Inside the Holy Office: How a Vatican Agency Fights Heresy

Strictly speaking, no person is tried and condemned by the Holy Office without a hearing.

This was stated clearly by Msgr. Henry Cosgrove, of the Brooklyn diocese, in an explanation of the Holy Office procedure at the U.S. bishops’ press panel. His remarks were occasioned by the opposing speeches of Joseph Cardinal Frings of Cologne, Germany, and Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani, secretary of the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office, in the council Nov. 8.

Msgr. Cosgrove made it clear that his remarks were given in a private capacity and that they did not represent a declaration of any sort in behalf of the congregation or his superiors.

The Congregation of the Holy Office is composed of the permanent membership of the cardinal members whose duty is to protect faith and morals, and to combat heresy, he said. Only the Pope gives definitive effect to the acts of the Holy Office. The cardinal secretary of the Holy Office does not have the power of the cardinal prefects of the other congregations.

There are two major procedures in the Holy Office, Msgr. Cosgrove detailed — namely, criminal and doctrinal. “Criminal cases,” he said, “deal with heresy, schism, profanation of the Eucharist and the like, and consist in a real trial, not just a warning. The person accused must be and always is heard. The hearing is conducted by the Holy Office or by a diocesan tribunal at the request of the Holy Office.

“The accused must be represented by counsel,” he continued. “The act of the trial must be submitted to the promoter of justice, whose duty it is to draw up an opinion based on objective truth.

“The acts of the hearing and the opinion of the promoter of justice are sent to each of the consultors of the Holy Office, who meet every Monday morning. Each consultor is called upon to discuss the entire matter and to express his view in a vote according to his conscience. In so doing, he must give his reasons.”

The views of the consultors are collected, Msgr. Cosgrove explained, and copies are sent to the cardinal members of the Holy Office, all of whom live in Rome. Normally, he said, the cardinals will take up the case 10 days after the consultors’ meeting, that is, on the Wednesday of the week following the Monday meeting of the consultors.

Each cardinal then is required to express an opinion, Msgr. Cosgrove explained. The discussion of the case at this point is expected to be based upon equity, that is, the final opinions are directed toward the best interests of the Faith and the faithful, he said.

Finally, the entire matter is submitted to the Pope at the regularly scheduled audience in which the cardinal secretary of the Holy Office is received. A complete dossier is sent to the Pope in advance of this audience, so he will have had a chance to read and consider the details of the hearing at his convenience, the Monsignor continued.

In this audience, Msgr. Cosgrove said, “the Pope may accept the decision of the congregation, may reject it and order a new study, or may order any modifications he chooses. His decision is final.”

There are several differences in the doctrinal procedure as opposed to the criminal procedure, Msgr. Cosgrove explained.

“The doctrinal procedure,” he said, “concerns the work of the author and not the author himself or his intention. Therefore it should not be said, in the strict sense, that an author is condemned, but rather his work. More frequently than not the author is heard, but this is not required by the Holy Office procedure. Whether he has been heard or not is not announced, because it is covered by the ‘Secret of the Holy Office.’”

Msgr. Cosgrove explained to the journalists attending the panel that when a book or other publication is denounced — usually by someone outside the Holy Office but also possibly by someone inside — an official is appointed to examine the matter. He determines whether or not there is good reason for the denunciation and whether or not it should be taken under further study by the Holy Office.

If the official recommends further study, Msgr. Cosgrove continued, a number of experts are appointed to study the work under question — normally two, but sometimes as many as seven or eight. At the same time the congregation seeks information from the bishop of the diocese involved or from a religious superior. The various reports are then distributed to the consultors of the congregation, who draw their conclusions. Again the cardinal members are asked for a vote. Lastly, the case goes to the Pope for a final decision, he detailed.

“These norms and proceedings,” Msgr. Cosgrove said, “have been worked out by the congregation to get to the truth of the matter in charity. It is not logical to suppose that the officials of the congregation have a desire to harm. They are intelligent men and it is unjust to accuse them of harboring thoughts of hatred and evil designs. Much study, much thought and much prayer go into their decisions. Though their judgments are not infallible, they are based on good and prudent reasons.”

After Msgr. Cosgrove had concluded his remarks, Father Gustave Weigel, SJ, of Woodstock (Md.) College, theologian and a regular panel member, raised two objections against the Holy Office procedure. His first criticism was of the rule of secrecy.

“If you are accused of a crime,” he said, “you are heard. But in doctrinal matters you are not necessarily heard. I know of cases in which writers were not called.” Voicing a second objection, he said, “The thinking of the officials of the Holy Office appears to follow a certain theological thought but only of one. When you see that a certain line of theology is always rendered suspicious and that such writings are liable to action by the Holy Office, there is the inclination to abandon the great amount of work necessary and to turn to more profitable areas of investigation.”

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