A group of Catholic scholars, writers, and clerics—including four bishops—recently issued a statement claiming that Pope Francis contradicts the teaching of the Council of Trent in no. 5 of his June 29, 2022 apostolic letter, Desiderio Desideravi. The authors of this statement, which is entitled The Teaching of the Catholic faith on the reception of the Holy Eucharist, believe that no. 5 of Desiderio Desideravi contradicts canon 11 of the Council of Trent’s Decree on the Eucharist (Denz.-H., 1661).
Here is the alleged contradiction:
“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)” (Desiderio Desideravi 5).
Canon 11 of Trent’s Decree on the Eucharist says:
“If anyone says that faith alone is sufficient preparation for receiving the sacrament of the most Holy Eucharist, let him be anathema.” [Si quis dixerit, solam fidem esse sufficientem praeparationem ad sumendum sanctissimum eucharistiae sacramentum, anathema sit.]
I think the signers of the statement have taken the cited passage of the Holy Father out of its proper context. The Holy Father is speaking about the desire of Christ for all to be united with Him in the heavenly banquet of the Supper of the Lamb. This is clear from his references to Revelation 5:9 in no. 4 and Revelation 19:9 in no. 5. The wedding garment of faith is required for entrance into the banquet, but no. 5 of Desiderio states that “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 should assume that the way the Church tailors this wedding garment takes note of the possibility of losing the whiteness of the garment by mortal sin. Pope Francis has noted this in other contexts. After his General Audience of March 14, 2018, he reminded some Polish pilgrims that serious sin makes one unworthy to receive the Eucharist. Moreover, in no. 6 of Desiderio, the Holy Father speaks of the need for “the most demanding asceticism” in approaching the Mass. What Trent teaches in canon 11 of its Decree on the Sacrament of the Eucharist (Denz.-H. 1661) is certainly true. I don’t see Pope Francis denying this truth in the passage cited. Trent is talking about the worthy reception of the Holy Eucharist. Pope Francis is speaking about the desire of Christ for all to receive the invitation to come to the Supper of the Lamb. This invitation requires a commitment to missionary outreach (which no. 5 of Desiderio highlights).
The desire of God for all to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth is revealed in Sacred Scripture (cf. 1 Tim 2:4). If God desires all people to be saved, then he also wishes all people to be invited “to the supper of the wedding of the Lamb (Rev 19:9),” which is a reference to the heavenly banquet of salvation. This, though, is what Pope Francis teaches in Desiderio 5. The wedding garment of faith is a reference to the parable of the wedding banquet found in Matthew 22:1–14. Those not dressed in a wedding garment are cast outside of the wedding feast.
I don’t think there is a tension between what Pope Francis says in Desiderio 5 and what Trent teaches in canon 11 on the Eucharist when each text is read within its proper context. The wedding garment of faith is understood by the Church as a faith that includes hope and love (cf. the Council of Trent, Decree on Justification, chap 7; Denz.-H. 1531). This is the faith that gives life. What Pope Francis says in Desiderio 5 should be read within this Catholic understanding of faith as well as its more immediate context. When St. Paul says “a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Rom 3:28), he assumes a faith “working through love” (Gal 5:6). We should assume that Pope Francis understands faith in the same way. The Council of Trent speaks of faith “as the foundation and root of all justification” (Decree on Justification, chap. 8; Denz.-H., 1532). The wedding garment of faith is necessary for entrance into the heavenly banquet, but, as Pope Francis says, “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).” The whiteness of the garment can be lost by mortal sin, which makes one unworthy to receive the Eucharist. Both Trent and Pope Francis affirm this truth.
There is no contradiction between Desiderio 5 and the Council of Trent when each is read within its proper context. It is sad that a group of Catholic priests, scholars, and four bishops—Most Rev. Joseph Strickland, René H. Gracida, Robert Mutsaerts, and Athanasius Schneider—would sign a document stating the Roman Pontiff has contradicted an infallible teaching of the Council of Trent. The accusation of this statement is based on a rather tendentious and misguided reading of one passage of the Holy Father’s apostolic letter.
The authors of The Teaching of the Catholic faith on the reception of the Holy Eucharist, however, claim that they are looking at the statement of Pope Francis in Desiderio 5, according to its “natural meaning.” The “natural meaning” of a text, however, cannot be understood in isolation apart from its intended message and context. If we applied the same standard of the “natural meaning” to Scripture, all types of problems would ensue. For example, the natural meaning of Jesus’ statement that “the Father is greater than I” (Jn 14:28) would indicate that Jesus is less than divine. Other passages of Scripture, of course, counteract this view, and Pope Leo I makes it clear that Jesus is less than the Father according to his humanity, but equal to the Father in his divinity (cf. Denz.-H., 295 and the Pseudo-Athanasian Creed, Denz.-H., 76). The “natural meaning” of Jn 14:28 might indicate that Jesus is not equal to the Father in any sense. The Church, however, understands the text differently.
With Scriptural texts, we need to keep in mind the manner of speaking and the intended effect of what the text says. Otherwise, we might believe that Jesus approves of self-mutilation in Mt 5:29-30 and that He opposes the burial of the dead—a corporal work of mercy—by what He says in Lk 9:60 to a would-be follower. If we understand such Scriptural texts according to their context and intent, why should we not do the same for what Pope Francis states in Desiderio 5?
It is a very serious matter to accuse the Roman Pontiff of contradicting an infallible teaching of an ecumenical council. Such an accusation itself seems to contradict what another ecumenical council—namely Vatican I—teaches when it says that “this See of St. Peter always remains untainted by any error” (Denz.-H., 3070) and “the charism of truth and of never-failing faith was conferred upon St. Peter and his successors in this chair” (Denz.-H, 3071). The signers of this recent statement claim that popes can publicly teach error when not teaching infallibly. They seem to assume that popes can teach even grave error and heresy in their ordinary magisterium. They cite sources, however, that are themselves questionable and subject to error. These sources have difficulty reconciling their claims with what Vatican I and other magisterial documents teach about the indefectibility of the Apostolic See. This indefectibility does not prevent popes from sinning and making prudential mistakes. It does, however, protect them from grave error and heresy in their ordinary magisterial pronouncements.
Pastor Aeternus of Vatican I does not limit “the charism of truth and of never-failing faith” to only infallible pronouncements of the Roman Pontiff. This charism, of course, does not mean that every ordinary teaching of the pope is infallible in the strict sense of being definitive and irreformable. The papal charism of truth and never-failing faith, however, prevents the Roman Pontiff from teaching grave error or heresy. The claim, therefore, that Pope Francis contradicts an infallible teaching of an ecumenical council seems to run counter to the texts of Vatican I cited above.
This recent document signed by some Catholic clerics, scholars, and a handful of bishops must be seen for what it is: namely, a very fallible document claiming that Pope Francis has contradicted an infallible teaching of the Council of Trent. The accusation of the document is based on a questionable reading of one passage of Desiderio taken out of context. Why should Catholics put their trust in this fallible document? If the Roman Pontiff can err in his ordinary magisterium, then certainly four bishops and a group of Catholic scholars and clerics can also err in what they claim (and I believe they have). To be honest, I don’t think it’s that difficult to understand what Pope Francis teaches in Desiderio Desideravi as being in complete harmony with the Catholic faith.
There are other assertions in The Teaching of the Catholic faith on the reception of the Holy Eucharist that are open to challenge. I believe it’s best, though, to highlight the passage of Desiderio Desideravi that the papal critics claim contradicts “the divinely revealed Catholic faith.” If Catholics have difficulty with some passage in a papal document, they should follow the guidelines issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in its 1990 instruction, Donum Veritatis. In no. 30 of this instruction, theologians are told to make their difficulties known to magisterial authorities “in an evangelical spirit and with a profound desire to resolve the difficulties.” Do the signers of this recent statement wish to resolve their difficulties or do they wish to accuse Pope Francis of contradicting “the divinely revealed Catholic faith”?
Image: Council of Trent, painting in the Museo del Palazzo del Buonconsiglio, Trento. By Laurom – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Robert Fastiggi, Ph.D. is Professor of Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, MI. He is a former president (2014–2016) of the Mariological Society of America; a member of the theological commission of the International Marian Association; and a corresponding member of the Pontifical Marian Academy International.