The heat that a group of conservative academics generated by publicly accusing Pope Francis of heresy this summerin a letter they released September 23 is warming up the Catholic environment for dissent. And in the end, the pope’s patience with critics like these could do a lot to reform the culture of the church. It is one more way Francis is sculpting the church that the Second Vatican Council envisioned.
I doubt it’s what his tradition-minded antagonists intended as they launched a publicity campaign against the pope over passages in his document Amoris laetitia (The Joy of Love) that urge a more merciful approach to divorced Catholics. Nonetheless, they’ve taken up Vatican II’s call for the laity to speak up from areas of their competence—“permitted and sometimes even obliged to express their opinion on those things which concern the good of the Church,” as Lumen Gentium (37) puts it.
The conservative academics have posted to the web a carefully defined basis for their dissent:
Church law itself requires that competent persons not remain silent when the pastors of the Church are misleading the flock. This involves no conflict with the Catholic dogma of papal infallibility, since the Church teaches that a pope must meet strict criteria before his utterances can be considered infallible. Pope Francis has not met these criteria. He has not declared these heretical positions to be definitive teachings of the Church, or stated that Catholics must believe them with the assent of faith.
Voice of the Faithful has relied on the same canon law to buttress its right to question church authorities (in a much milder way).
Francis’s critics are well aware that previous popes have taken steps to stifle dissenting theologians, to the applause of trad Catholics. Paterna cum benevolentia may not come to mind for most Catholics, but it’s one of the landmarks a scholar of their background would need to navigate—Paul VI’s 1974 plea to save the church from the “polarization of dissent.” In that exhoration, he lamented those who “question the duty of obedience to the authority willed by Christ; they put on trial the Pastors of the Church.”