Since the release of the open letter signed by Aidan Nichols and others, many of Pope Francis’s critics on social media are defending it with the same talking points they’ve used to defend their positions on the “dubia” and many other initiatives critical of the Holy Father. They are applying lines like, “we need clarity from the pope,” or “We love Francis but he needs to correct some things.”
Apparently, they haven’t read it closely or don’t seem to understand what the signatories are asserting and what they are asking for in this letter. This is not a petition to the Holy Father to clarify or correct teachings. Nor is it simply a statement of serious concerns that they have with the pope. This letter is much more serious than many of the documents that have been launched at the Holy Father in the last 3 years.
This letter makes specific claims about Pope Francis, and it requests the bishops of the world to take specific actions, with an explicit purpose. If you are going to defend the letter, do so with a clear understanding of what you defend. The authors are stating that Francis is no longer pope, and are asking the bishops of the world to confirm this in an official declaration.
In summary, the letter writers are saying:
- Francis is a heretic. (“We are accusing Pope Francis of the canonical delict of heresy.”)
- A pope automatically loses his office when he teaches heresy (“Neither the 1917 Code of Canon Law nor the 1983 Code of Canon Law abrogate the principle that a heretical pope loses the papal office. This is agreed by all commentators on these codes, who state that this principle is correct.” And later, “The incompatibility between heresy and membership of the Church is what leads to the loss of the papal office by a heretical pope.”)
- The official ratification of this must be made by the bishops (“It should instead be accepted that the pope cannot fall from office without action by the bishops of the Church.” And later, “The Church’s determining that a pope is a heretic, and the announcement of his heresy by the bishops of the Church, is what makes the pope’s heresy a juridical fact, a fact from which his loss of office ensues.”)
- The authors appeal to the bishops of the world to officially declare this. (“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.”)
To put it in other words, so there is no confusion: the letter writers conclude that Francis is not the pope anymore because he is a heretic, and they are asking the world’s bishops to officially confirm this. The signatories are basically sedevacantist, but unlike more conventional sedevacantists, they think the papal vacancy must be declared in an official way by the bishops. They state this in the letter:
“Sedevacantist authors have argued that a pope automatically loses the papal office as the result of public heresy, with no intervention by the Church being required or permissible. … It would leave each individual Catholic to decide whether and when the pope could be said to be a heretic and to have lost his office. It should instead be accepted that the pope cannot fall from office without action by the bishops of the Church.”
This does not mean, however, that the signatories actually believe Francis is still pope. The signatories seem to have come to an agreement that episcopal intervention is necessary to officially declare it has happened. They agree with sedevacantists that Francis is not the pope. The episcopal role in this process is merely to confirm the “loss of papal office,” not to depose him. Like sedevacantists, they seem to believe that it is the heretical act of the pope that causes him to automatically lose the papacy, that there is no authority who can depose him:
“It is agreed that the Church does not have jurisdiction over the pope, and hence that the Church cannot remove a pope from office by an exercise of superior authority, even for the crime of heresy.”
In their opinion, the actions taken by the Church simply make his heresy and loss of the papacy official (a “juridical fact”). The pope’s heresy is what actually caused him to lose office. They write:
“The incompatibility between heresy and membership of the Church is what leads to the loss of the papal office by a heretical pope. The Church’s determining that a pope is a heretic, and the announcement of his heresy by the bishops of the Church, is what makes the pope’s heresy a juridical fact, a fact from which his loss of office ensues.”
This document can be interpreted as an act of schism, not simply a petition to the pope. The signatories implore the bishops of the world to come together and officially declare him a heretic who has already renounced his office.
Certainly, there are people who have such deeply negative opinions of Pope Francis that they support this attempted putsch. There are no indications that they represent anything other than a tiny minority in the Church, and it seems impossible that a majority of bishops will answer their call. In fact, it is unknown whether any active bishops at all will support them. Even the letter writers themselves seem to anticipate that they could be the catalyst for a small minority of Catholics to go into schism:
“These actions do not need to be taken by all the bishops of the Catholic Church, or even by a majority of them. A substantial and representative part of the faithful bishops of the Church would have the power to take these actions.”
Despite its outrageous and false claims, this letter could ultimately benefit the Church. It might serve as a catalyst for more serious critics of Francis to begin to denounce the extremists in their ranks. In fact, a number of people who are generally critical of Pope Francis spoke out strongly against this, including Nichols’ fellow Dominican Thomas Petri, who called the letter “frankly disappointing.” Ed Condon of CNA said,
“Despite the letter’s strident claims, the arguments advanced by its authors do not appear to make a legal, or consistent, argument against the Holy Father regarding the specific charge of canonical heresy.”
On Twitter, canonist Ed Peters (a constant critic of Pope Francis’s teachings) suggested that his rebuttal of the letter is forthcoming. Prominent anti-Francis author Phil Lawler commented that “the claim that the Pope has committed heresy is at best a leap of logic.” Fr. Thomas Weinandy, writing at First Things, describes the letter as “extreme in its appraisal and intemperate in its approach.”
While none of these critics have backed away from their usual critiques of the Holy Father and his teachings, they do seem to realize that this new letter is a bridge too far, and that it isn’t a constructive or responsible way to raise concerns about him.
The letter signed by Fr. Nichols and others is a new dividing line between those who have genuine concerns and critiques and those who are fanatical in their determination to overthrow the Vicar of Christ. It might also lead more serious papal critics to understand their responsibility in fostering this radicalization through their support of the dubia and other organized attempts to undermine and “correct” the pope.
Stephen Walford was prophetic when he wrote to the dubia cardinals,
“You may or may not be aware that there is a growing section of traditionalists and even some conservative Catholics who see you as the standard bearers for the rejection of this papacy. I know from experience that some of it is deeply troubling. The abuse from many, including those who run websites and Traditionalist blogs aimed at the Holy Father and those who are loyal to him, is nothing short of satanic. You are their role models and that is an intolerable situation. In reality, there is no confusion but only outright rejection and defiance towards the legitimate Pope and his magisterial teachings. If all the Cardinals had accepted and defended Pope Francis’ clear teaching, there would have been no fuel for the dissenting fire.”
This message also applies to the theologians and prominent Catholics who support the dubia and similar initiatives. The dubia were a spark that ignited a spirit of rebellion against the pope, and it was inevitable that it would lead some to embrace schismatic ideas.
But that’s another discussion for another day.
The main point here is to point out that even papal critics should think twice before defending this letter. Understand what this letter is saying. Read it and comprehend it, don’t just endorse it because it criticizes the pope. If ecclesial community in the Church is important to you, you should not defend this letter. Also, please understand that giving in to this spirit of rebellion can ultimately lead to harmful and irreparable division in the Church.
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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.