Zersetzung and the Pontifical Shunning of Prof. John Rist

I noted at LifeSite something which is personally upsetting.   It concerns a friend and old prof of mine at the Augustinianum, the Patristic Institute, in Rome.   Prof. Rist taught at the Augustinianum for years.  He is a serious and well-known scholar, still working!  Prof. Rist, even when he wasn’t teaching courses at the Augustinianum, still used their excellent library for his research.

The Augustinianum has, apparently, banned Prof. Rist because he signed that (ill-fated, I think) Letter to Bishops which levels a charge of heresy at Francis.   In other words, this is nothing other than payback.

Prof. Rist recounted what happened to LifeSite.   The President of the Aug.num. also stripped Rist of his supervision of a candidates thesis, thus punishing also the student (who pays the school for services).

Not only, Prof. Rist seems also to have been banned from all other Pontifical institutions, including CUA.  And CUA cancelled a Festschrift!

I also understand that no communication has been given to Prof. Rist explaining why.

We. Know. Why.

BTW… Prof. Rist was the author of one of the essays in the amazing Remaining in the Truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church[US HERE – UK HERE] 

Rist wrote: “Divorce and Remarriage in the Early Church: Some Historical and Cultural Reflections”.

BTW… this book was famously stolen from the mail boxes of the participants of the Synod on the Family.

Rist’s treatment is the stuff of the Stasi.   It’s called Zersetsung.

Here is the definition from East Germany’s own manual.  Zersetsung is… (my emphases)…

… a method of operation by the Ministry for State Security for an efficacious struggle against subversive activities, particularly in the treatment of operations. With Zersetzung one can influence hostile and negative individuals across different operational political activities, especially the hostile and negative aspects of their dispositions and beliefs, so these are abandoned and changed little by little, and, if applicable, the contradictions and differences between the hostile and negative forces would be laid open, exploited, and reinforced.

The goal of Zersetzung is the fragmentation, paralysis, disorganization, and isolation of the hostile and negative forces, in order to preventatively impede the hostile and negative activities, to largely restrict, or to totally avert them, and if applicable to prepare the ground for a political and ideological reestablishment.

Zersetzung is equally an immediate constitutive element of “operational procedures” and other preventive activities to impede hostile gatherings. The principal forces to execute Zersetzung are the unofficial collaborators.  Zersetzung presupposes information and significant proof of hostile activities planned, prepared, and accomplished as well as anchor points corresponding to measures of Zersetzung.

Zersetzung must be produced on the basis of a root cause analysis of the facts and the exact definition of a concrete goal. Zersetzung must be executed in a uniform and supervised manner; its results must be documented.

The political explosive force of Zersetzung heightens demands regarding the maintenance of secrecy.

Edward Feser, very smart, reacts to this news HERE.  Feser thinks that that Letter wasn’t the best move, but that this is,

undeservedly shabby treatment.  Whatever one thinks of his views, Rist is not some hotheaded pamphleteer or hack blogger.  He is a serious thinker, an eminent scholar of classical and early Christian philosophy, the author of many important books, a longtime professor at the Catholic University of America, and a loyal and orthodox son of the Church.  It seems to me not irrelevant to point out that he is also 83 years old.”

A couple things come to mind.  First is the issue of academic freedom. That’s obvious.

However, Feser also brings up the point of Prof. Rist’s age.   If the Aug.num., or any other institute, thinks they are defending Francis from Rist, consider what Francis has said about treatment of old people.

I agree with Feser.  This is shabby.  Especially shabby is how Rist seems to have been banned from all Pontifical institutes.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. mddelala says:

    I believe the “heresy letter” was a very dumb move (plainly because it doesn’t find any real concrete heresy according to Canon Law. They wanted to find an “indirect” heresy and that just doesn’t exist in current canon law -it did exist in the past, although with a legal procedure-).

    Having said the above, I tend to believe that a brilliant 83-year old professor who signs this letter, maybe, just maybe, is to be the subject of some extra oversight to check for his actual health and mental status.

    And although everyone knows of some 80-something old who is perfectly well, we also all know of many 70-something who are not. And we know from experience that being over 80 usually means a very bad health and usually means having moderate to severe impediments regarding mental health.

    It’s an option that he is being excluded plainly because of his age and mental health. And while it’s not pretty, I’ve seen it happen in the past and it looks just like this.

  2. LeeGilbert says:

    How can one sign a letter accusing Pope Francis of heresy and expect not to be banned from all Pontifical Institutes? No, really, I don’t get it, nor the indignation over this. Do the courageous thing, fine. And expect to suffer no consequences?

    This is just basic institutional discipline. Popes should not be expected to reward or ignore formal accusations, least of all an accusation of heresy.

    [Because… in your view, perhaps… no one ever has any cause or right to criticize something any Pope says or does?]

  3. carndt says:

    “And we know from experience that being over 80 usually means a very bad health and usually means having moderate to severe impediments regarding mental health.“

    That is a HUGE generalization!! I really would like to know where you come up with your facts. Many social engineering whacks would feed of off of your words to push euthanasia.

    I have known many a person in there 70’s, 80’s and 90’s that could handle a great debate on various subjects. Please be careful of generalizations.

    The professor is being purposely targeted due to the fact that he is upholding the Truth of the Church. The Lavender Mafia is running the Curia.

  4. Kathleen10 says:

    I work in education. You want to see ruthless? Get on the wrong side of people in education. I’m not kidding, they’re brutal, don’t ask me why. I hypothesize it has something to do with being godless, because oftentimes there is no apparent conscience, they will ruin you and your career in a heartbeat, for nothing. And that’s not an anomaly, I’ve seen it happen again and again.
    This gentleman is a Christian. He will probably understand suffering and why right now in time Christians suffer in ways big and little. Losing income, losing position, losing authority and friendships. What he loses in this life he gains in the next and a million times more. God knows why he signed that letter, but if he did that with a pure heart to defend God, and suffers because of it, I envy him his reward. The letter didn’t hurt, and even more Catholics are awake because of it. It got a lot of press. Drops of water wore away the Grand Canyon. Everything helps.

  5. Charles E Flynn says:

    From “The unjust punishment of a scholarly papal critic”
    By Phil Lawler | May 31, 2019


    Last year when he issued new rules for the governance of pontifical ecclesiastical faculties, Pope Francis called for a “culture of encounter” that would encourage “wide-ranging dialogue.” But there are limits, apparently, to how widely the dialogue should range.

    This week John Rist, who had been conducting scholarly research at the Patristic Institute Augustinianum, learned that he had suddenly become persona non grata at the venerable Roman institution. He was given neither warning nor formal notice; he learned of his new status only when he was unable to gain access to the parking lot.

    John Rist is a world-class scholar, noted for decades of outstanding contributions to the history of philosophy. Among his academic credentials are an honorary doctorate from the Pontifical Institute of the Holy Cross and a chaired professorship at the Catholic University of America. He had been, until this week, a visiting professor at the Augustinianum.

  6. grateful says:

    Prayers are in order.
    Lord Jesus Christ,
    Son of the Father
    Send NOW Your Spirit over the earth.
    May the Holy Spirit dwell in the hearts of all nations,
    That they may be preserved from degeneration, disaster and war.
    May the Lady of All Nations, the Blessed Virgin be our (and Prof.Rist’s) Advocate.

  7. The original Mr. X says:

    @ mddelala:

    Mm-hmm, and I suppose it’s entirely coincidental that this concern for his health has suddenly surfaced after he criticised the Pope?

  8. Jerome Charles says:

    He’s an intelligent man; and, working in a pontifical institute, understands Church politics. He must have known the risks involved with signing the letter; he may have even consulted Vatican or trusted sources about this, before signing. I’m guessing he felt strongly enough about the accusation to take the risk. At 83, he doesn’t need to hold his opinions any more…

    As Fr Z pointed out in the comment above– we do have the right (and sometimes, cause) to criticize the Pope or other Church leaders. And we should know there are risks associated with that– just like anywhere else in our lives.

  9. TonyO says:

    And we should know there are risks associated with that– just like anywhere else in our lives.

    Yes, there are risks. Just like there are risks to standing up to a bully to protect an innocent victim: the risk that the bully will punch you in the face. Acknowledging the risks that a bully will act out with injustice is part of the virtue of prudence. Also acknowledging the injustice of the bully’s acts is part of virtues of prudence and justice. Yes, Risk should have been cognizant of negative consequences, but the ones visited upon him are unjust all the same.

    I am appalled particularly at the lack of any notice whatsoever, the lack of any opportunity for a hearing, for considering “his side” of it, for any room for nuance in this. Make no mistake: this was NOT the action of a sound and deliberate governing administration taking appropriate action against a criminal, this was pure, out and out mean-spirited reprisal, revenge for speaking out against the pope. It has not the least color of just punishment.

    And while Professor Feser is right to call this out, he is mistaken in diverting blame from the pope. Sure, it’s more likely than not that the pope had no explicit knowledge of this reprisal beforehand. But (a) the fact that the vengeance is extended not only to the Roman pontifical institute at which Risk was currently working, but ALL such institutions (including, apparently, that of his home – tenured – position of a chair at CUA), implies some collusion pretty darn high up in the Vatican, (b) the people who could take this kind of action on their own are in place because the pope put them there, (c) these people felt free to act so because they have 6 years now of watching the pope being kindly to liberals who dispute Church doctrine and mean-spirited to the orthodox Catholics who just want to be good sons and daughters in the Roman Catholic Church, and (d) the Pope could reverse this all with just a motion of his pinky, upon any reason at all or none but whim, IF HE WANTED TO. So far, apparently, he hasn’t wanted to.

  10. chantgirl says:

    Many critics of the letter have missed an important point: the letter does not slap a scarlet H for heresy upon Francis, but points to many areas in which Francis may have endorsed heresy, and asks for the Bishops and Cardinals to do THEIR JOB of defending the faith by investigating these areas.

    If Honorius was posthumously condemned for failing to clearly defend the faith, I can only imagine what a future council of sane Cardinals and Bishops will do to Francis’ record and memory.

    The letter may be considered ill-fated in 2019, but I think its signers will be hailed as heroes in the centuries to come. Most of those condemning the letter are either from Francis’ entourage or make their living off of the Church and have a lot to lose. Many of these signers have a lot to lose too.

    “Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.” Matthew 10:32-33

  11. chantgirl says:

    mddelala says “And we know from experience that being over 80 usually means a very bad health and usually means having moderate to severe impediments regarding mental health.”

    Francis is past 80 years old, so does he need some “oversight” as well?

  12. Jerome Charles says:

    TonyO, I’ve read your response carefully, re-read Fr. Z’s post and the articles he links to. If Fr. Rist was indeed banned because he signed the letter, then I agree that this could have been handled much differently– minimally a conversation, an explanation, etc. Also, if he was banned for signing the letter, we can likely expect the same treatment of the others who signed the letter. Why single Rist out?

    Which is why I’m thinking, now, that something else is going on. Rist indicates that he doesn’t know why he was banned, and he states that he assumes it’s because of the letter. I’m suspicious that Rist might be guilty of something far more serious than that– something that warrants such an extreme response. Because– it DOES seem an overkill to completely lock him out for criticizing the Pope. And, just him, not the others.

    Maybe Rist did something truly egregious. Perhaps he knows full well why he has been banned, and rather than disclose it, is willing to deflect responsibility to the Vatican.

    Fr. Z and others clearly have a high opinion of Rist. But how often have we been shocked to learn that someone who is deeply respected has committed a serious wrongdoing?

    I’m not saying this is the case. I’m merely offering an alternative scenario. I think we don’t know the whole truth of this story.

  13. Jerome Charles says:

    “And we know from experience that being over 80 usually means a very bad health and usually means having moderate to severe impediments regarding mental health.”

    This is a strong generalization, and rather ageist. I know many, many people in their 80s who are healthy physically and cognitively (if that’s what is inferred by “mental health,” ie, dementia).

    Don’t you know? 80s is the new 60s! :)

  14. Semper Gumby says:

    For the Stasi, using Zersetzung on select individuals or small groups was preferable to show trials and mass demonstrations in the streets with the resulting bad press.

    Charles E Flynn: Interesting Lawler quote you provided:

    “Last year when he issued new rules for the governance of pontifical ecclesiastical faculties, Pope Francis called for a “culture of encounter” that would encourage “wide-ranging dialogue.” But there are limits, apparently, to how widely the dialogue should range.”

    Apparently so. Prof. Rist’s book was stolen from mailboxes (and long before he signed this Letter). Ed Pentin also observed: “Pope Francis has yet to be interviewed by any media that is reputably orthodox.”

    Here’s Phil Lawler again, this time in First Things:

    “Now, in an interview with the Mexican Televisa network, he [Pope Francis] has said that “about McCarrick I knew nothing, obviously— nothing, nothing.” But he paired that sweeping denial with another, contradictory statement: “I don’t remember if [Viganò] told me about this.” If he does not remember, how could he say with confidence that he knew nothing?” Well, ain’t that interestin’.

    Edward Feser on the actions against Prof. Rist:

    “When Vatican officials persistently refuse to address the actual substance of the arguments of critics – and indeed, refuse even just to answer straightforward questions like the dubia – and when heterodox Catholic academics and public intellectuals are largely allowed free rein, this sort of action seems extremely petty, to say the very least. Even dissidents like Hans Küng and Charles Curran, who were disciplined by the Church under Pope St. John Paul II, were first given due process and the opportunity to defend themselves.”

  15. samwise says:

    The contact at The Augistinianum who handled the barring can be reached here: segreteria@patristicum.org . It was good to give him feedback and share about appropriate criticism vs false accusations

  16. TonyO says:

    Also, if he was banned for signing the letter, we can likely expect the same treatment of the others who signed the letter. Why single Rist out?

    Because the rest don’t have positions and privileges with pontifical institutes, that’s why. Most of them operate in quite other spheres.

    At this time we have no evidence pointing in the direction of some other cause, and we have no evidence that the officials even considered through the ordinary channels of warning, hearing, etc. (There hasn’t been time for all that process, anyway, so we can have more confidence that it didn’t happen than the merely negative indicator that we have no evidence it happened.)

  17. Semper Gumby says:

    samwise: Thank you for your initiative in contacting the Augustinianum. Could you please expand on: “…share about appropriate criticism vs false accusations.” Thank you.

  18. samwise says:

    @SemperGumby: Rist is case-in-point of making a false accusation. As a result he suffers the consequences. An appropriate criticism from Rist would be to continue to teach the truth and not lose his students through his pride

    [Your comment smacks of rash judgment.]

  19. Jerome Charles says:

    TonyO: We have no evidence of any kind regarding the reason he was banned– including signing the letter. That was my point–we don’t know the whole story. I was merely pondering another scenario, not claiming a cause.

  20. samwise says:

    Cause & effect: Rist signed the letter and is prevented from business as usual. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and an action against the Pope results in a weighty reaction

  21. Semper Gumby says:

    samwise: Note the comment in red to you regarding your 3 June comment. Your comment of 1 June remains problematic.

  22. samwise says:

    @SemperGumby: I think the assumption here is that history will somehow justify Rist and the other signers of the Open Letter so it’s convenient to say I am judging rashly. Time will tell

  23. Semper Gumby says:

    samwise: Your 5 June comment displays a concern for “assumption” and a regard for “time will tell.” Effectively, you have renounced your 3 June denigration of Prof. Rist. Thank you.

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