Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Making the best case for that open letter on papal heresy

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | May 16, 2019

John Rist, perhaps the most distinguished scholar among those who signed the open letter charging Pope Francis with heresy, has explained his action in an interview with the National Catholic Register. I would strongly urge all concerned Catholics to read the entire interview. Rist is an extremely intelligent man, and makes a strong case in defense of the open letter, while at the same time recognizing its limitations.

Although I remain convinced that the open letter is asking the wrong question, I am entirely in sympathy with Rist’s ideas as he explains them to the Register. And I dare say that, based on the same interview, he seems to be in sympathy with the argument I put forward more than a year ago in Lost Shepherd: that Pope Francis has produced immense confusion among the Catholic faithful, which can only be corrected by clear and forthright teaching from stalwart bishops.

As I argued when the open letter first appeared, I think that the authors of the open letter made a tactical mistake, because the charge of heresy is very difficult to prove, whereas the charge that the Pope has caused confusion is—if I may use a popular expression—a slam-dunk.

“But,” you might say, “confusion isn’t as bad as heresy!” Are you sure of that? We look to Rome for clarity: for reliable guidance on questions of faith and morals. If we have no sure frame of reference—no “true magnetic north”—then we are exposed to all sorts of heresies, large and small. When a theologian teaches heresy, he may mislead those who hear or read his views. But when the Roman Pontiff foments confusion, he allows for the possibility that all Catholics may be misled.

John Rist understands that the open letter has weaknesses. He knows that lay people cannot bring a Pope to trial. He recognizes that many people will see the letter as extreme, or impertinent, or divisive. But he felt compelled to do something, because the stakes are high, the situation is grave.

Ultimately, Rist says—again echoing my argument in Lost Shepherd—the confusion caused by Pope Francis cannot be resolved by a plea from the laity. If the problem is confusion, the answer is clarity—clarity in teaching, which can come only from the hierarchy. But maybe, just maybe, an impassioned plea will stir up action among the bishops. “The letter,” he says, “is primarily and immediately a challenge to the bishops to act rather than ignore or wring hands only.”

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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