Are the Signatories Exercising a Right to Correct the Pope?

This post is in answer to a comment on another post, in part:

A. “The whole situation of the Synod, Amoris Laetitia, the various interpretations of AL by bishops in different countries, the dubia and now the filial correction is very unsettling and challenging.”

Consider the passage in the Gospel of John on the Eucharist:

{6:54} And so, Jesus said to them: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you will not have life in you.
{6:55} Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.
{6:56} For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.
{6:57} Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.
{6:58} Just as the living Father has sent me and I live because of the Father, so also whoever eats me, the same shall live because of me.
{6:59} This is the bread that descends from heaven. It is not like the manna that your fathers ate, for they died. Whoever eats this bread shall live forever.”
{6:60} He said these things when he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.
{6:61} Therefore, many of his disciples, upon hearing this, said: “This saying is difficult,” and, “Who is able to listen to it?”
{6:62} But Jesus, knowing within himself that his disciples were murmuring about this, said to them: “Does this offend you?
{6:63} Then what if you were to see the Son of man ascending to where he was before?
{6:64} It is the Spirit who gives life. The flesh does not offer anything of benefit. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.
{6:65} But there are some among you who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the beginning who were unbelieving and which one would betray him.
{6:66} And so he said, “For this reason, I said to you that no one is able to come to me, unless it has been given to him by my Father.”
{6:67} After this, many of his disciples went back, and they no longer walked with him.
{6:68} Therefore, Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you also want to go away?”
{6:69} Then Simon Peter answered him: “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life.
{6:70} And we have believed, and we recognize that you are the Christ, the Son of God.”
{6:71} Jesus answered them: “Have I not chosen you twelve? And yet one among you is a devil.”
{6:72} Now he was speaking about Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon. For this one, even though he was one of the twelve, was about to betray him.

This teaching was difficult and unsettling and confusing. But instead of giving a lengthy detailed explanation of transubstantiation and the real presence, Jesus taught with simplicity only the beginning of the Church’s teaching on this topic. And instead of proposing a complete explanation, which would be entirely open to reason and discussion, our Lord asked us to have faith. Then, over the course of many centuries, the Magisterium elucidated this teaching in many ways. And we still must have faith, as this teaching is beyond complete human comprehension.

Many teachings of the Church under past Popes were unsettling and challenging. The teaching of Humanae Vitae is one example. Theologians still debate its meaning and interpretation, and its application. And each Pope does not immediately issue a long series of infallible dogmas, so that no questions are open, and nothing is left to opinion and interpretation.

It is ordinary for a Pope to make decisions on doctrine and discipline, and for his decisions to be controversial. And it is not at all the way that the Church has been run in the past, that groups of Catholics get together to oppose papal decisions and demand a “clarification”, when no clarification would be accepted by them except what accords with their own opinions and understanding.

Many theological controversies continue today, and the Magisterium does not act to immediately and definitively end each controversy. The Faith is not solely a set of dogmas, which require the full assent of faith and nothing more. The Faith includes non-infallible teachings, theological opinions, and personal pious ideas. So it is not true that each Pope must end all controversies and answer all questions. Is it unsettling to belong to a Church that does not answer all questions, a Church whose non-infallible teachings can err to some extent? Okay, so what?

B. “I put this question to you in light of what you have written, and only with the purpose of clarifying my own confused mind : is it ever possibly moral to publicly correct the pope, and if so, what makes this particular public correction immoral? What I am trying to get to is this: is the problem just the phraseology, tone and perhaps implied insubordination of the authors, or is it the very fact of issuing a public correction at all.”

Paul corrected Peter. True. But Paul did not accuse Peter of heresy. Paul spoke his mind to Peter, and that was the end of it. Paul did not persist in opposing Peter, unless and until Peter accepted Paul’s correction. Saint Thomas taught that a subordinate may correct a superior. But the Filial Correction is not a correction of the type proposed by Thomas or by the example of Paul.

Avery Dulles wrote an article disagreeing with something Pope Saint John Paul II taught in Veritatis Splendor. The point of disagreement was whether a list of sins in Vatican II, which John Paul II was now claiming to be a list of intrinsically evil acts, were in fact intrinsically evil in every case.

I wrote a post disagreeing with a certain distinction made by then-Cardinal Ratzinger between infallible teachings which are proposed as divinely revealed, and other infallible teachings that are not proposed as divinely revealed. I think the distinction is illusory, and could only possibly apply to dogmatic facts (infallible, but not divinely revealed).

It is not unusual for a member of the faithful, especially a theologian, to write a respectful disagreement which contradicts a non-infallible teaching or a personal theological opinion of a Pope. But that is not what the Filial Correction offers.

The Filial Correction differs from a moral disagreement with, or correction of, the Roman Pontiff in these ways:

1. It accuses the Roman Pontiff of propagating heresy — which I maintain is no different from accusing him of teaching material heresy.

The teaching of Vatican I (and the Gospel passages quoted by that Council) implies that no Pope can teach material heresy or commit formal heresy. Doctor of the Church, St. Robert Bellarmine taught that no Pope can teach or commit heresy. Therefore, the Filial Correction commits the grave sin of bearing false witness against their neighbor, as well as the sin of scandal by accusing the Pope of heresy. These are grave sins and therefore, not a moral type of correction.

2. It intimates that perhaps Pope Francis is guilty of committing formal heresy, by saying: “The signatories do not venture to judge the degree of awareness with which Pope Francis has propagated the 7 heresies which they list. But they respectfully insist that he condemn these heresies, which he has directly or indirectly upheld.” [Source]

This assertion is on the main page of the Correctio site and also in the document itself. Here’s the Latin from the document: “quali quantaque intelligentia nescimus nec iudicare audemus”. A more literal translation is: “with what type and degree of awareness, we do not know and do not dare to judge”.

It is as if a man were saying publicly, about his neighbor, “I don’t know if he’s guilty of the serious crime that I’m reporting to everyone, and it’s not for me to judge that question, but….” The signatories are proposing that perhaps the holy Pontiff is propagating heresy with a degree and with a type of awareness which would indicate either actual mortal sin or formal heresy or both. To say that perhaps the Pope has “directly” upheld the heresies he is allegedly propagating also suggests the possibility of formal heresy.

But the prevenient grace of God prevents every Pope from teaching material heresy and from committing apostasy, heresy, or schism. So this accusation, too, is false. Therefore, the signatories are violating the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not bear false witness and are committing the grave sin of scandal.

3. The Filial Correction assumes an infallibility in its accusations and in its proposed understanding of these questions, which is not possessed by the signatories, neither individually, nor as a group.

A proper correction of a Pope, as in the example of Avery Dulles, does not assume that the corrector is certainly right. When I read what Cardinal Burke has to say on the subject, he talks about the infallible truths of the Gospel and of past Magisterial teachings, but without any acknowledgement that he himself might have misunderstood those truths, or their application, or the Pope’s position on the subject. The assumption that one cannot possibly err, when correcting the Pope, is a grave error on the part of the corrector.

It reminds me of fundamentalist Protestants, who say that Scripture cannot err, but what they really mean is that their own understanding of Scripture cannot err. They imply that their own theological understanding is equal to Gospel truth. But as Catholics, we consider that their position is not entirely correct.

4. The signatories and other supporters of the Correctio are not merely proposing a theological correction on some teaching or opinion of the Roman Pontiff. They demand (“insist”) that the Supreme Pontiff submit himself to their correction and that he teach according to their understanding. If he refuses, they propose to continue taking action, until he complies with their demand. And that is absolutely a schismatic act.

A correction or disagreement with a Pope is not schismatic. But when a “Filial Correction” accuses a Pope falsely and demands that he comply, or else further action will be taken, then the correction is not of the type suggested by Saint Thomas or of the example of Saint Paul. Rather, it is much like the correction of Martin Luther, which initiated a schism and led to a set of heresies being established in his Protestant denomination.

C. “I include a link to a related article by Michael Sirilla, dated October 5th, which I find difficult to criticise.”

Sirilla states: “The current Code of Canon Law recognizes that at certain times it is a duty, not just a right, for competent persons to make known to the faithful (again, that would be publicly) their opinion on matters pertaining to the good of the Church:”

Can. 212 n. 3. “According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons.”

Notice that the Canon repeatedly says OPINION. But the Filial Correction does not propose a set of opinions. It treats its position as if it were identical to past infallible teachings of the Magisterium. In my past posts, I explain that Pope Francis has not in fact taught the first 6 of the 7 alleged heresies, and that the 7th is not a heresy, but a matter of discipline. Reply to the Seven Accusations of Heresy.

So the Filial Correction does not fall under Canon 212. It does not present a set of opinions, contrary to papal opinions or non-infallible teachings. Rather, it makes false accusations by claiming that the Pope’s teachings imply heresies which, as I have explained at length, he does not imply. And he certainly has not directly stated those heresies either.

Sirilla quotes Donum Veritatis: “The theologian will not present his own opinions or divergent hypotheses as though they were non-arguable conclusions.” And yet, he does not seem to realize that the Correctio is not phrased as “opinions” or “divergent hypotheses”. The Correctio does in fact present its position as “non-arguable conclusions”. And this is the way that papal critics, more generally, also speak.

Sirilla states: “On the contrary, they are reiterating what the Church has publicly, definitively, and consistently taught.”

And there it is. The signatories think that they are merely stating the infallible teaching of the Church. And that assumption, that their position is not opinion, but dogma, is what makes this document so offensive. They are saying to the Roman Pontiff, in effect: “We cannot possibly be wrong, because we are merely explaining dogma to you, so you must be the one who is wrong. And we will not stop correcting you, until you stand corrected.”

This is extreme pride, to speak to the Supreme Teacher of all Christians as if they are infallible and he is spreading heresy. No correction offered to anyone is pleasing to God when it is spoken with pride.

Well, I could go on further, but I have already discussed this topic in several past posts at great length. This should be sufficient to show that the Correctio is not Filial and is not a licit exercise of rights and duties under Canon 212 or under the eternal moral law.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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16 Responses to Are the Signatories Exercising a Right to Correct the Pope?

  1. Shane Hogan says:

    Thank you very much, Ron, for all your time and work in putting together this response to my comment. I am very appreciative of all you write here. It is a great gift to me, and I am certain, to many other ordinary Catholic people who want to stay truly with the Church, with Christ, that you are here putting your talents to such good service. I will continue to read and study your work into the future. The kernel of what I have learned here is the demand which is implicit in the correction, that the Pope submit to the correction. It wasn’t humbly offered for his consideration, which is what I would naturally do if I had some point of disagreement with the Pope. The same attitude was present in the authors of the Dubia. As you say, pride is the root.

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