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If The Pope Is a Heretic, Hold Fast to What Is Certain

The following letter exchange addresses some of the difficult questions Catholics are asking themselves today.

Dear Dr. Kwasniewski,

In your article “The Failure of Todaying: Abandon the Passé and Recover Tradition,” you wrote: “The reality is that the Church is already in schism. It is a virtual, unacknowledged schism, but no less real, spiritually, for all that. I speak of the difference between ‘all orthodox believers and confessors of the Catholic and apostolic Faith’ (Roman Canon) and those who do not hold this faith unadulterated.” Your point was echoed more recently by Archbishop Viganò, who spoke of a “parallel church.” This is more or less the conclusion I’ve arrived at in the past few years.

Can we not reasonably conclude that Pope Francis is the leader of such a “virtual, unacknowledged” schism? If that is true, it has troubling consequences.

Although the Church has jurisdiction over all the baptized, public “apostates and heretics, schismatics … are outside the legal organization of the Church,” writes Ludwig Ott in Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. He says elsewhere that “public heretics, even those who err in good faith (material heretics), do not belong to the body of the Church, that is, to the legal commonwealth of the Church.” Ott also points out that St. Cyprian says that heretics and schismatics are outside of the Church (Ep. 59, 7). St. Augustine compares the heretic to a limb “which has been cut off from the body” (Sermo 267, 4, 4), and also said “neither heretics nor schismatics belong to the Catholic Church” (De fide et symbolo 10, 21). And although even the most grievous mortal sins do not sever our relationship with the Church, Pius XII comments in his encyclical Mystici Corporis that “schism, heresy, or apostasy are such of their very nature that they sever a man from the Body of the Church.”

How can any Catholic, then — even the pope — remain within the Catholic Church if he is in a state of heresy or schism? And if the pope is not leading the schism, what about his numerous heresies? Surely it is no stretch to assume that he knows actual Church teaching, such that his own deviations are matters of formal, not merely material, heresy. He has been corrected, even publicly, more than once, with great pains taken to point out where his statements conflict with Catholic doctrine and dogma. St. Paul writes that “a man that is a heretic, after the first and second admonition, avoid” (Tit. 3:10). Even Our Lord said of erring brethren that when all attempts at improving them remain unsuccessful, they are to be cast out of the Church (Mt. 18:15–17). Since multiple “corrections” have been issued, shouldn’t all “orthodox believers and confessors of the Catholic and apostolic Faith” break off contact with the heretic?

The 1P5 article “Sedevacantism Is Modern Luciferianism” was highly informative. Lucifer of Cagliari rejected the proposition “that those who publicly renounced their heresy could return to communion with the Holy Catholic Church,” and consequently, he left the Church as well. The author concludes that if a Catholic believes that “a heretic cannot be pope,” he is guilty of pride and is in “communion with Lucifer [of Cagliari].” But isn’t this conclusion wrong and unfair, especially given that the pope has not publicly renounced his heresies, together with all that we know about heresies and how they separate a Catholic from the Church?

Confusedly yours,

Plangens pro Ecclesia

* * *

Dear Plangens,

In a time of such confusion, one thing is absolutely clear to me. We must hold fast to the settled and articulate tradition of the Church: in her doctrine (e.g., what we find thoroughly spelled out in a careful compiler like Ludwig Ott); in our moral life, according to the constant teaching and example of the saints; above all, in her liturgical worship, her authentic age-old rites. This is what we are asked to do: remain faithful to the inheritance we have received, prior to the period of anarchy.

Fr. Chad Ripperger offers a helpful pair of definitions. A traditional Catholic, he says, is one who reads the current Magisterium in light of tradition, while a conservative Catholic is one who reads tradition in light of the current Magisterium. This nicely sums up the difference.

To the objector who says: “The traditionalist position is subjective!,” I reply: No, it is not. The tradition includes generally accepted readings of Scripture by the Church Fathers and Doctors as well as copious magisterial determinations, such as the dogmas and anathemas of ecumenical Councils and papal encyclicals prior to the age of confusion. There are numerous objective and mutually reinforcing indications of Catholic teaching, and these constitute true limits on what the current Magisterium may legitimately teach, or what a Catholic today may accept as rationally consistent.

The conservative, in contrast, by taking “the Magisterium of the Moment” as his guide in all things, unmoors himself from the established content of cumulative teaching and risks being guided by the whims or ideology of the current pope (unless we must assume as a matter of principle that all popes are automatically saintly mouthpieces of God — a view that seems to obtain in some quarters!). The conservative would thus have no basis for questioning or disagreeing with the pope on any matter, no matter how much it departed from the teaching of his predecessors. Such a view effectively infallibilizes the current Magisterium or the current pope of Rome, thereby dissenting from Vatican I’s understanding of the infallibility that Christ willed the Church to possess.

What you say about heresy and heretics is true in the abstract. Nevertheless, no private individual or lay Catholic has the right or the authority to declare, in a universally binding and effective manner, that a certain bishop or pope is deposed due to apostasy, heresy, or schism. We can recognize heresies, call them out, refuse to adopt them, and warn others to be wary, but ultimately it has to be a bishop (such as a metropolitan archbishop) who corrects and deposes a bishop, and an ecumenical council, or at very least an “imperfect council,” that confronts and admonishes a heretic pope, and declares him deposed by God if the heresy is unrenounced (though reputable authors have argued that not even this recourse is possible and that we must suffer while resisting).

If a pope is a heretic, we know what we must do; that is all we can do. His status is for the college of cardinals or the episcopacy to adjudicate. Nor is this a matter of “punting” on the question; it’s a matter of honoring the apostolic hierarchical constitution of the Church. Whether our bishops are doing a great job or a deplorable job, it’s still their job to do it. At this juncture, they are making an absolute mess of it, admittedly, but that’s on their heads, and we must pray for them to get some courage and wisdom.

It is true that at a tense moment like this, we can become impatient and frustrated at the inaction of our superiors, who ought at very least to be condemning rampant errors and evil actions (e.g., the Buenos Aires guidelines, the death penalty error, the Pachamama veneration, the Abu Dhabi statement, etc.). It is at just such times that we are proved like gold in the furnace, our patience is put to the test, and we grow in our trust in Divine Providence and our fervor in crying out to Him for intervention. We are supposed to be making lemonade like no one’s business from all the lemons that are being hurled at us. The worst thing we could do is to abandon ship for one or another branch of the Eastern Orthodox, or for the imaginary green pastures of sedevacantism, on the pretext that somehow these groups are “better off” than we are. What good would this move accomplish? It would only remove good people from where they are most needed — within the visible hierarchical Body of Christ — and would only contribute to the growing anarchy. What is needed is steadfast attachment to the Bride of Christ in spite of her marred countenance on earth, unswerving loyalty to her eternal Head, total acceptance of the doctrine He entrusted to her in its integrity.

We are living through an unprecedented time. So many “certainties” have been blown up as by grenades and bombs. The one and only safe path is to stick to what we know to be certain; to implore God’s help and intervention daily; to entrust oneself to the Virgin Mary; and not to venture into dangerous trackless territory, such as holding that the one accepted as pope is not the pope, or that the new Mass is invalid, etc. These conclusions are by no means necessitated by the problems, but they are tempting as pressure-release valves that make us feel as if we are “doing something” against the evil, “rejecting” it, when all the while we are giving into subtler evils, as Bishop Lucifer of Cagliari did. In fact, it is precisely the reality of this renegade papacy and the sacramental validity of this fabricated Mass that make our lot so much worse, and the duty of reparation so much more urgent.

I realize that the foregoing advice does not clear up our difficulties, which remain stubbornly opaque and undeniably menacing. For basic sanity, it is crucial at this time to recognize that we are in uncharted waters, in the midst of a tempest like none other. There will be no “easy solutions”; those proffered by hyperpapalists and antipapalists are no better than the simplifications (sola fide, sola gratia, sola Scriptura) by which Protestantism thought to escape from the corruption of the late medieval Church, and purchased instead centuries of fissiparous woe.

Returning to your point at the start, I would say a sober examination of the Church on Earth at this time does indeed disclose a “schism.” Yet schism is identified by Church authority itself. The Church’s hierarchy is the precise location of our crisis, all the way to the top. They will not be telling us any time soon where and what this schism consists in, just as they are not prepared to renounce their errors or admit their sins. This, surely, is a mess only an omniscient and omnipotent God could sort out, a mess from which only He could deliver us, in answer to the prayers He would call forth from our weary but unconquered souls.

That is why I repeat: our sanctifying work, planned for us by God in His eternal Providence, is to remain faithful to tradition and to prayer, come what may; to bide our time, keep our sanity, hold steady, and wait for the Lord. He is still and always among us, not faraway in utopian pastures.

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