Nineteen theologians and academics recently released a letter to all Catholic bishops throughout the world, accusing Pope Francis of being a heretic and urging the bishops to take action, even canonical, in order to rectify this dire state of affairs.
There is no need to repeat the concerns expressed within that letter. They are well known, and have already been critiqued by many theologians, academics, priests, bishops, and even cardinals. What makes this open letter unique is its formal charge of heresy. This is an extreme position to take, as the authors themselves admit, but they believe that, given the critical situation that has developed in the Church, such a position is merited.
Undoubtedly, 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. What is most disconcerting is that erroneous interpretations, those contrary to the Church’s doctrinal and moral tradition, are often propounded by bishops and cardinals—those who want to implement misguided teaching within their dioceses and urge that they become the norm within their national jurisdictions.
In view of this, many of the concerns addressed in the open letter are valid, some more than others. However, the fact that Pope Francis articulates these positions in an ambiguous manner makes it almost impossible to accuse him rightly of heresy. (This is, in a sense, a saving grace.) Those who interpret his ambiguous teaching in a manner not in keeping with the Catholic faith may be heretical, but the pope is not, even if the pope appears to give silent approval to their erroneous interpretations. Thus, I think that the letter's authors have gone beyond what is objectively warranted. Yes, there are grave concerns and important doctrinal and moral issues at stake—ultimately the truth of the gospel itself. But the manner in which they were presented, the conclusions drawn, and the actions proposed will not help rectify the present crisis within the Church. Actually, the open letter makes it more difficult for others to appropriately critique the ongoing doctrinal and moral chaos within the Church, a disorder that will continue to intensify as this pontificate progresses.
Why do I say that? First, let me speak of the bishops to whom the letter is addressed. Yes, it is disheartening, especially for the laity, that the bishops do not speak out more forthrightly in defense of the Church’s authentic doctrinal and moral tradition. Yet, if bishops do maintain the integrity of the gospel within their own dioceses, this in itself is a major achievement, given today's oppressive and fearful ecclesial atmosphere. Their silence, then, may be a guarded expression of their displeasure with the present pontificate.
Nonetheless, because the open letter is extreme in its appraisal and intemperate in its approach, more than likely it will make it more difficult for bishops, and even cardinals, to address present concerns. While they may be displeased, and even annoyed, with Pope Francis’s ambiguity and the manner in which he conducts his Petrine ministry, yet they rightly are nowhere near judging Francis a heretic and will remain silent about the letter. Moreover, if a bishop does attempt to comment on the present serious concerns, he will now be labeled as one who agrees with and promotes the “extremist” cause of the letter's authors. Thus, this letter, while it may have been well-intentioned, has made it even more difficult for bishops to address the crisis within today's Church.
Second, 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. There are many theologians and academics, as well as many priests and laity, who have taken up this good fight of faith. They have done so through articles in academic journals and more serious periodicals, blogs, and websites. They have also done so in academic conferences and general public forums. The fruit is an ever-growing community of ardent believers, from all walks of life, academic backgrounds, and ecclesial vocations—united in the truth that there is but one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, which cannot be destroyed or superseded by a new church, even if such is the aim of some in high ecclesial positions.
Yet the open letter throws this work of the Spirit into jeopardy, for now those who have undertaken this battle will more easily be tarred with the brush of extremism. The wisdom, the forthrightness, the prudence, the respect, and the love with which they have worked to proclaim and defend the truth of the gospel could easily be lost in the clamor for anathematizing the pope or the ensuing uproar in his defense. What are lost are measured, intelligent, nuanced responses to the present ecclesial crisis and a rational Spirit-filled fortitude to bring truth to light in the midst of deceitful darkness.
So, while the open letter hopes to be a clarion call to rectify a grievous situation within the Church, it may have unintentionally contributed to making the victory of faith even more difficult.
Thomas G. Weinandy, OFM, Cap.