On Rebuking Popes & Catholic Obedience to Popes

On Rebuking Popes & Catholic Obedience to Popes December 27, 2017


Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman’s approach to this topic was vastly different from many (and the most fashionable, chic opinions) today:

I have said that, like St. Peter, he is the Vicar of his Lord. He can judge, and he can acquit; he can pardon, and he can condemn; he can command and he can permit; he can forbid, and he can punish. He has a Supreme jurisdiction over the people of God. He can stop the ordinary course of sacramental mercies; he can excommunicate from the ordinary grace of redemption; and he can remove again the ban which he has inflicted. It is the rule of Christ’s providence, that what His Vicar does in severity or in mercy upon earth, He Himself confirms in heaven. And in saying all this I have said enough for my purpose, because that purpose is to define our obligations to him. That is the point on which our Bishop has fixed our attention; “our obligations to the Holy See;” and what need I say more to measure our own duty to it and to him who sits in it, than to say that in his administration of Christ’s kingdom, in his religious acts, we must never oppose his will, or dispute his word, or criticise his policy, or shrink from his side? There are kings of the earth who have despotic authority, which their subjects obey indeed but disown in their hearts; but we must never murmur at that absolute rule which the Sovereign Pontiff has over us, because it is given to him by Christ, and, in obeying him, we are obeying his Lord. We must never suffer ourselves to doubt, that, in his government of the Church, he is guided by an intelligence more than human. His yoke is the yoke of Christ, he has the responsibility of his own acts, not we; and to his Lord must he render account, not to us. Even in secular matters it is ever safe to be on his side, dangerous to be on the side of his enemies.

Our duty is — not indeed to mix up Christ’s Vicar with this or that party of men, because he in his high station is above all parties — but to look at his formal deeds, and to follow him whither he goeth, and never to desert him, however we may be tried, but to defend him at all hazards, and against all comers, as a son would a father, and as a wife a husband, knowing that his cause is the cause of God. And so, as regards his successors, if we live to see them; it is our duty to give them in like manner our dutiful allegiance and our unfeigned service, and to follow them also whithersoever they go, having that same confidence that each in his turn and in his own day will do God’s work and will, which we have felt in their predecessors, now taken away to their eternal reward. (Sermon 15: “The Pope and the Revolution,” preached in 1866 at the Birmingham Oratory. From: Sermons Preached on Various Occasions)

What are we to make of this? Is Cardinal Newman an “ultramontanist, naive, overly idealistic, head-in-the-sand simpleton”? I can “hear” many grumbling already: “you don’t seriously believe that you can never criticize a pope, including Pope Francis, do you?!” My position, which has been utterly consistent throughout my 27 years as a Catholic, is not exactly like Newman’s (though I accept his general thrust and tenor). I do acknowledge that there are legitimate times to criticize popes, but under very specific and rare circumstances. My view was perhaps best summarized in this statement of mine from a paper on the topic in 2000:

My point is not that a pope can never be rebuked, nor that they could never be “bad” (a ludicrous opinion), but that an instance of rebuking them ought to be quite rare, exercised with the greatest prudence, and preferably by one who has some significant credentials, which is why I mentioned saints. Many make their excoriating judgments of popes as if they had no more importance or gravity than reeling off a laundry or grocery list.

I reiterated on 1-29-15:

My position is that popes should be accorded the proper respect of their office and criticized rarely, by the right people, in the right spirit, preferably in private Catholic venues, and for the right (and super-important) reasons. Virtually none of those characteristics hold for most of the people moaning about the pope day and night these days.

I’ve lived to see an age where an orthodox Catholic apologist defending the pope (for the right reasons) is regarded as some sort of novelty or alien from another galaxy. Truth is stranger than fiction!

Being classified as an ultramontanist is almost a boilerplate response from critics of a given pope. It’s very common to reply to defenses of a pope or papal authority by making out that one supposedly agrees with absolutely everything he says or does, or that his color of socks or what side of bed he gets out on or his favorite ice cream flavor are magisterial matters.

It’s untrue in my case, as I will show; this has never been my position, as I’ve explained many times. But if it is erroneously thought that it is, then I can be potentially (or actually) dismissed as a muddled, simplistic irrelevancy, without my arguments being fully engaged. Nice try, but no cigar.

It was Cardinal Newman who fought most valiantly against the ultramontanist mindset: opposing those such as Cardinal Manning and William G. Ward (also sometimes known as Neo-Ultramontanists). Cuthbert Butler, the historian of Vatican I, described Ward’s view as follows:

He held that the infallible element of bulls, encyclicals, etc., should not be restricted to their formal definitions but ran through the entire doctrinal instructions; the decrees of the Roman Congregation, if adopted by the Pope and published with his authority, thereby were stamped with the mark of infallibility, in short ‘his every doctrinal pronouncement is infallibly rendered by the Holy Ghost’.

This has never remotely been my view. Before I converted, as a card-carrying evangelical, I opposed the notion of infallibility itself tooth and nail; despised the view as hopelessly naive and false to history. It was my biggest objection: infinitely more so than Mary or things like tradition or infused justification. I read Dollinger, Kung, and George Salmon in order to try to disprove it.

Thus, I was not at all predisposed as a young convert, to ultramontanism. That would be the very last thing likely to happen. In fact, if that were what Catholicism required, I highly doubt that I would have become a Catholic at all. Cardinal Newman wrote (and I totally agree):

To submit to the Church means this, first you will receive as de fide whatever she proposes de fide . . . You are not called on to believe de fide any thing but what has been promulgated as such — You are not called on to exercise an internal belief of any doctrine which Sacred Congregations, Local Synods, or particular Bishops, or the Pope as a private Doctor, may enunciate. You are not called upon ever to believe or act against the moral law, at the command of any superior. (The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman, XX, 545 [in 1863], edited by Charles Stephen Dessain [London: 1961-1972], in Ian Ker, John Henry Newman: A Biography, Oxford University Press, 1988 [764 pages], 530-531)

Thus far, all Catholics who aren’t dissidents or modernists agree: even in our crazy day and age. The hard part comes when Newman discusses obedience and deference to the pope:

I say with Cardinal Bellarmine whether the Pope be infallible or not in any pronouncement, anyhow he is to be obeyed. No good can come from disobedience. His facts and his warnings may be all wrong; his deliberations may have been biassed. He may have been misled. Imperiousness and craft, tyranny and cruelty, may be patent in the conduct of his advisers and instruments. But when he speaks formally and authoritatively he speaks as our Lord would have him speak, and all those imperfections and sins of individuals are overruled for that result which our Lord intends (just as the action of the wicked and of enemies to the Church are overruled) and therefore the Pope’s word stands, and a blessing goes with obedience to it, and no blessing with disobedience. (Letter to Lady Simeon, 10 November 1867)

His thought was echoed by Venerable Pope Pius XII, in his encyclical Humani Generis (1950):

20. Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to say: “He who heareth you, heareth me”; and generally what is expounded and inculcated in Encyclical Letters already for other reasons appertains to Catholic doctrine. But if the Supreme Pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute, it is obvious that that matter, according to the mind and will of the same Pontiffs, cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion among theologians.

Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church), from Vatican II (1964) also reiterates the same notion:

25. . . . This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.

Apparently some detractors of Pope Francis think I accept every jot and title of everything he says and that all popes say. This is untrue. Five minutes spent at the search box on my blog (which contains over 2,000 papers, so that none of my views are exactly secrets) would have easily disproven this notion. But we’re all busy.

Instead, because (for example) I accept Pope Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum (2007) in what I think is its plain meaning and intent, and say that it is in line with the Mind of the Church, I was told (by a radical Catholic reactionary) that I simplistically apply that concept and am an ultramontanist: even of an “extreme and undifferentiating” sort. But the “real Dave Armstrong” can again be seen in a 1997 paper of mine, entitled, “Laymen Advising and Rebuking Popes.” In it, I wrote things like the following:

Pope John XXII was soundly and successfully rebuked by the masses when he temporarily espoused belief in a false doctrine. St. Catherine of Siena, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and St. Francis of Assisi rebuked popes, and their advice was respected and heeded (St. Francis, however, was ordained as a deacon — not as a priest –, so technically he was not a layman). These saints were the most revered Catholics of their time (one might think of Mother Teresa in our time).

I’m sure there were also many instances of morally inferior popes (e.g., during the Renaissance) being soundly rebuked by holy priests and laymen. This is nothing novel whatsoever in Catholic ecclesiology. No one knows better than Catholics the distinction between the nobility of an office and (too often) the sanctity of the person holding it at any given time.

But of course, we must also look at how saints have rebuked popes, on the rare occasions when that happened. In a Catholic Answers article on St. Catherine of Siena, Steve Weidenkopf stated:

The popes had lived in France for 67 years, all of Catherine of Siena’s life and then some, when she decided to visit Pope Gregory XI (r. 1370–1378) in the summer of 1376. Catherine spent three months in Avignon tirelessly working to realize her dream of the pope’s returning to Rome. Gregory resisted and demurred, but she persisted, and even startled him by telling him that she knew about the private vow Gregory had made before God that if elected pope he would return the papal residence to Rome. Finally, the humble yet firm saint from Siena convinced him to fulfill his vow, and Gregory made plans to travel to Rome

In my paper from 2000, cited above, I also wrote:

Yes, one can conceivably question the pope — especially his actions (we are not ultramontanes), yet I think it must be done only with overwhelming evidence that he is doing something completely contrary to Catholic doctrine and prior practice. It is not something that a non-theologian or non-priest should do nonchalantly and as a matter of course . . .

Even if [critics] are right about some particulars, they ought to express their opinion with the utmost respect and with fear and trembling, grieved that they are “compelled” to severely reprimand the Vicar of Christ. St. Paul showed more deference even towards the Jewish high priest than such people do to popes (Acts 23:1-5) . . . we have both St. Paul and our Lord Jesus expressing the most vehement criticisms of appointed religious leaders, yet Paul showed quite considerable deference when he found out who he was criticizing, and Jesus commanded obedience to the very same people whose hypocrisy He excoriated [Matt 23:1-3].

Jesus went on to denounce their hypocrisy, even calling them “blind guides,” “blind fools,” “whitewashed tombs . . . full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth . . . full of hypocrisy and lawlessness,” “snakes . . . brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?” (23:16-17, 27-28, 33). Jesus commanded obedience to the very same people whose hypocrisy He excoriated. This is all consistent with the traditional, orthodox Catholic view.

In the next year (2001), I referred to a “scenario” of:

. . . every Tom, Dick, and Harry with a picture of Pope St. Pius X in one hand, and a dog-eared copy of Denzinger in the other, going around judging (nay, trashing) the pope or an ecumenical council, as if they were some sort of expert . . . This is self-importance elevated to the level of the profoundly ridiculous; almost grotesque or surreal. And they are blind to this obvious reality, which makes it all the more frightening. One can do that in Protestantism, as everyone is their own pope, when it comes down to it. But to attempt it in Catholicism is patently and manifestly absurd.

Again, in November 2016 I opined:

My main objection today is the spirit in which many objections to Pope Francis are made. That has often been my critique through the years of papal criticism: which I have always maintained is quite permissible in and of itself, done in the right way, at the right time, with proper respect, by the right people, in the right venue, privately, and with the right motivation. My position is not one in which popes can never be criticized, but rather, a concern about how, when, and who does it: the proper way to do it.

If I am asked today whether these conditions as I understand them have been met, I reply with a definite “No!” We have all over the place (most of them otherwise orthodox and obediently Catholic) a spirit of individual complaining and moaning about the pope and accusations quite often not substantiated or proven. I see a lack of deference and obedience that reminds me (as radical reactionary Catholics always have) of either theologically liberal, dissident Catholicism (which disdains the pope and many things he says) and/or Protestantism (which disdains the pope and many things he says but at least never made any pretense of following him). The people doing it invariably don’t intend to think and act like folks in one of those categories, but seem unaware that they have partially adopted their spirit.

This brings us back full circle to Cardinal Newman’s words in 1867: “whether the Pope be infallible or not in any pronouncement, anyhow he is to be obeyed. No good can come from disobedience. . . . all those imperfections and sins of individuals are overruled for that result which our Lord intends . . . and therefore the Pope’s word stands, and a blessing goes with obedience to it, and no blessing with disobedience.”

Yes, I follow that spirit (granting and accepting only rare and severely limited exceptions). Even if I agreed that Pope Francis was some terrible heretic or (the more subtle argument today) that he is a conspiratorial-type, tricky, conniving subversive, I would say that this ought to be discussed in private by bishops and the most eminent, orthodox theologians (and those revered as holy persons); not in public every day by anyone and everyone: all making out that they are qualified experts who may and can do so. The latter is scandalous and a disgrace. It makes Catholics a laughingstock to the observing non-Catholic world. But apparently, the people who persist in doing this never think of that. It appears to never occur to them that private discussions (if they must continue this) would be far more prudent and wise.

I follow the model of St. Paul during his trial (which was a kangaroo court). After having been ordered to be struck on the mouth by the high priest, Paul started railing against him, then was asked, “Would you revile God’s high priest?” and he quickly shut up (not knowing at first who ordered it), noting that the Old Testament said that “you shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.” (Acts 23:1-5, RSV; citing Ex 22:28)

The pope is certainly the leader of the Church. If Paul was that deferential to a non-Christian high priest (one who was personally hostile to him, and who even had acted contrary to the Mosaic Law [23:3] ), how much more ought we to be deferential and respectful towards a pope? the Supreme Head of the Church?

St. Peter even commanded Christians to honor the emperor (1 Pet 2:17), who was a pagan and persecuting Christians. Ecclesiastes 10:20 states: “Even in your thought, do not curse the king . . .”

I don’t think it means we can never ever say anything critical, but it’s talking about a spirit and outlook of respect and deference that is now widely being ignored, because people have learned to think in very un-Catholic ways, having (in my opinion) been too influenced by secular culture and theologically liberal and Protestant ways of thinking about authority and submission.

The sublimity of the office demands that we show respect and [almost always] shut up, even if the pope is wrong. If there are serious questions, bishops and theologians and canon lawyers (as I’ve always said) ought to discuss it privately, not publicly.

But today it seems that biblical and historic Catholic models alike are ignored, or not known in the first place. The following is what the Bible says about obeying and honoring leaders (even merely civil ones, who at that time were pagans, persecuting Christians to the death):

Romans 12:10 (RSV) love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honor.

Philippians 2:2-3 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. [3] Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves.

1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 But we beseech you, brethren, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, [13] and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. . . .

1 Timothy 5:17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching;

1 Peter 2:17 Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

1 Peter 5:5 Likewise you that are younger be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

Nor should folks like Chris Ferrara over at “The Remnant” (a lawyer, not a theologian) be bloviating publicly, causing all sorts of scandals and lies to be spread: saying that Pope Francis wants to admit sexually active adulterers to Holy Communion.

Those are the types of claims being made now all over the place by the signatories of the Correctio (which I have proven is dominated by extreme radical reactionaries). And they have not remotely been proven, as my good friend (an actual professor of theology) Dr. Robert Fastiggi shows over and over in his articles that I have been posting (one / two / three / four).

The Bible goes even further, and teaches that even wicked rulers should continue to be honored. The Bible teaches that Christians ought to be “subject” even to secular government, an “authority” which is “instituted by God” (Rom 13:1), and ought not “resist” it (Rom 13:2).

Nero was the emperor when the first pope, St. Peter commanded Christians to “honor the emperor.” He was slaughtering Christians at the time. He never repented. Peter was martyred during his reign. Nero was emperor when St. Paul wrote about being subject to government, saying,  “he is God’s servant for your good” and “the authorities are ministers of God” (Romans 13:4, 6). He himself was also killed under Nero a few years later.

King Saul never repented and was running around trying to kill David, when David was honoring him as king, and refusing to kill him when he had the chance. David was soulmates with Saul’s son Jonathan, too. How did David react when Saul essentially killed himself after a failed battle, after he had fallen into deep rebellion against God?:

2 Samuel 1:17-19, 23-24 And David lamented with this lamentation over Saul and Jonathan his son, . . . [18] . . . He said: [19] “Thy glory, O Israel, is slain upon thy high places! How are the mighty fallen! . . . [23] “Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and in death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions. [24] “Ye daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, . . .”

2 Samuel 2:5-6 David sent messengers to the men of Ja’besh-gil’ead, and said to them, “May you be blessed by the LORD, because you showed this loyalty to Saul your lord, and buried him! [6] Now may the LORD show steadfast love and faithfulness to you! And I will do good to you because you have done this thing.

All of this for a king who had fallen into apostasy and who rejected God.

One can retort that God made the eternal covenant with David because he repented of his great sins, and this is true, but it’s also the case that God allowed King Solomon to build His temple (which David didn’t do because he was a man of war). Yet Solomon also fell into serious sin, and seems to have died that way, unrepentant:

1 Kings 11:1-14 (RSV) Now King Solomon loved many foreign women: the daughter of Pharaoh, and Moabite, Ammonite, E’domite, Sido’nian, and Hittite women, [2] from the nations concerning which the LORD had said to the people of Israel, “You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods”; Solomon clung to these in love. [3] He had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines; and his wives turned away his heart. [4] For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods; and his heart was not wholly true to the LORD his God, as was the heart of David his father. [5] For Solomon went after Ash’toreth the goddess of the Sido’nians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. [6] So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and did not wholly follow the LORD, as David his father had done. [7] Then Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Molech the abomination of the Ammonites, on the mountain east of Jerusalem. [8] And so he did for all his foreign wives, who burned incense and sacrificed to their gods. [9] And the LORD was angry with Solomon, because his heart had turned away from the LORD, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice, [10] and had commanded him concerning this thing, that he should not go after other gods; but he did not keep what the LORD commanded. [11] Therefore the LORD said to Solomon, “Since this has been your mind and you have not kept my covenant and my statutes which I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you and will give it to your servant. [12] Yet for the sake of David your father I will not do it in your days, but I will tear it out of the hand of your son. [13] However I will not tear away all the kingdom; but I will give one tribe to your son, for the sake of David my servant and for the sake of Jerusalem which I have chosen.” [14] And the LORD raised up an adversary against Solomon, Hadad the E’domite; he was of the royal house in Edom.

Despite this, we don’t see anywhere (as far as I know) that he should not have been honored as king by the people.

We have no record of the high priest during St. Paul’s trial becoming a Christian or ceasing to oppose Paul. Yet Paul shut up as soon as he was informed who had him struck, quoting the Old Testament and saying, “You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.”

What one cannot do, and pretend to be honoring the pope, is lambast, bash, condemn, slander, speak evil against him day in and day out for months on end. That is not “honoring” him in any way, shape, form, or matter, as we are commanded in Scripture even to honor mere political rulers.

I think there is another aspect of this that I touched upon in February 2015:

Americanism was a sort of version of the “conciliarist” heresy: not giving the pope his proper place in things. I think it goes beyond American Catholics to American culture. We’ve never had a king here (well, except in our colonial period). The pope is probably regarded by a lot of Americans (including millions of Catholics) as a sort of “king” but because we don’t have the history of monarchy and all the respect entailed and assumed in that, we may not properly respect the pope.

But mostly people seem to just reflect whatever the media says, which is a real tragedy because we know the rotgut that the mainstream media spews. With Pope Francis it has become what I describe as a “narrative” that he is always supposedly saying stupid, offensive, or confusing, or liberal things.  It just keeps getting bigger like the snowball rolling downhill. So many are jumping on the bandwagon.

But as I have said, I’ve looked closely at many of these so-called “incidents” or allegedly “controversial” things (and I certainly have, as much as anyone around, including with a book) and found that there was nothing seriously wrong at all. Then of course I get accused of “defending the pope no matter what, because you feel that you have to [i.e., as a Catholic apologist].” Can’t win for losing in this field. It’s a lot like being an umpire: you’re always gonna make someone unhappy.

As an obedient, orthodox Catholic and defender of the faith, I have defended popes all along, for 21 years online. When reactionaries and traditionalists were attacking and trashing Pope St. John Paul II, for (allegedly) kissing the Koran or being soft on modernists, or hosting the Assisi ecumenical conferences, I defended him. When they went after his canonization, I defended him. Now the same reactionaries and traditionalists cite him against Pope Francis, hoping we’ll all forget that they trashed him, too, when he was pope. Sorry, guys, my memory ain’t that short: especially seeing that I myself defended John Paul the Great, when you were trashing him.

I defended Pope Benedict, who was lied about and trashed by some reactionaries like Bob Sungenis and Michael Voris (who said he exaggerated his illness, to scandalously retire), or reactionaries like Peter Kwasniewski and Chris Ferrara, who go after him regarding the ordinary form of the Mass. The mass of Pope Francis critics today also ignore Pope Benedict’s repeated statements that he likes what Pope Francis is doing and sees nothing wrong with it. They simply disrespect him and his opinions as well (maybe they think he is now senile, though there is not the slightest hint of that).

And I have defended Pope Francis. I don’t assert that he is perfect (no one is). I don’t even deny that he has possibly done or taught some incorrect / wrong things. But what I do is defend him, generally speaking (and in many particulars, which have been exposed as bum raps), and refuse to speak evil of him or criticize (rashly or otherwise), per the above reasons. Who am I to do so?

If indeed I am wrong at length, or as history ultimately judges, I’d much rather be wrong sincerely defending the pope than wrong bashing and lying about him week in and week out (if that is the truth of the matter). I think God would look a lot more kindly at my mistake (if it is one in His eyes) than those who operate and think on other terms, if they turn out to be wrong in the final analyis.

I shall close with further past words of mine, from a dialogue undertaken in 2000 and 2001 with Mario Derksen (all of about twenty years old at the time), who was then a Catholic reactionary, and who has since gone on to become a sedevacantist:


I say it is silly for you to sit there and “pontificate” about the pope you are supposed to be obedient to, in small matters as well as large. It is unseemly, and silly, and scandalous, in my humble opinion. . . .

I don’t agree with making your young age a matter of relevance with regard to apologetics per se, but when it comes to judging a pope, I think it is a bit much for anyone to take. But age is not my primary concern (and I don’t claim it is an “argument”) — which is, rather, a dismay at the unmitigated gall and essential foolishness of such judgments, as if John Paul II’s actions and thoughts and your opinions are (in effect) of equal weight.

It’s one thing for someone to opine that the pope made an error in prudential judgment (which is entirely possible; even somewhat likely once in a while, and over time). I have no problem with that. But now you want to run him down with these sweeping judgments. I find it appalling. . . .

Even Protestants observe the ludicrous exercising of private judgment against a pope, since any moderately informed Protestant knows that a Catholic ought to be obedient to the pope in all but the most extraordinary circumstances (that is surely how would have perceived your spirit in this, when I was still Protestant. I would have immediately determined that those of this sort were liberal or radically inconsistent Catholics).

. . . you take upon yourself the burden of harshly criticizing the pope’s orthodoxy, even his rudimentary rationality and consistency. It’s unseemly, foolish, and (sorry) downright stupid, coming from a professed orthodox Catholic. . . .

I think it is normal and ethical (and quite Catholic) to indignantly respond to the petulant, pompous, and presumptuous tone of so many reactionary statements about recent popes. If they can speak so cavalierly and arrogantly about popes (I had far more respect for them as a Protestant than they do), then surely I can wax indignant at them doing so, without being “rude.” . . .

So let’s see . . . Pope St. Leo the Great and Pope St. Gregory the Great reigned at a time when the Monophysite heresy was flourishing. Does that make them lousy popes too? When is there ever not heresy, for heaven’s sake? You might retort that Paul VI’s reign coincided with the beginning of modernism, or liberalism. That would hardly do, since modernism was written about in 1864, 1907, etc. Modernism essentially began with the Enlightenment, if not the Protestant Revolution (actually, the Fall, in a large sense).

So it would be beyond silly to cast the lion’s share of the blame for it on Paul VI. The 60s were merely the fruition of a long 200+ years trend, primarily due to the rapid breakdown of the larger culture. Paul VI wouldn’t have been able to stop it any more than a twig could stop the water from a burst dam. . . .

Fr. John Hardon stated (I heard this in person) that what he called the “revolution” in the Church had begun around 1940. So arguably, our present crisis was much more the fault (following your convoluted reasoning) of Pius XII than Paul VI, because the former ought to have stamped it out before it took root and started corrupting the seminaries and colleges and theologians and entire orders. Liberals don’t pop out of nowhere, fully in bloom in all their hideous glory. The wheels were in motion long before Vatican II, in the “good old days.” But it didn’t manage to corrupt the Council, and thus, for this and the other reasons above, Paul VI is falsely charged by you and others. Could he have been more forceful and vigilant? Sure, but then again John Paul the Great is that, and that doesn’t gain him that many more brownie points or Good Housekeeping Seals of Approval from you hyper-critical folks, does it?

Are you more orthodox than His Holiness John Paul II? If so, how? And why should we believe this if you assert it? Simply by your great wisdom and self-anointed authority?

Reactionaries can give their opinions till they are blue in the face (it’s a free country with free speech, and God gives us free will, and we are free to say stupid things), but if such opinions are clearly pompous, arrogant, presumptuous, sophomoric, and so forth, it is our duty as Catholics and brothers in Christ to call these folks on it. This stuff is poisonous, and they hurt themselves as much as anyone else by spouting it. Therefore, love demands that they be rebuked, for their sake and that of others. Since when does the duty to rebuke depend on the expected response? The loving thing is to speak the truth, about ethics and charitability and Catholic submission, as well as about doctrine and orthodoxy. A conscientious Catholic can only hear so much of this petulant hogwash without speaking out against it.

It is not so much the “opinion” per se on popes which many reactionaries express, as it is the spirit, severity, frequency, and degree of such opinions, and what it appears to indicate about the person making it — about how they view Catholic authority, submission, humility, prudence, and so forth. Nor is it a personal attack to point this out. Rebukes are always regarded as attacks by those who do not or cannot hear them.

If I were to compare the rebukes of popes by St. Bernard, St. Catherine, and the typical reactionary today, perhaps I could be forgiven if I might perceive but a slight difference of authority and seriousness. . . .

John Paul II has been called a “mixed bag” by many reactionaries (and even “traditionalists”). Do they mean to pronounce on his lack of holiness? If they aren’t in his shoes, and don’t know what he does, and don’t possess his charism, how can they even pronounce on his disciplinary decisions? Who are they to presume what they do? What are their exalted credentials, whereby they feel so free to sit and condemn entire papacies with one-sentence salvos? . . .

Pope-bashing reactionaries don’t strike me as being willing to “do whatever they teach you and follow it” (including disciplinary stuff, liturgical details, etc.). But the popes certainly have as much authority as non-Christian scribes and Pharisees. [see Matthew 23:1-3]


Photo credit: Saint Paul, by Philippe de Champaigne (1602-1674) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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