A Heretic in Good Company
Two weeks ago, Cardinal Robert McElroy visited Fairfield, Connecticut, spending time at both Catholic universities in this medium-sized town. I think it is fair to say that he was well-received by most, if not all, of those who came out to see him. Imagine our surprise, then, to discover that First Things magazine, a rightward-leaning but usually more judicious publication, gave space to Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, to accuse the cardinal of heresy, albeit writing in a way that allowed plausible deniability when challenged. In words that persuaded no one, Paprocki argued that he, “intended the discussion to be more rhetorical.” Whatever that might mean.
McElroy is well able to defend himself from what seems to have been a somewhat foolish attack, among other things misunderstanding or ignoring the clear account in canon law of what constitutes heresy. McElroy’s “sin,” argued Paprocki, was to reject the doctrinal and canonical perspective on sacramental access for the divorced and remarried and for those guilty of homosexual acts. But the bishop didn’t understand that becoming a heretic is much harder to do. It has to pertain to the essentials of the faith. The cardinal’s rejoinder, which you can read in the Jesuit magazine, America, on March 2, reiterates his scholarly argument that history does not support the claim that all sexual sins are mortal and therefore anyone guilty of them is barred from the sacrament. For this very reason, pastoral concerns may trump dogma.
I will let the cardinal explain all of this to you, but aside from the specific points at issue, a larger and perhaps deeper set of concerns swirling around the accusation of heresy need to be looked at. The very notion of heresy itself is ambiguous enough. Most commonly, a dictionary definition would say that a heretic is a person who differs in opinion from established religious dogma and refuses to acknowledge revealed truth, perhaps with the rider that such a person has fallen into grave error, deserving penalty or even condemnation. There are other ways of defining heresy, however, and it will sometimes simply be said that a heretic is someone whose beliefs or actions are considered wrong by most people because they disagree with beliefs that are generally accepted. This way of explaining heresy has a number of interesting characteristics. It seems to require the judgment of the community that a person’s views are in error because they run contrary to the prevailing opinion. Hidden here is the implication that heresy is not measured by a fixed inherited standard (dogma 1, we might call it), but by the scandal caused by disrupting the community’s instinct for what is right (dogma 2, perhaps). If this sounds a little bit like Vatican II’s invoking of the sensus fidelium, it should. It also implies an understanding of the development of doctrine and, indeed, of the hierarchy of truths.
When Bishop Paprocki seems to be accusing Cardinal McElroy of heresy, his reference to the rights and responsibility of the supreme pontiff is glaringly off-target. He writes of the supposedly hypothetical cardinal that, “only the pope can remove a cardinal from office or dismiss him from the clerical state in the case of heresy or other grave crimes.” Does he imagine that Pope Francis is likely to do this to someone whose views seem to coincide very closely with his own? There is a phrase that has been going around lately, that “opposition to Pope Francis is opposition to Vatican II.” Allow me to amend it a little: “opposition to Cardinal McElroy is opposition to Pope Francis which is opposition to Vatican II.”
Times change, Bishop Paprocki, and not always for the worse. On the door of my office, I have a poster whose headline proclaims, “a heretic in good company.” The list of “heretics” that follows includes, among others, Joan of Arc, Origen, Teilhard de Chardin, the Franciscans, Ivone Gebara and Galileo. Not bad company at all. The point is that yesterday’s heretic is today’s “thought leader.” Even Martin Luther makes the list on my poster, and it was John Paul II who called him in from the heretical cold. The world is changing, and one of the few ways in which it is changing for the better is that we are learning to accept all God’s children where they are, filled as they are with grace as the people they are. Gay, lesbian, trans or merely divorced and remarried. And as this awareness grows more in our society, it is just possible that those who oppose it in the name of rigid dogmatism may be the real heretics.
Paul Lakeland is a teacher, scholar and director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University.
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Posted by: J. Riley | 03/10/2023 at 12:51 PM