@FatherZ responds to @PhilipPullella of Reuters about the Holy Spirit and the elections of Popes

I had retweeted my friend Fr. Blake’s tweet.

I agree with Fr. Blake.  Francis has a mean streak.  I get that.  Francis is a human being.  He’s going to have bad days.  Francis’ labeling of people who love the Church’s Tradition as rigid, and the suggestion that there is something psychologically wrong with them is just plain mean.  I have in my mind’s eye the episode of him mocking an altar boy who had his hands together, as he was taught, or gossiping derisively about a priest getting a cassock and Roman hat at Euroclero after having inveighed against gossiping many times.  How about his drubbing of the Cardinals and Bishops of the Roman Curia as a Christmas gift a few years ago?  Francis scoffed at a spiritual bouquet people offered him.   He ridiculed people in Chile who were horrified by a bishop who covered up child abuse.

These are not massive ecclesial decisions (like abandoning Catholics in China or wiping out the John Paul II Institute or refusing to answer officially submitted dubia or avoding transparency and alacrity in investigating a pernicious ex-cardinal), but they are signals.

Drop a stone on a someone’s head from but a short distance and it stings, but it doesn’t do lasting harm.  When a stone is dropped from a great height, it does a lot of damage.  Someone you barely know might make mean remark and you brush it off.  But if Father does it at the parish?  Ouch.  And if it is the POPE?

Long-time Vatican newsie for Reuters, Phil Pullella took Fr. Blake’s comment too far and got too far out over his skiis.  Phil dragged me into it because of my retweet.  I’ll bet other people retweeted Fr. Blake, but Phil only picked on me.  Interesting, no?

Phil, in response to Fr. Blake (and to me, apparently), tweeted:

Oh dear.

First, the Holy Spirit doesn’t sleep.  As I wrote elsewhere today, the RUACH is still blowing through the Church.

Acknowledging that Phil was just using a figure of speech, we move on.

The Holy Spirit might offer guidance to Electors who, with their mouths at least, say they want guidance, but that doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit is “acting on”, actually guiding all the Electors in a conclave.

The Vengeance of Urban VI
by Jean-Paul Laurens

The Electors can vote according to many motivations, some holy, some not so holy, some guided by the Holy Spirit, some guided by another not-so-holy spirit.

John XII (+964).  This Pope gave land to his mistress, had people killed, and was in turn murdered by a man who caught him in flagrante with his wife. The Holy Spirit guided the electors in this election, right?

Not so much, you say?

How about Urban VI (+1389)? This predecessor of Francis didn’t just have harsh words for priests.  He had cardinals who conspired against him tortured and then lamented that he didn’t hear enough screaming. They played for keeps back in the day.

Clearly chosen by the Holy Spirit!

And there’s Alexander VI, Borgia, (+1503).  Chosen by the Holy Spirit? Are you suuuuuure?

Entering the modern conclave the Cardinal Electors pray, inter alia:

“Ecclesia universa, nobis in oratione communi coniuncta, gratiam Spiritus Sancti instanter exorat, ut dignus Pastor universi gregis Christi a nobis eligatur…. The whole church, joined to us in common prayer, earnestly prays for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that a worthy Shepherd of the whole flock of Christ be elected by us.”

“By us.”

The Holy Spirit inspires, but the men are free to choose.. and they do.

Once upon a time, Card. Ratzinger was was interviewed by a Bavarian TV network. He was asked:

INTERVIEWER: Your Eminence, you are very familiar with church history and know well what has happened in papal elections…. Do you really believe that the Holy Spirit plays a role in the election of the pope?
RATZINGER: I would not say so in the sense that the Holy Spirit picks out the pope, because there are too many contrary instances of popes the Holy Spirit would obviously not have picked. 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.”

In the case of Alexander VI, a real piece of work in his personal life, we might see what Ratzinger was talking about.  The role of the Holy Spirit is to protect the Church from disaster.

If you look at A6’s legislation and other documents, if you stroll through the Bullarium Romanum for his pontificate, you will find that he never put his foot wrong in doctrine.   Moreover, on his deathbed he made a good confession and received the last sacraments in the state of grace, which every time it happens is surely helped by the Holy Spirit.  We want sinners to convert, right?  And big sinners are the cause of greater rejoicing, right? Perhaps Alex 6 was chosen by the Holy Spirit so that his death could be emulated by his inept or wicked successors?  So that they knew that it was possible, in the end, to repent?  Augustine of Hippo, commenting on the washing of the feet of the Apostles, made the point that Christ was teaching them – certainly Peter the most – that they were going to get their feet dirty in the service of the Lord.  They were going to get the world’s muck on themselves.  Thus, He taught them that they had to stick to Him to be able to carry out their work in the world.

Or maybe the electors of Alexander VI just blew off the Holy Spirit and acted from more worldly motives.

Enough.  Having a Church is messy and running one, in the best of times, is like entering the fog of war.

The Holy Spirit didn’t write “Bergoglio” on the ballots any more than He wrote “Sarto” or “Wojtyla” or “Borgia” for that matter.  The Holy Spirit did not guide the hands of the Electors in automatic writing any more than He did with the Evangelists or Paul or the Old Testament writers.   He offered graces.  We are all free to accept or reject God’s offers.

There’s no certainty that the Holy Spirit truly guided the majority in the election of any Pope.  We can only go by the facts on the ground.   It might be more probable that He did in one case or pretty obvious in another that He didn’t.  Is the pontificate a disaster?  That might be a clue.  Would it have been an even worse disaster had this or that Pope not been elected?  How can we know that? The Holy Spirit can, but we can’t.  Did a pontificate usher in reform and result in greater holiness among the Church’s members?  That might be a clue.

What happened under the pontificate?  That might be a starting point.  Do we want to lift that rock and look?

You might object that “It’s too early to tell! We need years, even after a pontificate, to tell!”

Sometimes it really is too early to tell.  Sometimes it isn’t.  Which is it with this pontificate?  Do you know?  I don’t.

The Church is indefectible till the end. The Holy Spirit will make sure that no Pope can hurt the Church too much.  That’s about all we can say.

Some people think that we get the priests and bishops that we deserve or that we need for correction or for punishment or purification or reform.

I firmly believe that God raises up saints for different needs and different times by offering certain people extraordinary graces.

Does God actively raise up people or events to afflict the Church, knowing that they will do evil, for the sake of correction and the increase of grace and eventual good and glory?  Correptio et gratia?

Only God knows how that works in actuality.

We had a little confusion about God’s active and permission will a while back in this pontificate with Francis’ remarks about God willing a diversity of religions – impossible in view of His positive will, possible only in view of His permissive will.

What was the Holy Spirit’s role in 2013?  What’s at work in the election of any Pope?

I’m going with Ratzinger on this one.  How about you, Mr. Pullella?

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Marine Mom says:

    Refer to the article in First Things by Francis X Maier, Concerning B….S..

  2. TRW says:

    “…it is to be observed that the choice of what is to be done is in our hands; but the final issue depends, in the one case when our actions are good, on the cooperation of God, who in His justice brings help according to His foreknowledge to such as choose the good with a right conscience and, in the other case when our actions are evil, on the desertion by God, who again in His justice stands aloof by His foreknowledge…
    The ways of God’s Providence are many and they cannot be explained in words nor conceived by the mind. Remember that all the assaults of dark and evil fortune contribute to the salvation of those who receive them with thankfulness and are assuredly ambassadors of help.”

    St. John Damascene

  3. Charles E Flynn says:

    If we combine Father Z’s disapproval of the posting of bare URL’s with one of his favorite euphemisms, we get

    Concerning “b as in b, s as in s” [freely adapted title]

  4. Dear me. Recent historical scholarship (see the articles of the distinguished Bernard Hamilton) have shown that the “Pornacracy” story of the papacy of the age of John XII is most likely a fabrication by his enemies. So too, the tittle-tattle about Urban VI comes from his Florentine enemies in the War of the Eight Saints. Finally, dear old Alexander VI. His problem as pope was his promotion of his family, not his earlier procreations of them. And, of course, he did order the martyrdom of a very holy Dominican. Sigh.

    But so what? The promise of the Holy Spirit’s guidance in papal elections has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with their moral character or holiness. The promise of the Spirit is the same as its promise for the whole Church (which is filled with much worse sinners than John XII, Urban VI, or Alexander VI): it will never fail in its teaching of Faith and morals.

    The Holy Spirit insures that no pope will, as pope, ex cathedra, define as Catholic doctrine a heresy. Our Holy Father may not be a saint, and he is not a theologian (his only earned degree, as far as I can tell, is an A.A. in chemistry), but he has not made any ex cathedra proclamations at all. And given his aversion to dogmatic theology, I doubt he ever will. So, let’s just get off the pope wagon and get on with our Christian lives.

    Disclaimer: I have never read any papal pronouncements less than 700 years old, and I think we need to stop reading all of them—unless, of course, they are issued as ex cathedra infallible decrees (e.g. Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, May 22, 1994), and then the press will make sure we know what the point is. Even if they viciously attack it or ridicule it. Let’s start reading some saintly devotional writers and theologians (not excluding more recent popes who wrote theology). The secular press loves the “political” fights within the Church. This is exactly where we should not follow them. They put sin at the center of our understanding of our Church, not Christ. Shame.

  5. MikePh says:

    Anyway, A6 was not as bad as his enemies (who wrote the history of his pontificate) made him out to be. He loved his kids and he threw great parties, was generous to a fault (his main fault), and defended the Church well against its enemies.

  6. Discipula says:

    I’ve always understood the role of the Holy Spirit in papal elections (indeed, in Church governance) to be similar to fire insurance. Having an insurance policy doesn’t mean your house will never burn down to the ground, but it does mean you’ll be able to rebuild afterwards.

  7. Josephus Corvus says:

    I keep coming back to the thought that maybe the message the Holy Spirit is trying to send is “Don’t give up,” especially to future holy popes. Can you imagine being Benedict XVI and watching all of this occur? Perchance some future pope who is thinking of retiring will consider this era and stick with it until our Lord calls him. Or, maybe it’s an echo of one of Fr. Z’s themes for us about digging in as it gets tough rather than capitulating.

  8. tzabiega says:

    I truly believe the Holy Spirit did not choose Pope Francis. Rather, I believe the Holy Spirit made a very clear point: I helped you get Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Now that Pope Benedict XVI abandoned his duties as a Pope (as Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz noted: “When God puts you on the Cross, you do not have the right to come down from it by yourself”) and the Cardinals did little to nothing to prevent him from doing so (they could have re-elected him as Pope, forcing him to accept), then the Holy Spirit said: “fine, I helped you elect the last few Popes, now you want to elect a Pope without my help, go ahead.” And so we got Pope Francis. He is a completely legitimate Pope and we owe him our obedience and loyalty on decisions that do not affect the doctrine of the Church (including being loyal even to bishops like Cardinal Cupich), but don’t blame the Holy Spirit for picking him as our Pope, but a group of about 115 Cardinals who were left to themselves and showed us how humans can commit foolish mistakes when left to their own abilities, no matter how talented they may be.

  9. Sandy says:

    The whole issue of electing this Pope boils down to free will. As we learned in the “old days”, there is God’s permissive will and His ordaining will, the latter being His perfect will. Considering everything we hear about conspiracies and certain “groups” in the Church, who knows how this Pope got elected! But I believe Romans 8:28!

  10. So the Holy Spirit guided the Church to elect THREE popes during the Middle Ages? Somehow I don’t think so. Like Grace, the Holy Spirit can be resisted.

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