Superstition, Dissent, and Scandal? A brief defense of Fr. Thomas Weinandy

Some pundits from both progressive and orthodox quarters have been quick to criticize and even condemn Fr. Weinandy and his missive to the Pope. Thus, a brief defense of Fr. Weinandy is in order.

Left: Fr. Thomas Weinandy, OFM Cap. (CNS); top right: Fr. James Martin, S.J. (Wikipedia); bottom right: Msgr. John Strynkowski (YouTube)

Fr. Thomas Weinandy, OFM Cap., is owed a debt of gratitude for his courage and forthrightness in making public his letter to Pope Francis respectfully criticizing and encouraging the Holy Father to fulfill his principal charge: to secure the unity of Christ’s Church in faith, charity, and holiness.

Weinandy’s letter comes at a time marked by widespread doctrinal confusion in the Church to a degree heretofore unknown in living memory. Ours is a time when the fierce and beautiful truth of Christ’s saving Gospel is being eclipsed and the Church is undergoing balkanizing fissures threatening her very stability. His letter is important because it comes from a man with a distinguished career as a faithful Catholic theologian and a doctrinal guardian for the Church in the United States. In it, Fr. Weinandy identifies five problematic areas, indicates how he thinks the Holy Father is involved in them, and encourages the Holy Father to fulfill his mandate from Christ. After receiving no response of any substance he made the letter public and in doing so has edified the faithful by reaffirming the solemn duty of the papal office, the truth and relevance of Christ’s doctrines to the spiritual life, and the need for the Holy Father to make wise episcopal appointments.

Some pundits from both progressive and orthodox quarters have been quick to criticize and even condemn Fr. Weinandy and his missive to the Pope. The condemnations I am aware of seem unjust and libelous (more on those in a moment). The criticisms seem to come either from an unreasonable eagerness to defend every word and deed of the Holy Father or from a fear of scandalizing the faithful by publicly expressing disagreement with the Pope (on account of his behavior or his non-definitive and problematic teachings). Thus, a brief defense of Fr. Weinandy is in order.

“Superstition” and “dissent”
In his opinion piece in America magazine online titled “Dissent, Now & Then: Thomas Weinandy and the meaning of Jesuit discernment,” Fr. James Martin, SJ, claims that Weinandy “dissented from Pope Francis’ teachings” – something Martin finds ironic since Weinandy led the committee that scrutinized Sr. Elizabeth Johnson’s Quest for a Living God and found it wanting, doctrinally. Martin also charges Weinandy with the sin of superstition and he expresses acute fear about the way Weinandy asked for a sign from God before composing his letter.

First, a couple of points on the matter of superstition. The sin of superstition has a very precise meaning in Catholic moral teaching: it is a vice contrary to the virtue of religion in which a person “offers divine worship either to whom he ought not, or in a manner he ought not” (Aquinas, Summa Theologiae II-II, q. 92, a. 1). The three classic species of this vice are idolatry, making a compact (explicitly or implicitly) with demons for divination, and performing ritualistic observances contrary to reason, for example, using religious ceremonies not approved by the Church. Weinandy’s account of his prayerful discernment doesn’t fall under any of these species or the genus of the vice of superstition. The prudence in asking God for a sign in particular cases is surely a matter of debate, but a simple act of asking God for a sign is not something immoral per se (see, for example, Isaiah 7, where Ahaz is instructed by Isaiah to ask God for a sign; or the instances of this in the New Testament, such as when the Apostles sought a sign from God in selecting a replacement for Judas in Acts 1:26 or when God himself provided signs for the faithful, such as in Luke 2:34, etc.).

When it comes to dissent, the CDF’s 1990 document, Donum Veritatis (Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, hereafter “DV”), explains that dissent is “public opposition to the Magisterium of the Church” and it “must be distinguished from the situation of personal difficulties treated above” (a. 32). That is to say, “dissenting” is an act distinct in kind from one in which a person expresses difficulties with magisterial teachings. It is clear from a fair reading of his letter that Weinandy has not opposed Francis’ magisterium; rather, he asks the Pope to correct five matters of concern:

(1) the well-known ambiguities in “Amoris Laetita” (hereafter, “AL”) chap. 8;
(2) those statements of the Pope which seem to demean the importance of Church doctrine;
(3) the Pope’s appointment of bishops who have supported and defended those who “hold views counter to Christian belief”;
(4) the Pope’s emerging brand of “synodality” that has resulting in fracturing the unity of faith and praxis in the Church; and
(5) the atmosphere of fear of retribution brought about in no small part by the actions of the Pope and his surrogates.

Say what you will about Fr. Weinandy’s concerns, but not one of them amounts to anything approaching dissent. Asking for clarification of ambiguous statements in a magisterial document hardly constitutes dissent. And his second concern is actually about preserving respect for the teachings of the Magisterium. What magisterial doctrine is Fr. Weinandy even calling into question let alone opposing? In fact, it is precisely his concern for the Church’s doctrine and its importance for the salvation of souls that clearly motivated him to implore the Pope to make a course correction. As the former chief of doctrine for the Church in the United States, Weinandy is a man sensitive to the potential for pastoral disaster caused by the rejection of sound doctrine. So much for Fr. Martin’s preposterous condemnation of Fr. Weinandy’s “dissent” and “superstition.”

Monsignor Strynkowski’s response
Fr. Weinandy has also been impugned by Msgr. John Strynkowski, one of his predecessors at the position of the Secretariat of Christian Doctrine at the USCCB. In an America article (“An open letter to Father Weinandy, from his predecessor, on ‘Amoris Laetitia’ and Pope Francis”), Strynkowski attempts to redress each of Weinandy’s five concerns, prefacing his remarks by claiming that AL is “an act of ordinary Magisterium, and thus enjoys presumption as having been guided by the Spirit of the Lord.” To be sure, Weinandy knows that even non-definitive magisterial teachings “are not without divine assistance and call for the adherence of the faithful” (DV, a. 17). The Church’s indefectibility would be imperiled by a substantive amount of errors in such teaching.

And yet this does not preclude all possibility of error in non-infallible magisterial statements, as the CDF points out in DV, 24: “It could happen that some Magisterial documents might not be free from all deficiencies.” Some claims found in AL reaffirm infallibly defined doctrine; others are not magisterial in the strict sense. Still others appear to run contrary to infallible dogma. The Holy Spirit guarantees that any error in non-definitive magisterial teachings will not destroy the Church. Situations like these, thankfully, are painful and rare but such is our lot. And publicly identifying problems in non-definitive teachings (such as critical ambiguity) in no way entails a failure to recognize God’s assistance to those who exercise magisterial authority. It is beyond facile for Strynkowski to imply otherwise.

Most of Strynkowski’s criticisms are not worth dwelling on at length as they are brief and dubious and, thus, easily dismissed. The sheer number of articles, open letters, books, episcopal statements, and press releases displaying a conflicting variety of theological interpretations of AL on the pastoral care of divorced and remarried Catholics living in more uxorio suffices to belie Strynkowski’s bald assertion that most bishops and theologians do not agree with Weinandy’s perception of ambiguity in chapter 8 of AL. The Holy Father frequently signals that he is no fan of dogma which he regularly portrays as antithetical to mercy and pastoral accompaniment. The Pope’s record of episcopal appointments, promotions, and firings speaks for itself. Weinandy charitably exercised restraint by not including a laundry list of well-known problematic bishops and I will follow suit.

For evidence that Pope Francis has promoted a range of problematic “doctrinal and moral options within the Church” under the rubrics of a flawed “synodality” we need look no further than the current balkanization of the Church under his leadership where what is a mortal sin in Poland and Philadelphia is permissible in Germany and Malta regarding Communion for divorced Catholics living in more uxorio with their civil partner. Finally, while there are plenty of instances of the Holy Father not welcoming but perhaps resenting criticism (some of which are plausibly deniable), the recent humiliation of Cardinal Sarah suffices to show why there is an atmosphere of fear among bishops and theologians who dare to disagree with Pope Francis.

Scandalizing the faithful?
This leaves us with the final and, in my estimation, the most important point of criticism, one shared by Catholics of varying dispositions – lay and expert, progressive and orthodox alike. Some faithful Catholic thinkers have publicly expressed concerns that the publication of Fr. Weinandy’s letter might scandalize the faithful—but without specifying exactly how. For his part, Msgr. Strynkowski closes his letter by warning Fr. Weinandy that “Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, urged that dissent from ordinary Magisterium should be disclosed privately to church authority—see ‘Donum Veritatis’ (No. 30).”

Aside from the false suggestion that Fr. Weinandy is dissenting from Church teaching (refuted above), the striking fact in Strynkowski’s parting shot is that Ratzinger and “Donum Veritatis” said no such thing! In his prepared remarks delivered publicly in 1990 at a press conference upon the release of DV, Ratzinger is on the record as saying precisely the opposite. Here is what he actually said:

Taken out of context, in fact, they [namely, articles 29 through 31 of DV] can give rise to the impression that the Instruction allows the theologian the sole option of submitting divergent opinions to the magisterial authorities in secret…. It is quite obvious that the Instruction is not proposing ‘secret’ communications but dialogue which remains on an ecclesial and scientific plane and avoids distortions at the hand of the mass media…. In actuality, the point is precisely to use arguments instead of pressure as a means of persuasion”. (Emphasis added. Cited in the July 5, 1990 issue of the USCCB publication Origins and in the book The Nature and Mission of Theology [Ignatius Press, 1995], p 117.)

This citation comes from a section of Ratzinger’s public address entitled “The Magisterium, the university, and the mass media,” in which he specifies the precise and narrowly-circumscribed limits of the directive regarding the mass media. One should avoid using the media as a means to exert political pressure on the Church; yet one may use media outlets to pursue reasoned argumentation in the light of faith. The entire section of his press release comments are worth reading through carefully several times. It bears emphasizing: The Church and the CDF do not prohibit faithful Catholics from expressing grave concerns about the Church and the Magisterium in public fora. But when using public media, the Church requires the faithful to mount charitable and reasoned arguments rather than rhetoric of political machination, the latter being a hallmark of the kind of dissent that was ongoing from Humanae Vitae up to the publication of DV in 1990. DV explains exactly when and why, “the theologian should avoid turning to the ‘mass media’” by adding this qualification, “for it is not by seeking to exert the pressure of public opinion that one contributes to the clarification of doctrinal issues and renders service to the truth” (30).

This explains the paradox that puzzles folks such as Fr. Martin: the theologians scrutinized under Fr. Weinandy’s tenure at the USCCB were actually dissenting from Church doctrine and some of them used the media as a tool to manipulate the faithful. Whereas those who publicly express problems with Pope Francis’ pontificate, like Fr. Weinandy himself, are not dissenting but are serving the truth of the Gospel by contributing to the clarification of doctrinal issues. The difference is stark and should be obvious to all.

In his letter to Pope Francis, Fr. Weinandy adheres faithfully to the Church’s directives by expressing cogent reasons for the five principal issues he raises with the Pope. He is clearly concerned for the success of Francis’ pontificate, the Gospel of Christ, and the good of souls. It has been pointed out correctly that letters like Weinandy’s also fall under the duties specified in canon 212 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law:

§3. According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, they 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. (Emphasis added)

Here we see the Church stating that sometimes the faithful have a duty to make known publicly (“to the rest of the Christian faithful”) their opinions on matters pertaining “to the good of the Church.” When the integrity of Church’s moral and sacramental teachings is threatened, this duty ought to be engaged. For his part, Fr. Weinandy has fulfilled this mandate and has respected the directives of DV and CIC can. 212 “to a T.”

With respect to scandal, in the current crisis what actually scandalizes souls — in the strict sense of providing the occasion for sin — is the sense of many faithful Catholics that the Holy Father is promoting a pastoral policy that no longer requires all divorced and remarried Catholics living in more uxorio to repent of adultery and commit to live in strict continence in order to receive the sacraments of Reconciliation and Communion. If this sense is mistaken, it is easily redressed: the Holy Father can simply answer the dubia! The real scandal here is the occasioning of thoughts and desires to commit the objectively grave sins of active divorce and adultery and material sacrilege.

What scandalizes souls is not the reasoned and charitable criticism of the Pope (see Gal 2:11) but the silence of bishops and theologians who do not respectfully, charitably, and publicly express grave concerns about this confusion and who do not reaffirm the Church’s perennial doctrine and practice regarding marriage and reception of the Eucharist. At the very least, the publication of Fr. Weinandy’s letter mitigates these and other scandals. I have treated at length the conditions for a morally licit public correction of a pope in another article, but the bottom line is that subordinates have a duty to fraternally correct their superiors (even the Pope) out of charity and in public when the faith is publicly endangered (see Aquinas, Summa Theologiae II-II, q. 33, a. 4 where he treats of St. Paul publicly correcting St. Peter as recounted in Gal 2:11). In his exhortation to the Holy Father, Fr. Weinandy has met all of the criteria established by the Church’s tradition and by her moral and canonical directives.

A final thought: The “irony meter” broke when Fr. Weinandy was asked to resign as a doctrine consultant for the USCCB because he expressed criticisms and grave concerns in a respectfully-written letter in which he points out, among other things, that the Holy Father has contributed to an atmosphere where the faithful fear being punished for expressing criticisms and grave concerns. May courageous bishops support Fr. Weinandy out of true Christian charity for the Holy Father and for the faithful; may they reaffirm Christ’s moral teachings and implore the Holy Father to boldly and unambiguously strengthen the brethren in the fullness of the faith of Christ.

About Dr. Michael Sirilla 1 Article

Dr. Michael Sirilla is the Director of Graduate Theology, Professor of Theology, and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is the author of the book, The Ideal Bishop: Aquinas’s Commentaries on the Pastoral Epistles (CUA Press, 2017).

40 Comments

  1. This bears repeating :” With respect to scandal, in the current crisis what actually scandalizes souls — in the strict sense of providing the occasion for sin — is the sense of many faithful Catholics that the Holy Father is promoting a pastoral policy that no longer requires all divorced and remarried Catholics living in more uxorio to repent of adultery and commit to live in strict continence in order to receive the sacraments of Reconciliation and Communion”

    I would go as far as to say that the current Papacy itself is the ground zero, the source, the focal point of the scandals that now besiege the Church. The tragedy is that it is easily corrected by answering the Dubia and the FC, but the Pope prefers to remain silent while entertaining and glorifying abortionists and those who seek the ruin of the Church.

    • On the otherhand, a church that demands people to jump through unreasonable hoops needs to repent. You can kill or lead millions into sin, and then repent and receive the sacraments. What if it is impossible for a person to rectify their marital situation? You can say live as siblings…laughable…what if they are elderly…or you can relegate them to the Court of the Gentiles forever.

      • Not sure what mean by ‘laughable,’ Ralph. Do you mean ‘impossible?’ Or maybe ‘really, really hard?’ Or ‘uncomfortable?’ Or just ‘inconvenient?’ Maybe you could help us here, Ralph, with placing it on a scale somewhere.

        Did Jesus ask any of His followers to jump through ‘unreasonable hoops’ without also offering Divine assistance to make it through those hoops? Isn’t that one of the main reasons He left us a Church? So we could have help getting through those hoops. Pretending that the hoops don’t exist, isn’t much of a help, in my opinion.

        But maybe you could help straighten me out on that, too, Ralph.

      • The Council of Trent states of anyone who says it is impossible for someone in a state of grace to avoid grave sin; let him be anathema.

        Also, I disagree that the Church “demands people to jump through unreasonable hoops.” There are really very few “hoops.” But it seems in our modern world, almost no one can abide acknowledging a master.

        And, I don’t understand your statement about the elderly. Wouldn’t it be easier for elderly people to refrain from engaging in sex?

      • ok, so the pope is right, some people are permitted to sin.
        Where do you apply? I know plenty of people who would like their own carve out. That’s laughable.

      • What if it is impossible for a person to rectify their marital situation? from Ralph…If that is so then you answered it yourself. It might be hard but with the grace of God doable.

      • The teaching is well known and was pronounced by Jesus himself. The parties deliberately dismissed magisterial teachings well known to all of us. They knew the consequences of their actions.

      • Living in a continuous state of mortal sin which will keep your soul from Heaven and regulate it to Hell is not ‘laughable’. This is a condition of of adultery, a grave sin against the Commandment. No one is laughing.
        Two adults entered this situation with full consent. There is a solution which will save their eternal souls. The solution is not easy, agreed. What is the alternative?
        Nevertheless, Ralph, the Catholic Church did not write the Ten Commandments, the Supreme Judge did.

    • Pope francis should see that his confusion is not the work of the Holy Spirit .faithful catholics are hurt and andfusand.my believe is Pope Francis either has early stages of alseimers od dementia .he is influenced by German Cardinals .or dies he think hw is God,
      He soeaks of mercy .whee is his merct tiwards thise who sees his errors

  2. I wonder of those souls living in more uxorio and having listened to German and Maltese bishops, and after “discerning” with their local prelate, decided to receive the Eucharist without changing anything in their life.

    And, without warning… they died.

  3. Agree in principal with Dr Sirilla though not certain how effectively Fr Weinandy’s letter mitigates the errors pervading the Church. Without declaration of support from the Bishops most who are wavering or embracing an undeclared doctrine antithetical to the Gospels will likely be unaffected. The published letter will certainly reinforce the belief of the many who oppose the undeclared doctrine [What really is Fr Weinandy dissenting from as charged by Fr Martin when the Pontiff has not affirmed or denied the doctrine now in practice?]. The best outcome would have been Pres of the USCCB Cardinal Di Nardo to have engaged the Bishops in open discussion of the allegations in the letter, a rebuke of the Pontiff,–even if that rebuke convinced Di Nardo it was incumbent to seek Weinandy’s resignation. Cardinal Di Nardo cannot deny the immensity of the facts on the ground, and danger to the salvation of souls. It’s a blindness that Cardinal Caffarra said injures the Church. Let’s hope the blindness gives way to vision and courage.

  4. Thank you, Dr. Sirilla for writing this article, and Catholic World Report for publishing it. May God bless you for your defense of His Truth. And may God bless Fr. Weinandy and all who put their positions (and lives) on the line to do so, as well.

  5. Pope francis should see that his confusion is not the work of the Holy Spirit .faithful catholics are hurt and andfusand.my believe is Pope Francis either has early stages of alseimers od dementia .he is influenced by German Cardinals .or dies he think hw is God,
    He soeaks of mercy .whee is his merct tiwards thise who sees his errors

  6. Thank you Father Thomas Weinandy. I have been praying asking Father God, Our Dear Lord Jesus and the wonderful Holy Spirit to give Pope Francis the gifts of Truth and Humility that he will humble himself and retract his error and replace it with the Truth of Jesus words in Scripture.

  7. I found Fr. Weinandy’s request for a sign to be childlike, rather than superstitous. He asked the Lord to give him a sign that would not be confusing or open to Fathets personal interpretation. What’s wrong with that?

  8. Thank you, thank you. Brilliant response. Thanks to Fr Weinandy I got my peace back I thought I was the only one, or one of a few, who was perceiving this contusion.

  9. The criticisms also reveal pride: who would dare to say to someone, certainly a person you may not know and is not under your spiritual direction, that they incorrectly discerned, that they got it wrong, especially in such a case? It is also almost amusing that no one has yet to say exactly what teaching Fr. Wienandy has dissented from. In fact, it strongly infers there is new teaching which thus invites new assent from people.

  10. There are elements of this to criticize. Publication of the letter appears imprudent. Writing of a dispute was affirmed–who knows why. Maybe Fr W needed to express himself and God knew it. Basic human psychology there. His “sign” affirmed him as a writer. Not as a published dissenter.

    He does have a track record for ecclesiastical rancor. Perhaps that’s why his public fall from grace has a certain attraction to some. As long as church disputes are seen as fair ground for ideological battling, even with good motives, human beings will see it as a win-lose situation. So-called “faithful” Catholics are not immune.

    • Why would Church disputes be anything other than grounds for ideological battling?

      Are we not to fight the good fight? Should we fail to stand up for the gospel?

      I don’t understand your point.

      • We are charged to preach and spread the Gospel. There is no language from Jesus that suggests this is intended as some sort of battle. The true battle comes from within: each believer’s struggle with sin.

        Additionally, all of the players in this tussle are firm in the belief they are good Catholic Christians already standing up for the Gospel. This is all ecclesiastical in-fighting. It has nothing to do, as such, with the Gospel.

      • We are charged to preach and spread the Gospel. There is no language from Jesus that suggests this is intended as some sort of battle. The true battle comes from within: each believer’s struggle with sin.

        Additionally, all of the players in this tussle are firm in the belief they are good Catholic Christians already standing up for the Gospel. This is all ecclesiastical in-fighting. It has nothing to do, as such, with the Gospel.

      • Elizabeth Johnson, notably. I believe there were other public squabbles during his time as a USCCB staffer. Others sort of crow over this kind of thing: Fr W gets treated as he treated others. That kind of thing is unseemly. I think it may have been an error to let him go from his assignment on that commission. Pope Francis hasn’t fired him yet, has he?

        • Try coming up with a theologian who preaches, teaches, and defends the eternal and unchanging truths of the Catholic Church, rather than a heterodox (and all too often heretical), obstinate, obdurate part of the problem (NOT a part of the solution) within the Catholic Church in the U.S.

          Oh, and by the way, that’s SISTER Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ.

          • The USCCB’s Committee on Doctrine’s 21 page Statement on Sister Johnson’s book begins by stating:

            The Committee has concluded that this book contains misrepresentations, ambiguities, and errors that bear upon the faith of the Catholic Church as found in Sacred Scripture, and as it is authentically taught by the Church’s universal magisterium. Because this book by a prominent Catholic theologian is written not for specialists in theology but for “a broad audience” (2), the Committee on Doctrine felt obliged, as part of its pastoral ministry, to note these misrepresentations, ambiguities, and errors. This statement will first consider the importance of the topic and the method proper to Catholic theology. It is here, at the level of method, that the book rests upon a false presupposition, an error that undermines the very nature of the study and so skews many of its
            arguments, rendering many of its conclusions theologically unacceptable.

            The entire statement is worth reading if there is any doubt about the theological errors of Sister Johnson.

  11. Thank you so much Dr. Sirilla for this defense of Fr. Weinandy and your honest assessment of what is going on in the Church.
    It is amazing that so much dissent hinges on the belief that it is impossible, “laughable” to expect people to live continence, yet millions of people are able to do so, happily, because of the fulfilling love of God and neighbour. We need love, we can’t live without it!! We can live without anything else. PERHAPS WE SHOULD HAVE A Love and Continence parade?? Only in heaven, you say!!

  12. To deny the Sanctity of the marital act, and thus the Sanctity of marriage and the family, is to deny that God Is The Author of Love, of Life, and of Marriage. To deny that God Is The Author of Love of Life, and of Marriage, is to deny Salvational Love, God’s Gift of Grace and Mercy. To deny Salvational Love, God’s Gift of Grace And Mercy, is a complete denial of The Divinity of The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, which is apostasy, not heresy.

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