DEBATING THE RELEVANT ISSUES – “Is Francis a heretic? Can he be deposed?” A Conversation… Featured
Written by Hilary White and Tommaso
I was recently having a back-and-forth with a friend in Rome who is a theologian and an expert particularly on the Church’s ecclesiology and all things papal. We are of one mind about the Problem Pope, and were discussing what to do, what is even possible to do.
There is starting to be talk going about here and there about the possibility of a group of bishops and cardinals calling an “imperfect ecumenical council” and issuing a declaration that, because of his manifest and pertinacious heresies, Jorge Bergoglio has lost the papal charism. This “depose the pope” avenue of thought has gained some currency, but there are right-thinking folk who are skeptical of it, and for several reasons, and who are hesitant over its efficacy in regards to the bigger problem in the Church.I asked my friend Tommaso why he was among the skeptics, and thought the resulting brief discussion could be of benefit, to help others clarify their thoughts…
T: Since his election in 2013, Pope Francis’ public statements and actions have led people to ask whether the question “Is the Pope Catholic?” is still rhetorical. More than one Catholic has questioned whether the Pope’s comments on evangelization, contraception, the death penalty, and other doctrines of the Church have shown that he rejects Catholic truth, and embraces heresy.
HJMW: Well, a great deal of the difficulty with Francis is not just his statements. In fact, he is proving himself to be a master at avoiding making clear statements either way as we have all noted. The fact that he will contradict himself, misquote scripture and act contrary to his own previously stated positions (Mafia is bad because they kill people, but then meet and have friendly doings with the Castro brothers; abortion is a terrible crime, then making un-critical complimentary comments about Emma Bonino; to name only two of too many to count.) A lot of what these American papalogists are doing that is disingenuous is picking and choosing his orthodox-sounding statements and saying, “See?!” but Francis himself regularly contradicts these statements, usually, as I have pointed out, within 24-72 hours of making them, either with his words or his actions. Is it possible to condemn a person for heretical inconsistency? It seems a problematic issue.
T: Yes, and the question has important consequences, as orthodox Catholic theologians are generally agreed that formal heresy – and only formal heresy, which is strictly defined – is sufficient for the Pope to lose his office. Some theologians, in fact, argue that formal heresy causes the Pope to lose his office by divine law. Even theologians who do not accept that position nonetheless hold that an heretical Pope ought to be deposed.
But with regard to Pope Francis, I would suggest that he is not, in fact, a formal heretic for several reasons. In order to come to be a formal heretic, one who is baptized must obstinately cling to an heretical opinion. There can be no reasonable doubt, I think, as to whether Jorge Bergoglio was baptized. The question, then, is whether he holds an heretical opinion (one is enough); and whether he is pertinacious (that is, does he obstinately cling to that opinion).
HJMW: The “one is enough” comment is more interesting than you perhaps realise. Most people look at the problem of Francis and are overwhelmed by his incredible tangled mess. They are confused and befuddled by him, and find themselves thinking one thing one day and the opposite the next. They don’t realize that canonically speaking, one is enough.
It reminds me of Elliot Ness going after Capone. Ness understood his opponent well, and was very orderly about his line of attack, and didn’t bother himself over issues that he knew he couldn’t win. Capone was too clever about the big stuff, the murder and the racketeering. But Ness knew that one crime was as good as any other, and that the goal was to get his man behind bars, so went for his tax records, a weak spot that Capone, busy with murder and mayhem, had failed to adequately defend.
Perhaps it would be helpful to have a definition of the distinction between formal and material heresy…
T: Very simply, material heresy is ‘an objective error concerning a truth of the faith’. Heresy becomes formal when one deliberately, and obstinately, chooses to maintain an opinion contrary to a defined dogma, knowing that it is contrary to the teaching of the Church. So formal heresy is deliberate and willed, and thus culpable.
The question of whether Pope Francis is a formal heretic has implications for the real world, even if it is unlikely that they will be realized. I would argue that the Pope Francis is not a formal heretic, and that for several reasons.
First, with regard to the content of his belief: although it is difficult to know another person’s real convictions with certainty, the Church (and others) can and do make provisional judgments based on external evidence. In the secular world, courts routinely judge whether a culprit’s actions were intentional and justly act on that determination.
For example, if a hunter shoots and kills someone, a court can, and must, determine whether the shooting was accidental, negligent, or deliberate; and if deliberate, whether it was provoked, whether it was pre-meditated, etc. All these things contribute to a judgment about the action, and all are determined by the knowledge and intention of the one who committed the act.
The Church, similarly, makes determinations about the internal dispositions of those charged with crimes on the basis of external evidence.
For both Church and State, the difficulty in making those judgments means that there is a fairly high evidentiary bar before one can be convicted of more serious crimes – it is harder, for instance, to prove pre-meditated murder than accidental manslaughter.
It remains, though, that the Church can make judgments about the people’s beliefs and motivations. In the case of the Pope, there are many reasons for giving the benefit of the doubt and we would have to make them.
Although sometimes, while granting benefit of the doubt with regard to the moral judgment – whether one is subjectively guilty of a crime – we must nonetheless act out of practical considerations to safeguard others. An example of this might be a drunkard who beats his children. Subjectively, for any number of reasons he might be less morally culpable for his actions, but in any case his children must be protected from the real danger they face.
First, with regard to the content of his belief: I do not think that Pope Francis’ thought is coherent enough to sustain a charge of heresy.
I don’t think he is able to think things through clearly, and I have doubts as to the conviction with which he would hold a given proposition. I think he can, and does, hold, very loosely, contradictory positions. I don’t think he would subscribe or commit to a definite, heretical proposition.
To illustrate this, take a hypothetical case. Suppose someone is asked, “Is there one will in Christ, or are there two?” Now, taken simply, this question has one right, and one heretical answer: there are two wills (a divine will and a human will) in Christ. To deny this, and to maintain that there is only one will in Christ, is the heresy of monothelitism. But suppose our respondent were to say, “What do you mean by the question? Are we talking about the Divine person, the Second Person of the Trinity? Are we talking about Christ’s human nature? Are you asking if there are contrary wills in Christ? I can’t answer your question until you tell me more…”
In this case, he may be speaking in good faith or not, but, since he has not committed to a position, it would be difficult to convict him of heresy. Alternatively, he may be genuinely confused, and, not being able to come to a conclusion, he might say something like, “I don’t understand the question. Tell me, what does the Church say? That’s what I believe.” In that case, he is not a heretic at all (provided he is in good faith).
I think Pope Francis is in the latter case. I think he is genuinely confused about what the Church teaches on all manner of things. For a priest – to say nothing of a Pope! – this ignorance would likely be sinful and culpable – but it is not the sin of heresy. It can be scandalous, harmful to the faithful, even culpably erroneous, but it is not heresy.
All this means that the efforts of Francis’ apologists to show that his statements to do not fall technically into the realm of heresy do have some force. What they do not do is to serve to exculpate him, and one cannot legitimately suggest that, because he has not publicly stated heresy, his statements are acceptable. They are not, and they should be challenged – and denounced and resisted. But the apologists are correct, as far as I can judge, in arguing that his statements are not properly heretical – they are too confused and incoherent to be strictly heretical, according to the technical, and canonically legal, definition.
HJMW: So you are saying that the distinction has to be made that he might be saying heretical things (as he has admitted in his own words!) but is so confused and ill-educated that he does not know they’re heretical. I wish I did not find this scenario – that a heretic who does not know enough theology to know he is a heretic could rise to the papacy – but I’m afraid I find it all too plausible, knowing what we know of the modern Church.
T: Yes, and there are of course, a number of efforts going around now in which the bishops are being called upon to rebuke and correct the Pope, since his erroneous remarks are public, even notorious, so it is incumbent on Bishops to respond publicly, to cast doubt from the minds of their flock. The Bishops who have been set up “as watchmen in Israel,” have a duty to protect their sheep; if they fail to do so, the Lord will surely require the blood of those sheep at their hands.
HJMW: The second issue in deposing a pope is demonstrating “pertinacity…”
T: Yes, and, although this is far more difficult to prove, I do not think the Pope is pertinacious in his heresy and error. I may be accused of naïveté; perhaps. But the Pope’s statement that he is “a son of the Church,” and thus unwilling to contradict her doctrine, suggests that when faced with a clear teaching of the Church, a teaching he recognized as coming from the Church, he would not reject it.
Unfortunately, both for him perhaps, but more especially for us, it would seem practically impossible to prove this point one way or another. Certainly, in terms of juridical proof, he is not now a pertinacious heretic. It appears that the only way to convict a Pope of pertinacity is for the Universal Church to require of him a profession of faith; to warn him of his heresy and error, and order him to retract.
When so many Cardinals and Bishops appear to hold beliefs similar to those of Pope Francis; when so many prelates refuse even to speak out against his errors, it is difficult to see them coming together to admonish the Pope.
In any case, because of the confusion and incoherence of his public statements, and because of his apparent lack of contumacy, it seems that Pope Francis cannot, at this point, be considered a formal heretic, and cannot be deposed.
All of that leads us to the question: What do we do about it? But that’s a much bigger discussion.
My friend’s rhetorical question was the last of our discussion, but he later said he agreed in general terms over the rest…
I know that the closing question, what is to be done, is on the minds of many. A lot of people had started to hope that the problem could be solved by bishops, far over their heads, and all at once. I think more than a few people are looking for someone else to make a quick job of things so they can get back to what I have called the “comfortable middle ground”, in which they don’t have to do very much to defend the Faith themselves.
I think there is something of a similar motivation to the depose idea as in the sedevacantists’ position. It’s easy, isn’t it, to just say, “Oh, he’s not really the pope, so I don’t have to worry about it.” It would be much easier for all of us if bishops and cardinals like Burke or Robert Sarah or bishops like Athanasius Schneider – the only ones we hear of in the media, but I’m sure there are more – would just get together with the Poles and Slovaks and Hungarians and call the Kasperians’ bluff.
So now we are stuck asking, “Well if we can’t hope for that, just what the hell are we supposed to do? We cannot let this dangerous man continue his destructive rampage.”
Honestly, I also think there is no hope at all of deposing or even effectively correcting the pope. Even if the canonical requirements could be achieved, and a group of bishops and cardinals could be found with the spine to try it, to follow through and call a Council and actually do it, Francis has proved over and over that he is completely set on his course. Changing his mind would require an effort that would be akin to deprogramming someone from a cult.
And even if it were possible, I fear that deposition would do nothing more than put us right back into the fire we were in back in 2013. Who would you, or anyone, suggest would be better? We have tried the “conservative” papal solution, 26 years of John Paul II and Benedict XVI and that just put us where we are now. The problem in the Church is a good deal bigger than just the failings of this or that man sitting on the throne.
Something we’re going to have to deal with is the fact that Francis is a puppet. Certainly obviously a willing one, but a puppet nonetheless. The puppeteers are ready to keep going, even if he should meet with an unfortunate lightning strike. Deposition would only put us back to 2013, and we know that they are already planning for the next Conclave. Do we imagine that the “good guys” are as busy and as organized?
Instead of hoping for that which we can’t have, we should be using the situation as it is. In fact, as I’ve been saying since day one, he’s exactly the wake-up call/catalyst the Church has been needing. We could continue to wring our hands and call for the Sweet Meteor of Death, start looking forward with grave anticipation to the 100th anniversary of Fatima, we could start praying for the consummation of the world, or we could take advantage of this opening that he has created and act. The jaws of the trap are closing, and I think quite a few of the sheep are ready to get out.
And we know that between the pope’s own statements and our diligence in calling them, people are indeed waking up. We can’t call for a hands-up count, but we have pretty good evidence that the people who are still Catholic interiorly and intentionally – however impoverished their theology may be – are seeing what’s going on and have started to rumble. Catholics who really are Catholic, or who want to be, aren’t buying the shtick and they are starting to realize that the time of complacency is over. There is no more comfortable middle ground between the Faith and the World, and within the Church there is no more room for quiescent going-along-to-get-along. Even (some) of the people who were buying it at first are starting to feel uneasy about the whole circus.
But as Bishop Schneider said, the Faith now resides mainly in the laity, whose work, therefore, is laid clear before them. They must be the ones to correct and admonish. I think all this blogging is, essentially, preaching to the choir. If my 30,000 readers at What’s Up with Francis-Church, for example, started, somehow, making clear to their priests and bishops that they will not have any more of this destruction of the Faith, that might be a worthwhile expenditure of time and resources. But if we are just blogging to vent, we get nowhere. It is not up to the ten or twenty-odd people out there who are writing about it regularly. It’s up to the entirety of the remaining Catholic faithful.
Without a mass movement of the faithful, there will be only destruction ahead. I think, more than a move to support an episcopal effort to depose Francis, the focus should be on how to start prompting a mass pushback by the faithful.
How this could be accomplished without bishops leading, I don’t know yet. Lay movements are something I personally abhor on the whole and they nearly always fall into dissention and dissolution over interior disputes. Maybe a delegation of faithful could be sent to Bishop Schneider to go hat in hand and beg him to actively take up the leadership of such a movement. Perhaps this delegation could meet with him in Poland. And there could be some Slovakians and Hungarians present.
But I think my friend Tommaso is right. I think the deposition path is doomed to complete failure, and could in fact play into the hands of the destructors. The people who have the power to do it are too weak to accomplish it, and have been too supine and quiescent for too long, and our enemies are too crafty and too dedicated and have no scruples about lying or cheating. We have seen that they don’t play fair, and, though I hate to say it, I fear that a good man like Cardinal Burke, who is about as by-the-book as it’s possible for a modern churchman to be, is no match for these jackals.
Moreover, the difficulty I see with a mass movement of the laity is that they are themselves, individually, too weakened by confused and erroneous theology to hold together.
There are so few rams among the sheep.