Saturday, May 25, 2019
Popes, heresy, and papal heresy
In , philosopher John Rist defends his decision to sign the open letter accusing Pope Francis of heresy (on which I commented in ). , canon lawyer Ed Peters argues that the letter fails to establish its main charge. Properly to understand this controversy, it is important to see that a reasonable person could judge that both men have a point – as long as we disambiguate the word “heresy.”
What is heresy?
“Heresy” is a word that has both a broader ordinary usage and a narrower technical usage, and both usages have their place. In this respect it is like words such as “assault” or “robbery,” which have both ordinary usages and technical legal usages. If a lady slaps a man for saying something ungentlemanly, most people would probably not think of that as an “assault,” but legally it might be classified that way (even if left unprosecuted). A tax which served to fund no legitimate governmental function (the unjust taking of property by force), but no legal code would count it as such.
There is nothing necessarily wrong with such semantic divergence. Ordinary usage is not always precise, but the law needs to be. Hence technical legal definitions don’t always correspond exactly to ordinary usage, even if there is considerable overlap.
The same thing is true of “heresy.” As Parente, Piolanti, and Garofalo’s Dictionary of Dogmatic Theology says, the word “originally… meant a doctrine or doctrinal attitude contrary to the common doctrine of faith” (p. 123). The word derives from the Greek hairesis, which means a “choice” of some elements of Christian doctrine out from among the others, which the heretic rejects. (Heretics, you might say, are the original “pro-choice” types.) Hilaire Belloc notes in that a heresy involves plucking a theological thesis out from the larger context that gives it its precise meaning, and thereby distorting it.
For example, the heresy of Sabellianism treats Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as mere modes or aspects of one divine Person, rather than as three divine Persons. The reason it does so is that it “chooses” or focuses on God’s unity to the exclusion of his Trinitarian nature. It rejects one aspect of Catholic doctrine in the name of another aspect.
This is the way heresies typically operate. They aren’t made up out of whole cloth. Rather, they start with something that really is there in Catholic doctrine, but focus on it so obsessively and exclusively that they distort it, ignoring other doctrinal elements that balance out the one that the heretic fixates on, and attention to which would have prevented him from falling into error.
Now, suppose a Catholic puts such an emphasis on Christ’s mercy that he takes it to imply that someone in an adulterous second “marriage” can be absolved and receive Holy Communion despite having no intention of refraining from adulterous acts in the future. This would manifestly be a heresy in the original sense cited by the Dictionary, and in the sense explained by Belloc. For it would both be an obvious departure from two millennia of common doctrine, and would involve a distortion of the notion of mercy, .
Indeed, it would be an especially perverse distortion, since it would, in the name of Christ’s teaching on mercy, reverse Christ’s teaching against divorce and remarriage – a teaching that Christ enjoined on his disciples precisely in the name of mercy! For it was, Christ said, only because of their “hardness of heart” that the Israelites were permitted by Moses to divorce, a permission he explicitly cancelled. So, a permissive attitude toward divorce and remarriage is the very last thing one could justify in the name of Christ’s understanding of mercy.
Does Pope Francis endorse such a reversal of traditional teaching? The open letter accuses him of this and other errors. Of course, some of the pope’s statements on doctrinal matters are ambiguous, and in interpreting what a person means, it is only fair to look at the larger context rather than consider an ambiguous statement in isolation. The trouble, the open letter argues, is that the larger context makes things look only worse for the pope, not better. For, the letter notes, the pope has made a series of problematic statements, and refuses to respond even to repeated respectful pleas for clarification from some of his own cardinals and from theologians. Moreover, he praises and promotes churchmen who favor a heterodox interpretation of his words, while criticizing and sidelining those who uphold traditional doctrine.
Prof. Rist rightly complains of “double-talk,” and of a “servile mentality” among some of the open letter’s critics, who nitpick over details while “diverting attention from the main concerns.” He might have added that the pope’s defenders have for years now mostly relied on blatant sophistries and ad hominem attacks rather than addressing the concerns of the pope’s critics in good faith and with serious arguments. They have, given the feebleness of their case, only reinforced rather than defused worries about the pope. Prof. Rist says: “I am not a canonist... What I am is someone who believes he can recognize intended heresy in word [and] also how the words are confirmed by the actions.” And if one understands “heresy” in the older and broader senses of the term expressed in Parente, Piolanti, and Garofalo’s Dictionary and in Belloc’s The Great Heresies, one can see his point (even if, as I suggested in my earlier post, it would have been better to speak of papal negligence vis-à-vis heresy).
The trouble is that the open letter does not confine itself to these broader senses of the term. It explicitly accuses the pope of heresy in the technical, canon law sense of the term. And in making such a charge, it matters very much whether one is a canonist – which Ed Peters is.
Now, there are three major problems here. The first is that the term “heresy” has a narrower meaning in canon law than it does in popular usage, or even in the usages I cited from Belloc and from the Dictionary. Heresy in the canonical sense entails “the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith.” The key phrases here are “obstinate” and “divine and Catholic faith.”
The first point to make is that for someone to be a heretic in the canonical sense, it is not enough that he holds an opinion that is in fact heretical. He has to know that it is. That is to say, his opinion has to be formally heretical rather than merely materially heretical. This is where the obstinacy condition becomes crucial. The idea is that a person can usually be counted as a formal heretic only if he has been warned that his opinion is heretical, and has nevertheless persisted in his opinion.
Now, the open letter argues that the pope has indeed been obstinate in heresy, but this brings us to the second key phrase. What is to be believed “by divine and Catholic faith” are doctrines that have been officially defined as such by the Church. To be sure, there are lots of other things Catholics are also required to assent to, but denying or doubting them would not count as heresy in the canon law sense. As Parente, Piolanti, and Garofalo’s Dictionary says:
Heresy in the full sense of the word is opposed to a truth of divine-Catholic faith. If the denial concerns a revealed truth which is clear and commonly admitted as such, but has not been defined by the Church, the one who denies such a truth is called proximus haeresi (very close to heresy). (p. 123)
Hence, even to establish that the pope is a heretic in the broader senses cited in the Dictionary and by Belloc would not suffice to show that he is a heretic in the narrower canon law sense (much less an obstinate one) as opposed to being merely “proximate” or “very close” to heresy. Now, the authors of the open letter realize this too, and they try to make a case that the pope is guilty of heresy in this stricter sense. The trouble is that the very ambiguity of the pope’s words make such a case difficult. Precisely because his statements can be read in different ways, even an unsympathetic reading might yield only something “heretical” in the broader sense rather than in the narrow canon law sense.
That brings us to the second difficulty, which is the one emphasized by Peters. Canon law is governed by a “principle of benignity” which requires that the accused be given the benefit of the doubt, and in particular that the law be interpreted in a way that is as benign or favorable to the accused as is reasonably possible. Given this principle, Peters says, “heresy cases are not impossible under canon law, but they are, and are meant to be, very difficult.”
It would, accordingly, be difficult to show that the pope meets both the condition of obstinacy, and the condition of denying a doctrine that is heretical in the narrow canon law sense. A defense lawyer might argue that the pope’s persistent ambiguity is precisely evidence, not of heresy, but rather that he simply lacks interest in and sufficient knowledge of doctrine (as opposed to being interested and knowledgeable enough to deny it, as a heretic would be) and that he lacks either patience or capacity for clear and careful theological reasoning.
There is an irony here in that Pope Francis and his defenders often badmouth what they call “legalism” and the cavils of the “doctors of the law.” For it is precisely “legalism” which provides the pope with his best defense against the charge of heresy, and precisely a “doctor of the law” who would be best able to get him an acquittal.
But that brings us to the third problem, which is that you can’t put a pope on trial in the first place. As canon law says, “the First See is judged by no one.” Contrary to what some people suppose, that does not mean that Catholics cannot ever criticize a pope for prudential or even doctrinal errors. . What it means is that there is no one on earth with the authority to do anything about it if the pope ignores such criticism. Vis-à-vis the governance of the Church, his only superior is God.
So what happens if a pope really does become a heretic (which can happen when he is not speaking ex cathedra)? There are different theological theories about this, but no settled Church teaching and no mechanism in canon law for dealing with such a situation. On one theory, a pope who becomes a formal heretic is ipso facto automatically excommunicated, and thus no longer a member of the Church, and thus no longer pope. So, if the cardinals or bishops were to issue a finding to the effect that this has happened, they would not be judging a pope, because he wouldn’t be a pope any longer. They would just be noting a fact, as they would be if they simply reported that a pope had died. It would then be possible for them to remove the (now former) pope, and proceed to the election of a new pope.
The authors of the open letter appeal to this sort of theory. They rightly reject the sedevacantist interpretation of the theory, according to which a heretical pope would automatically lose his office even without any intervention on the part of the bishops (such as their issuing a warning to the pope that he is in danger of formal heresy). As the open letter says, this would throw the Church into chaos. Any individual Catholic with a stack of theology books and a blog could decide for himself that a pope has lost his office on account of heresy, refuse to recognize him, and call on others to do the same. We would have exactly the sort of “private judgment” and consequent anarchy that Catholicism has always criticized Protestantism for, and which the Church’s hierarchical structure is intended to prevent.
So, the open letter suggests, the right way to understand the theory is to hold that a pope could not lose his office on account of heresy without some prior formal action on the part of the bishops. In particular, the letter argues that the bishops would first have to have warned the pope more than once, and that if he remains obstinate after their doing so, they would have to issue some sort of formal declaration to the faithful to the effect that the pope has become a formal heretic. Only subsequent to their doing so could a pope plausibly be said to have lost his office. However, the open letter suggests:
These actions do not need to be taken by all the bishops of the Catholic Church, or even by a majority of them. A substantial and representative part of the faithful bishops of the Church would have the power to take these actions.
End quote. The reason for this qualification is obvious. It could turn out, of course, that some bishops, even a majority of them, sympathize with the heresy into which a heretical pope has fallen, and would therefore not be inclined even to warn him, much less declare him a heretic. And even non-heretical bishops might be wary of such an extreme measure. Hence, the open letter judges, it would suffice if “a substantial and representative part of the faithful bishops” take action.
Now, the problem with all of this is not merely that it is just a theory, albeit a defensible one. The problem is that it doesn’t really solve the grave difficulty facing the sedevacantist interpretation of the theory. For now the problem of “private judgment” and the anarchy it entails simply arises once again at the level of the bishops. Suppose that half of the bishops decide that a pope has become a formal heretic and lost his office, but that the other half disagrees and tells the faithful that the pope is not a formal heretic. What happens then? Does the pope lose his office or not? Is the first group of bishops supposed to convince the cardinals to elect a new pope? What if the cardinals are themselves in disagreement about whether the current pope has lost his office? What if the heretical antipope simply waits things out, lives for another decade or so, and keeps appointing new cardinals, until the only ones left are those appointed by him? How do we ever have another valid papal election?
Or, even if the first half of the bishops do convince the cardinals to gather and elect a new pope, what happens if the other half of the bishops simply refuse to recognize him, and continue to recognize the pope that their fellow bishops have declared a formally heretical ex-pope? Now we would have two competing popes. Who decides which one is the true pope?
Of course, a fifty-fifty split is optimistic. A more likely scenario would be one where a minority of bishops declare the pope a formal heretic and judge that he has lost the papal office. So what happens in that case? Do they elect a new pope, while the majority of the Church continues to be in communion with the current pope (whom the minority now regards as an antipope)? Suppose this majority retains control of the Vatican and all of the other real estate and other institutions of the Church. What happens to the idea that the Church is a visible institution that is clearly identifiable and continuous over time, rather than a Gnostic secret society?
This is all horrible enough, but it is really only the beginning of sorrows. For in the chaos that ensues, everyday Catholic life would become intolerable. Some bishops and priests would remain in communion with the pope that has been declared heretical, and some would not. So, are the former to be judged schismatic? And in that case, how could their acts be licit, or in some cases even valid? Will your local parish priest retain his faculties for weddings and for hearing confessions? How will the ordinary Catholic be able to know that his marriage is valid or that he has been truly absolved of his sins? How will he know who to trust on doctrinal questions? Even learned faithful Catholics would have great difficulty resolving some of the theoretical and practical problems that will arise in the circumstances described. How is the average Catholic supposed to manage?
Again, the problem of “private judgment” and its consequent anarchy threatens the open letter’s position, no less than it threatens the sedevacantist position that the letter rightly rejects.
Prof. Rist and the letter’s other signatories judge that the situation in the Church is extremely bad and that many faithful Catholics are in denial about it. They are absolutely right about that. They judge that action must be taken, and that too many faithful Catholics lack the spine for it. They are right about that too.
Where they go wrong is in forgetting rule one for dealing with a crisis: “First, do no harm.” Because as bad as things are, they could be even worse – much, much worse. Imagine the Arian doctrinal crisis, the heterodoxy of Pope Honorius, the Great Western Schism, the chaos that followed the Cadaver Synod, and the moral squalor of the pre-Reformation Church, all rolled into one gigantic and unprecedented mess. It could happen. Maybe it will happen; we’re part of the way there already. But it could also happen that Pope Francis reverses course, or, perhaps more plausibly, that he does not but that his successor does (even if this too is not a sure thing). Since these are manifestly better scenarios than the horror story I have just told, the best thing for faithful Catholics to do is to facilitate them. And, to say the least, a reasonable person could doubt that the best way to facilitate them is to float the suggestion that Pope Francis ought to lose his office due to heresy.
A small (papal) error in the beginning…
However the current crisis is resolved, one of the good fruits it is likely to bear in the long run is a more sober understanding of the nature of the papal office. Catholic theology and magisterial teaching during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries put heavy emphasis on the large scope of papal power, and for good reason. But papal power is not unlimited, and it is possible to overemphasize it. Indeed, if even heresy is something a pope might in theory be guilty of, lesser but still serious errors are also possible and more likely – and have indeed been committed by recent popes, which is part of the reason we’re in the mess we’re in. One of the excellent points Prof. Rist makes in his interview is this:
John Paul’s theatrical talents, and his comparative indifference to Curial reform, have not been helpful. The former encouraged the disastrous practice, which we now see in spades, of assuming that if you want the answer to any question, you go to the pope as talking oracle: The media took (and takes) advantage of that, often to the detriment of the Church.
End quote. Part of Rist’s point here is that Pope St. John Paul II was such a strong personality that the line between the man and the office he held came to be blurred. Many people, including too many faithful Catholics, started to think that Catholicism is just whatever the current pope happens to be saying (even though this was certainly not John Paul II’s own view).
Cardinal Ratzinger was sensitive to this problem, and made it clear that not everything John Paul II said amounted to binding Catholic teaching (as in his As Pope Benedict XVI, he emphasized the limits of papal power, :, which noted that Catholics are not obliged to agree with the pope’s call to abolish capital punishment).
The Pope is not an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law. On the contrary: the Pope's ministry is a guarantee of obedience to Christ and to his Word. He must not proclaim his own ideas, but rather constantly bind himself and the Church to obedience to God's Word, in the face of every attempt to adapt it or water it down, and every form of opportunism…
The Pope knows that in his important decisions, he is bound to the great community of faith of all times, to the binding interpretations that have developed throughout the Church's pilgrimage. Thus, his power is not being above, but at the service of, the Word of God. It is incumbent upon him to ensure that this Word continues to be present in its greatness and to resound in its purity, so that it is not torn to pieces by continuous changes in usage.
End quote. Unfortunately, this was too little too late, and many have come to think of the papacy in essentially terms. The sequel has been the Orwellian notion that a pope can by fiat turn a reversal of doctrine into a development of doctrine, and heretical water into orthodox wine.
Prof. Rist also makes reference to John Paul’s “comparative indifference to Curial reform,” and that is another major part of the story of what is happening in the Church today. People wonder: Where did all these heterodox prelates come from? The answer is that they gained prominence in the Church, and in many cases were made bishops and cardinals, precisely under John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
Now, these popes certainly tried to reign in the worst heretical excesses of the post-Vatican II period, but they were never as draconian as their enemies liked to pretend. Though famous dissident theologians like Hans Küng and Charles Curran lost the right to label themselves officially as professors of Catholic theology, they were not excommunicated or defrocked. They have remained priests in good standing, and have continued teaching and writing and otherwise freely spreading their ideas in Catholic circles. And these are just the most visible dissidents. Countless other heterodox theologians have been left entirely unmolested and free to teach and write whatever they like, in Catholic institutions and elsewhere. Naturally, these people have had an enormous influence on generations of Catholic laymen, priests, and prelates, even if the latter usually don’t express their heterodox views frankly and in public.
This patience with heterodoxy contrasts with the attitude of past popes. It is one thing to try to live up to the Church’s teachings and to fail, but quite another to reject those teachings and lead others to do the same. That is why, while the Church has always tolerated those guilty of sins of weakness (drunkenness, fornication, etc.), she has, traditionally, not tolerated heresy. You can’t follow Catholic teaching even imperfectly if you don’t know what it is. Hence, while other sins are like a bad flu, heresy is like cancer. If it is found in some part of the Church, it must either be cured straightaway (by convincing the heretic to repent) or removed (by excommunication, if there is no repentance). Otherwise the whole organism is threatened.
So, why were John Paul II and Benedict XVI less severe than past popes in dealing with heterodoxy? That’s a complicated issue, but I suspect that two of the main reasons are these. First, with Vatican II, the Church sought to affirm, as far as was possible consistent with orthodoxy, whatever positive aspects might be found in modernity. This led churchmen increasingly to adopt the rhetoric of freedom, democracy, human rights, religious liberty, the dignity of the person, etc., and to deemphasize those aspects of traditional Catholic teaching that do not sit well with such rhetoric. Now, this rhetoric is, of course, the rhetoric of the liberal political tradition, broadly construed – the tradition of Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Mill, and company. And central to this tradition is the ideal of minimizing coercion, and respecting the liberty of the individual conscience, as far as is reasonably possible.
Now, churchmen whose moral sensibilities have been formed by this sort of rhetoric are naturally going to find distasteful the exercise of coercive power. Gently persuading the heterodox is bound to seem more agreeable than disciplining them, and more in keeping with the ideals of freedom, democracy, etc. That, I submit, is one factor underlying the leniency of the post-Vatican II popes.
The second factor, I would suggest, is that both John Paul II and Benedict XVI were intellectuals, and started out as academics. Now, the intellectual, and especially the academic, highly values the give and take of free debate, and wants to settle disagreements through argumentation rather than the exercise of authority. Of course, in an academic setting that is exactly the right approach to take. But it might be tempting for an academic who becomes pope to transfer that approach to this very different context – to treat the Church as if it were a big classroom or professional academic meeting, and the faithful as students or fellow academics who will come around to the right conclusions if only you set out the arguments for them in a compelling way.
In short, though we admirers of John Paul II and Benedict XVI often think of them as Philosopher-Kings, they were really Professor-Presidents. And the students they should have failed or dropped from the class have now taken over the classroom.