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Reply to Fr. Thomas Weinandy: Pope Francis a Heretic?

Reply to Fr. Thomas Weinandy: Pope Francis a Heretic? September 21, 2021

I shall be responding to Fr. Thomas G. Weinandy, O.F.M. Cap. and his article, “Is Pope Francis a Heretic?” (First Things, 5-7-19). His words will be in blue.

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Nineteen theologians and academics recently released a letter to all Catholic bishops throughout the world, accusing Pope Francis of being a heretic and urging the bishops to take action, even canonical, in order to rectify this dire state of affairs.

That sounds impressive, doesn’t it, until one realizes that at least 13 of the 19 are radical Catholic reactionaries; that is, on the extreme far right of the ecclesiological spectrum. One can follow my link to see the other sorts of things (besides the pope being a heretic, which Vatican I clearly statedde fide –  cannot happen) that they believe. Not a single bishop signed (see the signatories at the end of the document). It’s little different from the liberal theologians in 1968 bashing Humanae Vitae and refusing to abide by its authoritative teaching against the grave sin of artificial contraception. The only difference is that this is theological far right rather than far left. But the bottom line is the same: dissent.

There is no need to repeat the concerns expressed within that letter. They are well known, and have already been critiqued by many theologians, academics, priests, bishops, and even cardinals. What makes this open letter unique is its formal charge of heresy. This is an extreme position to take, as the authors themselves admit, but they believe that, given the critical situation that has developed in the Church, such a position is merited.

Yes it is extreme: so much so that even strong papal critics like Phil Lawler and Canonist Ed Peters have rightly opposed the outrageous accusation.

Undoubtedly, many of the statements Pope Francis has made are ambiguous, and therefore troubling—for they can be interpreted in both an orthodox and a heterodox manner.

This drives me nuts: the “ambiguous” accusation is trotted out: just as it has been for fifty years from the far right critics of Vatican II. But it has no content; it’s entirely subjective (at least when stated baldly like this). We have to have particulars in order to have a constructive, objective discussion. The Bible itself is also far too often “interpreted in both an orthodox and a heterodox manner.” Is that the fault of the Bible or the interpreter? Likewise, the same can be true in the case of this pope and his endlessly prattling critics.

What is most disconcerting is that erroneous interpretations, those contrary to the Church’s doctrinal and moral tradition, are often propounded by bishops and cardinals—those who want to implement misguided teaching within their dioceses and urge that they become the norm within their national jurisdictions. 

If that is true, it’s terrible, and the fault lies with the bishops who do this. Without specifics, no further comment can be made.

In view of this, many of the concerns addressed in the open letter are valid, some more than others. 

No content to address . . .

However, the fact that Pope Francis articulates these positions in an ambiguous manner makes it almost impossible to accuse him rightly of heresy. (This is, in a sense, a saving grace.) Those who interpret his ambiguous teaching in a manner not in keeping with the Catholic faith may be heretical, but the pope is not, even if the pope appears to give silent approval to their erroneous interpretations.

The same vague accusation is repeated, which makes it no more of an “argument” than it already was (which was not at all any rational argument).

Thus, I think that the letter’s authors have gone beyond what is objectively warranted.

Good.

Yes, there are grave concerns and important doctrinal and moral issues at stake—ultimately the truth of the gospel itself.

Serious charge minus particulars. I’m still waiting for those.

But the manner in which they were presented, the conclusions drawn, and the actions proposed will not help rectify the present crisis within the Church.

We agree!

Actually, the open letter makes it more difficult for others to appropriately critique the ongoing doctrinal and moral chaos within the Church, a disorder that will continue to intensify as this pontificate progresses.

This assumes “doctrinal and moral chaos” without argument (petitio principii logical fallacy).

Why do I say that? First, let me speak of the bishops to whom the letter is addressed.  Yes, it is disheartening, especially for the laity, that the bishops do not speak out more forthrightly in defense of the Church’s authentic doctrinal and moral tradition. Yet, if bishops do maintain the integrity of the gospel within their own dioceses, this in itself is a major achievement, given today’s oppressive and fearful ecclesial atmosphere. Their silence, then, may be a guarded expression of their displeasure with the present pontificate.

Or they are choosing to “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself” (Prov 26:5, RSV). That’s why the pope doesn’t answer all these numerous charges made mostly by the same reactionary “usual suspects” over and over (in order to magnify their influence), as I have documented. Dr. Pedro Gabriel has explained  (now twice) why the pope takes the route of silence in these instances.

Nonetheless, because the open letter is extreme in its appraisal and intemperate in its approach, more than likely it will make it more difficult for bishops, and even cardinals, to address present concerns. 

I agree that it is “extreme” and “intemperate.” And that’s exactly why the pope (and apparently bishops, too) ignore it. It deserves no reply. I’ve been talking about extreme, unethical, and intemperate approaches to the Holy Father (and not just Pope Francis) for eight years now. I will continue to do so, no matter how few listen, because it’s wrong.

While they may be displeased, and even annoyed, with Pope Francis’s ambiguity and the manner in which he conducts his Petrine ministry, yet they rightly are nowhere near judging Francis a heretic and will remain silent about the letter.

Again, these things are assumed. He is assuming that most readers will automatically agree with him, sans actual evidence and documentation. Sadly, that is true. People are sheep, and “the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings” (2 Tim 4:3). There is an entire cottage industry now of folks who hang upon every word that bashes, slanders, and lies about this pope and his alleged interior motivations. Fr. Weinandy is of moderate tone, but he still definitely contributes to the scandalous onslaught, in his more subdued fashion.

Moreover, if a bishop does attempt to comment on the present serious concerns, he will now be labeled as one who agrees with and promotes the “extremist” cause of the letter’s authors. Thus, this letter, while it may have been well-intentioned, has made it even more difficult for bishops to address the crisis within today’s Church. 

First, we have to establish what these “present serious concerns” are, and if they are wrongheaded or nonexistent upon examination.

Second, if we focus on whether or not the pope is heretical, the more pressing issue confronting the Church is pushed to the background: The doctrinal and moral chaos this pontificate has nurtured, regarding such issues as the sacramental nature of marriage, the intrinsic evil of homosexual acts, and whether Judaism and Christianity are merely two of the many religions that God willed.

Ah, finally we have some particulars to work with, and it’s all boilerplate anti-Francis rhetoric, tossed out as if no one could possibly disagree with the charges. As for Pope Francis’ true views on the indissolubility of marriage and impermissibility of divorce, see:

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As to homosexuality and sodomy, see:

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Pope Francis, Same-Sex Unions, & Chicken Little Mass Hysteria [10-22-20]

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“Gay Unions”: Leftist & Reactionary Catholics vs. Pope & CDF [3-23-21]

Pope Francis vs. Same-Sex “Marriage”: The Record [3-25-21]

Pope Francis’ “Endorsement” of Fr. James Martin, SJ (Does it Entail a Denial of Church Teaching on Gravely Disordered Homosexual Sex?) [6-30-21]

As to God willing supposed religious indifferentism, see:

Pope Francis: Don’t be afraid that God has allowed different religions in the world (Carol Glatz, AmericaCatholic News Service, 4-3-19)

Which God’s Will?  (Dr. Randall B. Smith, The Catholic World Report, 11-15-19)

Dr. Smith wrote:

Pope Francis later clarified that when he said the multiplicity and diversity of religions was “willed by God,” he meant “God’s permissive will.” If he meant God’s permissive will, then his statement is absolutely unobjectionable. Since he says that is what he meant, I take him at his word, and there’s an end of it. [Unfortunately, the link has been taken down]

But the problem is that many folks don’t take Pope Francis at his word, even when he clarifies. They still want to hold on to suspicion and misrepresentation and mind-reading and second-guessing. Catholic writer Scott Eric Alt brilliantly dissected this nonsense:

No Catholic ought be troubled by this. Even Fr. Z says that we must read the Abu Dhabi statement in light of the distinction I made in my lead:

When we speak of God’s will we make distinctions. God has an “active or positive will” and a “permissive will”. God’s “active will” concerns that which is good, true and beautiful. On the other hand, God has a “permissive will” by which He allows that things will take place that are not in accord with the order He established.

That’s Fr. Z, dear reader. And back on March 8, Bishop Athanasius Schneider, beloved of FaithfulCatholics™, said that Pope Francis had clarified. Let’s listen to what the man said. The man said that the reference was to God’s permissive will. “The bishop told LifeSiteNews that he had a direct exchange with Pope Francis.”

(Oh, he said this to Fake Site, did he? Indeed he did. Fake Site trumpeted it as a “win.”)

“You can say,” the pope said, “that the phrase in question on the diversity of religions means the permissive will of God.”

That’s what the man said.

But no matter what the man said then, Bishop Schneider tells Fake Site News now that Pope Francis needs to clarify. (Well, he’s not saying “clarify” this time; he’s saying “correct.”) The pope needs to correct the statement, because it represents “another gospel.” And if anyone preaches to you another gospel, let him be accursed! Schneider says this about the pope.

But wait. I thought Pope Francis had clarified. If the pope has clarified, if he has said the reference is to God’s permissive will, what does he need to correct? Can someone explain? Can someone clarify this? Anyone? Buehler?

And Fake Site, in this article by heresy accuser Paolo Pasqualucci, says that the bishop’s new words “lend weight to heresy accusations.” According to this article, the pope’s clarification actually contradicts the Abu Dhabi statement.

So let me see if I understand all this. Schneider asks Francis to clarify the words at Abu Dhabi about God’s will. The pope says: Sure thing, Athanasius. I’m always here to clarify. This document means God’s permissive will. Athanasius says this to Fake Site, and they in turn characterize it as a “win.” But now, the clarification is not enough, because it somehow contradicts Abu Dhabi, and we’re back to Pope Francis preaching another gospel. We need a correction now!

So what we have here—do I understand this right?—is a case where no clarification could possibly be enough because Schneider has already decided before any of it that the document is heretical. If Pope Francis says, “No, I meant this,” Schneider just says, “Oh, then it’s a contradiction.”

Now, the above is what happens when actual propositions are set forth to debate, yay or nay, pro or con. Particular claims were made (critical of the pope). Even so, they weren’t proven to be troublesome in this article; they were merely named and “trotted out” (this time, a trio of charges). I happened to have dealt with all three accusations (or in the third case, linked to those who do), so I could quickly provide a rebuttal.

Thus, readers can now scrutinize both sides (what a novelty!) and make up their own minds if there is anything to these charges. I say there is not. They’re all whoppers about him, and blatantly so at that. I don’t deny the sincerity of those making the accusations, but they are simply wrong.

And the biggest problem is that when it’s shown to them that they are dead-wrong, almost always folks of this mindset refuse to admit it or to be corrected. They want to hold on to falsehoods. Once folks who make these accusations are shown that they are misguided and wrong, and have promulgated the very opposite of the truth, they are fully culpable in terms of decided what to do with the new refuting information. [and — just as a bit of added trivia — this is why people not infrequently become very angry at me]
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None of these three things are “ambiguous” in Pope Francis’ teaching in the least. They are crystal clear.
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This doctrinal and moral chaos is where the real battle must be fought. 
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I deny that it is chaos! If examples like the three above are what Fr. Weinandy has in mind as “proof” of this supposed “chaos”, then he is (with all due respect) gravely mistaken and is participating in the bearing of false witness against the Holy Father.
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There are many theologians and academics, as well as many priests and laity, who have taken up this good fight of faith. They have done so through articles in academic journals and more serious periodicals, blogs, and websites.
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They are overwhelmingly extreme reactionaries (folks who also often, for example, bash Vatican II and the Pauline Mass), along with the usual fellow travelers and useful idiots who swallow the false narrative [the pope is a liberal, heretic, two-faced, dictator, bad man, etc. ad nauseam] whole –minus sufficient fair-minded analysis — and jump on the bandwagon.
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They have also done so in academic conferences and general public forums. The fruit is an ever-growing community of ardent believers, from all walks of life, academic backgrounds, and ecclesial vocations—united in the truth that there is but one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, which cannot be destroyed or superseded by a new church, even if such is the aim of some in high ecclesial positions. 
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See the previous comment. But it’s also true that the extreme anti-Francis zealots precisely believe, or come close to believing, that both the pope and the Church can defect from the faith (or come so close that it is virtually a distinction without a difference). I have documented many times, for example, this theme of ecclesial defectibility in the prominent reactionary Steve Skojec. But he’s not the only one with these tendencies, by a long shot.
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Yet the open letter throws this work of the Spirit into jeopardy, for now those who have undertaken this battle will more easily be tarred with the brush of extremism.
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Most already were extremists long before this letter. I know. I’ve been dealing with their errors (as a Catholic apologist) these past eight years.

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The wisdom, the forthrightness, the prudence, the respect, and the love with which they have worked to proclaim and defend the truth of the gospel could easily be lost in the clamor for anathematizing the pope or the ensuing uproar in his defense. 

Very true! I have noted for over 25 years that when one becomes obsessed with bashing the Church or the pope or Vatican II or the New Mass, the first thing that goes out the window is evangelism and apologetics. This sort of junk doesn’t make Holy Mother Church appealing to outsiders. It pushes them away and/or makes us a ridiculous laughingstock.

What are lost are measured, intelligent, nuanced responses to the present ecclesial crisis and a rational Spirit-filled fortitude to bring truth to light in the midst of deceitful darkness. 

Again, I deny the “crisis” (i.e., as papal bashers and critics and nitpickers and reactionaries define it). It’s a trumped-up mythology based on relentless distortion of the pope’s actual positions. Again, I know, because I have systematically dealt with these charges. Almost all of them are like an onion. You peel away the outside and keep peeling and end up with no core. If there is a crisis, it’s with the actual theological liberals / dissidents in the Church and the far-right extremists as well; not with this orthodox pope.

So, while the open letter hopes to be a clarion call to rectify a grievous situation within the Church, it may have unintentionally contributed to making the victory of faith even more difficult.

Falsehoods always do that, because they are of the devil, the father of lies. No good can come of them.

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Photo credit: brett jordan (6-28-21) [Flickr / CC BY 2.0 license]

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Summary: Fr. Thomas Weinandy was presented to me as a temperate critic of the pope. In some ways he is, in others, it’s the same-old same-old: fallacies, falsehoods, myths, & misrepresentation.

 

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