Making the best case for that open letter on papal heresy
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.”
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Posted by: filioque -
May. 18, 2019 11:32 PM ET USA
I am somewhat impatient with one of the criticisms of the open letter that I keep seeing: that it has made it harder to criticize the Pope without being lumped in with the extremists who call him a heretic. No. All bishops have had ample opportunity before now to voice their concerns or even just sign onto statements by others who have done the work. They are just not going to do it. God will judge them. I am grateful to the few exceptional Cardinals and Bishops and to the Letter's signers.
Posted by: winnie -
May. 17, 2019 10:09 AM ET USA
Thank you,Phil. Somewhere in scripture is the deserved insult “mute dogs”. With the exception of Vigano, Sarah, Schneider Mueller-maybe a few I don’t know., that is what our bishops are. Their cold hearts are unmoved by our sufferings at the hands of Pope Francis the traitors in their own ranks
Posted by: MWCooney -
May. 16, 2019 9:25 PM ET USA
It is no accident that we find ourselves in this miserable condition, in which "the stakes are high, the situation is grave." We have been given the pope and hierarchy we deserve. The stated intentions of the signers of this letter are commendable, and I hope it does some good--or at least that it does not do even more harm--but the bottom line is that it will take our individual and collective turning away from evil to prevent this chastisement from becoming even harsher. It is in God's hands.