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Correctio Ad Infinitum

by Tony M.

A few weeks ago, 62 scholars released a letter titled “Correctio Filialis”, a filial correction of errors relating to Pope Francis’s Amoris Laetitia (AL). (The initial signatories were 62, it is now over 200). It was a bit of a bombshell in Catholic circles.

Let’s do a quick run-down that led to this:

IN 2014 and 2015, Pope Francis held the Synod on the Family, in 2 parts. He didn’t like the way the first half went, so he revised the approach for the second half a little. He was not satisfied with the approved text statements for Part 2, so he changed the rules on the texts that get published – he included the ones that did not get the required 2/3 vote, but did get a majority. I predicted that any document issued to cap the Synod would be filled with ambiguity. I was right:

In March 2016 Francis published the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, with its controversial Chapter 8. Much of its controversy has to do with its ambiguity. Although the Pope characterized the point of it as “not changing the rules” on receiving communion, he has approved of follow-up implementations that do, in fact, change the practice of priests and dioceses on how / whether those who are not married with the Church’s blessing (but living like they are married) can receive communion.

In April 2016, Bishop Athanasius Schneider commented on how its ambiguities were already sowing disunity, with some clerics saying that it “opened the doors” to divorced and “remarried” Catholics receiving communion, others denying it.

In July 2016, 45 theologians sent a letter of appeal about the severe deficiencies in Chapter 8 as compared to traditional, magisterial teaching on morality and the reception of sacraments, to all 218 Cardinals and Patriarchs. They asked the Pope for clarification.

In September 2016, 4 cardinals sent a letter to the pope asking 5 questions, i.e. “dubia”, on the interaction between Chapter 8 and prior doctrinal teaching, especially as stated in its most definitive and most recent magisterial form, in Pope St. John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor (VS). Bishops submitting dubia to the Vatican for clarification of specific narrow points of teaching is a time-honored practice.

The pope did not respond to them. In November, the Vatican dropped a public comment that he did not appreciate being treated with such pointed questioning as smacks of obstinacy, and implied they would get no answer. Seemingly in response, the dubia were made public, and Cardinal Raymond Burke (one of the 4 cardinals) issued a statement that if the dubia did not get a clarifying answer, there would be a follow-up, which would include a “correction” to the Pope’s document, inasmuch as it contains such severe ambiguities as to lead people to make errors. He referenced (obscurely) ancient precedent for correcting a pope.

In January 2017, three eastern European bishops called for a prayer storm for Francis to urge him to issue corrections to the false implementations of AL that allow people in mortal sin to receive communion.

Cardinal Muller, the prefect for the CDF, tried to support the Pope and defend AL, while also defending the traditional stance on morality and the reception of the sacraments, for example by decrying the response of the German bishops (which amounted to, roughly, saying “we will do what we have been doing all along, which is to ignore the Canons on administering the sacraments anyway”). For his pains, Card. Muller was let go from his position by Francis, with no explanation but a “that’s all”, and (if one may read between the lines) a nicely implied “don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

Pope Francis earlier also had dismissed Cardinal Burke from his position as head of the Roman Signatura; and reduced the power of Cardinal Sarah, who as prefect for the Congregation for Divine Worship, had tried to support Pope Benedict’s vision of improving the liturgy, including with Summorum Pontificum (in favor of allowing priests to say Mass using the old, traditional form).

(In a strange twist, the Pope has just now re-instated Cardinal Burke in the Signatura – in a lower position. We don’t know why. Arguably, the appointment was done for reasons of Italian politics, but in terms of Church politics it could either be taken as a directly intended slight, or as a hopeful means of muting Cardinal Burke’s opposition to AL, or to smother him in new work so he cannot finish the expected correction. I don’t think any of these explanations is quite adequate. If anyone has a better explanation, I should like to hear it.

Along the way, Pope Francis has let it be known that he has no intention of issuing a corrective to Chapter 8, (instead declaring that it is clear and right) and has approved of implementations by bishops’ conferences that take its force in the direction of having divorced and remarried persons receive communion in some situations, at least. And he has not exerted any effort to stop bishops (e.g. in Malta) whose implementation seems to be that priests cannot refuse communion to any person in these irregular marriage situations, period. (And it will extend to lots of others: gays, those in other sexual relationships that don’t even purport to be “marriage”, etc.) Eventually, he commented on those making waves as: “From the times of the prophets until now, the sin to resist the Holy Spirit had always been there: this resistance to the Spirit.”. And

Asking himself how can one discern whether such innovations are from the Holy Spirit or a spirit of worldliness and from the devil, the Pope said one must ask for the spirit of discernment.

The reaction by pro-Francis supporters to the many requests for clarification has been vitriolic. Most have been filled with all sorts of ad hominem attacks, and very few even pretend to answer the issues like those in the Correctio. Par for the course, this is just what we tended to find over the last year when people poked up and mentioned this or that nugget of difficulty in AL: innuendo, ad hominems, and obfuscation. There are a few exceptions, notable by their rarity, such as this blog defense of AL – and even it does not pretend that the document is “clear”.

In an article published in August 2017, Dr. Josef Siefert, a friend of JPII, called AL a “theological atomic bomb” endangering all Catholic moral teaching. He was fired almost immediately from his university position by a Spanish archbishop in September. (If Siefert had done the same thing to a conservative pope’s document, the university would have bent over backwards to stand up for him and protect him, and the entire process of firing (if ever) would have taken a decade – if someone in authority could be found to stomach the effort.)

Also in August, Archbishop Victor Fernandez published a defense of AL. He is widely accepted to have been one of the ghost writers on AL, at least parts of it, including the famous Chapter 8. He is also the author of a heinous and grotesque book “Heal Me With Your Mouth: The Art of Kissing” in 1995. All the more grotesque as being the product of a (presumably celibate) Catholic priest. The defense is, in my opinion, helpful because it exposes with SOME greater clarity the foundation of thinking from which springs the ambiguous and troubling phrasing in AL. The defense is flawed and cannot easily be squared with Church teaching, specifically the doctrine laid out in Veritatis Splendor. Again, in my opinion. I will come out with a post on that topic soon.

And then: on August 11 of this year, 62 Catholic authors of some prominence delivered the now famous Correctio Filialis to Pope Francis. The Correctio makes no bones about AL being merely ambiguous: together with the implementations of it, and Pope Francis’s vocal support of those implementations, and his refusal to correct errors, they call the net result heretical. They do not claim that AL itself (on its own) is heretical, and they do not call the pope a heretic. They call for him to reject the heresies that are flowing out from the aggregate elements of the problem.

The writers of this Correctio, while anticipating that Cardinal Burke will issue something (soon), felt that other persons in the Church, including lay experts and others not high up in the hierarchy had a positive role to play in pursuit of truth and in protection of our patrimony of doctrine. They claim that when you take AL together with the actions positive and negative by which Pope Francis has supported problematic readings of Chapter 8, there emerge 7 heretical theses that must be countered. (There is no claim that there are not MORE such theses, but it is sufficient, for the moment, to distinguish these 7). They made the letter public on September 24, after receiving no answer from the Pope.

Cardinal Schonborn is on record defending AL by saying that it’s theology is “Thomistic”. Well, I showed in my analysis in January that its quotes from St. Thomas are rather problematic, one at least being almost opposite of Thomism, certainly using his words in a sense at variance with his actual intent. I’m not alone: Fr. Thomas Crean, O.P. a Dominican, holding a doctorate in theology, and a Thomist, says the same thing, here:

Although the argument at this point in Amoris Laetitia seems designed to be hard to follow, the impression is very strongly given that St. Thomas would have said that either sexual activity within a marriage not recognized by the Church as valid, or else giving Holy Communion to those who engage in such activity, cannot be objects of a universal prohibition. There can be, the text implies, only a defeasible presumption against such things. In fact, St. Thomas teaches, with the whole tradition of the Church, that there are indeed such things as intrinsically bad actions which generate universal prohibitions.

And by “universal” he does not mean “prohibitions in the abstract, but not when you descend to particular cases”, because particular cases, in every case, involve some species of action or other, and certain species of action are intrinsically wrong and therefore wrong in every single instance.

MY THOUGHTS on the situation:

I said in January that AL is seriously ambiguous, and pointed out numerous difficulties in the manner in which it is laid out. I was, (going by the tenor of these other documents) rather reserved and mild.

I an not sure I would have taken quite the tack these 62 scholars who issued the Correctio perhaps took. Whether those interpretations of AL (which lead to heretical positions) are supported by the Pope or not, because the document is ambiguous they are not the only way to read it, and one is obliged to read it consistently with all prior doctrine. Even if the Pope himself were to explicitly support the heretical theses in his private letters, his comments in interviews, etc, this would not turn them into Church teaching, for the Church can only have one Magisterium, and only one consistent body of doctrine. To contradict earlier magisterial teaching perforce is to say something non-magisterially.

I know people who know Cardinal Burke, and know him for a learned and humble man, one who would go to great lengths to submit to the discipline of discerning the Spirit, and would refrain from criticizing the Pope’s document if he thought he could avoid doing so and still perform his duties. I have known personally, for over 20 years, one of the 62 original signers of the Correctio, and at least 3 more by long years of their public writing, in some cases including blog interactions with me and others whom I know. They are not the sort of people to readily fall prey to a pride-filled temptation to reject their duty to submit to the teaching authority of the Church, having spent decades in such submission. The notion that Card. Burke, his 3 fellow cardinals (all highly respected), along with the 45 theologians, the 62 scholars, and multitudes of lesser lights, each of them with decades of humble submission to the Church, all have signally failed their obligation to read AL with an open heart seeking to understand the Pope’s thought and receive it with the mind of the Church,…

WHILE AT THE SAME TIME, bishops and their conferences, convinced that they know what it says, have come up with wildly divergent conclusions on “what it means” and how to carry it out; …

AND that the document is “clear” and “not ambiguous”

Is so froot-loopy goofy as to defy adequate description.

At a minimum, the Pope needs to just accept the fact that people who want to understand him aren’t getting what he is trying to say - or at least, how it is that what he is trying to say can be squared with doctrine. (Except that some who seem to be “getting it” also seem to think that it says stuff which, so far as a lot of people can see, was identified in Veritatis Splendor as error.) So, assuming what he is saying ISN’T on the road to flat error, and is not in contradiction to VS, then he needs to show that clearly: the charitable thing to do for those struggling is to give them the clarity that they need to stop thinking that the document points toward what is error. Charity demands it. It’s not an optional extra. It’s is IN THE JOB DESCRIPTION: feed the sheep. They are starving for clarity.

I am fairly confident that Cardinal Burke, unless he is called home sooner or is given a point blank direct authoritative order by the Pope not to do it, will issue the predicted Correction soon. This one, presumably, as coming from cardinals, will be in a mode of “Fraternal Correction” rather than filial, (as was the explicit intention of the 62 scholars in their letter), and thus carry more weight. In my opinion, a document either just before Advent or at the Feast of the Immaculate Conception will be the right timing.

However, I now believe that people initially put too much stock in Cardinal Burke’s early description of the correction he alluded to: it will carry no official authority to resolve the problem, all it can do is speak with the innate authority of truth. It will not “force” the Pope to do anything new – unless it somehow ignites a fire-storm effect in the faithful that the Pope cannot ignore. The likelihood of that is so low as to be unmeasurable…except with God intervening, that is. With God, all things are possible.

Ultimately, a pope is not “our man” who receives his authority from us and can be recalled by us. We didn't give him his authority. His is not political authority, which resides in a sovereign government in virtue of being placed there by the polity. His authority comes to him directly from God, and he is God’s vicar here on Earth. It is God’s job to take in hand His vicar who is not living up to his office – it must be, since God did not give that authority to us. Yet we must do our part, in humility, in faith, in love, in steadfastness. For example: pray.

Last word: The Bible, and private revelation as well, speak of grievous enemies within the Church, possibly (depending on how you interpret it), right up to the very top. But one need not think Pope Francis to be among them to allow that he is missing an important opportunity to teach and lead. Yet it is obvious that we have a Church hierarchy with many men who ought not have been put there. In such times, there is great danger to each of us. Therefore, pray. Pray that we will not be saddled with a rift that it would take the holiness and insight of a St. Athanasius to successfully see clear through to faithfulness to the true Church. Pray for the Church. Pray for Francis. Pray for Cardinal Burke and the others with whom he is working.

Comments (6)

I am fairly confident that Cardinal Burke, unless he is called home sooner or is given a point blank direct authoritative order by the Pope not to do it, will issue the predicted Correction soon.

It never occurred to me that the pope could do that. Would he have authority to say, "Don't you dare issue a fraternal correction to me" in such a manner that Burke would be obliged to obey? Would/could he also order him not to tell anyone that this was going on and was the reason for a subsequent silence on Burke's part?

The Pope has an interesting kind of authority over cardinals. As functionaries of the Vatican's curia, they are in a sense servants of the Pope's express will. It is unclear to me whether there are ANY limits to that, short of a direct order to sin. One might suppose that a pope has as much authority over a cardinal as a superior (say, an abbot) has in a religious order - which extends to pretty much everything that relates to life under the Rule of the order. Obedience is a serious business in a religious order.

On the other hand, cardinals are called the "princes of the Church", and might seem to have some authority (expressed in Canon Law, but in time pre-dating Canon Law) independently of the pope's express directives. At least, to teach - especially those who are bishops. A pope cannot "unmake" a bishop so that he ceases to be a bishop, that's permanent (i.e. forever, even past the Final Judgment).

I assume that if the Pope tells Cardinal Burke not to write a correction, Burke will not do it. And this would extend to Burke not explaining his silence, if that's what the Pope commands. However, if I were Burke, I would have already (some months ago) pre-planned for this, by (a) writing most of it already, and (b) getting agreement from several fellow cardinals that if the pope silences him (Burke), they will do it under their own name(s). A sort of dead-man's switch. After all, Burke can also keel over dead at any moment, too.

After all, Burke can also keel over dead at any moment, too.

As has happened to two (right?) of the four dubia cardinals already.

He could set up a dead-man's switch like that, with a time trigger.That way if he were silenced they could just presume that he'd been silenced and go ahead on date ____ without needing a signal.

Thanks for this excellent timeline and analysis Tony.

What strikes me about this whole episode with AL is how confused the Pope seems to be about matters of theology. He releases a exhortation about love and the faithful end up scratching their heads in confusion about what the heck he's talking about. As you say for those of us who want to be charitable to the Pope:

At a minimum, the Pope needs to just accept the fact that people who want to understand him aren’t getting what he is trying to say - or at least, how it is that what he is trying to say can be squared with doctrine.

This episode reminds me of what is going on simultaneously with our old colleague Professor Ed Feser and the Pope's comments on the death penalty. Ed has a great round up on the controversy here:


Again, the key problem is the Pope's muddled thinking about moral theology. It is very frustrating.

To be (fairly) blunt, this Pope simply does not like the Catholic Church's tradition of theological clarity. He probably also does not like the concrete conclusions embodied in that tradition, but even more than that, I believe that he's actively hostile to the traditional and Thomistic Catholic tradition of speaking clearly, making clear distinctions, and laying everything out unambiguously. He prefers fuzziness, because to him that seems more loving, or something.

Lydia, your point is a reasonable estimation of actions we have seen. If we put the charitable spin on it, he is very opposed to the kind of thinking that lines up everything into closed boxes, not to accomplish a change of heart and conversion to love of God, but to simply be comfortable with where everything lands. He at least seems unsympathetic toward the kind of mindset in which charity springs forth from clear knowledge and understanding.

Jeff, I am closely following that debate. In my opinion, because of the nature of the case, anybody in the hierarchy who thinks that something "must be done" because Francis is spouting error - potentially, even heresy - would be well advised to focus in on the comments about the death penalty, rather than the position in AL, because the former are a LOT clearer and easier to establish forthrightly, to "make manifest". What is very concerning is that probably at least 1/3 of the bishops are completely out to lunch themselves on the issue: while not necessarily heretics themselves, at least so befuddled that they would be unable to distinguish doctrine from error. And another 1/3 (or more) lean very strongly toward the view that the death penalty should be abolished or at least never actually used these days, and are not above a little mis-placed emphasis on language like "per se violation of human dignity" for rhetorical effect when if push came to shove they probably would not actually defend that position in the face of something clear like Ed's book. That leaves a pitiful remnant left to muster the needed response that would actually put a roadblock in front of Francis. As far as the college of cardinals, I don't know the proportions, but he has appointed over 40, and he may be doing a better job of getting men more like what he specifically wants than his predecessors:

Pope Francis has done numerous revolutionary things during his first four years as pope, but it is hard to top the change he has made to the College of Cardinals. He has changed the system so that an incumbent pope can stack the college with bishops who support his views. This change will have an impact on the church for centuries to come. ... Francis consciously chose to bypass them for other bishops, some from "insignificant" sees. He picks the man rather than the see. He looks for bishops who support his own pastoral style and vision for the church. This ensures that those he appoints will be more likely to support continuity at the next conclave, rather than reject the direction in which he is leading the church. It ensures that the conclave will be filled with shepherds who smell like their sheep.

The National "Catholic" Fishwrap: https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/faith-and-justice/francis-stacks-college-cardinals

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