The unjust punishment of a scholarly papal critic

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | May 31, 2019

Last year when he issued new rules for the governance of pontifical ecclesiastical faculties, Pope Francis called for a “culture of encounter” that would encourage “wide-ranging dialogue.” But there are limits, apparently, to how widely the dialogue should range.

This week John Rist, who had been conducting scholarly research at the Patristic Institute Augustinianum, learned that he had suddenly become persona non grata at the venerable Roman institution. He was given neither warning nor formal notice; he learned of his new status only when he was unable to gain access to the parking lot.

John Rist is a world-class scholar, noted for decades of outstanding contributions to the history of philosophy. Among his academic credentials are an honorary doctorate from the Pontifical Institute of the Holy Cross and a chaired professorship at the Catholic University of America. He had been, until this week, a visiting professor at the Augustinianum.

What did Rist do, to prompt the Augustinianum to banish him? He signed the open letter charging the Pope with heresy.

My own serious misgivings about that open letter are already on the record. But doesn’t academic freedom mean that a scholar should be allowed to profess an unpopular opinion?

The pontifical faculties are, admittedly, a special case; professors are expected to uphold the teachings of the Catholic Church. But Rist’s orthodoxy is not in question. He is being punished for questioning the orthodoxy of another prominent figure. And since the target of his criticism is the Bishop of Rome, a special rule applies.

In that 2018 document Veritatis Gaudium, amending the rules of the pontifical faculties, Pope Francis stipulated that the professors must be loyal to the Church. The wording of the relevant clause (26.2) is noteworthy:

Those who teach matters touching on faith and morals are to be conscious of their duty to carry out their work in full communion with the authentic Magisterium of the Church, above all, with that of the Roman Pontiff. [emphasis added]

The crude treatment of John Rist—which the professor rightly described as “grotesque discourtesy”—highlights a disturbing trend in Rome. Call it the new ultramontanism: the aggressive attitude of the Pope’s overeager defenders, who treat criticism of the Pontiff as a far more serious offense than attacks on the Catholic faith.

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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  • Posted by: Retired01 - Jun. 03, 2019 12:08 PM ET USA

    The crude treatment of John Rist highlights a disturbing trend in Rome. What else is news? How about the crude treatment of Catholic doctrine?

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jun. 02, 2019 10:25 PM ET USA

    Let me get this straight. To be "rigid" in matters of faith and morals is a sin. To be "black and white" in moral matters is a sin. To be a "lover of rules and doctrines" is a sin. Guilty as charged. ...But my confessor priest disagreed with that assessment in the confessional today. So I suppose we are to set aside 1,900 years of Catholic theology because pre-Vatican II, pre-critical scholarship had it all wrong. Only by conforming to today's fad and fashion in the Vatican are we validated.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jun. 01, 2019 5:54 PM ET USA

    The good news is that the Holy Ghost will prevent the _institutional Church_ (i.e., the Church as a corporate institution known by the name "Mystical Body of Christ") from faltering into human error, since it is a supernatural entity that is merely _staffed_ by people who do fall into moral error. Recall that Rist is not the first to suffer this punishment. Dr. Joseph Seifert was the first. Then of course we recall the dismissal of Cardinals, other clergy, and entire papal congregations.

  • Posted by: garedawg - Jun. 01, 2019 2:51 PM ET USA

    You can't expect to publicly criticize the boss and get away with it. If I publicly called the chancellor at the university where I work an "idiot", my parking space would probably disappear real quick.

  • Posted by: Foundas - May. 31, 2019 6:16 PM ET USA

    The Papal vindictiveness seems to fit right in with all that is rumored about Francis' behaviors and temperament. Trump has more to be vindictive about than Francis but he abstains where Francis cannot.