The signatories’ main concern is Francis’ catastrophic introduction of a form of situation ethics into the life of the Church via Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetita (AL) and its implementation. Under the astounding regime of sexual license Francis has established, certain public adulterers in “second marriages” can be absolved of their adultery and admitted to Holy Communion while continuing their adulterous relations as they “discern” whether and how to achieve the “objective ideal” of the Sixth Commandment in the “concrete complexity of one’s limits” where living in continence “may not, in fact, be feasible.”
As was to be expected, Jimmy Akin of Catholic Answers has rushed into the fray to assure everyone, with the usual air of smug certitude, that there is nothing to see here. Before I consider the merits of Akin’s arguments, such as they are, I note that he begins his critique of the Open Letter with the snooty observation that its original 19 signatories display “a lack of familiarity… with the details of the concept” of heresy, which he attributes to their lack of “doctorates in the relevant fields of canon law or sacred theology, though a few have licentiates (the equivalent of master’s degrees).” “None,” he continues, “seem to be specialists in ecclesiology—the branch of theology that deals most directly with the Magisterium of the Church—and none seem to have published a book on the Magisterium and how it engages I ts infallibility.”
Now, Akin has no doctorate in any field, much less what he deems “the relevant fields,” nor does he possess a licentiate in these relevant fields as do some of the signatories. And nowhere do I see evidence that Akin is a recognized “specialist in ecclesiology.” In fact, so far as I can tell, he does not even possess a liberal arts degree from a backwater college.
But notice how Akin slyly introduces an ad hoc qualification by which he authorizes himself to pass judgment on the signatories’ supposed lack of knowledge of what constitutes heresy: “none seem to have published a book on the Magisterium and how it engages its infallibility.”
Well, it just so happens that Akin has published a book entitled “Teaching With Authority: How to Cut Through Doctrinal Confusion & Understand What the Church Really Says.” So there! Unlike the woefully ignorant signers, Akin knows whereof he speaks because he has written a book on how to cut through doctrinal confusion and understand what the Church really says.
Yet the discerning reader may wonder what, in the first place, are Akin’s qualifications to teach the Catholic faithful about how to cut through doctrinal confusion and understand what the Church really says—a rather vast theological subject, one surmises—given that, unlike many of the signers, he has no degrees in theology and indeed no academic credentials at all.
According to an insufficiently proofread Catholic Answers biographical note, Akin's sole qualification to cut through doctrinal confusion and understand what the Church really says—including what she really says about the “details” of heresy—would appear to be this: “he has more than twenty years of experiencing [sic] defending and explaining the Faith.” Twenty years since his conversion from Protestantism, that is.
But then another question presents itself: How is it possible that in only twenty years since his conversion from the errors of Protestantism, Akin has become such a master of the truths of Catholicism that he can tell the world how to cut through doctrinal confusion and understand what the Church really says, and in particular what she really says concerning heresy, without ever having earned any of the theological degrees he criticizes the signers of the Open Letter for lacking?
Based on his “more than twenty years of experience” with Catholic theology, Akin evidently thinks he understands the nature of heresy better than such signers of the Open Letter as Father Aidan Nichols, one of the world’s foremost Catholic theologians. In addition to having far more than twenty years of experience with the Faith, Father Nichols is an Oxford alumnus, a Licentiate and Master of Sacred Theology, the author of dozens of books on theological subjects, an accomplished Latinist, a former Lecturer in Dogmatics and Ecumenics at the Angelicum and a former John Paul II Memorial Visiting Lecturer at Oxford.
Having questioned the signers’ credibility for lack of what he deems indispensable academic credentials, Akin is “hoist by his own petard” (cf. Hamlet, Act III, Scene IV). The resulting explosion disables his critique from the outset. Quite simply, who does Akin think he is? Indeed, I believe I have been altogether too kind to the World’s Foremost Authority on the Details of the Concept of Heresy. Father George Rutler quickly administered the elegant putdown Akin deserves:
I have been asked to respond to Mr. “Jimmy” Akins’s criticism of the scholarly statement imputing heresy to the Holy Father, and which Akins calls “loopy.” One is surprised that such a screed, which engages the pedantry of an amateur, was published in the National Catholic Register.
While prescinding from any judgment about the juridical force of that scholarly statement, which may be frail in the case of a Sovereign Pontiff, the content of the document speaks for itself and strikes me as considerable if not even irrefutable. Noting among the signatories some figures I know and even highly esteem, I was amused to see that they are dismissed as incompetent and unqualified by “Jimmy” Akins.
I am unfamiliar with this man, but from what information I could find, he is from the scenic Ozarks, likes being photographed in a cowboy hat, and advertises himself as a “Catholic apologist” while apparently shy of mentioning any academic credentials beyond one year in an unnamed college. Nonetheless, his efforts seem to be well-intentioned, and for them he receives an impressive income.
However, I am moved to defend a man who needs no defense since he is one of the most distinguished theologians in the English-speaking world: Father Aidan Nichols. Perhaps “Jimmy” Akins would be willing to debate Father Nichols in that distinguished Dominican’s alma mater, the University of Oxford – the only requirements being that the debate be in the Latin with which Father Nichols is adroit, and that “Jimmy” Akins not wear a cowboy hat.
Jimmy Akin (Twitter/fair use)
Stung by this telling of criticism of his below-the-belt rhetoric, Akin has since backpedaled. He now claims that “my critique of the letter’s contents did not involve their level of expertise. I did not argue that their charges should be dismissed because of lack of credentials. I never make that argument, for anyone, on any subject. That’s the ad hominem fallacy [his emphasis].”
Sorry, but it won’t wash. When Akin cited lack of credentials and referred to certain of the signatories’ arguments as “loopy”—a synonym for crazy—he attacked precisely the men and not their arguments. An apology for this low blow might have worked, but not the claim that he never intended to do what he did: characterize the signers as ill-informed, underqualified presenters of crazy arguments.
Now to the substance of Akin’s critique of the Open Letter—whatever there is of it. In Akin’s backpedaling post he contends that he “Look[ed] at the merits of the argument they made.” He does nothing of the kind. Rather, he stands pat on the technical modern definition of heresy—the obstinate, post-baptismal doubt or denial of an article of divine and Catholic faith (cf. CIC 1983, can. 751)—and then merely declares, without analysis, that the Letter fails “to demonstrate that Pope Francis obstinately doubts or denies dogmas” because in Akin’s opinion (citing ex-CDF head Cardinal Mueller’s opinion) every one of the facially heterodox statements the signatories cite “can be understood in harmony with Church teaching.” He doesn’t lift a finger to demonstrate this supposed harmony, whereas the authors have convincingly demonstrated a very apparent disharmony.
Having offered no real analysis on the merits, while harping repeatedly on the technical definition of heresy, Akin gratuitously dismisses the arguments presented: “don’t waste our time citing irrelevant documents that don’t prove your point, and don’t waste our time—as the signatories of the Open Letter do—with loopy charges regardinga pastoral staff that the pope has carriedora cross he has worn.” All in all, Akin devoted a mere 1600 words to a document comprising some 10,000 words.
At any rate, what little Akin does say provides an opportunity for clarification of the issues at stake, whether or not the signatories have made their case for the strict canonical delict of heresy. And, lest anyone think otherwise, I do not argue that they have.
First of all, Akin, who thinks he knows better than the signers the “details” of what constitutes heresy, appears to have come up short on the details of what constitutes Catholic dogma. He writes: “Within the set of infallible doctrines is a smaller set that consists of those infallible teachings that the Magisterium has infallibly defined to be divinely revealed. These are the dogmas.”
This simplistic distinction between doctrine on the one hand and dogma on the other is a commonplace of superficial amateur theology. The concept of dogma embraces far more than dogma in the strict or formal sense, i.e., truths proposed as divinely revealed by the universal ordinary or the extraordinary Magisterium. As the title of Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma would suggest, dogma has another, broader sense: that of “Material Dogmas (dogma materialia)” which, in the course of legitimate dogmatic development, can be “raised to the status of Formal Dogmas.” [Ott, §4(3)(c) and §5(2)(a)-(b)]. For example, the dogma of the Assumption was a material dogma for nineteen centuries before Pius XII finally made it a formal dogma on November 1, 1950. There are other senses of dogma as well: “Pure Dogmas (dogmata pura), and Mixed Dogmas (dogmata mixta),” the former being known only by revelation, such as the Trinity, and the latter accessible to natural reason, such as the existence of God. [Ott, §4(3)(b)]
The document on which Akin relies to school the signers on what dogma is should have pointed him toward the “details” of the concept if he read it carefully. The 1998 commentary by Joseph Ratzinger and Tarcisio Bertone on the Professio Fidei prescribed for ecclesiastical office holders in that year by order of John Paul II distinguishes two levels of dogma to which assent is required. The first level is that of formal dogma, meaning “those doctrines of divine and catholic faith which the Church proposes as divinely and formally revealed and, as such, as irreformable.” To deny or doubt obstinately any of these truths, to which one must give the assent of “theological faith” (the authority of God speaking), is to be guilty of heresy in the strict sense.
Examples of this level of Church teaching cited by the commentary include the articles of the Creed, the Christological and Marian dogmas, the divine institution of the sacraments, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharistand the sacrificial nature of the Mass, the divine founding of the Church,the primacy and infallibility of the Roman Pontiff, the dogma of Original Sin and “the immortality of the soul … the immediate recompense after death;the absence of error in the inspired sacred texts; the doctrine on the grave immorality of direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being.”
The second level, that of material dogma, comprises “everything definitively proposed by the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals,” meaning “all those teachings belonging to the dogmatic”—I repeat, dogmatic—“or moral area,which are necessary for faithfully keeping and expounding the deposit of faith, even if they have not been proposed by the Magisterium of the Church as formally revealed.” As to this second level of dogma, what is required is “firm and definitive assent” based on “faith in the Holy Spirit’s assistance to the Church’s Magisterium, and on the Catholic doctrine of the infallibility of the Magisterium in these matters.”
That is, dogma in the broad sense extends to truths which, while not formally defined as divinely revealed, are nonetheless taught infallibly by the Church’s universal ordinary Magisterium. For example, the Church’s constant teaching on the indissolubility of marriage based on the words of Our Lord Himself. “Whoever denies these truths,” the commentary notes, “would be in a position ofrejecting a truth of Catholic doctrine and would therefore no longer be in full communion with the Catholic Church [emphasis in original].”
Other examples of these truths cited by the commentary include precisely material dogmas some of which became or could become formal dogmas, such as “the definition of papal infallibility, prior to the dogmatic definition of the First Vatican Council” and “the doctrine that priestly ordination is reserved only to men,” which is “to be held definitively [as] founded on the written Word of God.” The same is true of the “doctrine on the illicitness of euthanasia” as well as “the teaching on the illicitness of prostitutionand of fornication.” And one must obviously include here the teaching that divorce and “remarriage” constitutes adultery, which is also “founded on the written Word of God” uttered by Christ in the flesh.
Having sufficiently exposed Akin’s imprecision on this score, I note that he also overlooks what the Ratzinger-Bertone commentary says about the identical level of assent owed to these two related categories of Catholic teaching, even if the first is based directly on faith in God while the second is based on faith in the Holy Ghost’s assistance to the Church that God established:
With regard to thenatureof the assent owed to the truths set forth by the Church as divinely revealed (those of the first paragraph) or to be held definitively (those of the second paragraph), it is important to emphasize that there is no difference with respect to the full and irrevocable character of the assent which is owed to these teachings. [emphasis in original] The difference concerns the supernatural virtue of faith: in the case of truths of the first paragraph, the assent is based directly on faith in the authority of the Word of God (doctrinesde fide credenda); in the case of the truths of the second paragraph, the assent is based on faith in the Holy Spirit’s assistance to the Magisterium and on the Catholic doctrine of the infallibility of the Magisterium (doctrinesde fide tenenda).
Notice that the assent required as to both levels of Catholic teaching is a matter of supernatural faith, the only difference being the direct object of that faith: either the Word of God directly or the infallibility of the teaching office of His Church. That is why we profess not only “I believe in God, the Father Almighty” but also “I believe in the Holy Catholic Church,” the latter object of faith requiring that we believe and give full and irrevocable assent to such teachings as the indissolubility of marriage and the moral truth that divorce and “remarriage” constitutes adultery.
I hasten to add that “I believe in the Church” is not a profession of belief in the infallibility of any particular Pope in every one of his pronouncements. “Church” and “Pope” are not conterminous concepts. In this connection the Ratzinger-Bertone commentary notes a third category of Church teaching to which is owed, not the assent of theological faith, but rather “religious submission of will and intellect.” Here, tellingly, no examples are provided but only a general description: “teachings set forth by the authentic ordinary Magisterium in a non-definitive way, which require degrees of adherence differentiated according to the mind and the will manifested; this is shown especially by the nature of the documents, by the frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or by the tenor of the verbal expression.”
In other words, this third category of teaching requires case-by-case discernment. Exercising that discernment, as is their right, traditionalists have always maintained that none of the novelties of the Vatican II epoch qualify as doctrinal teaching in the third category. For example, “dialogue” and “ecumenism,” although promoted incessantly by the conciliar Popes, have no precise content that could call for a religious submission of will and intellect. To what propositions, exactly, would we be submitting our wills and intellect in so many words?
Moreover, should a Pope flatly contradict the ordinary teaching of all his predecessors in some singular pronouncement—as Francis has clearly done respecting the teaching of John Paul II and all his predecessors on the “intrinsic impossibility” of Holy Communion for public adulterers, discussed below—it would be absurd to require “religious submission of will and intellect” to the ideas of one Pope contradicting the constant teaching of all the others. That is why, for example, the erroneous teaching of John XXII on the beatific vision was rejected by the faithful. That same outcome should obtain with Francis’ attempt to overrule all his predecessors on Holy Communion for public adulterers as well as the permissibility of the death penalty for grave crimes.
A Failure to Join Issue
With these necessary precisions in mind, what can we say about Akin’s blanket statement that Francis has in no way incurred the guilt of heresy because his statements can all somehow “be understood in harmony with Church teaching”? In showing how Akin fails to engage the signers on the merits of their contentions I will confine myself to the question of the admission of the divorced and “remarried” to the Sacraments, the gravamen of the Open Letter.
On this issue, the Open Letter documents ten statements by Francis, none of which Akin really addresses, clearly standing for the following propositions:
- That the Sixth Commandment is an “objective ideal” rather than an absolutely exceptionless negative precept of the natural law. AL 295, 298, 303.
- That one living in adultery “may know full well the rule”—meaning the Sixth Commandment— “yet have great difficulty in understanding ‘its inherent values’ or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin”—that is, in certain situations one may sin by obeying the Sixth Commandment! AL 301.
- That even when the conscience “recognize[s] that a given situation [i.e. an adulterous “second marriage”] does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel… [i]t can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal.” That is, according to Francis, God Himself may be asking those in adulterous relations to continue their adultery “for now” given their “limits”—an excuse that devours all of the Church’s teaching on the exceptionless moral precept forbidding all adulterous sexual relations. AL 303.
- In keeping with these patently erroneous moral notions, Francis has approved as “authentic magisterium” guidelines for implementing AL which permit the divorced and “remarried” to receive absolution and Holy Communion while continuing their adulterous relations in cases where practicing continence “may not, in fact, be feasible.” He thus makes obedience to exceptionless negative precepts of the natural law a matter of feasibility in given cases—situation ethics in essence. Cf. Guidelines of Bishop of Buenos Aires approved as “authentic Magisterium” and published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis of October 2016.
Francis promulgated these manifest errors in flat contradiction to the teaching of John Paul II and every Pope before him. As to the teaching of John Paul II, consider the following examples:
- Veritatis splendor (1993), n. 52:
The negative precepts of the natural law are universally valid. They oblige each and every individual, always and in every circumstance…. without exception, because the choice of this kind of behaviour is in no case compatible with the goodness of the will of the acting person, with his vocation to life with God and to communion with his neighbour. It is prohibited — to everyone and in every case — to violate these precepts. They oblige everyone, regardless of the cost…
The Church has always taught that one may never choose kinds of behaviour prohibited by the moral commandments expressed in negative form in the Old and New Testaments. As we have seen, Jesus himself reaffirms that these prohibitions allow no exceptions: “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments... You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness” (Mt 19:17-18).
- Familiaris consortio (1981), n. 84:
However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church's teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.
Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage. This means, in practice, that when, for serious reasons, such as for example the children's upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.
- Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church Concerning the Reception of Holy Communion by the Divorced and Remarried Members of the Faithful, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1994), nn. 4-6.
…. It falls to the universal Magisterium, in fidelity to Sacred Scripture and Tradition, to teach and to interpret authentically the depositum fidei.
With respect to the aforementioned new pastoral proposals [to admit some divorced and “remarried” people to the Sacraments], this Congregation deems itself obliged therefore to recall the doctrine and discipline of the Church in this matter. In fidelity to the words of Jesus Christ, the Church affirms that… [if] the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law. Consequently, they cannot receive Holy Communion as long as this situation persists….
…. The structure of the Exhortation [Familiaris consortio] and the tenor of its words give clearly to understand that this practice, which is presented as binding, cannot be modified because of different situations….
- Concerning Some Objections to the Church’s Teaching on the Reception of Holy Communion by Divorced And Remarried Members of Faithful, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1998):
The indissoluble nature of marriage is one of these norms which goes back to Christ Himself and is thus identified as a norm of divine law. The Church cannot sanction pastoral practices—for example, sacramental pastoral practices—which contradict the clear instruction of the Lord.
In other words, if the prior marriage of two divorced and remarried members of the faithful was valid, under no circumstances can their new union be considered lawful and therefore reception of the sacraments is intrinsically impossible. The conscience of the individual is bound to this norm without exception.
Any attempt to demonstrate that the previously unheard-of moral novelties of Francis are in harmony with the teaching of John Paul II and all of Tradition can only result in sophistry. And sophistry is what Akin provides.
In what I view as the central accusation of the Open Letter, the signatories declare that Francis has incurred the anathema of the Council of Trent by proposing in substance that “A justified person has not the strength with God’s grace to carry out the objective demands of the divine law, as though any of the commandments of God are impossible for the justified; or as meaning that God’s grace, when it produces justification in an individual, does not invariably and of its nature produce conversion from all serious sin, or is not sufficient for conversion from all serious sin.”
As Trent declares in session 6, canon 18: “If anyone says that the commandments of God are impossible to observe even for a man who is justified and established in grace, let him be anathema” (DH 1568).
In a subsequent post, Akin undoes his entire critique with the following response to Peter Kwasniewski’s defense of the Open Letter to which he is a signatory: “The initial quotation (‘A justified person has not the strength . . .’) is not a quotation of Pope Francis. It is a construction of the authors of the Open Letter, whose meaning they attribute to Pope Francis.”
Really? So then Akin must be arguing that Francis believes that a justified person does have “the strength with God’s grace to carry out the objective demands of the divine law.” But if that is so, why has Francis created a regime of “pastoral” exceptions to what the CDF under John Paul II (as noted above) called an exceptionless “norm of divine law” for cases in which, according to Francis—him alone among all the Popes in Church history!—someone living in an adulterous “second marriage” would find it “not feasible” to observe that exceptionless norm of divine law by living in continence? Akin fails to explain why Francis would have created such exceptions even though he declares in Amoris Laetitia that “it can no longer simply be said”—no longer since Francis arrived in Rome, that is!—“that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace.” AL 301. But if some people living in an objective state of adultery possess sanctifying grace, then what need have they for pastoral accommodation of their adulterous sexual relations unless Francis believes that even with the aid of sanctifying grace they cannot refrain from violating the Sixth Commandment given “the concrete complexity of one’s limits”—precisely the proposition Trent anathematized!
Laboring to escape this conundrum, Akin concocts an elaborate hypothetical in which a woman, beaten by her first husband, to whom she is married in the Church, divorces him and marries another man, who beats her too. “She thinks about leaving him also, but he makes it clear that if she does so, he will kill both her and the children. In fact, she realizes that she will be in danger if she even stops sleeping with him.” Then, Akin imagines, the woman “has a religious conversion” and “discovers [!] that she’s been living out of conformity with God’s law all this time…. But at her present stage of moral catechesis, she may believe that her moral duty to protect the children and provide for their welfare is such that she believes it would be a sin for her to stop sleeping with this monster. She may thus believe that she is [quoting AL] in ‘a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin.’”
Amazingly enough, Akin defends the teaching of Francis with the argument that a woman can justifiably commit what is certainly an intrinsic evil—i.e., adultery—in order to avoid what she subjectively believes is another sin—i.e., supposedly not providing for the welfare of her children by continuing to sleep with a monster to whom she is not even married. But why would the welfare of her children not counsel fleeing this monster and seeking the protection of the law against him?
Such are the murky sophistical depths to which Francis invites the defenders of his absurd novelties!
But Francis does not limit his “pastoral” regime of selectively tolerated adultery to contrived cases of coercion, which is not to say that even outright coercion could justify adultery (even if it might diminish culpability). To recall John Paul II’s teaching in Veritatis Splendor, the negative precepts of the natural law “oblige everyone, regardless of the cost…” Were it otherwise, the entire moral order would collapse into a heap of elaborate excuses—to which Francis has made the first papal contribution in Church history!
In any case, as John Paul II teaches in harmony with Tradition, it is the objective state of public adultery that precludes admission to the Sacraments, regardless of any contrived mitigation of subjective culpability. Francis has simply tossed that moral teaching aside along with the bimillennial practice of the Church. As to this outrage, Akin does not even attempt a defense.
Indulging in further sophistry, Akin denies the Open Letter’s claim that Francis has relativized the negative precepts of the natural law because he states in AL (¶ 295) that “the law is itself a gift of God which points out the way, a gift for everyone without exception; it can be followed with the help of grace, even though each human being ‘advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God and the demands of God’s definitive and absolute love in his or her entire personal and social life.’”
Akin is not that naïve. He has to know that to say that the law is a “gift for everyone without exception” is not to say that it binds everyone without exception. Akin cannot have failed to see that Francis implies quite the opposite when he says in the very same passage that “each human being ‘advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God…’ in his or her entire personal and social life.” In other words, according to Francis one “gradually” learns to “integrate” the “gift” of the moral law while disobeying it! Indeed, that pernicious idea is the very mainspring of his novel ethical system, wherein exceptionless precepts of the natural law are mitigated by “the concrete complexity of one’s limits” (AL 303) such that public adulterers can receive Holy Communion without first ceasing their adulterous relations as they “gradually” accept the “gift” of the Sixth Commandment. Can Akin really take his own argument seriously?
At any rate, in neither his initial critique nor in the subsequent post does Akin make any real effort to demonstrate how, speaking objectively, Francis’ proposition avoids the Tridentine anathema. Rather, citing only his own book as authority, he cavils that “one has to be careful about this word, as it is sometimes used without making a [dogmatic] definition.”
Now, to incur an anathema is to suffer “exclusion from the society of the faithful”—that is, excommunication. Thus, even if Francis is not guilty of the canonical delict of heresy in the modern sense, if he were to incur the anathema he would be excommunicated. I do not suggest that the signatories can simply declare this, but rather that this, along with the question of heresy as such, is more properly a matter for inquiry by the bishops to whom they appeal.
In a further post entitled “Some Clarifications Regarding the Open Letter,” Akin continues his backpedaling (this time prompted by an exchange with Louie Verrecchio). He argues that from “the mere use of the word anathema—even when it is applied to a doctrinal matter—we can’t infer that it’s establishing a dogma” denial of which would constitute heresy. Then he asks: “So how can we tell?” Meaning, how can we tell that the anathematized proposition involves a truth of the Faith proposed as divinely revealed. Thus Akin impliedly concedes that the matter is not quite as simple as his superficial critique of the Open Letter made it seem. So now he writes:
This can be a very tricky matter, and it has to be dealt with cautiously, on a case-by-case basis because, as we’ve said, there is no single phrase or set of phrases that has to be used. The Magisterium needs to somehow [his emphasis] teach that the doctrine is divinely revealed—otherwise, the modern definition of “dogma” is not met—but the matter can be difficult to discern in practice [my emphasis].
So much, then, for Akin’s summary dismissal of all the charges levelled in the Open Letter. Now it seems the matter is “difficult to discern” and he is not so willing to assert positively that the propositions of the Magisterium defended by John Paul II and manifestly trampled on by Francis do not involve any dogma whatsoever. Quite the contrary, he now recognizes that “highly reputable theological minds today are being very careful about declaring something a dogma as opposed to an infallible teaching”—meaning it is not always clear which is which—and that “in cases of doubt, the prudent course would be to assume that something is merely an infallible teaching” and that “[t]he burden of proof would be on one to show why it is a dogma…”
Suddenly, therefore, Akin finds at least some room for debate over whether the Open Letter identifies dogmas that Francis has denied, or whether the Tridentine anathema covers Francis’ evident attempt to introduce a form of situation ethics that would hold it impossible or “not feasible” in “concrete circumstances” to obey the Sixth Commandment even with the help of God’s grace.
Finally, strict heresy and anathemas aside, there is the matter of denying a proposition of material dogma not yet defined as formal dogma but still, as Akin admits, “infallible teaching.” As the Ratzinger-Bertone commentary on which Akin relies notes in the passage quoted above, one who rejects such a truth of Catholic doctrine “would therefore no longer be in full communion with the Catholic Church.”
Now if a Pope, for the first time in Church history, and with relentless determination to have his way, contradicts the teaching of his predecessors on exceptionless negative precepts of the natural law, authorizes Holy Communion for people living in adultery, and thereby causes the faithful—to quote John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio—to “be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage,” how can such a Pope be in full communion with the Church?
Surely that question is as debatable as the others presented. Here one is reminded of the teaching of Suarez and other renowned theologians on what Cardinal Journet called “the possibility of a schismatic pope.” Does Akin deny the possibility? If so, on what authority? If not, then he must concede that this matter too is at least open to discussion.
Yet, there being fair matter for debate, albeit involving prudence and the burden of proof, Akin still does not join issue with the signatories he has cavalierly accused of “reckless and irresponsible” claims. Instead, he writes that concerning “a concrete issue raised in the Open Letter… this post is already long, so I will try to do another one on that subject.”
A word of advice to Akin: Don’t bother. You have already admitted enough to demonstrate that whatever one thinks of its accusation of the canonical delict of heresy, the Open Letter is a useful and needed provocation given a situation in which, to quote Philip Lawler, “the current Pope’s leadership has become a danger to the faith…” It would hardly matter if Akin were able to contrive an elaborate demonstration of how Francis, dancing between the raindrops, deftly avoids strict heresy or an anathema that strictly concerns dogma or some other form of self-separation from the Church. What does matter for all practical purposes is that we have a Pope whose self-evident reckless disregard for the teaching of his predecessors has prompted not only the Open Letter but a long series of unprecedented interventions by the faithful, beginning with the dubia of four cardinals (two since deceased) that Francis obstinately refuses to answer.
In sum, after more than fifty years of worsening drift and decay in the Church, culminating in this astounding pontificate, it is time for professional defenders of the indefensible like Akin to stop shooting at the messengers and confront the reality of the bad news they have had the evangelical courage to announce. As a confirmed soldier of Christ, Akin, no less than the rest of us, is obliged to defend the Church against error, no matter what its source, rather than the rapidly shrinking polemical turf that Catholic Answers presents as respectable mainstream Catholicism.