A group of more than sixty Catholic theologians and clergy, including some well-known traditionalist writers and scholars, have signed a document, addressed to Pope Francis and recently released to the public, alleging that the pope has promoted heresy through his statements regarding the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia. The document is interesting in theological terms and will, no doubt, be debated for some time. The debate over Amoris laetitia will not go away any time soon. This debate, conducted in large part on the Internet, marks out the course of future debates in the Church.
The document, titled in Latin Correctio Filialis de Haeresibus Propagatis, or Filial Correction on the Propagation of Heresies, sets forth in some detail quotations from Amoris laetitia and various public statements by Francis. These quotations boil down to seven propositions that are, according to the signatories, contrary to Catholic doctrine. Additionally, the signatories argue that the errors of Modernism and Protestantism are in some significant degree behind the errors of Amoris laetitia. Naturally, the pope’s defenders have rushed to counter the filial correction, asserting variously that the arguments employed therein are wrong and that the signatories are marginal traditionalists. In other words, it is a fairly standard encounter in the battle over Amoris laetitia.
But, after this fairly standard encounter, a weary observer might note that battle lines over Amoris laetitia have not moved much from where they were at the extraordinary synod in the fall of 2014. One party observes that divorced-and-remarried Catholics who live more uxorio are committing an objectively grave sin. Another party observes that doctrine and praxis need not always be so closely united. Though it is clear from Amoris laetitia that the pope inclines toward the latter view, he has not endorsed that view outright. Instead, he emphasizes the need for discernment and analysis of individual cases.
The filial correction joins a long series of open letters, appeals, and declarations by conservatives. And the sneering response from progressives joins a long series of sneering responses from progressives. Nevertheless, to suggest, however respectfully, that a pope has promoted heresy, even inadvertently, is big news. On September 28, Pietro Cardinal Parolin, Francis’s all-powerful secretary of state, was asked about the correction. His response: Dialogue is important. Yet there has been nothing but dialogue about the underlying point of Amoris laetitia ever since the 2014 extraordinary synod.
There has been more than a year of lengthy essays, blog posts, and videos about the interpretation and implications of Amoris laetitia. These have been endlessly shared, tweeted, and emailed. Various journalists and commentators have sparred in more or less civil exchanges, particularly on every writer’s favorite social media platform, Twitter. And, as happens in most Twitter beeves, we have passed the point where it is impossible to remember a time before the beef. One side simply dunks on the other side, 140 characters at a time (or 280 characters, for the unlucky few).
Yet the tenor of the theological debate on Twitter is not historically nasty. Indeed, it may be on the civil end of the spectrum. In his great 1907 book, The Orthodox Eastern Church, Adrian Fortescue observed that Photius was called, among other things, illegitimate and an adulterer—“only the amenities of theological controversy,” as Fortescue drily puts it. One can find numerous other examples from any period of Church history. Though the debate over Amoris laetitia has been sharp at times, it is unclear that anyone has been called, as Photius also was, a parricide. What is anomalous about this debate is how fast it moves and how accessible it is. All anyone needs is a stable Internet connection.
For its part, the filial correction maintains a carefully elevated tone. The signatories take great pains to be polite and respectful. They carefully lay out their position on the Holy Father’s statements and patiently set forth arguments about Modernism and Protestantism. They even express the seven purportedly heretical propositions in Latin. Such is to be expected. But the filial correction was released into a debate shaped by a year of online discourse. In other words, it ran into the same buzz-saw that everything else does online. Its careful arguments were chopped up, slathered with snark, and hurled at opponents or approvingly tweeted to friends.
In large part, this is simply how debates are conducted in 2017. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms are now part of daily life for millions of people. The debate over Amoris laetitia seems strange and strident largely because it is the first to take place in the world of these platforms. There will be other debates, and those debates will take place on these platforms (or whatever platforms succeed them). Catholics would be wise to stop lamenting the indignities of having theological discussions through social media.
P.J. Smith writes from southern Indiana.