Throughout his papacy, traditionalist critics of Pope Francis have accused him of sowing confusion among the faithful or even of teaching heresy. Perhaps most famously, in 2016 four cardinals submitted five dubia, or questions seeking clarification, regarding Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. Escalating these challenges to Francis’s authority, on September 16, a letter seeming to formally accuse Pope Francis of heresy was issued by a group of Francis critics, led by Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, and including René Henry Gracida, the Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas, Auxiliary Bishop Robert Mutsaerts of S’Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands, and Auxiliary Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Astana, Kazakhstan, as well as a number of scholars. The letter focuses specifically on Francis’s teaching on the reception of communion, and in particular in a passage in his recent apostolic letter Desiderio Desideravi.
I will leave it to canon lawyers to discuss the formal status of the letter’s accusations or what the consequences might be for the episcopal signatories, but as a theological argument, the letter utterly fails to make its case. In fact, a close study shows both that Pope Francis’s remarks in Desiderio Desideravi are perfectly orthodox and that his critics’ arguments are based on a thin understanding of the doctrines involved. Indeed, at points the critics have arguably engaged in a bad faith effort at interpreting Pope Francis’s teaching.
The Accusation of Heresy
The letter writers point to two lines in Desiderio Desideravi as the basis for their accusation of heresy:
The world still does not know it, but everyone is invited to the supper of the wedding of the Lamb (Rev 19:9). To be admitted to the feast all that is required is the wedding garment of faith which comes from the hearing of his Word (cf. Rom 10:17). (#5, italics in original)
Here is what the critics’ letter says about this passage:
The natural meaning of these words is that the only requirement for a Catholic to worthily receive the Holy Eucharist is possession of the virtue of faith, by which one believes Christian teaching on the grounds of its being divinely revealed. Moreover, in the Apostolic Letter as a whole there is silence on this essential topic of repentance for sin for the worthy reception of the Eucharist.
This natural meaning contradicts the faith of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church has always taught that in order to receive the Holy Eucharist worthily and without sin, Catholics must receive sacramental absolution, if possible, for any mortal sins they may have committed and obey all other laws of the Church concerning reception of the Eucharist.
The letter goes on to cite the Council of Trent’s Decree Concerning the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist to justify the claim that Francis’s supposed teaching contradicts the Church’s doctrine. Here is the relevant passage from the Decree, in full:
If it is not becoming for anyone to approach any of the sacred functions except solemnly, certainly, the more the holiness and the divinity of this heavenly sacrament is understood by a Christian, the more diligently ought he to take heed lest he approach to receive it without great reverence and holiness, especially when we read in the Apostle those words full of terror: “He that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgment to himself not discerning the body of the Lord” (1 Cor 11:29). Therefore, the precept, “Let a man prove himself” (1 Cor 11:28), must be recalled to mind by him who wishes to communicate. Now ecclesiastical usage declares that this examination is necessary, that no one conscious of mortal sin, however contrite he may seem to himself, should approach the Holy Eucharist without a previous sacramental confession. This, the holy Synod has decreed, is always to be observed by all Christians, even by those priests on whom by their office it may be incumbent to celebrate, provided the recourses of a confessor be not lacking to them. But if in an urgent necessity a priest should celebrate without previous confession, let him confess as soon as possible. (VII)
The letter’s authors also cite Canon 11 of the same Decree:
If anyone says that faith alone is sufficient preparation for receiving the sacrament of the most Holy Eucharist, let him be anathema.
The accusation, then, is that by allegedly teaching that only the virtue of faith is necessary to receive the Eucharist, Pope Francis has fallen into heresy by denying that Catholics must first be absolved from mortal sins before receiving the sacrament.
What is the Wedding Garment of Faith?
As theologian Robert Fastiggi points out in his recent article about the letter, in the above-cited passage from Desiderio Desideravi, Pope Francis appeals to the biblical image of the “wedding garment” which appears in the Parable of the Wedding Feast in Matthew 22, as well as in Revelation 19 where the saints are described as arrayed in wedding garments. In the Parable of the Wedding Feast, those who come dressed in the wedding garment are admitted to the wedding feast, while those without are “cast … into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth” (Mt 22:11-13). Francis interprets the Wedding Feast both Eucharistically and eschatologically, proposing that the wedding garment affords admission to both the celebration of the Eucharist and the Eucharistic Feast of the Heavenly Kingdom. The letter’s accusation against Francis hinges on its claim that when Francis refers to the “wedding garment of faith,” “the natural meaning … is that the only requirement for a Catholic to worthily receive the Holy Eucharist is possession of the virtue of faith.” But this is a remarkably thin claim for such a serious accusation.
Indeed, the most natural meaning for Pope Francis’s reference to the “wedding garment” is precisely the usage the Church has made of this symbol for centuries, as an image for the regeneration or justification brought about by baptism. In the rite of baptism for adults, the priest says, “N., you have become a new creation and clothed yourself in Christ. Receive this baptismal garment and bring it unstained to the judgment seat of our Lord Jesus Christ, so that you may have everlasting life,” and likewise in the rite for infants: “N., you have become a new creation and have clothed yourself in Christ. See in this white garment the outward sign of your Christian dignity. With your family and friends to help you by word and example, bring that dignity unstained into the everlasting life of heaven.” As a pastor, Francis almost certainly has this baptismal context in mind when he refers to the “wedding garment.”
The Council of Trent itself makes this connection between the wedding garment and justification. In the Decree Concerning Justification, the Council Fathers state:
Wherefore, when receiving true and Christian justice [i.e., justification], they are commanded, immediately on being born again, to preserve it pure and spotless, as the first robe given them through Christ Jesus in place of that which Adam by his disobedience lost for himself and for us, so that they may bear it before the tribunal of our Lord Jesus Christ and may have life eternal. (VII)
Likewise, in the very chapter of the Decree Concerning the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist immediately following that cited in the critics’ letter, the Council Fathers again refer to the wedding garment. The Decree points out that there are three types of people who receive the Eucharist: sinners who receive it unworthily, and therefore only sacramentally; those who receive it through spiritual communion but not sacramentally; and those who receive it both spiritually and sacramentally, “and these are they who so prove and prepare themselves beforehand that they approach this divine table clothed with the wedding garment” (VIII).
According to the Council of Trent, therefore, the wedding garment signifies the justification brought about through baptism, which includes: “Together with the remission of sins, all these infused at the same time, namely, faith, hope and charity” (Decree Concerning Justification, VII). With this traditional understanding of the wedding garment in mind, then, the natural reading of Pope Francis’s statement that “to be admitted to the feast all that is required is the wedding garment of faith” is perfectly orthodox. To argue otherwise, one would have to make the case that the phrase “of faith” signifies that Francis is suggesting some meaning for the wedding garment other than that used in liturgical and doctrinal contexts. I think a closer look at Trent’s teaching on justification, followed by an examination of the disputed passage from Desiderio Desideravi in context, convincingly shows that Francis’s usage of the image is perfectly in line with these traditional usages.
Trent on Justification
The Council of Trent was the first ecumenical council to provide an exposition of its teachings rather than simply listing condemned propositions, and the Decree Concerning Justification begins by explaining, against Pelagianism, that salvation is entirely a gift of God that no one can achieve through their own works (I). This gift of salvation, the Decree goes on, comes through Jesus Christ. Contrary to John Calvin, for example, who taught that Christ died only for the elect, the Decree states that Christ died “not for our sins only, but also for those of the whole world” (II). The Decree goes on to state, however, “But though He died for all, yet all do not receive the benefit of His death, but those only to whom the merit of His passion is communicated” (III). In other words, although God desires the salvation of the entire human race, salvation requires each individual to be made righteous, to share in Christ’s righteousness. The rest of the Decree describes this process, referred to as justification.
The next section explains how God prepares someone for justification through grace. Although the Decree does not go into detail how this grace (“prevenient grace”) prepares someone for justification, the idea is that through events in their lives, the example of others, hearing the Word of God, and the stirrings of God in the heart (“God touches the heart of man through the illumination of the Holy Ghost,” V), God elicits a desire for conversion. Chapter VI goes on to explain that, “Aroused and aided by divine grace, receiving faith by hearing, they are moved freely toward God, believing to be true what has been divinely revealed and promised,” and therefore desire baptism. This faith then enkindles the first stirrings of hope and love for God, along with a desire for repentance.
Baptism, then, is the culmination of this process, the instrument through which God brings about the justification of a sinner, and, as previously noted, “Whence man through Jesus Christ, in whom he is ingrafted, receives in that justification, together with the remission of sins, all these infused at the same time, namely, faith, hope and charity” (VII).
The Decree, seeking to counter Protestant claims that we are saved through “faith alone,” insists that “Faith, unless hope and charity be added to it, neither unites man perfectly with Christ nor makes him a living member of His body” (VII), and that good works, performed and rendered meritorious through the grace of Christ, are likewise necessary for salvation (XVI). For this reason, the baptized are not only provided with the wedding garment, but also commanded “to preserve it pure and spotless” (VII).
Still, attempting to make sense of the Apostle Paul’s claim that “we have been justified by faith” (Rom 5:1), the Decree states that:
We are therefore said to be justified by faith, because faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation and root of all justification, without which it is impossible to please God and to come to the fellowship of His sons. (VIII)
Likewise, baptism can be referred to as the “sacrament of faith” (VII) because it is the stirrings of faith that elicits the desire for baptism and that sets in motion the sacrament’s effects. Therefore, if justification can validly be said to be “by faith,” and baptism is the “sacrament of faith,” then one could likewise, with no fear of heresy, refer to both of these with the image of the “wedding garment of faith.”
Pope Francis’s Desiderio Desideravi
To strengthen this case, let’s look at the passage cited from Desiderio Desideravi with the surrounding context:
No one had earned a place at that Supper. All had been invited. Or better said: all had been drawn there by the burning desire that Jesus had to eat that Passover with them. He knows that he is the Lamb of that Passover meal; he knows that he is the Passover. This is the absolute newness, the absolute originality, of that Supper, the only truly new thing in history, which renders that Supper unique and for this reason “the Last Supper,” unrepeatable. Nonetheless, his infinite desire to re-establish that communion with us that was and remains his original design, will not be satisfied until every man and woman, from every tribe, tongue, people and nation (Rev 5:9), shall have eaten his Body and drunk his Blood. And for this reason that same Supper will be made present in the celebration of the Eucharist until he returns again.
The world still does not know it, but everyone is invited to the supper of the wedding of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9). To be admitted to the feast all that is required is the wedding garment of faith which comes from the hearing of his Word (cf. Rom 10:17). The Church tailors such a garment to fit each one with the whiteness of a garment bathed in the blood of the Lamb (Rev 7:14). We must not allow ourselves even a moment of rest, knowing that still not everyone has received an invitation to this Supper or knowing that others have forgotten it or have got lost along the way in the twists and turns of human living. This is what I spoke of when I said, “I dream of a ‘missionary option,’ that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.” (Evangelii gaudium, #27). I want this so that all can be seated at the Supper of the sacrifice of the Lamb and live from Him. (##4-5, italics in original, the lines cited in the letter are in bold)
These two paragraphs are almost a “mini-catechism” on Trent’s Decree Concerning Justification. We see asserted the same doctrines outlined in the Decree: 1. Salvation, our place at the Supper, is not something we earn, but rather a gift from God; 2. Christ is the unique source of our salvation; 3. Christ’s offer of salvation, the invitation to the feast, is for all; 4. Not all who are invited have been admitted to the feast, or not all who are offered salvation have received it; 5. Salvation, admission to the feast, is elicited “from the hearing of his Word”; 6. One must share in Christ’s righteousness, signified by putting on the wedding garment, to be admitted to the feast.
It is clear in context that when Pope Francis says, “To be admitted to the feast all that is required is the wedding garment of faith,” that his intent is to reinforce the statement that “No one had earned a place at that Supper,” that God does not require anything of us that He does not already give us. The statement is not intended to address the question of absolution before communion. Indeed, in the very next line, Francis states that the wedding garment possesses “the whiteness of a garment bathed in the blood of the Lamb” and that the whiteness and fit of the garment is tailored by the Church. Given everything that has been said so far, it seems obvious that the meaning here is that the Church helps prepare us for the Supper by offering us the absolution of our sins, the complete opposite of what the critics claim Francis is teaching. To their discredit, the critics left this line out of their citation from the apostolic letter.
Pope Francis’s Other Remarks
Therefore, the critics are incorrect when they say: “In the Apostolic Letter as a whole there is silence on this essential topic of repentance for sin for the worthy reception of the Eucharist.” Nevertheless, it is true that Francis does not more directly speak to this issue. For this reason, even though the critics put forward the two lines from Desiderio Desideravi as their primary evidence of “heresy,” they therefore point toward other statements where Francis has more directly spoken to the issue of the reception of communion to bolster their case. These include his well-known saying that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (Evangelii Gaudium, #47). The critics face two problems here.
The first is that nowhere does Pope Francis state that absolution from mortal sin is not necessary for receiving communion. In fact, in his clearest, most authoritative statement on the issue, his teaching is perfectly orthodox and, again, the opposite of what the critics claim. In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis states:
Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end. (#305)
And in a footnote, he explains that “the Church’s help” can include the sacraments, especially Reconciliation and the Eucharist, citing EG #47. But in this passage, Francis is decidedly not talking about receiving communion in a state of mortal sin. Let me elucidate.
Pope John Paul II explains in his Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio e Paenitentia something which ought to be familiar to any Catholic school graduate, “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent” (#17), or in other words, mortal sin contains both objective and subjective elements. But as Francis explains in the above passage from Amoris, when he states that the Eucharist is “a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak,” he is referring to someone in a state that may be objectively sinful, but for which they are not subjectively fully culpable, and therefore one that is by definition not mortally sinful. This is a rather elementary point, but one frequently missed by Francis’s critics. And elsewhere in Amoris, Francis states, “When those who receive it turn a blind eye to the poor and suffering, or consent to various forms of division, contempt and inequality, the Eucharist is received unworthily” (#186). So it is clear Francis believes there are conditions that could render one unworthy to receive the Eucharist. Naturally, the letter does not cite this passage. Francis’s other statements on the reception of communion ought to be interpreted in light of these clear statements in Amoris Laetitia.
The second problem faced by the critics is that they end up conflating Francis’s statements on the reception of the Eucharist in general with those on withholding communion from Catholics engaged in “obstinate persistence in manifest grave sin,” to quote canon law. Because the latter involves a priest withholding communion, as opposed to a Catholic refraining from receiving it, and judgments about what counts as “obstinate” or “manifest,” the latter is a much more complex issue than the doctrinal matter at hand. One could consistently hold both that the judgment that one should choose to publicly withhold communion from a sinner sparingly if at all and that those guilty of mortal sins should refrain from communion, and so Francis’s remarks on withholding communion have no bearing on the doctrinal issue raised in the letter.
Heresy is a serious accusation, and to make such an accusation against a pope, one ought to have a rock-solid case. In this instance, however, the authors of this letter have made a remarkably weak argument accusing Pope Francis of heresy regarding absolution from sins and the reception of communion. Throughout their letter, the critics ignore the doctrinal and liturgical background of Francis’s remarks in Desiderio Desideravi, ignore statements in Desiderio Desideravi and elsewhere that demonstrate the orthodoxy of his teaching, and misconstrue other statements he has made on the issue. A close examination of the text of Desiderio Desideravi, rather than revealing that the pope is a heretic, instead shows that Francis has provided a clear and compelling exposition of the Church’s doctrine, as we should expect from the pastor of all the faithful.
Image: Unknown Dutch painter – Parable of the great banquet – National Museum in Warsaw, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.
Matthew A. Shadle is Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. He received his B.A. in Religion from Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Theology from the University of Dayton, in Dayton, Ohio. He has published Interrupting Capitalism: Catholic Social Thought and the Economy (Oxford, 2018); The Origins of War: A Catholic Perspective (Georgetown, 2011); and “No Peace on Earth: War and the Environment” in Green Discipleship: Catholic Theological Ethics and the Environment, edited by Tobias Winright (Anselm Academic, 2011). His work focuses on the development of Catholic social teaching and its intersection with both fundamental moral theology and the social sciences, with special focus on war and peace, the economy, and immigration.