teaching that emphasizes general dispositions rather than precise definitions. It is intended to be taken seriously, but not literally, to adapt the post-2016 election characterization of Donald Trump’s rhetorical style.

The same is true of the most serious charge in the heresy letter, namely that the teaching of Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) in Chapter 8 is not compatible with the teaching of the 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor. That’s rather evident to anyone who reads the two texts side by side for their plain meaning.

But the Holy Father himself, echoed by many senior bishops, has insisted that no doctrinal change has been made. So it may be that Amoris Laetitia conforms to Veritatis Splendor in an unusual manner, as if 2+2=5. Or maybe that it contradicts settled teaching on the Eucharist in a manner that might be heretical. Or it might be that nobody really knows the answer, and the whole matter remains ambiguous. This last option is not satisfactory, but it is not heresy.

Another example is the teaching in 2018 that the death penalty is “inadmissible.” To say that the death penalty is intrinsically evil would be a departure from Catholic tradition. But the new teaching did not say that. It said that it is “inadmissible,” a novel term with no fixed meaning in Catholic theology.

Indeed, that term was evidently chosen because it was new and had no fixed meaning. So it is not possible to conclude that the teaching of Pope Francis on the death penalty contradicts earlier teaching.

The examples can be multiplied. Even on the issue on which Pope Francis seems unambiguous — open borders for migrants and refugees — there is doubt. Returning from Sweden in 2016, he departed from his usual emphasis, saying that countries should only accept as many refugees as they can reasonably integrate. So is the Holy Father in favor of welcoming all those who “knock on your doors,” as he said in Bulgaria this week, or just as many as can be handled properly? Both. Or perhaps neither. Or something in between.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.

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