Michael W. Higgins is a distinguished professor of Catholic Thought at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. He is the co-author of Suffer the Children Unto Me: An Open Inquiry into the Clerical Sex Abuse Scandal.
Evidently, the last time anything like this happened was during the reign of Pope John XXII in the year 1333.
It doesn't happen that often, so when it does, it is a matter of note.
The fuss in Catholic conservative circles, and the unwelcome stress it has created in the Vatican of Pope Francis, is the letter Correctio filialis de Haeresibus Propagatis or Filial Correction of Pope Francis for the Propagation of Heresies. Traditionalist groups have a sacred bond with the Latin language – the onetime lingua franca of the Roman Catholic Church – so everything, admonition, indictment, or apocalyptic screed appears in the mother tongue.
The Correctio is more than an historical oddity, a fervent initiative launched by scandalized Catholics keen on getting the Barque of Peter steered in the right direction again. It is a shot across the bow and should be read as such and not dismissed as the rantings of a disaffected crowd of ultra-conservative Catholics horrified by the "untoward" actions and musings of a Latin American pontiff who does not play by the rules of orthodoxy.
The problem, as the signatories attest, resides in the perception that Pope Francis is not holding fast to the teachings of the church on matters that pertain to the reception of communion by divorced and remarried couples, that he is bypassing tradition, indeed violating it, by pursuing an alternate reading of the scriptures.
His pastoral approach – the church is a field hospital rather than a citadel of certitude – is a source of grave scandal for the faithful and he is bound by his position as Peter, the supreme teacher of the church, to "correct" what is demonstrably false in his teaching, as found both in his apostolic exhortation, Amoris laetitia, as well as in his numerous talks, interviews, and homilies. In short, Francis needs a correction.
The signatories – in total, some 60-plus – make it clear that what they are doing is driven by their conviction that they "need to protect [their] fellow Catholics – and those outside the Church, from whom the key of knowledge must not be taken away – hoping to prevent the further spread of doctrines which tend of themselves to the profaning of all the sacraments and the subversion of the Law of God." Serious stuff.
The crafters of this letter of a deeper fidelity, as they see it – but in fact, a broadside of open dissent – amass a multitude of biblical, papal, conciliar and other official writings to proof text their argument that Francis has drifted too far into the open seas of post-modernity, pastoral laxity, and theological murkiness. We need clarity and we need it now, they pontificate.
Francis can choose to ignore them – their number, after all, is paltry – which is a course of action he has followed in the past, or he grant extensive interviews with his preferred journalists, including the Jesuit Antonio Spadaro, and simply reiterate what he has said, but with the focus on his detractors.
But the time has come to do something bolder. Although the signatories are largely drawn from the lower end of the hierarchical spectrum, are not immediately recognizable as extraterritorial thinkers and internationally celebrated scholars, and hold positions of modest influence, it is hard to imagine that they stand alone, that the Correctio is the product only of such a small group of ecclesiastics (with a small number of laity thrown in).
You do not need to subscribe to any of the conspiracy theories doing the run around the Tiber to divine the presence of senior prelates hovering in the background. There have been a few curial cardinals who have not had their appointments renewed, been shuffled to lesser duties, more honorific than substantive, licking their wounds amongst other aggrieved servants of the Servant of God. And they don't like their boss.
Time for Francis to request a public pledge of loyalty from the College of Cardinals, his electors, the esteemed members of his "cabinet," those who take a special vow of fealty on the election of a new pope, these men – and they are all men in conformity with ancient practice – should, in unison and in a public not private manner, stand should to shoulder with the successor of Peter, and with no equivocations or reservations, affirm their loyalty to Francis.
No less a message than this can forestall the growth of such obscurantism as found in the Correctio. It isn't the Pope, however, who requires correction.
We don't need 1333 recidivus. At a time when the moral authority of the papacy has achieved global recognition, the gnawing away at the witness of Francis by those held hostage to an ahistorical ecclesiology, a desiccated governance system, and a pastoral leadership defined more by law than mercy, the signatories, and those they represent, need to be held to account.