Sycophant Walford: “There can be no heresy emanating from the See of Peter”
On October 11, 2017, Pope Francis addressed participants of a meeting organised by the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization. The event marked the twenty fifth anniversary of St. John Paul II’s promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In his speech, the Holy Father focused on the death penalty and his desire for it to be eradicated from all nations. Naturally, he referred to the teachings of the Church in this regard and expressed sadness that even its use in the Papal States had meant the “primacy of mercy over justice” had been neglected.
Pope Francis spoke forcefully maintaining that capital punishment is an “inhumane measure” that “abases human dignity”. Not only that. He went as far as to state that it is “per se contrary to the Gospel” because it entails the “wilful suppression of a human life that never ceases to be sacred in the eyes of its Creator and of which – ultimately – only God is the true judge and guarantor.”
Citing the great fifth century theologian St Vincent of Lerins, the Holy Father explained the indispensable factor (in reference to Tradition) of doctrinal development. “Doctrine cannot be preserved without allowing it to develop, nor can it be tied to an interpretation that is rigid and immutable without demeaning the working of the Holy Spirit.” However, the Pontiff was careful to point out that this is no rupture from the past “Here we are not in any way contradicting past teaching, for the defence of the dignity of human life from the first moment of conception to natural death has been taught by the Church consistently and authoritatively.”
Within hours of course, in the present climate of dissent, some were quick to accuse the Pope of another heresy; this hot on the heels of the “correctio filialis.” Accusations included claims that all past popes who had allowed the death penalty were now guilty of approving “intrinsically evil acts”.
The reality of the Pope’s teaching seems quite different if taken from the perspective of authentic doctrinal development. On the one hand from a purely legal procedure, by stating there is no contradiction from past papal teaching, Francis would seem to accept the reality that in a very unstable world of the past, the death penalty might have been the only recourse, that only most reluctantly should have been imposed. Now however those circumstances simply don’t exist, thus there is no longer an excuse to utilise this dreadful form of justice.
The controversy though surrounds his teaching that the death penalty is per se contrary to the Gospel. Why this should be problematic is not entirely apparent. The reality is that the Gospel concerns life. Jesus showed that time and again in his ministry of healing and renewal. We need only look at the way he saved the woman caught in the act of adultery from stoning to know that mercy was his signature. Most significant of all is the truth that Jesus specifically came to save us from the death penalty–the eternal death penalty. Divine justice was now manifest in the application of mercy, and the One sentenced to death freely embraced that punishment, without any desire that we should experience the same fate.
It seems to me that several factors need separating here: On the one hand is the law on a human level. Jesus said “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God”; this would also apply to the application of civil law. But on the other hand, divine law is not bound to that code; it exists in another realm where mercy takes primacy over justice. For too long a temptation has existed with millenarian tendencies to “pull” Jesus down to an earthly level, to reduce the full power of eternal realities. But the truth is that Jesus came with the command to transform the world from within until the time that he comes again. This involves the gradual full revelation of the beauty and dignity of every human life. Let us ask, would St Robert Bellarmine of St Thomas More advocate the burning at the stake of heretics if they were on earth now? The Church is called to imitate its Master in an ever more perfect way, and the development of this doctrine as taught recently by Pope Francis is proof that it seeks to do just that.
Thus if the death penalty was a legitimate tool of human law in former times as previous popes taught, it never conformed to the principle of divine law by which God always desires the salvation of all through repentance, forgiveness and mercy. For some, that opportunity of a new beginning, which Jesus would have surely blessed, would never have had the chance to materialise.
The reaction to this speech of Pope Francis from certain theologians, along with the correctio filialis, the threatened formal correction of Cardinal Burke, and the letter of 45 theologians several years ago, raises important questions about the relationship between theologians and the magisterium. One could be forgiven for wondering who claims to have ultimate teaching authority in the Church. However, when we look at the teachings of St John Paul II in this area, a clear picture emerges that should serve as a reminder to dissenting theologians of their proper place in the life of the Church.
The Polish Pontiff defines theologians as those who are to “guard the word of God, to study it more deeply, to explain it, to teach it, to defend it…Theologians have special qualifications for studying and elucidating the reasons for the doctrinal and moral teaching of the Church. By their training and scholarship, and following their specific method, theologians are in a position to probe and illustrate the data of faith and the interpretation that the Magisterium gives of these data in doctrine and morals.” (1)
So the question arises as to the exact nature of the relationship between theologian and magisterium. Can the theologian correct the magisterium? Can he place limits on the development of magisterial teaching?
The Pope states that the principle of harmony is the regulating feature where the relationship between the two is concerned, since both are at the service of divine Revelation. But there is a crucial distinction in terms of the authoritativeness of theological teaching:
“The fruitful exercise of the Magisterium requires us to reflect on various aspects of the mystery of God’s word and its transmission in the Church. We know that the authentic Magisterium of the Church is characterized by unity. It makes no claim to be above the word of God; rather it seeks humbly to serve that word, through its specific charism, exercised in the name of Christ and by his authority. As such, the Magisterium has no parallel in the Church. There is only one authentic ecclesial Magisterium, and it belongs to the Bishops. On the part of individual Bishops, the communion of teaching with the Pope and the whole College is of extreme importance, because it is the guarantee of authentic doctrine and of the supernatural effectiveness of every pastoral initiative.” (2)
From the beginning of his Pontificate, John Paul II had desired to ensure that no misunderstanding could result in theologians creating their own alternate magisterium, “Only when the teaching of theologians is in conformity with the teaching of the College of Bishops, united with the Pope, can the people of God know with certitude that that teaching is ‘the faith which has been once and for all entrusted to the Saints’ (Jude 3). This is not a limitation for theologians, but a liberation.” (3)
Similar words are found in a homily given in Treviso Italy “The lay person, aware of the vocation of the apostolate, will never seek to act in discord, to exalt his independence from the Magisterium, will not assume as source of his proclamation his own subjective experience of faith, but will seek from the doctrine proclaimed by the Church the strength of truth.” (4)
The truth of the matter, and one that is being contested daily it seems, is that regardless of something being proclaimed infallibly or not, Christ preserves the Magisterium from error in matters of faith and morals. For instance we read in a general audience from May 1985:
“The Magisterium is called to safeguard the whole truth contained in divine revelation. To believe in a Christian way means to adhere to this truth by taking advantage of the guarantee of truth which comes to the Church through its institution by Christ himself. This holds true for all the faithful, and also for theologians and exegetes at the right level and in the proper degree. In this field the merciful providence of God is revealed for everyone. God has willed to grant us not only the gift of his self-revelation, but also the guarantee of its faithful preservation, interpretation and explanation, entrusting it to the hands of the Church.” (5)
The question of why many things are not proclaimed infallibly is not because they are erroneous– which would be in direct contradiction to the guarantee given by Christ through the Holy Spirit– but because certain teachings and disciplinary measures are either contingent on historical circumstances, or the wisdom of the Church decrees that further theological exploration is needed before any irreformable definition is given. It may also be– as in the case of the doctrine of Mary Co Redemptrix–at least for now, that the term although a teaching of the magisterium is likely to cause too much confusion if it is raised to the level of infallibility. It seems safe to say that in a sense, infallibility “hovers” over all matters related to faith and morals and is there to be utilised when the necessary conditions apply. (6)
St. John Paul II was fully aware of the necessity if doctrinal development along the lines proposed by St Vincent of Lerins and taught by Pope Francis, “Revealed truth, however, has been entrusted to the Church once and for all. It has reached its completion in Christ. Hence the profound significance of the Pauline expression “deposit” of faith. At the same time, this deposit allows for a further explanation and for a growing understanding as long as the Church is on this earth.” (7)
It seems to me that the theologians, laypeople and priests who during the present Pontificate have sought to question or even correct the teachings of Pope Francis need to question their own understanding of the way in which God protects his Church. The question needs to be asked: “Is my understanding of doctrinal development and papal authority deficient rather than the Pope’s?” Cardinal Muller recently clarified that the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith doesn’t have the right to correct the Pope and thus that applies to every other person.
Theology on its own is simply a science, but in order to grasp its greater depth it must be allied to a life of prayer and openness to the possibility that the Holy Spirit has more to reveal. Pope Francis several years ago stated:
“The theologian who is satisfied with his complete and conclusive thought is mediocre. The good theologian and philosopher has an open, that is, an incomplete, thought, always open to the maius of God and of the truth, always in development, according to the law that St. Vincent of Lerins describes as: “annis consolidetur, dilatetur tempore, sublimetur aetate” (Commonitorium primum, 23: PL 50, 668): it is strengthened over the years, it expands over time, it deepens with age. This is the theologian who has an open mind. And the theologian who does not pray and who does not worship God ends up sunk in the most disgusting narcissism. And this is an ecclesiastical illness. The narcissism of theologians, of thinkers, is disgusting.” (8)
I hope that these reflections will serve to show that the theological community must resist the temptation to create a parallel magisterium that does nothing more than foster disunity in the Church, and instead, begin to look into what the Spirit is saying to the Churches at this particular time. There can be no heresy emanating from the See of Peter; that is clear from doctrinal development over the centuries concerning papal primacy, and because of that, mistrust must turn to hope that the Lord is guiding his Bride to a better way of confronting and dealing with the sicknesses so visible of the world.
1. St John Paul II, “Ad Limina address to US Bishops”, October 22, 1983
3. St John Paul II, “Address to Priests, Missionaries, Religious Brothers and Sisters”, Maynooth Ireland, October 1, 1979
4. St John Paul II, “Homily at Mass in Treviso”, June 16, 1985, The Pope Teaches 1985/7 p 194
5. St John Paul II “General Audience” May 1, 1985, Ibid, p 199
6. Cf. Pius XI, Divini Illius Magistri no 18, Bl Pius IX, Qui Pluribus, no 10, Pius XII, Humani Generis, no 18
7. St John Paul II, “Ad Limina Address to US Bishops”, October 15, 1988
8. Pope Francis, Address to the Community of the Pontifical Gregorian University, April 10, 2014
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