The past week has been full of discussion on the "Open Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church", a remarkable document put forward by a group of nineteen Catholic theologians and academics which—to use a phrase that has become all too familiar—makes "credible accusations" of heresy against Pope Francis and calls upon the bishops of the world to take some sort of action in rectifying the situation. If you have not yet read the "Open Letter", you can do so here.
1. The letter makes a very comprehensive case, drawing not only on particular statements of Pope Francis, but also his responses to the heretical statements of others (for example, the heretical interpretation of Amoris laetitia published by the bishops of Buenos Aires in 2016, to which Pope Francis replied with a letter saying their document "completely explains the meaning" of Amoris laetitia and that "There are no other interpretations", a statement which he then had published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, the official compendium of his acta). The Open Letter also deals with Pope Francis's very troubling clerical appointments. Some Catholic apologists have been quick to point out that things like episcopal appointments or how the pope responds to news are not evidence of heresy, just like remaining passive or silent in response to requests for clear teaching is not heretical either. But I think these critiques miss the point; the Open Letter does not attempt to provide a single "gotcha" piece of evidence that presents and open and shut case for the pope's heresy. Rather, it attempts to show a general trend or broad disposition towards heresy on the part of the pope with several of the most striking examples highlighted as evidence. It is what Joseph Shaw referred to as a "promulgation [of heresy] by drift." And understood in this sense, it is brutally effective. Although I also tend to think that the examples are convincing taken individually as well.
2. Predictably, the Open Letter provoked responses from some who retreated to the tired old neo-Catholic canard that the signatories of the letter "should have gone to the pope directly" before airing their grievances publicly, or "going to their bishops in private first." Dr. Maike Hickson of LifeSite has written a remarkable piece chronicling around 30 times Catholics have reached out to Pope Francis—directly or indirectly—to clarify his teachings prior to the publication of the Open Letter. Her article ("Before Pope Francis was accused of heresy, Catholics reached out to him numerous times", May 9, 2019) is a must-read in order to understand the Open Letter in its historical context as the final recourse after the Dubia, Filial Correction, and many other attempts at communicating with Francis directly bore no fruit. Indeed, the publication of the Open Letter was not some rash screed hastily pumped out by a cadre of die-hard anti-Francis fanatics chomping at the bit for any excuse to attack the pope; rather, it represents the culmination of a long, exhausting series of attempts to reach out to Francis through the proper channels and is really a document of great restraint and patience. I commend the authors for taking this bold step. No Catholic rejoices or feels good about having to call out the pope; their actions must have been born out of deep concern for the Church and the good of souls and they should not be vilified for doing what was withing their canonical right and what their conscience dictated.
3. Christian charity demands that, when assessing the faults of others, we presume the best about them rather than the worst; in other words, we give them "the benefit of the doubt." But to give some one the benefit of the doubt presumes that there is room for doubt—it presumes that there is a certain ambiguity in how we interpret words and actions. And if there is ambiguity, we assume the best. But there is a huge difference between offering the benefit of the doubt and always being able to fabricate a benefit of the doubt. I have written about this before ("Benefit of the Doubt Presumes Doubt", Jan. 2017); in the case of Pope Francis, his litany of troubling statements and actions is so consistent that it is no longer realistic for a reasonable person to doubt the meaning of Francis's words or the intentions behind his initiatives; whether we look at the humorous Pope Francis Little Book of Insults or the more scholarly Denzinger-Bergoglio, the pontiff's thought is clear: he believes traditional Catholicism is a stuffy, hypocritical affair that keeps people from Christ and promotes "triumphalism" and "elitism." Heck, he even thinks standard Novus Ordo Catholicism is too stuffy; to that end, he intends to irreversibly reform global Catholic identity in the likeness of the most derelict Latin American banana-republics. It has gotten to the point where people who deny there is an issue are quite simply burying their heads in the sand.
4. Some bloggers are contending that the evidence is not sufficient to charge the pope with formal heresy, and therefore everything is alright. This is an incredibly simplistic and ridiculous argument. What these people fail to realize is that there is more than one way a teaching can be heretical—and I am not referring to the mere distinction between formal and material heresy. Traditionally, the Church used a gradation of judgments called theological censures. The division between heresy and orthodoxy is not necessarily black and white. There are "grades" of theological error; a statement can be not outright heretical but be simply ambiguous, for example. Or a statement may not be heretical in that it denies a de fide doctrine, but rather that its conclusions could lead to thinking that would be heretical.
Traditionally, heretical propositions are divided into three groups according as they bear principally upon (1) the import (what is said) (2) the expression (how it is said) (3) the consequences (what they lead to). Of import, we have hæretica (heretical), erronea (erroneous), hæresi proxima (next to heresy), errori proxima (next to error), temeratia (rash), etc. A "heretical" proposition is one that immediately and directly denies a de fide teaching. It is "erroneous" when it denies an article of faith that is certain (certa) but not de fide. "Next to heresy" and "next to error" means its opposition to a revealed and defined dogma is not certain, or chiefly when the truth it contradicts, though commonly accepted as revealed, has yet never been the object of a definition (proxima fidei). Something "next to heresy" could be defined as sapiens haeresim (smacking of heresy) or suspecta de hearesi, errorem (suspected of heresy or error). These are propositions which, though true textually, may due to modern currents of thought, be interpreted in a heretical way. I would say a lot of Pope Francis's most questionable statements fall into this latter category.
Next we come to the question of expression, or how the proposition is expressed. Here we can define four censures: ambigua (ambiguous), captiosa (captious), male sonans (evil-sounding), piarum aurium offensiva (offensive to pious ears), etc. A proposition is ambiguous when it is worded so as to present two or more senses, one of which is objectionable; captious when acceptable words are made to express objectionable thoughts; evil-sounding when improper words are used to express otherwise acceptable truths; offensive when verbal expression is such as rightly to shock the Catholic sense and delicacy of faith. Note that, while many pop-Catholic apologists will harp on that it is not heretical to speak ambiguously, the Church traditional theological censures to allow for a statement to be judged heretical based on its ambiguity alone.
Finally, we come to the question of consequences. Here we are dealing with what state of affairs the condemned propositions may lead to: subsannativa religionis (derisive of religion), decolorativa canodris ecclesiæ (defacing the beauty of the Church), subversiva hierarchiæ (subversive of the hierarchy), eversiva regnorum (destructive of governments), scandelosa, perniciosa, periculosa in moribus (scandalous, pernicious, dangerous to morals), blasphema, idolatra, superstisiosa, magica (blasphemous, leading to idolatry, superstition, sorcery), arrogans, acerba (arrogant, harsh), etc. This is not even an exhaustive list of the third group. Pope Francis' teachings relating to Amoris laetitia could be considered periculosa in moribus because, whether or not he has specifically stated as much himself, the fact that others are inferring heretical or immoral consequences from his words is sufficient to cast a heretical judgment upon his statements.
Let's be clear: YES, something can be heretical just based on how it is expressed. YES something merely ambiguous can be heretical. YES a statement can be heretical based on the immoral conclusions other people draw from it, even if the author does not express such intent; YES a statement can not contradict any truth of the faith itself but be considered heretical if following its implications leads to other heresy; YES something can be heretical if it is shocking to the ears of pious Catholics. YES a statement can be condemned because it is merely suspected of heresy. All of these condemnations fall short of a formal charge of heresy (explicitly and contumaciously denying a revealed dogma of the faith) but they are all gradations of heresy.
In other words, even if we were to grant a "benefit of the doubt" that Pope Francis has not promulgated a formal heresy, there are so many other ways his dubious comments could be construed as heretical or approximating to heresy that a censure would still be warranted and the pope's statements could still be considered heretical in ways that are less than formal. But nobody cares about theological censures anymore so this is just over the heads of many people.
5. The Open Letter, while accusing the pope of heresy, does not go so far as to assert that the pope ipso facto loses his office because of it. Rather, it calls upon the bishops of the Church to take action "to remedy the situation" by abjuring Pope Francis to make a public repudiation of these heresies and insist he suffer the canonical penalties proper to heresy if he does not. Although the Open Letter does not say it explicitly, it is evident that this means the loss of the papal office. I have never believed the proposition that the pope loses his office ipso facto for heresy. But I also deny that the Church (either the laity or the episcopate) has any remedy for removing a pope who does not wish to be removed. Though theologians have speculated on the ways and means for removing a heretical pope, I don't see how any of them can be affirmed without ultimately leading to some form of Conciliarism. When it comes to the theology of a papal deposition, all we have is theory—and that's not an argument against papal deposition, mind you; it's just pointing out it's never been done.
However, I think writers who stress theological opinions regarding papal deposition have ignored the fact that there is actually a large body of canonical legislation on the question; and more importantly, that this legislation is not merely hypothetical.
The Church's canonical tradition affirms a the principle prima sedes a nemine iudicatur ("The first See is judged by none"). The principle is universal; it refers to the clergy, secular rulers, as well as the laity. It is an absolute principle of papal independence against any attempt by any outside power whatsoever—even the episcopacy—to forcibly depose or judge a sitting pope. The principle prima sedes a nemine iudicatur first appears in the quasi-apocryphal Synod of Sinuessa (c. 314) relating to the problem of Pope St. Marcellinus, a pope who had apostasized under the Diocletian persecution (while, it should be noted, retaining the papal office and eventually becoming a saint). However, because many consider the acta of the Synod of Sinuessa forgeries, it is better to forgo Sinuessa and point to the historical Synod of Parma of 501-502 as the place when the principle enters the Church's canonical tradition. The pope at the time, Symmachus, was engaged in a schism with a rival papal claimant supported by the Byzantine Emperor. When called upon to pass judgment upon Pope Symmachus, the bishops at Parma declared prima sedes a nemine iudicatur ("The first See is judged by none"). And thus the concept of the immunity of the Roman pontiff from episcopal judgment passed into Canon Law.
It was reaffirmed many times. We see Pope St. Nicholas I (858-867) stating to the Byzantine Emperor that "Neither by Augustus, nor by all the clergy, nor by religious, nor by the people will the judge be judged...The first seat will not be judged by anyone" (Pope St. Nicholas I, Proposueramus quidem, Denz. 330).
Pope Leo IX wrote in 1053 to the Patriarch of Constantinople that "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..." (Pope St. Leo IX, "In terra pax hominibus" to Michael Cerularius and to Leo of Achrida, September 2, 1053, Denz. 352).
The principle was again enunciated by Pope St. Gregory VII in his famous bull Dictatus Papae, which was a collection of precedents regarding papal authority from the popes of the first millennium. There Gregory affirms that "That he [the pope] himself may be judged by no one" (Pope St. Gregory VII, Dictatus Papae, 19). The inclusion of prima sedes a nemine iudicatur in Dictatus Papae is particularly important because Pope St. Gregory VII intended this document to be a kind of summation or syllabus of the most important, central teachings and canonical principles relating to the papacy. This principle was consistently reaffirmed in the Middle Ages and passed into the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which stipulates that no pope can be subjected to any kind of a trial. This is because he is beyond judgement (CIC 1556).
Canonically, there is no mechanism for removing a pope; not only this, but there is particular, perennial canonical legislation which specifically denies that a pope can be deposed. Even if the bishops of the world were to gather together to condemn Pope Francis of heresy, the most they could do would be to take a kind of vote of "no confidence" and plead with the Holy Father to voluntarily step down for the good of the Church. They could summon a synod, they could even declare his statements to be heretical to varying degrees; they could even declare he was "unworthy" of the papal office, as the famous Cadaver Synod did of Pope Formosus. But they could not declare he had forfeited his office—this was the exact situation the fathers at the Synod of Parma dealt with where prima sedes a nemine iudicatur was first elucdiated. They were not being asked to depose Pope Symmachus, but to declare that he was not truly pope or had forfeited his office. When called upon by the emperor to make such a proclamation, they deferred, saying no one could pass judgment on the first See. Similarly today, the bishops could not take any role in actively getting the pope out of office. They could deem him unworthy and his teachings heretical, express a statement of "no confidence", and then ask for the pope's resignation. But if he did not resign, the would not cease to be pope by the fact, and the bishops would have no power to make him step down.
Interestingly enough, when an opposing curial party wanted to get rid of Pope Stephen VI (897), they didn't depose him; they murdered him, because having the pope dead was so much simpler than dealing with the question of papal deposition against his will. I am not in any way remotely suggesting such a course be taken with Pope Francis; I cite the story as evidence that there exists no canonical way for getting rid of a pope, which is why they resorted to simply killing him.
Such are my thoughts for the time being, meager as they are. Bless you all, my brethren