Bishop Strickland was recently deposed by Pope Francis, ostensibly because he tweeted something about the Pope "undermining the deposit of faith". Is that a technical term or just a euphemism for heresy? Is it licit, under the auspices of Vatican I, to suspect that the Pope could be doing such a thing?
The seriousness of the charge
This is what Bishop Joseph Strickland said on X / Twitter on May 12, 2023:
... I believe Pope Francis is the Pope but it is time for me to say that I reject his program of undermining the Deposit of Faith. Follow Jesus.
Whether Pope Francis deserves to be charged with "undermining the deposit of faith", the charge itself is extremely serious according to Fr. Michael Najim's May 23, 2023 reflection on his 22 years of ordination which I believes commented on Bishop Strickland's tweet:
To be clear, I understood that every pope is imperfect. He is a man and a sinner like all of us. In my Catholic circles, we understood that the pope does not always speak infallibly. He can make mistakes and errors in personal judgment, but not when it comes to officially teaching on matters of faith and morals. It was understood that, as a Catholic, you don’t need to like a particular pope necessarily; however, your love for the pope remains even if you don’t like the pope. What was inconceivable in my Catholic circles was disdain for the pope, distrust of the pope, or claims that the pope was attempting to undermine the Deposit of Faith. To think this way about the pope was anathema.
As I scroll through social media or peruse Catholic online media, one can imagine how disgusted I am as I see Catholics who claim supreme orthodoxy hating the pope and spreading hatred towards him. This disdain has risen to the highest levels in the Church. Recently, an American bishop claimed that Pope Francis is programmatically attempting to undermine the Deposit of Faith. To believe (and to state!) that the validly elected Successor of St. Peter, the Supreme Pontiff, the Vicar of Christ, is attempting to undermine the Deposit of Faith is about as contrary to Catholic thought as believing that the devil is trying to lead souls to Christ.
Our Lord Jesus Christ gave the keys of the Kingdom to one apostle: St. Peter. Along with the keys, Jesus prayed specifically for Peter and gave Peter his divine protection. Again, this protection does not guard the pope against committing sin or making mistakes in his life and ministry; but Christ’s protection does protect Peter from undermining the Deposit of Faith.
Defining the terms
In the Catholic usage (Wikipedia), "deposit of faith" (depositum fidei) refers to
the teachings of the Catholic Church that are believed to be handed down since the time of the Apostles – namely scripture and sacred tradition. St. Paul uses the Greek word paratheke ("deposit") in 1 Timothy 6:20: "O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you"; and again in 2 Timothy 1:14 "Guard this rich trust with the help of the holy Spirit that dwells within us" (NAB) [CCC 84].
According to Dei Verbum, "Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church [...] both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end."
They are interpreted and transmitted through the magisterium, the teaching authority of the Catholic Church, which is entrusted to the pope and to the bishops in communion with him [CCC 85, 100]. On the occasion of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II issued the apostolic constitution Fidei depositum, in which he said: "Guarding the deposit of faith is the mission which the Lord has entrusted to his Church and which she fulfils in every age."
According to Catholic theology, divine revelation ended with the death of the last apostle, John. The development of doctrine does not add to this revelation, nor does it increase the deposit of faith, but it increases the understanding of it. [Source: 2014 The Wanderer Newspaper article The Deposit of Faith and the Development of Doctrine] The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "Even if the Revelation is already complete, it has not been made fully explicit; it remains for Christian faith gradually to grasp its full significance over the course of the centuries" [CCC 64].
It is clear from the above, referring to Scripture itself (1 Tim 6:20 and 2 Tim 1:14), Catechism, Vatican II's foundational 1965 council document Dei Verbum, and Pope John Paul II's 1992 encyclical Fidei Depsitum, that "deposit of faith" (as Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture which forms one sacred deposit of the word of God committed to the Church flowing from the same divine wellspring) is entrusted to the succession of the apostles to interpret and transmit by the agency of the magisterium, and should not be confused with legitimate development of doctrine.
Oxford Languages (the company specializing in protecting the "deposit" of historical meaning of English words) defines "undermine" as
- (#1) "erode the base or foundation of (a rock formation)" (sample: "the flow of water had undermined pillars supporting the roof") or
- (#1b) "dig or excavate beneath (a building or fortification) so as to make it collapse" (sample: "the demolition engineers did eventually undermine two of the tower's six sides")
- (#2) "lessen the effectiveness, power, or ability of, especially gradually or insidiously" ("this could undermine years of hard work")
Interpreting the meaning
I don't think "undermine the deposit of faith" is a technical term (cannot find it) nor is it synonymous for committing heresy although through the "undermining" the result can lead to heretical teachings being taught by the very institution charged to teach the orthodox doctrines, thus leading the faithful to error.
After reviewing the definition of the terms above, we can interpret "undermining the deposit of faith" to mean Bishop Strickland charging Pope Francis I ("the Rock", Matt 16:18) with doing things to erode or to make collapse ("self destruct") the Pope's infallible office and the magisterium themselves (meaning #1) or lessening the hard work that the Magisterium has done so far in safeguarding and interpreting the deposit of faith by confusing the laity on matters of faith (meaning #2).
What does Bishop Strickland think how Pope Francis do it? I think it's by using the usual channels of Magisterium (which includes issuing encyclicals, issuing direction to ITC, revising the catechism & canon law & liturgical rites, etc.) to properly interpret and apply the deposit of faith for the current generation or to influence the development of doctrine (which is legitimate in Catholic way of doing theology) as well as doing legitimate innovative things (such as helping the whole Catholic Church including the laity to discern through the synodal process) but doing it in such a way as to "sabotage" the office of the Pope, "erode" the authority of the Magisterium, "hijack" the previous work of the Magisterium, and/or "confuse" the laity instead of help them to apply the deposit of faith to build up their faith in their journey to heaven.
Does Pope Francis's "program" (which clearly refers to his 10-year pontificate so far) actually do this in that way? I'm just a layman observer, not a Catholic theologian, nor do I have journalistic / insider's knowledge of the Vatican, nor do I possess prophetic insights. It's beyond my paygrade to judge the justice of this extraordinary charge. But ecclesiastical infighting is nothing new if we studied the 4th-6th century bishops debating and censuring each other in being zealous to protect the orthodoxy of the Apostolic Teaching. I surely hope that when the storm is over, the Catholic Church as a whole can look back and see the Holy Spirit's guiding hand (like we do now when we looked at the results of Nicaea and Chalcedon) as He is faithful to His promise to protect the Church in guarding the deposit of faith.
Pope Pius XII's 1950 encyclical Humani Generis is subtitled:
Concerning Some False Opinions Threatening to Undermine (subruere) the Foundations of Catholic Doctrine
De nonnullis falsis opinionibus, quæ catholicæ doctrinæ fundamenta subruere minantur
to tear down below, to undermine, to dig under, dig out; to break down, overthrow, demolish
[…] the genuine validity of human knowledge, the unshakable metaphysical principles of sufficient reason, causality, and finality, and finally the mind's ability to attain certain and unchangeable truth.
[…] never may we overthrow (subvertere) [or undermine] it ["our philosophy"], or contaminate it with false principles, or regard it as a great, but obsolete, relic. For truth and its philosophic expression cannot change from day to day, least of all where there is question of self-evident principles of the human mind or of those propositions which are supported by the wisdom of the ages and by divine revelation. Whatever new truth the sincere human mind is able to find, certainly cannot be opposed to truth already acquired, since God, the highest Truth, has created and guides the human intellect, not that it may daily oppose new truths to rightly established ones, but rather that, having eliminated errors which may have crept in, it may build truth upon truth in the same order and structure that exist in reality, the source of truth.
- Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., Reality: A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought, Chapter 56: Realism And First Principles (quoted in fine print of this answer)
- §"Truths of Reason" of this answer, from Cartechini, S.J., De valore notarum theologicarum
Thus, those who undermine the faith do so by "contaminat[ing] it with false principles".