Orthodox Catholics are facing “persecution” – and not from secularists, but from their fellow believers. That’s the startling claim made last week by Professor Josef Seifert, the philosopher and friend of St John Paul II. His remarks echoed some recent comments from Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who told the National Catholic Register that Vatican officials and university teachers were “living in great fear”. And Seifert and Cardinal Müller are only saying publicly what many will say in private.

In researching this article, I have heard from priests and academics on four continents who, as soon as I raised the subject of intimidation, immediately requested anonymity. Some referred to their need to earn a living or support a family. One professor quipped: “I am not ready for white martyrdom” – a theological term for the acceptance of great (but non-fatal) suffering for the faith.

As is often the case with inquisitions, the exact crime is hard to pin down. It relates to those questions which have caused so much unrest of late. The Church has always taught that one must confess serious sins before receiving the Eucharist, and that when the sin is public – for instance, divorce and remarriage – the priest should deny one Communion. Those teachings have been challenged in recent years, with both sides claiming the support of Pope Francis; and, inevitably, this debate has led to further questions: is adultery always a serious sin? Can one make general statements about sin? And so on.

Seifert’s case, described in his article last week for First Things, shows how serious the debate has become. Only two years ago Seifert’s relationship with his local archbishop, Javier Martínez of Granada, was one of mutual admiration. Seifert was impressed by Archbishop Martínez’s energetic leadership; the archbishop appointed Seifert to a specially created chair at Granada’s International Academy of Philosophy.

Everything changed in April 2016, with the publication of Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. Seifert’s view is that, while the text “contains many beautiful thoughts and deep truths”, it is also potentially dangerous. There is, for instance, an ambiguous sentence suggesting that conscience can identify “what for now is the most generous response”, and that “God himself is asking” for this response. One possible implication is that God could be asking someone to, say, continue committing adultery because the “more generous response” of stopping is impossible.

Seifert wrote an article for the journal Aemaet in which he said that this implication was so dangerous that he hoped the Pope would rule it out. His point was not that the Pope was wrong, but that the sentence needed to be clarified. For this, he says, he was sacked by Archbishop Martínez. Seifert claims that the archbishop did not tell him directly: he found out through a few hints and from a public statement in which the archbishop said Seifert had “confounded the faith of the faithful”. Seifert is taking legal action for unfair dismissal. (The archdiocese has not yet responded to a request for comment.)

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