Rorate Caeli

Correctio Filialis: A response to some critics

The Filial Correction published last Sunday has attracted more support than I, as a signatory, had dared to hope. Additional signatures from pastors and academics have been submitted by the score; a petition in support has been signed by more than 10,000 people and counting; and it has been reported widely in the secular as well as the Catholic press. 
There has been very little in the way of substantive response to the Correction from those who support what it criticises. Here I — in a personal capacity — want to look succinctly at three of the more serious attempts to get to grips with it. This is made easier by the fact that they all make essentially the same, erroneous criticism 

First, Stephen Walford writes, characteristically:

It is difficult to know where to start on this one: the hypocrisy or the risible accusations of heresy against the Holy Father. I’ll go with hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy is the state of those whose beliefs do not correspond with their words, particularly when they wish others to uphold standards in which they do not believe. Does Walford seriously imagine that the signatories are insincere? What on earth is their motivation, Mr Walford, if they don’t think their claims are even true? It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Walford does not actually believe that the signatories are hypocrites; he just likes the sound of the word.  The accusation, in fact, is quite literally hypocritical, as he insincerely accuses others of making insincere accusations. 

When he does get round to a substantial argument, it is that one of the quotations of Vatican I’s Pastor aeternus, in a footnote of the Correctio, leaves out a bit which he personally likes. This must be very important: we all know now that the most important passages of a document are the footnotes. This omitted bit is:

…the See of St. Peter always remains unblemished by any error, in accordance with the divine promise of our Lord and Saviour.

What does Walford imagine this passage means? Obviously, it is related to the doctrine of Papal Infallibility: ‘infallibility’ just means ‘unblemished by any errors’. So, does Pastor aeternus want us to think, like Rex in Brideshead Revisited, that when the Pope says ‘It’s raining’ it must be, even if when you look out of the window it is evident that it isn’t? No, Pastor aeternus is precisely the document which sets out the extremely limited circumstances in which one may say of the words of a Pope: ‘that statement is protected by the gift of infallibility’. 

Do these circumstances cover a pope’s private letter, say to the Bishops of Buenos Aires, which is subsequently leaked to the press? Do they include a pope’s agreement, perhaps a tacit one, to the printing of something, say guidelines for the application of Amoris laetitia composed by the Bishops of Malta, in the Vatican’s newspaper? No, Mr Walford, these are not infallible acts of the Petrine teaching office; they are not acts of the Petrine teaching office at all. 

Walford’s key mistake, then, is to ignore the central claim of the Correctio, and to focus on something the Correctio goes out of its way not to say. The real claim is: the Pope has left us little doubt about how he wants us to understand and apply Amoris, and this understanding is in the last analysis incompatible with the Faith. What Walford would like it to be saying is that Amoris is unambiguously erroneous in itself. 

Certain passages of Amoris do, perhaps, point in a problematic direction, but for myself I was ready to read them in light of the preceding teaching of the Church — anyone who doubts this can read the blog posts I composed in the immediate aftermath of its publication. Heck, I even criticised Steve Skojek over it. Now it’s me who is the idiot, along with everyone else who tried to give it the benefit of the doubt. What is key here, however, is not the precise wording of Amoris, but the way Pope Francis has been indicating, non-magisterially, that it should be understood. 

It is this same error of Walford’s which is repeated by Robert Fastiggi and Dawn Eden Goldstein. They have found a discrepancy between the official Latin text and the English translation, and claim that the authors of the Correctio were led astray by this. Well, that is a potentially interesting point, though as a matter of fact many signatories’ first languages are those in which, according to Fastiggi and Goldstein, Amoris got a better translation. Furthermore, the difference it makes does not appear to make any substantive difference to the meaning of the passage. 

However, I’m not going to go into all the details because it is irrelevant. It is not that we are saying that the text of Amoris cannot be bent into some kind of orthodoxy. What we are saying is that it has become clear that orthodoxy is not what Pope Francis wants us to find there. 

Finally, there is Jacob Wood. Much of his article is accurate and helpful. What is less so is in claiming that the Correction causes scandal. It should be obvious to anyone who loves the Church that it would be far more scandalous if a pope favoured error and faithful Catholics all remained silent. I hardly think this point needs to be laboured. 

But his final verdict on the Correctio appears to be this:

None of the passages of Amoris Laetitia cited by the correction explicitly denies that a person who knowingly and willingly commits grave evil cuts himself or herself off from God’s grace.

Having made the necessary distinction between the Pope proposing heresy explicitly and promoting it, Wood fails to consider the (personal) acts of Pope Francis, many listed in the Correctio, which do favour this idea. But that is what the Correctio is ultimately about. 

As noted, the substantive responses to the Correctio are, so far, seriously lacking in substance. There is a reason for this, of course. Not only is their case weak, but the very act of engaging in detailed argument about the substantive issues leads the discussion in a direction in which, it would seem, Pope Francis does not want it to go. He could have cleared up the ‘confusion’ at any time by issuing an magisterial statement, but there is value in the ambiguity since it allows a variety of interpretations while some can still claim — correctly — that nothing contrary to the Faith has been formally promulgated. As some of his defenders like to say, a dialogue, answering the dubia for example, would be a ‘trap’. In a sense, any clarification would be a reassertion of the primacy of theological clarity, the magisterium, and rules. 

But that position, or refusing to clarify, is crumbling now. We have now had two Cardinals, Müller and the Secretary of Sate, Cardinal Parolin, calling for a serious engagement between the Vatican and critics such as the signatories and the ‘dubia’ Cardinals. Perhaps, just perhaps, we are approaching the end game.