The arguments in his defense don’t stand the test of time
In the wake of Bishop Joseph Strickland’s removal by Francis, the question of Francis’ own status has resurfaced. Is he really the pope? Or is he an imposter or an anti-pope or something worse?
When the question was initially raised years ago, quite a few Catholic theologians and commentators came to Francis’ defense. They quoted scripture, canon law, and past theologians, and they seemed quite confident that they were right and that critics of Francis didn’t know what they were talking about.
But, as the years passed and as Francis’ appointments, actions, and pronouncements became more obviously out of line with Catholic teaching, many of the arguments in defense of his legitimacy began to wear thin.
One frequently-used argument was that the although Francis seemed to flirt with heresy, he never went over the line because…well, because, as pope, he was being protected by the Holy Spirit from falling into grave error. As Jeffrey Mirus observed in one of his columns, “the Holy Spirit through the charism of infallibility, makes it impossible for a pope to bind the whole Church to error.”
But this is a circular argument. It assumes as true the thing that has to be proven—namely, that Francis is really the pope. But, as Francis continues to rewrite the faith along heterodox lines, Catholics will be forced to reconsider the role of the Holy Spirit in all this. If Francis is really the pope it must mean that the Holy Spirit does not provide nearly as much guidance to popes as Catholics have supposed. If Francis is really the pope, it means that the Holy Spirit gives popes much more leeway than many of us had imagined.
The oft-used argument that there have been several bad popes (about thirty) has the same effect. If the Spirit permits bad popes to be elected, then it must mean that the Cardinal-electors have more freedom to make a mess than is commonly thought.
But if the Holy Spirit permits the election of bad popes, why are we so sure that he would prevent the election of a false pope? Does he ensure that the majority of cardinals will be immune to deception or self-deception or to political pressure—or blackmail?
As you might have noticed, the argument that the Holy Spirit protects popes from serious error cuts both ways. On the one hand, it can be used to argue that popes will be protected from serious doctrinal errors; on the other hand, it can be used, to argue that if a ‘pope’ is leading people into serious sin and error, there is a good chance that he’s not the pope and is therefore not under the protection of the Holy Spirit.
As it happens, Dr. Mirus admits the point. He acknowledges that If Francis is not the legitimate pope, then the question of the Church’s teaching authority does not come into play because “any errors such a ‘pope’ might teach would not really have been authoritatively taught. Thus, Christ’s promise to be with the Church will not have failed…”
But the main concern of Mirus and other defenders of Francis’ legitimacy is that the “not pope” argument undermines the credibility of the Church’s teaching authority.
At this point, however it seems that the faith of many Catholics will be more badly shaken should Francis turn out to be the true pope. How, it will be asked, could God allow his Church to be ruled by a man whose teachings contradict what Christ taught? Why does God permit the confusion and demoralization that Francis has wrought? Why does Francis bear so much animosity toward good and faithful Catholics like Bishop Strickland?
The possibility that Francis is the pope does far more damage to the credibility of the Church than the possibility that he is not. If Francis continues to introduce novel and divisive changes to Church teachings on an almost weekly basis, then the credibility of the Church and the papacy will decline rapidly. If, on the other hand, he is revealed to be an imposter intent on subverting the Church, then much of the current turmoil would be seen in a new light. It would be seen not as the result of some inherent flaw in the Church, but as the result of a deliberate plot to destroy the Church.
If Francis is actually an enemy of the Church, then it makes sense that he would favor harmful innovations—that he would be open to same-sex blessings, that he would participate in pagan rituals, that he would put the John Paul II Academy for Marriage and the Family in the hands of a man who would not be welcome in the homes of most Catholic families, that he would put another such man in charge of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, that he would issue a motu proprio calling for a radical paradigm shift in Catholic theology and on and on. All of these innovations have sown confusion in the Church. But that, it seems, is what they were intended to do.
If Francis were really a false prophet, then it would be understandable that he thinks conversion is undesirable, that he tells seminarians to forgive all sin in the confessional even if there is no repentance, and that he maintains that sexual sins are nothing to worry about.
If for some reason—an invalid resignation by Pope Benedict, a rigged papal election, or evidence that Bergoglio had no intention of guarding the Catholic faith—it becomes evident that Francis is not a valid pope, then many Catholics would breathe a sigh of relief. If Francis/Bergoglio is an antipope then the promises of Christ and the protection of the Holy Spirit do not apply to him. Catholics would be free to ignore his new doctrines, to resist him, and above all, to better understand the trial that has been visited on the Church.
Some think that the antipope/false prophet accusations against Francis are reckless, but scripture teaches us that at some point in time, something of this nature is exactly what we should expect.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus refers to many “false Christs and false prophets (Mt. 24: 11, 24: 24). Likewise, the epistles speak of “many antichrists” (1 Jn. 2: 18) and many “false prophets” (1 Jn. 4: 1). Moreover, these false prophets are as likely to come from within the fold as from without. They “come to you in sheep’s clothing” (Mt. 7: 15) “disguising themselves as apostles of Christ” (2 Cor. 11: 13 ).
How are we to identify the false prophets? By the degree that they deviate from the gospel. St. Paul warns the Corinthians against those who preach “another Jesus than the one we preach…” or “a different gospel from the one you accepted…” (2 Cor. 11: 4). Likewise, Paul warns the Galatians against those who “want to pervert the gospel of Christ” (Gal. 1: 7).
Is anyone perverting the gospel of Christ today? We don’t have to look very far for an answer. This summer, Fr. Antonio Spadaro, SJ, a close friend and trusted advisor to Francis gave a sermon in which he described Jesus as “angry and insensitive,” “mocking and disrespectful,” and “blinded by nationalism and theological rigor.” In commenting on Jesus’s encounter with the Canaanite women, Spadaro portrays Jesus as one who is unable to transcend the prejudices of his time and place.
This interpretation of scripture was an obvious perversion of the gospel of Christ, yet Francis did nothing to correct Spadaro. Instead, he promoted his friend to a curial position—Under-Secretary of the Dicastery for Culture and Education.
As usually happens in Rome these days, those who uphold the faith (such as Bishop Strickland) are given the boot, while those who undermine it (Spadaro, Fernandez, Martin, Paglia) are praised and promoted. Meanwhile, those who scandalize the faithful are protected or promoted or sometimes both (McCarrick, Ricca, Zanchetta, Rupnik, Cocopalmerio, etc.).
There is a certain type of person who loves to surround himself with flamboyant rule-breakers who delight in saying daring things and in joking about sacred things.
Francis seems to be one of those types. One of his biographers reports that he used to delight in teaching dirty words to his young nephew. Now that he’s pope he has to be more careful about what he says. But he can still keep company with others who push the boundaries, spread gossip, and laugh at the “backwardness” of less sophisticated people—the kind who actually take their faith seriously.
The more one knows about Francis’ favorites, the more one is reminded of St. Paul’s warning: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings” (2 Tim. 4: 3).
One is also reminded of this passage about the second coming of the Lord: “That day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship” (2 Thessalonians 2: 3-4).
“Itching ears”? “The rebellion”? The man of lawlessness”? Paul could well be writing about our own times. Many in the Church seem to be itching for news of the latest break from tradition. And the rebellious spirit seems to have infected a whole generation of young and not-so-young people. What are they rebelling against? Mainly against the law: laws against violence, vandalism, and looting, but also against natural law and revealed law. Numerous polls show that a majority of Catholics now disagree with the Church on abortion, homosexuality, transgenderism and the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Many think that matters of right and wrong are simply a matter of personal choice. Each person, in short, becomes a law unto himself.
The irony is, we are encouraged in this lawlessness by many Church leaders. They no longer teach about right and wrong or good and evil, but instead they champion “relativism,” “subjectivism,” “contextualism” and “new paradigms.” But, of course, many young people correctly understand that these fancy words are simply another way of saying “Do as thou wilst”—the maxim attributed to occultist, Aleister Crowley.
Francis and his followers are attempting to destroy the Church and to replace it with a “new paradigm” Church more in touch with the changing times. At this point, that seems fairly clear.
Admittedly, however, many don’t see it that way. They maintain that nothing has really changed, and that criticizing Francis will only harm the credibility of the Church. Besides, they will say, no one has the right to judge the pope (which, taken literally, is a nonsensical proposition); and, what’s more, they will say, “the whole issue is above your pay-grade.”
Moreover, they will add “There’s nothing anyone can do about it. God will take care of everything in his own good time. So, shush up!”
Yes, God has unlimited time to fix things, but our time is short and in that short time God wants us to make the best of our time. Yes, God has the power to make all things new, but as Pope Leo XIII wrote in Sapientiae Christianae: “In His loving kindness He would assign to us a share in obtaining and applying the fruits of salvation…”
As St. Paul taught, Christ gives us a share in his work. If Paul were alive today, would he just keep quiet about the harm being done to the Church? Would Peter or John or Matthew?
God will eventually resolve everything, but in the meantime what do you tell a mother whose 14-year-old daughter says she wants to become a boy and that Sister Sally at school says the Church will bless whatever choice she makes?
To top it all off, the girl hands her mother a booklet by Fr. James Martin and says: “Here, this will explain everything. And, look, Pope Francis wrote the Introduction!”
We are told that eventually God will sort it all out. In the meantime, both Church and society are rapidly spinning out of control.
Pictured above: Saint Peter’s at night
Photo credit: Pixabay