A new voice has made itself heard in the controversy surrounding Amoris Laetitia: a renowned theologian suggests a reform of canon law in order to judge papal error on a doctrinal matter.
Fr. Aidan Nichols is a renowned Dominican theologian who taught at Oxford, Cambridge, and the Angelicum in Rome before becoming Prior of the Dominican convent of St. Michael the Archangel in Cambridge.
He is the author of over forty works mostly on the prominent figures of the “New Theology”, including Hans von Balthasar, Joseph Ratzinger, and Karol Wojtyla.
A few weeks ago, the Dominican gave a conference at the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius, an ecumenical association, where he spoke to a largely non-Catholic audience. Fr. Nichols developed the idea that given the ambiguous nature of the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia that in his words leads “to an extremely grave situation”, canon law needs to be reformed to include “a procedure for calling to order a pope who teaches error”.
This is the first time Aidan Nichols has publicly commented on the Apostolic Exhortation, although he was one of the forty-five to sign the critical study addressed to the Sacred College on June 29, 2016, in the hopes of obtaining a doctrinal clarification that would make it possible to exclude “erroneous and heretical” interpretations of Amoris Laetitia.
The Dominican explained during his conference that one of the basic principles of canon law is that there is no judicial authority higher than the pope, as the saying goes: prima sedes a nemine iudicatur – the first see is judged by no one.
But in his opinion, even if the pope is the supreme appeal judge in the Church, “that does not make him immune to perpetrating doctrinal howlers”. “Surprisingly”, added Fr. Nichols, “or perhaps not so surprisingly given the piety that has surrounded the figures of the popes since the pontificate of Pius IX, this fact appears to be unknown to many who ought to know better”.
After clearly establishing the limits of papal infallibility, canon law could thus accommodate a formal procedure for inquiring into whether a pope had taught error. In fact, continued the Cambridge theologian, “it may be that the present crisis of the Roman magisterium is providentially intended to call attention to the limits of primacy in this regard.”
And Fr. Nichols concluded by saying that “a danger of possible schism” is unlikely and not as immediate a danger as “the spread of a moral heresy”. For if Amoris Laetitia is not corrected, the view which it apparently contains will “increasingly be regarded as at the very least an acceptable theological opinion. And that will do more damage than can easily be repaired.”
This analysis, that is added to those of many other churchmen, is unique. While we may have reservations as to the possibility of the canonical procedure suggested, Fr. Nichols’ stance has the merit of recalling the gravity of certain affirmations contained in Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia. As early as May 2, 2016, a petition from the Priestly Society of St. Pius X asked the Holy Father to revise its contents:
“We humbly but firmly implore the Holy Father to revise the exhortation Amoris Laetitia, and most especially chapter 8. As with the documents of Vatican II, what is ambiguous must be interpreted in a clear manner, and what contradicts the constant doctrine and practice of the Church must be retracted, for the glory of God, for the good of the whole Church, and for the salvation of souls, especially those in danger of being deceived by the guise of a false mercy.”