A Canon Lawyer errs gravely on the Open Letter

At the Catholic Herald, Dr. Ed Peters comments on the Open Letter accusing Pope Francis of heresy: The heresy letter is intelligent, but doesn’t quite convince. His comments are unintelligent and heretical.

1. First, Peters misunderstands heresy.

Peters: “It is generally recognised, subject to important qualifications, that a pope can commit material, formal or obstinate heresy”.

Material heresy is an accusation against an idea: this idea contradicts a dogmatic teaching of the Magisterium; the idea is opposed to a divinely-revealed truth, found in Tradition or Scripture AND taught infallibly by the Magisterium. No one “commits” material heresy.

If a person adheres to material heresy, or teaches material heresy, as Dr. Peters has repeatedly done, they are not guilty of sin, UNLESS there is culpability due to some additional factors, such as doing so knowingly and deliberately (formal heresy) or doing to with gross negligence (a grave sin, but not formal heresy).

So formal heresy is adhering to or teaching material heresy. If you believe or teach an idea that is material heresy, and you do so knowing that the Church infallibly teaches the contrary, you commit formal heresy. Formal heresy is always obstinate. So there is no third type of heresy, as Peters seems to think, called “obstinate heresy”.

Now a person is guilty of formal heresy even if he thinks the Church is wrong, even if he argues that the teaching is not infallible. It is necessary that the teaching in fact be an infallible teaching of the Magisterium; it is not necessary that the heretic admit that he is contradicting an infallible teaching — something that rarely if ever happens. Heretics always think that they are right, but that does not absolve them of formal heresy. They know what the Magisterium teaches, and they have enough information to determine that the teaching is infallible.

So Dr. Peters misunderstands heresy. And the article only gets worse from there on.

2. Second, Peters teaches material heresy. It is DOGMA that no Pope can teach or commit material heresy. Peters claims that a Pope can commit material or formal heresy, so he is contradicting a dogma. All the signatories of the Open Letter are also guilty of teaching material heresy.

See the proof here that Popes cannot teach or commit heresy.

3. Third, Peters misrepresents Canon 1404: “The First See is judged by no one.”

Peters states: “a pope cannot be put on trial (c 1404).” That is an obscene narrowing and misrepresentation of the ancient TEACHING and LAW.

So, Dr. Peters, can a See be put on trial? Has that ever happened? No? Then the correct interpretation is NOT merely that the Pope cannot be put on trial. It says “The First See” meaning the Apostolic See: The Pope and the Curia. The CDF and other dicasteries cannot be judged by anyone but the Pope, and the Pope cannot be judged by anyone but God. It says “judged” not “put on trial”.

So not only can a Pope NOT be put on trial, he also cannot BE JUDGED by anyone, not by a canon lawyer, not by a handful of Cardinals, not by a bizarre assortment of alleged scholars, not by an Ecumenical Council (per Vatican I).

The signatories of the Open Letter have judged the Pope to be guilty of formal heresy. They have thereby violated Canon 1404 to a severe extent. And Dr. Peters — unfaithful heretical schismatic and unintelligent as he is — fails to do his job and point out that they have violated Canon Law. Not that every canon lawyer has to speak out publicly. But if you happen to choose to speak publicly on such an important and clear violation of Canon law, a violation which gravely harms the Church, you have a moral obligation to tell the faithful that the signatories did in fact plainly publicly violate that law — which is also an ancient teaching:

Pope St. Leo IX: “By passing a preceding judgment on the great See, concerning which it is not permitted any man to pass judgment, you have received anathema from all the Fathers of all the venerable Councils….”

“As the hinge while remaining immovable opens and closes the door, so Peter and his successors have free judgment over all the Church, since no one should remove their status because ‘the highest See is judged by no one.’ ” [In Terra Pax Hominibus; Denzinger 351-353.]

Vatican I: “The sentence of the Apostolic See (than which there is no higher authority) is not subject to revision by anyone, nor may anyone lawfully pass judgment thereupon.”

4. Fourth, Peters justifies the schismatic and heretical act of the signatories against the Roman Pontiff by misinterpretation of Canon law:

“The right of the letter’s signatories to publish their contentious opinions is protected by Canon 212 § 3”

Here’s the text of that canon: “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.”

1. Many of the signatories LACK even the pretense of knowledge and competence to judge even a Bishop.
2. And the right and duty referenced is making known one’s “opinion” — not publicly accusing the Roman Pontiff of heresy. That is not an opinion, it is an accusation and a judgment of guilt.
3. The Open Letter, harms faith and morals by undermining the authority and faith that the faithful should have in the Vicar of Christ — who has from the grace of God immunity from error and a never-failing faith.
4. And the harm done is immense. There is no advantage to the common good.
5. Finally, NO ONE has the competency to judge the Roman Pontiff.

So citing Canon 212 as an excuse for accusing the Roman Pontiff of heresy is absurd.

5. Peters then begins to redeem himself by correctly citing “the principle of benignity”.

“For many centuries canon law has expressly demanded that “in penal matters the more benign interpretation must be followed” (Regula Iuris 49), meaning, in brief, that the benefit of the doubt is to be accorded the accused in a criminal case. This interpretive principle goes beyond canon law: it is fundamental to the Western legal tradition.”

This principle is at work in expressions such as: “first of all, do no harm” and “treat others and you would have them treat you”. If a Pope’s words can be interpreted as orthodox or as error, the most charitable interpretation must prevail. This is a matter of love of neighbor. It is also a matter of faith, since the Pope represents Christ and has the help of the Holy Spirit in the work of his office and in his personal faith.

It just astounds me when Pope Francis’ words have a faithful orthodox interpretation, and his critics adamantly reject it. In fact, his critics often make assertions about his interior state, his motivations and plans, as if he were deliberately trying to undermine the Faith and the Church. Some of them really believe that Pope Francis is an evil person who has decided to teach what he knows to be error. But I see no evidence of that in his words or deeds, quite the contrary.

But then he misapplies the principle to protect the signatories, when their words are openly schismatic and grossly harmful to the Church:

“Ironically, the principle of benignity also protects the signatories: there is talk of their being sanctioned, but I would reject that. “

The signatories are automatically excommunicated for public formal schism. Pope Francis, being a liberal Pope, will probably not sanction them. But when he resigns and is replaced by a conservative Pope, it is HIGHLY LIKELY that the conservative Pope will declare all signatories to be excommunicated. But regardless, a latae sententiae excommunication certainly applies under Canon law. The signatories, in accusing Pope Francis of FORMAL heresy are necessarily refusing submission to his authority.

As Taylor Marshall, another papal accuser, said: “But if you’re saying that he’s a heretic, which they say in this opening line, ‘an heretical Pope,’ my ecclesiastical sense says, you also have to say: ‘And therefore I am not in communion with him.’ ” [Video]

You cannot claim to have submission (not “communion”, Taylor) with the Roman Pontiff if you are accusing him of formal heresy. And the penalty for schism is automatic excommunication.

6. Finally, the hypocrisy.

Peters, a Canon lawyer, gives himself the role to judge whether or not the Pope has taught or committed heresy, violating Canon law (1404).

Peters criticizes the Pope, even though Dr. Peters is notorious for reacting very badly to criticism himself. He doesn’t mind too much if a group of scholars accuses the Pope of heresy, but he gets very much upset if he himself is accused of any fault. (He had a prominent blow-up when Stephen Walford criticized him. He reacts very badly to my criticisms as well.)

And he’s a Canon lawyer badly misrepresenting Canon law, and asserting the heresy that Popes can teach or commit heresy.

7. Magisterial Teaching and Law:

Vatican I: “This gift of truth and never-failing faith was therefore divinely conferred on Peter and his successors in this See so that they might discharge their exalted office for the salvation of all, and so that the whole flock of Christ might be kept away by them from the poisonous food of error and be nourished with the sustenance of heavenly doctrine.”

Pope Saint Leo IX: “By the See of the Chief of the Apostles, namely by the Roman Church, through the same Peter, as well as through his successors, have not the comments of all the heretics been disapproved, rejected, and overcome, and the hearts of the brethren in the faith of Peter — which so far neither has failed, nor up to the end will fail — been strengthened?” [In Terra Pax Hominibus, September 2, 1053; Denz. 351.]

Pope Pius XI: “Upon this Magisterium, Christ the Lord conferred immunity from error, together with the command to teach His doctrine to all….” [Divini illius magistri, December 31, 1929; Denz. 2204.]

Pope Saint Agatho: “For Peter himself received from the Redeemer of all, by three commendations, the duty of feeding the spiritual sheep of the Church. Under his protecting shield, this Apostolic Church of his has never turned away from the path of truth in any direction of error.”

“And his authority, as that of the Prince of all the Apostles, the whole Catholic Church and the Ecumenical Synods have faithfully embraced and followed in all things.”

“but from the beginning she has received the Christian faith from her founders, the princes of the Apostles of Christ, and remains undefiled unto the end….”

“…the evangelical and apostolic uprightness of the orthodox faith, which has been established upon the firm rock of this Church of blessed Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, which by his grace and guardianship remains free from all error….” [Letter to the Sixth Ecumenical Council]

Pope St. Nicholas I: “If anyone condemns dogmas, mandates, interdicts, sanctions, or decrees, promulgated by the one presiding in the Apostolic See, for the Catholic faith, for the correction of the faithful, for the emendation of criminals, either by an interdict of threatening or of future ills, let him be anathema.” [Roman Council 860 and 863; Denzinger 326]

First Vatican Council: “Since the Roman Pontiff, by the divine right of the apostolic primacy, governs the whole Church, we likewise teach and declare that he is the supreme judge of the faithful, and that in all cases which fall under ecclesiastical jurisdiction recourse may be had to his judgment. The sentence of the Apostolic See (than which there is no higher authority) is not subject to revision by anyone, nor may anyone lawfully pass judgment thereupon. And so they stray from the genuine path of truth who maintain that it is lawful to appeal from the judgments of the Roman pontiffs to an Ecumenical Council as if this were an authority superior to the Roman Pontiff.”

Canon Law 1404: “The First See is judged by no one”

Pope St. Leo IX: “By passing a preceding judgment on the great See, concerning which it is not permitted any man to pass judgment, you have received anathema from all the Fathers of all the venerable Councils….”

“As the hinge while remaining immovable opens and closes the door, so Peter and his successors have free judgment over all the Church, since no one should remove their status because ‘the highest See is judged by no one.’ ” [In Terra Pax Hominibus; Denzinger 351-353.]

Canon 751: “Heresy is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.”

Canon 1364, n. 1: “an apostate from the faith, a heretic, or a schismatic incurs a latae sententiae excommunication”

Can. 915 “Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.”

Canon Law 1373: “A person who publicly incites among subjects animosities or hatred against the Apostolic See or an ordinary because of some act of power or ecclesiastical ministry or provokes subjects to disobey them is to be punished by an interdict or other just penalties.”

Unam Sanctam, the Papal Bull of Pope Boniface VIII, confirmed by the Fifth Lateran Council:

“7. Therefore, if the earthly power goes astray, it will be judged by the spiritual power; but if a lesser spiritual power goes astray, [it will be judged] by its superior; and truly, if the highest [power] goes astray, it will not be able to be judged by man, but by God alone. And so the Apostle testifies, ‘The spiritual man judges all things, but he himself is judged by no one.’ [1 Corinthians 2:15]”

“8. But 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]”

“9. 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.”

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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4 Responses to A Canon Lawyer errs gravely on the Open Letter

  1. Sunimal Fernando says:

    Your prediction on May 13th and
    2. Enemies will occupy the Vatican and the men and women of faith will drink the bitter cup of pain. – 4797 of Pedro Regis on above site
    3. Behavior of Iran and Russia

  2. Shane Hogan says:

    Thank you Ron. Your presentation here is thorough, profound, charitable, inspiring. This is usual for your work. I wish that all the signatories and Mr. Peters could read it in humility. I pray with you for the unity Our Lord desires, within His Church, under His Pontiff. Thank you.
    On a different point, I have given some time to studying your teachings re Church Militant. I hear you, and have stopped receiving their work, and won’t connect with them again until they express unequivocal support, love and submission to our Holy Father. Shane

    • Ron Conte says:

      Thanks, Shane. It is so important to make people understand that submission to the Holy Father is required of all Catholics, and no one has the role to stand in judgment over him, nor over the Magisterium.

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