Whether or not Martin Luther actually uttered the words attributed to him and found in the title of this post, it certainly had become the principal rallying cry for the claims of conscience, equalled only by (the oft-decontextualized use of) Newman’s “I shall drink to conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards”. Both are seen within the context of a challenge to the papacy, be it the brazen hubris of Luther or Newman’s more subtle and nuanced disquiet at the proclamation of papal infallibility at Vatican I.
Both might be seen as applicable to the case of Fr Thomas Weinandy OFMCap and his recently-released letter to Pope Francis regarding the current crisis of authority in the Church. In the preceding link one will find also Fr Weinandy’s explanatory note, which is in many ways perhaps even more arresting than the letter itself. It is important to note that Fr Weinandy is no fringe-dwelling extremist nor some rare and exotic flower in the vineyard of the Lord. He is as mainstream, in the best possible way, a theologian as one can get. Widely-read by students (including myself), 12 years teaching in Oxford and, for some of that time, as chairman of the theology faculty, former head of the US bishops’ doctrine commission. But this is barely to touch upon his eminence as a theologian.
Thus that someone of his standing should publish a letter of papal critique and counsel is perhaps even more significant that the dubia published by the four cardinals. It is easy to paint a cardinal as conservative and out-of-touch (however false such a caricature might be); it is not so easy to paint in such colours a theologian acknowledged (until now??) by the mainstream as of the first-rank.
Once you have read his letter and note at the link above, continue on here, and see if you reflections and reactions coincide with mine. Just out of interest…
The Explanatory Note: This is a highly personal piece of writing which ably explains how Fr Weinandy has come to this point. Revealing his mounting anxiety last summer, and its physical effects on him, he explains the highly-specific sign he asked of God regarding whether or not he should say something to address the current crisis. The sign had to fulfil highly-detailed criteria for acceptance, and within a very narrow timeframe. The sign came, and was fulfilled to the last detail. It stands in stark contrast to Luther’s “sign” that led to his embracing the Augustinian life: mere survival of a thunderstorm. Luther’s “sign” was banal in its nature, and the un-pre-meditated product of a neurotic instinct for self-preservation. Weinandy’s sign is the fruit of sustained anguish and prayer, and too perfectly precise to be mistaken as anything but the divine sign requested. And as Fr Weinandy says, it has an apostolic fragrance to it.
The Letter: It needs to be read, and read again. Rather than re-hash it here, suffice it to highlight its more important points:
- The “chronic confusion” that attends this pontificate damages the people of God’s “capacity for love, joy and peace”.
- The intentional ambiguity and lack of clarity in Amoris laetitia risk sinning against the Holy Spirit, Who “is given to the Church, and particularly to yourself [ie Francis], to dispel error, not to foster it.” This impression is only enhanced by the ad hominem attacks on orthodox bishops and scholars who promote the established teaching of the Church and the integrity of Christ’s teaching in the Gospels.
- The by-product of papal strategy has been to “demean the importance of Church doctrine”, when in reality the doctrinal core of the Church’s magisterium “frees people [ie, bishops and theologians] from worldly ideologies and assures that they are actually preaching and teaching the authentic, life-giving Gospel.”
- Pope Francis’ choice of bishops frequently “weakens the zeal of the many women and men who have championed authentic Catholic teaching over long periods of time, often at the risk of their own reputations and well-being”, which has created among “the faithful, who embody the ‘sensus fidelium,’ … [a loss of] confidence in their supreme shepherd”.
- Pope Francis’ advocacy of synodality [ie government by synod] “is leading to more theological and pastoral confusion” and as a result it is “unwise and, in practice, works against collegial unity among bishops.”
- The papal attitude has led to a neutering of the college of bishops, both indivudally and corporately, because “what many have learned from your pontificate is not that you are open to criticism, but that you resent it,” and so “Many bishops are silent because they desire to be loyal to you, … [and moreover] fear that if they speak their mind, they will be marginalized or worse.”
- Fr Weinandy sees the supernatural meaning of this situation as being that “Jesus wants to manifest just how weak is the faith of many within the Church, even among too many of her bishops”, and that it serves to reveal the many time-servers in ranks of the bishops and theologians who now have “the license and confidence to come into the light and expose their previously hidden darkness.”
Fr Weinandy sent his letter to Pope Francis on the feast of St Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the pope’s own order, the Jesuits. This providentially not only perfumes the letter with the fragrance of Jesuit sanctity, but it raises the point that St Ignatius, a zealous believer in papal authority and primacy as the founthead of true reform in the service of Church unity, would be mortified that papal authority could be used to fracture, splinter, disorient and dismay the people of God whom the Vicar of Christ is mandated to serve.
The nods to Luther and Newman are also significant in l’affaire Weinandy. Luther originally professed to be a loyal son of the papacy seeking only to confront the venality and worldliness of its servants who thus damaged the papacy itself. Sadly Luther began to believe more in his own righteousness than that of his cause and revealed himself to be a hater of the papacy and of the Church which had nurtured him. Weinandy’s ‘theses’ were posted privately not on a church door, and have become public only because neither the pope nor his curia have deigned to respond to them. Moreover, rather than seeing himself as the saviour of the Church he recognises and professes that “the Church will humbly need to renew herself”. Weinandy is not setting himself to be the leader of a cause or a faction.
Newman’s toast to conscience before pope is not a statement of liberal defiance but a nuanced view of papal infallibility and the ultramontanism which it can engender. Newman, in the same letter to the Duke of Norfolk, gives instances of acts by previous popes, including St Peter, which endanger a sound and healthy understanding of the truth of papal infallibility in rare and specific instances, and concludes that “[n]o Catholic ever pretends that these Popes were infallible in these acts. Since then infallibility alone could block the exercise of conscience, and the Pope is not infallible in that subject-matter in which conscience is of supreme authority, no dead-lock, such as implied in the objection which I am answering, can take place between conscience and the Pope.” Which is to say, that no exercise of papal authority can legitimately prevent or forbid the conscience in holding to what is clearly established as true and authentic; in such a case papal infallibility does not operate, indeed it could not operate.
Luther in his reformist beginnings reminds us that the papacy is the servant not the master of the Church, and that any true reform of the Church cannot occur without the papacy and indeed must involve the papacy. Newman reminds us that papal infallibility only operates in limited circumstances, and can never contradict truth, which would be none other than a contradiction at heart. The papacy serves truth, and where it does not serve truth it can have no infallibility.
These examples provide us with a useful lens through which to view Fr Weinandy’s heartfelt and humble intervention. I say humble, because rather than stand his ground in what night be construed as barefaced defiance, he has immediately obeyed the US bishops’ request that he resign his role as their theological advisor. One cannot help but feel the shame of this act falls not on Fr Weinandy but on the US bishops.
Truth will out, and we must all answer to God at Judgment. There is many a bishop I would not like to be if that Day were to come suddenly upon us now. To those to whom much has been given much will be demanded. This truth from the mouth of Christ is a sobering admonition to popes, bishops and all who call themselves Christian. St Peter denied Christ, three times. Thankfully, and gloriously, he repented and repaid his Lord’s love and commission in full measure. The path Peter trod we can tread too; on that path, in fact, he leads us. Let us pray we follow in his way and not the world’s.
No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.
Christ, in Luke 6:43-45