The Question of Papal Heresy - Part 5

Source: District of the USA

Building on the previous 4 parts, we examine whether the Church is officially promulgating heretical teachings through Amoris Laetitia.

The author of this series, Fr. Jean-Michel Gleize, has been a professor in the SSPX's Seminary of St. Pius X in Econe, Switzerland for 20 years, where he is currently teaching ecclesiology. He is the author of numerous articles in Courrier de Rome and is a consultant to the SSPX commission responsible for doctrinal discussions with the Holy See.

Part 5: Is Pope Francis Heretical?

Identifying Heresy

Calling one’s adversary “heretical” could be polite in a certain ecclesial context that is now past. More precisely, men of the Church too, whether or not they were theologians, had their repertoire of insults. Invective is found in all times and in all professions. We already find considerable traces of it in the Gospel, even on the lips of the Incarnate Word. One may regret that it has become rare, since the last Council, and deplore the kid gloves and sugar coatings that prevail now in inter-confessional dialogues.

The use of insults ought to remain legitimate, provided that no mistake is made about its significance, which will always be limited. Very often, it falls short of its original value and is no more than the last resort of those who have lost all their arguments and just want to avoid losing face. And we are not talking about demonization, which is a form of manipulation on a grand scale. In short, we may be in the middle of rhetoric here and, if you will, outside of the field of theology, properly speaking. Rhetoric may possibly serve as a support to theology, and that is precisely the basis of its legitimacy, but it could never replace it, much less mask the absence thereof.

"Heretical" Demands Contradiction To Defined Truth

It is different with the doctrinal censure “heretical”: the latter is a technical expression, part of the terminology to which specialists resort in order to give as precise an evaluation as possible. The designation “heretical” corresponds to this precise language that the theologian uses; in this sense it applies to a person whose acts and words sufficiently manifest a rejection or a questioning of the revealed truth that is proposed by the infallible Magisterium of the Church. It applies also, consequently, or by extension of its meaning, to a proposition which demonstrably contradicts dogma.

Applying this type of designation to a person or to a proposition therefore implies that one has previously verified the rejection or contradiction in question. What matters is not only whether or not there is a rejection or a contradiction. What also matters is verifying whether this rejection or contradiction has any precise bearing on a dogma, in other words, on a truth that is not only revealed but also proposed as such by an infallible act of the ecclesiastical Magisterium. That spells out the whole complexity of the matter that is hidden behind the word.

The Case of Pope Francis

The question that we are asking ourselves here is extremely precise: Does Pope Francis deserve this designation in the eyes of simple theology, as any member of the teaching Church can practice it by reason of his real, acknowledged competencies? And does he deserve it because of what he affirms in the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris laetitia? Forty-five theologians thought that they were obliged to affirm it. Four cardinals give us to understand clearly enough that, unless he gives a satisfactory response to their dubia, the Supreme Pontiff could deserve the assignment of such a censure.

What can we say? Let us simply take a look at the five dubia presented by the four cardinals and also at the corresponding passages from Amoris laetitia whose meaning is in doubt. In order to be brief, and in order to be as clear as possible, we will formulate the essential idea of each dubium.

The First Dubium


The first dubium poses the question concerning paragraphs 300-305 of Amoris laetitia: is it possible to give absolution and sacramental Communion to divorced-and-remarried persons who live in adultery without repenting? For someone who adheres to Catholic doctrine, the answer is no. What exactly does Amoris laetitia say? The following passage from par. 305 says this:


Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin—which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such—a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.”

(A footnote reads: “In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, ‘I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy’ (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, 44). I would also point out that the Eucharist ‘is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak’ (ibid., 47)).

The doubt arises here with the note. There is no doubt about the fact that non-culpable ignorance of sin excuses from sin. But to those who are victims of this ignorance and thereby benefit from this excuse, the Church offers first the help of her preaching and warnings, the Church starts by putting an end to the ignorance by opening the eyes of the ignorant to the reality of their sin. The help of the sacraments can only come afterward, if and only if the formerly ignorant persons, now instructed as to the seriousness of their state, have decided to make use of the means of conversion, and if they have what is called a firm purpose of amendment. Otherwise the help of the sacraments would be ineffective, and it too would be an objective situation of sin.

We are dealing here therefore with a doubt (dubium) in the strictest sense of the term, in other words, a passage that can be interpreted in two ways. And this doubt arises precisely thanks to the indefinite expression in the note: “in certain cases”. In order to dispel this doubt, it is essential to indicate clearly what these cases are in which the Church’s sacramental aid proves possible and to state that this is about situations in which the sufficiently enlightened sinners have already decided to abandon the objectively sinful situation.

The Second Dubium


The second dubium poses the question concerning paragraph 304: is there such a thing as intrinsically evil acts from a moral perspective that the law prohibits without any possible exception? For someone who adheres to Catholic doctrine, the answer is yes. What exactly does Amoris laetitia say? Par. 304, citing the Summa theologiae of Saint Thomas Aquinas (I-II, question 94, article 4), insists on the application of the law, rather than on the law itself, and emphasizes the part played by the judgment of prudence, which allegedly can be exercised only on a case-by-case basis, strictly depending on circumstances that are unique and singular.


It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations. At the same time it must be said that, precisely for that reason, what is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances cannot be elevated to the level of a rule.”

This passage does not introduce any ambivalence, properly speaking. It merely insists too much on one part of the truth (the prudent application of the law), to the point of obscuring the other part of the same truth (the necessary value of the law), which is altogether as important as the first. The text therefore errs here by omission, thus causing a misreading.

The Third Dubium


The third dubium poses the question concerning paragraph 301: can we say that persons who habitually live in a way that contradicts a commandment of God’s law (for example the one that forbids adultery) are in an objective situation of habitual grave sin? The Catholic answer is yes. Amoris laetitia says on this subject: “Hence it can no longer simply be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace.” Two points should be emphasized.

The sentence just quoted posits in principle the impossibility of making a universal affirmation. It does not deny the possibility of saying that public sinners are deprived of grace; it only denies the possibility of saying that all public sinners are deprived of it. This denial has always been taught by the Church. There are in fact, in concrete human acts, what is called exculpatory or “mitigating” reasons (or factors). Because of them, the sinner may not be morally responsible for the objective situation of sin. These reasons include not only ignorance, but also defects of an emotional, affective or psychological sort, and paragraph 302 provides the details, relying on the teaching of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992). Nevertheless, these mitigating factors (even if they were frequent, which remains to be proved) exonerate the person but still do not put an end to the objective situation of sin: the subjectively exonerated sinner does not cease to be in that situation objectively. By omitting this key distinction the passage from Amoris laetitia again introduces doubt here.

The Fourth Dubium


The fourth dubium poses the question concerning paragraph 302: can we still stay, from a moral perspective, that an act that is already intrinsically evil by reason of its object can never become good because of circumstances or the intention of the person who performs it? The Catholic answer is yes. Amoris laetitia says: “A negative judgment about an objective situation does not imply a judgment about the imputability or culpability of the person involved.” That is true, but the reverse is not, and by neglecting to say that, this passage again introduces doubt.

If a divorced-and-remarried person sins, he sins as such, precisely because he is living in an objective situation of a remarried divorcé, which is an objective situation of grace sin, as such calling for a negative judgment. If the divorced-and-remarried person does not sin, it is not as such, but rather precisely for reasons other than his objective situation as a remarried divorcé, which in itself leads to sin.

The confusion arises here between the intrinsically evil malice of an act and the imputability of this malice to the one who commits the act. The circumstances of the act and the intention of the one who commits the act can have the effect of annulling the imputability of the malice of the act, but not of annulling the malice of the act. This fourth doubt proceeds from the same sort of omission as the third.

The Fifth Dubium

The fifth dubium poses the question concerning paragraph 303: can we say that conscience must always remain subject, without any possible exception, to the absolute moral law that forbids acts that are intrinsically evil because of their object? The Catholic answer is yes. Amoris laetitia repeats here the false confusion introduced already by Francis in his interview with the journalist Eugenio Scalfari, “Interview with the founder of the Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica,” in L’Osservatore romano, weekly French edition, dated October 4, 2013. (For more on this subject, see the December 2013 issue of the Courrier de Rome, the article entitled “Pour un Magistère de la conscience?” [“In favor of a Magisterium of the conscience?]).  

No one can act against his conscience, even if it is erroneous. Nevertheless, to say that conscience obliges, even when erroneous, means directly that it is wrong to go against it; but that does not imply at all that it is good to follow it. If the conscience is in error, because it is not in conformity with God’s law, not following it is enough for the will to be bad, but following it is not enough for the will to be good.

Saint Thomas remarks that the will of those who killed the Apostles was bad (Summa theologiae, I-II, question 19, article 6, sed contra). However, it agreed with their erroneous reason (= conscience), according to what Our Lord says in the Gospel (Jn 16:2): “The hour cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doth a service to God.” This therefore is the proof that a will conformed to an erroneous conscience can be bad. And this is precisely what Amoris laetitia does not explain, introducing here a fifth doubt. 

The 2015 Synod on the Family which started this disastrous chain of events

Subjectivism: Root of Five Dubia

The five dubia are therefore quite well-founded. The root of them is always the same: the confusion between the moral value of an act, a strictly objective value, and its imputability to someone who performs it, a strictly subjective imputability. Even though it may happen that the moral malice cannot be imputed subjectively, because the person who performs the act is excused from it (which remains to be proved, as much as possible, in each case), the act always and everywhere corresponds to an objective malice and consequently is at the root of an objectively sinful situation, whether or not it is in fact imputed to the one who finds himself in it. The Church’s traditional doctrine gives primacy to this objective order of the act’s morality, which follows from its object and its end or purpose. Amoris laetitia, by reversing this order, introduces subjectivism into morality.

Is Subjectivism Negation of Revealed Truth?

Does such subjectivism, as understood in its principle as well as in the five conclusions that follow from it here, represent the negation of a divinely revealed truth that is proposed as such by an infallible act of the ecclesiastical Magisterium? One would have to be able to answer yes in order to conclude that Amoris laetitia presents a heresy in each of the points just singled out and that Francis deserves the equivalent theological designation.

In order to establish this conclusion, it would be necessary to verify two things. First, are the five truths demolished by these five doubts so many dogmas? Secondly, does Amoris laetitia negate these dogmas, or at least call them into question formally and explicitly enough? The answer to these two questions is far from obvious and certain. For this new theology of Francis, which extends that of Vatican II, avoids this sort of formal opposition with regard to truths already proposed infallibly by the Magisterium before Vatican II. It sins most often by omission or by ambivalence. It is therefore dubious, in its very substance. And it is dubious exactly insofar as it is modernist, or more precisely: neo-modernist.

Does the Pope Intend to Affirm or Deny?

Chapter Eight of Amoris laetitia is defined, like the others, by the fundamental intention assigned by the Pope to the whole text of the Exhortation, which is “to gather the contributions of the two recent Synods on the family, while adding other considerations as an aid to reflection, dialogue and pastoral practice” (paragraph no. 4). Therefore we find here neither more nor less than matter for reflection, dialogue and practice. That is not material for clear-cut denial or calling into question. Or rather, if Amoris laetitia became the cause of heresy, it would be in an absolutely unique way, underhanded and latent as modernism itself. In other words, by the slant of a practice and an adaptation, more than within the framework of a formal teaching.

Practical Subversion of Doctrine

The heresy (if there is one) of Pope Francis is the heresy of a practical subversion, a revolution in deeds, and we would certainly say that this is what remained hidden until now behind the new concept of “pastoral Magisterium.” Now, in this area, it is difficult to make doctrinal censures. Indeed, censures establish a logically contrary relation between a given proposition and previously defined dogma. And this relation could exist only between two speculative truths, belonging to the same order of knowledge. The subversion, for its part, consists of eliciting among Catholics behaviors following from principles opposed to the doctrine of the Church.

This is how Amoris laetitia, while reaffirming the principle of the indissolubility of marriage (in paragraph nos. 52-53, 62, 77, 86, 123, 178), legitimizes a manner of living in the Church that follows from the principle opposed to this indissolubility (243, 298-299, 301-303): the neo-modernist Magisterium reaffirms the Catholic principle of marriage while permitting in practice everything to happen as though the opposite principle were true. How can anyone censure that? Would the note of heresy (understood in the strict sense of a doctrinal evaluation) still retain its meaning then?

Finding the Appropriate Expression

In this matter of censures, it is difficult to find the most appropriate expression, and not uncommonly theologians differ in their appraisals. Without intending to state that their insights are false, or that appraisals contrary to theirs are true, we would like to draw the attention of perplexed Catholics to a problem that perhaps is not always sufficiently taken into account.

The problem of this neo-modernist characteristic of Vatican II, which proceeds much more by way of a subversion in deeds than along the lines of a doctrinal heresy in the documents. Conclusive evidence of this problem, incidentally, has just been given to us, as though in spite of himself, by the Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

When questioned on Saturday, January 7, by an Italian news agency, Cardinal Gerhard Müller declared that the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris laetitia “is very clear in its doctrine” and that one can interpret it in such a way as to find in it “all of Jesus’ teaching about marriage, all the doctrine of the Church over 2,000 years of history.” According to him, Pope Francis is:


asking us to discern the situation of these persons who are living in an irregular union, in other words, who do not observe the Church’s doctrine on marriage, and asks that we come to the aid of these persons so that they can find a path toward a new integration into the Church.”

Consequently, the Cardinal thinks that it would not be possible to proceed to the fraternal correction mentioned by Cardinal Burke, given that there is in Amoris laetitia “no danger to the faith” (see his remarks reprinted by Nicolas Senèze in La Croix on January 9, 2017). In reality, the danger is very real, and Cardinal Burke rightly reacted to this statement by Cardinal Müller, insisting on the need for a pontifical correction.

Not Heretical but Promoting Heresy


The debate, therefore, is far from useless, but let us not lose sight of its object: it is not the scandal of a heresy formulated doctrinally; it is the scandal of a praxis that clears the way for a challenge to Catholic truth on the indissolubility of marriage.

To use the words of Saint Pius X himself from the encyclical Pascendi, the proponents of the new moral theology proceed with such refined skill that they easily take advantage of unwary minds. They promote heresy while giving the appearance of remaining Catholic. “Promoting heresy”: this corresponds to the theological note that Archbishop Lefebvre believed he had to use in order to characterize the harmfulness of the Novus Ordo Missae .

This rite in itself does not profess the Catholic Faith as clearly as the old Ordo Missae and consequently it may promote heresy....What is astonishing is that an Ordo Missae that smacks of Protestantism and therefore favens haeresim [is promoting heresy] could be promulgated by the Roman Curia." (Mgr Lefebvre et le Saint-Office”, Itinéraires 233 - May 1979, p. 146-1-47).

Without prejudice to any better opinion, we willingly had recourse to it in order to describe the major problem posed today for the conscience of Catholics by the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris laetitia.

Editor's note


Fr. Gleize's precise distinction will surprise more than one. In short, it seems that Pope Francis cannot be considered heretical, since none of the ambiguous statements in Amoris laetitia constitute “a rejection or contradiction of a truth that is not only revealed but also proposed as such by an infallible act of the ecclesiastical Magisterium.”

However, in the popular use of the word "heretical," one who acts and talks in such a way that he encourages evil and favors heresy is considered heretical. "If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it's a duck!" The popular expression is not a precise theological judgment; it is rather a common way of designating persons or ideas at odds with the deposit of faith.

The theological expression which can be properly applied to Pope Francis instead of “heretical” is favens haeresim or "promoting heresy.”

That does not change that the fact that the Holy Father is ambiguous in his declarations, refusing to clarify them, and - far from correcting evil- promotes it by practical disposition. It is what Fr. Gleize calls "the scandal of praxis."

More will be discussed in the sixth and final installment of this series: Does a pope who falls into heresy lose his investiture in the primacy?