“In my view, a Church which seeks above all to be attractive, is already on the wrong path, because the Church does not work for herself, she does not work to increase her numbers and power. She works for Another. She serves not herself, not to become strong. She serves to make the announcement of Jesus Christ more accessible…..”
– Pope Benedict XVI
Last night, as I was browsing the various commentaries on the Pope’s latest round of the Telephone Game, I came across this one by Fr. Ray Blake. The post is short, but one of his comments was, I think, quite telling of the panic inducing sense of contradiction this papacy is beginning to inflict:
The real question is, ‘Is the Pope a Catholic?’ The only possible answer is in the affirmative, therefore any ‘strangeness’ is impossible, otherwise…, otherwise…. well, that is impossible to imagine, and millions of Catholics have been living a lie and our faith is built on sand.
Please allow me to illustrate this reaction in another way:
If you think about it, the analogy is perfect. Finding out that your father is really Darth Vader is going to give anyone a case of the Mondays.
The word “impossible” has been coming up a lot in reference to the idea that the pope could have said what he is alleged to have said on that phone call to the little missus in Argentina.
This is the thing that is troubling people. They can’t wrap their minds around the idea that a pope could really say something about faith and morals that is…wrong. Because what would that mean? Because what would happen next? BECAUSE THEN WE’D HAVE TO FACE THE FACT THAT THE WHOLE FAITH WOULD BE A LIE AND THAT WOULD BE INCONCEIVABLE!!!!
(You know I just had to.)
Later on in the comments, my ol’ pal Hilary White came riding in on the Horse of Good Sense. She wrote:
Father, I hate to correct a venerable priest, but I believe you are mistaken in your comment:
I don’t know what you mean by ‘strange’. The real question is, ‘Is the Pope a Catholic?’ The only possible answer is in the affirmative, therefore any ‘strangeness’ is impossible, otherwise…, otherwise…. well, that is impossible to imagine, and millions of Catholics have been living a lie and our faith is built on sand.”
No, it certainly would not mean that. Not at all. This kind of thinking is what got us into this mess. The pope is not the Faith. The pope does not give us the Faith. If the pope loses the Faith, I don’t lose mine. If the pope is a heretic, an apostate, a schismatic or any of those horrible things, I don’t have to be those things too.
The Faith comes from God not Rome. The papacy is a key unit of the Church, so having such a bad one would be a terrible thing, but absolutely no reason whatever for anyone to lose their Faith.
I personally think we are in a unique situation. I have asked many smarty-smart people, who know lots of history and theology, when there has been a comparable disastrous period in the Church, and each one of them has said something like, “Well, the Arian crisis comes close, but this is probably worse.” And it is clear that the current worries about Francis are not isolated, unique or distinct from the general catastrophe that has befallen us.
Francis, if I may say something so dreadful, is a symptom – or perhaps the culmination – of the overall disaster that has become the ruling principle of the world since 1965. But again, this has no effect on the Faith. The Faith is simply the Truth. The Real. The realness of the Real does not change or fade because lots and lots of people want to deny it. Two and two still equal four. Marriage is still what it is. The Holy Eucharist is still the Holy Eucharist.
If the Papacy has been seized by bad men it does not mean that the things we believe are “built on sand”. It means only that the papacy has been seized by bad men. Bad men will do what bad men do, and we can do nothing but maintain and continue to proclaim what we know is true throughout their reign.
Facing up to the possibility that something very bad is going on does not necessitate a loss of the Faith. Fearing that the sky will fall if there is a bad pope, fearing it so much that one tries to retreat into denial of what we see plainly before us, will do nothing to help anyone.
Facing up to what is really happening is the only way to maintain the Faith. Retreating and saying, “oh, that couldn’t possibly happen and if it did then the Real is no longer the Real.” is going to allow the disaster to spread still further.
Only the Real counts. And if the pope and all the cardinals and bishops of the world try to say that something other than the Word of Christ is true, then we reject that as a wicked lie. We know what is true because we have the Faith.
As laypeople (and humble parish priests) our duty is clearly before us. We don’t have the power to stop bad men from doing bad things. But we have the power to continue to maintain the Faith, what we know. And to pray for a just solution to the terrible troubles of our times.
Where does it leave Christ promise to be with his Church forever, where does it leave our interpretation of ‘Tu es Petrus …’? Where does it leave the unity of the Church? If the Pope is what you suggest we have indeed built on sand.
I swear to heaven, sometimes I wish Vatican I never happened. So many problems would have been eliminated if not for the promulgation of that pesky doctrine of papal infallibility. Not that I don’t think popes are infallible. Of course there is such a thing as limited and specific papal infallibility. But the problem with the promulgation (and Cardinal Newman saw it coming) is that now, everyone (including non-Catholics) thinks everything a pope says is infallible teaching for the Church — or at least pretty damn close. If they do not expressly believe this, it appears that they subconsciously do. On the one hand, it gives rise to the uber-ultramontanists (or “papal positivists”, as Hilary likes to call them.) On the other, it gives us the sedevacantists, who are so bound up in their need to obey everything the Holy Father says that when he says something problematic that no reasonable person would consider binding, they say he’s a heretic and thus not the real pope. In every case, it means every papal utterance is scrutinized for meaning, for its level of authority, and for the extent to which it compels in the faithful the obligation of assent.
It makes people think that faithfulness to God’s laws and faithfulness to the pope are one and the same thing. Wrong. And if the pope does this thing that has everyone saying it isn’t possible, people are going to have to face that fact.
To paraphrase St. Thomas More — on the same bloody issue, it pains me to say– “I am the Pope’s faithful servant, but God’s first.”
I also left a comment in response to Fr. Blake. So far on his blog, it is still awaiting moderation. So I’ll share it (slightly modified) with you here:
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.
I would suggest that we have a unique situation on our hands. We have two popes currently living. Pope Benedict has not re-taken the title of “Cardinal Ratzinger” as those who abdicated before him did; he has not returned to his diocese or even stopped wearing his papal garb. If one were to hypothesize (and that’s all this is), one could imagine such a (far-fetched, but possible) scenario:
At the synod in October, Pope Francis fulfills our worst fears and supports this desecration of the Eucharist in the name of “mercy” and “pastoral concern”.
Those who believe that the papacy is the faith say, “If the pope wishes to change discipline, he can change it” and follow him.
But what if Pope Emeritus Benedict were to step forward, break his silence, and say that it was wrong? What if he were (to go deeper into this fantasy) admit that his abdication was coerced (thus making Francis’s election canonically invalid) because he was pressured to do some thing he could not in good conscience do and feared the very sort of schism that was now on his doorstep, and he was trying to forestall it?
Could it be possible that the Church could split into two camps, one with an anti-pope as head, and one with a real one?
I don’t see any legal reason that it could not.
I’m not aiming for plausibility here, I’m shooting for a scenario in which what might happen with this synod could make sense and yet not in any way mitigate the truth of the True Faith.
“From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge—a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so will she lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, she will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision.”
– Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Only a wild-ass theory? Yes. I offer no assurances that this is remotely likely, but I am trying to envision a scenario in which this thing could happen and the sky would not fall. I am looking, quite simply, for God’s contingency plan.
And as Belloc so wisely admonished, “Oh! Let us never never doubt what nobody is sure about.”
The “crisis of today” means that “the Church of tomorrow” will be smaller and have to start over. What could precipitate such a change? I think we’re seeing it taking shape right now.
People who say that what is happening in the Church right now is impossible are usually the ones who protest, “But the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church!”
And they’re right. Christ promised us.
He also promised his apostles that he would be with them “until the end of the age.” (Mt. 28:20) And then he went and got himself crucified.
Don’t you think the apostles were maybe thinking along the same lines that many Catholics are now? Consider this passage from The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ (emphasis mine):
When he found that they were asleep, he clasped his hands and fell down on his knees beside them, overcome with sorrow and anxiety, and said: ‘Simon, sleepest thou?’ They awoke, and raised him up, and he, in his desolation of spirit, said to them: ‘What? Could you not watch one hour with me?’ When they looked at him, and saw him pale and exhausted, scarcely able to support himself, bathed in sweat, trembling and shuddering,—when they heard how changed and almost inaudible his voice had become, they did not know what to think, and had he not been still surrounded by a well-known halo of light, they would never have recognised him as Jesus. John said to him: ‘Master, what has befallen thee? Must I call the other disciples? Ought we to take to flight?’ Jesus answered him: ‘Were I to live, teach, and perform miracles for thirty-three years longer, that would not suffice for the accomplishment of what must be fulfilled before this time tomorrow. Call not the eight; I did not bring them hither, because they could not see me thus agonising without being scandalised; they would yield to temptation, forget much of the past, and lose their confidence in me. But you, who have seen the Son of Man transfigured, may also see him under a cloud, and in dereliction of spirit; nevertheless, watch and pray, lest ye fall into temptation, for the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’
– The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ (p. 4). . Kindle Edition.
This is what is happening. Right now, seeing the Church agonizing and being compromised and the pope doing and saying unthinkable things, the faith of many is being severely challenged. And yet, even if the worst case comes to pass, even if the pope himself apostatizes, this isn’t the end of the road for us as Catholics.
This may really be the Church’s via dolorosa, but there will be a Road to Emmaus that follows. If you’re struggling with the possibilities, take heart. God is present and active in his Church in ways that we don’t see. God will find a way and keep his promises. He always does, even if he seems to take a certain delight in making us wait for it until it seems all hope is lost.
I prefer to ride the faith train. I am, by God’s grace alone, praying more these days than I ever have, and God is making his presence known to me in ways that are entirely new and incredibly comforting. Reach out to him. He sees the confusion and the hurt. He will console you. Take heart, and draw close to the Lord.
When it comes right down to it, this storm in the Church may be big, and it may be fearsome, but Jesus never let choppy seas ruffle his composure. His advice is the best advice: “Fear not, only believe.” (Mk. 5:36)
Steve Skojec is a storyteller, writer, blogger, photographer, designer, and sci-fi fan. He is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. He lives in Arizona with his wife Jamie and six of their seven children.