If I've learned anything from my study of the history of the Catholic Church, it's that God is not in a hurry.
I assume it has to do with His being eternal and all. Our temporal limitations predispose us to become frustrated with a situation rather quickly. We see a problem, we see a solution, and we want it done. Yesterday. The clock is ticking, you know. Tick-tock, tick-tock.
Not God. It appears His preferred method for resolving conflict is that most tedious, if thorough, of stratagems: inevitability. Painstakingly slow, dust-grinding inevitability.
Keeping this in mind is important because, due to our limited perspective, we easily fail to see how our brief time on the stage fits into the larger scheme of things. As we see it, the problem started just before we were born, and is reaching its crescendo right about next year - regardless of when we were born or which year comes next. If this isn't solved by lunch time next Tuesday, I'm painting a bull's eye on the roof of my house for the Sweet Meteor of Death. Tick-tock, tick-tock.
Believe it or not, at this point in the morality play that is the crisis currently affecting the Catholic Church, establishing whether or not Pope Francis is a heretic is relatively unimportant. As laypeople, we do not have to prove heresy - or even error, for that matter. That's not our job, thank God. Our job right now is to demonstrate that the pope's many statements are offensive to pious ears (propositio piarum aurium offensiva), that they are badly expressed (propositio male sonans), that they are captious (propositio captiosa) and that they excite scandal (propositio scandalosa). That is to say, we must leave it up to qualified theologians to determine whether any of Pope Francis' statements are temerarious (propositio temeraria), false (propositio falsa), erroneous (propositio erronea), whether opposed to a revealed truth (error in fide ecclesiastica) or the common teaching of the theologians (error theologicus), suspect of heresy (propositio haeresim sapiens), proximate to heresy (propositio heresi proxima) or outright, full-blown heresy (propositio haeretica).
Luckily for us, to demonstrate that a statement is offensive to pious ears and/or scandalous doesn't require a degree in theology or extensive knowledge of dogmatics. All it requires is authentic participation in the sensus fidei - the sense of the faith - possessed by the Catholic laity.
What is the sensus fidei? In 2014, the International Theological Commission provided the following definition:
On the one hand, the sensus fidei refers to the personal capacity of the believer, within the communion of the Church, to discern the truth of faith. On the other hand, the sensus fidei refers to a communal and ecclesial reality: the instinct of faith of the Church herself, by which she recognises her Lord and proclaims His word. (Sensus Fidei, §3)
The sensus fidei is a supernatural instinct imparted by the Holy Spirit to the Catholic faithful for the purpose of detecting truth and rejecting error in matters of faith and morals. It is a free gift, not the product of academic learning, which can do no more than deepen and intensify the sensus fidei. It enables us to sentire cum Ecclesia, i.e. to "think with the mind of the Church," and is that which prompts the common, unlettered man - perhaps without even knowing why - to reject statements which are false or heretical. In short, the sensus fidei is that which moves us not only to accept the truths of the Faith, but also to take offense when confronted with dubious or erroneous teaching. When we reject something as "offensive to pious ears," it is the sensus fidei which moves us to do so.
But what prevents heretical or even apostate groups from rejecting the authentic teaching of the Church on the same grounds? Contributors to National Catholic Reporter, for example, regularly appeal to the sensus fidei when criticizing or rejecting magisterial pronouncements. They are correct, after all, in pointing out that millions of Catholics reject Church teaching on matters such as contraception. Doesn't this represent a new "communal and ecclesial reality," a shift in the sensus fidei of the Catholic laity? Is the sensus fidei an ultimately subjective criterion of truth? Or are there objective criteria to determine whether or not a person possesses the sensus fidei?
Fortunately, there are such criteria. They were enumerated in the ITC document Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church (§89) as follows:
- perseverance in prayer
- participation in the liturgy, especially the Eucharist
- regular reception of the sacrament of reconciliation
- discernment and exercise of gifts and charisms received from the Holy Spirit
- active engagement in the Church's mission and in her diakonia
- acceptance of the Church's teaching on matters of faith and morals
- willingness to follow the commands of God
- courage to correct one's brothers and sisters, and also to accept correction oneself
Formal membership in the Church is not enough to lay claim to authentic participation in the sensus fidei; one must be a faithful, orthodox, practicing Catholic. Thus, a person cannot reject one or more points of Church doctrine and then claim they do so at the prompting of their sensus fidei. The sensus fidei inspires us to greater fidelity to Christ and His Church, not to dissent and revolution against them.
If, therefore, we wish to voice our concerns regarding the many problematic statements being made by Pope Francis - and we should - we must first make sure that our own spiritual life is in order. Are we in a state of grace? Are we saying our daily prayers? Are we properly disposed when we receive Holy Communion? Do we go to confession regularly? Do we follow the Commandments of God? Do we believe all that the Church proposes as objects of divine and catholic faith? Are our actions aimed at increasing the glory of God? If we can answer such questions in the affirmative, then we can get down to the serious business of communicating our objections to our parish priest, our bishop, and even the pope himself.
But does the sensus fidei entitle us to object to the teaching of our legitimate pastors? Are we not bound to accept their words with docility in a spirit of humble obedience? Not if we, the faithful, do not hear in their words the voice of Christ:
Alerted by their sensus fidei, individual believers may deny assent even to the teaching of legitimate pastors if they do not recognize in that teaching the voice of Christ, the Good Shepherd. 'The sheep follow [the Good Shepherd] because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run away from him because they do not know the voice of strangers' (John 10:4-5). For St. Thomas, a believer, even without theological competence, can and even must resist, by virtue of the sensus fidei, his or her bishop if the latter preaches heterodoxy. In such a case, the believer does not treat himself or herself as the ultimate criterion of the truth of faith, but rather, faced with materially 'authorized' preaching which he or she finds troubling, without being able to explain exactly why, defers assent and appeals interiorly to the superior authority of the universal Church. (Sensus Fidei, §63)
When a priest, bishop or pope speaks in a manner which is scandalous and offensive to pious ears, not only does our sensus fidei urge us to resist them, but canon law obliges us to make our objections known:
According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, [the Christian faithful] have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons. (Canon 212 §3)
The current crisis has prompted several prelates to underscore this right and encourage the faithful to voice their concerns. Bishop Athanasius Schneider has called for the composition of a "Credo of the People of God" to stand in opposition to the "ambiguous and objectively erroneous expressions" contained in the post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia. Bishop Emeritus René Gracida went so far as to encourage the laity to stand up - literally and in the middle of a homily, if necessary - and shout down the men spreading confusion from the pulpits of our churches. There is some talk that theologians are gathering together the material required to address a formal plea to the pope that he recant his problematic statements and, one can assume, make a profession of orthodox faith. A group of priests has been gathering such data for more than a year, and has produced a lengthly list of detailed briefs contrasting the various utterances of Pope Francis to the perennial teachings of the Catholic Church. Yet, while that list of potentially damning briefs continues to grow on an almost daily basis, it offers little in the way of actionable items. The Modernist heresy is, after all, a notoriously slippery beast.
What is actionable, however, is scandal among the faithful laity; actionable, not necessarily in the legal sense, but in the moral sense. There are bishops, priests and theologians who want to act, but they need our help and our initiative.
First, they need us to voice our objections publicly, with both sufficient charity and clarity. This has been stated repeatedly by prelates of every rank. If you have a blog or webpage, consider documenting the ways in which you have been scandalized by this papacy. If you're married, for example, there's a good chance you didn't take Pope Francis' estimation regarding the validity of your marriage very well. Write it down. Are you or someone you love suffering from same-sex attraction, and feel betrayed by the pope's comments regarding homosexuality? Tell your story. If you don't have your own platform, tweet it, comment it on another good Catholic blog, write a letter, anything, just get it out there. It's a drop in the bucket, but little drops add up to big waves. And don't be afraid to name names. These crazy statements didn't fall out of the clear blue sky. They came from the man currently sitting in the Chair of Peter. Say it, and encourage others to say it. It's got to get worse before it can get better.
Second, they need us to stop playing armchair theologian and canonist. For a layperson to assume the authority to adjudicate in matters of heresy - material or formal - is not merely improper to our station in life, it can actually hinder the correction of the situation, as it gives the subverters license to reject all such objections out of hand. As far as we know, Pope Francis is the legitimate pope deserving of our prayers. Leave the adjudication to the real experts.
Third, they need our prayers. Not the kind you promise to the woman reporting a lost cat on Facebook, either. They need prayers combined with penance and mortification. The real deal. Consider starting a novena, adding an extra decade of the Rosary, or an extra litany to your daily prayers. Pray the Angelus three times a day. Whatever it is, do it.
As I've said before, God chose to put us here at this crucial moment in history for a good reason. We all have a role to play. Make sure you're focusing your precious energy where it counts: on doing what God put you here for.