To Be or Not to Be a “Correctionist”

April 7, 2017 (Steven O’Reilly) – Having been quite busy of late on other things, I am only now returning to address a brief blog that caught my attention a week or so ago. It was written by Scott Eric Alt and it was entitled “Stop it Already with ‘Paul Corrected Peter.'” Mr. Alt begins his blog:

But Paul corrected Peter!” is a standard objection raised in one of two contexts. Either it is raised by Protestants in order to deny papal infallibility and papal primacy; or it is raised by Catholics in order to defend their rebellion against Pope Francis, or the notion that people like Cardinal Burke should issue a “formal correction” of the Holy Father.

I will not go into great detail to respond to the references to “rebellion” or to “people like Cardinal Burke,” as if the Cardinal were a mere “people” and not a prince of the Church. For my part, I came reluctantly to blogging on these topics as I stated here. In a series of articles (here and here) I have argued that Amoris Laetitia (AL) does not expressly teach that communion for public adulterers in “certain cases” is licit – and that, therefore, the traditional teaching in such cases has not been nullified in the least. I have defended the pope against the claim he intended in AL to deny eternal punishment (see here). Thus, I do not consider myself to be in “rebellion.” Mr. Alt continues:

“The problem is that this biblical example does not at all prove what those who use it think it does.

The background to Paul’s correction of Peter was the claim of some first-century Jewish Christians that Gentile converts needed to observe the entire Mosaic law, specifically with respect to circumcision.

But at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) Peter decided against the Judaizers.

Now therefore why do you make trial of God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will. … Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God.

Peter, as pope, made a judgment binding on the whole Church. His judgment was correct. And Paul—note this—did not resist that judgment. In fact, he taught it himself, and with some vehemence.”

The argument that Mr. Alt is making begins to crumble at this point. Those who support a correction (“correctionists”), at least in my case, do not believe that in Amoris Laetitia Pope Francis made a “judgment binding on the whole Church” regarding communion for the divorced and remarried. If Mr. Alt thinks the pope made such a binding judgment, perhaps Mr. Alt can specifically cite where Pope Francis has done so in AL. My understanding that the pope has not issued a binding teaching is based on two considerations, both of which are tied directly to what the pope actually said. First, the pope in AL (3) demonstrates explicitly his intent is not to propose an intervention of the magisterium.

“Since “time is greater than space”, I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium. Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it. This will always be the case as the Spirit guides us towards the entire truth (cf. Jn 16:13), until he leads us fully into the mystery of Christ and enables us to see all things as he does. Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs. For “cultures are in fact quite diverse and every general principle… needs to be inculturated, if it is to be respected and applied”. (Amoris Laetitia, 3) [Emphasis added]

As I have argued elsewhere regarding the passage above from Amoris Laetitia:

“Right away we see in one of AL’s introductory passages that Francis seemingly disclaims the intent to make AL an “intervention of the magisterium.” In saying “I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium” it seems sufficiently clear the pope’s meaning amounts to this: ‘What follows may be a doctrinal, moral or pastoral issue, but I would make it clear I do not intend to settle them with interventions of the magisterium in this document.’ If this was not the pope’s meaning, it is utterly unclear what other purpose he had in mind given the tenor of the words used and their context. Francis’ lack of intent in exercising his ordinary papal magisterium to pronounce an infallible teaching which would bind the whole Church is also evidenced when he says “each country and region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs.” By leaving countries and regions on their own to seek solutions, the pope clearly did not propose a rule of faith.” (The predecessors of Pope Francis come to the defense of his magisterium? Well – Yes and No, Mr. Walford by Steven O’Reilly)

Secondly, his words in the body of AL do not expressly change the traditional teaching and practice (cf. AL 305 (n. 351)), as demonstrated here and here. Therefore, there is no resistance to Pope Francis with regard to any “judgment binding on the whole Church.” Mr. Alt continues:

“But what happened is that Peter was something of a hypocrite and a coward. Paul describes the incident at Antioch in Galatians 2:11-13. It used to be, says Paul, that Peter ate openly with the uncircumcised Gentiles. But when the Judaizers began to criticize him for this, Peter became afraid and would no longer sit down with the Gentiles. Peter, says Paul, was “self-condemned” by this action. And so he “opposed him openly.”

Now, at issue here was not Peter’s teaching but Peter’s actions. Peter was “self-condemned” because his behavior was contrary to what he taught as pope. Peter was sinning, and Paul was calling him out on his sin. The incident at Antioch has no larger meaning than that.”

Mr. Alt’s minimalist interpretation is that Paul ‘called out’ Peter for his sin, and it “has no larger meaning than that.” However, contrary to this assertion, Peter’s behavior did have a “larger meaning than that.”  Though neither quoted nor cited in Mr. Alt’s blog, Paul says of this incident in Antioch (emphasis added below):

But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Galatians 2:14)

The “they” in Galatians 2:14 is inclusive of Peter. Paul is saying “Peter was not straightforward about the truth of the gospel.” What Peter did in a public setting did not align with the truth of the gospel, and left some believers (e.g., Barnabas) confused as to what practices were consistent with the “truth of the gospel.” Peter’s public behavior potentially could have had a public and detrimental impact on the Church in Antioch, and potentially the whole Church – if Peter had not been corrected by Paul. Christians, Jew and gentile alike, could have been led into confusion about the truth of the gospel.

Thus, it seems evident, as with Peter, if a pope is not “straightforward about the truth of the gospel,” he may be corrected. Such sentiments motivated those who sought to correct popes John XXII and Honorius for doctrinal confusion associated with them because they had not been “straightforward with the truth of the Gospel” (see here).  Certainly, at a minimum, what is clear in Galatians is that a precedent is set. The precedent is that for due cause related to something that impacts the Church, Peter (and his successors) might be publicly corrected.

Mr. Alt concludes his blog with the following:

“Peter’s teaching was authoritative and not in doubt. But no one denies that popes are capable of cowardly, hypocritical, and sinful behavior. And it is a spiritual work of mercy to correct a sinner, even if he is the pope. That has nothing, however, to do with correcting the pope in his formal teaching.

So let’s retire this “Paul corrected Peter” nonsense. If Pope Francis were dumping the Vatican trash into the Tiber River, and Cardinal Burke were to say, “Holy Father, this is not consistent with Laudato Si,” then you would have a parallel to St. Paul.”

As I have argued further above, Mr. Alt’s argument crumbles when he implies anyone is “correcting the pope in his formal teaching” (emphasis added). It has already been shown Amoris Laetitia does not expressly give us a formal teaching.  The whole point of the Dubia was to understand what, precisely, is the pope saying on a number of ambiguous points in that apostolic exhortation. Here are some facts to consider:

  1. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI in a half dozen interventions of the papal magisterium (see here for details), inclusive of the Catholic Catechism, teach that the denial of communion to the divorced and remarried (i.e., excepting those who live as brother and sister) is a constant and universal practice of the Church that is based on Sacred Scripture.  This is clear.
  2. Pope Francis, in Amoris Laetitia, does not expressly allow communion in “certain cases” for the divorced and remarried, nor does he reverse the teachings of John Paul II or Benedict XVI on this question.  This is clear.
  3. Bishops and episcopal conferences have reached different conclusions about the proper interpretation of Amoris Laetitia.  Some interpret it so as to allow communion in some cases for the divorced and remarried.  Others interpret it so as to maintain the ancient discipline, based on Sacred Scripture, which forbids it as a sacrilege. Both views cannot be true. Thus, both practices cannot be licit. This is clear.
  4. The ambiguity of Amoris Laetitia, as said above, is used by some to justify communion for the divorced and remarried. Pope Francis could clarify his meaning in a public, formal way to remove all doubt. However, he has not yet done so, and he has refused to answer the 5 dubia which involve this, and other questions of importance. The one person in this world with the authority to end the confusion has not done so and seemingly refuses to do so – and thus the confusion and division in the Church spread. This is clear.
  5. Although (1) the predecessors of Pope Francis taught that the denial of communion for the divorced and remarried is a constant and universal practice, based on Sacred Scripture, and (2) Pope Francis himself did not expressly reverse this practice in Amoris Laetitia; his actions and silence contradict both these points. For example, L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, published the recent guidelines of the bishops of Malta and of Germany which allow communion for the divorced and remarried in “certain cases.” These articles were published, it seems, with the pope’s tacit approval. The pope appears to have privately conveyed his approval of such guidelines to some (e.g., Cardinal Marx, the bishops of Buenos Aires). Yet, in none of these or other examples can it be said the pope has made a “judgment binding on the whole Church.” However, their appearance certainly gives moral support to those who support communion in “certain cases” for the divorced and remarried. This is clear.

What then is a Christian to believe, especially if one is a divorced and remarried person in a “certain case,” or a priest who might be asked to give communion to one?  Is the practice an act of mercy or is it a grave sacrilege that might send one to perdition? It cannot be both.  Someone on one side or the other of this argument is wrong. Therefore, given the above considerations, there is more of a parallel between the correction of Peter and the case for one with regard to Pope Francis. Certainly, there is more of one than Mr. Alt allows. The parallel consists in this: believers observing this pope’s public behavior – considered either as inaction or silence – are confused as to whether to believe the pope’s behavior which gives moral support to one practice or the formal teaching of the Church which condemns such a practice as sacrilegious.

What might Paul say – of the pope’s silence and ambiguity, and of those using it to allow communion in these “certain cases” – if he were with us today?  Is it at least conceivable Paul might say as he did of another pope and those with him: “I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel”? (cf Galatians 2:14). If one thinks the answer to this last question would be a definite “no,” you are a “non-correctionist.” However, if one believes, given the facts above, that Paul might say “they are not straightforward about the truth of the gospel” – well, then, you just might be a “correctionist.”


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