Church Historian: Pope Francis is Skating on Thinnest Ice Ever

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by Jules Gomes  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  January 24, 2020   

Rarely has a pope been accused of heresy, warns Carlos Eire

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ROME (ChurchMilitant.com) - A distinguished Church historian who fled the tyranny of Fidel Castro is warning that Pope Francis is theologically "skating on the thinnest ice that anyone — not just living, but dead or watching — is."

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Ed Pentin

"It is very rare" for a pope to be accused of unorthodoxy or perhaps even heresy, Carlos M. N. Eire, professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University, asserts.  

However, "things would get hairy" if a heretical pope invoked infallibility, Eire explains in an interview with Ed Pentin in the National Catholic Register. 

Eire, who fled to the U.S. without his parents as one of 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children airlifted by Operation Peter Pan, nevertheless assures Catholics that the crisis sparked by Francis "is nothing compared to previous crises or previous popes."

Indeed, "this is child's play," compared to the "70 years in Avignon — and then all the following years of the Great Schism of 1378 where you had not two, but at one point three rival popes — and the Church survived," he says.  

"We don't know what's going to happen, but there's a promise that the Church is not going to disappear and that there's someone else in charge who is human and divine," the Catholic expert on the Protestant Reformation, declares.

However, he urges Catholics not to be complacent because "God works through people" and in the past "God has always worked through us to protect His Church."

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Faithful Catholics "will always be working hard and often meeting a tremendous resistance" and individuals might never see a problem facing the Church "resolved in their lifetime and during their lifetime," in fact, "they will have to put up with quite a bit." 

But "eventually — and that's always the catch for us, because our lifespans are short," it will work to the good, the biographer of St. Teresa of Ávila, affirms. 

Eire cites the example of the theologian St. Vincent Ferrer, who actually supported the Avignon pope for many years and then finally saw the light and changed sides. "But in the meantime, he made life miserable for people who accepted the Roman pope ... but that's just the way things work out." 

For Catholics, genuine reform means only one thing: improving the Catholic Church while remaining faithful to it.

He explains: 

Being a heretic and not speaking ex cathedra — while it's a problem, it's not the worst kind of problem. And actually, most Catholics don't know about the famous case that was invoked during the First Vatican Council, which was the case of Pope Honorius I, who in conversations with the patriarch of Constantinople expressed agreement with the heretical proposition about Christ — Monotheletism — the idea that the Christ had only one will, the divine will. 

The heresy of Pope Honorius I was brought up during Vatican I as an example of popes not being infallible. But "Honorius was not speaking ex cathedra. That was a private conversation," Eire clarifies.

Such a heresy is very rare in Church history, even though there were disagreements about the Immaculate Conception before it was pronounced a dogma and people fell on both sides, including the popes, Eire adds, noting that Honorius' remains were dug up and thrown into the Tiber. 

Being a heretic and not speaking ex cathedra — while it's a problem, it's not the worst kind of problem.

When asked if Pope Francis has impinged on doctrine in papal documents like Amoris Laetitia, Eire says whenever there's been "any kind of doctrinal conflict" or "logjam, it has come, it has gone, sometimes there's a fallout, but it's resolved," and "the Church has survived the crisis."

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Woodcut depicting Protestant Reformation as revolution

In his course on the Catholic intellectual tradition, the professor gets students to realize that "crisis is constant," even though "the details of the crises might be different, and the intensity of the crises might vary."

As a believer and a historian, Eire says his students are wide-eyed when he tells them that "the Catholic Church is the longest-lasting continuous institution in human history" and "not even the pharaohs had this kind of institutional continuity." 

In his opus magnum Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650, Eire resoundingly champions the thesis that true reformation can only take place within the Catholic Church.

Even though Protestants, he writes, "were not always of one mind and actually created a number of distinct competing reformations and churches, each of which claimed to be the genuine article, they nonetheless took to speaking of the Reformation in the singular rather than the plural and to assigning it capital letters."

But for "Catholics, genuine reform meant only one thing: improving the Catholic Church while remaining faithful to it. As Catholics saw it, Protestants were not reformers with a capital R, but rebels, and their so-called Reformation nothing more than a misguided revolt."  

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