St. Thomas Aquinas, quoting Aristotle, begins De Ente et Essentia (On Being and Essence) with the adage, “A small error at the outset can lead to great errors in the final conclusions.” These words apply to a recent article by philosophy professor Edward Feser in Catholic World Report on the “suspended Magisterium” thesis — a suspension in the exercise of the teaching office of the Church for a certain period of time in certain situations. In his article, Feser makes a case in favor of a qualified version of this thesis in light of Archbishop Victor Fernández’s recent appointment as prefect of the Dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF). Feser argues for the possibility, based on his reading of the letter to Fernández by Pope Francis upon his appointment, that it is possible that the DDF “will largely no longer be exercising its magisterial function” (emphasis in original) with Fernández as prefect.
“Suspense” of the Magisterium?
The notion of a “suspense” of the Church’s Magisterium (or teaching office) has been floated in recent years by traditionalists, including Fr. John Hunwicke, an English priest of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. In a 2022 blog post, Hunwicke invokes St. John Henry Newman as the inspiration for his thesis. He wrote that a suspended Magisterium was a notion “Newman used in the context of the Arian controversy, in which the great majority of the Bishops, the Ecclesia docens, and including the Successor of S Peter, were either heretics, or were cowed into silence or compromise by the heretics.”
Hunwicke opines that in the 1960s, the Magisterium was in “suspense” during the papacy of St. Paul VI, “in the period between his setting up of a Commission to consider the question of Contraception, and his very courageous subsequent reaffirmation of the Church’s Magisterial Teaching with the publication of Humanae vitae.”
Hunwicke also suggests, “Surely, we are in another such period of suspense now.” In his view, the “suspense” began with the opening of the discussion of the possibility that Catholics who are divorced and civilly remarried may receive the sacraments in certain individual cases. He believes that the result of the subsequent Synods on the Family and Amoris Laetitia was that the suspense only “grew wider.” He asserts that the “suspense” will only end when “a subsequent Roman Pontiff or an Ecumenical Council reasserts with unmistakeable clarity the teaching of the Magisterium (or possibly when the error, having run its course, happily dies a natural death).” In other words, Hunwicke believes the Magisterium effectively stopped functioning in early 2014 and continues to this day, with no end in sight. For Fr. Hunwicke, the practical implication of this is that he feels “a tentative hesitation … about taking seriously any teaching statement of an apparently less that orthodox member of the hierarchy.”
Dr. Feser rejects Fr. Hunwicke’s idea that there has been a total suspense of the Magisterium from 2014 onward, but considers plausible Hunwicke’s argument that a suspense took place following the release of Amoris Laetitia “because Pope Francis has persistently refused to answer these dubia. For this reason, Feser claims, the pope “can plausibly be said at least to that extent to have suspended the exercise of his Magisterium.”
In his article, Dr. Feser claims that although “it doesn’t follow that the ‘suspended Magisterium’ thesis is correct as a general description of Pope Francis’s pontificate up to now,” a recent “new development” is an indication that “could make the thesis more plausible as a characterization of the remainder of Francis’s pontificate.” That new development, of course, was the appointment of Archbishop Fernández.
Several days later, I offered my commentary about his article on YouTube in a show entitled: “Preparing for a Suspended Magisterium? Response to Dr. Ed Feser.” In this video, I offered some criticism of Feser’s qualified version of the suspended Magisterium thesis, as it was both an overstatement of Newman’s theory and based on a misreading of the letter from Pope Francis to Archbishop Fernández. Moreover, within hours of posting my commentary, an interview of Archbishop Fernández with The Pillar confirmed my reading of Francis’s letter to Fernández, which entirely undermined Feser’s qualified thesis.
Not long after my video, Dr. Feser took to his blog and wrote a verbose (over 5,100 words) response to my video in what amounted to little more than a long-winded and pedantic straw man argument — based on misinterpretations of my criticisms. Ironically, Dr. Feser entitled the response “Lofton’s YouTube straw man.” Although he claimed I was not worth engaging and was a waste of his time, he proceeded to produce a furious flurry of foul Tweets over the next several days — and even allowed Catholic World Report to repost his article.
Unfortunately, despite his efforts, Dr. Feser’s response reveals a serious misunderstanding of my initial critique of his thesis, and therefore he failed to address many of my main points. In light of his assertion that “The written form is more conducive to intellectual discipline,” I offer this response.
Complete vs. Partial Suspense of the Magisterium
Aquinas’s axiom on small errors at the outset became manifest in early on in Dr. Feser’s response to my video because he spent a considerable amount of time responding to a claim I did not make. He labors to argue that he does not advocate for a complete suspense of the entire Magisterium, but merely asserts the possibility of a partial suspense of the DDF’s magisterium under Archbishop Fernández. In reference to the appointment of Fernández in light of Pope Francis’s letter to him, Feser states: “If so, let us hope that this ‘temporary suspense of the functions of the ‘Ecclesia docens’ does not last sixty years, as the previous one did.”
This is all well and good, but Feser repeatedly states that I “give the impression” to my audience that I believe Feser holds to the idea of a complete suspense of the magisterium, and not a potential and partial suspense. He notes in his response to my video:
“My CWR article essentially has two halves, and Lofton badly distorts what I say in each one. In the first, I explain what some of Pope Francis’s critics mean when they claim that the Magisterium has been ‘suspended’ during his pontificate up to this point. Lofton gives the impression that I am at least somewhat sympathetic with this thesis. But in fact, not only do I not endorse it, I explicitly reject and criticize it.”
Later, he writes:
“Anyway, the main topic of the first half of my article is the claim that the Magisterium has up to now been ‘suspended’ during Pope Francis’s pontificate. Again, I explicitly rejected this claim.”
It is true he rejected this claim, and I explicitly acknowledged that in my video (see the 21:44 timestamp). So, one wonders why — despite my own words — Feser spent so much time suggesting I had distorted his position and then knocking down that straw man. I will assume this was due to poor delivery on my part, and that Dr. Feser was not engaging in rash judgement as described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 2478).
Unfortunately, this type of thing recurs throughout Dr. Feser’s response to my video. He repeatedly brings up things that I never doubted and argues against views that I never asserted — even when I explicitly said so in the video! Perhaps this behavior by Dr. Feser was also my fault, and not due to any deficiencies on his part. Nonetheless, these small errors in the beginning of Feser’s understanding of my criticism resulted in the entire blog post being directed at claims I never made, while my primary concerns remained unresolved.
Is the DDF “the main magisterial organ of the Church“?
Another apparent misunderstanding of my original criticism involved my critique of his claim that the DDF was “heretofore the main magisterial organ of the Church.” Rather than addressing my primary concern, Dr. Feser spent a considerable amount of time defending his use of the term “magisterial organ” to refer to the Dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith.
Admittedly, in my video I did quibble over his use of the term “magisterial organ” in relation to a Vatican dicastery. I concede that his description of the DDF as a magisterial organ is a legitimate use of the term, which has not been standardized by the Church. There is precedent of such usage by theologians, including Ratzinger and Dulles. I am still concerned that describing a dicastery (as opposed to the pope or the pope together with the college of bishops or a council) as an “organ of the Magisterium” can lead the average person to think that a dicastery can promulgate magisterial teaching autonomously, when, as Dr. Feser acknowledges, it is only an organ of the Magisterium when the pope approves of its teaching in common or specific form.
In this confusion, Feser mistakenly writes that I accused him of a “jaw-dropping error” for using the term “organ” to describe the DDF. He asserts, “But my remark is only an ‘error’ (jaw-dropping or otherwise) if one understands ‘organ’ in Lofton’s idiosyncratic way.”
But my primary objection was not to his use of the word “organ,” but with his description of the DDF as the main magisterial organ of the Church. After three lengthy paragraphs defending his use of “organ,” he completely ignores my point that the DDF is not the main organ of the Magisterium and simply asserts, “When properly understood, then, my remark that the DDF is ‘the main magisterial organ of the Church’ is perfectly innocuous.”
In my video, I demonstrated that the papal Magisterium does not primarily teach vicariously through the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. Instead, the papal Magisterium usually teaches immediately. Teachings that are made vicariously through the dicasteries, with papal approbation (either in common or specific form), are not as common. For this reason, I was (and still am) deeply puzzled by Feser’s suggestion that the DDF is the main instrument by which the Magisterium teaches.
What leads him to believe that under Archbishop Fernández, the Church will “largely no longer be exercising its magisterial function”? Dr. Feser tries to mitigate his claim in his response to me as merely a “partial refraining,” but the words “largely no longer” seem to indicate more than a “partial refraining.” Granted, “largely no longer” does not mean a “complete refraining,” which Feser rejects (and I never said he didn’t). Still, wouldn’t it all be up to the pope anyway? This is why I found much of his article odd.
Dr. Feser gives little attention to the fact that the papal Magisterium is normally exercised immediately, rather than vicariously. He does not even attempt to explain why he believes the DDF has been the main way in which the Church has taught, “heretofore.” Does he really believe that? Even if Dr. Feser’s novel reading of the pope’s letter was correct, and the DDF was to cease functioning as an organ of the Magisterium, wouldn’t the pope still be able to promulgate teaching on his own or with the college of bishops? Feser’s claim about the “main” role played by the DDF seems to be central to his argument.
It is difficult to find a plausible explanation in Feser’s article of how a “partial suspense” of the Magisterium will occur once Archbishop Fernández takes over as prefect of the dicastery. But he seems to suggest that if the DDF does not exercise its teaching function, the inevitable result will be that the pope will no longer have any teaching authority, either. He writes, “And notice that, followed out consistently, this means that the teaching of Pope Francis himself (let alone the deposit of Faith it is his job to safeguard) is not something the DDF is in the business of imposing. It too would simply amount to a further set of ideas to dialogue about.”
Is Dr. Feser trying to say that based on Pope Francis’s letter to Archbishop Fernández “the teaching of Pope Francis himself … would simply amount to a further set of ideas to dialogue about”? This is an extremely bizarre claim, as the pope can always promulgate magisterial teaching without the involvement of the DDF. Feser’s article would have benefitted from an explanation of how this makes sense.
Instead, he decided to spend a considerable amount of time addressing my criticism of his use of the term “organ” to describe the DDF.
Feser on Papal Error
In my video, I claimed that “there is a protection and assistance of the Holy Spirit to non-infallible teachings.” This idea, of course, has been taught by the Magisterium, such as in the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1990 document Donum Veritatis, which states,
“Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and in a particular way, to the Roman Pontiff as Pastor of the whole Church, when exercising their ordinary Magisterium, even should this not issue in an infallible definition or in a “definitive” pronouncement but in the proposal of some teaching which leads to a better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals and to moral directives derived from such teaching” (DV 17).
Feser seems surprised by my assertion, writing, “If what Lofton has in mind here is the claim, which some have made, that even non-infallible exercises of the papal magisterium are somehow protected from error, then I have in fact argued elsewhere that that thesis is incoherent and not taught by the Church.”
I found this to be an odd comment, both in light of Donum Veritatis, and the fact that I’ve been very vocal about the possibility of papal errors in the pope’s non-definitive magisterial acts. In fact, my doctoral dissertation is specifically on magisterial reversals, which assumes the possibility of certain types of error. Dr. Feser links to his article “When do popes teach infallibly?” where Feser argues against Emmett O’Regan’s 2017 essay in La Stampa on the indefectibility of the Church, portraying O’Regan as holding to the view that all papal teachings are infallible.
Having spoken with Emmett about this article, he has assured me that he does not maintain this view and that Feser does not sufficiently understand his position (I’m starting to see a pattern here). In short, Feser seems to think that either one must say the pope is infallible only in instances of ex cathedra teaching, or that he can never teach error at all. I argue that there is a more nuanced middle position here, which says that the pope is only infallible when he teaches ex cathedra, and he can teach error in his non-definitive acts, but such errors would not rise to the level of the grade of heresy. Rather, they would be lower in the list of theological censures.
Feser obviously doesn’t know much about me, and he admits that. That is certainly fair, I don’t expect him to. However, if he found my video response important enough to merit 5,100 words, then maybe he should have considered taking a few minutes to research my position on a given matter before attempting to respond.
Feser on Papal Criticism
Dr. Feser portrayed me as unwilling to recognize the ability to criticize the pope. He states:
“If it was legitimate for nouvelle théologie writers respectfully to criticize the shortcomings they claimed to see in the Magisterium of their day, then it cannot be denied that it can be legitimate respectfully to criticize the shortcomings some see in Pope Francis’s magisterium.”
Once again, I found this odd given the many times I’ve respectfully criticized Pope Francis under the provisions of Canon 212 and Donum Veritatis. Once again, Dr. Feser launches missiles on an empty hill, while my army watches from nearby, in bewilderment.
A final concern
Unfortunately, Dr. Feser began his response to me with the accusation that I engaged in “libel” and “defamatory” insinuations against him. He was offended at one point in my video when I said that some hold to a “suspended Magisterium” thesis to justify dissent from the Magisterium, although I did not refer to Dr. Feser directly. I was not attempting to discern his intentions or motives. I explicitly stated: “I don’t know what his intentions are personally, so I’m not going to try to judge his intentions.” Feser recognized that I said this but decided to read my mind anyway. He wrote — despite my words — that my “obvious insinuation” was that this was also his agenda and that he was “being cagey about it.” Based on this false assumption, he accused me of a defamatory insinuation and titled that section of his article “Lofton’s Libel.”
The word libel is a legal term, and those who are guilty of it may be subject to legal action. I took strong offense at this accusation in a series of Twitter messages to Dr. Feser, but he refused to back down from the claim. In fact, he simply continued to pile on more false accusations against me. And then, not being content with making the claim on his blog and on Twitter, Feser’s article (with its accusations against me) was re-published on Catholic World Report. This negative publicity had a significant impact on my reputation, and I was subject to many questions and attacks as a result, including from many of my followers.
Eventually, Feser walked back his “libel” claim in an article where he tries to justify his accusations against me but ultimately retracts the charges, stating he will take me “at my word.” He claims that he was accusing me of libel and defamation “in the broader, moral sense” — as opposed to the actual definition of the terms and how his accusations were received. Catholic World Report then reproduced his blog post — although the accusatory post also remains.
I accept Dr. Feser’s retraction, although I wish he had taken me “at my word” from the beginning. The damage was done to my reputation, and the confusion he caused led many people to dismiss me without hearing my side of the story.
Even more importantly, these false accusations served as distractions from the real issue at hand: Feser’s problematic and badly-reasoned article suggesting that a partial “suspense” of the Magisterium is a realistic possibility.
 Editor’s note: Fr. Hunwicke is certainly aware that the Birth Control Commission began its work in 1963 and Humanae Vitae was promulgated in 1968. During these years, of course, all of the documents of the Second Vatican Council were ratified, the Roman Rite began to be celebrated in the vernacular, and the work of liturgical reform began. Given his misgivings about Vatican II, it’s likely there is much more behind his suggestion that the Magisterium was in “suspense” during this time. —ML
 For the record, I’ve already done a response to Dr. Feser’s recommended article in a video entitled: “Dr. Edward Feser on Papal Infallibility: A Friendly Response.” In this video, I argue that Dr. Feser’s position is not nuanced enough (which is ironic given that Feser claimed I’m lacking in “nuance”).
Image: Council of Nicaea, Public Domain.
Michael Lofton is a graduate of Christendom College Graduate School of Theology where he received his Master of Arts in Theological Studies (Cum Laude) in 2018. He is currently working on a doctorate in Theology with Pontifex University and is writing a dissertation on the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. Michael is the founder of the Reason & Theology show, where he has interviewed many of the leading figures in contemporary theology. He has worked with Catholic Answers as an affiliate apologist and also appeared on EWTN, SiriusXM Radio, Radio Maria. He has also contributed frequently to various newspapers and websites.