In some of the discussions I’ve been having subsequent to the post that went nuclear, there have been certain allegations of this or that thing that I must believe because of what I am saying. Then people argue with me based on those things, instead of anything that I actually believe.

There’s little I dislike more than when people tell me what I am thinking. Especially when I’m not thinking those things.

So, I’d like to address a few items:


On the Question of Papal Criticism

I hear it all the time these days: “Are you more Catholic than the pope? Who are you to criticize him? The Holy Spirit picked the pope, and I trust God!!!”

God does not pick the pope. The college of cardinals does. (And this includes men like Kasper and Mahoney and Danneels, etc.) There is nothing in Catholic teaching to even indicate this. On the contrary, we have no less an authority than a certain Cardinal-who-became-pope, Joseph Ratzinger, on this very topic (from NCR/John Allen):

Perhaps the classic expression of this idea belongs to none other than the outgoing pope, Benedict XVI, who as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was asked on Bavarian television in 1997 if the Holy Spirit is responsible for who gets elected. This was his response:

“I would not say so, in the sense that the Holy Spirit picks out the Pope. … I would say that the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather like a good educator, as it were, leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us. Thus the Spirit’s role should be understood in a much more elastic sense, not that he dictates the candidate for whom one must vote. Probably the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined.”

Then the clincher:

“There are too many contrary instances of popes the Holy Spirit obviously would not have picked!”

Secondly, even a pope is not above criticism. St. Catherine of Sienna certainly knew that when she was trying to encourage her own pontiff (Gregory XI) to man up and leave Avignon to come back to Rome. She wrote:

“Since [Christ] has given you authority and you have accepted it, you ought to be using the power and strength that is yours.  If you don’t intend to use it, it would be better and more to God’s honor and the good of your soul to resign….If I were in your place, I would be afraid of incurring divine judgment.”   Later in her letter she continued, “Cursed be you, for time and power were entrusted to you and you did not use them!”

Of course, it was a good deal easier to get the pope to read your letters back then. (I’ve never had a pope respond to my emails or tweets. Nor do I expect one to.)

Though not by name, Dante went so far as to put  Pope Celestine V in hell. (Anecdotally, it is believed that he wrote him into the Inferno because he abdicated — the last pope to do so before Benedict XVI — and his abdication cleared the path for Boniface VIII, who Dante was not so fond of.)

Personal correspondence and literary condemnations are two forms of papal criticism which were appropriate for their times. But theologians knew it as well. The 16th century yields us this pearl of wisdom:

“Peter has no need of our lies or flattery. Those who blindly and indiscriminately defend every decision of the Supreme Pontiff are the very ones who do most to undermine the authority of the Holy See—they destroy instead of strengthening its foundations”

– Fr. Melchior Cano O.P., Bishop and Theologian of the Council of Trent.

Of course, if you want to go all the way back to the beginning, Paul rebuked Peter “to the face”.

You get my point. It’s not unprecedented to be critical of a pope. And I would argue that our situation is really quite unique. Unlike any time in history, a man’s words can reach the four corners of the Earth instantaneously. We live in a very public world, and this papacy has found global resonance through the megaphone of our massive media apparatus.

This means that when the pope says something erroneous — or something that leads people to an erroneous conclusion, even if it’s not what he’s really saying — it spreads like wildfire. One needn’t change the doctrines of the Church to convince people that they’ve been changed. And really, all that matters in practical terms is the convincing. That’s what prompts changes in behavior and belief.

Because of this, it would seem that those Catholics who know their faith well enough to detect the problems have an obligation to speak up and to make sure that errors, perceived or real, are clearly refuted somewhere. Even if it’s somewhere as lowly as a blog or a Facebook post, it tends to get seen by at least a few folks who might need to know. Evangelization happens the same way: one soul at a time. You might tell a thousand people about your beliefs and only one converts. That’s effort well spent. In the same way, it seems only right that we help our fellow Catholics (especially those who are not as well catechized) to know that they should be on the lookout for certain errors, even from the highest prelates of the Church. Pope Francis and his inner circle have been saying enough that is, if not outright wrong, close enough to being wrong that it distorts the truth. Unless we know to turn up our filters, we may well imbibe some of that ourselves.

All of this doesn’t make me very popular in a faith filled with people who believe that orthodoxy and papistry are synonymous. It really is understandable that many would have reached the conclusion that something just shy of papolatry is the hallmark of faithful sons of the Church. In the turmoil that followed the Second Vatican Council, the only rock in the storm was the rock of St. Peter. Still high on the relatively-new doctrine of papal infallibility, the person of the pope became seen as the beacon of divinely-protected truth in the theological darkness and confusion. Clinging to him was safe. Defending him typically meant you were staring down someone who was no friend of Christ.

But like the Novus Ordo, the reverence of which is almost entirely dependent upon the personal piety of the celebrant, this false equivalence between ultramontanism and orthodoxy depends entirely on the character of the man on Peter’s throne. Put a Cardinal Mahoney in the papacy and suddenly everything is different. (And let’s remember that Cardinal Mahoney was specifically told to vote in the conclave, so he had his say, and he is a noted Francis fan.) Being put in this position leaves reflexive papists floundering. What do you do when you believe being a good Catholic means defending every word and action of the pope, but the pope starts doing or saying things you’re not sure you should defend? Bit of a quandry, that. It makes people cranky.

So it’s also not surprising that someone insinuated I (or at least the kind of people who would write what I wrote) needed to be told:

“[T]o claim that there is no valid pope or that Vatican II was an invalid council or that the sacraments celebrated according to the current missal as invalid is heresy and schism. And all the more satanically ironic for the fact that it’s people who claim to take a very strict view of extra ecclesiam nulla salus who are putting themselves outside of that very Church.”

I respond:

Now of course a case could be made, (cf. Bellarmine) that a pope who embraces heresy excommunicates himself and thus no longer has a valid office. It has always been theoretical, and popes who have done things along these lines have usually for various reasons been later discovered to be antipopes.

Canon law does come to bear:

“Canon 1325, §. 2 of the 1917 Code stated: “If a baptized person deliberately denies or doubts a dogma properly so-called, he is guilty of the sin of heresy,” and Canon 2314, § 1 stated: “Such a person automatically becomes subject to the punishment of excommunication.” (1) These two articles are still in force in the new and concessive 1983 Code (cc. 751, 1364).”

It is historically true that there have been antipopes; it is also theoretically possible that a reigning pope could, by attempting to teach heresy, vacate his own seat. I haven’t gone so far as to suggest that, but I do feel strongly that Francis is testing those waters. (Whether formally or only materially is up for debate.)

But as I recently said to a sedevacantist I was arguing with, “Even if he’s not the real pope, it’s outside our competence to judge him so. Only a successor to St. Peter can.”

This is important. We can and should be critical of and resist what’s being said and done that we believe is wrong; we can personally not like the man who holds the office;  we can even privately believe he’s a raging heretic if that’s where our research leads us. But until another vicar of Christ says otherwise, Pope Francis is the pope. My pope. Your pope. Full stop. We owe him our prayers, and we owe our assent to any authoritative teaching he makes.


On to the second point: I don’t make the case that Vatican II was an invalid council; I do think it was a damaging and unnecessary council. Pope Paul VI conceded that it was pastoral council. It introduced nothing new to the deposit of faith, and was only dogmatic where and when it reaffirmed existing dogma. It’s non-essential, and problematic, and its dangerous ambiguities could be addressed and corrected by a subsequent council. Just for clarity’s sake, let’s trot out the well-worn quotes:

Pope Benedict XVI (while Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) clearly stated the nature of the Second Vatican Council was pastoral, as the council defined no doctrine infallibly, and sought to maintain a lower profile than previous ecumenical councils….

The Second Vatican Council has not been treated as a part of the entire living Tradition of the Church, but as an end of Tradition, a new start from zero. The truth is that this particular council defined no dogma at all, and deliberately chose to remain on a modest level, as a merely pastoral council; and yet many treat it as though it had made itself into a sort of superdogma which takes away the importance of all the rest.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI
given July 13, 1988, in Santiago, Chile

This echoes the words of Pope Paul VI, who concluded the Second Vatican Council, and also stated it was purely pastoral in nature, having not applied the “note of infallibility” to any particular document….

In view of the pastoral nature of the Council, it avoided any extraordinary statements of dogmas endowed with the note of infallibility, but it still provided its teaching with the authority of the Ordinary Magisterium which must be accepted with docility according to the mind of the Council concerning the nature and aims of each document.

Pope Paul VI
General Audience, 12 January 1966


Third point: I don’t make the case that the sacraments celebrated according to the current missal are invalid (though it can more easily occur because of the loss of structure and ease of improvisation in the new rubrics, as well as the general loss of belief in the real presence among priests, which could nullify intent). I instead find that the validity of the new Mass is precisely what makes it so problematic: it can’t simply be dismissed as an abuse, so it instead lingers as a Trojan horse for a protestantized anthropology of worship, horizontalism where there should be verticality, and an intentional diminishment of the sacrificial aspect of the Mass. Like tainted water, it paradoxically both nourishes and makes us sick.


Now, people do make compelling arguments in favor of all these positions I don’t actually hold. Compelling, but not convincing. Sedevacantism, for example, is a dead end, but they do their homework. Some of them are very nice people, but I get the feeling sometimes that they’ve crossed the line from sanity into a terrible, hopeless world from which they see no exit. Never get in a prooftexting fight with a sede. As Chesterton wrote:

If the madman could for an instant become careless, he would become sane. Every one who has had the misfortune to talk with people in the heart or on the edge of mental disorder, knows that their most sinister quality is a horrible clarity of detail; a connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze. If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.


The final charge that I will deal with is this: the assumption that if not a sedevacantist-in-the-making, I must at least be in schism. Which for most mainstream Catholics is synonymous with the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX).

The truth is, in my ten years of “traditionalism” I have never darkened the doorstep of an SSPX chapel, let alone any of the independent ones. It is important to me to maintain visible continuity with the Church, and insofar as the Church has maintained access to her own tradition, however sparsely, I see no reason to change that.

That said, the SSPX are really not that problematic other than (at least in my experience) their grumpiness; there is not an authentic Catholic teaching to which they do not adhere, and (depending on what week it is or who you talk to at the Vatican) they are aren’t it’s so confusing might or might not be in actual schism. Personally, I strongly dislike their opinion that disobedience to a sovereign pontiff was the only way to accomplish God’s will and retain what is sacred. I think that bespeaks a lack of trust in their own argument: that God wants the Tradition of his Church preserved. If He does (and I believe it) He’ll provide a way that doesn’t involve a direct violation of the orders of the Church’s supreme legislator. (All of that being said, I am growing increasingly sympathetic to their position. There are times when obedience demands too much, and we are never bound to violate our conscience out of obligation to a superior.)

So there you have it. Just saying that you’re “Catholic” these days means very little, considering the diversity of belief within the Church. There are lots of labels floating around, but there are subcategories even within those. I think it’s important to make my positions on these things clear. I believe it’s possible to be highly critical of what is happening within the Church without ever stepping outside of the Church to do so, and still recognizing the authority structures that exist. It’s a bit of a tightrope walk, but it’s doable.


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