From a reader…
Father, I’ll get straight to the point: I’m having difficulty believing that the Pope is the head of the Church. I know that regarding the past heresies Popes were often negligent in carrying out their duty to oppose error, but it seems that recently Rome has been actively spreading error. This is most obvious under Francis, of course, although it’s not a new phenomenon — Vatican II and the liturgical reforms, which resulted in a disastrous loss of Catholic faith and identity in so many countries, were all carried out at Rome’s instigation and under her aegis. I know, too, that official teaching hasn’t changed, but that frankly seems like an unsatisfactory response. When Our Lord promised that the Gates of Hell would not prevail against the Church, surely he meant more than that a core of esoteric doctrine, accessible only to people with enough theological training to parse the exact level of authority possessed by each papal communication, would remain, whilst the actual teaching organs of the Church were actively spreading error. I’ve read too much Church history to find Protestantism or Eastern Orthodoxy plausible options, but I’m seriously considering adopting some form of sedevacantism, if only to be rid of the cognitive dissonance involved in believing both that communion with the See of Rome is necessary for salvation, and also that being a good Catholic nowadays requires one to ignore 90% of what comes out of Rome.
Frankly, I am receiving more and more notes like this. It is obvious that a lot of people are truly frustrated, some even at wit’s end.
Let’s consider a few things.
First, you say: “I’m having difficulty believing that the Pope is the head of the Church.”
On this point, we turn to Colossians 1:18:
“[Christ] is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent.”
Christ is the head of the Church, friend. The Pope is Christ’s vicar on Earth. Very fancy, right? There is an amusing old doggrel acrostic for Latin “vicarius” (“substitute, delegate”) which I hope I remember accurately.
“A useless man, lacking authority, rarely of intelligence, the shadow of his superior.”
This might knock a few “vicars” of this or that down a notch. There are also acrostics for parochus (pastor) and episcopus (bishop) buried deep in my head somewhere.
Also, you yourself brought up one of three attributes of the Church: indefectibility. If we believe Christ’s promises – and I sure do – then we hold that the Church will not fail even to the end of the world when He returns to take all things to Himself and submit them to the Father.
I am reminded of Napoleon’s threat to destroy the Church. Card. Consalvi responded, “We clergy have been trying to destroy the Church for the last 1800 years.” In the end, even if it really were the aim of Francis or of his band of hangers on to destroy the Church, they would fail. Can’t happen.
Throughout her history, there have been periods of confusion and disruption far worse than what we are experiencing now. Consider the dreadful 15th c. Western Schism when there were three claimants to the papacy at the same time. That got sorted. Consider the controversy that swirled in the 19th c. around Vatican I and the definition of infallibility. I’m just finishing a book about Vatican I right now, and the rise of ultramontanism of that era teaches us a lesson about the near papalatrous attitudes of some of Francis’ most dedicated supporters. Also, the book has given me quite a different view of the person of Bl. Pius IX, who was, as it turns out, rather mercurial and not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Anyway, history bears out that the Church is indefectible.
History teaches us that there have been great popes, okay popes, forgettable popes and bad popes. Over more than a century or so, there has developed a strong cult around the person of the Pope. Moreover, we have been perhaps a little spoiled with a string of pretty good men in the See of Peter. Now we have a sharply contrasting figure after John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Francis is jarring, out of the pattern. He is bound to make a lot of people scratch their heads. Just as I think that – in the long run – importance of Vatican II has been greatly exaggerated, so too the impact of Francis is greatly exaggerated. He is unsettling, but I suspect that, in the long run, he won’t be considered that important. Perhaps it is a good thing that cult around the person of Popes should be shaken up a bit, knocked down a few notches.
That said, just because he is jarring or his importance has been exaggerated by his papalatrous camp followers (some of whom I hold to be very bad actors indeed), that doesn’t mean that he isn’t really the Vicar of Christ. Sure there are lots of theories about the validity of Benedict’s abdication and the legitimacy of Francis’ election. They are interesting theories, too. Some very smart people hold to them. However, one of the facts that sticks out for me is that the Cardinals who went into the conclave of 2013 haven’t risen up against him. That means not nothing.
No. Sedevacantism isn’t the answer. However, you brought up a partial solution to your problem with Francis and his posse. You wrote: “being a good Catholic nowadays requires one to ignore 90% of what comes out of Rome.”
Go ahead and ignore 90% of what comes out of Rome and you’ll probably be more at peace.
We are terribly information overloaded these days. It arrives as if by firehose through our various screens. It is, for the devout Catholic who loves the Church – and when we love we always want to know more about our beloved – this can be upsetting.
We must learn to put all our churchy news into perspective, especially through a review of the Church’s many centuries of trials through history.
Also, and this is important for our equilibrium on the heaving deck of Peter’s storm tossed Barque, of all the possible universes God could have created, He created this one and not some other. He knew every one of us before the creation of the cosmos, and He called us from nothingness into existence in this particular universe at this particular time according to His unfathomable plan. We have a role to play in God’s economy of salvation. We have to trust that we are exactly when and where God wants us to be. If we have been born into troubling times, then we are precisely where we are to play our role. We are in the right place and the right time. Trust in God’s divine providence. He knows what he is doing.
And I will remind you that we weren’t promised a bed of roses when we were baptized. We who are Christ’s disciples will all drink at least some drops of the chalice He drank on Calvary. It is our task to be faithful, brave and persevere.