You needn't have earned a certificate from the New St. Thomas Institute to understand that if you're going to accuse Christ's living, breathing vicar of spreading heresy, you'd better make damn sure you're right. But it appears that Taylor Marshall — who twice in the last few weeks erroneously declared Pope Francis a heretic — didn't quite get the memo. For his own sake and that of his impressionable fans, the "dad with a webcam" needs to recant his recent outrages, and perhaps reconsider his sensationalist role in Catholic public discourse altogether.
For those not already savvy to the facts underlying the controversy, allow me to bring you up to speed. During his Feb. 2 general audience, Pope Francis appeared to embrace a theological novelty, numbering apostates and baptism-deniers among the members of Christ's Church. Francis explained:
The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms the Communion of Saints is the Church. What a beautiful definition this is! ... What does this mean? That the Church is reserved for the perfect? No. It means that it is the community of saved sinners. ... This is a beautiful definition. No one can exclude themselves from the Church. ...
In Christ no one can ever truly separate us from those we love because the bond is an existential bond, a strong bond that is in our very nature; only the manner of being together with each of them changes, but nothing and no one can break this bond. "Father, let us think about those who have denied the Faith, who are apostates, who are the persecutors of the Church, who have denied their baptism: Are these also at home?" Yes, these too, even the blasphemers, everyone. We are brothers. This is the Communion of Saints. [Emphasis added.]
While Francis' dubious remarks perplexed many of the faithful, Marshall was, by all appearances, apoplectic. He rushed to YouTube to put out twin podcasts excoriating the pontiff's words as "heresy" from "the bowels of Hell" and "the throat of Satan." If members of his audience believed the words of Francis, they too are heretics, blustered the internet philosopher.
The Catechism of St. Pius X treats the Communion of the Saints as follows:
10 Q. Who are they who do not belong to the Communion of Saints?
- Those who are damned do not belong to the Communion of Saints in the other life; and in this life those who belong neither to the body nor to the soul of the Church, that is, those who are in mortal sin, and who are outside the true Church.
11 Q. Who are they who are outside the true Church?
- Outside the true Church are: infidels, Jews, heretics, apostates, schismatics and the excommunicated. [Emphasis added.]
The Catechism of Trent, on the other hand, says:
Hence there are but three classes of persons excluded from the Church's pale: infidels, heretics and schismatics, and excommunicated persons. Infidels are outside the Church because they never belonged to, and never knew the Church, and were never made partakers of any of Her sacraments. Heretics and schismatics are excluded from the Church, because they have separated from Her and belong to Her only as deserters belong to the army from which they have deserted. It is not, however, to be denied that they are still subject to the jurisdiction of the Church, inasmuch as they may be called before Her tribunals, punished and anathematized. Finally, excommunicated persons are not members of the Church, because they have been cut off by Her sentence from the number of Her children and belong not to Her communion until they repent.
But with regard to the rest, however wicked and evil they may be, it is certain that they still belong to the Church: Of this the faithful are frequently to be reminded, in order to be convinced that, were even the lives of Her ministers debased by crime, they are still within the Church, and therefore lose nothing of their power. [Emphasis added.]
At the outset, let's concede that there does appear to be a discrepancy between Pope Francis' teaching on who is included in the Communion of Saints (i.e., apostates remain in the communion), and the Church's historical teaching on the matter (i.e., apostates are cut off from the communion). But, contrary to Marshall's scandalmongering, that in no wise marks Pope Francis as a heretic.
The extent of Marshall's "logyk" appears to be that (1) it's heresy to say something untrue about faith or morals; (2) Pope Francis said something untrue about faith or morals; (3) those who speak heresy are heretics; (4) therefore, Pope Francis is a heretic. However, this line of reasoning is facile and without merit — predicated, as it is, upon faulty presuppositions and theological noob blunders.
Marshall's little syllogism is wrong from the very outset. Heresy — serious canonical crime and grave sin that it is — is much more than merely saying something untrue or incorrect about faith or morals. Indeed, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, §2089, defines heresy as "the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith." Read at face value, the catechism imposes a four-prong test for whether a person is a heretic: (1) The person must be baptized; (2) he must deny a truth; (3) his denial must be obstinate, i.e., he must persist in his error after correction; and (4) his denial of truth must be in regard to a doctrine that is to be believed with divine and catholic faith.
Taking for granted that Pope Francis is baptized, and conceding, for the sake of argument, that his comments comprised a denial of a theological truth, whether Pope Francis is, as Marshall claims, a heretic, will turn on whether he has been obstinate in his denial of the truth and if said denial implicates a doctrine that's to be believed with divine and catholic faith. It's obvious that these latter two conditions have not been satisfied.
First, no one can seriously contend that Pope Francis is obstinate in his error. For such a characterization to be apropos, Pope Francis would have to persist in heterodoxy, even after Church authorities rebuked him. New Advent's Catholic Encyclopedia sums it up well: "Obstinate adhesion to a particular tenet is required to make heresy formal. For as long as one remains willing to submit to the Church's decision, he remains a Catholic Christian at heart, and his wrong beliefs are only transient errors and fleeting opinions."
In his presentations, Marshall neglects to touch upon, even in a cursory way, whether Pope Francis had been made aware of his alleged error by competent Church authorities. Nor does Marshall so much as begin to prove that Pope Francis opted to remain intransigent in his error. And that's because neither of the foregoing scenarios, in fact, took place. This line of reasoning alone dispositively clears Francis of charges of heresy. But wait — there's more.
Even if it were the case that Pope Francis had been formally confronted by, say, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for his theological error and he had defiantly held to his position, he still would not be guilty of heresy because his error did not implicate doctrine that must be held with "divine and catholic faith." According to Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos' Sacrae Theologiae Summa, I: Theologiae Fundamentalis, doctrines to be held with divine and catholic faith are those "contained in the word of God ... and ... proposed by the Church either by a solemn judgment or by the ordinary and universal Magisterium to be believed as divinely revealed" (see also Code of Canon Law, canon 750, §1).
The Church, of course, does not propose the doctrine of the Communion of Saints with this lofty level of definitiveness. Rather, theologians, such as Ludwig Ott (in his renowned Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma), assign to the Communion of Saints the lower note of "sententia certa" — "theologically certain." According to Ott, doctrines that are "theologically certain" are those "on which the teaching authority of the Church has not yet finally pronounced, but whose truth is guaranteed by its intrinsic connection with the doctrine of revelation." While one would still take on the pox of mortal sin if he were to deliberately contradict the Church on truths theologically certain, such impertinence does not rise to the arch-maleficent rank of heresy.
So even in the event that Pope Francis had outright denied the existence of the Communion of Saints, Marshall would still have been dead wrong to call him a heretic. But here, Marshall was even further off base because, as the astute reader will notice, Pope Francis affirmed the perennial teaching of the Church that there exists a bond of charity and fraternity between the holy ones baptized into Christ, both living and dead — AKA, the Communion of Saints. Where Pope Francis went wrong was in exaggerating the ranks of those who make up the communion (for it does appear well-settled that heretics, apostates and schismatics are not to be counted among those fortunate members of the Kingdom of God). And if it's not heresy to break with the Church in professing the Communion of Saints altogether, it's certainly a much lesser offense to err in that which pertains only to what can only be described as a minor corollary of the greater doctrine.
What's more, the astute reader may also notice that the two authorities cited by Marshall in his monetized condemnations of Pope Francis — the Catechism of the Council of Trent and the Catechism of St. Pius X — are themselves dissonant regarding precisely who is in the Communion of Saints. The Catechism of Trent, promulgated by Pope Pius V, asserts that those in mortal sin "still belong to the Church" (in other words, they retain their place in the Communion of Saints). Conversely, the Catechism of St. Pius X contends that those in mortal sin are outside the Communion of Saints. Did Pope St. Pius X, according to the illustrious Marshall, also act as the "throat of Satan" and preach heresy when he contradicted the Catechism of Trent (which Marshall claims is infallible)? It's disingenuous and, frankly, suspicious for Marshall to hold Pope Francis to one standard and Pope Pius X to another.
Some may wonder, "Well, so what? If the pope actually is in error, isn't it shameless hair-splitting to castigate Dr. Marshall for merely ascribing to him the wrong level of error?" No. In theology, as in any science, details matter. Calling the pope a heretic, as Marshall and all the hapless viewers of his scandalous Feb. 3 and Feb. 15 shows know, carries with it grave implications. Indeed, immediately after dubbing Francis a heretic, Marshall gives a dog whistle to sedevacantism by quoting St. Robert Bellarmine's speculation that "when a pope is a manifest heretic, he falls ipso facto immediately from the papacy." Without coming right out and saying it, Marshall is virtually begging his audience to conclude that Pope Francis, the rock of the indefectible Church, is no longer the pope. In the immortal words of the inimitable George Costanza, "It's signals, Jerry, signals!"
In this respect, he's operating like the perfidious liberal theologians of the 20th century, who famously built arguments with errant propositions, but prescinded from expressly stating their implied heretical conclusions, to escape censure from the Church. Guys like Raymond Brown would lead the proverbial horse to water, but conclude with open-ended questions, imparting their points while thumbing their noses at the Magisterium. It's as cowardly as it is dishonest.
So it should gobsmack everyone to hear Marshall lecturing on Feb. 15, "For all of you out there lying about me, saying I'm a schismatic telling people to leave the Church, shame on you." Guy, get off your high horse. You just called the pope a heretic. Read canon 751; then get back to us.
And this is as good a time as any to make this gratifying and long overdue nota bene: Chemists aren't biologists, and philosophers aren't theologians. Philosophers, even ones who obtained degrees at Catholic universities, aren't competent at theologizing, and they emphatically should not be trusted to do so — by anyone. To earn a philosophy PhD, you need to have earned precisely zero theology credit hours. And simply dissertating on what Thomas Aquinas thought of Aristotle's theory of how much wood a woodchuck would chuck if it could, in fact, chuck wood, does not make one an interdisciplinary scholar; it makes one a guy who's dabbled in a little Aquinas through a philosophical lens.
Ecclesiology and, say, liturgical theology, are specialized subfields of the greater theological discipline. It's laughable that trads with philosophy degrees presume to weigh in on the nuances of current events in these areas, which grossly surpass their competencies. I don't care what some philosophy guy thinks of the liceity of the Magisterium's liturgical reforms. Stop telling me. It's not my fault you didn't study a more relevant field.
Finally, to the pearl-clutching Marshall fans that will inevitably take it upon themselves to flood the comment box with nags about how "Church Militant should have privately corrected Taylor Marshall before doing so publicly," I have this to say: Horsefeathers. That's not how this works. Professional Catholics don't get to, through flaccid appeals to canon 212, publicly and wrongly accuse the Church's visible sign of unity, the successor of Peter, of heresy, but escape public derision themselves. In moral theology, as articulated by moralist Heribert Jone, the sinner may be immediately denounced when a "fault is public or will soon become public," in order to avoid scandal (Heribert Jone, Moral Theology, p. 84). In fact, if one hears defamation, one sins if he "does not hinder the defamation, although he can do so" (Ibid., 253, emphasis added). So we kind of had an obligation to fraternally correct, y'know? By the way, where were all these scolds when an underqualified talking head livestreamed a rhetorical hit job on a reigning pope?
And now, content with the uncritical fawning of fans who value entertainment, conspiracy and dressing like G.K. Chesterton's accountant over truth, it appears Marshall is going to attempt to claim the "high road" and hold himself out as a maligned victim of a Church Militant smear campaign instead of accepting Michael Voris' good faith offer to fraternally dialogue. For all the Patreon hay Marshall made criticizing Pope Francis' famous "I will not say a single word" moment, it's ironic that the e-scholar seems intent on maintaining a pretentious silence about his own glaring errors, shirking accountability under the thin veneer of "avoiding infighting" and "uniting the clans" — all to the uncritical sycophantic adulation of his devotees. Nevertheless, consider this our dubium to Marshall. Would that it does not go unanswered.
I know we're in a chaotic state and that the constitution of the Church is wan, but let's get back to the wholesome days where we bristled when we heard some bloke label the vicar of Christ a heretic. As for Marshall, let's exhort him to return to his senses and to value truth over clicks. Marshall should just listen to his own smarmy Feb. 15 advice on repeat: "If you're out there lying about other Catholics [like the pope] ... to score points, to raise money, to get a social media following, that's just weak; it's effeminate and it's petty."