Filial Correction vs. Religious Assent

September 26, 2017

Yes, it really is the case that a “group of clergy and lay scholars from around the world have” presented “Pope Francis with a formal filial correction, accusing him of propagating heresies concerning marriage, the moral life, and reception of the sacraments.” [1] “They cite in particular Francis’ apostolic exhortation on marriage and the family, Amoris Laetitia, and ‘other words, deeds and omissions,’” and “accuse the Pope of upholding seven heretical positions about ‘marriage, the moral life, and the reception of the sacraments’ which, they say, has ‘caused these heretical opinions to spread in the Catholic Church.’”

They say they are permitted to issue the correction by “the law of Christ: for His Spirit inspired the apostle Paul to rebuke Peter in public when the latter did not act according to the truth of the gospel (Gal. 2),” [2] going on to explain,

“St Thomas Aquinas notes that this public rebuke from a subject to a superior was licit on account of the imminent danger of scandal concerning the faith (Summa Theologiae 2a 2ae, 33, 4 ad 2), and “the gloss of St Augustine” adds that on this occasion, ‘Peter gave an example to superiors, that if at any time they should happen to stray from the straight path, they should not disdain to be reproved by their subjects’ (ibid.).”

Now since they avail themselves of the example, it will be worthwhile to take a look at St. Paul’s rebuke of St. Peter to see if the comparison is apt. St. Paul related the story in his Letter to the Galatians. It is found in Chapter 2, and the context is the controversy of whether new Gentile Christians should be required to be circumcised and convert to Judaism. Here is what Paul wrote:

“Then, after fourteen years, I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus also with me. And I went up according to revelation; and communicated to them the gospel, which I preach among the Gentiles, but apart to them who seemed to be some thing: lest perhaps I should run, or had run in vain. But neither Titus, who was with me, being a Gentile, was compelled to be circumcised. But because of false brethren unawares brought in, who came in privately to spy our liberty, which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into servitude. To whom we yielded not by subjection, no not for an hour, that the truth of the gospel might continue with you. But of them who seemed to be some thing, (what they were some time, it is nothing to me, God accepteth not the person of man,) for to me they that seemed to be some thing added nothing. But contrariwise, when they had seen that to me was committed the gospel of the uncircumcision, as to Peter was that of the circumcision. (For he who wrought in Peter to the apostleship of the circumcision, wrought in me also among the Gentiles.) And when they had known the grace that was given to me, James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship: that we should go unto the Gentiles, and they unto the circumcision: Only that we should be mindful of the poor: which same thing also I was careful to do.

“But when Cephas was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed. For before that some came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them who were of the circumcision. And to his dissimulation the rest of the Jews consented, so that Barnabas also was led by them into that dissimulation. But when I saw that they walked not uprightly unto the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all: If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of the Gentiles, and not as the Jews do, how dost thou compel the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?” (Galatians 2:1-14)

What is important to notice here is that St. Paul was not concerned about the things that St. Peter was teaching. On the contrary, St. Peter (Cephas) and St. Paul were in accord with regard to the admission of Gentiles into the Church, that they need not first be circumcised and convert to Judaism. What St. Paul rebuked St. Peter for was not St. Peter’s teachings, but his actions in timidly separating himself from the Gentile Christians when those who might have been critical of his not doing so arrived in Antioch.

The distinction is important. It is not Catholic doctrine that the pope is free from sin, or that he is incapable of bad conduct. In fact, there have been popes who have been seriously deficient in that regard. But it is quite different with the teachings of the popes, and the doctrines they promulgate. The Catechism puts it this way:

“The mission of the Magisterium is linked to the definitive nature of the covenant established by God with his people in Christ. It is this Magisterium’s task to preserve God’s people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error. Thus, the pastoral duty of the Magisterium is aimed at seeing to it that the People of God abides in the truth that liberates. To fulfill this service, Christ endowed the Church’s shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals. The exercise of this charism takes several forms:

“’The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful - who confirms his brethren in the faith he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals.... the infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter’s successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium,’ above all in an Ecumenical Council. When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine ‘for belief as being divinely revealed,’ and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions ‘must be adhered to with the obedience of faith.’ This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself.

“Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a ‘definitive manner,’ they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful ‘are to adhere to it with religious assent’ which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it.” (Secs. 890-892) [3]

Amoris Laetitia is clearly an exercise of the ordinary Magisterium on the part of the Holy Father. Thus it is not to be understood as infallible. But the Divine assistance given to him must be recognized if the apostolic exhortation is to be understood in accordance with Catholic doctrine, and the Catholic faithful are to adhere to it with “religious assent.” That would not include accusing the pope of propagating heresy.

The signers of the “filial correction,” then, are not to be compared to St. Paul opposing St. Peter because of the latter’s conduct in separating himself from the Gentile Christians. On the contrary, a more apt comparison is with those who opposed St. Peter’s teaching that the Gentiles were to be admitted to the Church without the necessity of circumcision and conversion to Judaism. That is because they are opposing the teaching of Pope Francis rather than his conduct. And in doing so they are failing to give the religious assent to the pope’s teaching that is required.

But what is an article like this doing on a site devoted to Catholic social teaching? Questions about admission to the Sacraments of the Church are internal matters, not public ones.

Catholic social teaching has been its own separate subject going back to Pope Leo XIII in the late 19th century, and every single pope since then has been consistent in its articulation and its application. The things that Pope Francis has said pertaining to social questions all have roots in that tradition. He has said nothing inconsistent with what popes before him have said. What is different about this pope is that the things he says regarding social issues seem to garner more general media attention than was the case with his predecessors. In this way, more people are becoming acquainted with the richness of Catholic social doctrine.

Not everyone is happy with this development, however. We see that the Holy Father is getting a lot of opposition from many who are called political “conservatives” in the American context. Some of these are, like the signers of the “filial correction,” undermining Catholic doctrine itself in order to give voice to their opposition, trying to give the impression that Catholics need not give heed to the teachings of their pope. Now since Christian Democracy endeavors to base itself in the Magisterium, there is an interest here in supporting the authority of that Magisterium. Thus it is important to point out within these pages that the “filial correction” is not at all an expression of Catholic orthodoxy, but a repudiation of the religious assent that should characterize the Catholic approach to the teachings of the Holy Father.

Jack Quirk