Tuesday, September 26, 2017

A Collision of Errors: Reflection on the Anti-Francis Movements

On social media, I regularly encounter critics of the Holy Father. While these critics do not all move in lockstep, and do not all share the same outlook in general, they do tend to make the same arguments. It seems to me that this is the result of a growing number of Catholics believing attacks against the Pope and interpreting his words according to their own outlook. As these different groups agree with each other that the Pope is “wrong,” they tend to start viewing each other’s claims as a reinforcement of their own suspicions.

The Radical Traditionalist Error

One of these factions is the radical traditionalists [†]. They tend to view the Church and the Popes since St. John XXIII as suspect, if not heretical. While we tend to forget it nowadays, they hated St. John Paul II because of his actions against the SSPX, and they elevated his rare gaffes to deliberate heresy. They were hostile to Benedict XVI until his motu proprio permitting the increased use of the extraordinary form of the Mass

John paul ii kisses koranSt. John Paul II was mistaken about how to be polite,
but some said this was “proof of heresy.”

Some of them join fringe movements and a few even go so far as to claim that there is no Pope. Such Catholics start with the assumption that the Church and the Pope can indeed fall into error, while they are a “faithful remnant,” defending the faith. So, they have no problem with thinking Pope Francis can be a heretic. 

The Political Slant Error

Another way of thinking is that of the political conservatives. They tended to like St. John Paul II because of his defense of life and opposition to communism and Benedict XVI because he was the one who took action against politically liberal dissent. The exception was when they pointed out social and economic injustice. Then they try to downplay the authority of Papal teaching, calling it an “opinion” or “prudential judgment.” They have alleged that St. John Paul II was out of touch with “real” capitalism, since he lived in communist Poland. They also tend to think of issues like immigration reform and environmentalism as politically liberal.

They tend to think of a Pope speaking on an evil in general as a specific attack on them personally. So, when Francis became Pope, warning of injustices in these areas, they assumed he was anti-American or anti-Trump. Their assumptions on liberal vs. conservative led them to think of Pope Francis as a “liberal” and assume he supports the entire agenda of political liberalism in America.

The Self Appointed Interpreter Error

Another mindset seems to think that Catholic teaching is a case of “You make the call” from the NFL [§]. They rely on what they think the Pope means or what they think a previous Church document mean. But they don’t seem to consider that their own understanding can be flawed. They see a past document of the Church as saying X, and Pope Francis saying Y. They assume X and Y are contradictory, but lack a study in theology to understand the nuances. They often confuse discipline with doctrine, and misunderstand the phrasing in older Church documents. The result of this is, when a Pope decrees something that is different from their understanding, they think the Pope must be the one in error.

For example, when St. John Paul II taught that conditions when the death penalty could be justly applied were virtually nonexistent today, they appealed to older documents where the Church spoke about whether it could be legitimately used at all, thinking St. John Paul II was contradicting past teaching. But he wasn’t. It was the faulty reading by his critics that led them to draw that conclusion.

With Pope Francis, these “interpreters” assume that Amoris Lætitia tries to ignore the fact that remarriage after divorce is grave matter. It does not. 

The Guilt By Association Error

Another error I see is from those who assume “guilt by association.” So, if a liberal likes Pope Francis, that is a sign that Pope Francis is a liberal. They assume that the Pope appointing certain people to commissions for their expertise on a subject is “proof” that he approves of their errors and political slant—but they ignore the fact that he also appoints conservatives. From this, they also assume that whatever bishop or cardinal speaks in the Pope’s defense must be proof that they themselves must be in error.

They assume that he approves of everything Cardinal Kasper says, but do not realize that the cardinal went well beyond what the Pope was willing to accept. The cardinal seems to support the Eastern Orthodox idea of valid marriages after divorce. The Pope does not. Yet, people assume that the Pope endorses everything Cardinal Kasper stands for. A study of Pope and cardinal shows this is a false accusation.

Where it Collides

I see these groups (and they are not the only groups out there [¶]) reinforcing each other. The conservative who is suspicious of the Pope’s so-called liberalism hears the accusations from the radical traditionalists and thinks they are a confirmation that something is wrong with the Pope. The person relying on their personal interpretation of Church documents gets swayed by the conservative accusing the Pope of liberalism. The radical traditionalist assumes the Pope appointing someone they dislike is a confirmation of his “heresy.”

Each of these groups have false accusations against the Pope, based on their flawed outlook. Each of these groups hear the false accusations of other groups and thinks it is a confirmation of their own suspicions. Thus, they think there is a mountain of evidence when it is actually a begging the question fallacy. The “evidence” depends on their assumptions being proven true. If their assumptions are false, then their claims are not evidence.


Once we are aware of these factions and their errors, we can understand why a collection of small groups can have a large impact. As they continue to repeat their claims and more people assume that there must be something to them, people think, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”  The Pope must be in error or people wouldn’t be complaining about him.

But if the groups making the complaints are in error (and I hold they are) about what the Pope said or what earlier Church teaching said, then they are not proof against the Pope, but rather a case of “the blind leading the blind” (Luke 6:39). To avoid falling into the pit they lead to, we must make the Church the final guide in interpreting Scripture and applying past teaching to the present circumstances. We must remember that Our Lord promised us He would protect His Church, and that promise is just as valid today as it was in our idealized period of Church history.

That doesn’t mean we think the Pope is infallible in his opinions or his press conferences. What it means is we trust that when the Pope gives a teaching we must give assent to (see canon 752), that God will prevent him from teaching error. An old example I recall is: if the Pope were infallible in mathematics, he wouldn’t have to get a 100% to be infallible. He could turn in a blank test, not answering any questions.

In other words, the charism of infallibility doesn’t just work in guaranteeing that what the Pope is 100% pure. I think that limited view is part of the problem. It also means the Holy Spirit can dissuade a bad Pope from teaching. Liberius, Honorius I and John XXII never taught error, because they never taught on the error they are associated with. So, for example, while some renaissance era Popes may have believed in a geocentric universe, they never taught geocentricism as a belief of the Church. If the accusations against Pope Francis were true, that would disprove the Catholic teaching on protection from error and call into question previous declarations from the Church.

To avoid error, we must hold fast to our faith in Christ protecting His Church under the headship of the Pope. If we believe this, then we must consider the possibility of our own error if we perceive a contradiction.


[†] It is important not to confuse radical traditionalists with those who simply prefer the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. While all radical traditionalists are traditionalists, not all traditionalists are radical. [All A = B does not mean All B is A].

[§] I haven’t followed the NFL for years so I don’t know if they still use this as filler.

[¶] For example, I haven’t really touched on the modernists and political liberals who wrongly interpret the Pope according to their own prejudices and add to the fears of the “Guilt by Association” error.

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