Simon Peter has quite a plummet in Matthew 16. Shortly after correctly declaring Jesus the Messiah (for which Jesus renames him from Simon to “Peter,” meaning “Rock”), Jesus reveals with His Disciples the gory details of God’s plan for salvation, the Crucifixion (Matthew 16:21). Incredibly, Peter responds by taking Jesus aside to rebuke Him, leading Jesus to utter His harshest words in the New Testament: “Go behind me, Satan, thou art a scandal unto me: because thou savourest not the things that are of God, but the things that are of men” (Mt. 16:23 DRA).
Jesus’ rebuke is rich with ironic inversions: instead of calling Simon “Rock,” He calls him a “scandal,” a Greek word that literally means a “stumbling stone”; And whereas He had previously praised Peter’s confession for being Divinely-inspired (“flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven,”), He now criticizes Peter for savoring “not the things that are of God, but the things that are of men.” I’m reminded of this painful juxtaposition in reading the numerous Catholic authors — even good Catholic authors — who seem to be losing their minds, and their faith, in response to the ongoing Synod on the Family.
Even sober-minded authors like Ross Douthat haven’t been immune. Much of his coverage of this year’s Synod mirrors the vision he laid out during the Synod last year, in which he suggested that it’s conservative Catholics, rather than the Holy Spirit, who are needed to preserve the Church from error (“They can certainly persist in the belief that God protects the church from self-contradiction. But they might want to consider the possibility that they have a role to play, and that this pope may be preserved from error only if the church itself resists him.”).
Jeffrey Bond over at OnePeterFive likewise lays out three possible outcomes, one of which is that “the Synod will explicitly change Catholic doctrine on the family.” While he views this outcome as “highly unlikely,” he doesn’t think it’s impossible, and his reasons for doubting its occurrence are more Machiavellian than theological, since it would mean that “The plans of the modernists would then be fully exposed for all to see, and formal schism would soon follow once faithful cardinals, bishops and priests refused communion to those living publicly in the mortal sin of adultery and sodomy.” The analysis casually assumes the very Protestant claim that Catholicism has always denied: namely, that a situation could arise in which the faithful are forced to make the impossible choice between heresy and schism (each of which are mortal sins).
But the most dramatic example of St. Peter’s plummet is The Week’s Michael Brendan Dougherty. On October 1, he wrote easily the best piece on Pope Francis and Kim Davis, showing how the pope sought to imitate Christ rather than media scribes. Four day later, it was as if another writer entirely had taken the keyboard. Start with the title: “Does Pope Francis fear God? On the Synod of the Family and the fracturing of the Catholic Church.” In fact, the piece doesn’t actually quote Pope Francis at all. This is what we get instead:
In the next three weeks, I fully expect the leadership of my own One Holy and Apostolic Catholic Church to fall into apostasy, at the conclusion of the Synod on the Family that begins today in Rome. This is the outcome Pope Francis has shaped over the entirety of his pontificate, and particularly with his recent appointments. An event like this —heresy promulgated by the Pope and his bishops — is believed by most Catholics to be impossible. But they should be prepared for it anyway. This is not an ordinary religious conference, but one to be dreaded.
This isn’t just bad tea-reading of the Synod. This is heresy.
In the decree dogmatically defining papal infallibility, the First Vatican Council explained that it’s because of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, not the natural wisdoms of the popes themselves, that the See of St. Peter will always and forever remain unblemished by any error:
For the holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles.
Indeed, their apostolic teaching was embraced by all the venerable fathers and reverenced and followed by all the holy orthodox doctors, for they knew very well that this see of St. Peter always remains unblemished by any error, in accordance with the divine promise of our Lord and Saviour to the prince of his disciples: I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.
This gift of truth and never-failing faith was therefore divinely conferred on Peter and his successors in this see so that they might discharge their exalted office for the salvation of all, and so that the whole flock of Christ might be kept away by them from the poisonous food of error and be nourished with the sustenance of heavenly doctrine. Thus the tendency to schism is removed and the whole church is preserved in unity, and, resting on its foundation, can stand firm against the gates of hell.
The whole point of the Magisterium in general and the papacy in particular is to ensure that the people of God are never fed poisonous heresy by their own Church, and never forced to choose between schism and heresy. After all, the Church is the Bride of Christ, for whom Jesus died, that He might have “a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy, and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:27).
Vatican I’s teaching is solidly rooted in Scripture. And at the Last Supper, Jesus promises (John 14:16-18), “I will ask the Father, and he shall give you another Paraclete, that he may abide with you for ever. The spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, nor knoweth him: but you shall know him; because he shall abide with you, and shall be in you. I will not leave you orphans, I will come to you.” And a little later (Jn. 16:23), Jesus clarifies that the Spirit of Truth will lead the Church into all truth: “when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will teach you all truth. For he shall not speak of himself; but what things soever he shall hear, he shall speak; and the things that are to come, he shall shew you.” So the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit, preserved in the fullness of truth forever.
The successor of Peter has a crucial role to play in this. I alluded to Peter’s confession of faith in Matthew 16. Christ responds in this way (Mt. 16:17-19), “I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.” All of this is related to the particular charge that Jesus entrusts to Peter at the Last Supper (Luke 22:31-32): “Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren.“
Notably missing in the Scriptures is some sort of caveat in which Christ says, “I won’t leave you orphans until 2015,” or “the Holy Spirit will guide you until the fiftieth Synod of Bishops,” or “the Church will be preserved in all truth unless a Cardinal teaches otherwise.” Quite the opposite, in fact: Christ promises to be with the Church until the end of time (Matthew 28:20), and it’s the indefectibility of the Church that is held up as a proof that Christianity is the true faith in Acts 5:35-39.
Ultimately, the position of Dougherty, et al, isn’t just faithless, it’s mindless. Even if you ignored the teachings of Vatican I and Sacred Scripture, history itself would testify to the incredible steadfastness of the Church. For two thousand years, enemies of the Church (both within and without) have sought to destroy her; for two thousand years, they have failed. G.K. Chesterton, in Everlasting Man, summarizes the “Five Deaths of the Faith” this way: “At least five times, therefore, with the Arian and the Albigensian, with the Humanist sceptic, after Voltaire and after Darwin, the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs. In each of these five cases it was the dog that died.” Never once did the Roman Catholic Church slip into error, however briefly. Never once did a pope declare, accidentally or intentionally, a Christological or Trinitarian heresy.
This point can be conceded even if one isn’t a Catholic: right or wrong, the Church has been unflinchingly consistent in a way that no other institution on earth has been (this is, after all, what inspires the ire of so many of her foes). But the authors mentioned above are all conservative Catholics, meaning that they apparently believe that the Church has always come out of these barrages with the faith preserved immaculate and entire, which makes their current panic all the more bizarre.
The play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead opens with the duo flipping a coin: it comes up heads 92 times in a row, the joke being how the event’s absurd improbability. But denying that the historical preservation of the Church is the work of the Holy Spirit would be more absurd, akin to postulating that the Church’s flawless track-record on solving technical theological questions was little more than a 2000 year-long lucky streak. Acknowledging the Church’s indefectibility as His work, in turn, shows the absurdity of assuming that He would stop now. The authors panicked about the Synod of Bishops seem to lack any sense of either theological foundation or historical perspective. We survived Arianism, a popular heresy backed by the Roman Empire, but lost to … a Synod about marriage?
Ultimately, this isn’t about trusting in the bishops assembled at the Synod, or even in His Holiness Pope Francis; it’s about trusting in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.