Jimmy Akin v. Open Letter: A way forward

this-wayMy previous post featured commentary on Jimmy Akin’s recent article refuting the accusations leveled against Francis in the much talked about Open Letter. In it, I asked Mr. Akin for clarification on several of the points he had raised, and he was kind enough to provide it in a follow-up article posted on his blog HERE. I encourage you to read it in its fullness there.

While so-called “traditionalists” (aka Catholics) have some valid reasons to disagree with him on certain points, bear in mind that Jimmy Akin didn’t write the definitions of “dogma” and “heresy” that he’s provided in his articles; he’s simply passing them on.

Let’s be honest, folks, post-conciliar Rome isn’t exactly in the Inquisition business. As such, no one can be surprised that the 1983 Code of Canon Law provides a definition of heresy (and likewise, dogma) that, in Akin’s own words, has a “very technical meaning.”

What may come as a surprise to readers is that a way forward – one that Jimmy Akin and the signatories of the Open Letter should be able to agree upon – can be found even in certain post-conciliar texts.

Mr. Akin writes:

The upshot is that, today, the word dogma is used for those truths that the Magisterium has infallibly defined to be divinely revealed. Heresy, then, is the obstinate, post-baptismal refusal to believe such a truth. However, the Magisterium sometimes infallibly defines a truth without defining that it is divinely revealed. In that case, it is an infallible doctrine but not a dogma. [Emphasis in original]

I have become to convinced that Mr. Akin has accurately presented the “very technical meaning” of the word “heresy.” He has also accurately described how dogma differs from other categories of doctrine; most notably those teachings that have been infallibly defined but not as divinely revealed.

With this distinction in mind, he went on to write:

…it seems to me that highly reputable theological minds today are being very careful about declaring something a dogma as opposed to an infallible teaching. Consequently, in cases of doubt, the prudent course would be to assume that something is merely an infallible teaching.

Fair enough. Let’s assume that the doctrines referenced in the Open Letter more properly involve merely infallible teachings. From here, I propose that all concerned take a small step back to focus on the reason why any of us are even having this discussion.

No serious Catholic thinker today, Jimmy Akin presumably among them, can deny that the Church presently finds herself in the midst of a very serious crisis of faith and morals. In fact, no less a figure than Cardinal Raymond Burke has publicly stated that Francis is very much to blame for the present turmoil. According to him:

[Francis] “not only refuses to clarify things by proclaiming the constant doctrine and sound discipline of the Church, a responsibility inherent in his ministry as the Successor of St. Peter, but he is also increasing the confusion” on the “most fundamental and important issues.”

Cardinal Burke made these comments more than a year ago. Since then, the situation has become graver still, and other cardinals (in addition to the four signatories to the dubia) have voiced similar concerns. This is what gave rise to the Open Letter, which states:

It is agreed that a pope who is guilty of heresy and remains obstinate in his heretical views cannot continue as pope. Theologians and canonists discuss this question as part of the subject of the loss of papal office. The causes of the loss of papal office that they list always include death, resignation, and heresy.

Where the rubber meets the road in this discussion concerns Jorge Bergoglio’s status; not just with respect to the Office of Peter, but with respect to the Church. As suggested above, one who obstinately persists in heresy cannot remain pope, and for the simple reason that such a one is not in communion with the Catholic Church.

Again, moving forward in this article, we are going to replace “heresy” and “heretical” with whatever terms one may wish to use to denote the obstinate denial of merely infallible teachings that are not defined as divinely revealed. Upon doing so, we are faced with two very important questions:

First, what exactly is a faithful Catholic’s obligation toward those infallible doctrines that have not been defined as being divinely revealed and, secondly, what are the consequences should one fail in that obligation?

In his article of clarification, Mr. Akin provides some citations taken from the Doctrinal Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio Fideia text issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1998. I am delighted that he has chosen to cite this work as it is going to prove most useful indeed.

Readers will be interested in knowing that the Doctrinal Commentary was written to provide insight into how the motu proprio of John Paul II, Ad Tuendam Fidem, by which certain norms were inserted into the 1983 Code of Canon Law, was to be applied moving forward.  It was by virtue of this motu proprio that the following section was added to Canon 750:

§ 2. Furthermore, each and everything set forth definitively by the Magisterium of the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals must be firmly accepted and held; namely, those things required for the holy keeping and faithful exposition of the deposit of faith; therefore, anyone who rejects propositions which are to be held definitively sets himself against the teaching of the Catholic Church.

This text provides at least partial answers to both of the questions posed above: One, the faithful are obligated to “firmly accept and hold” those infallible doctrines that have not been defined as being divinely revealed and, two, he who fails in this obligation “sets himself against the teaching of the Catholic Church.”

This latter concept (“sets himself against the teaching of the Church”) requires further clarification. Fortunately, the CDF provided just that in its Doctrinal Commentary.

Before providing this clarification, note well that the CDF Commentary compares the assent that one is obligated to give to the dogmas of the faith with the assent that is required concerning doctrines that are merely infallible. It states:

With regard to the nature of the assent owed to the truths set forth by the Church as divinely revealed [that is, dogma, the proper matter of heresy] or to be held definitively [that is, doctrines infallibly defined but not divinely revealed], 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 added]

What this means is that, insofar as our obligation toward a particular doctrine is concerned, it does not matter whether that doctrine is a dogma or merely an infallible teaching; the assent required is the same, albeit based upon different things.

With this being the case, one may very well expect that when it comes to the consequences for failing to give that assent, there will likewise be no difference; that is to say that the consequences for committing “heresy” properly speaking and the consequences for denying a merely infallible doctrine should also be the same.

Well, guess what? For all intents and purposes, they are.

The CDF Commentary goes on to say concerning those truths that are infallibly defined but not (at least not yet) defined as divinely revealed:

Every believer, therefore, is required to give firm and definitive assent to these truths, 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.Whoever denies these truths would be in a position of rejecting a truth of Catholic doctrine and would therefore no longer be in full communion with the Catholic Church. [Emphasis in original]

NB: One who denies a doctrine that is merely an infallible teaching – presumably obstinately so (we’ll return to this point momentarily) – is no longer in communion with the Catholic Church.  

And this applies to whom? “Every believer.” In other words, it applies just as much to a claimant to the Chair of St. Peter as to each and every one of us.

Thankfully, we need not look very far back in time to find an historical precedent that demonstrates how, in such cases, the process of falling from communion with the Catholic Church takes place.

The CDF Commentary highlighted, as an example of an infallible truth that is not (yet) a dogma, Church teaching on the ordination of women. This was perhaps providential.

You see, in September of 2013, the CDF found Fr. Greg Reynolds of the Archdiocese of Melbourne, Australia guilty of denying precisely this infallible doctrine. His bishop, Archbishop Dennis Hart, issued a letter explaining the consequences as follows:

The decision by Pope Francis to dismiss Fr. Reynolds from the clerical state and to declare his automatic excommunication has been made because of his public teaching on the ordination of women contrary to the teaching of the Church and his public celebration of the Eucharist when he did not hold faculties to act publicly as a priest. [Emphasis added]

Pay very close attention to what is being stated: Fr. Reynolds was not excommunicated by the pope or anyone else for that matter; rather, his excommunication was “automatic.” Francis simply declared what had already happened to him; namely, self-imposed excommunication, while also moving to dismiss him from the clerical state. These are two separate albeit related matters.

NB: The cause of Reynolds’ automatic excommunication wasn’t heresy (the denial of dogma); rather, it was his denial of something that is merely an infallible teaching.

So, according to this precedent, set under Francis no less, the consequences for failing to firmly accept and hold (cf CIC 750 § 2) an infallible doctrine that has not been defined as being divinely revealed is automatic excommunication.

At this, let’s discuss the matter of obstinacy; something that is required in such cases. In his initial article refuting the Open Letter, Mr. Akin wrote:

…the Open Letter also fails to demonstrate that Pope Francis obstinately doubts or denies dogmas. One of the requirements for doing this is showing that his statements or actions cannot be understood in another sense. If they can be understood consistently with dogma then the obligation of charity—and Pope Benedict’s “hermeneutic of continuity”—requires that they be taken this way.

I find several points in this treatment objectionable.

For one, the faithful are obligated to both accept and hold infallible teachings; the latter suggests action. As such, an individual’s obstinate denial of Church teaching (after having been corrected as to the true doctrine) can be demonstrated by their very own actions; regardless of how charitably their statements may be read. (This is why the authors of the Open Letter took pains to highlight any number of Francis’ actions.)

For example, a priest whose questionable or ambiguous statements can conceivably be understood as consistent with the dogma of the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, but who publicly commits acts of sacrilege against the Sacred Host, would clearly demonstrate his obstinate denial of said dogma.

Furthermore, Canon Law places the obligation to firmly accept and hold the infallible doctrines of the faith (cf CIC 750 § 2) on “every believer.” The burden does not lie on others to labor in order to find ways to shoe-horn a Catholic reading upon every doctrinal statement of questionable orthodoxy that another individual may make.

In fact, in their effort to safeguard the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine, Church authorities (and bear in mind, the Open Letter is addressed to the Bishops) have never done this (at least when they are upholding their own duty). Doing so would be the exact opposite of charity with respect to both the person suspected of setting himself against the teaching of the Catholic Church (cf CIC 750 § 2) and those innocent souls that may be misled by him. After all, the Church’s primary concern is the salvation of all involved.

Rather, the way in which statements of questionable orthodoxy are addressed by the Church according to eminent theologian Fr. Ludwig Ott is as follows:

In deciding the meaning of a text the Church does not pronounce judgment on the subjective intention of the author, but on the objective sense of the text. (Fr. Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma)

This is not to say that the author’s subjective intention is of no concern whatsoever, but we will return to this momentarily. The important point here is that the objective sense of a given text, understood according to its plain meaning, is what prompts suspicion that its author may be “in a position of rejecting a truth of Catholic doctrine thus severing himself from the Catholic Church” (see CDF Commentary cited above).

So, in addition to observing the actions of the individual suspected, in what way may obstinacy be determined?

The Catholic Encyclopedia states with regard to heresy: “Pertinacity, that is, obstinate adhesion to a particular tenet is required to make heresy formal.” This, as opposed to “wrong beliefs [that] are only transient errors and fleeting opinions.”

Given that the CDF has already established that there is no difference in the assent owed to dogma (the denial of which is heresy) as compared to that which is owed to infallibly defined doctrine, let us apply what is stated above to the present case:

Obstinacy can either be disproven or proven, based on whether or not Francis, when confronted with the true doctrine and duly corrected, is willing to correct that which at least appears to be a wrong belief in favor of firmly accepting and holding the infallible doctrines in question. This, in addition to his other public actions, will demonstrate whether he simply made some “transient errors” and expressed some “fleeting opinions” or obstinately set himself against the Church.

Remember, at stake here is membership in the Church, which requires the following:

Now since its Founder willed this social body of Christ to be visible, the cooperation of all its members must also be externally manifest through their profession of the same faith and their sharing the same sacred rites, through participation in the same Sacrifice, and the practical observance of the same laws (cf Pope Pius XII, Mystici Corporis) [Emphasis added]

With regard to the seven accusations made in the Open Letter, simply reciting the Creed (or some other symbolum) is not enough for Francis to externally manifest membership in the Church through a profession of the same faith. At issue are specific infallible doctrines that he is obligated to firmly accept and hold (cf CIC 750 § 2).

Therefore, having been corrected and admonished to affirm the true faith in these matters (again, by cardinals, no less), he must externally manifest membership in the Church through a profession of the same faith with respect to those specific doctrines. What’s more, it would also be necessary for his actions (as demonstrated in the example given above concerning the Real Presence) to externally manifest his firm acceptance and willingness to hold said doctrines.

Indeed, Francis has been publicly implored numerous times to reaffirm the infallible doctrines of the faith in light of his many, shall we say, suspect statements. He has refused. At this point, it is very difficult to imagine anyone – Jimmy Akin included – suggesting that Francis simply made some “transient errors” and expressed some “fleeting opinions” with respect to the doctrines in question.

As such, I for one believe that it is entirely reasonable to conclude that Francis has more than proven his obstinacy.

Granted, when the suspect in question is the pope, we find ourselves in uncharted territory. Even so, it does not strike me as the least bit unreasonable to believe that Francis has, by his obstinacy, invited upon himself precisely the same fate as Fr. Reynolds; namely, automatic excommunication. That is to say that he has, of his own volition, severed himself from the Body of Christ and is no longer in communion with the Catholic Church.

To be very clear: In this scenario, no one is judging or exercising jurisdiction over Francis; he has simply judged himself. As regular readers of this space know, this is my opinion. I can most certainly understand how others of good faith, Jimmy Akin among them, may disagree.

Even so, I would like to think that Mr. Akin can agree with me (and others far more learned and holy than I) that Francis has, at the very least, rendered himself highly suspicious of rejecting some or all of the infallible truths of Catholic doctrine cited in the Open Letter, and many of his actions have only contributed to increasing said suspicion.

At the risk of exhausting his patience, I – and I am certain our readers – would be most interested in Mr. Akin’s response to what has been presented here. I would also like to ask if he would perhaps consider answering the following:

Given that the Catholic Church, as Cardinal Burke insists, is experiencing increasing confusion on the most fundamental and important issues, in no small measure because Francis refuses to clarify things by proclaiming the constant doctrine and sound discipline of the Church, will you not join your voice with those of other concerned scholars, clerics, religious, and ordinary faithful in publicly requesting that the bishops take concrete steps to directly address this grave situation?

After all, the salvation of souls is at stake. Do we not have an obligation to use our public platforms to advocate for a remedy, even if only partial, to this terrible situation?

In conclusion, if nothing else, I hope that this exchange has thus far demonstrated to our readers that men who sincerely love the Catholic Church and the one true faith can disagree on very important matters and still maintain enough civility to address the substance of one another’s arguments.

Jimmy Akin has already been generous in giving his time to this effort and I am grateful for that. I’ve learned quite a bit in the process. Hopefully our readers can say the same.

O Mary, Seat of Wisdom, pray for us!

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