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Imagine if a cardinal of the Catholic Church were to publish an article in which he condemned “a theology of eucharistic coherence that multiplies barriers to the grace and gift of the eucharist” and stated that “unworthiness cannot be the prism of accompaniment for disciples of the God of grace and mercy.” Or what if a cardinal of the Catholic Church were to state publicly that homosexual acts are not sinful and same-sex unions should be blessed by the Church? 

Until recently, it would be hard to imagine any successor of the apostles making such heterodox statements. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon today to hear Catholic leaders affirm unorthodox views that, not too long ago, would have been espoused only by heretics. “Heretic” and “heresy” are strong words, which contemporary ecclesiastical politeness has softened to gentler expressions such as “our separated brethren” or “the Christian faithful who are not in full communion with the Catholic Church.” But the reality is that those who are “separated” and “not in full communion” are separated and not in full communion because they reject essential truths of “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). Thus, it is deeply troubling to consider the possibility that prelates holding the office of diocesan bishop in the Catholic Church may be separated or not in full communion because of heresy. 

Yet both the cases mentioned above would in fact involve heresy, since heresy is defined as “the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith” (canon 751 of the Code of Canon Law). What, then, constitutes “some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith”? 

According to canon 750, 

A person must believe with divine and Catholic faith all those things contained in the word of God, written or handed on, that is, in the one deposit of faith entrusted to the Church, and at the same time proposed as divinely revealed either by the solemn magisterium of the Church or by its ordinary and universal magisterium which is manifested by the common adherence of the Christian faithful under the leadership of the sacred magisterium; therefore all are bound to avoid any doctrines whatsoever contrary to them.

In 1998, Pope John Paul II added a second paragraph to canon 750, which states, 

Furthermore, each and every thing set forth definitively by the Magisterium of the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals must be firmly accepted and held; namely, those things required for the holy keeping and faithful exposition of the deposit of faith; therefore, anyone who rejects propositions which are to be held definitively sets himself against the teaching of the Catholic Church.

The Holy Father also amended canon 1371 of the Code of Canon Law, adding an appropriate reference to canon 750, so that it now reads: “The following are to be punished with a just penalty: a person who . . . teaches a doctrine condemned by the Roman Pontiff, or by an Ecumenical Council, or obstinately rejects the teachings mentioned in canon 750 § 2 or in canon 752 and, when warned by the Apostolic See or by the Ordinary, does not retract.” 

Canon 752 says, 

Although not an assent of faith, a religious submission of the intellect and will must be given to a doctrine which the Supreme Pontiff or the college of bishops declares concerning faith or morals when they exercise the authentic magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim it by a definitive act; therefore, the Christian faithful are to take care to avoid those things which do not agree with it.

In his apostolic letter Ad Tuendam Fidem, Pope John Paul II explained his reason for making these changes to canon law: 

To protect the faith of the Catholic Church against errors arising from certain members of the Christian faithful . . . we, whose principal duty is to confirm the brethren in the faith (Lk 22:32), consider it absolutely necessary to add to the existing texts of the Code of Canon Law and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, new norms which expressly impose the obligation of upholding truths proposed in a definitive way by the Magisterium of the Church, and which also establish related canonical sanctions.  

Normally canonical sanctions require that either a judicial or administrative process be followed before a penalty can be imposed. However, it is important to note that canon 1364 says that “an apostate from the faith, a heretic, or a schismatic incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.” A latae sententiae excommunication is a sentence that is automatically incurred without any canonical process. While an automatic penalty without due process is unheard of in most judicial systems, canon law provides for such penalties, due to the distinctive character of spiritual offenses such as apostasy, heresy, and schism, since a person who espouses apostasy, heresy, or schism has de facto separated themselves ontologically—that is, in reality—from the communion of the Church. Thus heretics, apostates, and schismatics inflict the penalty of excommunication upon themselves. 

Returning to the earlier examples cited, it is contrary to a “truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith” to reject or condemn “a theology of eucharistic coherence that multiplies barriers to the grace and gift of the eucharist,” as if no such barriers existed. They do exist, and they are a matter of divine revelation. The truth about eucharistic coherence that must be believed by divine and Catholic faith was articulated by St. Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians: “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord . . . For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (1 Cor. 11:27–29). This has been the constant teaching of the Church for the past two thousand years. Thus, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Anyone aware of having sinned mortally must not receive communion without having received absolution in the sacrament of penance.” A mortal sin is one which “destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God's law; it turns man away from God.” 

With regard to the sinfulness of homosexual acts, the truth that must be believed with divine and Catholic faith is also stated clearly in the Catechism

Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.  

Thus a cardinal of the Catholic Church, like any other Catholic who denies settled Catholic teaching, embraces heresy, the result of which is automatic excommunication from the Catholic Church. 

In addition, a cleric can be punished with the penalties mentioned in canon 1336, such as prohibiting residence in a certain place or territory and removing “a power, office, function, right, privilege, faculty, favor, title, or insignia, even merely honorary.” Canon 1364 adds, “If contumacy of long duration or the gravity of scandal demands it, other penalties can be added, including dismissal from the clerical state.” 

Canon 194 provides for removal from an ecclesiastical office by the law itself in the following cases:

1)    a person who has lost the clerical state;
2)    a person who has publicly defected from the Catholic faith or from the communion of the Church; and
3)    a cleric who has attempted marriage even if only civilly.

However, canon 194 adds this restriction: “The removal . . . can be enforced only if it is established by the declaration of a competent authority.” Only the pope can remove a cardinal from office or dismiss him from the clerical state in the case of heresy or other grave crimes. If he does not do so, the unseemly prospect arises of a cardinal, excommunicated latae sententiae due to heresy, voting in a papal conclave. 

We must pray that the Holy Spirit will not let this happen, and will inspire  anyone who espouses heretical views to renounce them and seek reconciliation with our Lord and his Church.

Thomas J. Paprocki is bishop of Springfield, Illinois, and chairman-elect of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance. 

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Image by British Library via Picryl licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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