Thursday, October 3, 2019

You Can’t Claim Fidelity to the Church Without the Pope

It’s obvious by now that a perennial problem in the Church has taken root in an unexpected region. I’m not talking about the usual SSPX and sedevacantist critics who look at every Pope after Pius XII as heretical. Nor are these critics necessarily radical traditionalists. I’m talking about certain Catholicswho hitherto defended the authority of the Papacy but now have turned against it when the Pope insisted on those teachings which ran against their views on how the Church should teach. Because these latest dissentersestablished a reputation for orthodoxy in defending the Church against attacks from without, they lead the Catholics—who looked to them to explain “true” Catholicism—astray by accusing the Pope of errors or offering fallible opinions3.

In the process of rejecting the authority of a specific Pope while claiming to support the Papacy in general, they have invented a theology based on speculative writing of Church Fathers and Doctors. For example, St. Robert Bellarmine speculatedon whether a Pope could hypothetically be deposed if he hypothetically became a formal heretic. Some foes of the Pope have turned that speculation into a “doctrine” and scrutinized his actions to determine which one “proved” he was a manifest heretic. But his speculation (written in defending the authority of the Church under the Pope in the face of Protestant denial) was never adopted as a formal teaching by the Church. One might think of it as having no more authority than the books then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote on theology while he was head of the CDF.

But from that misused theory comes the arguments that the Pope can be deposed by a Council or by Cardinals. This is despite the fact that the Pope is judged by nobody (see canon 1404), that appealing to a Council against the Pope is an censurable offense (see canon 1372), and there is no historical precedent to justify such claims (Councils have declared antipopes deposed, which is a different matter entirely). Such claims do nothing but disrupt the faithful and encourages hotheads to hostility against the Pope (cf. canon 1373, that’s also a censurable offense).

Moreover, these accusations of heresy or of being mistaken depends on the interpretation of the accuser, when the accuser has no authority to make the accusations. The accuser treats what he thinks documents mean in the same way that a Biblical Literalist treats the Bible: they point to words, never realizing that whether the words can be meant in a different context than the so-called “plain sense” they claim to see. The dissenters argue that the Pope is to blame, because otherwise “people” wouldn’t keep misunderstanding him. The problem is, the people doing the misinterpretation are the usual suspects—people who are antagonistic to the Pope or the people who want the Church to change her teachings. Given they have consistently been wrong in their accusations, faithful Catholics need to start asking at what point do we recognize that they’re no longer defending the faith but are merely blind guides. And we know what Our Lord said about following blind guides (Matthew 15:14).

When faced with the insistence that when the Pope teaches—even in the ordinary magisterium—we are bound to obey, these dissenters accuse us of “papolatry” or “ultramontanism.” They claim that we have invented an excessive obedience that was never taught by the Church, and claim they can be faithful even when “disagreeing” (which means “rejecting”) what the current Pope teaches. But that is false. Pope Leo the Great makes clear that separation from solidarity with Peter is to separate from the Church:

Our Lord Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, desired to have the observance of divine religion shine out through God’s grace unto all nations and races. He established it in such a way that truth, previously contained only in proclamations of the Law and the Prophets, might proceed from the Apostles’ trumpet for the salvation of all, as it is written: ‘Their sound has gone forth unto all the earth: and their words unto the ends of the world.’ Now, the Lord desired that the dispensing of this gift should be shared as a task by all the Apostles, but in such a way that He put the principal charge on the most blessed Peter, the highest of all the Apostles. He wanted His gifts to flow into the entire body from Peter himself, as it were from the head. Thus, a man who had dared to separate himself from the solidity of Peter would realize that he no longer shared in the divine mystery. The Lord wanted Peter, taken into a companionship of inseparable unity, to be named from what he really was [the rock], saying: ‘Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church’; so that the building of the eternal temple, by a marvelous gift of God’s grace, might stand on the solidity of Peter. 

(St. Leo I. Letter 10, To the bishops presiding in Vienne. [c. AD 445])

Almost 1500 years later, another Pope (Pius XI) would point out something similar:

22. Faith in the Church cannot stand pure and true without the support of faith in the primacy of the Bishop of Rome. The same moment when Peter, in the presence of all the Apostles and disciples, confesses his faith in Christ, Son of the Living God, the answer he received in reward for his faith and his confession was the word that built the Church, the only Church of Christ, on the rock of Peter (Matt. 16:18). Thus was sealed the connection between the faith in Christ, the Church and the Primacy. True and lawful authority is invariably a bond of unity, a source of strength, a guarantee against division and ruin, a pledge for the future: and this is verified in the deepest and sublimest sense, when that authority, as in the case of the Church, and the Church alone, is sealed by the promise and the guidance of the Holy Ghost and His irresistible support.

(Pius XI, Mit Brennender Sorge, #22)

In other words, if one wants to claim fidelity to the Catholic Church, the first fruit to know them by (cf. Matthew 7:16-20) is whether they show fidelity to the Pope. Indeed Fulton J. Sheen would make the same point in Treasure in Clay:

Another year when granted an audience, I seated myself in an outer room very near the Holy Father’s private office. During a wait of about fifteen minutes, I made a quick re-view of my life, asking: “Have I really served the Church as well as I should? Have I used the many talents the Lord has given me? Have I cast fire upon the earth as the Lord asked His bishops to do?” I finally came to a negative conclusion. I had done little. At that moment the door was opened; I was ushered before His Holiness. I said: “Your Holiness, I have just discovered how easy Judgment is going to be.” “Oh,” he said, “tell me, I would like to know.” “While I was waiting to come into your presence I had come to the conclusion that I had not loved the Church as much as I should. Now that I come before Your Holiness, I see the Church personalized. When I make my obeisance to you, I make it to the Body and to the invisible Head, Christ. Now I see how much I love the Church in Your Holiness, its visible expression.” He said: “Yes, Judgment is going to be that easy for those who try to serve the Lord.”

I could have cited many more. But the fact is that the past Popes did not see this as a new teaching or an error. They saw this as part of the Church beliefs.

Sometimes Catholics object to something that is really a problem with how the media misreports his words, treating it as if the misrepresentation is his intended meaning. When debunked, they say that the Pope speaks “unclearly.” Then they lament that this has never been a problem before. But it has. The problem of the unethical misrepresenting of a Pope’s words goes way back. For example, St. Leo, in a letter (letter 131) written to Bishop Julian in AD 454, said: 

They [the Eutychians] are said to have corrupted the letter I sent to Flavian of blessed memory by an erroneous translation and then passed it around to certain simple-minded or untrained persons; the result is that certain passages seem to agree with the heresy of Nestorius. 

Like today, the correct reports received much less attention and circulation than the false reports5. Or, I could cite St. John Chrysostom (On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, Homily 9.8):

Men must believe what they hear only after they have first made an exact search and considered well the proof in the light of the facts. And this is why God said in another Scriptural passage: “Believe not every word.” For nothing is so destructive of men’s lives as for a person to give quick credence to whatever people say.

But the critics who rush to repeat every false accusations against the Pope are guilty of exactly that.

There’s the issue of Catholics accusing the Pope of talking about issues “not related” to Church teaching. But these seem to really be issues that certain Catholics don’t want the Pope to discuss since they’re in opposition to him. Much is made about Laudato Si being an innovation, something that Pope Francis shouldn’t have written. But he’s not inventing anything new. He’s taking the words of past Popes. For example, St. John Paul II, audience, 4/23/86:

Man is called to “subdue the earth.” But note well—to “subdue” it, not to devastate it, because creation is a gift of God and, as such, it must be respected.

Pope Francis merely removed any excuse for self-deception by making clear this was a teaching and not an opinion 

It is my hope that this Encyclical Letter, which is now added to the body of the Church’s social teaching, can help us to acknowledge the appeal, immensity and urgency of the challenge we face.

(Laudato Si, #15. Emphasis added)

Yet, instead of giving the religious submission required (canon 752), Catholics argue it can effectively be rejected as a “prudential judgment,” even though the term really applies to how to best obey, not whether to obey.

Then there’s the matter of accusations that don’t involve Papal authority at all. When a Pope gives a homily, makes a speech, gives an interview, expresses an opinion, writes a letter, or acts as the civil ruler of Vatican City, these are not teachings that bind the faithful and they are not useable as proof of teaching error. For example, Benedict XVI, in a book length interview, gave an example of a “gay prostitute with AIDS” using a condom as an example of moving a person from a pre-moral state to thinking about morality in some way. Unfortunately, some people thought he was “changing Church teaching” on homosexual acts and condom use. 

Or I could mention attempts to argue that when a person who a Pope spoke favorably about later turned out to have a scandal, it’s proof of the wrongdoing by the Pope.

Certain critics would argue that, because Pope Francis spoke favorably about someone (in a limited context) who later was revealed to have a problem, it’s “proof” he’s a heretic or involved in a coverup. But under that argument, they would also have to admit that Leo the Great, who wrote a letter(#20) to Eutyches—who would establish the Monophysite heresy—praising his opposition to Nestorianism. So, if one wants to condemn Pope Francis for praising a member of the Church when it was later discovered the person had a skeleton in his closet, one must condemn Leo the Great as well7Mistakes do happen without malice, and people can fail to report crucial things to the Popes (through accident or sin of omission). But these things are not proofs of heresy or moral laxity on the part of the Pope.

What about matters of discipline? Things long practiced can be changed by the magisterium. This is not a theological opinion. It is in the Catechism (#83):

83 The Tradition here in question comes from the apostles and hands on what they received from Jesus’ teaching and example and what they learned from the Holy Spirit. The first generation of Christians did not yet have a written New Testament, and the New Testament itself demonstrates the process of living Tradition. (1202, 2041; 2684)

Tradition is to be distinguished from the various theological, disciplinary, liturgical, or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time. These are the particular forms, adapted to different places and times, in which the great Tradition is expressed. In the light of Tradition, these traditions can be retained, modified or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church’s magisterium.

People who have grown attached to certain practices might resent the change or abolition of them. But they are wrong to to accuse the Pope who changes them of heresy.

Take the current anger over the whether the Church should ordain married men in limited circumstances. Certain Catholics act as if the Pope is heretical for even considering it. But, if we read the letters of Leo the Great, we see that there were married priests during his pontificate (AD 440-461), and it was not a scandal. Of course, the discipline at this time also held that priests were expected to live in continence, it had to be a first marriage for the man ordained a priest, and his wife could not have been previously married either (not even a widow). But it shows that the Church can make a change in discipline if seen as necessary, as she did by later deciding to only ordain those who would live celibate lives. If the magisterium determines that conditions warrant it, the Pope or his successor could choose to reinstate celibacy or even adopt the practice of the Eastern rites. 

Perhaps one might try to argue the widespread rejection of Church teaching as “proof” of the leadership in Church teaching being defective. The assumption is that if the Church only spoke out “more firmly ” against an error, there would be no rejection and therefore the Pope is to blame. Such critics should consider the words of Pius XI in Casti Conubii, #110:

110. Even the very best instruction given by the Church, however, will not alone suffice to bring about once more conformity of marriage to the law of God; something more is needed in addition to the education of the mind, namely a steadfast determination of the will, on the part of husband and wife, to observe the sacred laws of God and of nature in regard to marriage. In fine, in spite of what others may wish to assert and spread abroad by word of mouth or in writing, let husband and wife resolve: to stand fast to the commandments of God in all things that matrimony demands; always to render to each other the assistance of mutual love; to preserve the honor of chastity; not to lay profane hands on the stable nature of the bond; to use the rights given them by marriage in a way that will be always Christian and sacred, more especially in the first years of wedlock, so that should there be need of continency afterwards, custom will have made it easier for each to preserve it.

In other words, if Catholics refuse to hear the Church, merely becoming vehement about the teaching will be of no avail. But, contrary to the claims of the anti-Francis critics, Amoris Laetitia sets forth a plan along these lines to help married couples understand and live according to God’s commandments.

At this point, the dissenters are left with nothing except pointing to some of the bad Popes in history, arguing that their evils could not be condoned. Therefore we have to speak out against this Pope. That’s a fallacy of false analogy

First, the cases of morally bad Popes along the line of John XII do not apply. Thus far, even the most vile accusations against the Pope have not reached that level yet. Second, among those accused of being doctrinally bad Popes, none of them publicly taught error. Liberius and Honorius I were suspected of privately holding error but it can’t be proven8. In the case of a John XXII, he offered a private view in a homily on a subject that was under dispute and not even defined until after his death. He wasn’t “corrected.” He was convinced that the opposing opinion (which would later be defined as the true view) was superior. Critics should remember if they want to use John XXII as an argument, they must also condemn St. Thomas Aquinas because he (before it was defined in 1854) denied the Immaculate Conception. Remember, it was an unsettled matter (unlike Berengarius who rejected the consistent Church teaching on the Eucharist, leading to a formal definition in AD 1215).

The fact is, whenever a Pope has received a challenge along the lines of St. Paul in Galatia, it involves the personal behavior, not diverting a Pope from error. For example, the embarrassing case of John XIX.

The Emperor Basil II (the Bulgar-slayer, 963–1025) sent Pope John XIX (1024–1033) a sum of money in 1024 to persuade him at last to acknowledge the title “Œcumenical Patriarch.” John took the money, and seems to have been ready to do so. But a wave of indignation over the West (the title had so long been the watchword of the anti-Latin party in the East) and a stern letter from Abbot William of Dijon made him change his mind.

(Fortescue, Adrian, The Orthodox Eastern Church, p. 167)

If accurately reported, it is a shameful case of corruption that could have stirred up additional problems with the Eastern Church as it struggled between the Photian schism and the schism of 1054. But it wouldn’t have been a case of heresy if John XIX had not changed his mind. The title of the Patriarch of Constantinople is not a doctrine, after all. It would have simply been another embarrassing story during the nadir of the Popes (AD 872-1046). But remember. Even in these worst of times, the Church never taught error under the worst of the Popes. And Pope Francis is not among the worst of Popes, morally or doctrinally. 

Every charge is based on the animosity certain Catholics have for the Pope, made to sound serious but not having any substance when studied. Ultimately, what we have with the arguments of these dissenting Catholics is a loss of faith in the promise of God to protect His Church and a forgetfulness that individuals who would judge the Pope can and do err. Whatever good they have done for the Church previously, at the present they are leading people astray. Until they come to their senses, it would be foolish to follow them on the basis of their past service.


[1] We should be clear on something: the Church makes a distinction between those rejecting authority from within the Church and those who were never Catholics to begin with. Catholics who reject the Pope are guilty of committing schism. Those who were never Catholics (e.g. Eastern Orthodox, Protestants) are not. Those in the first group disrupt unity in the Church. Those born into the second were never aware of the obligation to unity to begin with, believing that their denomination was right in rejecting the Catholic Church.

[2] You may notice that I don’t like naming living individuals in my article. That’s because I think it’s more important to point out the dangerous attitudes than to accuse specific people of holding them. If I point out the dangerous attitude, the reader might recognize it and seek to avoid it. But if I accuse X of holding it, the reaction will probably be a fight between “how dare you accuse X?” vs. “I never liked X to begin with!” That doesn’t help anybody.

[3] It’s remarkably like reading Calvin or Luther attack the Church, taking prior Church teachings and the words and actions of the current Pope out of context and interpreted in the worst possible light. These two also claimed to be defending the “true” Church from error.

[4) It should be noted, he listed a few different options. One, which he called easily defended, was that the Pope cannot be a manifest heretic. The popular one, mentioned in this article, is misrepresented by those who misunderstood his term “true opinion.” A “true opinion” is not synonymous with “proven fact.” It means an opinion formed on the basis of reasoning, not “because I said so!” There’s a good and reasonably priced translation of his On the Roman Pontiff on Kindle if you don’t want to take my word for it.

But even considering his arguments, there’s another consideration that indicates that Bellarmine’s theory doesn’t work as the modern critics claim. (Because the authenticity of the account is disputed, I left this for the end of the footnote). One might bring up the case of Pope Marcellinus (reigned AD 296-304) who—according to the Liber Pontificalis:

At that time was a great persecution, so that within 30 days 17,000 Christians of both sexes in divers provinces were crowned with martyrdom.

For this reason Marcellinus himself was haled to sacrifice, that he might offer incense, and he did it.

And after a few days, inspired by penitence, he was beheaded by the same Diocletian and crowned with martyrdom for the faith of Christ in company with Claudius and Cyrinus and Antoninus

It should be noted that the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia considers this account to be based on a fraudulent document. If it was true, it would be a point against those citing St. Robert Bellarmine, because the Church didn’t think it could judge him.

[5] I find that, when a mainstream media report on something that the Pope says makes us go “WTF???”, we would be wise to find the full text of his address. Ten times out of ten, it’s misreporting.

[6] Text of letter #20:

Bishop Leo, to his dearly beloved son, Eutyches the priest [June 1, 448].

Your Charity’s letter has brought to our attention the fact that, through the efforts of certain persons, there has been a revival of the Nestorian heresy. We reply that your concern in this matter has pleased us, for the letter we received is an indication of your attitude: it shows that there is no doubt in your mind that the Lord, the Author of true faith, will be with you in everything. When we have been able to learn more fully through whose perversity this is happening, we must with God’s help see to it that the heinous poison, and one condemned long ago, is completely eliminated. May God keep you safe, dearly beloved son.

Issued on the first of June in the consulship of the most illustrious Posthumianus and Zeno.

[7] Six months later (December, 448), Eutyches would write to St. Leo I, trying to justify his error. The Pope rejected his arguments. Two months after that (February, 449), St. Leo I wrote to Flavian, asking why he wasn’t previously informed about Eutyches’ error. Judging by the letters, St. Leo seemed just as appalled and embarrassed by this omission as Pope Francis would be over 1500 years later about the Barrios case. But neither case involved supporting error or wrongdoing.

[8] Pope Leo II refused to confirm the decree of the Sixth Ecumenical Council condemning Honorius. So it cannot be said to be an infallible condemnation. The condemnation appears to be more of a dispute based on the growing alienation between East and West. Some reports indicate that the charges against Liberius also stem from that alienation.

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