You can read the whole thing here (which is well worth doing since Jimmy’s trademark lucidity is always a pleasure to read), but here’s his summary:
The Open Letter has many other flaws, but its chief one is that it fails to make the case that the present pope is guilty of heresy. To do that, it would need to show the following:
- The Magisterium has infallibly defined some specific truth
- It has infallibly defined that this specific truth is divinely revealed, creating a dogma
- The pope has been baptized (that’s easy)
- The pope’s words or actions indicate that he refuses to believe the dogma
- His words or actions cannot be understood in a way consistent with the dogma
- He does so obstinately
If you can’t do those things, then don’t waste the public’s time.
In particular, don’t waste our time citing irrelevant documents that don’t prove your point, and don’t waste our time—as the signatories of the Open Letter do—with loopy charges regarding a pastoral staff that the pope has carried or a cross he has worn.
It’s one thing to ask for clarifications, voice concerns or express disagreement, but making charges of heresy is another matter.
It’s gravely reckless and irresponsible to charge anyone with an ecclesiastical crime as serious as heresy if you can’t prove it, and it’s even worse to do so with regard to the pope, given the scandal, confusion, and risk of individual schism that it will create for the faithful.
Listening to combox bishops over the past few days threaten the Holy Father with “losing the papacy” on the strength of this ridiculous letter is absurd enough.
Listening for the umpteenth time to people who claim to know Scripture complain about “ambiguity” in Francis’ words while worshiping a Man who said, “Why do you call me good? There is none good but God” is even more absurd. Ambiguity? Have they even seen the New Testament?
Listening to people strain at the gnat of “lack of clarity” from Francis, who is easy to understand (his enemies just don’t like what he says), while swallowing the camel of JPII’s dense and difficult prose is even more absurd still.
But what breaks the camel’s back is people actually, seriously talking as though ‘HE USED A FERULA ONCE! HE’S A SATANIST!!!!11!!!1!11″ is anything other than a bulletin from Crazytown.
Jimmy, having vastly more patience than I do, bothers his head with the main body of this crazy letter and patiently takes apart the supposedly serious theological argument it makes for the sake of those souls in danger of “scandal, confusion, and risk of individual schism”. Me, being exhausted with having to deal with every absurd Panic du Jour, I selfishly take the much shorter route of asking, “Does this letter actually claim the Pope is a satanist because he used a ferula once? Oh. Well then, it is obviously crazy and I need not concern myself with it one second longer.”
That’s a tribute to Jimmy, not me. I just want to cut through garbage in my news feed that I don’t have to read. He has more patience than I do and knows that there really are people out there who navigate their faith, not so much by argument as by trust in Trusted Figures. People who don’t know their faith all that well and who ask, “Does Revered Figure approve of X? Then that must be what I think too.”
The time was when Catholics said, “The pope said X? Okay, then I’ll trust that. He is the Pope, after all.” The Right Wing Noise Machine has killed that trust for most American conservative Catholics when it comes to Francis. Yesterday, I saw comboxes at the National Catholic Register Facebook page brimming with assertions that Francis is a servant of the devil. That is the ambient noise among American conservative Catholics.
So when you decide that the pope is the Enemy and you don’t really understand the Church’s teaching yourself (evidenced by the fact that you think the Pope is the Enemy), that leaves you feeling pretty insecure, especially if you have spent decades boasting that the Magisterium is what makes being a Catholic so much better than all those Protestants. At some level, you realize that you have become a Protestant, but you don’t want to admit it.
What do you do? First, you tell yourself that you are the Remnant: the Last Guardian of Real Catholicism in a Time of Papal Apostasy. Then you call people like me an “ultramontanist” for not buying your crazy charge that the Pope is a Heretic Enemy. Next, because you don’t actually know what you are talking about, you cast around for Folk Heroes and Trusted Authority Figures to tell you what you want to hear.
If you need to ignore the Church on unjust war, you apply to Michael Novak to tell you that it’s okay to ignore two popes and all the bishops of the world and launch a war in Iraq that meets not one criterion of Just War.
If you want to ignore the Church on torture, turn to Marc Theissen and Raymond Arroyo for aid and comfort in rejecting the Magisterium.
Do you want to fight the Magisterial call to abolish capital punishment? Ed Feser is your man.
Need to rationalize tearing families apart at the border, ripping children from their mother’s arms and disappearing them into system to be lost forever? Kellyanne Conway is your Catholic authority for alternative facts.
And so on. The idea is that most right wing Catholics looking for how to think as Catholics don’t turn to Magisterial sources to form their minds anymore. They look to Folk Heroes and Trusted Authority figures (usually proposed to them by some combination of conservative secular and Catholic media) and say, “So and So says that this war/torture/capital punishment/nuking Hiroshima etc. are okay and I trust them, not some liberal like Francis.” This is how non-Catholics like Jordan Peterson wind up having more authority than Pope Francis for conservatives. He’s got the stamp of approval from Trusted Figures and so he’s OK.
Fr. Aidan Nichols & Co. have been proposed to the Francis-is-Satanic crowd as the Trusted Figure du Jour by such websites as Canon 212, Lifesite News, 1 Peter 5, or Church Militant on whether the Pope is a heretic. EWTN and Arroyo have been dripping the slow poison of “Francis is a bad pope who cannot be trusted” into the veins of their audience for years. So have almost every other Right wing source from First Things to FOX. Most of the audience is thoroughly prepped with the suspicion that Francis is a heretic. So when a document like this shows up, Fr. Nichols’ mere name on it is sufficient proof to the average conservative American layman that the jury is in and the pope is guilty and must render an account to this ad hoc tribunal or “lose his papacy”. No real argument is necessary. The document says what they want to hear and that’s good enough. To question it is to question the integrity of a Great Man on behalf of a proven heretic. (Mind you, I am not very certain of Fr. Nichols’ culpability here. I wonder how much of his involvement in this absurd document is a function of his age or some other factor.)
Jimmy has offered a counter-argument to the truly terrible arguments of this absurd indictment of the Pope and, as another Trusted Figure, it is a bold act since the consensus on the Noisy Anti-Francis Right is that, yes, the pope is a Heretic Enemy. That consensus does not rest on the strength of argument, as Jimmy shows, but on the strength of a vague feeling that Our Sort just don’t trust him because Steve Skojec looked into Francis’ “cold dead eyes” and had a Strong Feeling once. It’s based on “Who am I to judge?” and something something gays and airplane interviews and “self-absorbed, neo-pelagian, Promethean” and not kneeling at daily Mass because of arthritis, and washing Muslim feet, and speaking for refugees, and attacking the arms industry, and an obscure footnote in Amoris Laetitia, and taking climate change seriously, and calling to abolish the death penalty, and ferulas and Vigano shouting “RESIGN!” and, oh, everything! “He’s just a liberal and a heretic and Fr. Nichols and a bunch of other people are saying so and I know what I know and I don’t have to read it to know he’s a heretic,” is how this letter really works.
So it matters that Jimmy, also a Trusted Figure for that subculture, has challenged it and shown that this letter does not work at all and that a mere signature by a Famous Person does not demonstrate a thing about the truth of the indictment except that most of the people pointing to the signature do not understand the document they are praising for its attack on the Holy Father.
At the end of the day, I deeply appreciate Jimmy’s patient dismemberment of the bad arguments of this disgraceful document and, in particular, his forthright condemnation of the recklessness of those who wrote it, signed it, and eagerly disseminated it. It is a danger to souls. It is an assault on, not a defense of, Holy Church. It is to be forthrightly condemned as the piece of trash it it.
I also add that Paul prays for the Church “that we may no longer be children, tossed back and forth and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles” (Eph 4:14).
When Reactionaries shriek at the Pope “HE’S A HERETIC BECAUSE HE USED A FERULA AND THAT MAKES HIM A SATANIST!!!!!11!!!!!1″ my money is on the Holy Father being the one to stand with against the cunning of men and the craftiness of their deceitful wiles” who are “carried about by every wind of doctrine”, not vice versa.
My prayer is that Francis, as is his custom, does not give this ridiculous Right Wing Panic du Jour the time of day. The Right in the Church has modeled its behavior on the FOX Right Wing Panic Machine and is stampeding a small but vocal and money/media empowered subculture into another hysteria, as it did last summer with Vigano. They are giving scandal to those who are weak in faith and uninformed, all for the sake of a power grab.
My prayer is also that Catholics will, at long last, learn their faith to the degree that work like Jimmy’s will not be necessary because mature Catholics will know their faith well enough that they can instantly spot rubbish like this and toss it in the waste bin without gasping and wondering, “Is it true?”
No. It’s not true that the Pope is a heretic. Be at peace.