Prominent Catholics 'Correct' Pope Francis, Warning Against 'Heresy' and Martin Luther

A group of clergy and lay scholars from around the world issued a formal filial correction to Pope Francis, accusing him of propagating heresies concerning marriage, the moral life, and the sacraments. They also condemned his positive remarks toward Martin Luther, the founder of the Protestant movement. This was the first formal correction since 1333.

“With profound grief, but moved by fidelity to our Lord Jesus Christ, by love for the Church and for the papacy, and by filial devotion toward yourself, we are compelled to address a correction to Your Holiness on account of the propagation of heresies effected by the apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia and by other words, deeds and omissions of Your Holiness,” the signatories declared.

This act may seem strange, considering that Roman Catholics are well-known for believing the doctrine of Papal Infallibility. But according to Catholic doctrine, popes are only infallible when speaking “ex cathedra,” from the chair with authority on issues of faith and morals. Furthermore, the signatories declared that Pope Francis’ statements had violated previous infallible declarations.

“We, however, believe that Your Holiness possesses the charism of infallibility [i.e. he is the pope and infallible in some circumstances, but not all], and the right of universal jurisdiction over Christ’s faithful, in the sense defined by the Church,” the signatories wrote. “In our protest against Amoris laetitia and against other deeds, words and omissions related to it, we do not deny the existence of this papal charism or Your Holiness’s possession of it.”

Furthermore, the signatories insisted, “Our correction is indeed required by fidelity to infallible papal teachings which are incompatible with certain of Your Holiness’s statements.”

When Pope Francis speaks to reporters, and even in the document Amoris Laetitia, he is not considered infallible. According to the Catholics who signed this correction, Francis’ statements actually violated infallible Catholic teaching.

The 25-page letter, entitled Correctio fialis de haeresibus propagatis, with the foreboding name “A Filial Correction Concerning the Propagation of Heresies,” was reportedly delivered to Francis on August 11, but he has not yet responded. Sixty-two prominent Catholic intellectuals signed the letter, including the German intellectual Martin Mosebach, former Vatican Bank President Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, and Bishop Bernard Fellay, superior general of the Society of St. Pius X.

The condemned statements deal with the knotty issue of divorce and remarriage. In Amoris Laetitia, Francis suggested that the Catholic Church might be loosening the strictures of matrimony, which his church considers a sacrament. A Roman Catholic marriage, once finalized and consummated, cannot be broken in divorce without special circumstances.

This follows from a literal reading of Jesus Christ’s exhortation to his disciples in Matthew 19. When asked if it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife, Jesus cited Genesis saying, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” He further added that “whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”

Yet Francis wrote that a husband or wife who divorces by a civil statute and remarries, with both parties having a full understanding and giving their consent, “can not necessarily be said to sin.” This was one of seven statements on the matter that the signatories cited.

The correction did not merely focus on Amoris Laetitia and the issue of remarriage, however. In order to elucidate the causes of Francis’ error and prevent future error, the signatories warned against the influences of modernism and Martin Luther. The Luther warning seemed particularly timely, considering that next month will see the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

First, the signatories set forth “the catholic understanding of divine revelation,” which they warned “is frequently denied by contemporary theologians.” They even specifically cited parts of Amoris Laetitia that seemed to deny this understanding.

The signatories emphasized that the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) “faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ … really did and taught, that Jesus is God, and that all Catholic teachings are truths from God.”

Finally, the signatories insisted that the pope “is not himself exempt from the authority of the church,” and that “the sin of heresy is committed by a person who possesses the theological virtue of faith, but then freely and knowingly chooses to disbelieve or doubt a truth of the Catholic faith.” The Catholic writers noted that “such a person sins mortally and loses eternal life.”

While the letter mentioned heresy, it also noted that the description was included “solely in order to be able to exclude them from the subject of our protest.”

The signatories proved quite explosive in their complaints about how Francis treated Martin Luther, however.

“We feel compelled by conscience to advert to Your Holiness’s unprecedented sympathy for Martin Luther, and to the affinity between Luther’s ideas on law, justification, and marriage, and those taught or favoured by Your Holiness in Amoris laetitia and elsewhere,” the letter declared. “We wish to show, albeit in summary form, that these are not unrelated errors, but rather form part of a heretical system.”

The letter cited many times Francis praised Luther. In a June 2016 press conference, the pope said, “I think that Martin Luther’s intentions were not mistaken; he was a reformer.” The pope further added that “nowadays, Lutherans and Catholics, and all Protestants, are in agreement on the doctrine of justification: on this very important point he was not mistaken.”

“In addition to stating that Martin Luther was correct about justification,” the signatories wrote, “Your Holiness has declared more than once that our sins are the place where we encounter Christ.” But this is not correct, the Catholic scholars argued, pointing to St. Paul glorying in his own “infirmities, not in his sins (2 Cor. 12:5, 9).”

The signatories warned that Francis took a Lutheran view of marriage in writings like Amoris Laetitia. “There is no need to lay upon two limited persons the tremendous burden of having to reproduce perfectly the union existing between Christ and his Church,” Francis wrote in that text.

The Catholic scholars attacked this view: “It is not a question of imposing a tremendous burden on two limited persons, but rather of acknowledging the work of the sacrament and of grace.” By downplaying this sacramental nature of marriage, Francis was following Luther, who “claimed that marriage is a mere symbol,” belonging to the order of creation rather than that of salvation.

Luther referenced Paul, who wrote that while he preferred all Christians remain single as he was, believers could get married so they do not “burn with passion” (1 Corinthians 7:9).

The signatories tied Luther’s view of marriage to his view of salvation, and again quoted Pope Francis (in May of this year), comparing his words to Luther’s.

Martin Luther taught that justification — the process by which God redeemed sinners through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ — came through faith alone, as opposed to also requiring works, which he claimed to be the Roman Catholic position.

In 1999, however, Catholics agreed with Lutherans in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. According to that document, “By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.” But the Catholic Church’s condemnation of Martin Luther still stands, and Pope Francis’ celebration of him has annoyed quite a few Catholics.

The letter concluded by mentioning two events at the Vatican itself: Finnish Lutherans took Holy Communion at a mass in January 2016, and Pope Francis himself presided over a meeting of Catholics and Lutherans in October of last year — on a stage where a statue of Martin Luther was erected.