Over the weekend, noteworthy Catholic blogger Ann Barnhardt published an essay in which she states that she believes “Jorge Bergoglio, ‘Francis’ to be an Antipope, never having been canonically elected, and that Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI is still the Roman Pontiff.” She goes further, asserting that
The sheer quantity of evidence, and the diversity of the confluent evidence sets, is now so utterly overwhelming that I believe that a person, fully informed of the dataset, would have to engage in the willful suspension of disbelief to continue to acknowledge Bergoglio as Roman Pontiff.
I am friendly with Ann. We’ve done a couple of podcasts together, and we correspond occasionally. When she’s right, she’s a rhetorical weapon of mass destruction, and one that can be a wonder to behold. That said, I don’t always agree that she’s completely dialed in (or needs to go to 11). And in this case, to be honest, I find her argument significantly less persuasive than she does. Nevertheless, I’m beginning to see it referenced in our comment box, as well as in other places online. This makes it difficult to ignore – in particular since opinions along this spectrum have, in the wake of one papal scandal after another, been showing up with increasing frequency in online Catholic discourse.
I’m not going to devote the time and research necessary to write a deeply substantive critique of Ann’s theory. Briefly, though, I do want to address some issues I have with her argument.
To begin with, three of the five prophecies she cites are of questionable provenance. The St. Francis of Assisi prophecy is the most significant of these, since to read it one feels as though it is meant for our present time. Nonetheless, it is considered apocryphal by scholars of Catholic prophecy like Desmond Birch and Emmett O’Reagan (among others). No one has traced this prophecy back to St. Francis himself — it does not appear in his existing works. The prophecy as Ann cites it comes from the 1882 book, Works of the Seraphic Father St. Francis Of Assisi, by R. Washbourne. The introduction to this book itself states that it is a translation “made from the edition of the ‘Works of St. Francis’ published at Cologne in the year 1848. As the work is intended to be a practical and devotional one, no critical notes have been introduced, nor references to the authors from whom Wadding made his collection.” The Wadding in question was the 17th century Franciscan Friar Luke Wadding, whose own work is considered by some scholars to include spurious texts. In the editor’s introduction to a 1906 edition of Wadding’s text, now available online, we read that
Wadding’s edition of the Opuscula differs mainly from all preceding collections in this, that whereas the latter contained only those pieces which as regards both matter and form were the handiwork of St. Francis, Wadding felt justified in including among St. Francis’ writings many dicta of the Saint found in the early Legends.
Thus it comes to pass that in Wadding’s edition, side by side with the undisputed writings of St. Francis, we find doubtful, even spurious, extracts from different sources attributed to the Seraphic Father. It must ever remain a matter of regret that Wadding, instead of following the oldest MSS. that he had at hand, was content to transcribe the incomplete and often interpolated parts of them he found in second-hand compilations, like that of Mark of Lisbon. His work from our standpoint is vitiated by imperfect research and unreliable criticism.
This 1906 edition, in fact, had many of these questionable writings removed by the Friars Minor of Quaracchi, including “all the colloquies, prophecies, parables, etc…”
The message of La Salette concerning Rome becoming “the seat of the Antichrist” bears some merit according to the Church’s prophetic understanding of that figure, but this section of the otherwise-approved La Salette apparitions has been in dispute for some time as a possible later invention of the seer Mélanie Mathieu, who was struggling with cloistered life at the time. Many scholars do not therefore consider this portion of the messages authentic. In any case Francis is most certainly not the Antichrist, though one could argue that he is a type thereof.
Finally, the Fatima message Ann cites is part of a rumored text, not part of any of the officially released secrets of Fatima. Fr. Paul Kramer — himself also of the same opinion as Ann about Benedict being the true pope — attributed this quote to a paraphrase of Cardinal Oattaviani concerning an unrevealed Fatima secret in May of this year. With no official documentation of this language, it serves as a point of interest, but cannot be relied upon for accuracy until the full texts of those messages is finally published.
Moving on to the question of Pope Benedict’s resignation, Archbishop Gänswein’s statements about an expanded papal ministry, though newsworthy because of his closeness to both popes, are still technically nothing but his own theorizing. Similarly, the idea that Pope Benedict’s abdication falls under the canonical invalidity of “substantial error” is, as far as any outside observer is concerned, tenuous at best. We don’t know that he actually believed that he could expand the Petrine Ministry into a diarchy (and in fact he has flatly denied the theories that there was some defect in his resignation) regardless of what Gänswein theorizes. Recall the letter that the Pope Emeritus sent to Andrea Tornielli in 2014:
“There is absolutely no doubt regarding the validity of my resignation from the Petrine ministry” and the “speculations” surrounding it are “simply absurd”. Joseph Ratzinger was not forced to resign, he was not pressured into it and he did not fall victim to a conspiracy: his resignation was genuine and valid and there is no “diarchy” (dual government) in the Church today. There is a reigning Pope, Francis, who leads the Catholic Church and an Emeritus Pope whose “only purpose” is to pray for his successor.
I understand why people question this, but barring something concrete from Benedict himself, it remains within the realm of conjecture, not certitude, to assert that his abdication took place under different circumstances than he himself has admitted.
The questions surrounding the election of Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio are, I think, somewhat more meritorious, inasmuch as we have the admission of the members of the so-called “St. Gallen Mafia” of a conspiracy to put Bergoglio on the Petrine throne. That said, we do not know that Bergoglio himself colluded with them, and if he did not, even their offenses would not invalidate his election (though they should, if Universi Dominici Gregis is to be believed, result in the automatic excommunication of those involved.)
Ann goes on to list “Bergoglio’s Litany of Heresies,” and she’ll get no argument from me that these are all deeply troubling. Are they all manifestly heretical, though? Are they obdurately and formally so? Again, this is where certitude fails. And if they did amount to material heresy, theologians remain uncertain about whether the Bellarmine/Suarez hypothesis really plays out as hypothesized.
The rest of Ann’s nearly 5,000 word essay deals mostly with her own competence to make such claims, and rebuttals to anticipated responses. Her argument, such as it is, is expended in the first half of her piece. In fact, if one removes her introductory statement and the sections on prophecy, Bergoglian heresies, her authority to make such statements, and anticipated objections/rebuttals, one is left with less than a thousand words of actual argumentation about the improper resignation of Benedict and the invalid election of Francis.
And I find neither section persuasive, for the reasons I’ve already stated.
Is it possible that Ann is correct? Yes, it is, but we can’t know it with certainty until the Church makes a declaration as such. Is it possible that she’s wrong? Yes, and I find this to be more likely. Not that it improves things — it’s a much harder situation to deal with if Francis is a validly elected pope than if he isn’t; in the latter case, he can simply be dismissed, and his works undone. In the former case, we have to contend with the reality of the most theologically destructive pope in Church history, and the fallout of that is most likely going to take generations to set right.
But again: I think arguments like these waste valuable time. Someone wrote to me a few weeks ago to get my opinion on another article along the lines of Ann’s essay. My response was as follows:
Frankly, I tend to stay away from these kinds of arguments. They can be interesting, but they can also tempt us to try to ascertain with some degree of certitude what can only be known by an authoritative judgment from the Church.Is it possible that Francis was invalidly elected or that Benedict invalidly resigned? Yes. It’s possible. Will attempting to reach these conclusions on our own give us any peace of mind, or even a form of actionable certainty? Nope.For my part, I trust that while Christ may be asleep in the boat as the storm worsens, He can quiet the waves with a word. He is asking us to simply be faithful enough to trust that He will do so when the time comes.Eventually, this will all get sorted out. Whether Francis is an antipope or a valid pope, his papacy will undoubtedly be condemned by future generations. The charisms of indefectibility and infallibility still apply, and Francis will not be able to unmake them. Instead, he’s forced to go around them. And that means being sneaky and underhanded, which is what we’re all picking up on. He will lead many souls astray, but Our Lord predicted that there would be such false teachers and prophets, and St. Paul said (Acts 20, IIRC) that there would be wolves who would enter in amongst the shepherds.We’ll get through it. The way I see it, we all have enough headaches without trying to sort out a juridical mess that might just require divine guidance. And nobody wants to be a sedevacantist. They’re about as much fun as lemonjuice at a papercut party.
First and foremost: Masses in which an antipope is commemorated in the Canon by the priest offering the Holy Sacrifice IS A VALID MASS. The Eucharist is confected, the Holy Sacrifice is offered.
Further, I have been assured in the strongest possible terms that for me to receive Holy Communion in a Mass in which I know that Bergoglio has been commemorated as Pope is NOT an act of hypocrisy on my part. I know that the Mass is valid. I know that the Eucharist was confected. I know that Our Lord is desirous to come to me and I to Him in the Sacrament of the Altar, provided I am in a state of grace.
If my position on Bergoglio is correct, which I obviously believe that it is, what this means is that the commemoration of him as Pope in the Canon is either ILLICIT, or MISTAKEN. We have a clear historical precedent for this. During the Great Western Schism, due purely to political intrigue and NOT any questions of heresy, there were three men simultaneously claiming to be pope. One of these men was the True Pope, and the other two were antipopes. These antipopes were not blaspheming heretics like Bergoglio. Again, the entire situation was due purely to POLITICAL INTRIGUE. And so, two giants of the Church – both saints and one a Doctor of the Church, backed different “popes”. What this means is that one of these saints was wrong, and one was right. Who was the saint that backed the True Pope? It was St. Catherine of Siena, Doctor of the Church, and laywoman. Did you know that St. Catherine was NOT a professed nun? She was a Dominican tertiary (third order) who was given permission to wear the Dominican habit. She was a laywoman.
And who was the saint, one of the true intellectual giants of the Church, who was wrong and backed an antipope? It was St. Vincent Ferrer, who was a priest, and thus offered the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass many, many times having commemorated an antipope in the Canon.
Here is an interesting precision: St. Vincent Ferrer’s commemoration of an antipope is not even called “illicit” – it is called “mistaken”.
My suggestion is this: rather than worry about which one of the two popes in Rome is the real one — something the Church will resolve in time, without our help — I believe we should focus our efforts on combating the errors that Francis is promoting and Benedict is doing nothing to stop. And we should do so by promoting authentic Catholic teaching as an antidote. Coming to a better understanding of that teaching, and finding new and effective ways to disseminate it, is far more efficacious than idle speculation over something we can’t determine definitively and will never have the power to remedy.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have eight children. You can find more of his writing at his Substack, The Skojec File.