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Fixing things the wrong way

I see now an editorial note from CRUX admitting the misquotation and subsequent correction. My objections to Ivereigh’s essay as being irrelevant to the Amoris debate in light of his omission stand, but the journalistic mistake (correcting an important error without noting it is a correction) I accept as remedied.

On January 15 CRUX contributing editor Austen Ivereigh penned a mellifluous essay on the role of conscience in regard to holy Communion for divorced-and-remarried Catholics under Amoris laetitia in which essay he mentioned, but fatally misquoted, the central canonical norm in this debate, Canon 915, by leaving out the crucial qualifier in Canon 915, the word “manifest”, which word moves the question of Communion distribution out of the realm of conscience (where Ivereigh wants to leave it) and into the realm of public conduct where ecclesiastical tradition has always located it.

On January 16 I called Ivereigh on his misrepresentation of the law, pointing out that no discussion of the ecclesial values behind Canon 915 is possible if the word “manifest” is omitted from its text. I did not speculate as to why Ivereigh left out the crucial word, but at least two possibilities presented themselves: (1) Ivereigh was unaware that the word “manifest” was in the norm, in which case he could plausibly, if still incorrectly, opine away about the role of conscience as if that were the only criterion at issue here; or (2) Ivereigh knew the word “manifest” was there but, not realizing its importance, he forgot about it on his to way to plausibly, if still incorrectly, opining away about the role of conscience as if that were the only criterion at issue here. Either explanation, in my view, disqualifies Ivereigh’s CRUX essay from being taken as a serious contribution to this debate, but neither theory calls into question his motives for writing as he did.

On January 17, however, I see that Ivereigh (or CRUX?) has quietly slipped the word “manifest” back into the Canon 915 quote but, as far as I can tell, the rest of Ivereigh’s essay remains untouched—as if to say, Okay, fine, the word “manifest” is in the law, and yes, it’s apparently important enough to repair the quote, but no, I (or CRUX) don’t care that it renders essentially pointless the original essay for its failure to grapple with the now obviously crucial implications of the word “manifest” in Canon 915 regarding Communion distribution questions. I ask, is this how one rights journalistic wrongs?

My objection to Ivereigh (or CRUX) adding the word “manifest” to the essay, is not, I need hardly say, an objection to repairing a false quote per se. Electronic media lends itself to fixing typos and besides, accuracy before the reading public is to be valued over avoiding authorial embarrassment. But, quietly adding an omitted, yet absolutely crucial, word to a key quotation, without admitting that it was originally misrepresented (besides making CRUX readers unfairly question their own correct recollections of the essay) implies that such misstatements, in the midst of a tempestuous debate no less, are on a par with spelling mistakes or awkward auxiliary verb tenses. Sorry, but Ivereigh’s misrepresentation of Canon 915 went far beyond the typo stage.

In short, Option One for accounting for Ivereigh’s original phrasing is gone. He clearly knows the word “manifest” is in the law. That leaves, I suppose, Option Two, Ivereigh still does not realize the importance of the word (in which case he needs to do some serious study of this matter) or, I fear, it suggests an Option Three, Ivereigh doesn’t care about the implications of the law’s focus on public acts (instead of on personal conscience assessment) in Communion distribution questions (in which case other things Ivereigh might wish to say about the role of law in the Church should be questioned).

Discussing law with people who don’t know what it actually says

Austen Ivereigh, in a Crux essay that adds little of substance to what has been said over and over again in regard to Amoris laetitia, fatally misquotes the central canon at issue in the Amoris debate. His misrepresentation of the law illustrates better than anything I could say here about why the Amoris debate is becoming, to use Ivereigh’s term, so infuriating for defenders of ecclesiastical tradition. The ‘pro-Amoris’ wing simply does not know, or care, what the law in question actually says.

Ivereigh writes:

“Amoris never questions either Canon 915, which demands that Communion be withheld from those who “obstinately persevere in grave sin,” nor the following canon, that people conscious of grave sin should not present themselves to receive Communion… But while Amoris is very clear about not wanting to create new norms or laws, it is also very clear about fostering a new attitude.”

First Amoris never “questions” Canon 915 because it never mentions Canon 915!, but much more importantly—and crucially for his essay—Ivereigh misquotes the text of Canon 915 in regard to the central issue here. Canon 915 does NOT say that holy Communion must be withheld from those who “obstinately persevere in grave sin”, it says that holy Communion must be withheld from those who “obstinately persevere in manifest grave sin”.

The difference, as has been explained copiously, is night and day.

Canon 915, controlling a minister’s decision to give holy Communion to a would-be communicant, is not, not, not, about reading communicants’ personal consciences (as if ministers could do that anyway), it is about assessing a would-be communicants’ public behavior (such as their having entered civil marriage subsequent to divorce). Thus, virtually all of the Amoris discussions about individual assessments of conscience or, as the Maltese bishops put it, about “being at peace with God” (points that might figure in the application of Canon 916), is irrelevant to the operation of Canon 915, the modern canon resting on ancient roots that prevents ministers from giving holy Communion to Catholics in these circumstances. But it’s impossible to discuss the implications of the legal qualifier “manifest” in Canon 915 if public figures such as Ivereigh don’t even admit the word is there.

Misrepresenting the plain text of canon law on the central point at issue in the Amoris debate is not, I suggest, how should one go “about fostering a new attitude” toward law.


Fixing things the wrong way (17 Jan 2017), here.

The Maltese directive makes answering the ‘dubia’ urgent, Catholic World Report Dispatch (15 Jan 2017)  here.

The Maltese disaster, Catholic World Report Dispatch (13 Jan 2017) here; EWTN Great Britain (14 Jan 2017) here.


The Maltese directive makes answering the ‘dubia’ urgent

When highly placed Italian prelates declare that “only a blind man cannot see” that confusion is the ecclesiastical order of the day, and that such confusion has as its fundamental source Pope Francis’ Amoris laetitia, matters have reached crisis level. Catholics who have not followed the intense three-year debate over (among other things) admitting to holy Communion divorced-and-remarried Catholics who are living as married persons should stop reading this post and go get caught up on current events. But for those sufficiently aware of the doctrinal and disciplinary issues at stake I offer some observations in the wake of this weekend’s developments.

The bishops of Malta, by declaring that divorced-and-remarried Catholics who are living as if they were married “cannot be precluded from participating in … the Eucharist” have done grave violence to the unbroken and unanimous ecclesiastical tradition barring such Catholics from reception of holy Communion without—and let me stress this, without—doing violence to the actual text of Francis’ Amoris laetitia. That, folks, is the central problem.

Amoris does not—again, let me repeat, does not—declare ministers of holy Communion bound to give the sacrament to divorced-and-remarried Catholics living as if married. Francis’ phrasing in several key passages of Amoris is (I have argued) malleable enough to allow bishops such as Chaput and Sample to reiterate the traditional Eucharistic discipline or, as the Buenos Aires bishops did, simply to pass ambiguous criteria down to local pastors to sort as best they can. But precisely because key passages of Amoris are also flexible enough to allow bishops to do as the Maltese have done and require Church ministers to distribute the Eucharist to Catholics who engage in “public and permanent adultery” (CCC 2384)—not to mention conferring absolution on penitents who express no purpose of amendment in regard to such conduct—all this, without doing violence to the actual text of Amoris, one cannot but agree with Cdl. Caffarra and others that this hitherto unimaginable sacramental disunity is rooted directly in Amoris laetitia.

This ability of Amoris simultaneously to sustain orthodox, non-committal, and heterodox interpretations in matters of the gravest ecclesiastical import is exactly why the Four Cardinal’s dubia so urgently need answering—if not by Francis himself (and no one can force Francis’ hand) then at least by Francis’ right-hand man in matters of faith and morals, Cdl Muller of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to whom the dubia was also (few seem to have noticed) addressed.

Of course, the stakes involved in the dubia jumped dramatically over the weekend, not simply by the Maltese bishops making plain what sort of sacramental abuses Amoris could tolerate within its terms, but by the decision, taken at who-knows-what level, to publish the Maltese document in L’Ossevatore Romano, that “instrument for spreading the teachings of the successor of Peter.” Obviously the pope is not the editor of L’OR and it is possible that the decision to publish the Maltese document took Francis unawares. But insofar as L’OR is unquestionably the pope’s newspaper people will be watching to see whether, directly or indirectly, there appears some ‘distancing’ between Francis and the Maltese approach to sacraments for divorced-and-remarried Catholics.

I pray there does appear such papal distancing; I pray that the Maltese bishops repent of their failure to “exercise vigilance so that abuses do not creep into ecclesiastical discipline especially regarding …the celebration of the sacraments” (Canon 392 § 2); and I pray that the teachings of Christ and his Church penetrate our minds and hearts more deeply.


This post now available in Spanish, here.

Fixing things the wrong way (17 Jan 2017), here.

Discussing law with people who don’t know what it actually says

The Maltese disaster

The Maltese disaster

The bishops of Malta, in a document that can only be called disastrous, repeatedly invoking Pope Francis’ Amoris laetitia, have directly approved divorced and remarried Catholics taking holy Communion provided they feel “at peace with God”. Unlike, say, the Argentine document on Amoris which, one could argue, left just enough room for an orthodox reading, however widely it also left the doors open for abuse by others, the Maltese bishops in their document come straight out and say it: holy Communion is for any Catholic who feels “at peace with God” and the Church’s ministers may not say No to such requests. In my view the Maltese bishops have effectively invited the Catholics entrusted to them (lay faithful and clergy alike!) to commit a number of objectively gravely evil acts. That their document was, moreover, published in L’Osservatore Romano, exacerbates matters for it deprives Vatican representatives of the ‘plausible deniability’ that they could have claimed (and might soon enough wish they could claim), as it becomes known that the Maltese bishops went beyond what even Amoris, if interpreted narrowly, seemed to permit.

For now, I make just a few points.

1. The Maltese bishops have fallen completely for the canonically and ecclesiologically false view that an individual’s assessment of his or her own readiness to receive holy Communion (see c. 916) controls a minister’s decision to administer the sacrament (see c. 915). In Malta now, anyone who approaches for the sacraments should be recognized as being “at peace with God”. Objective evidence to the contrary is simply no longer relevant. Canon 916 is thus eviscerated, Canon 915 is effectively repudiated.

2. The Maltese bishops do not seem to know what the word “conjugal” means. They think that non-married people can practice “conjugal” virtues and that they can decide about whether to engage in “conjugal” acts. Nonsense and, coming from bishops, inexcusable nonsense at that. Non-married people can have sex, of course, but Catholic pastoral integrity does not hold such sexual acts on par with the physically identical, but truly conjugal, acts as performed by married persons.

3. The Maltese bishops, by extending their document to the sacrament of Reconciliation, have basically instructed their priests not to withhold absolution from divorced-and-remarried Catholics who refuse to repent of their “public and permanent adultery” (CCC 2384) even to the point of abstaining from sexual (nb: sexual not “conjugal”) relations. Incredibly, such a directive raises the specter of green-lighting sacrilegious confessions and the commission of solicitation in confession. No priest should want either on his conscience, let alone both.

4. The Maltese bishops even managed to take swipes at Baptism and Confirmation by opening the door to divorced-and-remarried Catholics serving as godparents contrary to the expectations of Canon 874 § 1, 3º. See CLSA New Comm (2001) 1062-1063.

There are other serious problems with the Maltese document but the above should suffice to show why it is, quite simply, a disaster.


This post available in Spanish, here.

See also

Fixing things the wrong way (17 Jan 2017), here.

Discussing law with people who don’t know what it actually says

As to why the Maltese disaster makes responding to the Four Cardinals’ Dubia all the more important, go here.


Reminder: Canon 277, at some point, needs to be authoritatively addressed

Fr. Dwight Longenecker has written, as usual, an informative essay, this time on some of the practical problems associated with a married Roman Catholic clergy. I recommend his essay for those following this important question. With one caveat.

Longenecker writes: “Finally, what about children? Many people seem to forget that a [married] priest and his wife will be faithful to the church’s teaching. That means they will not be using artificial contraception. If they are young and fertile, is the parish ready to accept the responsibility of feeding and housing a dozen clergy kids?”

That phrasing, implying the continued exercise of conjugal relations between married clergy and their wives, touches upon a serious issue that has yet to be authoritatively addressed by ecclesiastical leadership, namely, whether Canon 277 § 1, which restates the Western Church’s ancient expectation of “perfect and perpetual continence” for all of her clergy, even (by unanimous scholarly agreement over the centuries) those clerics (including deacons, but even more importantly, priests) who are married.

As Longenecker correctly notes, the question of having married clergy is one of discipline, meaning that Church practices binding at one time may nevertheless change in response to another; but the clerical continence question, while perhaps “disciplinary” to the extent that many people (mistakenly, in my view) think that the Western practice of complete clerical continence changed after Vatican II, might also be rooted in more fundamental doctrinal questions about the nature of the priesthood and the nuptial signification of the Eucharist. Canons and canonical interpretations that are rooted in doctrinal realities (which canons need not recite those doctrinal roots in order to claim them, as can be seen in, say, Canon 1024 which simply restricts ordination to baptized males, without explaining why) are much less susceptible to change, especially to inadvertent change, than are legal norms rooted in merely disciplinary considerations.

The arguments defending the plain meaning of Canon 277 offered by several others besides me are complex and I shall not reproduce them here. Rebuttals of our thesis are, in contrast, light and themselves rather easily refuted. Even two letters from the pontifical text commission purporting to dispose of this matter fail, in my opinion, to resolve the issue of Western clerical continence at all, let alone, to resolve it correctly. And, while other norms protect, to be sure, the consciences of men ordained (and of their wives) without knowledge of Canon 277 and the tradition behind it, such expediencies do not get at the substance of the law itself and the values it upholds. But all of these discussions and several others besides are available here. I invite interested persons to consult them as they wish.

Of course I do not expect, given various other matters occupying Rome at present, to see much movement on the question of continence among married clergy, but I write as occasion permits to preserve the question for when circumstances might favor its consideration. Longenecker’s good essay provided such an occasion, and I took it.

Is Keller’s essay really the way Amoris should be read?

Update: At John Allen’s request I have revised this blog post for publication by Crux and it has just appeared (9 Jan), here. The Crux version reads, I think, little more smoothly than my original post. My readers might prefer to go directly to the Crux version.


Apologies for the length of this post. It always takes more time to correct errors than it takes to make them. In Fr. Paul Keller’s CRUX essay, “Case study in communion for the divorced/remarried”, we confront many errors.

Keller’s essay illustrates almost perfectly how pastors—reading Pope Francis’ Amoris laetitia in its overall, plain sense (and not, lawyer-like, parsing certain problematic phrases narrowly enough to support a more traditional interpretation)—are going to stumble into accepting (what I view as) the central flaw in Amoris (although others might rank other aspects of Francis’ document even more problematic in the long run), namely, implicitly assuming that, in the final analysis, a Catholic’s assessment of his or her own conscience is the sole criterion that governs a minister’s decision to give holy Communion to a member of the faithful. That assumption, whence ever it arose and no matter how many adopt it, is simply wrong. Grasp that and one has the essence of the thing.

Keller indulges in a bit of the polite sneering that some moderns like to accord ecclesiastical tradition (e.g., by reminding us not “to treat the Church’s moral commands as if they were stones [to] hurl” at others), but for the most part his errors are phrased plausibly. That’s what makes replying to his essay necessary. People might be taken in by it as they often are by “hard case” stories.

I begin by agreeing with Keller in a preliminary point: Nothing in his description of “Irma” suggests that her marriage to Francisco in El Salvador was invalid. Tribunals are better at spotting potential grounds of nullity than are typical parish priests but Keller is right not to get Irma’s hopes up for an annulment.

Now, on to just some of the serious mistakes in Keller’s essay.

First mistake: “As I respond [to Irma’s request for Communion], I must follow the guidelines that Pope Francis described in Amoris Laetitia, issued after the discussions and discernment of two Synods of Bishops on family life.”

Wrong. In administering holy Communion to a member of the faithful, Roman Catholic ministers are bound not by “guidelines” supposedly fashioned from a single, ambiguous, and highly controverted papal document, but instead by the plain and dispositive text of another papal document, called the Code of Canon Law (especially Canon 915 thereof), and by the common and constant interpretation accorded such norms over the centuries.

Second mistake: “[Irma] told me that Tony thought the idea [of living as brother and sister with her spouse according to the civil law] was crazy. As they were only 26 years old, Irma was afraid of what might happen to their relationship if they were no longer able to grow in their love through physical intimacy.”

Keller accepted, apparently without demur, Irma’s description of her objectively adulterous sexual relations as a way “to grow in love”. He has thus radically failed to speak the truth in love to a child of God who is consulting him as a priest of the Church and minister of Christ’s sacrament. Any priest, let alone one approached in Confession (see Canon 978 § 2), would have to account for such a failure at Final Judgment. If as a confessor Keller approved Irma’s choice to engage in sexual relations with Tony, he has committed the crime of solicitation in confession. See my discussion of Canon 1387.

Third mistake: “[Irma] didn’t think Tony could handle the prospect of committing to complete celibacy for the next 70 years. Plus, both she and Tony wanted to have at least two or three more children.”

Setting aside the 26-year-old Irma’s callow estimate of her life-span and the sexually active phase therein, more importantly, Tony is not bound to observe “celibacy”. Nothing in Keller’s essay suggests that Tony is not free to marry. Granted, he is not free to marry Irma, for she is already presumptively married, but, Keller treating Tony as being not free to marry is simply wrong. As a single man Tony is, of course, bound to continence and Keller might help clarify this point for those who routinely confuse the terms (although Keller seems not to know what it means either); but in any case, Tony is not bound to either celibacy or continence based on Irma’s situation.

Fourth mistake: “Although I have not said so to Irma, I have wondered if it would be better for her to attend a non-Catholic church.”

Thank God a priest of the Catholic Church has not made such a reprehensible suggestion to a lay Catholic coming to him with urgent moral questions. Still, Keller himself, who mentions this idea twice, needs immediately to eliminate from his mind any notion about advising a penitent to commit some other objectively grave sins (e.g., ceasing to attend Mass on Sundays or even joining another faith) so as to try to ‘sooth’ the effects of feeling guilty over an earlier grave sin. Good grief.

Fifth and central mistake: “If she were to just come up for communion, I couldn’t deny her. First of all, everything I know about her relationship has come from within the sacrament of Confession. Outside of the sacrament, I can’t ‘use’ that information in any way, certainly not by publicly denying her communion.”

Keller is largely correct about the rules on the seal of confession,* but his knowledge of Irma’s marriage status is not sacramental: Irma’s status as canonically/civilly married to Francisco in El Salvador and as civilly married to Tony in the USA is a matter of public record—even if the public records are difficult to access in this highly unusual case. Keller notes, by the way, that Irma’s family is in America, too, and they all know she was married, per Keller.

Here we see, in any case, the fundamental problem of approaching the question of holy Communion for divorced-and-remarried Catholics as does Amoris, that is, without any reference to Canon 915 (or to Canon 916, but the failure to deal directly with Canon 915 in situations like Keller’s is worse), which canon, as has been stated many times, requires ministers of holy Communion to withhold the sacrament from those who “obstinately persist in manifest grave sin”. There is no question whatsoever that Irma’s case fits the classic situation of “public and permanent adultery” (CCC 2384) and that Keller should withhold the sacrament from her upon pain of dereliction of his duties under Canon 915 as a priest of Jesus Christ and minister of the Catholic Church.

But, dear reader, do you see how Keller, relying only on the import of Amoris, could walk right into that grave error?

Amoris assumes, without ever quite stating it, that individual consciences (which, yes, can be very complex, and often deal with hard cases, and are never fully knowable to another, and might be only partly informed, and so on, and so on), are the final arbiter of whether a would-be communicant must be given the sacrament, as if only Canon 916 (which most people would recognize as being the canon that looks at conscience) were on the books, and by which canon one could, in some hypothetical case, see an objectively grave sinner approaching for holy Communion without that act itself being sinful, while Canon 915, meanwhile, which requires minsters to make a distribution decision in accord with objective criteria, simply does not exist.

The pervasive and steadfast refusal of nearly all “Amoris supporters” (I dislike the term but it saves time) to face squarely the ancient tradition behind and unambiguous rule of Canon 915 is what dooms virtually all defenses of Amoris so far to irrelevance at best and to pastoral and even doctrinal disasters at worst.

Sixth mistake: Keller rephrases his claim that he is ‘constructively ignorant’ (my term) about Irma’s situation (in that he supposedly knows her situation only from Confession, so canonically he doesn’t “know” about it) so as to claim that it be wrong for him to withhold holy Communion from Irma—who like other Catholics has indeed a right to receive holy Communion.

But may I suggest that quite the opposite is true: Keller has ‘constructive knowledge’ of Irma’s objectively irregular status in virtue of the fact that she has entered two public ceremonies each purporting to be weddings. He is thus bound to act in accord with the law governing such situations. (A quick aside: if Keller really thinks foreign country earlier marriage situations never eventually come to light, and that his actions during the time he knew about it will never later be questioned, he’s terribly naive. But back to his essay.)

Seventh mistake: “Based on everything I know as a priest concerning sin, conscience, hope, Jesus, the teaching of the Church, and particularly the instruction the Church has received from Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia, I tell Irma, ‘If you sincerely believe in your conscience that this is how Christ can aid your growth in holiness, then, yes. You may go to communion.’”

That advice is wrong. Granted, perhaps based on some things that Keller clearly does not know about “sin, conscience, hope, Jesus, the teaching of the Church, and particularly the instruction the Church has received from Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia,” he might have innocently reached that conclusion and offered that bad advice, but his conclusions and the advice he offered are still wrong. A man in his position, moreover, having been alerted to the possibility of so many errors in his thinking, and such serious errors at that, is, I suggest, now required to study these matters more deeply and to bring his advice into line with Church teaching.

Final thoughts.

For readers who hoped that Keller’s essay might finally prove how right and good it would be if we all read Amoris the way Keller et al think it should be read, four reactions to my post seem possible:
1. Peters has substantially misstated the law in regard to the reception of holy Communion by divorced-and-remarried Catholics and so he may be disregarded. To such persons I extend the invitation to show me where I have misrepresented the law controlling these situations.

2. Peters is a heartless pharisee who does not care about the pastoral problems of real people and so he may be disregarded. To such persons I say, that’s a rather tiresome ad hominem arising from the current antinomianism in the Church, but it leaves open the possibility that I (and, I need hardly say, scads of people way smarter than I) might be correct.

3. Peters has stated the law correctly, but the law needs to change significantly. To such persons I say, you are invited to show us how the law can be changed without doing doctrino-disciplinary damage to several aspects of Matrimony, Confession, and the Eucharist.

4. Peters has stated the law correctly and the law’s general connection to pastoral integrity is evident. To such persons I say, we need to bring parochial sacramental administration better into line with Catholic doctrine and discipline.

A final, final thought: As Keller gets to make up plausible hypotheticals to illustrate the advantages of his giving holy Communion to Irma, may I too offer a plausible hypothetical to illustrate its dangers? One day, civilly remarried and communicating Irma’s door bell rings. Francisco is standing there, his life having bottomed out in prison, but by the grace of God and pondering the hard truths he heard from faithful Catholic ministers in jail, he begs forgiveness from Irma and their child and is committed to resuming his duties as husband and father [oops, my bad, they did not have child], chastened, humbled, and grateful for a second chance. At which point he learns that Keller has smoothed the path for Irma to live in a false union with the apparent blessing of the Church. How does one compare Francisco’s failures (per Keller, arising out of pervasive poverty and drug-enhanced gang pressures) with Keller’s failure to speak arightly in safe America and faced only with questions from a confused Catholic woman?

PS: Happy Feast of St. Raymond Of Penyfort, a saint with a lot to say to canon lawyers. And to confessors.

* About that seal issue, a few more words are in order. Strictly speaking, Keller is belatedly introducing a game-changing fact, asserting that all of his information about Irma is Confessional. Well that, of course, would destroy any application of his example to most real life Amoris cases (and to any other morals case) because seal information cannot be used for anything to the detriment of the penitent. Even if a penitent accurately confessed a grave sin, but for which he or she was not sorry, and later presented for holy Communion, the priest could not withhold Communion, as I (along with many others) would agree. But Keller’s phrasing might lead some to think that the canonically public status of marriage, even of civil marriage, is insufficient to act on in the external forum unless such status is also actually known by some decent portion of the community. That is incorrect and by Keller’s own narration, a number of other people know about Irma’s first wedding.

A canonical primer on popes and heresy

No one in a position of ecclesial responsibility—not the Four Cardinals posing dubia, not Grisez & Finnis cautioning about misuses, and not the 45 Catholics appealing to the College, among others—has, despite the bizarre accusations made about some of them, accused Pope Francis of being a heretic or of teaching heresy. While many are concerned for the clarity of various Church teachings in the wake of some of Francis’ writings and comments, and while some of these concerns do involve matters of faith and morals, no responsible voice in the Church has, I repeat, accused Pope Francis of holding or teaching heresy.

That’s good, because the stakes in regard to papal heresy are quite high. Those flirting with such suspicions or engaging in such ruminations should be very clear about what is at issue.

First. Heresy is, and only is, “the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth that must be believed by divine and catholic faith.” 1983 CIC 751. Heresy is not, therefore, say, the failure to defend effectively specific truths of Revelation (though that might be negligence per Canon 1389); moreover, privately-held heretical views, even if they are leading to certain observable actions, are not in themselves actionable under law (Canon 1330).

Second. We can dismiss as impossible—indeed, as unthinkable thanks to the protection of the Holy Spirit—any scenario whereby a pope commits the Church to a heresy. See Ott, Fundamentals (1957) 287 or Catholic Answers tract “Papal Infallibility” (2004). However grave might be the consequences for a pope falling into heresy, the Church herself cannot fall into heresy at his hands or anyone else’s. Deo gratias.

Those two points being understood, the canonical tradition yet recognizes (and history suggests) that a given pope could fall into personal heresy and that he might even promote such heresy publicly, which brings us to some thoughts on those possibilities.

Setting aside a few who, relying on half-baked notions like “popes are not bound by canon law”, throw up their hands in despair at the prospect of a heretical pope and predict the End-of-the-World-as-We-Know-It, others, more reasonably, point to Canon 1404, which states “The First See is judged by no one”, and conclude that the only remedies in the face of a genuinely heretical pope are prayers and fasting. May I suggest, though, that canon law has somewhat more to offer than that.

Wrenn, writing in the CLSA NEW COMM (2001) at 1618 states: “Canon 1404 is not a statement of personal impeccability or inerrancy of the Holy Father. Should, indeed, the pope fall into heresy, it is understood that he would lose his office. To fall from Peter’s faith is to fall from his chair.” While I suggest that Wrenn’s warning be read again, lest its startling impact be overlooked by the calm manner in which he expressed it, turning to the crucial question as to who would determine whether a given pope has fallen into heresy, Wrenn notes that it is not settled by Canon 1404 nor, I would add, is it settled by any other canon in the Code. But again, one may turn to canonical tradition for insight.

To be sure, all admit that in talking about popes falling into heresy we are talking a very remote scenario. Vermeersch-Creusen, Epitome I (1949) n. 340, “This sort of case, given the divine protection of the Church, is considered quite improbable.” Beste, Introductio (1961) 242, “In history no example of this can be found.” And the great Felix Cappello, Summa Iuris I (1949) n. 309, thought that the possibility of a pope falling into public heresy should be “entirely dismissed given the special love of God for the Church of Christ [lest] the Church fall into the greatest danger.”

But Cappello’s confidence (at least in the scope of divine protection against heretical popes) was not shared by his co-religionist, the incomparable Franz Wernz, whose summary of the various canonical schools of thought about the possibility of a papal fall from office due to heresy is instructive. After reviewing canonical norms on loss of papal office due to resignation or insanity, Wernz-Vidal, IUS CANONICUM II (1928), n. 453, considers the impact of personal heresy on the part of a pope (emphasis and citations omitted):

Through heresy notoriously and openly expressed, the Roman Pontiff, should he fall into such, is, by that very fact, and before any declaratory sentence of the Church, deprived of his power of jurisdiction.

Now, concerning this matter there are five views, the first of which denies the basis for the entire issue, namely, that a pope could, as a private scholar, fall into heresy. While this opinion is clearly pious and probable, it cannot be said to be certain and common. So, accepting the premise of the question, it needs to be considered.

The second opinion holds that the Roman Pontiff loses his power upon the fact of even hidden heresy. This opinion is rightly said by Bellarmine to labor under a false supposition, namely, that secret heretics are entirely separated from the body of the Church. The third view holds that the Roman Pontiff, not even for obvious heresy, loses, upon that fact, his power, nor can he be deprived of office by deposition. But this opinion is called by Bellarmine, for ample reasons, “highly improbable”.

The fourth view, with Suarez, Cajetan, and others, argues that a pope is not, even upon the fact of manifest heresy, deposed, but that he can be and must be deposed upon a sentence (at least a declaratory one) of crime. “This view in my judgment cannot be defended” as Bellarmine teaches.

Finally there is the fifth view of Bellarmine which was expressed at the outset in the assertion [above] and which is rightly defended by Tanner and others as being more approved and more common. For he who is no longer a member of the body of the Church, that is, of the Church as a visible body, cannot be the head of the universal Church. But a pope who falls into public heresy would by that fact cease to be a member of the Church; therefore he would also, upon that fact, cease to be the head of Church.

So, a publicly heretical pope, who by the mandate of Christ and of the Apostle should be avoided because of danger to the Church, must be deprived of his power, as nearly everyone admits. But he cannot be deprived of his power by a merely declaratory sentence. 

For every judicial sentence of privation supposes a superior jurisdiction over him against whom the sentence is laid. But a general council, in the opinion of adversaries, does not have a higher jurisdiction than does a heretical pope. For he, by their supposition, before the declaratory sentence of a general council, retains his papal jurisdiction; therefore a general council cannot pass a declaratory sentence by which a Roman Pontiff is actually deprived of his power; for that would be a sentence laid by an inferior against the true Roman Pontiff.

In sum, it needs to be said clearly that a [publicly] heretical Roman Pontiff loses his power upon the very fact. Meanwhile a declaratory criminal sentence, although it is merely declaratory, should not be disregarded, for it brings it about, not that a pope is “judged” to be a heretic, but rather, that he is shown to have been found heretical, that is, a general council declares the fact of the crime by which a pope has separated himself from the Church and has lost his rank.

I know of no author coming after Wernz who disputes this analysis. See, e.g., Ayrinhac, CONSTITUTION (1930) 33; Sipos, ENCHIRIDION (1954) 156; Regatillo, INSTITUTIONES I (1961) 299; Palazzini, DMC III (1966) 573; and Wrenn (2001) above. As for the lack of detailed canonical examination of the mechanics for assessing possible papal heresy, Cocchi, COMMENTARIUM II/2 (1931) n. 155, ascribes it to the fact that law provides for common cases and adapts for rarer; may I say again, heretical popes are about as rare as rare can be and yet still be.

In sum, and while additional important points could be offered on this matter, in the view of modern canonists from Wernz to Wrenn, however remote is the possibility of a pope actually falling into heresy and however difficult it might be to determine whether a pope has so fallen, such a catastrophe, Deus vetet, would result in the loss of papal office.

May that fact serve as a check against those tempted to engage in loose talk about popes and heresy.