On April 29, a number of prominent Catholic theologians and clerics issued an open letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church accusing Pope Francis of heresy.
This is an extremely rare occurrence, but certainly not without precedence.
Pope Honorius, who ruled for 13 years in the seventh century, was condemned by the Third Council of Constantinople in 680 for teaching that Christ had one will, rather than two (human and divine), the belief accepted by the church.
The term heresy is one that may not be familiar to many. The dictionary defines heresy as “adherence to religious opinion contrary to church dogma.”
“Church dogma” means the accepted teachings of the church, often called “the magisterium” in the Catholic church.
The magisterium consists of the teachings of the Bible and the authoritative traditions of the church. “Traditions” include the writings of the early church fathers, the pronouncements of the various church councils over the centuries, and the Catechism, which defines in great detail what members of the Catholic church must believe.
Conservative Catholics have grown increasingly alarmed at some of the actions and public pronouncements of Pope Francis, particularly in the areas of fitness for receiving of the holy sacraments, inter-faith dialogue and support for disgraced clerics.
The first high profile reaction occurred after Pope Francis published a document in April, 2016, which summarized a synod on the family, called Amoris Laetitia (Joy of Love).
The Amoris Laetitia document appeared to imply that divorced and remarried Catholics were now able to receive the sacrament of communion without going through the annulment process (a major departure from church practice).
In November of the same year, four prominent cardinals posed five questions, called dubia (doubts), to the Pope, asking him to respond.
Their stated goal in posing the dubia was to “prevent conflicts and division in the church”. In church tradition, dubia questions simply require a “yes” or “no” answer without theological explanation.
Fifteen additional cardinals, archbishops and bishops have since added their names to the dubia letter.
Despite all these concerns raised by church leaders, Pope Francis has refused to respond to the dubia questions.
The following year, a group of 62 theologians, academics and clergy issued a letter of “filial correction” to the Pope, basically admonishing him for the positions he had taken in the Amoris Laetitia document. This type of action has not been taken against a sitting pope since the 14th century (Pope John XXII in 1333).
The third major controversy erupted after Archbishop Carlo Vigano, the former papal nuncio (the Vatican’s senior representative to the United States responsible for vetting and recommending senior papal appointments such as new bishops), accused Pope Francis of willfully ignoring the serious sexual misconduct committed by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
Cardinal McCarrick was found to have sexually abused an altar boy and pressured countless (adult) seminary students into having sex with him. Pope Benedict had suspended the Cardinal from his posts, but Francis re-appointed him to a position of high influence despite knowing of his misconduct.
The latest accusations are more sensational because of the allegations of heresy.
Some of the signatories are very well known and respected. One is Father Aiden Nichols, a lecturer at Oxford University and author of almost 50 books of theology.
Another is Catholic philosopher Dr. Josef Seifert, president of the new Academy for Life in Lichtenstein.
He defended signing the petition in a written statement: “I sign this petition because I agree with the bulk of the letter signed by 20 [now 81] distinguished Catholics and because I believe, as they do, that it is a holy duty of all Cardinals and Bishops of the Catholic church, as successors of the Apostles, to examine carefully any serious charge of heresy committed by the Pope.
If they find these accusations correct, they have the further duty as brothers in the apostolic Office to tell the Pope without any false and cowardly fear, in all frankness and filled with the same Holy Spirit in which St. Paul publicly criticized and reprimanded the first Pope Peter, whom Christ himself had chosen, that he strayed far from God’s truth and will.”
It seems clear that the defenders of Pope Francis have “circled the wagons” and dismissed the heresy letter signatories as “extremists” or “ultra-conservatives” intent on undermining Pope Francis and fomenting schism in the church.
One Catholic friend I raised the issue with called them “a bunch of nutters.”
But one might also say that Pope Francis’ unwillingness to respond to legitimate concerns about his un-Catholic positions is responsible for these divisions.
As of this writing, almost 5,000 Catholics have signed a petition of support for the letter.
I’m one of them. I guess that makes me a “nutter.”
KTW welcomes submissions to its Faith page. Columns should be between 600 and 800 words in length and can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include a very short bio and a photo.