Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, is not someone whose political views are at all ambiguous or subject to much dispute. He has dissented from a USCCB legal brief in support of labor unions, delivered speeches to organizations of Catholic business leaders but not to workers’ or tradespeople’s organizations, and adopted a skeptical stance on the liceity of vaccination against COVID-19, in addition to the usual conservative Catholic positions on subjects like homosexuality and communion for political figures who vote against Church teaching on abortion. (Democratic Senator Dick Durbin lives in Paprocki’s diocese and, to his credit, has by all accounts obeyed Paprocki’s orders barring him from communion when he goes home to Illinois.) However, Paprocki has usually not been much of a firebrand; unlike Joseph Strickland he is not a terminally online social media addict, and unlike Salvatore Cordileone, Samuel Aquila, and formerly Charles Chaput he does not lead a diocese prominent enough to make him a national figure. That changed this morning when First Things published an astonishing essay by Paprocki accusing two cardinals, identifiable as Robert McElroy of San Diego and Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, of dictionary-definition, excommunication-incurring heresy.

The first thing to note is that it’s far from clear that the Code of Canon Law actually says what Paprocki asserts it does. Paprocki is kind enough to provide citations (many of them; the piece reads more like expository writing for a high school or undergraduate class than like a normal journal essay or op-ed), so one can check the language for oneself. In a plausible but far from indisputable reach, Paprocki conflates the meanings of the terms “believe with divine and Catholic faith” and “firmly embrace and retain,” reasoning from their appearance in the same canon (751) that they mean the same thing and incur the same canonical penalties if violated. This sleight of hand allows Paprocki to maintain that anything that’s deeply rooted in Catholic doctrine, even if it is not a de fide dogma (the traditional threshold for heresy as opposed to heterodoxy or dissent), is to be believed in such a way that anyone who disputes it is automatically outside the Church. This (unstated) interpretation he then combines with a (stated and reasonable) interpretation of the relevant penalties and a (stated but tendentious) interpretation of what Cardinals McElroy and Hollerich have actually said. The result is the shocking and irresponsible position with which the article concludes: at least two cardinals are heretics, therefore non-Catholics, and therefore unable to exercise their pastoral ministries or licitly vote in a future papal conclave.

This conclusion, as extreme an escalation as it is and as uncharitable and censorious a heart as it reveals, is probably not a lapse of message discipline. Coming from a bona fide loose cannon like Bishop Strickland it might be, but Paprocki has clearly written this carefully, hence the “just asking questions” tone and refusal to name the cardinals he is publicly accusing of heresy. I have to believe that the reference to a papal conclave at the end is intentional as well. It is, if not an intended outcome, at least a reasonably foreseeable one that people will latch onto this narrative and use it to overtly cast doubts on the legitimacy of our next Pope. A repetition of the Stop the Steal playbook in Rome rather than Washington–Jericho Marches around the Vatican walls; attempts to storm the Sistine Chapel at the first puff of white smoke–would take several further steps of escalation, but it would be escalation in the same direction that Paprocki has already started to hike.

Canon law, by the very nature of a legal code, is adversarial and punitive in nature, and thus makes a good weapon to wield in intra-Church disputes, especially when the person wielding it has a shaky grasp of what his or her opponents are actually claiming. (Cardinal Raymond “either say that it’s intrinsically evil, or that it’s good” Burke goes further and actually has a shaky grasp of moral theology itself.) JD Flynn and Ed Condon’s similar “just asking questions” approach to the liceity of the Dicastery for Divine Worship’s enforcement of Traditionis custodes was a partially successful use of this weapon. (Paprocki has “questions” about Traditionis custodes as well.) Flynn and Condon got the legal clarification that they claimed to want, but not with the outcome for which they clearly hoped. One can only pray that Bishop Paprocki’s use of this weapon will end similarly, that the Kalashnikov that he has brought to this knife fight will turn out not to be loaded, or to backfire.

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Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.

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