Several years ago, I realized that I hadn’t seen a friend of mine for a few months. He and his family were active in my parish. He was a young man with a very lovely wife and a bunch of rambunctious little boys. They could always be found in the narthex during the 11:30 Sunday Mass, working hard to wrangle the kids and doing their best to participate in the Mass. He was active in our parish men’s group as well. His passion for the faith and his knowledge of Church teaching were impressive. He had a talent for quoting scripture, chapter and verse, and he could articulate the apologetical argument behind nearly every Church teaching.
After a couple of years, I began to notice a change in his tone, and an increase in intensity. He began to say things that were reminiscent of things I had come across on radical traditionalist blogs and websites. I didn’t notice when he stopped coming to Church and to the men’s group, but one day it hit me that I hadn’t seen him around lately. A few days later, a mutual friend told me he ran into him at a restaurant, where he told him he didn’t believe our parish was Catholic and tried to convince him of his newfound position.
The next contact I had with him came a few weeks later in the form of a very lengthy email, a virtual wall of text filled with sedevacantist arguments and talking points. I responded to him and we went back and forth for a while, with each response much longer than the last, but after a year or so, I sent my last email to him and he never replied. I haven’t seen or heard from him since, but I am told his family moved away to another state. Later I found a testimony of his “conversion” posted on a website, and it filled in some of the details that I’d wondered about. I still grieve that someone who had been on fire for his faith, someone I greatly admired, had fallen so far from what I thought was a rock-solid faith. I saw small signs before he left, but I had no idea how far he had gone astray. I wonder what might have happened if I’d intervened before he left, if I’d let an opportunity slip through my fingers.
I am reminded of this story due to the recent news that the prominent theologian Aidan Nichols, OP, a highly-respected intellectual voice in the Church for many years, has thrown in his lot with a small group of Catholic scholars and clergy to accuse Pope Francis of “heresy,” through a letter to the Catholic bishops of the world. Catholic News Agency highlights the letter’s call to action from the bishops:
“If – which God forbid! – Pope Francis does not bear the fruit of true repentance in response to these admonitions, we request that you carry out your duty of office to declare that he has committed the canonical delict of heresy and that he must suffer the canonical consequences of this crime,” the letter reads, later clarifying that it “is agreed that a pope who is guilty of heresy and remains obstinate in his heretical views cannot continue as pope.”
This is a clear appeal from the authors to the bishops to discipline a pope. To do so is seriously problematic. On Twitter, canon lawyer Ed Condon posted the text of #1372 from the Code of Canon Law:
Can. 1372 A person who makes recourse against an act of the Roman Pontiff to an ecumenical council or the college of bishops is to be punished with a censure.
I’m not a canon lawyer, but if there’s a more clear example of someone making recourse against an act of the Roman Pontiff to the college of bishops, I haven’t seen one.
For all the good work that Fr. Nichols has done in his life and as a priest and theologian, the act of signing that letter risks destroying his reputation and good name, and threatens his standing in the Church. Because most of the other letter signers are fairly obscure (not to mention well-established and outspoken critics of the Holy Father), Nichols’s endorsement of the letter is gravest of all. His name is featured prominently in all of the articles about the letter; he is why this letter is noteworthy. His work is very well-known: his books have been studied in seminaries and universities around the world for decades. He’s been widely accepted as orthodox and intelligent and thoughtful. That is, until this week, when he tarnished his own name by signing onto an outrageous document that accuses the Vicar of Christ of using a “satanic” stang as a crosier (which is easily debunked) and supporting the LGBT movement by wearing a rainbow cross (ditto).
I will pray for Fr. Nichols to recant his endorsement of this letter and to once again embrace the faith in its fullness, and I hope that you will too.
At Patheos, Henry Karlson looks at the long, sad history of great and important Catholic scholars who abandoned the faith that they once enriched and strengthened. He writes,
“Though not the first, Tertullian (160-220) is a prime instance of this. We can study and engage his many works, such as but not limited to his Apology, Against Praxeas, On the Resurrection of the Flesh, To the Martyrs, and On Prayer, knowing of course, that he became a Montanist who took on extreme positions that ended up criticizing and rejecting various pastoral aspects of the Catholic faith. St. Cyprian of Carthage could take on Tertullian as a theological mentor while abstracting from his works all the crazy errors which Tertullian accepted as a Montanist. The greatness of Tertullian’s writings, recognizable by even his critics, makes them required reading. But reading him, learning from him, does not mean we need to follow him as he strayed from orthopraxy and orthodoxy: just because he was an important writer who helped shape the Latin theological tradition and give much of its vocabulary does not make what he said in all instances correct.”
He goes on to describe more examples, and adds,
“Example after example from history can be lifted from history, showing great theologian after great theologian, such as Peter Abelard, Martin Luther or Ignaz von Döllinger, straying as a result of overconfidence in their private theological opinions. Great theologians, great scholars, great intellectual or ecclesiastical leaders who had been properly raised in prominence for their work and achievements, can be seen letting their own accolades get the best of them, so that they ended up ignoring and rejecting some basic element of Christian doctrine or practice. Many of them, but not all, found themselves following an extreme legalistic interpretation of Christian practice, incapable of understanding the nuance which the Christian mystery demanded of any theologian. Instead of listening to the church, they though themselves above the church, indeed, they ended up thinking they could judge of the church and its leaders. They used whatever authority they had to lead many followers astray. Great heretics did not become great heretics because they were unlearned; they became heretics because they failed to grasp how the Christian faith was to be addressed despite their learning.”
Fortunately for Fr. Nichols, he still has time to convert and repent of this error. My friend has even more time, but he has brought his family along with him into error, so he might have an even steeper hill to climb.
These examples reveal how even the most zealous in the faith can be led right out of it. It’s possibly worth noting that both Nichols and my friend were converts to the faith. It’s possible that they ran so fast through the front door that their momentum carried them right through the back. I must point out that their experience isn’t exclusive to converts. It’s also important to emphasize that there are many converts (likely the vast majority) who approach their Catholicism with great gratitude and a spirit of openness to the Church.
We can’t take for granted that what we believe today will be what we will believe ten years from now. Persevering in the faith requires perseverance through challenges, doubts, and difficult situations. Events happen that can shatter our faith, or at least our understanding of it. Keeping the faith requires prayer, conversion, and trust. And for the Catholic faith, part of that trust is to hold fast to Christ’s words:
“Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Mt 16:18)
Image: “By Me – Picture taken by me in Cambridge at Palmsunday 2014, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40226603”
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.