Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Mistaken Papal Critics and History We Forget

Preliminary Note

I have no intention of passing judgment on successors of the apostles like the "dubia cardinals" led by Cardinal Burke, or the Kazakh bishops. Just as anti-Francis Catholics have misrepresented the Holy Father to support their narrative of a "heretical" Pope, I find that these cardinals and bishops were also misrepresented, with anti-Francis critics making it sound as if these cardinals and bishops "supported" their schismatic behavior.

This article does not claim to say that these churchmen are guilty of the same wrongs Sts. Cyprian and Hippolytus committed. I merely write this article to show that misinterpretation and attacks on Popes were not limited to the pontificate of Pope Francis. Rather, I wish to point out these two cases where the Popes were misrepresented and attacked as a reminder that even men known for their holiness can go wrong if they put themselves in opposition to Popes using their teaching office.


One of the popular narratives in opposing Pope Francis is to point out some of his predecessors—such as Liberius, Honorius I, and John XXII who were suspected of privately holding error. The anti-Francis Catholics point out that these Popes are proof that a Pope can err. From that, we have a string of tortured logic arguing that because those Popes privately erred [a claim disputed among Church historians], Pope Francis can publicly err in his words and actions that sound unfamiliar to our own understanding of Church teaching.

These critics overlook a different part of Church teaching—where Popes have taught and certain bishops of the Church mistakenly thought the Popes were teaching error and publicly took a stand in denouncing them.  I would like to briefly discuss the case of two papal critics from the Third Century AD.

Pope St. Stephen I vs. St. Cyprian

One example of this took place in the Third Century AD. St. Cyprian held that the baptism of heretics was invalid, and if any of these heretics should convert to the Catholic Church, they needed to be rebaptized. 

However, St. Stephen I taught differently. He held that if the heretic was baptized in the proper formula, the baptism was valid. If this heretic turned/returned to the Catholic faith, he did not need to be rebaptized, but merely perform penance. Instead of realizing he had misunderstood the nature of baptism and changing his views, St. Cyprian accused St. Stephen I of promoting heresy in a series of letters to his fellow African bishops. For example, in his Epistle LXXIII, to Pompey:

2. He [Pope Stephen I] forbade one coming from any heresy to be baptized in the Church; that is, he judged the baptism of all heretics to be just and lawful. And although special heresies have special baptisms and different sins, he, holding communion with the baptism of all, gathered up the sins of all, heaped together into his own bosom. And he charged that nothing should be innovated except what had been handed down; as if he were an innovator, who, holding the unity, claims for the one Church one baptism; and not manifestly he who, forgetful of unity, adopts the lies and the contagions of a profane washing.
Cyprian of Carthage, “The Epistles of Cyprian,” in Fathers of the Third Century: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Novatian, Appendix, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. Robert Ernest Wallis, vol. 5, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1886), 386.

But the fact is, the Catholic Church followed the teaching of St. Stephen, not St. Cyprian. If a person who was validly baptized by a non-Catholic intending to do what the Church intends, we hold that baptism to be valid. Even an atheist can validly baptize. The Catholic Church holds it is wrong to rebaptize. If a person was never validly baptized, we baptize. If there is a question about whether a person was validly baptized, we give conditional baptism. 

St. Cyprian’s error was in assuming that his position was correct and that the Pope must be wrong. From that assumption, he drew the false conclusion that the Pope was doing damage to the Church from his “error,” and had to be opposed. But since St. Cyprian was in the wrong about baptism, his condemnation of the Pope was simply wrong.

Pope St. Callistus [†] vs. St. Hippolytus 

Another example of a bishop wrongly accusing a Pope involved Pope Callistus. In a time when the Roman Empire held that slaves could not marry free citizens, the Pope decreed that such a marriage was valid. 

St. Hippolytus thought the Pope was in error. In a denunciation, he declared that the Pope’s action would lead to divorce, use of contraception, and attempted abortion on the part of a free woman who married a slave, writing [§]:

For even also he [Callistus] permitted females, if they were unwedded, and burned with passion at an age at all events unbecoming, or if they were not disposed to overturn their own dignity through a legal marriage, that they might have whomsoever they would choose as a bedfellow, whether a slave or free, and that a woman, though not legally married, might consider such a companion as a husband. Whence women, reputed believers, began to resort to drugs for producing sterility, and to gird themselves round, so to expel what was being conceived on account of their not wishing to have a child either by a slave or by any paltry fellow, for the sake of their family and excessive wealth.9 Behold, into how great impiety that lawless one has proceeded, by inculcating adultery and murder at the same time! And withal, after such audacious acts, they, lost to all shame, attempt to call themselves a Catholic Church!
Hippolytus of Rome, “The Refutation of All Heresies,” in Fathers of the Third Century: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Novatian, Appendix, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. J. H. MacMahon, vol. 5, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1886), 131.

I find this remarkably similar to the statements of some Catholics who claim that what the Pope said in Amoris Lætitia would mean people in a state of mortal sin seeking to receive the Eucharist—assuming that the abuse was directly caused by the Pope’s action as opposed to being an abuse of his teaching. 

Yes, a third century Catholic could think about becoming pregnant by a slave husband in that way, but that would be doing evil that was not in accord with the Pope’s teaching. This was a post hoc fallacy by St. Hippolytus which is similar to the one committed by Pope Francis’ critics.


These cases are examples of members of the Church who confused their interpretation of what should follow from Church teaching with Church teaching itself. Because of this, they falsely accused Popes of promoting error, attributing worst case scenarios as directly caused by the Pope who declared the teaching. These cases also involved the accusers assuming the worst of the Popes, leading them to think they must support the worst abuses.

I believe that these are the proper historical counterparts to the opposition to Pope Francis, not the examples of “bad Popes” people try to cite. People who have assumed that all people who are divorced and remarried must be in a state of mortal sin cannot reconcile that assumption with the Pope correctly pointing out that assessing culpability must be done with remarriage as well as with every other grave sin.

Like the third century critics of Popes, the 21st century critics of this Pope have confused their view with Church teaching itself. The Pope has made a reasonable teaching, but some people, failing to understand it, assume their fears of negative consequences through abuse is the intended teaching.


[†] Also known as Callixtus.
[§] This is commonly cited [correctly] as proof that the Church consistently condemned contraception and abortion.  But I find it interesting that Hippolytus slandered Callistus in doing so just as some critics today slander Pope Francis. These critics are correct that the teaching they defend is true. But they err in thinking the Pope’s teaching contradicts it.

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