ASK FATHER: I don’t believe Francis is really the Pope. Is it a sin to go to Mass where his name is mentioned?

From a reader…


I have read your blog on and off for years but recently began reading regularly. I always find your writing edifying and informative. I will try to keep my question/concern short and to the point. I do not believe that the man who calls himself Pope Francis is actually the Pope. I have not believed it for many years, perhaps even since he was ‘elected’. With the death of our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI I am troubled and conflicted. Is it a mortal sin to attend a Mass and receive Communion at that Mass if it is said in communion with a false pope? If it is even within the realm of possibility that Francis is an antipope, which I believe it is, what is a faithful Catholic who deeply loves our Lord and has real reverence for Him in the Holy Eucharist to do? I am the mother of 7 children and my husband has said to me thus far that it is more important that we attend Mass and continue to raise our children with the faith as best we can. I trust his authority as the head of our family. Personally, I do not wish to offend my Lord and savior and it greatly pains me to think I might be doing so.

Thank you for considering my question and, if you are unable to answer, please say a prayer for me in my inner turmoil,

I am sorry for your plight. You are not alone in your dilemma. I know for a fact that quite a few people have the same doubts (even to the point of certainty) about Francis. They, also, wonder about Masses wherein his name is pronounced in the Canon (or Eucharistic Prayer).

Leaving aside the issues of the validity of Francis’ election or anything having to do with the legitimacy of his office, No!, participating at Mass in which Francis’ name is said would not – in itself – be matter for grave or mortal sin. We have an obligation to participate at Holy Mass on Sundays and other Holy Days of obligation. That obligation is relaxed or is voided because of physical or moral impossibility.

The mentioning of the name of the Bishop of Rome in the Canon (or some Eucharistic Prayer) is not insignificant in the Mass but it is also not of of the essence of Mass. Saying his name, or some other name, or no name at all for whatever reason does not affect the validity of Mass. It is a detail. Being a detail doesn’t make it meaningless. The person who holds the office of the Bishop of Rome, and Vicar of Christ, is supposed to be the visible point of unity in the Church. Therefore, being in union with that person and his office is important for our identity as Catholics. During the long history of the Church, however, there were times when people had no idea who the present Pope was. News travelled at about 5 miles an hour and even slower to some places. And yet, through no fault of their own, priests were saying this name or that name in the Canon. That’s not quite the situation we have today, of course. With means of communication as they are, news gets around pretty fast… even faster than the truth, at times.

If I were you, I would leave the issue of the name of the Pope in the Canon to the judgment and conscience of the priest saying the Mass. You have no control over what name he says or omits. If your discomfort about Francis’ name in the Canon rises to the point of such animus that you can’t stand it – which would be pretty drastic – then there could be some possibility of moral impossibility affecting your obligation. However, you have to ask yourself about the negative consequences of not attending Mass, the massive, gaping hole in your life that not attending Mass would cause, the effects of your example on those who are close to you.

Your instinct to follow your husband’s lead in this is good.

Clearly this is an issue that bothers you. Perhaps in your goodness you would, while at Mass, offer your doubts and pain to the Lord at the time of the offertory, with the hands of your heart placing them on the altar, putting them into the chalice as it is prepared. It would be a work of mercy also to pray for Francis, that he be given and that he accept the graces which God know he needs. Offer some penances in reparation for anything that might be unworthy or uncharitable in your view of Francis, no matter what you think about the legitimacy of his office. Catholic Christians owe that in charity, which in a sacrificial spirit desires the genuine good of others, no matter how difficult, odious, or hurtful they may be. It is a soft path and easy to pray for those who are in line with our desires and preferences. It is harder to pray for those who aren’t. However, it is also difficult to hate or feel improper anger towards one for whom you are sincerely praying and offering mortifications.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    Your interlocutor is most definitely not alone. You’d have to go full on Sedevacantist to find a Mass that does not have that man named in the canon. Yet to be without the Mass is a far worse alternative to just bearing it (i.e., his name being said) for the second it occurs.

    The part about “being in union” is more problematic (to me). I’m not sure what that means when the object of union consistently teaches contrary to the faith – not some occasional slip of the tongue but a years long pattern of damaging the faith by ambiguities and contradictions.

  2. Elizium23 says:

    Let’s ask St. Paul what he thinks: 1 Cor 1:10-13,17.

  3. palestrinadei says:

    This has been, at times, a very difficult subject for me as well. In one sense, attending a Mass at which the Canon is said silently might be helpful in alleviating one’s scruples. However, there may not be one available within traveling distance, especially since T.C. Furthermore, for a faithful Catholic, it would seem nigh impossible to completely avoid hearing references to the Bishop of Rome by (putative) Papal name, nor would making great effort to do so seem healthy. I recall you gave similar advice on this before, Fr. Z, and having found it very helpful, appreciate your expanding further upon it for others.

  4. jflare29 says:

    You know, even without serious doubts about his legitimacy, Jorge Bergoglio’s reign as Pope Francis has been…quite difficult…for whole hordes of us. Shoot! Never mind the Holy Father, I have trouble respecting many of our bishops!
    In conversation after Mass, I learned that both my former pastor at my former parish and his successor there…. have incurred the displeasure of our local ordinary. Tough to tell what all has occurred, yet I’m told that my former pastor’s priesthood…has changed from what I knew, while the pastor there now has been discouraged from ad orientem or using the high altar.
    I must admit, I’m not well inclined toward praying for either the ordinary OR the Pope these days. Fr Zs advice to pray for them–and to seek to grow in charity toward them–applies very well to all of us.

  5. LoriAnnD says:

    Thank you Fr. Z for talking abut this subject. I think many of us feel this way but don’t want to talk about it for fear of causing scandal. But I feel this way also and I don’t have easy access to the VO which makes the whole situation even more difficult. At the same time being just a simple layperson, I don’t have the knowledge or authority to state whether the Pope is the Pope or not so I just have to trust my higher authorities like Cardinal Burke or some other faithful orthodox prelate. Can you please clarify your remark – “We have an obligation to participate at Holy Mass on Sundays and other Holy Days of obligation. That obligation is relaxed or is voided because of physical or moral impossibility” moral impossibility? what does this mean? I find attending the NO at our parish very difficult but we go ,also, because the head of our family, my husband, says we must fulfill our obligation and then I “attend” the VO Mass online daily. One of the fruits of the lockdowns for me! Immaculate Conception Church in Cleveland has a very faithful gentleman who live streams the Mass daily on Youtube. God Bless him!

    [Physical impossibility: illness, a terrible storm, invasion by aliens. Moral impossibility: someone or some group with whom you have such bad relations that being there would be a problem, sermons so heretical that your blood pressure soars to dangerous levels even with medication, something happened to your there years ago that you don’t want to relive, etc.]

  6. Imrahil says:

    The thing is, to think that the Holy Father were not the Pope constitutes certainly a lack of proper judgment, which, frankly, is quite possibly an at least venial sin, especially because the error in question is so dangerously close to schism.

    (Or even material heresy, concerning a false interpretation of the indefectibility of the Papacy. It is undeniably bad that Pope Francis did all the bad things he did; however, it is just as undeniably the teaching of the Church that it may happen that Popes do such things [not that they’d thereby have the right to all of them]. The Church really does teach that Popes really cannot destroy the Church entirely; she also does teach that Popes cannot teach an error as a dogma. The Holy Father has done neither thing.)

  7. Georgemartyrfan says:

    Imrahil – Father Z has been graciously less strident in his condemnations of people desperately trying to act in good faith in this unusual episode in Church history. Your abridgement of the situation is dismissive of much nuance afforded by the Church.

  8. diaconus_in_urbe says:

    Some perspective from history:

    This isn’t as crazy as 1387 (where two factions in the college of cardinals elected two different guys), nor is it nearly as complex as 1044, 1045, and 1048 when Benedict IX (legitimately) resigned from the papacy three different times (who, by many measures, not a stellar occupant of the papacy).

    Surely Benedict XVI could resign once if Benedict IX resigned three times, and surely there could be some other guy who ‘used to be pope,’ living along side the guy who ‘currently is pope,’ if this happened in the past (e.g. between Benedict IX’s second and third term there were actually two other popes, for a total of THREE persons who were legitimately pope between Benedict IX’s first coronation and his third resignation).

    Also, Can. 332 subsection 2 makes it pretty easy for the pope to resign.

    But it appears history repeats itself, and as with Celestine V, some people still think resignation was unlawful somehow.

    However, if cardinals start gathering in Pisa again, then I suspect things will probably get legitimately confusing.

    Also, to the point of mentioning the Holy Father in the Roman Canon: it appears that this was not always done in the Roman Canon, given that communicating the information of who the pope currently across Europe to ALL parishes was quite difficult to do at certain points in history (I’d imagine parishes in the Alps weren’t always easily accessible in the winter). The Gelesian Sacramentary seems to suggest this was possibly the case, as the mention of the local pope and bishop says more generically in the Gelesian Sacramentary, “una cum famulo tuo papa nostro illo et antistite nostro illo episcopo,” while the Gellone Sacramentary appears to omits the phrase entirely.

  9. Cornelius says:

    When it comes to “Is he Pope or not?” I’ve scarcely encountered anyone who understands. Most retreat into obscure Church history or engage in uncharitable slander about “judgment” against those with serious questions.

    In defense of Fr. Z’s questioner . . . the matter is not complex. The man occupying the Chair does not hold the Catholic faith. Not being Catholic, he can’t possibly be the leader of Catholics, i.e., the Pope.

    “Oh, you’re a Canon lawyer Cornelius, or perhaps a learned theologian, or maybe a Cardinal posting under a pseudonym? Ha, what do YOU know? Who are YOU to make such a judgment?”

    I’m just a sheep of the flock, not anyone really, but by virtue of possessing the supernatural faith, I have ONE tool given me, guaranteed by Christ, which makes me the equal of the most learned theologian or canon lawyer in the Church: I have an ear for the voice of the Shepherd. I can hear when He speaks through our prelates, and I can hear when He is not speaking. (John 10:5 “But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.”)

    I do NOT hear the voice of our Shepherd in this man. He is a stranger to me. Ergo, he does not hold the Catholic faith, and therefore he cannot be Pope. I flee him. It’s that simple.

    [With due respect, it is more complicated than that.]

  10. happyCatholic says:

    I have been wondering about this, too. Thank you for the clarity of your answer.

    I have a genuine follow-up question that is likely addressed as a premise to the original question, but I would appreciate a straight answer: is it sinful to have researched ( and continue to research) and come to the personal conclusion that it is more probable that Francis is not successor of Peter? I have thought about the propositions Ann Barnhardt, Dr. Mazza, Patrick Coffin, (whom I realize have different approaches), etc. have put forth and find them compelling. Furthermore, the whole pacha situation during the Amazonian synod sure looked like idol worship to me. Taken altogether, my private conclusion is we have an anti-pope, if that is the correct term for someone in Francis’ position who would not have been validly put in that place. I work hard not to speak disrespectfully of Francis and generally keep my opinions low key and shared relatively infrequently. My confessor seems to be of the opinion this current papacy is legitimate albeit with recognizable issues, which gives me some disquiet as to my status, as I respect him as the holy priest he is.

    So, to conclude: is it sinful to research and continue to research and then conclude and hold the private opinion that Pope Francis is in actuality not the pope, ie not a true successor of St. Peter? I am recognizing in this question that my conclusion could be sincerely wrong, and that is not my question. The question is would it be a sin to hold that opinion after doing the due diligence my level of education and state in life (which is by no means at the level of a theologian) affords me?

    Thank you.

  11. Imrahil says:

    Dear Cornelius,
    you’re confusing the Pope’s acting like a shepherd with him having the office of shepherd. There isn’t much doubt among orthodox Catholics anymore that the Pope doesn’t really do the former (though even then we in Germany still hope, and not altogether unrealistically hope, for him to reign in our “synodal way”); but neither can there be any doubt the Pope has the latter.
    And besides, there is nothing the Pope has done which has not been, or at least things equally grave to which have been done, by previous Popes. They may be coming with greater frequency now, granted hypothetically (I do not know), but what systematic difference does that make? (Yes, that’s Church history. You said you don’t accept arguments from Church history, but I cannot formulate it without it, and it still is one.)

    Dear Georgemartyrfan,
    yes, with pastoral sensibility, and after all there is nothing intrinsically wrong with answering a what-if question correctly. However, I will grant that one of the purposes of my comment was to have that not mistaken for “the If of this What-if can be hold bona fide”. Even if our reverend host should think that, and I don’t think he does (pastoral sensibility set aside), I don’t, because it’s not the case. (Though you may note that I didn’t immediately jump to “an obvious both objective and subjective grave sin of schism”, either.)

  12. Imrahil says:

    Dear happyCatholic,

    considering that your “conclusion to this question” is the wrong one, the question whether to hold it is particularly sinful does become rather immaterial, doesn’t it. It is generally not someone’s fault if he concludes something that is wrong, but the goal needs to be to strive for objective truth, right? Even if the truth is hard and something not true might be more comfortable (which is not, as you would perhaps guess from the tone of some motivational speakers, necessarily or even usually the case, but may be sometimes)?

    And objective truth on this question is that Pope Francis is the Pope; even if some might say it might be more comfortable if he weren’t. (Would at least they be right? Interesting question with in my view no obvious answer, but certainly beyond the scope of this comment.)

    (And it is a manifest error to believe that Popes are technically incapable of idolatry. Did the Kings of Juda and Israel, when engaging in idolatry, thereby cease to be Kings of Juda and Israel? And what they then sometimes did was by orders of magnitude worse than anything either the Pope or his liturgists did. Idolatry is a sin against the First Commandment; why should the Popes be incapable of this sin? They sometimes sinned against the Sixth Commandment, after all.)

  13. Katherine56 says:

    Happy Catholic, I am in exactly the same situation as you regarding this issue. I would love to hear Father Z’s answer to your question.

  14. JamesM says:

    Is Pope Francis pope? I don’t know for certain and I don’t think we will know for some time. That is really going to be a question for historians. When we had claimants in Rome and Avignon the faithful weren’t expected to know who was the pope or even if we had a pope.

    Until then I try not to give it too much thought. Whether Pope Francis is or isn’t Pope has no bearing on my salvation. I’ve got my own personal views on him but none of them change anything. I hold to the Catholic faith that has been passed down. Anything he says that is contrary to the faith I ignore. Anything he says that is ambiguous I ignore.

    Trying to say my prayers and stay in a state of grace is hard enough. Thankfully I am able to get to Mass in the traditional Roman Rite and that isn’t going to change anytime soon.

  15. TWF says:

    The various sedevacanist groups have recognized a pope for about 60 years now and counting. Wouldn’t the same problem now present itself for those Catholics who deny the legitimacy of Francis’ papacy? If Francis is not Pope, a significant percentage of voting cardinals (maybe over half at this point?) are not true cardinals… and thus the next election would also be invalid.

    Thankfully, the late Pope Benedict taught us that the election of a pope, like the acceptance of an ecumenical council, is a “dogmatic fact”. The very fact that the Church, as a whole, recognizes a certain man to be the bishop of Rome means that he is the bishop of Rome…

  16. happyCatholic says:

    Katherine 56,
    Thanks! It’s nice not to be the only one with the question.

    Thanks for taking the time to answer.

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