Theologians accuse pope of heresy

shutterstock 259658843 Pope Francis greets the pilgrims during his weekly general audience in St Peter's square. | giulio napolitano / Shutterstock

A group of nineteen Catholics, including some prominent academics, have published an open letter to the bishops of the world accusing Pope Francis of heresy.

The letter, made public on April 30, was dated "Easter week" and signed by 19 individuals, including Fr. Aiden Nichols OP, an internationally recognized theologian and author. The 15-page letter begins by asking the bishops of the world to take some action against the pope.

"We are addressing this letter to you for two reasons: first to accuse Pope Francis of the canonical delict of heresy, and second, to request that you take the steps necessary to deal with the grave situation of a [sic] heretical pope."

The letter lists seven specific areas of Church teaching where the signatories believe the pope has "through his words and actions, publicly and pertinaciously" demonstrated his belief in "propositions that contradict divine law."

The complaints focus on supposed teachings of the pope concerning sexuality and morality which they claim run contrary to the Church's magisterium. The letter highlights what the signatories believe to be problematic passages from the pope's 2016 post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia, especially concerning Catholics in irregular marital situations.

Among specific heretical beliefs the letter accuses the pope of holding is the position that a Catholic can, with full knowledge of divine law, violate that law and not be in a state of grave sin.

The letter also references a number of bishops, cardinals, and priests whom the authors claim are themselves heretical and the pope either appointed or allowed to remain in office, as further proof of the Holy Father's "heresy."

The letter also suggests that a cross and staff used by the pope during the 2018 Synod on Young People liturgies were respectively "satanic" and proof of a pro-homosexual agenda.

Fr. Thomas Petri, O.P., Petri, vice president and academic dean at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC, told CNA that the letter is"frankly disappointing."

"I cannot understand how one could accuse the pope of heresy based on low-level appointments forwarded to him for pro-forma approval or on vestiture given to him to use for a liturgy."

"It's quite stunning to include such 'facts' as evidence of heresy," Petri said.

Canon law defines heresy as the "obstinate denial or doubt, after baptism, of some truth to be believed with divine and Catholic faith."

Attached to the letter is a four-page canonical rationale, in which the writers cite previous declaration by Pope Leo II that his predecessor, Pope Honorius, had supported the monothelite heresy in the seventh century.

The letter acknowledges that "it is agreed that the Church does not have jurisdiction over the pope, and hence that the Church cannot remove a pope from office by an exercise of superior authority, even for the crime of heresy."

Nevertheless, the letter asserts, a pope with "heretical views cannot continue as pope." The letter then suggests that the pope could lose office de facto as a result of obstinately holding public heretical views and that the bishops of the Church have an "absolute duty to act in concert to remedy this evil."

The Code of Canon Law explicitly provides for the punishment of Catholics who "make recourse against an act of the Roman Pontiff to an ecumenical council or the college of bishops."

Canon law also defines that both an ecumenical council and the college of bishops can only ever act with and under the authority of the pope.

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While the letter makes numerous references to the "canonical delict of heresy," only one of the signatories is listed as having a licentiate in canon law. The letter does not call for a canonical action to be taken against the pope, despite insisting that he has committed the delict of heresy, instead, the authors ask the bishops of the world to "admonish" the pope and cause him to formally "abjure" his alleged heresies.

Among the signatories of the letter are some prominent Catholics, including Professor John Rist,a research professor in philosophy at the Catholic University of America, where he previously held the Father Kurt Pritzl, O.P., Chair in Philosophy.

In a statement to CNA, Catholic University said that Rist does not speak for the university, and underscored his limited role there.

"He is not a teaching professor. His personal views about papal reform do not reflect those of the University," a university spokesperson said.

Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, a professor of philosophy, also signed the letter. Kwasniewski is a Senior Fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology in Steubenville, Ohio.

Robert Corzine, vice president of programs at the St. Paul Center, told CNA that Kwasniewski "definitely does not speak for the St. Paul Center in this regard."

Corzine noted that the center had previously published an English language version of a handbook for the pastoral care of the family according to Amoris Laetitia.

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"While the signatories of that letter clearly have their own particular way of interpreting Amoris Laetitia, if anything can be read in continuity with orthodox teaching and tradition it should be – and Amoris laetitia definitely can be," Corzine said.

Petri told CNA that the letter is unconvincing in both its arguments and its rationale.

"Apart from the canonical implications this may have for the signers, the letter itself is a hodgepodge of concerns that prevent it being taken very seriously as a whole," Petri said.

"While I agree there remain questions and concerns about some applications of Amoris laetitia, I cannot see how any of those concerns are necessarily material heresy."

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