Heresy-spotting is not my forte. I have no inclination or talent for it. But the word hangs heavy in the air these days. It is impossible to ignore it. Ballots went out as soon as Amoris Laetitia hit the stands: “Does the apostolic exhortation propagate heresy? Check the box marked Yes or No. Either way, might any other words, deeds, or omissions by the Supreme Pontiff constitute encouragement of heresy? Again, check the box marked Yes or No.”
The alternatives have been dueling for two years. There is no need to detail here the moves in this formalized combat beyond a brief reprise. You know what they are. First came the widely circulated dubia which Francis disdained to answer. His stonewall prompted a public “filial correction” by Catholic clergy and scholars. The press seized on it, intrigued by the newsworthy gap between the 14th century contest with Pope John XXII and today’s bout with Francis the Good.
In turn, the correctio filialis prompted a counter correction. “Its own dubia,” Sandro Magister called it. The contest is a bloodless, ecclesial variant of England’s old conflict between Royalists and Roundheads. The absolutist temper of a monarchial papacy, in which all authority flows downward from the Chair of Peter, is a cherished model among conservative Catholics. Yet it is conservatives who are now closer to the Roundhead position in spite of themselves. (The Roundheads opposed the divine right of kings, insisting that the English monarch could not govern without parliamentary consent.)
Charles I lost that battle, and his head along with it. But Francis I is not Charles. To date, the royalist party has been in the saddle. But is that momentum beginning to reverse? Joseph Shaw, one of the original signatories to the filial correction, thinks so. He wrote recently on Rorate-Cæli:
. . . that position, or refusing to clarify, is crumbling now. We have now had two Cardinals, Müller and the Secretary of Sate, Cardinal Parolin, calling for a serious engagement between the Vatican and critics such as the signatories and the ‘dubia’ Cardinals. Perhaps, just perhaps, we are approaching the end game.
We can hope so. Though it remains uncertain how much comfort there will be in the outcome of this match.
Roberto de Mattei’s Headstart
Roberto de Mattei, writing from Rome in early 2015, published in Rorate Cæli a essay that resonates just now. “A Pope Who Fell Into Heresy; A Church that Resisted” summarized the 14th century contest between John XXII and defenders of Catholic orthodoxy over the issue of the Beatific Vision after death. Read it here.
Was de Mattei’s essay, written in advance of Amoris Laetitia, prophetic? Or was it an anticipatory stroke by a well-placed historian with his ear to the ground? I cannot say. But it is no stretch to read his essay as a bugle call to the faithful to grapple with any pope who takes it upon himself to nullify the episcopate and redefine doctrine to conform to his own lights.
Pope Francis’ Advantage
While John XXII came to heel eventually, any such conciliatory act by Francis seems unlikely. He is the beneficiary of two forces. First, there is the willed assumption—a diplomatic pretense?—that the ambiguity of Amoris Laetitia is inadvertent, an oversight rather than a tactic. Second, there is the cult of papal veneration, a toxic bloom with tangled roots.
Singular deference to the person of the pope is the disfiguring aftereffect of conflation of papal primacy with papal inerrancy—on whatever matter the papal druthers plant a battle flag. Among the laity, the fusion exists as a species of idolatry. Papalolotry is today’s word for it. Among the episcopate, the amalgam counts as a courtier’s safeguard against rousing the ire of a king. Few in upper management want to be exiled to an obscure diocese by lordly resentment. At court, the rightful authority of bishops is checked by courtesy and reliance on royal favor. Amenability serves job security and advancement better than debate.
Inklings of futility lurk in the Correctio‘s terms of address to Francis. It opens on bended knee by pledging “filial devotion toward yourself.” Filial, rather than fraternal, is a telling genuflection. So is the signatories’ reference to themselves as “subjects” (“subjects have by nature a duty to obey their superiors in all lawful things”). Wording echoes the tone of Pius X’s comments in 1906 that “the one duty of the multitude is to allow themselves to be led . . . like a docile flock.” Francis’ pontificate illustrates the hazards of such cast of mind.
The people of God are not children. Rightly ordered in their relationships to one another—include clergy here— neither are they subjects. Certainly not as that word is commonly understood. Catholics are subject to the Gospels and to the magisterium oriented toward them. But neither we nor the episcopate are subjects of a pope in the menial, subservient sense carried by that plural noun. The Bishop of Rome serves as “first among equals,” not as an imperial monarch ascendant over an episcopacy reduced to the status of delegates for papal sovereignty.
Bishops are not vassals of the throne. Apostolic ministry does not exist to rubber stamp the politics or subversive cunning of a willful or wayward pope. In the increasingly bureaucratized structure of Church governance, however, that appears to matter less than it should.
Uncertainty is Useful
It does not serve Francis’ objectives to clarify the ambiguities in Amoris Laetitia. He has only to allow the vagueness of “pastoral discernment” to stand. It will come by degrees to be the default position in pastoral care. Moral thinking will evolve—develop—to further accommodate the subjectivity implicit in discernment and in such fluid standards as accompaniment in weakness. A discretionary end run around indissolubility will gradually assume the authority of Tradition, thereby deflecting need for clarification. Longevity will short-circuit any lingering effort to undo what will have become standard pastoral practice.
Not a word need be uttered to modify doctrinal insistence on the indissolubility of marriage or to palliate eucharistic prohibitions for the divorced and remarried. In the name of “complex realities” and “difficult situations,” a hit-or-miss, sentimental concept of charity will quietly displace adherence to outworn disciplines. Give Amoris Laetitia another generation or two and indissolubility, traditionally invoked, will molder in the archive of insensitivities for which some future pontiff can permit himself to apologize.
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It discomforts me to say so, but the names on the initial letter of correction are not ones to cause undue anxiety in Casa Santa Marta. They are names best known and respected among conservative Catholics—those rosary-counting, neopelagian irritants already under Francis’ skin.
Where were the world’s bishops when the letter was initially circulated? Bernard Fellay, an SSPX bishop, lent his name to the document afterward; retired Bishop René Gracida of Miami did the same. At the outset, no active member of the USCCB risked his signature. By the USCCB’s own numbers, there are 446 active and retired bishops plus 6 cardinals and another 7 retired cardinals. Only one retiree could hazard signing? The numbers bespeak an episcopacy reduced from one of agency in its own right to mere spokesmen for the pontificate.
A gelded episcopacy is a sorry omen. It augurs Francis’ ultimate success in capsizing the perennial understanding of the nature of Christian marriage. There need be no de jure change in doctrine. Indissolubility will remain on the books where it will retain its aura of prescribed authority. But in pastoral practice varieties of a hardship exemption will gradually enfeeble the rule.
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No one should be surprised. Francis’ revised, user-friendly annulment process comes on the heels of decades of profligate dispensing of annulments in major jurisdictions and/or for persons of influence. It follows a trajectory that has already weakened the principle of life-long marriage. (Annulment was little more than a religious fiction in the Archdiocese of Brooklyn under Francis Mugavero.) Misuse of a just and necessary procedure has given annulment the tag “Catholic divorce” for good reason. Then tally in last year’s capricious declaration by Francis that some half of all sacramental marriages are invalid.
Indissolubility has been dissolving for some time.
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Francis’ divorced and remarried Catholics purportedly clamoring for admission to the Eucharist parallel Barack Obama’s Dreamers. Both populations find their illicit situations stressful. Existing civic and sacramental protocols designed to amend dereliction in both sets of circumstances are deemed onerous. Absolutes are inconsiderate, unwieldy. Relativism is more workable. It appears kindly in the short term, however mischievous in the long. Francis’ flexible magisterium, packaged in the rhetoric of mercy—pious-sounding gift wrap—negates those ancient obligations that define a community. No dream should be deferred.
No Punch Pulled Here
Political historian Paul A. Rahe, a practicing Catholic, did not mince words in his September 15 essay for Ricochet, “An Unworthy Pope:”
Francis is a student of theology — not an especially astute student, but he knows a thing or two. What makes him a very great fool is that he is not a student of economics, climate science, or national security, and that this defect does not in any way discourage him from pontificating (I use the word advisedly) on these subjects and making a great display of his ignorance.
Rahe’s professional interest in the history and character of political regimes makes him particularly suited to view the Bergolian regime with a clear eye. He strikes the proper tone—a lovely acid bite—in addressing Francis’ pretensions to statecraft. No courtly flattery. At stake are issues too grave for ceremonious bowing and scraping.