Is Pope Francis a victim of 'fake news'?

Pope Francis has again been accused of being a heretic leading the Catholic Church into a maelstrom of confusion and heterodoxy.

Sixty-eight priests and scholars from around the world have signed a “filial correction”, a 25-page document which lists seven of his heretical positions and analyses his underlying theology. The document was released publicly on Sunday. Apparently it was delivered to the Vatican on August 11 but, to no one’s surprise, there has been no response.

The focus of the group’s ire is the apostolic exhortation on marriage, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), which Francis published last year. But they also cite “other, related, words, deeds and omissions” which – so they say -- have allowed heresies about marriage, the moral life, and the Eucharist to spread in the Catholic Church.

This news is sure to cause consternation amongst ordinary Catholics. The allegations are serious – as if President Trump were accused of leaking American secrets to the Russians. Which he has been. And, given the feverish atmosphere of treason and betrayal in the secular world, a Vatican Voldemort will seem far from incredible to some naïve people.

However, like the allegations against Trump, there is more than a whiff of “fake news” in this carefully staged media event. Its organisers are calling it “an epoch-making act” and make the rather grandiose claim that “No similar action has been taken since the Middle Ages” when “Pope John XXII was admonished in 1333 for errors which he later recanted on his deathbed.”

Catholics are fond of Latin, so the document has been christened with a pretentious Latin title, Correctio filialis de haeresibus propagatis (literally, “A filial correction concerning the propagation of heresies”). It is to be found at a swish-looking website in six languages: English, Italian, Spanish, French, German and Portuguese. But the “correction” itself and its seven allegations are left untranslated* in Latin, like particularly dangerous hexes in the Hogwarts Standard Book of Spells.

(Fortunately, a translation* can be found on, whose hostility to the Pope is so white-hot that the website sizzles when it is opened.)

The signatories to Correctio filialis de haeresibus propagatis are priests and laymen with high academic credentials who profess their “filial [ie, of dutiful and affectionate sons and daughters] devotion” to “Your Holiness”. Oddly enough, they include Bishop Bernard Fellay, the head of the Society of St Pius X, a group separated from Rome which has not been conspicuous for its “filial devotion” to Pope Francis, or indeed any Pope since Paul VI.

What authority do the 68 signatories have? A few years ago, 16,800 lay people and 160 priests signed a petition demanding women priests in the Catholic Church. Many signatories and scores of footnotes do not necessarily make a better argument. Bear in mind that the signatories to the Correctio filialis amount to 0.0000000056% of the Catholic Church worldwide.

Many of the allegations will be familiar to Catholics who have been following the controversy over Amoris Laetitia. (See below for MercatorNet's articles on the topic.) But this statement goes much further. In an appendix, the signatories accuse the Pope of being a “modernist” and a crypto-Lutheran. To understand the impact of these allegations in Catholic circles, imagine if Trump were accused both of looting the White House art collection and of being a paid agent of North Korea.

The word “modernism” sounds quaint to the 21st Century ear, but its effect upon the 20th Century Church was all but catastrophic. It was an effort to update Catholic theology using the principles of 19th Century rationalism, eventually leading theologians down blind alleys like Liberation Theology, an attempt to mix the Gospels with Marxism. The Correctio filialis essentially accuses Pope Francis of trying to breathe new life into a heresy which John Paul II and Benedict XVI struggled for decades to eradicate.

But this is absurd. The document lists 12 modernist theses, none of which can be found in Pope Francis’s teachings – as well as reminding him, rather insolently, of what a heretic is. Behind the professions of filial devotion and ‘umble, ever so ‘umble deference, there is a distinct “we know where you live” menace to the document.

As far as the Pope’s “unprecedented sympathy for Martin Luther, and to the affinity between Luther’s ideas on law, justification, and marriage, and those taught or favoured by Your Holiness in Amoris laetitia and elsewhere”, this is simply laughable.

Far from being a crypto-Lutheran trying to smuggle heresy into the Catholic Church under the cover of ecumenism, Pope Francis is walking in the footsteps of John Paul II (who was canonised not long ago, it should be remembered) and Benedict XVI.

In November 1983, John Paul II wrote a letter marking the 500th anniversary of Luther’s birth. He spoke of “his great impact on history” and his “profound piety that, with burning passion, was driven by questioning on eternal salvation”. And in 2008, Benedict XVI stated that “Luther's phrase: ‘faith alone’ is true, if it is not opposed to faith in charity, in love.” Had these quotes come from Francis, the 68 signatories would have called for smelling salts and bundles of dry faggots. But Francis was merely acknowledging some elements of Luther’s thinking which do have genuine piety – before it diverged radically from Catholic theology. It’s astonishing that the signatories did not refer to moves made by the Pope’s predecessors.

“Fake news” is a harsh label to apply to a document signed by sincere, pious and well-meaning Catholics. But that is what it is: a professionally-packaged mixture of legitimate concerns and blind prejudice with a gloss of theological sophistication.

Certainly a petition like this deserves a thorough theological rebuttal, especially in view of the fact that some of Pope Francis’s language is rather loose. I am not qualified to do so. But in the meantime, anxious Catholics should not be bamboozled by the allegations in the Correctio filialis. Be sceptical. Put them in context. Ask why these dutiful sons and daughters have not found one single good thing to say about the Pope's teaching – not a single one.

And remember that one of the most insidious tricks of fake-news-mongers is to make outrageous claims because they know that some readers will think that anything so unbelievable must be true. Just poke around in the dark corners of the internet. It’s not difficult to find people claiming that “John Paul II committed more acts of heresy and made more heretical statements than Luther” or that “Luther and Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) are both among the worst heretics with which the Church ever contended”.

Do the allegations of the Correctio filialis really seem any less absurd?

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

* The "Correctio" is translated in Footnote 7. Apologies 

Previous articles on the Pope Francis controversy in MercatorNet

A breath of life for an old religion (December 3, 2013) 

7 reasons why the Pope’s gaffes are OK (June 30, 2016) 

The Pope is a heretic? You can’t be serious! (December 5, 2016) 

Reframing Pope Francis (January 8, 2017) 


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