By Dr. Jacob Wood*
Dr. Jacob Wood, an assistant professor of theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, offers answers on some frequently-asked-questions about the ‘Filial Correction on the Spread of Heresies” a letter sent to Pope Francis by a group of bishops, priests, and scholars, who released the letter this past weekend.
What is fraternal correction?
Fraternal correction is an act of charity (CCC 1829), in which we call a brother or sister in Christ, who has fallen into serious sin, back to the way of the Gospel. Fraternal correction is explained by Jesus in the Gospel (Mt 18:15-17).
Why is this called a “filial” and not a “fraternal” correction?
Christ established a hierarchy in his Church (CCC 877), and the signatories on the letter are not on equal footing with the pope in that hierarchy. Out of respect for the pope’s authority, they appeal to the pope as his spiritual sons and daughters, not as spiritual brothers and sisters.
Why is this correction being issued?
Some of the signatories issued a filial appeal to Pope Francis last year, asking him to clarify the Church’s teaching with regard to marriage, sin, and grace. When they did not receive a response, they prepared this correction. The correction was originally sent to Pope Francis privately in July.
Why is this correction being made public now?
When the signatories received no response from Pope Francis to their appeal or their correction, they were concerned about the possibility of scandal, and so they made it public.
Was it right to make the correction public?
Not necessarily, no.
In Donum Veritatis, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stipulates that theologians who wish to critique the timeliness, form, or substance of non-infallible magisterial documents should address their concerns to the “responsible authority” rather than the “mass media” (DV 30). The responsible authority for the Church’s teaching on faith and morals is the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The responsible authority for the interpretation of canon law is the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts.
Moreover, the principal concern of a filial or fraternal correction should be the amendment of the one who is thought to have sinned. But the publication of the document (as opposed to its private submission) was not undertaken primarily with a view towards correcting a supposed sin of Pope Francis. Rather, the cited reason for the publication of the correction is the avoidance of scandal to others, not the correction of Pope Francis himself.
Furthermore, although the correction seeks to avoid scandal, the correction itself has served as a cause of scandal. It insinuates that the pope is a heretic, it thereby weakens people’s trust in the pastors of the Church, and it provides the mass media with the opportunity to paint a false picture of the Church, in which those who believe the Church’s teaching about marriage, sin, and grace are seen as somehow opposed to the pope.
What authority does the correction have?
The correction is a private act on the part of the individual signatories, which they have undertaken in their capacity as baptized members of the Church (Can. 212, §3). The correction therefore has no magisterial authority in the Church.
Are Catholics required to follow the correction?
No. Since the correction lacks magisterial authority, Catholics are not required to agree with it or to follow it.
What is heresy?
“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…” (CCC 2089).
Does this mean that the pope is a heretic?
No. Despite the document’s title, the signatories acknowledge in the document that they lack the authority to judge whether the pope has committed the sin of heresy or the canonical crime of heresy. The difference between the sin and the crime of heresy, and an answer to the question about whether the pope can be a heretic, are discussed here.
If the signatories cannot convict the pope of heresy, what sin do the signatories claim that the pope has committed?
The signatories claim that the pope has failed to stop the spread of heresy, rather than that he has committed the sin of heresy himself.
What heresy do the signatories claim that the pope has failed to stop?
The signatories claim that the pope has failed to stop the spread of seven heresies. Most of these concern the Church’s teaching on mortal sin. The Church’s teaching is that we cannot with full knowledge and deliberate consent choose to perform grave evil without cutting ourselves off from God’s grace (CCC 1857), and that we cannot live in a state in life which is contrary to God’s law without cutting ourselves off from the Sacrament of the Eucharist (CCC 1650).
Are those heresies contained in Amoris Laetitia?
None of the passages of Amoris Laetitia cited by the correction explicitly denies that a person who knowingly and willingly commits grave evil cuts himself or herself off from God’s grace.
Amoris Laetitia does explore the possibility that a person who commits grave evil may in some cases not have full knowledge or deliberate consent when doing so, but precisely insofar as they lack full knowledge and/or deliberate consent, such a person is not necessarily committing mortal sin.
Amoris Laetitia also explores the process of healing the gravely sinful elements of a state in life which is contrary to God’s law, without necessarily abandoning that state in life altogether. Amoris Laetitia only speculates as to what may be possible in this context, and its teaching is not clear. The Church teaches that in ambiguous cases such as this one, “everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way.” (CCC 2478) That means interpreting ambiguous statements in continuity with the faith and practice of the Church, not in terms of a rupture with that faith and practice.
How can we gain clarity about the teaching of the Church on divorce and remarriage?
With magisterial authority, St. John Paul II declared that the Catechism of the Catholic Church is a “sure norm for teaching the faith” (Fidei Depositum 3). We may therefore look to the teaching of the Catechism on the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony (1601-1666), sin (1846-1879), and grace (1950-2029). Four Cardinals of the Catholic Church have also submitted five “dubia” to Pope Francis. A “dubium” is a question about faith and/or morals to which the faithful would like a magisterial answer, and “dubia” is the plural of “dubium.” Should Pope Francis answer the dubia, it would give us further guidance as to his intended teaching.
What should Catholics do now?
Catholics should pray for the pope, for the signatories of the correction, and for the Church. Jesus Christ himself promised to send his Holy Spirit so as to lead the Church into all truth (Jn 16:13), and to defend the Church from error (Mt 16:18). Jesus is always faithful to his promises.
*Dr. Jacob Wood is assistant professor of theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. His opinions are his own.