“In a filial and obedient spirit I disobey, I refuse, I rebel.”
Although spoken by a 13th century English bishop, these bold yet paradoxical words to the pope represent well the tension found in today’s “Recognize and Resist” movement within the Catholic Church. We recognize that Francis is the legitimate pope and that as pope he is our Holy Father who deserves our obedience. Yet at the same time we resist all aspects of his work that are contrary to apostolic tradition.
Is this “Recognize and Resists” (R&R) position—one that is clearly founded on paradox (some would say contradiction)—truly Catholic?
Let’s first be clear about our terms. The first R, “Recognize,” is simple: it signifies that those in this camp recognize that Jorge Bergoglio is the current and valid Roman Pontiff, reigning as Pope Francis, and as such has legitimate authority over the Church, most especially as defined at Vatican I.
This distinguishes R&R’s from three other groups who also oppose the work of Francis: those who (1) believe there is no currently reigning valid pope (sedevacantists), (2) believe Francis materially but not formally holds the office (sedeprivationists), or (3) believe that Pope Benedict XVI is still the valid pope (beneplenists).
The other R, “Resist,” is more broadly defined. Many conservative Novus Ordo-attending Catholics who sometimes critique the pope could fall under the R&R label. However the label is usually directed toward traditionalists who have more robust and sustained criticisms of Pope Francis.
Essentially, to “resist” means to oppose the overall program of Pope Francis, which embraces the cultural elites’ dominant narrative on issues like Climate Change and COVID-19 and seeks to marginalize traditional Catholic liturgy and theology. It’s not just a matter of a few criticisms here and there, but instead a rejection of Francis’s vision for the Church.
Now that we’re clear about what is meant by “Recognize and Resist”, a more important question arises: Is this a legitimate position for a Catholic, particularly a traditional Catholic, to take? After all, one of the bedrocks of Catholicism is the papacy, so how can it be traditional to “resist” the man one acknowledges as occupying that office?
As someone who falls into the R&R camp, I acknowledge the paradoxical tension. When I became Catholic almost 30 years ago, I never would have imagined that I’d be spending my time arguing, on many occasions, that the pope was wrong about fundamental Catholic issues like the purpose of the liturgy or the morality of the death penalty. While my Catholic friends at the time reassured me that Catholics don’t worship the pope and he could be wrong, I never thought he could be this wrong.
Thus, any Catholic who takes joy or comfort over a pope leading people astray isn’t a very good Catholic. To “Recognize and Resist” is to live out Good Friday, not Easter Sunday.
Yet some Catholics have argued that R&R is inherently anti-traditional, because it appears to contradict writings of pontiffs, particularly late-19th and early-20th-century pontiffs, on the role of the pope in the life of a Catholic. To be Catholic, according to this view, is to devoutly accept all the opinions of the current pope (and if his opinions contradict previous Catholic teaching and practice, then either those previous teachings are now wrong or he must not be the pope).
Yet this view does not embrace the 2,000-year totality of tradition. Previous generations of Catholics did not look upon the pope as the Catholic edition of a Delphic Oracle; they saw him as an imperfect man in an important and necessary role. They had no issue resisting him if he was acting contrary to the received tradition, while still recognizing his august office.
Of course, the foundation of the R&R position comes from Sacred Scripture. In Galatians 2:11, St. Paul tells us that when St. Peter, our first pope, wrongly removed himself from fellowship with uncircumscribed believers, Paul “opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.” The Apostle to the Gentiles did not reject Peter’s authority as leader of the Apostles, but he resisted him when Peter went against the Gospel.
Another historical example of R&R is from the life of Robert Grosseteste, a 13th century Bishop of Lincoln (England). Grosseteste was a giant of his time, and although he was never canonized, after his death many Catholics reverenced him as a saint, and many miracles were attributed to his heavenly intercession. But he wasn’t just a holy man—he was a leading intellect of his day, and Roger Bacon was his pupil.
In 1253, Pope Innocent IV ordered that a vacant canonry be given to his nephew. Bishop Grosseteste refused the command. He wrote a long letter to the papal nuncio explaining his decision, in which he stated:
It is well known that I am ready to obey apostolical commands with filial affection, and all devotion and reverence, but to those things which are opposed to apostolical commands I, in my zeal for the honor of my parent, am also opposed…In a filial and obedient spirit I disobey, I refuse, I rebel (filialiter, et obedienter non obedio, contradico et rebello).
That concluding line: “In a filial and obedient spirit I disobey, I refuse, I rebel” sums up the R&R position well. Following R&R is filial and obedient, because it adheres to the doctrines and practices of the Faith passed on to us all the way back to the apostles. It recognizes the pope as a legitimate father who normally must be obeyed. However, when the pope goes against “apostolical commands,” one cannot obey and must refuse.
(In later centuries some Protestants tried to claim Grosseteste was one of their own, but as the 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia states, “That he opposed to the utmost of his power the abuses of the papal administration is certain, but a study of his letters and writings should long ago have destroyed the myth that he disputed the plena potestas of the popes.”)
Grosseteste is not the only historical example of such an attitude toward the papacy, however. The famous 10th century Archbishop of Canterbury St. Dunstan once excommunicated a noble, who then went to Rome to get his excommunication lifted. Likely through bribery this lifting occurred. When the noble returned to England, St. Dunstan simply ignored the pope’s lifting of the excommunication and instead ordered it kept in place. St. Dunstan recognized the pope’s overall authority, but he resisted this illegitimate exercise of it.
Some may argue that these historical examples are not the same as today’s papal errors and unjust commands. After all, no medieval pope, no matter how corrupt, ever tried to suppress the Mass of the Ages or undermine the Church’s perennial Eucharistic practice in regard to those in mortal sin. This is true.
Yet I believe the principle still applies. In medieval times, politics and religion were not separate entities—if you opposed what we would call a pope’s “political” commands, you could very well be excommunicated, putting your eternal soul in jeopardy. In the medieval mind, there was a tight fusion between politics and religion, and so to resist a pope even for something we see today as political was a theological statement.
“Recognize and Resist” is a necessary viewpoint again today, one that allows the Catholic to live faithfully within the divinely-instituted Church while not allowing her human aspects to lead him astray. It doesn’t go down spiritual dead ends which question the legitimacy of the Church; nor does it succumb to an anti-intellectualism that wants to see black as white and up as down.
Yes, there are dangers to the R&R position. Resisting a pope can easily become rejecting a pope, and doing so would be practical Protestantism. We cannot make ourselves into individual popes, determining what is and what is not legitimate Catholic doctrine and practice. Yet at the same time, we have Tradition for a reason: so we can know what has been passed on to us from the apostles. If any Church leader—including the pope—acts or teaches in a manner contrary to that Tradition, it has always been the Catholic view that such an act or teaching can and should be resisted.
Thus, I believe that “Recognize and Resist” is the only legitimate position for today’s Catholic. But on a practical level I would say that for most laity a better outlook would be “Recognize and Mostly Ignore.” This, after all, was the viewpoint of Catholics before the advent of modern communications. The medieval English peasant didn’t know and didn’t care what the pope’s views were on every issue—he simply lived out his life of work, family, prayer, and sacraments in the context of his local parish church. While some must work to publicly resist things like unapostolical papal commands, simply living as a faithful Catholic without constant reference to the latest papal interviews, speeches, and actions can and should be the modus operandi of most Catholics today.
 Quoted in “The English Church: From the Norman Conquest to the Accession of Edward I” by W.R.W. Stephens (Macmillan and Co., London, 1909), p. 242.
Image: “Paul Rebukes the Repentant Peter” by Guido Reni
Eric Sammons is the Executive Director of Crisis Publications.