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Is Pope Francis a Heretic? Well, No ...

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By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (May 29, 2019)
I am well aware from the outset that this article (and the one that will follow it) will please no one. Much like the political situation in the United States today, the Catholic Church in our country has become polarized between so-called liberals and so-called conservatives. In the case of the Church, it's between pro-Francis "liberals" and anti-Francis "conservatives," and any attempt at a judicious evaluation of this pontificate is bound to lead to howls of protest from both sides.

But it cannot be helped.

During Easter week last month, a group of 19 Catholic scholars from around the world, including one of the leading theologians in the English-speaking world, Fr. Aidan Nichols, OP, signed an open letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church, calling upon them to declare Pope Francis guilty of "the canonical delict of heresy" and to take the necessary steps "to deal with the grave situation of an heretical pope." Their letter has since been signed by three-score more Catholic leaders and scholars. And many more who did not sign the open letter, for various reasons, have expressed support for key portions of its contents. The bishops clearly are not going to take any official action based on this letter, but the letter has revealed an open and bleeding wound in the Church that can no longer be ignored.

To the heart of the matter, then: Is Pope Francis guilty of the canonical crime of heresy?

The core of the case made by those who signed the Open Letter is that "the denial of Communion to divorced and invalidly remarried or cohabiting couples is, in itself, a doctrine based on Sacred Scripture and founded upon the divine law. [For Pope Francis to] assert the possibility of giving Holy Communion to divorced and invalidly remarried couples implies, by a necessary inference, the belief in heresies ... a denial of the dogma of the indissolubility of marriage."

The letter then cites Pope St. John Paul II's apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio (The Fellowship of the Family), section 84, which asserts the Church's longstanding "practice" based on Scripture of not admitting to Communion divorced and remarried couples. They also might have cited the document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), 1994, Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church Concerning the Reception of Holy Communion by the Divorced and Remarried Members of the Faithful, section 5, which, in commenting upon this papal document, states: "The structure of the Exhortation and the tenor of its words give clearly to understand that this practice, which is presented as binding, cannot be modified because of different situations." This teaching, which was countersigned by Pope St. John Paul II, is clearly an expression of the authoritative, universal and ordinary Magisterium of the Church.

But that does not mean that to contradict it is the canonical crime of heresy. The crime of heresy has a very clear and precise definition in Catholic theology; see for example, Catechism, entry 2089: "Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same."

The phrase used in this definition of heresy, "divine and catholic faith," also has a precise meaning in canon law: "The faith is called 'divine' because it responds to God's self-revelation, and 'catholic' because it is proposed by the Church as divinely revealed" (New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law, 2000, p. 914). It is only in its official dogmas that the Catholic Church infallibly proclaims what is divinely revealed. Thus, the teaching that Communion for the divorced and remarried is in every case to be denied has certainly never been infallibly defined by the Church as divinely revealed truth.

Some may argue: "But, even it has never been formally defined, it is surely an expression of the Church's infallible, ordinary Magisterium — that is, it expresses what the pope and the bishops have informally and generally held to be definitive teaching on marriage and the Sacraments." Even so, not even all infallible truths taught by the Church are dogmas: The latter are truths that the Church proclaims in a definitive act to be divinely revealed. And neither Familiaris Consortio nor the CDF made such a bold claim.

It follows that even if you strongly disagree with what Pope Francis wrote in Amoris Laetitia about the possibility of admitting some divorced and remarried members of the faithful to Holy Communion — even if you believe it causes confusion among the faithful about the indissolubility of marriage — even this does not mean that Pope Francis rightly can be accused of "heresy" on this matter. Gross pastoral imprudence is not heresy. He could rightly be accused of heresy on this issue only if he had argued that divorced and remarried people living in a state of mortal sin and not in a state of grace, should be welcome to receive Communion. That would, by implication at least, be a direct violation of the explicit teachings of St. Paul (1 Cor 11:26-32) and the Church about the Eucharist, and about the indissolubility of marriage.

But Pope Francis taught no such thing.

What he has repeatedly insisted is that "it can no longer simply be said that all those in any 'irregular' [marital] situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace" (Amoris Laetitia, 301).

Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, at that time head of the CDF, strongly affirmed the Catholic orthodoxy of Amoris Laetitia in this regard: "It is evident that Amoris Laetitia (art. 300-305) does not teach and does not propose to believe in a binding way that the Christian in a condition of a present and habitual sin can receive absolution and Communion without repentance for their sins and without formulating the intention of not sinning any more. ... What is at issue is an objective situation of sin which, due to mitigating circumstances, is subjectively not imputed" (cited in Jimmy Aikin, Teaching With Authority, p. 201-202).

Father Raymond J. de Souza explained in an article in the National Catholic Register ("What Argentina's 'Amoris Laetitia' Guidelines Really Mean," Sept. 23, 2016) that this kind of pastoral situation is rare, but not without precedent:

In such cases, the practicing Catholic party may not be guilty of serious sin and could therefore, in some cases, be admitted to the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist. This case, it should be noted, could be treated in such a manner even before Amoris Laetitia, according to application of the standard principles of the moral culpability of contraception when the spouses do not agree. [NB: cf. St. Alphonsus Liguori, Guide for Confessors, ch. 1)


Many readers may find it hard to follow this debate, given all the technical theological and canonical language being employed by both sides. Perhaps the following may help.

In a lengthy article that I wrote for this website back in 2016, I expressed my personal opinion as a Catholic theologian that Pope Francis is right on the core of this matter, and that he has not violated any dogma or otherwise infallible teaching of the Church here. The excerpts from that article (below) may help clarify the issue:

In chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis briefly touches upon the most controversial issue that emerged at the Synod of Bishops last October: whether or not there are circumstances in which divorced and remarried Catholics might be welcome to receive Holy Communion.

Pope Francis wrote that we cannot automatically assume that every divorced and remarried Catholic is living in an unrepentant state of mortal sin. In some cases there are extenuating circumstances that might make their sin of remarriage venial rather than mortal, and might leave open the possibility for them of the reception of the Body and Blood of the Lord. For example (my own, not one given by the Pope), suppose a Catholic mother of three young children is abandoned by her husband for another woman, and this mother finds she is unable to provide for her children on her own, unable to keep them out of dire poverty, much less to raise them properly in a fatherless home. [Let us add: Suppose she was poorly catechized in the Catholic faith as a youth, and is for the time being estranged from the Church]. Then "Mr. Right" [and suppose he is a Protestant] comes along, promises to provide for her and her family and to be a good stepfather to her kids, so in hope and desperation she agrees to marry him. She [vaguely] knows her first marriage was a valid one, and [vaguely] that she is contradicting the teachings of the Church, but under duress she thinks that it is the only thing she can do.

Objectively, she has committed a mortal sin: She has contracted a new marriage, even though she was validly married to someone else, with whom she made unconditional wedding vows of lifelong fidelity that formed an indissoluble bond between them.

(By the way, I am going to assume that you know and accept the Church's teaching about the indissoluble bond of marriage, derived from our Lord's words in the gospels. ...)

Again, objectively this Catholic mother has committed a ["material"] mortal sin, but subjectively ["formally"] she probably committed that sin under extreme psychological, maternal, and financial duress — which, according to Catholic moral teaching, would mitigate her moral responsibility, making her remarriage more likely an act of weakness, and a venial sin, rather than a fundamental turning away from the love of God, that is, a mortal sin. Catechism 1862 states that "one commits a venial sin when in a less serious matter, he does not observe the standard prescribed by the moral law, or when he disobeys the moral law in a grave matter, but without full knowledge or without complete consent." And exceptional situations of duress would be obstacles to complete consent [just as poor catechesis might result in lack of full knowledge].

According to Pope St. John Paul II in his Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (and ... it was not new with him, but long a part of the Church's canon law), if her first marriage was valid and cannot rightly be annulled, then she can only be restored to Holy Communion if she is penitent, confesses her sin of remarriage, and shows she is truly penitent by separating from her putative new husband, or at least agreeing to live with him from now on in chastity as brother and sister. After all, as St. John Paul II wrote, it's not just that the act of remarriage is a sin: the abiding marital state of the divorced and remarried "objectively contradicts that union of love between the Church and Christ signified and effected by the Eucharist" (section 84). In other words, Christ's bond of love with His Bride, His Church is indissoluble, unbreakable, and renewed at every Eucharist: How can someone come forward to receive the Eucharist who is living in a marital state that contradicts such unconditional, indissoluble marital commitment?

Suppose, however, that in her circumstances, although she has [returned to the Church], confessed and is truly penitent for her act of remarriage, it is just unrealistic for her right now to be able to arrange to separate from her new husband (since she and her children would fall back into dire poverty), and suppose it is also unrealistic at the moment to ask him to continue to live with her as brother and sister. After all, he might not be willing to put up with the new situation; he might not even be a Catholic. He might say to her: "So now you are telling me our marriage was a mistake, and even a sin, and that you cannot sleep with me anymore? That's a betrayal of my love, and of the promises you made to me — I'm outa here!" So her children would now be abandoned a second time by their father-figure. Should this penitent Catholic mother, caught in this situation, be forced to put her children at such extreme risk of poverty and fatherly abandonment, so she can come back to Jesus in Holy Communion — and all because of a (likely) venial sin she committed under duress when she got remarried?

What is the best and most merciful response to such a couple and their children, the best way for the Church to accompany them on their journey as penitents toward living the full truth about marriage and the family? And what part does the indissoluble marriage bond play in God's plan to sanctify human hearts on the road to Heaven — even in difficult family circumstances? Again, these are very tough pastoral issues (which is why the pope and the bishops have been agonizing over them recently!).

If I understand this papal document correctly, this is precisely the kind of rare and exceptional case in which the woman's pastor might legitimately decide to admit her to Communion to help her on her journey prior to the full sorting out of her irregular marital situation. The Holy Father does not say so directly; he only alludes to such situations, including the (now famous) footnote 351 to chapter eight. Pope Francis writes:

"In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, 'I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord's mercy' (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium [24 November 2013], 44: AAS 105 [2013], 1038). I would also point out that the Eucharist 'is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.'"

I think the Holy Father used some confusing rhetoric in this footnote that has sadly clouded the main issue. He reminds his readers that the Eucharist is "not a prize for the perfect." But surely that is not the issue here. No one is arguing that Communion is only for the perfect; everyone accepts that Communion is for the penitent. The real question is what should be required as a proper expression of authentic penitence before someone in a sinful and irregular marital situation can be invited back to receive the Eucharist. In our hypothetical case of the abandoned mother of three, penitent but trapped, still living with and sleeping with her second husband: Hasn't she done all that she can reasonably do, for the time being anyway, in her circumstances? After all, the full rectification of an irregular marriage situation often takes a change in the attitudes and actions of both partners, not just one. Would our Savior be offended if her pastor allowed her to come to Him in Holy Communion for strength and refreshment on the road to that full rectification of her situation, which may still take many months or even years of careful marital counseling and diplomacy between her and her new partner (if the collateral damage on her children is to be avoided)?

The Pope's recommendations on the pastoral care of such Catholic families in exceptional circumstances are not definitive papal teachings on faith and morals — so a Catholic can, in good conscience, respectfully disagree with them. Given that he is the successor of St. Peter, however, even his pastoral directives merit from us every benefit of the doubt. ...


In a follow-up to the many angry letters I received about that article, I included this response:

Another person wrote: "You are bringing condemnation to this woman [re: my example of the woman with the three young kids] by encouraging her to commit a sacrilege [receiving Communion before her marital situation is fully rectified] ... receiving our Lord in a state of mortal sin is certainly to receive unworthily (1 Cor 11). ... It's an injustice to the concept of heroic virtue." But it should be clear by now ... that, like Pope Francis, I am not encouraging such persons to commit a sacrilege; we are simply saying that in some exceptional circumstances, a Catholic who has divorced and remarried, and is penitent, is not in a state of "formal" mortal sin — that kind of culpability for sin is not on their soul. Please re-read the example of the woman that I gave in the main article. In that circumstance, is that woman out of a state of grace, and headed for hell? Should she be barred from Communion until she can actually leave her second husband? Look at her circumstances of extraordinary duress, her duties to her children, and her penitence, and then see if you can really answer "yes" to those two questions!

I know what this person might reply — it's in their last sentence: The woman with three kids in my example is just called to "heroic virtue." She just ought to "throw caution to the winds" and stop sleeping with the guy immediately, even if he abandons her and the children — trust in God by doing so, and God will work it all out somehow. I think, in one sense, that may be right; perhaps that is what a saint would do. It would certainly take heroic virtue to do it, given the risks involved in her case (but imagine an even more dangerous case: A lapsed Catholic, husband, and father of three is involved in an organized crime syndicate, repents, returns to the Church but may not be able to extricate himself from the syndicate for many months, without putting his own life and the lives of his wife and children at risk. He's working on an exit strategy as best he can, under the guidance of his confessor.

Is he "in a state of mortal sin" such that if his pastor allowed it, he would be committing a sacrilege by receiving Communion before completely extricating himself and his family from that situation? Maybe he really needs Jesus in the Eucharist more than ever to help him courageously carry out that dangerous family extrication! Should he practice "heroic virtue" by throwing caution to the winds and immediately cutting all ties to the syndicate and risk himself and his family being put on the "hit list'? Maybe that's what heroic virtue should do. It's a tough call.

But please note: Whatever the call of heroic virtue might be in such exceptional cases, we do not normally require Catholics to be practicing heroic virtue in order to be able to receive the merciful Jesus in Holy Communion. We just require them to be in a state of grace. And I would argue that in the examples I have given, neither the mother with three kids in my article, nor the husband with three kids trying to leave a life in organized crime (discussed above), is in a state of "formal" mortal sin. They are penitent, and in a state of grace. And they should not be barred from Communion. In fact, they need Jesus in the Eucharist more than ever so they can complete the difficult, full rectification of their family circumstances, which may still take many months or even years.

And then, of course, some letters were "looking for any stick to beat me (and the Pope)" with! For example, one writer said that I was just "looking for sympathy" by presenting the exceptional case of that divorced and remarried, but penitent Catholic woman with three kids. Well, no: I was just trying to show that the Pope is right. Indeed, pastors do face, on occasion, exceptional cases which our present code of Canon Law cannot cover in truth and mercy. Hence, his new pastoral provision.


In short, I do not believe that the authors of the open letter can make the "heresy" charge stick with regard to the Pope's teachings about administering Communion in exceptional circumstances to divorced and remarried members of the Church. Most of the rest of their accusations of heretical teaching by the Pope are also unconvincing.

1) They charge him with teaching that "God not only permits but positively wills the pluralism and diversity of religions." And they quote in this regard the statement that he signed on Feb 4, 2019, with the Grand Imam of the Al-Azhar Mosque that stated "The pluralism and diversity of religions, color, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which he created human beings." The statement is certainly confusing, but as Fr. Brian Harrison pointed out, Pope Francis a few weeks later replied personally to a direct question from a Catholic bishop about the meaning of this statement, (see LifeSite News, March 7, 2019), explaining that by God's will he simply meant God's "permissive will."

2) The open letter claims that on Oct. 31, 2016, Pope Francis signed a joint statement with the Lutherans commemorating the Protestant Reformation with the words: "We are profoundly thankful for the spiritual and theological gifts received through the Reformation." Once again, to those not expert in the field of Ecumenical Theology, this is certainly a confusing statement. But again, it is not "heresy" to admit that God poured out spiritual and theological gifts, to some extent, on those who were born, raised, and served in ecclesial communities that came from the Reformation. Pope St. John Paul II implied as much in his book Crossing the Threshold of Hope in the chapter titled "Why Divided?":

Yes, indeed, we can truly ask ourselves: Why did the Holy Spirit permit all these divisions [among Christians]? In general, the causes and historical development of these divisions are well known. It is legitimate, however, to wonder if perhaps there is a metahistorical reason as well.

There are two possible answers to this question. The more negative one would see in these divisions the bitter fruit of sins committed by Christians. The more positive answer is inspired by trust in the One who is capable of bringing forth good from evil, from human weakness. Could it not be that these divisions have also been a path leading the Church to discover the untold wealth contained in Christ's Gospel and in the redemption accomplished by Christ? Perhaps all this wealth would not have come to light otherwise. ...


So: Is Pope Francis guilty of the canonical crime of heresy? No, but ... that doesn't mean that all is well with this pontificate — not by a long shot.

Next Time: ... But Pope Francis Has Spread Confusion and Division

Robert Stackpole, STD, is the director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.

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Be a part of the discussion. Add a comment now!

Robert Stackpole - Jun 1, 2019

As the author of this two part series, I am finding it a bit hard to understand how Ann can complain that we are a group "whose purpose is to trash the pope" at the end of an article that DEFENDED the pope against charges of heresy! I think this only goes to show how "raw" people's emotions are these days. For some Catholics, any hint of criticism of this pontificate is considered disloyal "pope-bashing," while for others, any defense of this pope on anything major is considered a sell-out to liberalism and heresy. Karen is right that the pope is infallible on faith and morals -- but only when he defines a doctrine on faith and morals as binding for the whole Church -- not every time he opens his mouth on faith and morals. To the best of my knowledge, this pope has yet to make new, binding, definitive statements, but as he is our Holy Father, his teachings in general are presumed to be under the guidance of the Spirit unless it can be clearly shown that they are not. In other words, the burden of proof is on his critics--and I tried to show in this article that the critics of this pope have not met that burden with regard to their rash charge of "heresy."

At the same time, popes can (and many have, down through history) made errors in pastoral judgment, sometimes even grievous ones. They are human beings with character flaws, sinners not yet fully cured, just like the rest of us (although some have been saints). With regard to Pope Francis, that will be the subject of the next article.

Karen wants not to read "all this stuff" and would rather just pray for all of us. Prayer is indeed essential, but we cannot hide our heads in the sand: it's at least good to be informed so that we know what we are praying for and about!

Ann - May 30, 2019

I can't support a group whose purpose is to trash the Pope. I thought this group was about Jesus' love and mercy. Sorry to leave you, but I'm on God's side of love and mercy.

Dave J - May 30, 2019

That there is a legitimate debate as to whether or not this pope is a heretic speaks to the abject failure of this regrettable papacy - a papacy which has sought to "make a mess" and has succeeded on a grand scale.

Karen - May 29, 2019

Can't we all just love God? I'm not going to read all this stuff that is posted. I was taught that the Pope is infallible in faith and morals. I'm just going to pray for all of us. This makes one think of a bunch of kids fighting. Love and mercy is the message!