Dominus mihi adjutor

L’Affaire Weinandy: A Watershed?

In yesterday’s post the subject was Fr Thomas Weinandy OFMCap’s letter to Pope Francis of 31 July, seemingly still unanswered; the release of this letter has been afforded a reception which is gaining momentum. This is for a very good reason: one who was approved by the establishment has broken ranks. Not just anyone, but an eminent theologian who had been head of the US bishops’ own doctrinal commission. One does not need to be Einstein to see in the circumstances surrounding Fr Weinandy’s resignation as theological consultant to the US bishops that the bishops’ conference has thrown him under a bus.

Prepare to see many establishment figures rushing to distance themselves from him. It is an understandable and otherwise laudable Catholic instinct that leads some to see any opposition to a pope as tantamount to blasphemy. Yet some situations are not so clear cut. This is why we must read Fr Weinandy’s letter very carefully; he is no Luther and far more a Newman.

There are two posts you might want to read for an idea of the reaction to Fr Weinandy and some of the points being raised, some of high significance and some not.

The first is by Christopher Altieri, who has cut his ecclesiastical teeth at Vatican Radio. He raises a very important point among others: that Fr Weinandy is acting entirely in accordance with Canon 212 of the Church’s Code of Canon Law. This canon allows that those of sufficient competence “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”. If a most eminent theologian is not competent to do this, who is? Moreover he has made his opinion known with the “reverence toward their pastors” that such critics are called to adopt.

A second point that arises from Mr Altieri’s article is that the statement issued by the President of the US bishops’ conference, Cardinal DiNardo, on the matter raises more questions than it aims to. Cardinal DiNardo lists a series of criteria to be met in engaging in controversy in the Church. The implication, which the cardinal never makes explicit, is that Fr Weinandy failed to comply with one or more of these.

Daniel, Cardinal DiNardo of Galveston-Houston

Yet the irony is that, on any fair reading, Fr Weinandy has complied with them all! Is Cardinal DiNardo treading a narrow path between the precipice of the party line on the one side, and the precipice of supporting Fr Weinandy on the other? Or is the cardinal oblivious to the irony entirely?

There are more points to be gleaned from Mr Altieri’s article, so it reward careful reading.

The second article of interest is by Mgr John Strynkowski, a priest from Brooklyn who was once executive director of the US bishops’ doctrinal secretariat, which is to say the secretariat of which Fr Weinandy was once head. He was also until recently the rector of Brooklyn’s cathedral. In other words, this is an establishment man. Which is fine. So does he voice a line that is one with the establishment’s reaction to Fr Weinandy?

Oh yes. His article, an open letter to Fr Weinandy in America magazine (itself establishment, leaning to the liberal side of things), takes Fr Weinandy to task. However, his attempt is wan and very unsatisfying. He answers Fr Weinandy’s concerns briefly,  one by one, but he would only satisfy those totally ignorant of the context. Anyone with a little knowledge of recent events and issues will find this open letter a failure in its object.

Thus, he counters Fr Weinandy’s concern that Amoris laetitia (AL) appears deliberately ambiguous by asserting its magisterial status as the fruit of a synod (though apostolic exhortations, which is what AL is, do not have a very heavy magisterial weight), and that the “vast majority of bishops and theologians” would not agree with him. He cites one theologian who is avidly in favour of reading AL as allowing change in the Church’s stance on allowing remarried divorcees to receive Holy Communion; and he cites Cardinal Müller, who has merely made the obvious observation that AL can be read in an orthodox way. Yet surely this only serves to reinforce Fr Weinandy’s point that AL is inherently ambiguous?

The monsignor answers Weinandy’s second concern, that Pope Francis seems to demean the importance of doctrine, by asserting that the pope’s homilies call us to a rigorous discipleship. Yet the papal homilies are striking for their ex tempore character, rarely having the doctrinal cohesion and depth in the homilies of his predecessors. That their theme is a rigorous discipleship may be true, but is hardly the point. The monsignor then exhorts never to “isolate doctrine from its source in the mercy of God revealed in Jesus Christ.” Well, mercy is a papal buzzword, and it is impossible to devalue the mercy of God. Is God’s mercy, however, the source of doctrine; or is God’s truth its true source? The monsignor seems to be subtly detaching doctrine from objective truth to the more subjective and necessarily flexible concept of mercy. In this way, whatever Pope Francis may have done, the monsignor certainly demeans doctrine by subjectivizing it. Yet more irony as he again validates Weinandy’s concerns.

Monsignor Strynkowski then takes Weinandy to task for the latter’s third concern, that the pope is appointing as bishops some men “who hold views counter to Christian belief but who support and even defend them”, challenging Fr Weinandy to name them lest his “gratuitous assertions” damage the unity of the Church. The monsignor is being disingenuous, surely? Cardinal Cupich? Bishop McElroy of San Diego? Archbishop Scicluna of Malta? These are just some of the bishops appointed by Pope Francis who have challenged Church teaching in the area of morality.

The monsignor then castigates Fr Weinandy for his concerns about synodality, again for failing to enumerate examples. One can only suspect that the monsignor would have preferred Weinandy’s letter to have been an essay. Of course, then far fewer people would have read it. And again the monsignor seems to be disingenuous again. The dangers of synodality are exemplified well enough in the well-known examples of the Maltese bishops allowing Communion to remarried divorcees, and the Polish bishops steadfastly refusing to do so. Why must Weinandy detail in a letter what is well enough known to anyone following the current affairs of the Church?

Lastly the monsignor, in addressing Weinandy’s fifth concern that “the pope is not open to criticism and indeed resents it”, restricts himself again to asking for details, rather than addressing the concern itself. Again, one can only conclude that Strynkowksi is being disingenuous. Since he is keeping up to date with Cardinal Müller, he must know how upset the cardinal was when order to dismiss summarily three of his staff at the CDF for their privately expressed doubts about papal policy, and to make this cull at Christmas. And then of course there is Müller’s own removal from the CDF, about which he is also upset not least for its manner, the pope having informed him that he was not renewing his term of office on the last day of the current term. It is hard to believe the monsignor did not know of these examples, or that he expects no one else to know of them.

In a parting shot Strynkowski admonishes Weinandy for going public, but the irony is breathtaking:

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). In a world and even an ecclesial environment of sound bites and facile partisanship, that becomes even wiser advice.

By citing Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, the monsignor seems to be employing a cunning tactic, playing off one orthodox theologian against another. But this is really an own-goal for the monsignor, on two counts. First, as we saw Mr Altieri point out, Weinandy is acting in full compliance with Canon 212 by manifesting his concerns to both pope and faithful. Secondly, the admonition of then-Cardinal Ratzinger is hardly relevant, as Weinandy is seeking to uphold the ordinary magisterium of the Church, not to “dissent” from it.

One could be forgiven for thinking that the monsignor, in his rush to defend the establishment, has cast stones at Fr Weinandy, all of which are bouncing back into his own face. It may be that Monsignor Strynkowski may come to regret his open letter to Weinandy. It is not very good. How could it be? It reads as all politics and no substance, an example of the “facile partisanship” of which he accuses Weinandy.

And at the end of it all, Fr Weinandy’s points still stand. And it leaves this writer feeling that something of a watershed moment has been reached. More and more are revealing their true colours, and the quality of their arguments.