Response to the letter of Fr. Thomas G. Weinandy

Fr. Weinandy’s letter is found here: Catholic World Report, along with his note of explanation. It’s a letter to Pope Francis, which was sent to the Vatican, and subsequently made public by Fr. Weinandy. The letter takes the same position and makes the same errors as so many other papal critics.

In his note of explanation, Fr. Weinandy says that the providence of God instructed him “to write something” on his topic of concern about Pope Francis and the Church. I believe his story on that point, and I believe that God was telling him, via providence, to write on that topic. However, the contents of his writing in his letter to the Pope are not thereby approved by God. Perhaps God wanted him to write the letter, so that he would lose his position with the USCCB and then go on to other tasks for God. Perhaps God wanted him to write the letter to stimulate further discussion on the topic.

Confusion and Unease

“Yet, Your Holiness, a chronic confusion seems to mark your pontificate. The light of faith, hope, and love is not absent, but too often it is obscured by the ambiguity of your words and actions. This fosters within the faithful a growing unease.”

Yet again, the holy Pontiff is accused of fostering “confusion”. His words and deeds are subject to varying interpretations. And he does not intervene, at least not immediately, to clarify each point of confusion. Yes, but the same can be said of the Bible, or almost any major encyclical, or Vatican II. The whole Christian faith is subject to varying interpretations and to different ways to apply the teachings. And for a long time now, liberal Catholics and conservative Catholics have had such differences of interpretation.

So why are conservative critics speaking as if this type of ambiguity were new? Essentially, it’s because the current Pontiff is liberal. Conservatives have long assumed that the correct path in through any type of controversy on discipline or doctrine was the conservative one. And now a liberal Pope proposes some liberal answers to certain issues.

Conservatives are not really confused. They simply disagree. They are confused only in the sense that they cannot see anyway to accept the decisions of the Pope on doctrine and discipline, other than by admitting that their point of view is not absolute infallible truth. They are confused because they assume that they themselves are above correction and above being taught something new.

The alleged “growing unease” is not found among most Catholics. When many papal critics say “the faithful”, they mean the conservatives. I have seen this attitude develop over the last several decades. Since Vatican II, a Council initiated by a liberal Pope, conservative have tried to portray themselves as inherently faithful and as necessarily orthodox, just because they are conservatives. And a corollary idea is that liberal Catholics are necessarily unfaithful and heterodox. But now we have a liberal Pope, who speaks and acts like a faithful orthodox liberal Catholic. Conservatives are confused because they continue to make the false assumption that the conservative answer to any questions on doctrine and discipline must be the only correct answer.

They are uneasy because a liberal Pope is pointing out their faults and failings, offering them correction, and teaching them from a liberal point of view. And in their great pride, they cannot accept teaching or correction from a liberal.

Amoris Laetitia

Next Fr. Weinandy points out that priests, theologian, Bishops, and Cardinals have disagreed with a section of Amoris Laetitia. Yes, but throughout the history of the Church some of the same have disagreed with the teachings and decisions of each Pope. The difference today is that the dissenters are conservative, and so they are assumed to be in the right.

“In Amoris Laetitia, your guidance at times seems intentionally ambiguous, thus inviting both a traditional interpretation of Catholic teaching on marriage and divorce as well as one that might imply a change in that teaching.”

The conservative approach to the Faith is marked by clear and definitive answers to each and every point of doctrine and discipline, even when the Magisterium has not definitively decided a question. The liberal but orthodox approach to the Faith permits greater liberty in doctrine and discipline, except where the Magisterium has issued a definitive decision. So the real objection here is that the Pope uses a liberal approach, emphasizing liberty. In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.

“As you wisely note, pastors should accompany and encourage persons in irregular marriages; but ambiguity persists about what that accompaniment actually means. To teach with such a seemingly intentional lack of clarity inevitably risks sinning against the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth.”

The same point applies to the quote above. Pope Francis leaves open the liberty to hold varying opinions, except where the Church has a definitive teaching, and he leaves open a variety of different ways to apply that teaching. Thus, accompaniment can be interpreted and applied differently. That is the liberal approach to the Faith, and it is no way heretical or erroneous. The conservative approach narrows the scope of faithful differences of opinion on doctrine and discipline. But the Pope is not wrong to choose a more liberal path.

No, it is not a sin against the Holy Spirit, to use a more liberal approach to doctrine and discipline. To equate liberal Catholicism with sinning against truth is to imply that Catholicism is conservatism, or that God himself is conservative. In fact, the teachings of Jesus include very liberal teachings (e.g. opening the faith to Gentiles and doing away with the Mosaic discipline), as well as moderate teachings (e.g. the path to Heaven is keeping the Commandments), and conservative teachings (e.g. on divorce).

On the other hand, it is a sin against the Spirit of Truth to try to bind the teachings of Jesus to the preferences and mere opinions of the conservative Catholic subculture.

“The Holy Spirit is given to the Church, and particularly to yourself, to dispel error, not to foster it.”

Yes, but error is not defined as any idea contrary to the conservative point of view. And no Pope has ever been obligated to answer every theological question with definitive proclamations. Every Pope so far has permitted a range of different theological opinions, on various matters of faith, morals, and salvation, as well as discipline.

“Yet you seem to censor and even mock those who interpret Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia in accord with Church tradition as Pharisaic stone-throwers who embody a merciless rigorism.”

The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were conservatives. Some of the criticisms of Jesus toward the Pharisees are applicable to conservatives today. Conservatives are not above criticism, yet they seem to think they are. It is the duty and right of the Pope to correct and criticize conservatives as well as everyone else.

The attitude of conservatives is: “Why are you criticizing us, when we are the most faithful Catholics?” They have long taken the attitude that, by being conservative, they are necessarily orthodox and above criticism. And that just isn’t true. Furthermore, when the Pope criticizes you, it is not mocking or censorship. The Pope has the role to teach and correct everyone. But conservative Catholics do not accept teaching or correction from liberals. That is the problem.

Doctrine

“too often your manner seems to demean the importance of Church doctrine. Again and again you portray doctrine as dead and bookish, and far from the pastoral concerns of everyday life. Your critics have been accused, in your own words, of making doctrine an ideology.”

One of the valid criticisms of conservative Catholics is an over-emphasis on doctrine, especially as theological assertions, without sufficient emphasis on the practice of the faith and on service to persons in spiritual or temporal need. Pope Francis has issued this criticism a few times now, and he is not wrong. But Fr. Weinandy is distorting what the Pope said. He did not portray doctrine itself as dead or bookish. Rather, he criticized the conservative error of turning doctrine from truths that are lived to pedantic theological distinctions, divorced from a lived faith.

Pope Francis has correctly and insightfully criticized conservatives. They should accept his criticisms and try to avoid these errors. As a conservative Catholic, I see that these criticisms apply to me to some extent, and I take them to heart. I do not assume that the Pope must be wrong whenever his words conflict with my own point of view.

“Those who devalue the doctrines of the Church separate themselves from Jesus, the author of truth. What they then possess, and can only possess, is an ideology – one that conforms to the world of sin and death.”

The Pope is not devaluing doctrine. He merely criticized the various ways that doctrine can be misused:
* by treating the majority opinion of the conservative Catholic subculture as if it were dogma;
* by treating one’s preference on a matter of discipline as if it were dogma;
* by closing doctrine to new insights and developments or to new applications;
* by assuming that one’s own understanding of a dogma is itself the dogma;
* by demeaning those who err in matters of doctrine;
and many other possible misuses of doctrine.

Choice of Shepherds

“faithful Catholics can only be disconcerted by your choice of some bishops, men who seem not merely open to those who hold views counter to Christian belief but who support and even defend them. What scandalizes believers, and even some fellow bishops, is not only your having appointed such men to be shepherds of the Church, but that you also seem silent in the face of their teaching and pastoral practice.”

The same thing happened during the Pontificates of Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. For example, John Paul II let the liberal Cardinal Schonborn be one of the main editors of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This is the same Cardinal who approved of the election of a practicing homosexual to a parish council, over the objection of his pastor. That event occurred in 2012, during the reign of Pope Benedict XVI — who was silent in the face of this error.

It always happens in the Church that some unfit persons, even Cardinals and Bishops, get appointed to various positions. And it is not really the role of the Pope to intervene in every case. By analogy, should the U.S. Supreme Court intervene whenever a lower court makes an incorrect decision? No, that is not how the court system works. And that is not how the Church works. She is a Church of sinners, here on earth. The Pope does not have the role to oversee and correct every decision of every Cardinal and Bishop.

Synodality

“Encouraging a form of “synodality” that allows and promotes various doctrinal and moral options within the Church can only lead to more theological and pastoral confusion. Such synodality is unwise and, in practice, works against collegial unity among bishops.”

Are you kidding me with that criticism? Vatican II emphasized the very same idea. And every Pope since Vatican II has approved of it. But it is an idea that runs counter to tendencies (at the very least) often found among conservatives.

Furthermore, the allowance of differences of opinion on doctrine and discipline is normal and healthy for the Church. It is an error of conservatism to insist, to an excessive extent, that every hold the same ideas and interpretations on doctrine and discipline, with little room for theological differences.

Criticism

“Bishops are quick learners, and what many have learned from your pontificate is not that you are open to criticism, but that you resent it.”

Conservatives are not open to criticism from the Pope, and they resent it. The Pope has the role to teach and correct; it is his role to criticize conservatives. They are not necessarily orthodox or necessarily the most faithful. When criticized by the Pope, they not only reject that correction, but they respond by trying to correct him. The conservative Catholic subculture does not have the role of teaching and correcting the Pope.

Assuming Yourself to be Right

Fr. Weinandy has the typical attitude of a papal critic: “I have often asked myself: “Why has Jesus let all of this happen?” The only answer that comes to mind is that Jesus wants to manifest just how weak is the faith of many within the Church, even among too many of her bishops. Ironically, your pontificate has given those who hold harmful theological and pastoral views the license and confidence to come into the light and expose their previously hidden darkness. In recognizing this darkness, the Church will humbly need to renew herself, and so continue to grow in holiness.”

Yes, Jesus is manifesting just how weak is the faith of many conservatives — despite their boasting at being the most faithful members of the Church. Yes, Jesus is manifesting the previously hidden darkness among conservative Catholics, who have gradually transferred their faith from faith in the Church, to faith in the conservative Catholic subculture, to faith in each one’s own misunderstandings and limited understandings. Yes, Fr. Weinandy needs to become humble, so that he can grow in holiness.

Past Popes

What do you think would happen if a priest, in past centuries, for example, under Pope Saint Pius X, wrote an open letter like the one by Fr. Weinandy, publicly and harshly criticizing the Roman Pontiff? I think he would be excommunicated for disobedience and probably also laicized. It is only the influence of sinful secular society which has taught priests, deacons, religious, and the laity that they can publicly rebuke the Vicar of Christ with impunity, that they can take the role to judge and condemn him, whenever he says or does anything they dislike. Under most past Popes, such action would be met with a swift and deserving rebuke.

Any Roman Pontiff would be well within his rights and authority as the Supreme Judge of all the faithful to issue a sentence against persons who write public letters, petitions, or corrections presuming to judge his words and deeds and presuming to condemn his decisions, as if they were grave errors. And the sentence could be an interdict, or excommunication, or removal from the clerical state.

Suppose you work for a large corporation, in one of the lower positions in the company. And you pen an open letter to the president of the company, telling him all the mistakes that you think he is making. You explain how very wrong he is to run the company according to his own judgment, and contrary to your own understanding of how a company should be run. What do you think he would do? You would be fired so fast, your head would spin. And then the rest of the employees would ridicule you, rightly so, for thinking that you could run the entire company better than the president of the company.

by
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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7 Responses to Response to the letter of Fr. Thomas G. Weinandy

  1. Mark P. says:

    The Holy Father seems to use the term “Pharisaic” in the context of certain Catholics who see the Church as a club to validate their own opinions rather than as the divinely-instituted body by which the Gospel is spread. Many in this segment of the faith seem to be enamored by outward signs of “holiness” such as the Latin Mass, certain devotions, and private apparitions, especially Fatima. They rebel even against non-binding practices, such as the suggestion of the Luminous Mysteries to the rosary. But I am not sure if they are as interested in evangelizing other people and embracing them with compassion and mercy on the way to truth. Yesterday’s Gospel spoke of the Pharisees who would “widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels” in order to appear more holy, but did it more for bragging rights and show. Some conservatives in the Church today do the same, bragging that they take communion on the tongue only, refuse to recite the Luminous Mysteries, attend only the Latin Mass, refuse to shake hands after the Our Father, refuse to give to the diocesan appeal, sign petitions against the Holy Father without even thinking, etc.

  2. Nota says:

    What do you think of this article? http://www.lastampa.it/2017/11/04/vaticaninsider/eng/comment/the-indefectibility-of-the-church-8zC1PmLEWxcP7xBt4jHRtN/pagina.html?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter
    It seems to say, yes, non-infallible teachings are of course non-infallible… but they can contain no error in faith and morals (because of indefectibility). Well, I don’t really understand what practical difference this makes. It’s basically making all Magisterium infallible, even if it is ascribing this protection to the indefectibility of the Church, so I don’t see how it avoids the logical contradiction admitted at the beginning of the article.
    According to the definition of indefectibility referenced in that article: ” By this term is signified, not merely that the Church will persist to the end of time, but further, that it will preserve unimpaired its essential characteristics”
    I don’t see why some minor errors in certain matters in the Magisterium would necessarily impair the “essential characteristics” of the Church.

    • Ron Conte says:

      In my view, errors can occur in non-infallible teachings on faith and morals, but never to the extent of leading the faithful away from the path of salvation. The article does not admit any errors at all on faith and morals, and that does make the non-infallible ordinary magisterium practically infallible. So I think you are right and the author of the article is wrong.

    • Marco says:

      “In my view, errors can occur in non-infallible teachings on faith and morals, but never to the extent of leading the faithful away from the path of salvation.”

      If the faithful was lead away from the path of salvation because he followed the Church, then in this case he/she could rightly blame God for his/her damnation, because he/she would be damned for having followed the Body of Christ.

      This is more than enough to understand that such an occurrence is an impossibility.

    • Francisco says:

      Marco: Yes, there is no way we can lose by being faithful to His Church. That is precisely the reason why Jesus built His Church, so that we don’t get lost.

      Best,

  3. Marco says:

    Ron,

    What do you think about Müller’s statements concerning Amoris Laetitia? http://www.lastampa.it/2017/10/30/vaticaninsider/eng/the-vatican/communion-to-the-remarried-mller-there-can-be-mitigating-factors-in-guilt-OI0rK5MajqAn9gHGQE1YbO/pagina.html

    The following statement, for example

    “This does not mean, however, that now Amoris laetitia art. 302 supports, in contrast to Veritatis splendor 81, that, due to mitigating circumstances, an objectively bad act can become subjectively good (it is dubium n. 4 of the cardinals). The action in itself bad (the sexual relationship with a partner who is not the legitimate spouse) does not become subjectively good due to circumstances. In the assessment of guilt, however, there may be mitigating circumstances and the ancillary elements of an irregular cohabitation similar to marriage can also be presented before God in their ethical value in the overall assessment of judgment (for example, the care for children in common, which is a duty deriving from natural law)”

    Seems very much in accordance with what i said in this topic https://ronconte.wordpress.com/2017/10/09/moral-obligations-and-duress/ about mitigating factors.

    He even says that

    “God is particularly close to the person who sets out on the path of conversion, who, for example, assumes responsibility for the children of a woman who is not his legitimate bride and does not neglect the duty to take care of her. This also applies in the case in which he, because of his human weakness and not for the will to oppose grace, which helps to observe the commandments, is not yet able to satisfy all the requirements of moral law. An action in itself sinful does not become legitimate and not even pleasing to God. However, its imputability as guilt can be diminished when the sinner turns to God’s mercy with a humble heart and prays “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner”. Here pastoral accompaniment and the practice of the virtue of penance as an introduction to the sacrament of penance has a special importance”

    And this was basically my point in that topic.

    What do you think about it?

    Müller seems to make a very clear distinction from the sinner fully culpable (and such sinner cannot be absolved unless he repents and wants to sin no more) and the sinner with mitigating factors.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Muller’s explanation is perfect, and you are right. But the papal critics will not accept it. They have decided to oppose the Vicar of Christ, so that they can speak and act as if they were the head of the Church. It’s just like when people propose an error in Scripture. A reply that explains why it is not an error is not met with an act of faith in Scripture, but with further attempts to discredit it. They want their own understanding to be supreme, above the word of God. It is very similar.

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