Fr. Z. and the Heresy of Reception Theory

Father John Zuhlsdorf, who styles himself “Fr. Z.”, has repeatedly promoted a version of “reception theory” which is heretical and schismatic. He uses reception theory as a way to fend off the supreme authority of the Roman Pontiff and the Church over matters of discipline. The central point of his version of RT is the claim that any Church law or discipline, which is not universally received, is not a valid law and need not be obeyed. Such a claim have never been the teachings of the Church. Fr. Z. has repeatedly promoted this view.

Here is my previous article on Cardinal Brandmuller and reception theory. And I previously replied to what Fr. Z. claims here. In this post, I will respond to Fr. Z. and will summarize why reception theory is heretical and schismatic.

Here is what Fr. Zuhlsdorf claims:

Fr. Z.: “Reception theory states that a law, in order to be a law, a binding law, must be received by the community for which it is intended. If they community does not receive it, that is, they reject it outright or it fails to have any effect on how they live, the presumed law is non-binding and is really no law at all.” [Source]

Fr. Z.: “The Modern Roman Rite, the Novus Ordo, was clearly not received with universal acceptance.” [Ibid.]

Fr. Z.: “My prediction is that Traditionis custodes is not going to be received in the long run. It will prove to be no law at all.” [Ibid.]

Fr. Z.: “The nutshell is that when people simply ignore a law, it is no law at all. That applies to matters of discipline, rather than moral precepts deriving from divine law and matters of faith that are defined, etc.” [Source]

If the Novus Ordo Mass was not universally accepted, all the more so has the traditional Latin Mass, in its present form (from 1962), not been universally accepted. Then much of what traditionalist hold is also not universal, but limited to their community. Reception theory, applied to Fr. Z. and his fellow traditionalists, would nullify any discipline or laws that otherwise might support them. Fr. Z. is sawing the tree limb upon which he sits.

The claim that Traditionis Custodes can be considered no law at all because it is not going to be received “in the long run” extends reception theory to an even more absurd extent. For by these words Fr. Z. implies that a law can be considered no law at all when it is anticipated that it will not be universally accepted in the future. This permits the nullification of any law at all, based on such a claim about the future. Thus, even a universally accepted law might be said to lack reception in the long run, providing basis for rejection of any discipline or law at all. This utterly destroys the authority over discipline given by Christ to His Church, which is thoroughly schismatic and heretical.

Now consider that the Old Testament disciplines were instituted by God, through Moses. None of these disciplines, despite the stiff-necked resistance of some, even many, in the early Israelites was ever considered null and void, or “no law at all” because it was “not received with universal acceptance”.

Jesus to Peter: “And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound, even in heaven. And whatever you shall release on earth shall be released, even in heaven.” (Mt 16:19)

Reception theory is entirely incompatible with, and directly contrary to, the words and teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ and the constant teaching of the Church since Her earliest days. Nothing in the teaching of Jesus supports the nullification of a law issued by proper authority in the Church, especially from Peter and his successors, by the absence of universal acceptance. It is sufficient to quote Mt 16:19 to prove that reception theory is heresy. What Jesus taught on the supreme power of the Roman Pontiff to bind and loose would not be true if reception theory is true. It is a matter of choosing between the clear definitive teaching of Christ or the teaching of certain dissenters who oppose the Roman Pontiff.

“And Jesus, drawing near, spoke to them, saying: ‘All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth.’ ”
(Mt 28:18).

And that authority has been given to the Church, first and foremost to Peter and his successors, and then to the body of Bishops led by the Pope. The claim that any community can reject a law of the Church, which Church and law both have divine authority, for no particular reason, and thereby nullify that authority is heresy. For it contradicts the teaching of Christ, which can never err.

Then the teaching of the Church throughout the centuries on the supreme power of the Roman Pontiff is dogma, and the contrary, including reception theory, is heresy. The Roman Pontiff has supreme authority, and there is no appeal from his decisions. If reception theory were true, the Pope would not have supreme authority over discipline, and any decision of discipline or any Church law could be, in a sense, appealed by recourse to a community within the Church which decides, without authority or theological argument, to ignore or reject that discipline or law. Since reception theory is contrary to the dogmas of the supreme authority of the Pope and the absence of appeal from his decisions, reception theory is heresy.

Reception theory is also schismatic, since it proposes that disciplines and laws established and promulgated by the Roman Pontiff can be ignored and supposedly nullified merely by the arbitrary decision of a group of Catholics to refuse reception of the discipline or law. But the faithful are required to submit to the authority of the Roman Pontiffs and the Ecumenical Councils and the body of Bishops over both doctrine and discipline. Refusal of submission to the disciplines and laws of the Church, far from nullifying these, is the sin of formal schism. Reception theory nullifies the authority of the Church over everything except doctrine. And this breaks the unity of the Church which is established by having one visible head, who represents Christ. Then, too, the authority of the Pope over discipline is of Christ, and is no mere human authority.

Even the secular authorities of the world reject such a theory. For if a law is passed, and any group of citizens, large or small, ignores or rejects that law, they are punished under the law. No ruler or government permits those subject to the law to nullify it by their decision. Reception theory claims that a law is no law if it is rejected. But, in fact, if reception theory were correct, then no law is a law, for any law could be rejected or nullified. And that is contrary to the nature of law.

Such a proposal breaks the unity of the Church and the supreme power of the Roman Pontiff over the faithful. For if “universal acceptance” were necessary for a law to be binding, then any religious order, any subculture (such as traditionalists), any diocese or set of dioceses in a region, and any set of Catholics whatsoever could nullify a law by ignoring or rejecting it. Peter has two keys, the one over doctrine and the other over discipline. But reception theory deprives the Roman Pontiffs and the body of Bishops (and even particular religious houses within an order) of that second key over discipline.

It is also disturbing that the theory does not require those who refuse acceptance of a discipline or Church law to have a reason or theological argument. Neither does it propose that they might appeal to the Apostolic See or the Roman Pontiff, when rejecting a discipline or law by lesser authority in the Church. It simply claims that the faithful have a right and ability to nullify any discipline or law of proper Church authority by baseless rejection of the same. When did Christ or His Church teach such a claim? Never.

This rebellion by the supporters of reception theory is like the rebellion of the sons of Korah (Numbers 16 to 18). They refused to accept the authority of Moses and Aaron, along with the special role of the Levites. “And when they had stood against Moses and Aaron, they said: ‘Let it be sufficient for you that the entire multitude is of holy ones, and that the Lord is among them. Why do you elevate yourselves above the people of the Lord?’ ” (Num 16:3). But God rejected the sons of Korah by having the earth swallow them.

A person who breaks a law is guilty under that law. But it would be contrary to reason to claim that, if enough persons break the law, the law itself is nullified by their guilt. No matter how many lawbreakers there are, they do not nullify a law by their guilt under the law.

The dogmas of the supreme authority of the Roman Pontiff and the absence of appeal from his decisions, including decisions on discipline, have been taught by the Church constantly from ancient times. These teachings are infallible under the ordinary universal Magisterium. For many examples of teachings establishing these dogmas, see this source. A few examples follow (the citations for each quote are in the aforementioned source).

Pope Saint Clement I, 88-97: “If any disobey what He [Jesus Christ] says through Us, let them know that they will be involved in no small offence and danger; but We shall be innocent of this sin.”

Saint Irenaeus, Doctor: “For to this [Roman] Church, because of Her mightier rule, every Church must agree, that is, those who are faithful from all sides, in which the tradition from the apostles is kept by those who are from all sides.”

Saint Cyprian, Bishop: “They cannot remain with God who will not be of one mind in the Church of God.”

Pope Saint Julius I, writing to the Eastern Bishops: “Do you not know that this is the custom, that first you must write to us, and that here what is just shall be decreed.”

Pope Saint Julius I: “It is not right to make laws for the Churches, apart from the knowledge of the Bishop of Rome.”

Saint Jerome, Doctor, quoted by Pope Benedict XVI: “This is what Jerome wrote: ‘I decided to consult the Chair of Peter, where that faith is found exalted by the lips of an Apostle; I now come to ask for nourishment for my soul there, where once I received the garment of Christ. I follow no leader save Christ, so I enter into communion with your beatitude, that is, with the Chair of Peter, for this I know is the rock upon which the Church is built’ (cf. Le lettere I, 15, 1-2).”

Saint Basil, Doctor, bishop of Caesarea, 370-379, writing in 371 to Pope Saint Damasus I: “Our only hope is in a visitation from Your Clemency. Send us men who share our faith. They will settle quarrels; they will bring union to the Churches of God; at least they will make known to you the authors of the troubles, so that you will know whom to admit to your communion.”

~ Clearly, Jerome and Basil are not limiting their teaching to doctrine. Basil speaks of “quarrels” being settled by the Roman Pontiff. And no one is admitted to communion with the Holy See who rejects discipline and only accepts doctrine. Then Julius gives authority over laws in the Church to the supreme authority of the Pope.

Pope Saint Damasus I, the Roman Synod of 378, to the emperors Gratian and Valentinian II: “Certain bishops, unworthy pastors, have carried their insolence and contempt to the point of refusing obedience to the Bishop of Rome. If the accused is himself a Metropolitan, he will be ordered to go at once to Rome, or in any case to appear before the judges whom the Bishop of Rome shall appoint.”

~ Pope Damasus is speaking of “refusing obedience” and not of refusing faith in doctrines. But all who disobey are subject to judgment and punishment by the Church, regardless of their number.

Pope Saint Innocent I, in 417, praised the local Council of Carthage for having “kept and confirmed the example of ancient discipline.” He states: “You have referred to our judgment, knowing what is due to the Apostolic See, from which the Episcopate itself and all authority of this Name has come…. You know that nothing, even in the most distant provinces, is to be settled until it comes to the knowledge of this See; so that the decision be established by the whole authority of this See.”

~ Pope Saint Innocent states that the authority of the Apostolic See is over discipline, not only doctrine. And this authority settles all matters of discipline, without regard to the number of those who disagree.

Saint Augustine: “Roma locuta est; causa finita est [Rome has spoken; the case is closed].”

Saint Augustine: the Roman Church, “in which the ruling authority of the Apostolic See has always held firm.”

Pope Saint Zosimus, 417-418: “the tradition of the Fathers attributed so much authority to the Apostolic See that no one dared to challenge its judgment and has always preserved it through canons and regulations … such great authority belongs to Us that no one could argue again with Our decision….”

Pope Saint Boniface I, 418-422: “No one has ever boldly raised his hands against the Apostolic Eminence, from whose judgment it is not permissible to dissent; no one has rebelled against this, who did not wish judgment to be passed upon him.”

Pope Saint Boniface I: “there is to be no review of our judgment. In fact, it has never been licit to deliberate again on that which has once been decided by the Apostolic See.”

Pope Saint Celestine I, 422-432: “The sanctions of the blessed and Apostolic See may not be violated.”

Lateran Council of 649 (not Ecumenical): “If anyone does not, following the holy Fathers, confess properly and truly, in word and mind, to the last point, all that has been handed down and proclaimed to the holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of God by the holy Fathers and by the five venerable ecumenical councils, let him be condemned.”

Pope Saint Vitalian, Letter to Paul, archbishop of Crete (669): “What things we command thee and thy Synod according to God and for the Lord, study at once to fulfil, lest we be compelled to bear ourselves not in mercy but according to the power of the sacred canons, for it is written: The Lord said, ‘Peter, I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not, and thou being once converted, confirm thy brethren.’ [Lk 22:32] And again: ‘Whatsoever thou, Peter, shalt bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven, and whatever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’ [Mt 16:18]”

Pope Saint Nicholas I (the great), 858-867: “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.”

Pope Saint Nicholas I, Letter to the Emperor: “Furthermore, if you do not listen to Us, it necessarily follows that for Us you are to be considered, as our Lord Jesus Christ commands, as those who refuse to listen to the Church of God….”

Pope Saint Nicholas I: “Since, according to the canons, where there is a greater authority, the judgment of the inferiors must be brought to it to be annulled or to be substantiated, certainly it is evident that the judgment of the Apostolic See, of whose authority there is none greater, is to be refused by no one….”

Pope Innocent III: “To him [Peter] the Lord committed his sheep to be shepherded by a thrice-repeated word, so that anyone who wishes not to have him as his shepherd, even in his successors, should be deemed an alien to the Lord’s flock.”

Saint Thomas Aquinas: “For it is revealed that to be subject to the Roman Pontiff is from the necessity of salvation” This required subjection to the Pope was taught by Boniface VIII in Unam Sanctam and confirmed infallibly by Lateran V.

And there are many more such teachings gathered and quoted here.

Finally, Pope Leo XIII in Satis Cognitum 15 states that the Roman Pontiff has authority even over Ecumenical Councils (and other Councils). So even if the body of Bishops gathered in a Council chooses one discipline or law, the sole decision of the Roman Pontiff can establish a different discipline or law. Thus, the number of persons who oppose or support a discipline or law is irrelevant to the supreme authority of the Pope:

Pope Leo XIII: “The reason for which is stated thus: ‘there is no authority greater than that of the Apostolic See’ (Nicholaus in Epist. lxxxvi. ad Michael. Imperat.) [Pope Saint Nicholas I in Letters 86 to emperor Michael] wherefore [Pope Saint] Gelasius on the decrees of Councils says: ‘That which the First See has not approved of cannot stand; but what it has thought well to decree has been received by the whole Church’ (Epist. xxvi., ad Episcopos Dardaniae, n. 5) [Letters 26, to the Bishops of Dardania]. It has ever been unquestionably the office of the Roman Pontiffs to ratify or to reject the decrees of Councils. [Pope Saint] Leo the great [I] rescinded the acts of the Conciliabulum of Ephesus [the so-called robber council of Ephesus in 449; not the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431]. [Pope Saint] Damasus [I] rejected those of Rimini [Council of Ariminum], and [Pope] Adrian I, those of Constantinople [Council of Constantinople (692), also called Trullo or Quinisext Council; Council of Constantinople (754), also called the Council of Hieria]. The 28th Canon of the Council of Chalcedon, by the very fact that it lacks the assent and approval of the Apostolic See, is admitted by all to be worthless.”

Notice that the teaching of the Church on reception of laws is the reverse of reception theory. Instead of a law being nullified by absence of reception, whatever the First See “has thought well to decree” must be received by the whole Church. For the Roman Pontiff establishes disciplines and laws with the authority of Christ. Whoever claims that discipline or law can be nullified by refusal of reception makes that claim against the authority of God in Christ Jesus.

Fr. Z. appeals to an article called “The Canonical Doctrine of Reception” by James A. Coriden. The article is featured on a website of “the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church (ARCC)”. That group is heretical and schismatic; they claim that the Pope should be elected by representatives of the faithful, for a single ten-year term, and that he should be under the authority of a group of representatives, elected by Catholics, as the group explains here. Such claims utterly reject the authority, teachings, and constant practice of the Church from ancient times. Then Coriden himself supports a position on divorce and remarriage which has been utterly rejected by Fr. Z., similar to Amoris Laetitia.

Coriden’s article cites many authors who supposedly supported reception theory, but the quotes from those authors often say something quite different from the position of Coriden and Fr. Z. And none of those persons quoted by Coriden are Saints or Popes. The claim that reception theory has some support in Saint Augustine is baseless, and no quotation or citation is given. But if Augustine had proposed such a radical idea, it would be well known (just as the error of Aquinas on the Immaculate Conception is well known).

Corden tries to find support for this heresy in Canon law, but nothing he cites actually supports his claim. He simply radically reinterprets Church law to support his claim that laws can be nullified by refusal of reception. For example, he claims that the requirement that a ratified marriage be nullified, for the fullness of the Sacrament, is like the supposed requirement that a law be received to be valid. That is a mere analogy, and a poor one at that.

To the contrary, Canon Law itself plainly excludes reception theory:

“Can. 331 The bishop of the Roman Church, in whom continues the office given by the Lord uniquely to Peter, the first of the Apostles, and to be transmitted to his successors, is the head of the college of bishops, the Vicar of Christ, and the pastor of the universal Church on earth. By virtue of his office he possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely.”

If the authority of the Roman Pontiff could be nullified in discipline or law by refusal of reception, then the Pope would not have supreme or full or universal power in the Church. And he would not always be able to exercise it freely, but only when his decisions are universally accepted.

It is also vague and undefined as to when a law falls short of universal acceptance. This would make all Church laws and disciplines subject to doubt as to their validity, if reception theory were true.

“Can. 333 §1. By virtue of his office, the Roman Pontiff not only possesses power over the universal Church but also obtains the primacy of ordinary power over all particular churches and groups of them. Moreover, this primacy strengthens and protects the proper, ordinary, and immediate power which bishops possess in the particular churches entrusted to their care.

§2. In fulfilling the office of supreme pastor of the Church, the Roman Pontiff is always joined in communion with the other bishops and with the universal Church. He nevertheless has the right, according to the needs of the Church, to determine the manner, whether personal or collegial, of exercising this office.

§3. No appeal or recourse is permitted against a sentence or decree of the Roman Pontiff.”

The authority of the Roman Pontiff over particular churches and groups of churches would not be supreme, if any church or group of churches could nullify a discipline or law simply by ignoring it. Notice also that the Roman Pontiff can issue a law or discipline even without the acceptance of the body of Bishops. He has the right to issue decisions from the Chair of Saint Peter, without the advice or agreement of the Bishops or the faithful.

Then the teaching and law which forbids appeal “or recourse” against a decision of the Pope is absolutely contrary to reception theory. For the latter allows recourse to the community, such that if they reject the “sentence or decree of the Roman Pontiff”, it would be nullified. But the former allows for no appeal or recourse whatsoever.

Even the entire body of Bishops does not have this alleged power, proposed by reception theory, against the authority of the Roman Pontiff:

Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 22: “But the college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter as its head. The pope’s power of primacy over all, both pastors and faithful, remains whole and intact. In virtue of his office, that is as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church. And he is always free to exercise this power. The order of bishops, which succeeds to the college of apostles and gives this apostolic body continued existence, is also the subject of supreme and full power over the universal Church, provided we understand this body together with its head the Roman Pontiff and never without this head. This power can be exercised only with the consent of the Roman Pontiff.”

The version of reception theory proposed by Fr. John Zuhlsdorf and others is heretical and schismatic. It was never the teaching of any Pope, Saint, Doctor, Council and it is contrary to the teaching of Jesus in the Gospel. The claim that Gratian, an early canonist, proposed the theory is irrelevant. He does not seem to have proposed it in the extreme version promoted by Fr. Z. and other papal accusers today. But regardless, the theory is directly contradicted by the ancient and constant teaching of the Church on the authority of the Roman Pontiff.

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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1 Response to Fr. Z. and the Heresy of Reception Theory

  1. Daniel says:

    It’s like what Jesus said; “Behold, the democracy of heaven is at hand.” :)

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