E. Christian Brugger’s Grave Error on Papal Authority

In a public statement earlier this year, theologian E. Christian Brugger issued an Open Appeal, which called on all Catholic Bishops to oppose, undermine, and contradict Pope Francis. By this public act, Brugger committed formal schism, the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff. As a result, I believe that Brugger suffered automatic excommunication. He is therefore unworthy to receive holy Communion, and unfit to teach the Catholic faith.

Whether Brugger is in the state of grace I can’t judge. A public act of formal schism is objectively a grave sin, but it may or may not be committed with the full culpability of actual mortal sin. However, his public call for the Bishops to oppose the Pope is also objectively the grave sin of pride. He places his own judgment above that of the Roman Pontiff, and he gives himself the pretended authority to direct the body of Bishops.

Unfortunately, most Catholic publications and organizations continue to associate with the several Catholic authors and leaders who have so far committed public schism. You might think that orthodox Catholic websites, magazines, and television stations would recognize schism when they see it, and respond by rebuking the schismatics. Instead, they continue to associate with the same conservative Catholic authors and leaders they have long accepted, thereby ignoring the teaching of Sacred Scripture:

[Titus]
{3:10} Avoid a man who is a heretic, after the first and second correction,
{3:11} knowing that one who is like this has been subverted, and that he offends; for he has been condemned by his own judgment.

Yes, the teaching on treatment of heretics applies also to schismatics and apostates. And it is based on the teaching of Jesus himself:

[Matthew]
{18:17} And if he will not listen to them, tell the Church. But if he will not listen to the Church, let him be to you like the pagan and the tax collector.

Yet conservative Catholic leaders have so far refused to obey this teaching of Sacred Scripture. They do not avoid heretics and schismatics. They do not treat them like the pagan or the tax collector. Instead, they let them teach their readers, listeners, and viewers.

And this brings us to the latest error by Brugger, a false teaching on the authority of the Roman Pontiff, in an article published at the National Catholic Register (a service of EWTN). Brugger adheres to this heretical error because it helps support his schismatic rejection of the authority of Pope Francis. And NC Register is harming souls by publishing the error. They also published Brugger’s schismatic “Open Appeal“. Catholic publications have a moral responsibility to prevent grave errors from being spread by means of their publication.

E. Christian Brugger: “If popes should assert something that does not pertain or is contrary to the deposit of faith, they do not act with the mandate of Jesus. What they say is not protected by the Holy Spirit. What they assert has no proper magisterial authority. And Catholics are not bound in conscience to give assent to it or change their behavior in light of it.” [How Far Does Papal Authority Go?]

When a Pope makes an assertion that is not on the topic of faith, morals, or salvation, then that assertion is not a teaching of the Magisterium. So Brugger is correct when he says “does not pertain…to the deposit of faith”.

However, Brugger errs gravely with his claim that when the popes make an assertion, on a topic of faith, morals, or salvation, which is “contrary to the deposit of faith, they do not act with the mandate of Jesus. What they say is not protected by the Holy Spirit. What they assert has no proper magisterial authority.” This is an error for several reasons.

1. Faith

Catholicism is a religion based on faith in the teachings of Jesus and His Church. We do not believe only those things which seem reasonable or true to our own minds. On what basis would the individual reject a teaching of any Pope, on a matter of faith, morals, or salvation, as if it were contrary to the deposit of faith? We are not called by Jesus to review each of His teachings, whether they are issued by Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, or the Magisterium, and then pick and choose which teachings we will accept as true. We are called to believe based on faith. And if a teaching is difficult for us to accept, even if it is contrary to our own reasoning and understanding, then we are called to believe it by faith. Whosoever believes only what he himself thinks to be true has no faith at all.

How will the individual faithful Catholic exercise the virtue of faith, if he follows the error of Brugger by evaluating each teaching of each Pope, rejecting all that seems contrary to the faith to him? The reason of the individual is then placed in opposition to the virtue of faith. If you only put your faith in what your own reason accepts, that is no faith at all.

2. Assent

The faithful must believe, with the full assent of faith (divine and catholic faith; theological faith), all that is infallibly taught under Papal Infallibility, Conciliar Infallibility, and the ordinary and universal Magisterium. But if a teaching of the Magisterium does not meet the conditions for infallibility, then that teaching is termed non-infallible. Such teachings require a type of assent called religious assent or the religious submission of mind and will. While infallible teachings have the help of the Holy Spirit so as to be free from all error, the non-infallible teaching have the help of the Holy Spirit to be free from grave error. Non-infallible teachings can never lead the faithful away from the path of salvation. And that is why Jesus can require us to assent to teachings that may err — the possible errors are limited.

Brugger contradicts the above teaching of the Church (found in the CCC, the Second Vatican Council, Canon Law, and other magisterial documents) by telling the faithful that they may reject any teaching of the Pope which they believe to be contrary to the deposit of faith. He tells them to judge for themselves which teachings of “the popes” they think are faithful and which are error. (He says “the popes” but he clearly intends this rejection of papal authority to apply to Pope Francis.) This assertion by Brugger is a rejection of the requirement to give religious assent to non-infallible teachings.

What if Pope Francis were to exercise Papal Infallibility, in a teaching that Brugger believes to be an error? Would he counsel the faithful to give the full assent of faith, even though the new definition of dogma were contrary to his own understanding? Or would he say that error cannot fall under the Magisterium, therefore, the teaching is not infallible? And this brings us to the third point:

3. Which Teachings are of the Magisterium?

The claim that Brugger makes is that any teaching which is an error is not of the Magisterium. This makes the Magisterium seem to be infallible. But in fact, infallibility is being attributed to the individual. The individual decides which assertions are in conformity with the deposit of faith, and which are not. Then all those assertions which the individual approves are said to be true, and all that he rejects are said to be not of the Magisterium. Instead of a Magisterium guided by the Holy Spirit, correcting the errors of fallen sinners, we end up with fallen sinners believing whatever they think is true, and calling it infallible. We then become no different from the Protestants, who believe their own understanding of Sacred Scripture and nothing more.

The gift of the Magisterium is wonderful because it guides fallen sinners out of errors, which they could not even realize are errors by their own fallen reason. Brugger corrupts this gift by making it subject to the evaluation of each individual, to decide which assertions are true and which are false. Then all the teachings of the Magisterium which the individual thinks are error are said to be not of the Magisterium.

It is as if a Christian were to take a copy of the Bible, and cross out all of the assertions that he thinks are in error. And then, at the end, he proclaims the Bible to be inerrant. But what he ends up with is not infallible Sacred Scripture, but a false claim that his own understanding is infallible.

4. The Basis for this Judgment

On what basis would the individual reject a teaching of a Pope? Would the basis be a past teaching by another Pope? But if that teaching can be mistaken, how could it become the basis for judging the teachings of the next Pope? What if an Ecumenical Council teaches contrary to the deposit of faith? Does the individual again have the role to judge that teaching and reject it? Brugger doesn’t say. But even if all infallible teachings of Councils are held by an act of faith, these teachings do not suffice to understand the Catholic religion in all its fullness. The non-infallible teachings of the Popes are necessary to live the faith. Putting all those teachings under the judgment of the individual changes Catholicism from a life of faith, to a life guided by one’s own mind and heart.

5. Heresy and Schism

Brugger’s error is schismatic, since he is telling the faithful not to believe what the Popes teach by the authority given to them by Christ. He tells them to usurp that authority for themselves, judging all that the Popes teach, and accepting only what they themselves think to be correct. This error is a rejection of the requirement that we submit our minds and hearts to the authority of the Roman Pontiff.

“If popes should assert something that does not pertain or is contrary to the deposit of faith, they do not act with the mandate of Jesus. What they say is not protected by the Holy Spirit. What they assert has no proper magisterial authority. And Catholics are not bound in conscience to give assent to it or change their behavior in light of it.”

His error is also heretical, since he claims that teachings of the Pope on faith, morals, and salvation are not of the Magisterium unless they are correct. To the contrary, these teachings are correct because they are of the Magisterium. Infallible teachings are entirely correct. Non-infallible teachings are free from all grave error, and so they are correct to that extent. Non-infallible teachings may err only to a limited extent, and so the faithful may faithfully disagree with a non-infallible teaching only to a limited extent. The claim by Brugger has no such limits. He proposes that every teaching of every Pope be entirely subject to the assessment of the individual.

His error is heretical because he is telling the faithful that they are not in conscience required to believe what in fact the Church teaches they are required to believe:

Second Vatican Council: “In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will.” [Lumen Gentium 25]

Can. 752 Although not an assent of faith, a religious submission of the intellect and will must be given to a doctrine which the Supreme Pontiff or the college of bishops declares concerning faith or morals when they exercise the authentic magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim it by definitive act; therefore, the Christian faithful are to take care to avoid those things which do not agree with it.

Can. 753 Although the bishops who are in communion with the head and members of the college, whether individually or joined together in conferences of bishops or in particular councils, do not possess infallibility in teaching, they are authentic teachers and instructors of the faith for the Christian faithful entrusted to their care; the Christian faithful are bound to adhere with religious submission of mind to the authentic magisterium of their bishops.

Can. 754 All the Christian faithful are obliged to observe the constitutions and decrees which the legitimate authority of the Church issues in order to propose doctrine and to proscribe erroneous opinions, particularly those which the Roman Pontiff or the college of bishops puts forth.

Brugger teaches the contrary, that the faithful are not to accept the teaching of Bishops or even of the Popes with religious assent, unless they judge it to be true. Thus, he destroys the teaching on religious assent, so much so that the Magisterium is placed in submission to the individual, rather than the individual to the Magisterium.

His error is heretical because he contradicts the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels:

[Matthew]
{16:18} And I say to you, that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.
{16:19} And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound, even in heaven. And whatever you shall release on earth shall be released, even in heaven.”

Brugger says that what the Popes bind or release is only bound or released if the individual judges it to be true and correct. He thereby deprives all the Popes of all their authority, since he says that nothing is to be accepted from any Pope as if it were of the Holy Spirit, or of Jesus Christ, or of the Magisterium unless it is judged by the individual to be correct.

E. Christian Brugger is a heretic and a schismatic. His writings ought not to be published by Catholic magazines and website. His peers should publicly rebuke him, just as they would rebuke the errors of liberal Catholics or Protestants or the SSPX. We should not be silent when our fellow conservative Catholics commit grave errors against the faith. For then we are rejecting the teaching of Jesus himself:

{18:15} But if your brother has sinned against you, go and correct him, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you will have regained your brother.
{18:16} But if he will not listen you, invite with you one or two more, so that every word may stand by the mouth of two or three witnesses.
{18:17} And if he will not listen to them, tell the Church. But if he will not listen to the Church, let him be to you like the pagan and the tax collector.

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

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