A group of conservative Catholics have recently published a document in which they accuse Pope Francis of spreading heresy.
This move is the latest product of the controversy that developed when Francis issued a document entitled Amoris Laetitia last year. Amoris Laetitia appeared to say - and has been generally interpreted as saying - that it is permissible for people who get divorced and then remarry to remain Catholics in good standing. The church has traditionally taught that Catholic marriage is indissoluble, and the previous position was that remarried people were barred from receiving Holy Communion at Mass. This was one of the church's harshest stances, and it had a history of causing division and bad feeling in parishes. John Paul II slightly eased the position of remarried Catholics under canon law, but neither he nor Benedict XVI had any interest in changing the church's basic policy.
Francis is a wily old bird, and he didn't state explicitly that he was changing church law or doctrine. He maintained the official line that divorce and remarriage are contrary to Catholic teaching. Amoris is worded somewhat elliptically, and the most important part of the document is buried in a footnote. Nevertheless, since Amoris was published, Francis has made it clear by his words and deeds that things have now changed. Indeed, lest there be any doubt about it, divorced Catholics can now lawfully receive Holy Communion in his own diocese of Rome.
Conservative Catholics, who tend to have a strong interest in what is happening in other people's marriages, did not take this lying down. Last September, 45 priests and other figures in the church wrote to every member of the college of cardinals asking them to do something. Four cardinals - Burke, Caffarra, Brandmüller, and Meisner - responded by posing five formal theological questions, or dubia, to Francis. Positing dubia is a time-honoured way of obtaining authoritative statements from the Vatican. These dubia were worded so as to manoeuvre Francis into expressly reaffirming the church's former stance.
Francis saw the cardinals coming a mile off. He didn't answer the dubia and is unlikely to do so. The latest document, which is entitled Correctio Filialis or Filial Correction, appears to be an attempt to raise the stakes. Two of the dubia cardinals have died since last year, and it remains to be seen what action the survivors will now take. Francis has just reappointed one of them - Burke - to a high office in the Vatican (a judgeship in the Apostolic Signatura, the church's highest appeal court). Keep your friends close, and all that.
The Correctio is written in English, with the exception of a single formal section in (flawed) Latin.
It has been signed by 180 public figures, and more than 10,000 rank-and-file Catholics have put their names to a supporting petition. Yet the list of signatories is not impressive. Most of them come from outside the priesthood, and some of them are distinctly marginal figures. They could even be described as cranks. There is Gerard van den Aardweg, an anti-gay campaigner who thinks that a "network" of Freemasons and others is imposing homosexuality on the world; John Hunwicke, an English priest-blogger who felt that the most appropriate Christian response to the Brussels terror attacks was to muse publicly that the victims "in quite a few cases probably" did not deserve to die; Christopher Ferrara, a business lawyer from New York who is on record as saying that Francis's embrace of sexual "deviants" is literally "apocalyptic"; and John Rao, a right-wing historian who writes nostalgically about mediaeval monarchs and 20th century Catholic dictators. These are not perhaps the first people whom one would approach for marital guidance.
The only individuals of episcopal rank who signed the document are René Gracida, a retired American bishop, and Bernard Fellay, the head of the SSPX, a well known ultra-traditionalist order. These people aside, the most eminent signatories are probably Antonio Livi, the former dean of philosophy at the pope's own university in Rome, and Neri Capponi, a recognised authority on canon law. Defenders of the Correctio have said that more clerics would have signed if they were not afraid of reprisals from their superiors, but it is of course quite inconceivable that a Catholic priest would choose to be silent on a matter of this importance for fear of damaging his career.....
Accusing the pope of preaching heresies is, from a Catholic perspective, a very serious charge. Theologians agree almost unanimously that a pope who became a public heretic would cease to be pope (although there is a minority opinion which says that the church would have to make an explicit declaration to this effect). The Correctio represents a new departure. Nothing like it has ever happened in history before. The signatories appeal to the precedent of Pope John XXII (1316-1334), who taught an erroneous theory about the afterlife and later retracted it in the face of protests. But John XXII was speaking as a private theologian rather than as pope, and his theory did not amount to an out-and-out heresy.
The Correctio does not assert that Francis is a heretic; it only says that he has propagated heresies. This wording has clearly been chosen carefully. In Catholic teaching, it is not enough to be a heretic that one contradicts a dogma of the church - one must do so deliberately (or pertinaciously, to use the technical term). The Correctio expressly refuses to conclude whether or not Francis has fully understood the nature of what he has done. In principle, ignorance is an excuse in this context. But it is very unlikely to be applicable here. Canon lawyers traditionally taught that a cleric cannot plead ignorance to a charge of heresy because his theological education means that he cannot possibly be ignorant of church teaching. In any case, Francis is a very bright man and is clearly not befuddled about what he is doing.
The substance of the heresy charge itself is perhaps less easy to make stick. Within the framework of Catholic theology, the indissolubility of marriage is not an infallible dogma. An idea must amount to a denial of a dogma in order to qualify as a heresy; otherwise it is merely a theological error (of which there are several categories). The Council of Trent (1545-1563), which essentially codified Catholic dogma in response to the Reformation, deliberately stopped short of stating infallibly that divorce and remarriage are heresies. The bishops at Trent were aware that the Eastern Orthodox churches allowed divorce and remarriage, and they didn't want to get into that argument. So they adopted a carefully worded text which barred Catholics from mounting arguments against the Roman position, without actually saying that that position was right.
Nevertheless, the signatories do have quite a strong case for saying that Francis has taught heresy - but it is only indirectly to do with the marriage issue. It relates to a more technical matter. In Amoris, Francis suggested that one reason why Catholics should not be held to the traditional teaching on divorce and remarriage is that the circumstances often mean that it would be impossibly difficult - indeed, sinful - for a person in a second marriage to suddenly start behaving as if their former marriage was still fully valid and their current spouse was not their spouse at all. This is a fairly obvious common-sense position; but it contradicts Catholic dogma, which expressly states that obeying the moral law is never impossible for a Christian. That dogma was taught by Trent (session 6, canon 18), and it is considered to be infallible. So the signatories have got a point here, at least if one accepts their conservative theological premises. Maybe they really are more Catholic than the pope.