By Charlie Johnston
I believe that Pope Francis is the legitimately elected Pope. In fact, I will go further than that and say I HOPE he is the legitimately elected Pope.
The great controversies in the history of the Church have been the fertile ground in which authentic doctrinal development and refinement has been accomplished. People usually think that holy proclamations have just proceeded through the millennia in a stately, ordered fashion with all right-thinking folks nodding their heads and shouting, “Hallelujah!” Every serious human endeavor, even one as simple as growing a vegetable garden, involves toil, sweat, mud – and sometimes blood to come out right.
In the first millennium of Christianity, most of the controversies were over the nature of Christ and of the Trinity. The battles were hard and earnestly fought. The fruit of them has been our understanding of the nature of Christ and the Trinity, which would not now be nearly so elegant and refined were it not for these battles. In the second millennium, the battles were primarily over who had legitimate authority to speak for Christ. This led to the Orthodox breaking communion with the Pope in 1054 and the Protestant Reformation splitting Christianity in 1517. I cannot say with any confidence what the fruit of these controversies are. Now we have entered into a controversy over what obedience actually entails – and what both the extent and the limits of a Bishop’s authority are (including that of the Pope). I welcome that controversy and do not want it short-circuited.
When I was seriously examining the Church, I was concerned about the abundance of commonly accepted Catholic assertions that represented a sort of magical, rather than authentically supernatural, thinking. Fortunately, as I read intensely during my catechumenate, I discovered that these things that troubled me were Catholic “urban myths” that did not reflect authentic Catholic teaching at all. For the purposes of this piece, there are three such “urban myths” to deal with from the start:
- The Holy Spirit chooses the Pope. The Cardinal Electors choose the Pope. The Holy Spirit makes Himself available to those electors in a particular and intense way during a conclave, but God still does not interfere with those electors’ free will. Even so, whether those electors choose for good or for ill, God still ultimately gets what He intends. If the electors choose well, that is what God intends. If they choose poorly, God draws good from their error, though often in unexpected and counter-intuitive ways.
- The Pope is infallible. All Popes share in our fallen nature and, so, bear the consequences of original sin along with the rest of us. The most casual survey of the history of the Church demonstrates that clearly. Rather, in certain narrowly prescribed circumstances, the Pope may speak infallibly on a subject of faith and morals. Individually, he is given the gift of infallibility when speaking ex cathedra, intentionally binding the whole Church on a matter of faith and morals. No Pope has exercised this gift since Pius XII proclaimed the Assumption of Mary on Nov. 1, 1950. Ordinarily, the Pope plays a key role in the development of irreformable (that is infallible) doctrine in a corporate manner. The Pope may make a formal dogmatic assertion. If the Bishops of the world assent to this, it can become defined (again, infallible) doctrine. There is no need for a vote unless even a small number of Bishops object or submit questions for clarification. If the Pope then satisfies all objections with his response to those questions, the doctrine can become infallibly defined. If he does not, it may be true or it may be false, but it is not infallible. It can be ultimately decided by a formal council or an ex cathedra pronouncement. This gift only extends to matters of faith and morals. No Pope or Bishop has any binding authority because of his office on temporal matters, including politics, science and economics, except to the extent that a part of a temporal proposal is illicit in itself.
- A single serious error by a Pope or Bishop voids his authority entirely. A Pope or Bishop can be personally a complete reprobate; a thief, murderer, hedonist and still, so long as he holds office, his legitimate authority is valid. When he gives a lawful order within the scope of his authority, the faithful are obliged to obey. That should give people some consolation as, for instance, the confection of the Eucharist is not at all dependent on the worthiness of the Priest confecting it. It is a function of his office, which is gifted by God. That he is gifted with Priestly authority does NOT exempt him from God’s judgment for the ill that he does, nor does his misbehavior exempt the faithful from his lawful authority. It is why taking on orders is such a perilous thing: if he who takes holy orders abuses them for his own temporal advantage, his condemnation will be especially harsh.
The Church, along with the world, has entered into a period of great turmoil. Like barnacles, controversies and scandals attach themselves to the great ship of faith, obscuring her great and majestic beauty.
The betrayal of the faithful Catholics of China, courageous men and women who have suffered persecution, torture and even death for the faith, offends me to my very core. After World War II, the Church, in its very fallible diplomatic capacity, engaged in a form of realpolitik with some of the totalitarian countries. It was lame and muffled the prophetic voice of the Church – accommodating itself to evil instead of boldly challenging it. However misguided, it was a sincere effort to protect the faithful who had the misfortune to live in those lands. In exchange for the Church muffling her prophetic voice, the dictators promised to muffle their overt persecution of the faithful, a promise they kept only sporadically and raggedly. It was St. John Paul who put this misguided policy to an end, giving full-throated public witness to Christ in all lands. And so, much of that generation’s atheist communists collapsed. The Church was true to her mission again. Both the world and its people were better for it.
The current situation with China is not analogous to the former policy of realpolitik. This time the Vatican, itself, tossed the faithful to the wolves – directing faithful Bishops in China to step down so the Communists there could name their own predatory Bishops. Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, even rubbed salt into the Chinese faithful’s wounds by proclaiming that in modern times, China best implements the social doctrine of the Church. He said this, in part, so he could compare it favorably to that miserable Donald Trump. Wow! If forced abortion, forced vivisection of political enemies, and destruction of all freedoms – including freedom of religion is the authentic expression of the Church’s social doctrine, I am in the wrong room. But it is not. Rather, much of the upper levels of the hierarchy have become dangerously and maliciously corrupt.
The last few years have seen the exposure of a cabal of predators in the upper levels of the hierarchy. Astonishingly, the predators are largely protected and promoted by the Vatican while orthodox prelates are suppressed and, often persecuted. It has almost become axiomatic that the only time high Vatican officials accuse someone of being a predator, the case turns out to be a flimsy one wielded against an orthodox prelate. If you are the real thing, you are usually protected as part of the inner circle.
Doctrinally, this Papacy has been, at best, a muddle. If the Pope, himself, has not taken the lead on redefining marriage, family and Christian sexual ethics, he has promoted and supported those rebellious clerics who do. His ambiguity on doctrinal matters gives them the cover they need to try to overthrow the Magisterium in his name.
The rebels (and the Pope) do not seem to have thought this through. They seek to overturn infallible doctrine to replace it with their own enthusiasms. This, they suppose, would make it mandatory for all Catholics to obey their sovereign will. It seems not to have occurred to them that if they succeeded in overthrowing defined doctrine, their “mandatory” rules are equally subject to overthrow. If they were successful in their aims, what they would accomplish is to destroy the very foundation of authority, thus, destroying the Church, itself. Ah, but revolutionaries throughout history have often made the error of first destroying what they want to possess – and then wondering what happened. Rebels, for all their pretensions to a gnostic enlightenment, are rarely very bright.
Sadly, many pious Christians betray their lack of faith by worrying that the Church can – and might – be destroyed. The Lord promises otherwise. I believe Him. The fears are largely based on the first two of the Catholic urban myths I noted above. If you believe the first, then you have to believe that the Holy Spirit has sent one to overturn settled doctrine. If that were true, our faith would be nonsense. If you believe the second, then you believe the infallible instrument of God can contradict God. If that were true, our faith would be nonsense. It is a failure of faith to believe that our faith could be nonsense. The current crisis demonstrates why urban myths, regardless of how pious, ultimately undermine faith. It baffles me that so many people who have put their faith in things the Church does not teach see their faith in the Church rocked rather than their faith in what they think they know when myths are proved false.
I knew from my catechumenate that Bishops and Popes can be – and often have been – utterly unworthy of the noble office they hold, even to the extent of waging war on the faith and the faithful they are called to uphold.
Pope Francis has chosen to refuse to respond to any questions, comments or criticisms from Bishops who are not already his public allies. That decision prevents any of his questionable assertions from becoming dogmatic for the reasons I explained in item two above. Unless he conforms to the method prescribed by the Magisterium for authentic doctrinal development, his pronouncements are as transient as if written in sand before an incoming tide, no matter how loudly those pronouncements are made.
If the Pope has been personally ambiguous on doctrine and personally encouraging to those who would topple settled doctrine, he has been imperious on purely political matters over which he has no formal authority. Many are agitated that he is adding questionable new “doctrines” to the Catechism. He unilaterally decided the Church has always been wrong in its very limited consent to capital punishment, speaks of wanting to declare possession of nuclear weapons a sin, and to declare any dissent from his personal policy on how to protect the environment as a sin. On the first issue, he has authority – but not authority to contradict settled doctrine. On the second, he has authority on the morality of the use of such weapons, but not on effective policies on how to prevent use by a rogue power. On the third, he has authority to demand stewardship of the natural resources God has given us, but no authority to insist that one approach supercedes all others at risk of sin.
Two things are important to remember here. First, the Catechism (as our reader Phillip Frank recently noted) is a compendium of documents of differing authority. Some are Magisterial, some are defined, some simply represent current Catholic thinking. The Catechism is a reliable guide to current authentic teaching, but is not all infallible. As is noted in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, “any teaching conveyed by a lesser level of authority that appears to contradict one of greater authority is to be ignored.” The teaching of the Universal Magisterium is, along with Scripture, supreme – and supercedes even the transient pronouncement of a Pope or Bishop. That said, any sitting Pope has the transient power to direct that anything he chooses be placed in the Catechism. If he wants, he can declare it a sin to root for any college football team other than the University of Notre Dame. It won’t long stand. If it is egregious enough, it can trigger large scale resistance. More often, other authorities will just wait him out and quietly remove offending passages when he is gone. If the entire Catechism was infallible teaching, adding a contradiction to defined doctrine would be a crisis. But it is not.
The Church often gets into the most trouble when it pretends to authority it does not have in temporal matters. One of the greatest black eyes it ever suffered was when the Church condemned Galileo of heresy in 1633 for accurately describing a heliocentric solar system. Fortunately, matters of discipline are never infallible, so St. John Paul was able to lift the condemnation of Galileo posthumously in 1992 without damage to the Church’s authority on matters of faith and morals.
I have mentioned that the defense of the pagan idol, Pachamama, was a sort of Rubicon for me in which I completely lost personal confidence in Pope Francis. I did not – and do not – believe that the Pope, himself, engaged in idol worship. Nor was I upset that he was clumsy in confronting the issue at the opening ceremony where there were people bowing in adoration to the Pachamama idol. Everyone who must frequently engage in or preside over public events sometimes gets sandbagged…and everybody who gets sandbagged sometimes handles it well, sometimes does not in the moment. What got my goat was that, in the aftermath, the Pope defended both the idol and the idolators. His job is to defend the faith and the faithful, not the idolators who invade sacred space. As Fr. Mitch Pacwa said in the aftermath, “We’re not stupid.”
Pope Francis, by his defense of the idol and idolators, though he was not among those who bowed down in worship, demonstrated that he was consenting to the idolatrous spectacle. I take this very seriously:
“For the worship of idols not to be named is the beginning and cause and end of every evil.” – Wisdom 14:27
One could write a lengthy piece on this passage encompassing the abstract idols of money, lust and power – but one thing it surely encompasses is actual idols.
In response to all this turmoil, various factions of the faithful have adopted different approaches, most of which I do not follow in any formulaic way. When great controversies arise, the devil uses even the virtues of his opponents to seduce them to error. The greater the turmoil, the greater the deliberation with which we must proceed. For me, that consists in taking only the next right step and taking full responsibility for it, quick to recede upon finding and acknowledging when I have taken the wrong step, but immovable by public outcries until convinced my step was actually wrong.
Some have gone into despair. This is a failure of faith, a tacit concession that the gates of hell could prevail against the Church. I will never concede that – and so consider the wind and waves to merely be the cue to be more deliberate, to stand strong while watching and waiting for God to show what He calls us to in the situation.
Others choose to attack on all points, all the time. Though I believe widespread corruption has infected upper levels of the hierarchy, I know also that Jesus, Himself, created the hierarchy and gave it His authority on faith and morals over the rest of us. Thus, when I obey a lawful order, whether I agree with it or not, and whether I have personal respect or not for the one issuing it, I obey it because to do so is to obey Christ. To become reflexively combative, rather than confining resistance to actual offenses and unlawful orders, reduces one to mere malice -and the devil wins. Almost as bad, it can prevent me from seeing something Christ intends.
“And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God may be made manifest in him.” – John 9:2,3
No man’s earthly story is complete until he draws his last breath. What if Pope Francis’ challenges to Magisterial teaching are a sort of divine compress to draw out the poison that has infected much of the hierarchy? And what if, when this is done, God intends him to become a passionate and committed defender of the faith? Would this not make the works of God manifest? Woe to me if, through reflexive resistance, I made myself blind to such an event. And woe to me if, through timidity, I do not resist clearly unlawful orders contrary to the faith. The next right step, with candid humility, is the only safe way I know to approach these things, knowing that I will sometimes err.
Often in the great controversies, even great saints become intemperate in their condemnations of each other’s positions, letting their passions lead them to condemn the whole person rather than the error. I know that great controversies draw forth this sort of passion, so I pray that I will be as charitable with others inevitable errors as I am with my own – for I know that both they and I will make plenty before all is said and done.
Many faithful Catholics are moving towards the traditional Latin Mass as a way of withdrawing from the almost daily outrages that assault us. I have many friends and confidants who are Latin Mass Catholics, including one of my brothers. I have great respect for the Latin Mass and am infuriated by those Bishops who try to forbid or undermine it. Yet I am under no illusions about it – and do not believe a wholesale return to it will solve all problems. I know that, when the Latin Mass was the only form, Catholics in the United States were contracepting in large numbers, contrary to Church teaching. I also know that, during those days, the veneration of authority for authority’s sake alone helped cultivate the fertile ground in which widescale clerical abuse took root. The reforms we need run much deeper than the form of liturgy, important as that is. Even so, in a time of great turmoil, people whose confidence are shaken need to find a haven of others who share their values, a sort of shire, as it were. So long as they treat it with the proper reverence without angrily denouncing anyone who, like me, prefers the Novus Ordo, I think it serves a vital purpose beyond being a beautiful form of liturgy. If you degenerate into an angry supremacy about it, though, the devil has seduced you to his purposes.
Some have adopted the theory that the resignation of Benedict XVI was so flawed that Francis is not a legitimate Pope. The controversy over that theory has spilled over into the comments section of this site – and a leading advocate of it is a friend who I deeply admire. There are two primary reasons why I do not subscribe to this theory.
First, almost all public endeavors suffer from some technical deficiencies. I have been through that scenario more than a few times before. In such cases, people who know little about the law become instant experts, passionately declaiming why a technical deficiency voids everything. Few of these newly commissioned experts know anything about the concept of a form of stare decisis in such public events. If the intention was open and clear and those who were called to decide accepted it, it is valid notwithstanding some technical deficiencies. Only in the case of actual fraud could such a decision be overturned. The reason for this is simple. As there are technical deficiencies in most public actions, the admission of such an objection after the decision has been made, with due consideration, would throw almost every public act into question and controversy. That does not mean that technical objections cannot be made; only that they must be timely – made while the question is being decided, not after it is settled.
Some say Pope Emeritus Benedict intentionally made a faulty resignation. That is downright offensive to me. Benedict is one of my heroes. To believe that he resigned with his fingers crossed behind his back would be a dishonorable dodge that I do not think the man capable of. If some of the leading orthodox Cardinals began to take this seriously, I would take another look at it. If Pope Francis chose to contradict Magisterial teaching in an ex cathedra pronouncement, I would become an advocate of it. Otherwise, I cannot support it.
The biggest driver of this movement is a desire to make all this controversy go away. It is, if you will pardon the expression, a deus ex machina that would void everything and leave us relieved of any responsibility for getting to such a pass, kind of like a dream sequence in a TV series to void an unpopular season.
God has given us a great opportunity. Most Catholics do not know the authentic teaching of the Church on these matters. That lack of common knowledge helped lead us to a position of great crisis. This is a time when the apostolate of the laity is being defined through conflict. If we do this right, the fruit of these tumults will be a MUCH better understanding of the nature of our duty of obedience to lawful authority, our responsibility for temporal affairs – and to conduct them licitly but with primacy, and our duty of obedience to enduring Church teaching through Scripture and the universal Magisterium. Some of the Popes of the first millennium had faulty understandings of the nature of Christ and the Trinity. Most, probably all, of these were sincerely held. The great controversies of that millennium led to clear definitions. No Pope in a thousand years has been unclear about it. What glorious fruit arose from such pitched controversies!
The substitution of imperious political enthusiasms for a rigorous proclamation of sound doctrine by the hierarchy has not led to greater influence for the Church in the world. In fact, it has led to the Church becoming more and more irrelevant in global affairs. Few serious people take the Church seriously anymore, either as a dangerous opponent or a reliable ally or guide. Yes, that is partly the fault of the hierarchy, but it is also the fault of the laity who either abdicated their moral agency on matters in which they have primary prudential responsibility to the hierarchy or operated without reference to the authentic moral guides in place.
At its beginning, the Church grew largely through the labors of its great apostolic figures, men who were prepared to die rather than betray their Divine Founder by proclaiming a Gospel other than that which He proclaimed. At one of the times when rot had infested the upper levels of the Church, God was pleased to send St. Francis to renew it through the religious orders.
Grounded in Christ, the Church is one. The laity is its foundation, the religious orders its support beams, and the hierarchy its living quarters. Once again, we are faced with substantial rot at the upper levels of the Church. I am confident that this time the Lord will renew His Church through the authentic apostolate of the laity. Through all this controversy and trouble, we will be purified while each of us is taught how to live our authentic apostolate.
Rather than cower at the fiery ordeal that has come upon us to test us, I choose to answer God’s call – and not squander a minute of the lessons He reveals to us in that process. It is time to live the apostolate of the laity, to demonstrate the Divine nature of Our Lord’s Church by living fidelity to Him and ALL His words even in these dark times. But bring your scraper: we’ve got a lot of barnacles to clear.