In recent days, there’s been a nasty dustup between several prominent Catholic bloggers. The argument was ostensibly about “tone,” and it quickly devolved into a lot of bruised egos, and personal attacks on other Catholics for making personal attacks. It was an ugly spectacle, and I’ve stayed well clear of it.
But while I’m not interested in wading through uncharitable personal attacks, I am interested in the ideas underlying much of the dispute. Underneath all the bruised egos there’s a real dispute over how much respect to pay to Pope Francis. Near the heart of this is the fact that Steve Skojec and others have advanced a view that maybe the pope isn’t really the pope:
I have never said that Vatican II is invalid, but have said that I believe it is possible that the Church could declare it so.
I have never said Pope Francis is an antipope, but I believe it possible that the Church could declare him so.
On his own blog, he spells out his reason for entertaining the possibility:
Juridically speaking, it is certainly possible. We have had both interregnums and antipopes – 30 of the latter, according to the Catholic encyclopedia.
The question is how it affects the man who is the visible head of the office. Since only the Church (most specifically in the person of the pope, who is her supreme legislator) has the authority to say that a pope is a heretic, and thus, in fact, an antipope, a pope would have to in a fit of conscience accuse himself, or a successor of his would have to accuse him posthumously.
A good treatise on this (and why the sedevacantists are wrong for arrogating to themselves the authority to make such judgments, but not wrong in recognizing that such a situation could exist) can be found here.
To his credit, Skojec rightly rejects the standard sedevacantist position that an individual Catholic may declare the pope a heretic and an antipope. But publicly musing that Pope Francis might be a heretic and an antipope is only a little better, and serves only to undermine the faith.
Usually, these debates devolve into one side arguing why the Pope is a heretic, and one side arguing why he’s not. But I’m not going to go that route. Rather, my point is that even if radical Traditionalists were right about Pope Francis being a heretic, he wouldn’t cease to be pope. That’s because built into Skojec’s reasoning are a set of errors that it’s important to unpack.
|As this map shows, 14th century Europe was divided as to the identity of the true pope.|
As Skojec notes, there had been several antipopes throughout history. An antipope is someone who claims to be pope, but isn’t validly the office-holder. Perhaps the most famous antipopes in Catholic history are those from the time known as the Great Western Schism, in which there was great confusion over who the true pope was. Here’s how that began:
- In 1378, Pope Gregory XI died, shortly after returning the papacy to Rome, ending the so-called Babylonian Captivity, in which popes governed the Church from French-controlled Avignon, rather than Rome. When the Cardinals met to elect Gregory’s successor, the Roman mobs rioted, demanding that the next pope be Roman (to prevent any risk that the pope would again flee Rome and take up in another city).
- The Cardinals were unable to agree upon a Roman well-suited for the papacy, but they ended up electing an Italian: Bartolomeo Prignano, the Archbishop of Bari, in southeastern Italy. Prignano took the name Pope Urban VI.
- Urban, who had been a mild-mannered administrator of the papal chancery in Avignon, turned out to be an aggressive reformer pope after his election. In response, the French Cardinals claimed that Urban’s election was invalid, citing the coercion of the mobs. They quickly elected Robert of Geneva as Antipope Clement VII. Clement promptly moved to Avignon.
This created a true crisis within the Church. Nations, theologians, and even Saints were divided between the two claimants to the papacy:
Clement VII was related to or allied with the principal royal families of Europe; he was influential, intellectual, and skilful in politics. Christendom was quickly divided into two almost equal parties. Everywhere the faithful faced the anxious problem: where is the true pope? The saints themselves were divided: St Catherine of Siena, St. Catherine of Sweden, Bl. Peter of Aragon, Bl. Ursulina of Parma, Philippe d’Alencon, and Gerard de Groote were in the camp of Urban; St. Vincent Ferrer, Bl. Peter of Luxemburg, and St. Colette belonged to the party of Clement. The century’s most famous doctors of law were consulted and most of them decided for Rome. Theologians were divided.
Ultimately, it became clear that the Roman line of popes was the true line, despite the less-than-ideal circumstances in which Urban VI was elected. But while “Clement VII” and his successors were thus shown to be antipopes, nobody (to the best of my knowledge) claims that they were heretics, and even some Saints initially supported the Avignon line. So being an Antipope isn’t the same as being a heretic pope.
The common thread in all of these cases is that it turns on whether a particular man was validly elected to the Chair of Peter. A man isn’t declared an antipope simply because you think he’s wrong, or that he’s doing a bad job. Even the supporters of the Avignon antipopes recognized this: their argument wasn’t that Urban VI was a bad pope, but that his election was invalid due to the coercive threat of Roman mobs in the street. And they were wrong: even that radically-imperfect papal election was valid, and thus, Urban VI and his successors were the true popes.
|Mosaic depicting Pope Honorius I,
St. Agnes Outside the Walls, Rome
When Skojec suggests that the Church has the authority to declare “a pope is a heretic, and thus, in fact, an antipope,” he appears to be assuming that a heretical pope ceases to be pope for that reason. While there are some Saints who have speculated that this might be the case (St. Robert Bellarmine being the most famous), the Magisterium has never said this. And for good reason: we have at least two instances which suggest that this isn’t the case.
The first is Pope John XXII (1316-1334), who had a series of sermons in which he denied that Saints enjoy the Beatific Vision prior the Final Judgment. At the time, this was not formal heresy, inasmuch as the doctrine was dogmatically defined only by John’s successor, Benedict XII, in 1336. Theologians corrected the pope’s error, and John had the humility to retract his views. Being wrong on this doctrinal issue didn’t mean that John ceased to be pope. He was just a pope in error. (When sedevacantists refer to “Saint Thomas Aquinas,” they unwittingly concede this, for it was Pope John XXII who canonized Aquinas; if John wasn’t pope, Aquinas isn’t canonized).
The second is Pope Honorius (625-638), who has the ignoble distinction of being the only pope that’s anathematized. As pope, Honorius permitted the spread of the Monothelite heresy. For this, he was condemned by the Third Council of Constantinople, a condemnation affirmed by Pope St. Leo II in these words:
Likewise we anathematize the inventors of the new error, that is Theodore bishop of Pharan, Cyrus of Alexandria, Sergius, Pyrrhus, Paul, Peter, ambushers of the Church of Constantinople more than prelates, and also Honorius, who did not enlighten this apostolic church with the doctrine of apostolic tradition, but allowed the immaculate faith to be defiled by profane treachery, and all who died in their error.
This is a perfect case to test Skojec’s theory, because it’s a pope who is a condemned heretic (not for teaching heresy, but for letting it flourish). And guess what? Honorius didn’t cease to be pope. Leo didn’t declare his predecessor an antipope, or nullify all of his papal decrees on the grounds that they weren’t issued by the real pope, etc.
So just as being an antipope doesn’t automatically make someone a heretic, neither being a heretic automatically make him an antipope.
|The Second Vatican Council; photograph by Lothar Wolleh|
Let’s return to one specific aspect of Skojec’s theory. He says:
Since only the Church (most specifically in the person of the pope, who is her supreme legislator) has the authority to say that a pope is a heretic, and thus, in fact, an antipope, a pope would have to in a fit of conscience accuse himself, or a successor of his would have to accuse him posthumously.
This presents a Catch-22. The “fit of conscience” that Skojec envisions couldn’t occur. Why? Because if Pope Francis is a heretical antipope, then he’s not pope. If he’s not pope, then he’s not the supreme legislator of the Church, and doesn’t have the authority to declare anyone an antipope.
But couldn’t a later pope declare Pope Francis an antipope and Vatican II a false Council? No.
As then-Cardinal Ratzinger explained in the Doctrinal Commentary on The Concluding Formula of the Professio Fidei, the legitimacy of a particular pope or of a particular Council is infallible (despite not being divinely revealed):
With regard to those truths connected to revelation by historical necessity and which are to be held definitively, but are not able to be declared as divinely revealed, the following examples can be given: the legitimacy of the election of the Supreme Pontiff or of the celebration of an ecumenical council, the canonizations of saints (dogmatic facts), the declaration of Pope Leo XIII in the Apostolic Letter Apostolicae Curae on the invalidity of Anglican ordinations …
This is necessarily the case. Papal infallibility would be meaningless if it were impossible to know who (if anyone) was pope. According to Skojec’s view, the Church could conceivably declare tomorrow that there were no valid popes or Councils after the death of St. Peter. But such a declaration would obviously end Catholicism. We would no longer be able to trust anything – every infallible dogmatic definition would have to be thrown out, since they were all made by antipopes or robber Councils. So the Church must be able to know, infallibly, whether a particular Council or pope is legitimate or not.
Here’s why that matters: if Vatican II is a false Council (as Skojec thinks it might be, and the sedevacantists thinks it is), then it means that the Church from the time of Paul VI onwards has been a false Church. But if that’s the case, Catholicism is over. Every Cardinal elector on earth was appointed by Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, or Pope Francis. In this vision of history, none of these men were really popes, and had no more authority to appoint Cardinals than do you or me. So if Skojec was right, we would not only be left without a pope, but without any way of ever having a pope. In that case, there’s no possible future pope or future College of Cardinals capable of declaring Vatican II a false Council, because there’s no possibility of a future pope or College of Cardinals at all. There’s simply no more Church.
The Fifteenth Session of the Ecumenical Council of Constance condemned the following propositions of Jan Hus as heretical back in 1415:
11. It is not necessary to believe that any particular Roman pontiff is the head of any particular holy church, unless God has predestined him to salvation.
20. If the pope is wicked, and especially if he is foreknown to damnation, then he is a devil like Judas the apostle, a thief and a son of perdition and is not the head of the holy church militant since he is not even a member of it.
22. The pope or a prelate who is wicked and foreknown to damnation is a pastor only in an equivocal sense, and truly is a thief and a robber.
24. If a pope lives contrary to Christ, even if he has risen through a right and legitimate election according to the established human constitution, he would have risen by a way other than through Christ, even granted that he entered upon office by an election that had been made principally by God. For, Judas Iscariot was rightly and legitimately elected to be an apostle by Jesus Christ who is God, yet he climbed into the sheepfold by another way.
29. The apostles and faithful priests of the Lord strenuously governed the church in matters necessary for salvation before the office of pope was introduced, and they would continue to do this until the day of judgment if—which is very possible—there is no pope.
So the notion that a wicked pope ceases to be pope is a condemned heresy. So is the idea that we can stay in a perpetual state of sedevacantism.
What Constance was affirming is what needs to be reaffirmed today: the pope is the pope by virtue of his election to the Papal See, not by virtue of his personal merit. Some men are better popes than others, but none of them merit being pope. Conversely, none of them cease to be pope because of their sinfulness. Judas didn’t cease to be an Apostle when he betrayed Christ. Likewise, even the worst pope doesn’t cease to be pope, even if he betrays Jesus Christ through his bad actions. To claim otherwise is heretical.
Consider the alternative. The positions put forward by Skojec and by the sedevacantists would mean that a validly-elected pope could, at any moment, teach heresy and secretly cease to be pope. He, and the Church, would no longer be protected by the charism of papal infallibility. But the people of God would have no way of knowing for certain that the man wasn’t pope, and would be bound to obey his possibly-heretical teachings.
Alternatively, they could resist, on the grounds that he might be a heretic for teaching something that they think is wrong. But this alternative is hardly any better: if the pope and Councils are binding unless they disagree with you, then you’re the final authority. This is exactly the maneuver that Martin Luther attempted in the early days of the Reformation: he acknowledged the authority of popes and Councils unless they contradicted Scripture (which is to say, unless they contradicted Brother Luther’s interpretation of Scripture). One need look no further than the last five hundred years of Protestant history to see how well this chaotic approach works.
We live in an era in which we want to declare marriages null because we don’t like the way our spouses act, and in which we want to declare popes antipopes because we don’t like the way they act. But God’s the final authority, not us. If He united a couple in Holy Matrimony, they’re united (like or not). If He didn’t, they’re not united (again, like it or not: you may want to be married to your already-married coworker, but no dice). If He raised a particular man to the Chair of Peter, that man is the pope, whether or not he’s a good pope, and whether or not you happen to like or respect him. To hold otherwise is to envision an impossible Church, and to fall headlong into the realm of heresy.