Is the Pope a heretic? The danger of asking the wrong question

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | May 03, 2019

Was it sheer frustration that prompted a group of Catholic scholars to issue their open letter charging Pope Francis with heresy? If so, I can understand. I share the frustration. The silence of the Catholic hierarchy, in the face of confusion that is tearing the Church apart, is maddening.

If silence compounds the crisis—and it does—then I admire those who speak out, knowing full well that they could pay a high price. The “Easter Letter” does ask questions that demand answers. Moreover I have a great deal of respect for some of the men who signed this letter, and I count a few of them as personal friends. So I am reluctant to dismiss their effort. Nevertheless I fear that this letter does more harm than good, compounding the problem that loyal Catholics now face.

Well, is the Pope a heretic? I am not qualified to address that question. As a matter of fact, I don’t know who is. St. Robert Bellarmine introduced the possibility (note: he mentioned it as a theoretical possibility, not as an established certainty) that a Pontiff who promoted heresy would forfeit his office. But citing that argument begs the question. Who could make the authoritative judgment that the Pope had fallen into heresy and therefore lost his authority? Certainly not a handful of independent scholars.

To their credit, the authors of the Easter Letter recognize the need for an authoritative statement, for a judgment by the world’s bishops. But if that is their goal, should they not have approached sympathetic bishops privately, quietly, to make their case? Because by taking their arguments to the mass media, they have made it less likely that bishops would support them.

Peter Kwasniewski, one of the principal authors of the letter, now says that the document lists “instances of heresy that cannot be denied.” This, I’m afraid, is a demonstrably false statement. The “instances of heresy” mentioned in the letter have been denied, and repeatedly. The authors of the letter are convinced of their own arguments, but they have not convinced others. In fact they have not convinced me, and if they cannot persuade a sympathetic reader, they are very unlikely to convince a skeptical world.

Still it is significant, isn’t it, that some scholars are making this argument, however unpersuasively? Isn’t it significant that the speculation of St. Robert Bellarmine is being cited—not only by these men, but by many Catholic commentators? Questions have certainly been raised about the doctrinal orthodoxy of Pope Francis, and those questions are not being answered.

The most important questions in the Easter Letter are not terribly new. They were raised, very carefully and respectfully, by the four cardinals who signed the dubia. They have been raised by world-class Catholic theologians and philosophers. (One thinks, for instance, of the open letter penned in 2016 by John Finnis and the late Germain Grisez.) They have been raised as questions, issued in pleas for clarifications, rather than as accusations.

And the questions have not been answered.

If Pope Francis has not answered the queries of the dubia cardinals, and of the dozens of other Catholics who have begged for clarification, he is certainly not going to respond to the Easter Letter. Instead his supporters have attacked the motivations of the Pope’s critics, charging them with infidelity and schism and arrogance and rash judgment. Those charges—aimed at suppressing discussion—are now much easier to sustain, because the authors of the Easter Letter have made themselves such tempting targets. It will be easier, now, to classify anyone who challenges the Pope as a member of the same group that is making charges of heresy. Consequently life will be more difficult for those of us who are not calling for the deposition of the Roman Pontiff, but simply for a clarification of Church teaching.

While the claim that the Pope has committed heresy is at best a leap of logic, the charge that he has allowed—in fact caused—confusion is irresistible. For many months now, many of us have been urging bishops to issue clear statements of Church teaching, to counteract that confusion. Now, by asking bishops to do something that none of them is likely to do, the authors of the Easter Letter have given timid bishops one more excuse for their silence. Pleas for clarity can now conveniently be lumped together with charges of heresy, as evidence of “extremism.”

The authors of the Easter Letter compound the problem by combining some strong arguments with some very unpersuasive complaints. Their critique of Amoris Laetitia is fairly compelling; their suggestion that the Pope’s controversial appointments are evidence of heresy is ludicrous. The introduction of these lesser issues devalues the entire letter. Surely the authors know—or should know—that the defenders of Pope Francis will fasten on these trivial matters, exploiting them to argue that the letter should not be taken seriously. Thus the very structure of the Easter Letter betrays a lack of prudence, a failure to anticipate the likely consequences of this public statement.

It is this display of imprudence that raises my suspicion that the letter is the result of pent-up frustration, because I do not think that the authors of this letter—the ones I know, at least—are imprudent by nature. Faithful Catholics, crying out for pastoral help, wonder what sort of dramatic action we could take, to wake our shepherds from their slumber. The frustration is mounting steadily, as the epidemic of confusion has spread throughout the Church. It will continue mounting, as the confusion continues to spread, until bishops speak out.

But what is it that we want bishops to say? That the Pope is a heretic? I, for one, would be content if bishops made it clear that the Church’s teaching has not changed, will not change, cannot change on fundamental questions such as the inviolability of the marriage bond and sanctity of the Eucharist. I fear that this letter, by asking bishops to do too much, might have the unhappy result of giving them an excuse for their failure to do the minimum, in terms of fulfilling their teaching office.

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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 11 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - May. 06, 2019 6:10 PM ET USA

    I agreed with Pope Benedict XVI for many years before he actually came out and said it: the Church of the future will be a smaller, more Christ-centered Church than the dysphoric and deceitful caricature that passes itself off as Catholic today. Orthodox Catholics may be forced to hunker down (as the Chinese did during the Mao years and as they are doing again today) and tough out the current and impending darkness until the fullness of the means of salvation stands clearly before us once again.

  • Posted by: Monserrat - May. 05, 2019 11:57 PM ET USA

    "There is a point in a loving family if the father has a problem, you have to confront it. Eventually there has to be an intervention, and we need an intervention." Quote from Philip Lawler during an interview with Raymond Arroyo. Which is it going to be, Phil?

  • Posted by: Retired01 - May. 05, 2019 4:48 PM ET USA

    Four cardinals write a dubia, the Vatican and the majority of bishops and cardinals look the other way. The same can be said about the writings of Fr. Weinandy, Arch. Vigano, the authors of this letter, etc. The issue is not about the accuracy of this letter. The issue is about the truth. If there are problems with this letter, there are more problems with Pope Francis, his supporters, and those bishops and cardinals who do not appear to stand for the truth.

  • Posted by: jmbarry114 - May. 04, 2019 11:23 PM ET USA

    Thank you for addressing this disturbing matter clearly so that faithful Catholics can think and pray about it. You are my source because of all the research and references you provide that don't appear elsewhere, at least not in ways to logically follow and trust. May all of your staff continue and be blessed in this invaluable service. I am praying for our Holy Father, bishops, priests, and all those called to serve God in His people.

  • Posted by: shrink - May. 04, 2019 11:08 AM ET USA

    Perhaps we have a papacy that is beyond mere "heresy", hence, the problem of taking a term that has a restricted meaning, and applying it to a much broader problem. How about "sin against the Holy Spirit?" Reread theologian Fr Weinandy’s letter of July 2017. It does not use the "H" word, but it points to identical issues: "intentional ambiguity," "discounting of doctrine," appointments that "scandalize the faithful." A simple layman might say "den of thieves & liars." Let's ask Vigano!

  • Posted by: feedback - May. 04, 2019 9:39 AM ET USA

    I am afraid that the current Vatican trajectory points to married priesthood, women ordination, acceptance of contraception (and perhaps even abortion), and gay "marriage," for starters. A good number of the individuals surrounding Francis appear to be quite open to those ideas. Perhaps, hopefully, this letter will give them a pause. And that would be a good thing. Bishops, of course, will do the usual: say nothing.

  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - May. 03, 2019 11:16 PM ET USA

    I don’t know. The Dubia and other proper, humble pleas for clarity have utterly failed, as you point out. The Pope rudely ignores them; and even most of the “sympathetic” bishops seem paralyzed. If this letter isn’t the right new tactic, somebody better find out what is. And quick.

  • Posted by: mary_conces3421 - May. 03, 2019 8:04 PM ET USA

    I fear the same. Perhaps the letter writers despair that, no matter how tactfully & discreetly questions are put, no answer will be forthcoming, & they don’t want to go before their Judge and be condemned for not speaking the truth as they see it.

  • Posted by: seebert424930 - May. 03, 2019 7:06 PM ET USA

    There is one new charge that wasn't in the dubia, and it's the one that when I probe liberals with it for their private opinion is the most disturbing. The problem is this God-of-Surprises-all-religions-are-equal talk in the treaty. It's directly against dogma in John Chapter 14 and in the last line of the Nicene Creed. The only answer I've gotten from the "Jesuit Trained" liberals is that John doesn't belong in the Bible at all.

  • Posted by: adeodata - May. 03, 2019 6:14 PM ET USA

    Excellently put. I absolutely agree. At first I was glad something,-anything- was done... Now I am quite saddened by this letter and its foreseeable effects. Frustration. Frustrated. Frustrating indeed 😣

  • Posted by: wsw33410 - May. 03, 2019 5:52 PM ET USA

    Thank you Phil for a clear assessment; agree - their imprudence seriously devalued the whole effort. Real question is: how can we STOP Francis? He decided to change Jesus' words (not recorded/as Sosa said -- but dictated by the Holy Spirit in the Gospel/as we believe) "lead us not to temptation" ... perhaps Francis' theological understanding and achievements are greater than ... THE WORD?