|Pope John XXII|
While not a particularly glorious moment for the papacy of John XXII, this incident nonetheless represents a victory for the Church insofar as it underscores the fact that all Catholics - including the Pope - are bound to uphold the truth and eschew error, regardless of its source.
And it is a lesson which bears repeating.
It cannot be denied that, like John XXII, Pope Francis has a penchant for dropping theological bombs in his sermons. It was, for example, in a sermon that he accused the Blessed Virgin Mary of doubting God, of wanting to say "Lies! I was deceived!" as she looked upon her Son suffering on the Cross. Note that this was not some unfortunate slip of the tongue: he repeated the scandalous claim, almost verbatim, two years later in a talk given to a group of gravely ill children. Though it appears to directly contradict the certain teaching of the Church on the freedom of the Blessed Virgin from all personal sin, this is evidently what Pope Francis, the Vicar of Christ, believes and teaches. A century ago, such a statement would have been unthinkable, and had it been uttered, would have provoked widespread shock and vociferous objection. Today, such things are hardly noticed, and when some poor soul feels obliged to speak up, he's shouted down as an uncharitable troublemaker. After all, we're told, only the weak of faith are scandalized by such things.
Pope Francis has made so many statements which are offensive to pious ears that one has to wonder whether this is an integral part of his method of evangelization, i.e., to garner attention by making a statement which smacks of heresy but, upon close inspection, merely flirts with it without crossing the line. Engaging in this kind of rhetoric has a three-fold effect: (1) it thrills the heretics who are already on their way out of the Church, suggesting to them that they should bide their time as the Magisterium is about to give in to their demands, (2) it provides just enough cover to enable moderate commentators to run interference for the Pope, maintaining the illusion that "everything is awesome," (3) and it frustrates the orthodox while simultaneously rendering them virtually powerless in their efforts to restore doctrinal and liturgical order: if they remain silent, they are seen as giving tacit approval to the implied heresy; if they speak up, they are reprimanded for impugning the impeccable orthodoxy of the Pope and fomenting a "schismatic mentality".
While many have grown tired of parsing the sloppy theology of the Pope's private sermons and disarming the pastoral zingers he regularly delivers at 30,000 feet, prelates and scholars have remained attentive to the official statements made by Pope Francis wherever they touch upon matters of faith and morals. As done retroactively with John XXII, Pope Francis has been given more or less carte blanche as a private theologian; it is when he speaks in his capacity as Supreme Pontiff that his words are held to the loftier standard of Tradition. Thus, when the Pope issued Amoris Laetitia, the Apostolic Exhortation which followed the 2014-15 Synod on the Family, his words came under an appreciable amount of careful scrutiny by cleric and scholar alike.
- U.S. Jesuit James V. Schall has described key sections of Amoris Laetitia as "an exercise in sophisticated casuistry."
- German philosopher Robert Spaemann remarked that "chaos has been turned into a principle with one stroke of a pen. The Pope should have known that he will split the Church with such a step and that he leads her into the direction of a schism - a schism that would be not at the periphery, but in the middle of the Church."
- American professor of philosophy and theology Peter Kwasniewski noted that Chapter Eight of Amoris Laetitia poses "a serious problem in moral theology and contradicts not only Veritatis Splendor but the entire framework of Christian ethics that we see in the New Testament, in the [Church] Fathers, in St. Thomas, in [the Council of] Trent, wherever you look."
- Bishop Athanasius Schneider, in response to an open letter from the president of American Catholic Lawyers Inc., Christopher A. Ferrara, noted: "In using our reason and in respecting the proper sense of the words, one can hardly interpret some expressions in Amoris Laetitia according to the holy immutable Tradition of the Church."
- U.S. philosopher and former dean of the School of Philosophy of the Catholic University of America Jude P. Dougherty observed: "Authors and telecasters use [equivocation] when they are not sure of the facts. Politicians often employ it in creating legislation that subsequently permits freedom of contradictory interpretation by courts, regulators, and prosecutors. Pope Francis, who never speaks clearly, uses it to such an extent that in doctrinal matters what was certain before has become problematic."
- Cardinal Carlo Caffarra recently remarked: "His Holiness realizes that the teachings of the Exhortation could give rise to confusion in the Church. Personally, I wish - and that is how so many of my brothers in Christ (cardinals, bishops, and the lay faithful alike) also think - that the confusion should be removed."
While each of these men is to be commended for speaking out, it is clear that, as individuals, they can accomplish very little in the way of moving Pope Francis to clarify the true intent behind the words of the Exhortation. Together, however, such critics might have a better chance. It is, therefore, unsurprising to learn that a group of prelates, clerics, scholars and professors have done just that.
A statement released by Dr. Joseph Shaw yesterday reads as follows:
A group of Catholic academics and pastors has submitted an appeal to Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Dean of the College of Cardinals in Rome, requesting that the Cardinals and Eastern Catholic Patriarchs petition His Holiness, Pope Francis, to repudiate a list of erroneous propositions that can be drawn from a natural reading of the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia. During the coming weeks this submission will be sent in various languages to every one of the Cardinals and Patriarchs, of whom there are 218 living at present.
Describing the exhortation as containing “a number of statements that can be understood in a sense that is contrary to Catholic faith and morals,” the signatories submitted, along with their appeal, a documented list of applicable theological censures specifying “the nature and degree of the errors that could be attributed to Amoris Laetitia.”
Among the 45 signatories are Catholic prelates, scholars, professors, authors, and clergy from various pontifical universities, seminaries, colleges, theological institutes, religious orders, and dioceses around the world. They have asked the College of Cardinals, in their capacity as the Pope's official advisers, to approach the Holy Father with a request that he repudiate “the errors listed in the document in a definitive and final manner, and to authoritatively state that Amoris Laetitia does not require any of them to be believed or considered as possibly true.”
“We are not accusing the pope of heresy,” said a spokesman for the authors, “but we consider that numerous propositions in Amoris Laetitia can be construed as heretical upon a natural reading of the text. Additional statements would fall under other established theological censures, such as scandalous, erroneous in faith, and ambiguous, among others.”
The 1983 Code of Canon Law states that “According to the knowledge, competence, and expertise which they possess, they [the Christian faithful] have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful” (CIC, can. 212 §3).
The thirteen-page document quotes nineteen passages in the exhortation which seem to conflict with Catholic doctrines. These doctrines include the real possibility with the grace of God of obeying all the commandments, the fact that certain kinds of act are wrong in all circumstances, the headship of the husband, the superiority of consecrated virginity over the married life, and the legitimacy of capital punishment under certain circumstances. The document also argues that the exhortation undermines the Church's teaching that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics who have made no commitment to continence cannot be admitted to the sacraments while they remain in that state.
The spokesman said, “It is our hope that by seeking from our Holy Father a definitive repudiation of these errors we can help to allay the confusion already brought about by Amoris Laetitia among pastors and the lay faithful. For that confusion can be dispelled effectively only by an unambiguous affirmation of authentic Catholic teaching by the Successor of Peter.”
In a subsequent clarification, Dr. Shaw revealed that, though the names of the 45 signatories have not been released to the public, they are attached to the document sent to Cardinal Sodano and will be known to all 218 Cardinals and Patriarchs of the Church. The reason for this anonymity appears to be less the fear of reprisal and more the fear of causing additional public scandal. As Dr. Shaw noted on Twitter:
@peregrinator1 @gregorykhillis @Jahaza @petriop @EdwardPentin @MTMehan Nothing anonymous. It is a private appeal, not a public denunciation.— Joseph Shaw (@LMSChairman) July 11, 2016
It would be naive to assume that this action alone will move the Cardinals to make a formal petition to Pope Francis to repudiate any erroneous propositions contained in Amoris Laetitia. Nonetheless, it is a potentially significant step in that direction, particularly if it contains the request that Pope Francis provide "an unambiguous affirmation of authentic Catholic teaching." Admitting that the document contains error is one thing. Refusing to publicly confirm authentic Catholic teaching, on the other hand, is an altogether different matter. Pope Francis can easily avoid the former; the latter is much more difficult to avoid and, if done intentionally, can be used as evidence of obstinacy - something even Pope John XXII was careful to avoid.
 This is not unlike the popular "shocking statement" meme, of which there are literally thousands of iterations:
In modern parlance, one could say the Pope is "trolling" us.