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Bishop Schneider’s Analysis on Heretical Popes May Be Just the Answer We’re Looking For

When I was about 16 years old, I remember lying in my bed and hearing the muffled conversation of my parents in the next room. All of my five younger siblings were asleep, and whatever it was that my parents were talking about, whatever stresses were upon them in that moment, I felt this overwhelming sense of relief and gratitude that it wasn’t my problem to solve. I was so glad that for at least a little while longer, I got to be a child, and to have only the concerns of a child. I didn’t need to be a father with all the burdens that come with that role upon my shoulders.

When it comes to our faith, there’s a lesson in that sort of realization.

Last week, Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Astana, Kazakhstan, published a lengthy essay on the question of how the Church should handle a heretical pope. I strongly encourage you to make time to read it if you haven’t already. If nothing else, it will be an undeniably historical text, and arguably a major milestone in the current ecclesiastical situation.

And although the material was presented almost as if it were intended to address an abstract, hypothetical situation, context made clear that Bishop Schneider was seeking to speak to the concerns of the faithful about the present pontificate – a pontificate he took pains to correct on three specific doctrinal points: communion for the divorced & remarried, the attempted changed to the teaching on the death penalty, and the language in the Abu Dhabi statement that directly implies that God positively wills a diversity of religions.

But these items were not the focus.

The upshot of the piece, if it can be boiled down very simply, is the bishop’s assertion that while history has shown us that heretical popes are possible, there is no precedent in the entire 2,000 year life of the Church for the ecclesiastical deposition of a living pope. Further, any attempt to do so now would be a “revolutionary novelty” that would do more harm than good. And so, we must accept that in a moment where the Church is afflicted with such a pope, it is a cross God aks us to bear until such time that a future pope or council can deal with the matter authoritatively.

“A formal schism,” the bishop writes, “with two or more pretenders to the Papal throne – which will be an inevitable consequence of even a canonically enacted deposition of a pope – will necessarily cause more damage to the Church as a whole than a relatively short and very rare period in which a pope spreads doctrinal errors or heresies. The situation of a heretical pope will always be relatively short in comparison with the two thousand years of the existence of the Church. One has to leave an intervention, in this rare and delicate case, to Divine Providence.”

There is a great deal more that is argued, but in the interest of keeping my own commentary brief, I will unfortunately have to leave much of it unaddressed here.

Reactions to the piece have been varied. Some supporters have said that while they generally agreed with what he wrote, there were certain theological positions that appeared to have been insufficiently accounted for. Some critics have described the bishop’s analysis as defeatist, and essentially an excuse for the failure of the episcopacy to take action to neutralize the threat Francis represents to the Church.

Interestingly, Bishop Schneider seems to have anticipated this exact reaction, and he addressed it in the text:

The attempt to depose a heretical pope at any cost is a sign of all too human behavior, which ultimately reflects an unwillingness to bear the temporal cross of a heretical pope. It maybe also reflects the all too human emotion of anger. It will, in any case, offer a far too human solution, and as such is somewhat similar to behavior in politics. The Church and the Papacy are realities which are not purely human, but also Divine. The cross of a heretical pope – even when it is of limited duration – is the greatest imaginable cross for the entire Church.

I have been among those over the past year or two who has been deeply frustrated at the inaction of our bishops and cardinals, and yet if I strip away those emotions, I can find no real flaw in the reasoning presented here. I have long believed that there will be no human solution to this crisis, and that this was by design. God, and God alone, will root out the infection in His Church. At the same time, this was the deceptive thing about the dubia effort, and the promised formal correction that was supposed to follow it, but never came.

It built our hopes up.

It made us think maybe the Church could save herself by means of the apostolic successors.

And then…nothing.

Though it’s certain that the deaths of Cardinals Meisner and Caffarra impeded the dubia effort, I can’t help but wonder if the anticlimactic finish can be best explained by Bishop Schneider’s own analysis. “The pope gets his authority directly from God,” the bishop writes, “and not from the Church; therefore, the Church cannot depose him, for any reason whatsoever.”

To be quite honest, although I think he is the strongest voice for orthodoxy within the institutional Church in our time, I didn’t expect to agree with Bishop Schneider’s analysis. I have at times found his docility, for lack of a better word, deeply frustrating. I would, in many respects, prefer a fight.

Bishop Athanasius Schneider

But I also know the man somewhat on a personal level. I’ve met with him several times, and have corresponded with him over the years. He baptized my youngest daughter, which was been a profound honor for our family. And he very much has the air of someone truly, completely devoted to Christ. He is naturally kind, and a physically a diminutive man, but he effortlessly commands authority. (In this way, he reminds me of St. Jean Vianney.) I have never met a saint, but I have thought since our first meeting in 2015 that this unassuming auxiliary bishop from a country I couldn’t even find on a map was very likely going to be the man to change that.

I, on the other hand, am very noticeably not a saint.

And so, when I finished his essay on the papacy, I should not have been surprised to find that I felt something I have not experienced in some time: a sense of peace. That same sort of dawning realization you have when the parable of Christ asleep in the boat during the storm resolves itself as a metaphor for the current moment.

It isn’t that there’s no storm. It’s that He can silence it with a word. That He isn’t doing so is a choice.

I believe that the likely reason that Cardinals Brandmüller and Burke have done nothing — setting aside any likely fear or human respect that may have given them second thoughts — is due to their realization that nothing could be done. That there was no established procedure, and no new one they could create that was likely to work, however much certain saints and theologians may have hypothesized about it. That they did not have enough support to look like more than one or two disgruntled “conservatives” in the face of a progressive papacy. And that they were very likely to begin what might easily become a schism, despite the fact that their efforts would not effect any real change.

What we are seeing now is quite clearly a related problem; a growing complexity that is the fruit of worry, desperation, and an attempt to provide “human solutions” to a problem outside our grasp. What all these arguments about who the pope is, whether this one validly resigned or that one was validly elected or when an office is lost ipso facto or what pertinacity in heresy means or any of the other things concerned Catholics are debating furiously right now fail to address is that we aren’t going to solve this. It doesn’t depend on us. It’s not our Church, it’s His. It’s not our Mystical Body, it’s His. It’s not our bride, it’s His. He isn’t going to just throw His hands up and do nothing if we don’t stumble upon some silver bullet argument that makes sense of everything.

We are acting just like Peter, who, the moment after giving testimony to his God-given faith in Jesus, winds up being called Satan because he doesn’t want Our Lord to suffer according to the Divine Will:

“Never, Lord, he said; no such thing shall befall thee.”

And this is why, I think, Bishop Schneider is reminding us — gently but firmly — on God’s behalf: “Back, Satan; thou art a stone in my path; for these thoughts of thine are man’s, not God’s.” (Mt. 16:23)

That is what the good bishop means when he says our desired solutions are “too human” – we are applying the thoughts of man to the situation, not those of God. If we could just accept that what God has ordained for the Church to suffer is not necessarily something He intended for us to understand, then Bishop Schneider’s analysis — which I have a strange sense is the direct consequence of an intense period of prayer and reflection before the Blessed Sacrament — should put you at ease, too.

The answer to all of this isn’t going to be found in complicated theories. It isn’t found in secret knowledge or technicalities or any of the various attempted solutions making the rounds.

It’s much more simple. Like it was when I was a child and I did not know the problem my father was facing, could not hear his voice, but fell asleep with the confidence that he would care for us and that his worries were not my own, Our Heavenly Father, too, will take care of us.

Bishop Schneider isn’t denying that there is a problem. Neither is he saying that there is no need for it to be fixed, or that men won’t play a role. The Church works through human hands, by Divine guidance, and so it will be when this is finally resolved — almost certainly by a future pope.

“The Faith of the entire Church,” the bishop assures us, “is greater and stronger than the errors of a heretical pope and this Faith cannot be defeated, not even by a heretical pope.”

His assurance reminds me of a story I saw recently, I can’t remember where. It goes something like this:

A concerned Catholic man comes to visit a holy and wise old monk to talk about the problems in the Church.

The man asks the monk, “What do I do if my priest is a heretic?”

“Go to the bishop,” the monk answers.

“Well, what do I do if the bishop is also a heretic?” the man asks.

“Go to the pope,” the monk replies.

“And if the pope is a heretic, too?” the man pleads.

“Then find out what Catholics have always done, and do that.

It is the same for us. We do what we can to correct these errors, but after that, not an ounce of our worrying or arguing or torturing ourselves trying to make sense of what is happening or how it is happening is going to change the fact that it is happening. We can only do our best to spread the Faith within our sphere of influence, learn the Faith better than we know it now, and live the Faith the best we can.

Bishop Schneider is telling us that the problem of a heretical pope isn’t ours to fix, and that Catholicism, under Divine protection, is strong enough to withstand it until God steps in. That answer, though not entirely satisfying to our impatient minds and heavy hearts, feels more right to me than anything else I’ve considered. And though it seems almost too obvious, it rings true. Yes, it means we need to find a way to live with an uncomfortable mystery, but frankly, it’s still the best news I’ve heard in years.

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