Amoris Laetitia

Reading a sermon of Ronald Knox’s the other day, I was struck by one phrase. He speaks of ‘the joy of conflict, without which there is little savour to living, except for the few who live very close to God’. Tomorrow is the great day of her whom the liturgy compares to a castrorum acies ordinata, an army set in array. In these strange and critical days for the Church, perhaps we should ask Mary for a holy joy of battle.

Image result for unjust steward picture


The parable of the Unjust Steward is a googly which the Church bowls each eighth Sunday after Pentecost at unwary preachers. Many of them are stumped. Naturally one can find some worthy treatments of it in the Catena Aurea and in the Commentary of Cornelius a Lapide; but the profoundest interpretation I know appears in neither place, coming rather from St Gaudentius of Brescia. As it may be that you don’t know who St Gaudentius was, I will tell you: he was a friend of St Ambrose and a defender of St John Chrysostom and he ruled the see of Brescia in Italy for some 25 years.

A friend of his, called Herminius, or Serminius, or possibly Germinius (it must have been a cold day in the scriptorium when the monk copied out the letter) wrote to St Gaudentius to ask what, exactly, this passage from the holy Gospel means. And the saint, after talking at length as one might expect of the dangers of wealth and the virtues of alms-giving, begins to give a mystical interpretation. The rich man, he says, is almighty God – dives in misericordia. The  unjust steward is the devil, who has been allowed by God to have a certain power in the cosmos, as a steward on an estate. The devil is allowed to test the saints, says St Thomas Aquinas, so that he may not be entirely useless.

But the devil, of course, abuses his power. St Gaudentius says that “the devil wasted the substance of his Lord when he sought the ruin of mankind”. He persecuted the human race beyond all measure, bringing upon it all the cruelties and terrors of paganism. And so God resolved to cast the devil out of His Estate and into the abyss, and made this known when He came among us. Whereupon “this most wicked one, reckoning the death of man as his profit, is consumed with anxiety because the Lord is about to take away the power that he has over others.”

He is not strong enough to dig, and is ashamed to beg, and so turns from violence to craft:

Since he will not work what is good, and is ashamed to ask for mercy as a penitent, he thinks within himself how he may still have power over the debtors of his Lord (that is, over those involved in the debt of sin), not alone by open persecution, but also, under the guise of benevolence, by deceiving them with smooth words, so that seduced by his false kindness they may more readily receive him into their houses, to be judged with him forever.

The devil begins to write off men’s debts:

He falsely promises that he can relax the debts of his fellow servants, which are in his Lord’s power, by vainly assuring indulgence to those who sin either in faith or in deed. For he convinces them that their crimes will not be imputed to them, although even those who commit them know them to be grave offences: for they acknowledge the amount of their debt.

He does this both with the wheat and with the oil:

The wheat is faith in Christ, the principle of man’s life. For He is the living bread who came down from heaven. The oil is good works, which the foolish virgins lacked, and hence when the lamp-light of their souls went out, they abode in darkness. . . . Even so does the devil trick the race of men with false promises, that they may not know what debt of faith and works they owe.

And if the oil is brought down from a hundred, the number of perfection, to fifty, and the wheat is brought down only from a hundred to eighty, perhaps this is because “a smaller number are withdrawn by the devil’s cunning from the true faith, than are withdrawn from right deeds, as our Saviour Himself declares, saying: ‘Why do you call me, Lord, Lord; and do not the things which I say?'”

Ever since Amoris laetitia was published in April last year, I have been wondering what, if anything, it means. Not what it intends: that, unfortunately, was clear from the beginning. But rather, what mental propositions, if any, are expressed by sequences of words such as the following:

No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel!”; “A subject may know full well the rule, 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”;Conscience can recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can 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” [etc.].

There seem to be four possibilities:


(1) These words have no meaning. An Argentinian priest said to me even before the publication of Amoris, that Pope Bergoglio does not see words as units of meaning which serve to express thoughts, but as tools to achieve ends. So one might hold that passages such as those quoted express no mental propositions, but are simpl tools used to achieve communion for the invalidly married, as another man might use a hammer to drive in a nail.

This is attractive, but I wonder if it is humanly possible not to intend to express some mental proposition when uttering well-formed sentences. Nonsense poetry is a sophisticated genre, which is no doubt why it didn’t emerge until the mid-19th century in England, which take it all in all was the richest period of English letters. Presumably the same is true of nonsense prose.

(2) These words are deliberately ambiguous, i.e. they are intended to express more than one mental proposition existing in the mind of the pope, at least one of which would be orthodox; and he intends that the reader be free to choose among them (though only as a means to the ultimate goal of communion for the remarried).

The trouble with this is that we normally say that an author is entitled to say what his words mean, if they lack clarity. Now the pope, by his subsequent statements, e.g. recommending the archbishop of Vienna as a guide to understanding Amoris, has indicated that he wants the words of the document to be interpreted as allowing communion for the remarried. So it seems that we would have to say this is the meaning of these words in the document, and hence that the text, though cloudy, is not ambiguous in the sense defined above.

(3) These words have only a heretical meaning. They express mental propositions in the mind of Pope Bergoglio which are contrary to revealed truths. This is easy to defend. But it is an unfortunate thing to have to say of what seems to be at least indirectly a magisterial document addressed to the whole Church (even though the pope has not declared these passages to be binding on the faith of Catholics).

(4) These words have 2 meanings because they express thoughts in two different minds. Literally speaking, the only mind in question is the mind of the pope. But it is a principle of the interpretation, and therefore of the meaning of magisterial documents, that they are to be read in the light of clearer and more authoritative documents, where possible. In that sense, we can speak of their expressing ‘the mind of the Church’. Now, as mentioned in (2), the pope has unfortunately shown that he interprets, and therefore presumably meant, these statements in way that is not orthodox. But it may still be possible that any of these statements, taken in the abstract, can be read, with a good deal of bending and stretching, in a way that is orthodox.

In other words, we could say that these statements in Amoris have two literal meanings: a Bergoglian meaning and a magisterial meaning. This is not quite the same as the hypothesis of deliberate ambiguity, since the pope has made sufficiently clear what he had in mind, in various non-magisterial ways. But precisely because he expressed himself in AL in such a cloudy way, we are entitled to interpret AL in a Catholic way. Yet that should not prevent us from resisting the heresies which, unfortunately, the pope has used it to vehicle.

I was musing yesterday on the fact that a time, times and half a time, more or less, had passed since the election of the present pope, and wondering whether this might be the basis for a blog-post, when I received an e-mail not dissimilar in theme, but more precise and more heartening:

Lightning again struck St. Peter’s Basilica today, October 7th, in a massive storm around 9:20 a.m., on the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary:
The first time in recent history that lightning struck there, as you’ll remember, was February 11, 2013, which was another Feast of Our Lady, and the very day Pope Benedict announced his imminent abdication.
Today is the 1335th day following the first lightning strike. That is a prophetic biblical number. It symbolizes relief or victory after a period of patience and perseverance: “Blessed is the man who has patience and perseveres unto one thousand, three hundred and thirty-five days” (Daniel 12: 12). Could this strike from the heavens at the Vatican Basilica on this Feast-Day be a symbolic indication that the great weapon of the Holy Rosary will be Our Lady’s ‘sword’ to combat and vanquish the subtle doctrinal evil and confusion that has increasingly afflicted the Church from the very top down, following Benedict’s fateful decision to relinquish his God-given office?
As at Lepanto, 445 years ago today, this number 1335 could also symbolize another victory eventually to be won by Our Lady of the Rosary over the new Islamic threat to Europe – the tattered remains of Christendom! – presented by the unassimilable Muslim masses now invading that continent as “refugees”. For the great year of Our Lady of the Rosary, 1917, when she appeared under that title at Fatima (a name with strong Muslim resonance), was the 1335th year on the Muslim calendar, which begins with 622 A.D., the year of the Hegira, the ‘Flight of the Prophet’ to Medina. (The traditional Muslim lunar calendar has only 354 days.) So the coins of the Ottoman Empire of 1917 bear the date “1335”. That was also the year in which the Muslims lost control of the Holy City of Jerusalem for the first time since the Crusades. The conquering Christian British forces under General Edmund Allenby marched into the Old City through the ancient Jaffa Gate on December 11, 1917.


I dreamt last night that I had gone to see Cardinal Keith O’Brien, to urge him to speak out about Amoris Laetitia. He gently suggested that he might not be the right person to do this, given his own situation. However, he pointed out that Cardinal Sodano was in the house, and so I might have a word with him. As I left him, he murmured ‘Sodano is god’, though that might have been Paul VI, who turned up briefly around this point. Before I could speak to His Eminence, however (His second Eminence, that is), Bishop Schneider was there confronting him. Sodano berated the good Athanasius for his conduct, whereupon Bishop Schneider replied undaunted: ‘Popes have been deposed by the ghosts of Popes before now! Read your history books.’ I confess to having had some misgivings about His Excellency’s ecclesiology here, though I admired his spirit. He went away, either deposed himself or else suspended a divinis. At this point I found myself next to Fr Aidan Nichols, toward whose head Sodano was stretching out his hand. What fresh outrage is this, I wondered. But no: acting as a consummate politician, His Eminence was following up the stick with a carrot. He placed a cardinal’s biretta on Fr Nichols’s head. I whispered to His new Eminence: ‘Your cat will be so proud.’ At this I laughed so much that I woke myself up.

[Disclaimer: Any resemblance to real persons or events is entirely coincidental]

“Since the Church can declare the Pontiff a person to be avoided, she can induce in that person a disposition without which the pontificate cannot stand” (John of St Thomas)


In part one we saw the long-standing consensus that a pope can lose the papacy on account of heresy. As St Robert Bellarmine says: “The Church’s condition would be wretched, were she forced to take a manifest prowling wolf as her shepherd.” However, there is not perfect agreement about how the loss of the papacy takes place. We must put aside the theory toyed with by certain late mediaeval theologians, that an ecumenical council is superior to a pope and therefore can depose him. This is incompatible with Vatican I’s definition of the pope’s universal jurisdiction. There is no power in the Church on earth superior to the pope’s. We are therefore left with two main theories.

The first is that of Bellarmine and of modern sedevacantists. Bellarmine argued that a pope ceases to be pope by the mere fact of being a public heretic. It is of divine law, he argues, that a public heretic automatically loses any right to govern the Church. He supports this view partly from reason, partly from patristic quotations. By reason he argues that a public heretic is not a Christian, therefore not a member of the Church, therefore not its head. From the Fathers, he cites, for example, St Cyprian’s declaration that Novatian lost jurisdiction from the mere fact of his schism, and Pope St Celestine’s declaration that the excommunications carried out by Nestorius after he had started preaching Nestorianism were of no effect.

The second opinion is that of Cajetan, John of St Thomas, Banez, St Alphonsus, Billuart and Journet. This holds that a manifestly heretical pope is not automatically deposed but should be deposed, if he remains incorrigible after two admonitions. John of St Thomas argues that Bellarmine’s position would lead to intolerable disorder. He writes:

A heretic must be avoided after two corrections, that is, after corrections that have been juridically made by the authority of the Church, and not according to private judgement. For great confusion would follow in the Church, if it sufficed that a correction be performed by a private person – without the declaration by the Church of the manifest heresy and without her indicating to everyone that they should avoid this pope – for everyone to be obliged to avoid him. For the heresy of a pope could not be made known to all the faithful except by the report of others; but such reports would not create any juridical obligation that everyone should believe them and avoid him. Therefore, it is necessary that just as the Church juridically proposes the pope to everyone by electing him, so also must she depose him by declaring him and indicating him to be a heretic who must be avoided (Cursus Theologicus, De auct. Summ. Pont. disp. 2 art. 3, XXVI).

He thus forestalls the modern sedevacantist enterprise. To Bellarmine’s arguments, he says, first, that while a heretical pope is not a Christian with respect to himself, he is with respect to us. We could perhaps say that whether or not we call such a man a Christian, he can still have jurisdiction over Christians since this comes to him from Christ independently of his own spiritual state. To the argument from the Fathers, John replies that they simply intended to say that heresy by itself was sufficient without any further crime to deprive a man of jurisdiction, but not that no kind of declaration by the Church was necessary. We can add that in the case of a man like Novatian who actually founds another church, the simple refusal of Catholic bishops to communicate with such a man is an adequate declaration of his loss of jurisdiction. As for Nestorius’s excommunications of his opponents, these were presumably invalid not because he had lost jurisdiction automatically from his heresy, but because the people whom he excommunicated, being orthodox, had not committed a crime for which they could be excommunicated.

But this still leaves two questions: (a) how is it possible for ‘the Church’ to depose a pope, when the pope is the head of the Church on earth; and (b) whom do we mean by ‘the Church’ here?

The difficulty of (a) is probably what causes Bellarmine to speak of an automatic self-deposition. But as John of St Thomas points out, that would lead to great confusion. So John makes a subtle distinction. No one earth directly removes the papacy from a pope, as the pope may directly remove episcopal jurisdiction from a bishop. Rather, ‘the Church’, by the official declaration of incorrigible heresy, causes the man who is the pope to have a certain property, namely the property of ‘having to be avoided’, which is by divine law incompatible with possessing the papacy. Therefore, when the man who is the pope comes to have this property, then Christ, as the pope’s superior, removes the papacy from him. For Christ commands us not to avoid the pope; but divine law, promulgated in Titus 3, commands us to avoid an incorrigible heretic, duly declared; therefore, since Christ cannot contradict Himself, He will remove the papacy from an incorrigible heretic. ‘The Church’ therefore deposes the heretical pope not directly but indirectly. John says that the Church does it ‘dispositively’, meaning that it introduces into the man who is the pope a disposition with which the papacy cannot stand.

We might draw an analogy from the ‘Law of Jealousy’ in the Old Testament. According to Numbers 5, a husband who suspects his wife of adultery has the right to bring her before a priest and oblige her to drink ritually cursed water. If she is innocent, nothing will happen, but if she is guilty, her belly will swell and her thigh rot. It is a unique law, I think: a standing promise of a miracle.

Let us suppose that a husband gives his wife the water to drink and her belly swells and her thigh rots. Can we say that he had the power to take her health from her? Strictly, no, since his action was not the cause of, but only the occasion for, the swelling and the putrescence. God alone was the cause of it. Even though no other created cause intervenes between the giving of the water and the departure of the woman’s good health, the husband is only an indirect and dispositive cause of what happens to her.

So with the deposition of a pope. The Church, after two fruitless corrections, can declare a pope to be an incorrigible heretic. This is equivalent to the giving of the water to the adulteress. Then, not by the Church’s power but by God’s, the papacy would fall from that man. The Church’s declaration is only the occasion and not strictly the cause of the loss of the papal office.

But that still leaves question (b): who exactly counts as ‘the Church’, in such a case. I’ll consider that in part III.

(to be continued)


There is agreement among the doctors that a pope can be deposed on account of heresy (John of St Thomas)


Recent events are leading some of us to blow the dust off more than one ancient tome. Many even well-educated Catholics are surprised to learn that there has long been a consensus among theologians that a pope can lose his office through heresy. How this happens will be a matter for the second and third part of this essay. For now, we may simply note that such a consensus exists.

A Roman synod of 503 stated that the pope could not be deposed unless he had departed from the faith (nisi a recta fide exorbitaverit). A canon attributed by Gratian to St Boniface of Devon (7th-8th century) said that the pope could be judged by no one, unless he were found straying from the faith (nisi deprehendatur a fide devius). A letter of Pope Adrian II at the 4th ecumenical council of Constantinople (869-70) made the same statement (I have these facts from the Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, and have not verified them independently. But the DTC is probably the greatest Catholic reference work ever produced.)

Innocent III, no slouch in maintaining the papal prerogatives, said: “I can be judged by the Church only on account of a sin committed against the faith (propter solum peccatum quod in fide committitur possem ab Ecclesia judicari) (PL 217, 656D). Elsewhere he makes the point at greater length, commenting on the text: If the salt lose its savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is good for nothing but to be cast out and trampled underfoot by men:

It is sufficiently plain how this can apply to other prelates, but it is not immediately clear how it can be understood of the Roman pontiff. For as the Apostle says: A servant stands or falls to his own master. And the same apostle therefore also says: Who are you, to judge another man’s servant? But since the Roman pontiff has no other master save God, therefore, however much he loses his savour, who can put him outside so that he may be trampled underfoot? But he should not vainly flatter himself on his power or rashly pride himself in his elevated rank and position of honour, for the less he is susceptible to man’s judgement, the more he will be judged by God. And this is to say too little: for he can be judged by men, or rather be shown to be judged, if he loses his savour by way of heresy; for he who does not believe is already judged. And that is how there apply to him the words: If the salt lose its savour, it is good for nothing but to be cast out and trampled underfoot by men (PL 218, 670 A-B)

The Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique adds: “This doctrine was received and confirmed by the whole of the mediaeval period” (article, ‘Déposition et dégradation des clercs’, 519).

St Robert Bellarmine, often reckoned the greatest ecclesiologist of them all, was of the same mind. We shall consider his views more closely in part 2. John of St Thomas, one of the greatest of Aquinas’s commentators, explains the Scriptural basis of the Church’s power to judge a heretical pope. St Paul writing to St Titus says: “A man that is a heretic, correct once and a second time; after that, avoid him.” John of St Thomas comments:

One who remains in the papacy should not be avoided, since on the contrary the Church is bound to be united to him and communicate with him as her supreme head. Therefore, if a pope is a heretic, either the Church is obliged to communicate with him, or he must be deposed from the papacy. The first option would clearly lead to the destruction of the Church; it would involve an innate danger of error for the whole government of the Church, if the Church were obliged to follow a heretical head. In fact, since the heretic is the enemy of the Church, she can by natural right, that is, by the right of self-defence, against such a pope, since she can defend herself from her enemy, which is what a heretical pope is. Therefore, she can act against him; therefore, we must certainly follow the second option, namely, that such a pope is to be deposed (Cursus Theologicus, De auct. Summ. Pont. disp. 2 art. 3, II).

Cardinal Charles Journet, the great ecclesiologist of the 20th century, concludes: “There is therefore an absolute contradiction between the fact of being Pope and the fact of persevering in heresy after one or two admonitions” (The Church of the Word Incarnate, 483).

(to be continued)

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