Wednesday, May 1, 2019

So You Say...

Another day, another manifesto issued by certain Catholics claiming that the Pope is guilty of heresy and calling on the cardinals and bishops to take action against him. There’s nothing new about this one. It’s based on the interpretation of the Pope’s words by a small number of priests and laity—already notorious for their hostility to the Pope in the past—compared to their interpretation of previous Church teaching.

There’s a problem, of course. That problem is these accusers are committing the begging the question fallacy. Their “proofs” that the Pope’s words are heretical is dependent on the unproven assertion that the Pope is a heretic and therefore whatever he says, that goes against their understanding of Church teaching, must be said with the intention of obstinately denying a truth of the Catholic Faith (canon 751). But their assumption must be proven true, not assumed to be true. And here lies the problem. We have to ask the following:
  1. Are their interpretations of the Pope accurate?
  2. Are their interpretation of past teaching accurate?
If the answer to either question is, “No,” (and it is) then these individuals are not defenders of the faith, but blind guides, leading the blind.

When it comes to the interpretation of the Pope’s words, we need to realize that his critics are notorious for relying on out of context soundbites and turning them into radical statements. Do you remember the term “Rabbit Catholic?” Outraged Catholics assumed that the Pope was against large families and pro-contraception. Actually, he was speaking about a woman guilty of providentialism (expecting God to take care of all consequences while refusing to use the legitimate means God provides to avoid the consequences—effectively putting God to the test). This is the sort of thing that gets twisted into “Pope promotes heresy.”

Good scholarship doesn’t do that. When there is a question about meaning, one studies the context of the problematic statements, discovering that there is no error. Just a different way of expressing the truth. 

So, who determines the authentic interpretation of the truth? The answer is the Pope and bishops in communion with him. That doesn’t mean that the Pope makes up whatever he wishes (a common accusation by anti-Francis Catholics). It means that when the Pope teaches—even in the ordinary magisterium—we are obligated to give religious submission of intellect and will (canon 752). We trust that since God protects His Church from error, He will prevent the Pope from making a binding teaching out of error. That doesn’t mean the Pope will be impeccable in the governance of the Church. It simply means that we can trust God to protect us from a morally or intellectually bad Pope—things which I deny this Pope is. This trust is important as there is no way to appeal against the decision of the Pope (canon 1404). Either we trust God to always protect His Church or we admit we can never know when to trust the Church.

Since the signatories of this letter represent no part of the magisterium (none are bishops, one could argue they are not in full communion with the Pope either), we cannot accept their claims to judge the orthodoxy of the Pope. Fr. Nichols O.P. (the only signatory with wide recognition) has written some insightful books on theology, but that does not give him the authority to teach in a binding manner against the Pope. No matter what one may think of the arguments in the letter (I’m not impressed), there is no authority behind it. The letter can’t claim “the Pope contradicts Church teaching.” It can only say, “we think the Pope contradicts Church teaching.”

To which I reply: “So you say. But the Pope has the authority to bind and loose, not you. So I will follow him, not you.”


  1. But don't all priests have the authority to bind and loose?

    1. if I understand you rightly, I think you’re meaning in the sense of forgiving sins in the Sacrament of Confession. In that sense, yes, you’re correct. My intention was to discuss the teaching authority of the Church which the Pope possesses by virtue of office and the bishops possess collegially in communion with the Pope.

      I hope this clarifies.

  2. not to mention, that a priest can only bind and loose in confession when he has faculties given him by his bishop, who gets his faculties from...the pope. I think.

    1. As I understand it, the bishop who grants facilities needs to be in communion with the Pope except in cases of emergency. I do know Pope Francis granted facilities to schismatic priests during the Year of Mercy.

  3. yes and extended them in his mercy, indefinitely, I believe.