Reply to E. Christian Brugger’s Open Appeal

E. Christian Brugger’s Open Appeal to “all Catholic bishops — East and West” is a schismatic rejection of papal authority; it is an act of extreme pride and the sin of formal schism.

The Church, the Ark of Salvation, is indefectible. Therefore, She cannot make a shipwreck of the faith by any means, in any situation. The laity have a role to assist the Pope and the Bishops in preaching and teaching the Faith. But none of us as the role to take the helm away from the pilot and helmsman, the Vicar of Christ. We should not substitute our judgment about the direction of the Ship, nor should we appeal to the other officers on the ship, who serve under its captain, to pressure him to guide the ship in a different direction or manner.

As Unam Sanctam teaches, the highest power in the Church on earth, the Roman Pontiff, “will not be able to be judged by man, but by God alone.” And the reason is simple and clear:

“this authority, even though it may be given to a man, and may be exercised by a man, is not human, but rather divine [power], having been given by the divine mouth [of Christ] to Peter, and to him as well as to his successors, by [Christ] Himself, [that is, to him] whom He had disclosed to be the firm rock, just as the Lord said to Peter himself: “Whatever you shall bind,” [Matthew 16:19] etc. Therefore, whoever resists this authority, such as it has been ordain by God, resists the ordination of God. [Romans 13:2]”

So E. Christian Brugger errs, first of all, in supposing that it is his role, and not his alone, but also the role of various conservative papal critics, to wrest control of the Ark of Salvation away from its pilot and helmsman, by calling the Bishops to oppose the will of the Pope, to correct him according to the judgment and teachings of the conservative Catholic subculture, and to convince them that the fallible opinion of papal critics should be like a guiding light for them, in contradiction to the Pope.

Brugger is essentially calling for a mutiny on the Ark of Salvation. He asks all Bishops to write to Pope Francis, correcting him; to make rules for their own dioceses, in contradiction to the will and teaching of the Roman Pontiff; and to liaise secretly with other like-minded mutineers, who would then, as a group, refuse to submit to the decisions on doctrine and discipline of the Roman Pontiff, but instead be guided by conservative papal critics, such as himself.

Suppose, as a counter-factual hypothetical, that all the Bishops of the world conduct themselves as Brugger suggests. What would happen? If the Pope does not change his mind, and behave as his critics direct him, what would Brugger have the Bishops do? Essentially, he wishes that the Bishops would ignore the current Roman Pontiff, and be guided by the interpretation of past magisterial teachings found in the writings of conservative papal critics. If he were to get what he asks for, the result would be a large number of Bishops refusing to submit to the authority of the Roman Pontiff, thereby committing schism. This would not improve the situation, but make it much worse. He is essentially suggesting that the Church be guided, not by the successor of Peter, but by a group of rebellious Bishops, who follow the decisions on doctrine and discipline of the conservative Catholic subculture.

Of course, this cannot happen. The Roman Pontiff is indefectible: he can never teach material heresy, nor commit apostasy, heresy, or schism (just as I have already explained at length in past posts and in my book, In Defense of Pope Francis). In addition, the body of Bishops (only as a body) is indefectible. They can never rebel against the Pope, as a body. They, too, are protected by the prevenient grace of God from teaching material heresy, and from committing apostasy, heresy, or schism. So the body of Bishops will not rebel against the Roman Pontiff. The prevenient grace of God prevents them from doing as Brugger suggests. But a number of individual Bishops might do so; that is entirely possible.

E. Christian Brugger is fighting against the grace of God. He is not only suggesting a rebellion by all the Bishops of the world against the Bishop of Rome, he is also himself rebelling. His Open Appeal is an act of formal schism. In fact, Brugger tells all the Bishops of the world that they should contact him, so that he can give them “talking points, diocesan guidelines,” etc. He is proposing that the Bishops be guided by himself, rather than by the Roman Pontiff.

But the one and only Church is one body, with only one head (not two heads like a monster). The head of the Church is the Roman Pontiff, currently Pope Francis. The Church does not have a second head, E. Christian Brugger, who would direct the Bishops to oppose or undermine the other head, or who would teach them truth whenever the other head goes astray.

Humanae Vitae

Brugger worries that this “new paradigm” will be applied to Humanae Vitae. But a new conservative paradigm has already been applied to Humanae Vitae, just as Brugger previously noted. Conservatives have radically reinterpreted Humanae Vitae to apply only within marriage. So it is hypocritical when other papal critics fight against a liberal reinterpretation of Humanae Vitae. They have already reinterpreted Humanae Vitae, contrary to magisterial teaching. They simply prefer the conservative reinterpretation to the actual teaching of the successive Roman Pontiffs.

Errors in the New Paradigm

There are some Cardinals and Bishops, a minority certainly, who are misapplying the teachings of the Roman Pontiff. For example, the suggestion to bless same-sex unions was never proposed by the Pope, but it is falsely claimed to be an application of Amoris Laetitia. If Brugger were simply arguing against this type of misapplication, he would not be in error. But this disordered process — misinterpreting or misapplying papal teachings — predates the papacy. Sacred Scripture has been misinterpreted and misapplied from its inception. This is a perennial problem, not one unique to liberal Pontiffs, nor unique to Pope Francis. We cannot blame the Pope for this problem, just as we cannot blame the Holy Spirit, the true author of the Bible, for its misinterpretations.

Why doesn’t Brugger write an open letter to the minority of Cardinals and Bishops who are misapplying Amoris Laetitia? Better yet, why doesn’t he do his job, and write moral theology which corrects particular errors, by conservatives as well as liberals, in the area of ethics? It is not the role of any theologian to direct the Bishops in rebellion against the Roman Pontiff. But I notice that conservative theologians rarely ever correct other conservatives. Brugger knows well that some conservatives are promoting a misinterpretation of Humanae Vitae, which narrows the sin of contraception to within marriage. This error does grave harm, of the same type as the new paradigm.

Brugger writes: “For if the “new paradigm” is officially applied to contraceptive acts, all the norms of Catholic sexual morality will fall like dominos. Great evil will occur. And many souls will be lost.”

Yes, but the conservative new paradigm is already doing the harm he describes. Instead of correcting his fellow theologians, he tries to convince the Bishops to correct the Pope and to ignore the Pope’s decisions. All the while, conservatives are harming souls by claiming that unnatural sexual acts in marriage are moral. They are harming souls by justifying contraception outside marriage. They are killing the unborn by justifying abortifacient contraception for a medical purpose. They are harming good morals by justifying intrinsically evil acts, such as lying, contraception, sterilization, etc. All this harm is being done by fellow conservative moral theologians, persons among the peers of Brugger. Yet he declines to correct them.

It is not the job of a moral theologian to correct the Pope, much less to direct the Bishops worldwide, as if he himself were Pope. It is his job, however, to correct other theologians, who are causing the very same type of harm he attributes to a new paradigm. E. Christian Brugger should do his job, and stop trying to do the job of the Pope.


A great conservative Schism is now unfolding. It is strange to watch it happen in real time. I’ve read about past heresies and schisms in the Church. Those descriptions do not do justice to the real thing. What is most startling is the number of Catholics who seem to be faithful, insightful, orthodox, intelligent, well-meaning, who nevertheless fall headlong into schism out of pride. For no theological argument and no papal teaching seems better to them than their own shiny ideas. Their own thinking is exalted above pure and simple faith in the Magisterium.

Brugger is not one of these scurrilous authors whose life’s work seems to be the promotion of grave sins and the undermining of magisterial teaching. But his Open Appeal is undeniably an act of extreme pride. He has good credentials, and has done good work in moral theology. But as he himself points out, the proportionalists whom Pope Saint John Paul II rebukes in Veritatis Splendor also had good credentials:

“This was in the heyday of proportionalism, when its founding fathers still held some of the world’s most influential chairs of Catholic moral theology: Richard McCormick at the University of Notre Dame, Josef Fuchs at the Gregorian University in Rome, Louis Janssens at the University of Louvain, and Bernard Häring (emeritus) at the Alphonsianum in Rome.”

No set of credentials, or set of theologians each with an impressive CV, can combine to override the authority of the Roman Pontiff. When he opens, no one can close. When he closes, no one can open. What he binds on earth is bound even in Heaven, and what he loosens on earth is loosened even in Heaven. So when the Roman Pontiff decides to give Communion to the divorced and remarried, they may licitly receive Communion.

As a final note, I should point out that everyone guilty of formal schism suffers the penalty of automatic excommunication. So these papal critics, who publicly rebel against the Roman Pontiff, because he permits Communion to the divorced and remarried, may not themselves receive Communion. For they are guilty of the objective mortal sin of public schism and, according to their own interpretation of Canon Law and Church teaching, anyone who commits objective mortal sin and is unrepentant cannot receive Communion, even though they may have a sincere but mistaken conscience. And Canon Law specifically denies Communion to schismatics.

By calling the Bishops to oppose, undermine, and contradict the Pope, Brugger is guilty of public schism, of the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff. He might claim to have this submission. But calling on “all Catholic bishops — East and West” to rebuke the Pope, to establish rules in their diocese in contradiction to his decisions, to join with like-minded Bishops to oppose the Roman Pontiff as a group, these are all schismatic acts. By promoting schismatic acts by the Bishops against the Pope, Brugger becomes guilty of the same sin. He also sins by pride, in thinking himself fit to direct all the Bishops of the world and in proposing that the Bishops turn to him for guidance, instead of to the Vicar of Christ.

Unam Sanctam: “Moreover, that every human creature is to be subject to the Roman pontiff, we declare, we state, we define, and we pronounce to be entirely from the necessity of salvation.” This teaching was confirmed by the Fifth Lateran Council, and so it is infallible.

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

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5 Responses to Reply to E. Christian Brugger’s Open Appeal

  1. turnrod says:

    Has the Pope directed all Bishops to permit communion for those living in public objective adultry? Or is this decision to be made by the local bishop (i.e., Is this new discipline still an open question?). If this is to be the new discipline throughout the Universal Church then why has the Pope not publicly excommunicated those bishops who refuse to implement this new discipline? Does criticism of the decisions of the Pope always equate with rejection of papal authority?

    • Ron Conte says:

      The Pope did not make a new law in Canon law, nor issue a directive to the Bishops. A Bishop is a successor to the Apostles, so he has some ground to stand on, to disagree with the Pope. But the Bishops cannot get together as a group and plot how to resist, undermine, and contradict the will of the Pope, as Brugger wishes they would do. Criticism does not mean rejection of authority. But is Brugger merely criticizing or disagreeing? No. He is directing all the Bishops, almost as if he were Pope. He is telling them to undermine and contradict papal authority.

      We are not talking about simple disagreement. In the Filial Correction, we have individual theologians, authors, Catholic journalists, and lay persons with no particular expertise judging the Pope, attributing bad motives to him, and deciding they will not submit to his authority. The faithful can disagree, but we still have to submit to the Pope’s authority.

  2. Guest says:

    It’s like I’m taking crazy pills. Wherever I go online among these orthodox “defenders of dogma”, none of them seem to believe in the dogma of the indefectibility of the Church and what it implies. They think that they can be true Catholics while basically refusing to submit to the hierarchy, especially the pope. What exactly distinguishes them from Protestant “reformers”?

  3. Mark P. says:

    I think the centrality of the Eucharist is paramount to understanding both the Holy Father’s and his critics’ position. While his critics, to really simplify things, see certain divorced and remarried partaking in the Eucharist as an affront to the sacrament, Pope Francis has faith in its power to heal and convert. So, in a way, it is almost as if the critics doubt the power of the Eucharist; but on the same token, I can see how they are trying to protect its sacredness. But, ultimately, it is the Holy Father’s decision. And I think that is why he has done recent catechesis on the Eucharist.

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