Are the Signatories Exercising a Right to Correct the Pope?

This post is in answer to a comment on another post, in part:

A. “The whole situation of the Synod, Amoris Laetitia, the various interpretations of AL by bishops in different countries, the dubia and now the filial correction is very unsettling and challenging.”

Consider the passage in the Gospel of John on the Eucharist:

{6:54} And so, Jesus said to them: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you will not have life in you.
{6:55} Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.
{6:56} For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.
{6:57} Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.
{6:58} Just as the living Father has sent me and I live because of the Father, so also whoever eats me, the same shall live because of me.
{6:59} This is the bread that descends from heaven. It is not like the manna that your fathers ate, for they died. Whoever eats this bread shall live forever.”
{6:60} He said these things when he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.
{6:61} Therefore, many of his disciples, upon hearing this, said: “This saying is difficult,” and, “Who is able to listen to it?”
{6:62} But Jesus, knowing within himself that his disciples were murmuring about this, said to them: “Does this offend you?
{6:63} Then what if you were to see the Son of man ascending to where he was before?
{6:64} It is the Spirit who gives life. The flesh does not offer anything of benefit. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.
{6:65} But there are some among you who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the beginning who were unbelieving and which one would betray him.
{6:66} And so he said, “For this reason, I said to you that no one is able to come to me, unless it has been given to him by my Father.”
{6:67} After this, many of his disciples went back, and they no longer walked with him.
{6:68} Therefore, Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you also want to go away?”
{6:69} Then Simon Peter answered him: “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life.
{6:70} And we have believed, and we recognize that you are the Christ, the Son of God.”
{6:71} Jesus answered them: “Have I not chosen you twelve? And yet one among you is a devil.”
{6:72} Now he was speaking about Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon. For this one, even though he was one of the twelve, was about to betray him.

This teaching was difficult and unsettling and confusing. But instead of giving a lengthy detailed explanation of transubstantiation and the real presence, Jesus taught with simplicity only the beginning of the Church’s teaching on this topic. And instead of proposing a complete explanation, which would be entirely open to reason and discussion, our Lord asked us to have faith. Then, over the course of many centuries, the Magisterium elucidated this teaching in many ways. And we still must have faith, as this teaching is beyond complete human comprehension.

Many teachings of the Church under past Popes were unsettling and challenging. The teaching of Humanae Vitae is one example. Theologians still debate its meaning and interpretation, and its application. And each Pope does not immediately issue a long series of infallible dogmas, so that no questions are open, and nothing is left to opinion and interpretation.

It is ordinary for a Pope to make decisions on doctrine and discipline, and for his decisions to be controversial. And it is not at all the way that the Church has been run in the past, that groups of Catholics get together to oppose papal decisions and demand a “clarification”, when no clarification would be accepted by them except what accords with their own opinions and understanding.

Many theological controversies continue today, and the Magisterium does not act to immediately and definitively end each controversy. The Faith is not solely a set of dogmas, which require the full assent of faith and nothing more. The Faith includes non-infallible teachings, theological opinions, and personal pious ideas. So it is not true that each Pope must end all controversies and answer all questions. Is it unsettling to belong to a Church that does not answer all questions, a Church whose non-infallible teachings can err to some extent? Okay, so what?

B. “I put this question to you in light of what you have written, and only with the purpose of clarifying my own confused mind : is it ever possibly moral to publicly correct the pope, and if so, what makes this particular public correction immoral? What I am trying to get to is this: is the problem just the phraseology, tone and perhaps implied insubordination of the authors, or is it the very fact of issuing a public correction at all.”

Paul corrected Peter. True. But Paul did not accuse Peter of heresy. Paul spoke his mind to Peter, and that was the end of it. Paul did not persist in opposing Peter, unless and until Peter accepted Paul’s correction. Saint Thomas taught that a subordinate may correct a superior. But the Filial Correction is not a correction of the type proposed by Thomas or by the example of Paul.

Avery Dulles wrote an article disagreeing with something Pope Saint John Paul II taught in Veritatis Splendor. The point of disagreement was whether a list of sins in Vatican II, which John Paul II was now claiming to be a list of intrinsically evil acts, were in fact intrinsically evil in every case.

I wrote a post disagreeing with a certain distinction made by then-Cardinal Ratzinger between infallible teachings which are proposed as divinely revealed, and other infallible teachings that are not proposed as divinely revealed. I think the distinction is illusory, and could only possibly apply to dogmatic facts (infallible, but not divinely revealed).

It is not unusual for a member of the faithful, especially a theologian, to write a respectful disagreement which contradicts a non-infallible teaching or a personal theological opinion of a Pope. But that is not what the Filial Correction offers.

The Filial Correction differs from a moral disagreement with, or correction of, the Roman Pontiff in these ways:

1. It accuses the Roman Pontiff of propagating heresy — which I maintain is no different from accusing him of teaching material heresy.

The teaching of Vatican I (and the Gospel passages quoted by that Council) implies that no Pope can teach material heresy or commit formal heresy. Doctor of the Church, St. Robert Bellarmine taught that no Pope can teach or commit heresy. Therefore, the Filial Correction commits the grave sin of bearing false witness against their neighbor, as well as the sin of scandal by accusing the Pope of heresy. These are grave sins and therefore, not a moral type of correction.

2. It intimates that perhaps Pope Francis is guilty of committing formal heresy, by saying: “The signatories do not venture to judge the degree of awareness with which Pope Francis has propagated the 7 heresies which they list. But they respectfully insist that he condemn these heresies, which he has directly or indirectly upheld.” [Source]

This assertion is on the main page of the Correctio site and also in the document itself. Here’s the Latin from the document: “quali quantaque intelligentia nescimus nec iudicare audemus”. A more literal translation is: “with what type and degree of awareness, we do not know and do not dare to judge”.

It is as if a man were saying publicly, about his neighbor, “I don’t know if he’s guilty of the serious crime that I’m reporting to everyone, and it’s not for me to judge that question, but….” The signatories are proposing that perhaps the holy Pontiff is propagating heresy with a degree and with a type of awareness which would indicate either actual mortal sin or formal heresy or both. To say that perhaps the Pope has “directly” upheld the heresies he is allegedly propagating also suggests the possibility of formal heresy.

But the prevenient grace of God prevents every Pope from teaching material heresy and from committing apostasy, heresy, or schism. So this accusation, too, is false. Therefore, the signatories are violating the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not bear false witness and are committing the grave sin of scandal.

3. The Filial Correction assumes an infallibility in its accusations and in its proposed understanding of these questions, which is not possessed by the signatories, neither individually, nor as a group.

A proper correction of a Pope, as in the example of Avery Dulles, does not assume that the corrector is certainly right. When I read what Cardinal Burke has to say on the subject, he talks about the infallible truths of the Gospel and of past Magisterial teachings, but without any acknowledgement that he himself might have misunderstood those truths, or their application, or the Pope’s position on the subject. The assumption that one cannot possibly err, when correcting the Pope, is a grave error on the part of the corrector.

It reminds me of fundamentalist Protestants, who say that Scripture cannot err, but what they really mean is that their own understanding of Scripture cannot err. They imply that their own theological understanding is equal to Gospel truth. But as Catholics, we consider that their position is not entirely correct.

4. The signatories and other supporters of the Correctio are not merely proposing a theological correction on some teaching or opinion of the Roman Pontiff. They demand (“insist”) that the Supreme Pontiff submit himself to their correction and that he teach according to their understanding. If he refuses, they propose to continue taking action, until he complies with their demand. And that is absolutely a schismatic act.

A correction or disagreement with a Pope is not schismatic. But when a “Filial Correction” accuses a Pope falsely and demands that he comply, or else further action will be taken, then the correction is not of the type suggested by Saint Thomas or of the example of Saint Paul. Rather, it is much like the correction of Martin Luther, which initiated a schism and led to a set of heresies being established in his Protestant denomination.

C. “I include a link to a related article by Michael Sirilla, dated October 5th, which I find difficult to criticise.”

Sirilla states: “The current Code of Canon Law recognizes that at certain times it is a duty, not just a right, for competent persons to make known to the faithful (again, that would be publicly) their opinion on matters pertaining to the good of the Church:”

Can. 212 n. 3. “According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons.”

Notice that the Canon repeatedly says OPINION. But the Filial Correction does not propose a set of opinions. It treats its position as if it were identical to past infallible teachings of the Magisterium. In my past posts, I explain that Pope Francis has not in fact taught the first 6 of the 7 alleged heresies, and that the 7th is not a heresy, but a matter of discipline. Reply to the Seven Accusations of Heresy.

So the Filial Correction does not fall under Canon 212. It does not present a set of opinions, contrary to papal opinions or non-infallible teachings. Rather, it makes false accusations by claiming that the Pope’s teachings imply heresies which, as I have explained at length, he does not imply. And he certainly has not directly stated those heresies either.

Sirilla quotes Donum Veritatis: “The theologian will not present his own opinions or divergent hypotheses as though they were non-arguable conclusions.” And yet, he does not seem to realize that the Correctio is not phrased as “opinions” or “divergent hypotheses”. The Correctio does in fact present its position as “non-arguable conclusions”. And this is the way that papal critics, more generally, also speak.

Sirilla states: “On the contrary, they are reiterating what the Church has publicly, definitively, and consistently taught.”

And there it is. The signatories think that they are merely stating the infallible teaching of the Church. And that assumption, that their position is not opinion, but dogma, is what makes this document so offensive. They are saying to the Roman Pontiff, in effect: “We cannot possibly be wrong, because we are merely explaining dogma to you, so you must be the one who is wrong. And we will not stop correcting you, until you stand corrected.”

This is extreme pride, to speak to the Supreme Teacher of all Christians as if they are infallible and he is spreading heresy. No correction offered to anyone is pleasing to God when it is spoken with pride.

Well, I could go on further, but I have already discussed this topic in several past posts at great length. This should be sufficient to show that the Correctio is not Filial and is not a licit exercise of rights and duties under Canon 212 or under the eternal moral law.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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16 Responses to Are the Signatories Exercising a Right to Correct the Pope?

  1. Dora says:

    For a certain number; they can’t separate this attitude from breathing. They “do not dare to judge” the pope (an expression of humility) while simultaneously suggesting he actually may be a heretic. You can’t have it both ways. Words are important. If the Pope demanded a letter of loyalty as in the past, would they understand what that means?

  2. Stauton says:

    “It is not unusual for a member of the faithful, especially a theologian, to write a respectful disagreement which CONTRADITCS A NON-INFALIBLE TEACHING or a personal theological opinion OF A POPE”.

    This is a mistake. The Magisterium does not allow a disagreement of the faithful or teologians that contradict its non-infallible teachings. The Intruction Donum Veritatis expressly prohibits it:

    “27. Even if the doctrine of the faith is not in question, the theologian will not present his own opinions or divergent hypotheses as though they were non-arguable conclusions. Respect for the truth as well as for the People of God requires this discretion (cf. Rom 14:1-15; 1 Cor 8; 10: 23-33). For the same reasons, the theologian will refrain from giving untimely public expression to them.

    28. The preceding considerations have a particular application to the case of the theologian who might have serious difficulties, for reasons which appear to him wellfounded, in accepting a non-irreformable magisterial teaching.

    Such a disagreement could not be justified if it were based solely upon the fact that the validity of the given teaching is not evident or upon the opinion that the opposite position would be the more probable. Nor, furthermore, would the judgment of the subjective conscience of the theologian justify it because conscience does not constitute an autonomous and exclusive authority for deciding the truth of a doctrine”.


  3. R.D. says:

    Even if Francis is not required to answer the dubia, he should answer it. By ignoring the dubia’s contents, he deprives Catholics of a deeper understanding and appreciation of Amoris Laetitia.
    Theologically, Francis is in the right most obviously on the majority of the seven matters laid forth for him to clarify, there are one or two which require him to elucidate further.
    It is difficult to find more thickheaded, prideful angry, deceptive and acid-tounged
    commentary than in the dark, sleazy alleyways of the so-called “traditional Catholic” blogosphere.
    These websites (if you don’t know what they are, don’t seek them!) are distinctly unworthy of any Catholic’s attention whatsoever, they are damaging and scandalous.

  4. Stauton says:

    ‘Human Life in our Day’ and ‘Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion’ are not texts of the Magisterium, they do not have the Pope’s approval. The Instruction Donum Veritatis, which is a document of the Magisterium, does not permit the dissent in any case. The Pope’s Magisterium is above the magisterium of the american bishops or the teaching of Cardinal Ratzinger.

    Code of Canon Law:

    “Can. 752 Although not an assent of faith, a religious submission of the intellect and will must be given to a doctrine which the Supreme Pontiff or the college of bishops declares concerning faith or morals when they exercise the authentic magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim it by definitive act; therefore, the Christian faithful are to take care to avoid those things which do not agree with it”.


    • Ron Conte says:

      Human Life in Our Day is a text issued by the U.S. Bishops, so it is of the Magisterium. LG 25 clearly teaches that Bishops exercise the Magisterium. And “Worthiness to receive…” was written by Cardinal Ratzinger, who also wrote Donum Veritatis. The Magisterium is of the Holy Spirit, working through the Pope and Bishops, and it is not solely found in documents approved by the Pope.

  5. A Faithful Follower Of Christ And His Faithful Vicar says:

    Not sure what you’re all talking about. Amoris Letitia is an unclear document and appears to condone the giving of the most holy sacrament ie the Eucharist to those who are objectively in mortal sin. Catholic teaching on this subject is very clear, if anyone has any doubts then read what Pope Saint John Paul 2 wrote. The teaching of Christ is clear and cannot be changed, and the teaching of the Church has always been clear and unchangeable as it is based on Christ’s teaching. The problem occurs because Francis and his document appears to be an attempt to change the unchangeable. It’s very simple really. Either Francis is proposing those in objective mortal sin can now be given the Eucharist or he isn’t. If he is proposing this then he is ipso facto a heretic and since no heretic can be Pope has also excommunicated himself. Or he isn’t proposing teaching contrary to Christ.
    He was asked to clarify what he meant by means of the dubia, a valid method of politely asking for further clarification; this was ignored – a strange occurrence given that Francis is supposed to be the Vicar of Christ and to take care of his flock including by sound teaching. This leads to confusion and doubt within the members of the Church, and is not according to the mind of Christ when he promised us the Holy Spirit to teach us all things.
    And so to give Francis the benefit of the doubt the dubia was issued. Should not the servant of the servants of God be humble and hasten to assist his flock ? So the filial correction is issued, again a valid method of asking the representative of Christ to actually represent Christ’s teaching and not his own.
    We the Church are to follow the teachings of the Pope and be obedient to him; for his part, his teachings must be of Truth and he must be obedient to Christ. If he is not obedient to Christ then we have no obligation to be obedient to him, and we have no obligation to follow his teachings.
    Our obedience is to Christ and to His teachings, and from this follows obedience to his Vicar and his leadership.
    I get the feeling that some people think that obedience to the Pope and obedience to Christ is one and the same thing.
    It’s not. And It is.When the Pope is in obedience to Christ.
    So you have to ask yourself a tough question.
    If Francis tells you to disobey Christ and his Word do you do it, or don’t you ?
    If he asks you to disobey Christ then he is not the Pope, he is an imposter, no more worthy of obedience than to a Protestant.
    Speak the Truth in love to all, including to those who are called (or not) to represent Christ for the faithful.
    And here is scripture on which Christ’s Church is built (HIs Church not someone’s version of it)
    Matthew 7:
    15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
    21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
    That’s a sobering word. “Away from me you evildoers”.

    Is Francis an evildoer ? let him be clear in his writings so we can also be clear in our duty
    To follow him if he is truly Vicar or to follow Christ.
    Filial correction is not pride, it is a duty. the duty of the faithful member of the Faithful when he sees error. this is our our fellow faithful and especially to one who is supposed to represent Christ to all the faithful.

    • Ron Conte says:

      So I’m letting the above comment through, because it typifies the errors of the papal critics.

      They assume that their own understanding can’t err. It all seems so simple and clear to them (oversimplification), that they can’t possibly be wrong. Every point at issue is treated as if it were dogma (dogmatization). Yet they are not adhering to Catholic dogma, but rather dogmatizing their own erroneous understanding.

      But in truth, the Faith is subtle, profound, complex, and full of mysteries and surprises. Their simple understanding is an oversimplification, which thereby distorts the truth.

      Since their own understanding is so simple and clear that it supposedly can’t be wrong, whoever disagrees must be evil. Thus, they are ready to condemn the Vicar of Christ as a heretic or evildoer, because he refuses to submit his will and mind to their oversimplified misunderstandings and dogmatized opinions.

      These are the errors of religious fundamentalism:

  6. Stauton says:

    The Dutch catechism was a catechism approved by the Dutch bishops and contained a multitude of errors. That catechism did a lot of damage to Catholic Church. The magisterium of the bishops does not have the charism of assistance of the Holy Spirit if they teach something contrary to the Pope’s Magisterium. The magisterium of the bishops is Magisterium of the Church only when they teach in communion with the Pope. ‘Human Life in our Day’ and ‘Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion’ contradict the teaching of the Instruction Donum Veritatis that is document approved by the Pope. When a bishop teaches something contrary to the Pope’s teaching, the Pope’s teaching prevails.

    The Donum Veritatis clearly forbids the dissent:

    “Such a disagreement could not be justified if it were based solely upon the fact that the validity of the given teaching is not evident or upon the opinion that the opposite position would be the more probable. Nor, furthermore, would the judgment of the subjective conscience of the theologian justify it because conscience does not constitute an autonomous and exclusive authority for deciding the truth of a doctrine”.

    The theologians are also obliged to obey the teaching of the non-infallible Magisterium.

    “But if the Supreme Pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute, it is obvious that that matter, according to the mind and will of the Pontiffs, cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion among theologians”. (Humani Generis 20).


    • Ron Conte says:

      “Such a disagreement could not be justified if it were based solely upon the fact that…” In other words, the disagreement can be justified, if it is not solely based on, and has a firm basis in Tradition, Scripture, and other Magisterial teachings. Cardinal Ratzinger wrote “Worthiness to Receive Communion” as an official act of the CDF, and all such acts are approved by the Pope.

      Also, the Bishops exercise the ordinary Magisterium in all their teachings, and they are in communion with the Pope. The Pope does not specifically have to teach or approve of a Bishop’s teaching in order for it to be of the Magisterium.

      Errors are possible in non-infallible teachings, which is why they are called non-infallible. The Spirit assists the Pope and the Bishops in their ordinary Magisterium by preventing them from teaching any heresy or grave error. The Spirit assists them in their infallible Magisterium by preventing all error.

      You have badly misunderstood the Magisterium, and as a result, you have drawn multiple incorrect conclusions.

  7. Michael says:

    I’m not a theologian, I’m just a simple lay Catholic and I’m not one to judge whether Pope Francis is a heretic or valid Pope. He was elected and I’ll follow him as the head of the Church. However, anytime a Pope publishes something that contradicts what other Popes have said it causes confusion and as a lay Catholic, what I end up taking away from AL is that despite what I’ve been taught about divorced and remarried taking communion being a sin, maybe it’s not after all. But then I think, can this be applied to other acts that we were taught were sinful? Are those really sins now? It becomes a slippery slope for the regular Catholic mindset and this is why I wish the Pope would clarify himself. Very few look at AL through the lense of theology.

    • Alessandro Arsuffi says:

      It is my understanding that a priest should be more like a physician. Consider a patient package insert. In these leaflets you can find a list of bad interactions of a drug in case of specific diseases, for example, say, it may be risky to take a pill to treat a specific form of headache for those who suffer heart disease. Despite this, the physician may take the necessary precautions and investigate if the patient has a form of heart disease that really endangers him or not, before deciding whether it is prudent or not to prescribe the pill to the patient. On some other occasions, on the contrary, a drug may be dangerous to any form of a specific disease, so that the pill has a 100% risk of harming the patient’s life even more. Of course, the community of physicians should be more prudent and never take risks for the patient, which means that without an appropriate study, it is better not to prescribe the drug.

      That is true for the Eucharist too, which is described as a “pharmakon” – a Greek word that means both a medicine and a poison. It depends on the use you make of it. The role of the Magisterium is to discover whether giving the Eucharist to a sinner is always harmful in the presence of a specific sin, or if there may be exceptions. The role of the priest is to make a case-by-case application of the Eucharist according to the specific spiritual diseases of the “patient” and based on the guidelines of the Magisterium. Pope Francis, who is the Supreme Teacher and knows this better than we do, has outlined a list of specific conditions under which the Eucharist may not harm the faithful and may even improve their spiritual health. Up to now, the Magisterium was just more “cautious” for the well-being of the faithful. That’s how the Magisterium works. We have seen this plenty of times before, e.g. when the Church in the past was completely opposed to any form of cremation: in this case, the Church has expressed a renewed interpretation that makes it possible to cremate the departed under certain conditions, although the practice is still discouraged.

  8. Sunimal Fernando says:

    Dear Ron.
    This is to remind you on Fatima 100th anniversary .

  9. Matt Z. says:

    Alessandro Arsuffi wrote: “It depends on the use you make of it. The role of the Magisterium is to discover whether giving the Eucharist to a sinner is always harmful in the presence of a specific sin, or if there may be exceptions. The role of the priest is to make a case-by-case application of the Eucharist according to the specific spiritual diseases of the “patient” and based on the guidelines of the Magisterium.”

    Now what you mean by this is that the priest is not allowing those in actual mortal sin to receive Holy Communion. Rather, you are saying that someone that did not have full knowledge of their grave sin to be allowed to receive Communion? Although after a priest would counsel someone that divorce and remarriage is a grave matter, how could they approach Holy Communion without Sacramental Confession? We are required to have faith in infallible teachings even if they are hard.

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