How can faithful Catholics navigate the doctrinal confusion of the present time? At one level, the answer is simple: Keep the Faith. On the other hand, the crisis is real, and probably worse than you think. Nevertheless, our Lord Jesus Christ has said, “Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me” (John 14:1); and again he says, “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
God allows evil to come only so that he may draw forth from it even greater good. Nothing escapes the designs of His almighty providence. We may never know or see in this life what greater good God will draw from the present state of disintegration in the Church. But at least one silver lining is already evident: the bubble of hyperpapalism that has ballooned over the Church since after the First Vatican Council is finally ready to pop. In his work The Road from Hyperpapalism to Catholicism, Peter Kwasniewski deftly applies the pin.
Hyperpapalism is the exaggerated exaltation of the papacy to the status of a semi-divine oracle whose every word is truth and whose every prudential decision is guided rightly by the Holy Spirit. What was merely a grotesque Protestant caricature of the papacy in the sixteenth century has been embraced as if it were genuine Catholic doctrine by many Catholics since the late nineteenth century. Catholics who labor under such an inflated view of papal authority have no choice but to dance to every new tune emanating from the Vatican or seek refuge in the false hope of Sedevacantism.
A Catholic with a more traditional and theologically moderate view of the papacy, however, is not caught by this false dilemma. He can look the situation square in the face without burying his head in the sand or losing his footing on the secure rock of our Catholic faith. He will not be tempted to lose his faith in the divine promises given to Peter nor will he separate himself from communion with the Apostolic See and membership in the Mystical Body of Christ, which is the Catholic Church, outside of which there is neither salvation nor the forgiveness of sins.
The first volume of Kwasniewski’s work, which bears the additional title Theological Reflections on the Rock of the Church, aims to establish the theological principles on which such a view is based. The second volume, entitled Chronological Responses to an Unfolding Pontificate, applies these principles to present realities. Both volumes gather together previously written essays and lectures, arranged in logical order—though the second volume does include a lecture never before published: “Pius X to Francis: From Modernism Expelled to Modernism Enthroned” (pp. 283–306).
The Catholic Rule of Faith
The content of the first volume, in Kwasniewski’s own words, is
meant to redound not to bitter lamentation or abrasive hostility but to reassuring consolation and fiery zeal. It reminds the reader that he can know what is and what is not Catholic, what looks, sounds, and smells Catholic and what does not, by making energetic use of the mutually reinforcing gifts of faith and reason. These enable us, the sheep of Our Lord Jesus Christ, to listen carefully to the voices emanating from our shepherds and to perceive whether or not the Chief Shepherd’s voice is present in theirs.
How can the truth about the Catholic faith be known with certainty even in a time of great confusion? The Catholic faith itself teaches us to rely above all on the revealed word of God, which is contained in Scripture and Tradition, and interpreted by the Infallible Magisterium of the Church. That means we turn to the clear and unambiguous teaching of Scripture itself and to the unanimous teaching of the Church Fathers when they are expounding divine revelation. We look to the universal and constant consensus of Catholic theologians, especially the Doctors of the Church, and to the infallible judgments and definitions of the whole succession of popes and ecumenical councils. We rely on the constant teaching of Catholic bishops, expressed in countless Catechisms throughout the centuries, when they are unanimous in their teaching on faith and morals. These are the great monuments of our faith, to which we must always return, above all in times of doctrinal confusion.
Of course, the pope possesses real authority when he teaches about faith and morals even in a non-infallible way, as he typically does in his encyclical letters, apostolic exhortations, motu proprios, etc., but in no way can such teaching overturn Scripture, Tradition, or the Infallible Magisterium of the Church, as some hyperpapalists would have you believe. It is no Protestant principle of private interpretation to which a Catholic appeals against novel or ambiguous teaching, but rather the unanimous testimony of the universal Church of all times and places.
St. Vincent of Lérins gave definitive expression to this rule of faith in the fifth century: “Now in the Catholic Church itself we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.” The test of antiquity is especially important in a time of widespread doctrinal confusion. In answer to the question, “What if some novel contagion try to infect the whole Church, and not merely a tiny part of it?,” St. Vincent replies that a faithful Catholic “will take care to cleave to antiquity, which cannot now be led astray by any deceit of novelty.” Such is the inestimable value of Tradition, which shines forth all the more brilliantly in a generation enamored of novelty.
Theological Principles for a
Right Understanding of the Papacy
What are some of the theological principles Kwasniewski discusses in this first volume? That the popes are not immune from personal immorality, harmful silence, ambiguous teaching, and even heresy, as history shows. That the Church, which never fails, cannot be totally identified with members of the hierarchy, who sometimes do. That critiques of non-infallible statements of a pope are not based on a Protestant appeal to private interpretation, but on the Catholic rule of faith handed down to us from antiquity. That the false solution of sedevacantism sacrifices the dogma of the Church’s visibility in order to preserve an erroneous hyperpapalism. That abandoning the Church on account of the errors and abuses perpetrated within her would be a catastrophic betrayal. That our primary response to the present crisis must always be prayer and penance. For our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
The key theological principle at stake in the escape from hyperpapalism is the realization that the infallibility of the pope is not absolute, but conditional. Both Vatican I and Vatican II clearly express certain conditions, or restrictions placed upon the infallibility of the pope. Popes are infallible when (and only when) they speak ex cathedra. This is not the place for a detailed treatment of the conditions required for ex cathedra teaching, but historically speaking, it is relatively rare. As an aside, there are many more examples of infallible papal teaching than just the two with which most Catholics are familiar; but even a few dozen instances in 2,000 years would not amount to more than a handful in every century. The point remains that most of the official teaching of the popes, which has become increasingly voluminous in the last 150 years or so, does not meet the criteria identified at Vatican I for the exercise of papal infallibility.
This much is widely known and easily admitted by most Catholics, but here comes the more difficult point: when the pope is not speaking infallibly, then logic requires us to admit that he must be speaking fallibly. For what is not infallible is necessarily fallible—there is no third option; and that which is fallible can (and therefore sometimes probably does) fail. If you find it hard to admit that the pope can occasionally be in error even in his official teaching in matters of faith and morals, then you are still laboring under an exaggerated hyperpapalism. Once you accept that this is in fact possible—as history and Catholic theology both demonstrate—then you are on your way to an authentically Catholic understanding of the papacy, in both its prerogatives and limitations.
Against the errors of Protestantism, we affirm that Christ established His Church upon St. Peter and entrusted to him and to his successors a real primacy within the Church. Against the errors of the East, we affirm that this primacy is one of jurisdiction and not of honor only. With the First and Second Councils of the Vatican, we affirm the dogmas of the infallible magisterium of the pope and his ordinary and universal jurisdiction. We believe that he is the visible head of the Church on earth and the Vicar of Christ; but we do not simply identify him with the Church or with Christ. He possesses supreme authority within the Church; but that does not mean he possesses all the authority imaginable; it means he possesses all the authority available. He is not an absolute monarch whose sheer will is law; he is a constitutional monarch, whose powers are subject to the limits set for them by the divine constitution of the Church and the entire contents of divine revelation.
A Theological Diary (2013–2022)
Anyone who loves the Church and “the faith delivered once for all to the saints” (Jude 3) will find the second volume of this set to be a sobering but fascinating record of a deeply distressing decade in the life of the Church. Kwasniewski describes it as “a kind of theological diary documenting what it was like to be living through the chaos in real time.” It is a painful experience in some ways to re-live the journey of the past ten years, but there is great consolation in coming to grips with the gravity of our current situation in the company of a trusted guide like Kwasniewski.
In retrospect, the first five essays, written early on in Francis’ pontificate (from July 2013 to July 2014) appear almost laughably optimistic. Like many of us in the early days, Kwasniewski was eager to highlight some of the positive things the new pope was saying. Then came the apparent manipulation of the Synods on the Family in 2014 and 2015 followed by Amoris Laetitia in 2016, to which Kwasniewski and many others responded with (largely unanswered) questions and criticisms. There are no essays from 2017, but 2018 was a busy year full of writings on the revision of the Catechism regarding the death penalty; the revelations of McCarrick’s abuse and Archbishop Vigano’s testimony about the extent of the cover-up; the deal with China and the forgettable Youth Synod.
2019 opened with the joint declaration on human fraternity, with its positive evaluation of religious pluralism, and closed with the apparently idolatrous debacle of the Amazon Synod. Things were a little bit quieter at the Vatican in 2020. The end of that year saw the controversial canonization of Pope Paul VI as part of what seems to be an effort to spread the odor of sanctity over Vatican II by canonizing every pope involved in it and its implementation.
The volume includes only one essay on Traditionis Custodes, which was the low-water mark of papal activity in 2021, not because the author had little to say about it, but because several of his most important contributions have already been included in the collection From Benedict’s Peace to Francis’ War: Catholics Respond to the Motu Proprio Traditionis Custodes on the Latin Mass (Angelico Press, 2021).
Most of the chapters included in the book are short essays, allowing the reader to savor Kwasniewski’s wisdom in small bites; but there are also three substantial lectures, which offer detailed analyses of major topics of interest: the change to the teaching of the Catechism on the death penalty, the Amazon Synod, and the history of Modernism from the time of Pope St. Pius X until today.
What Must we do to be Sane?
Virtue, as Aristotle teaches, lies in the mean between two extremes. On the one hand, it would be a ludicrous under-reaction to pretend that there is nothing troubling about the present pontificate. The extent of the disintegration in the Church cannot be underestimated—the disintegration of liturgy, the disintegration of faith, the disintegration of morality. The list could go on. Like at many other times in her history, the Church is desperately in need of reform—that is, of a return to her traditional form.
On the other hand, it would be an equally absurd over-reaction to conclude that the dogma of papal infallibility is useless or false. The most exasperating reaction I have personally encountered more than once is one that says, “If the pope is not always infallible, then he may as well never be.” Imagine applying the same reasoning to the teaching of ecumenical councils: Since Vatican II mostly avoid teaching infallibly, is there no value in the infallibility of Nicaea, or Florence, or Trent? Just because Pope Francis generally chooses not to exercise his infallible magisterium, are we supposed to toss out the solemn definitions of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary? Absurd. Infallibility is a gift—a divine grace—that allows us to have certainty about the things we must believe in order to be saved. That is worth being grateful for even if the papacy is not an oracle that gives divinely inspired answers to every imaginable question. Infallible certitude about some divinely revealed truths is better than infallible certitude about none.
A second over-reaction to be on guard against is the one that says, “If the pope cannot be trusted, who can?,” as if without hyperpapalism there could be no certainty at all in matters of faith. The obvious response to this is that the pope can be fully and unhesitatingly trusted, on the basis of a divine guarantee, as often as he speaks ex cathedra; but even more fundamentally, Jesus Christ can be trusted. Our trust is in God Himself, Who can neither deceive nor be deceived. We believe what He has revealed to us. Scripture can be trusted. Tradition can be trusted. What if something is obscure or unclear in Scripture or Tradition? In that case, the infallible definitions of previous popes and ecumenical councils can be trusted. What if there is something that has not been infallibly defined by the Magisterium of the Church? In that case, the common teaching of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church can be trusted as well as the consistent teaching of popes and bishops through the centuries. Here it is not the isolated teaching of any one Father or Doctor or Pope or Bishop that gives us confidence, but the universality, and consistency, and unanimity of the teaching. Taken all together, that covers an awful lot of ground that we can be certain of before we ever have to begin worrying about the isolated statements or policies of individual popes.
Despair or Hope?
For a Christian, to ask the question is to answer it. Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth. As Kwasniewski points out,
This situation is no cause for despair. It is, on the contrary, a dramatic and long-overdue end to an unsustainable exaltation of the papal office, where the pope is cast as a combination Delphic oracle, globetrotting superstar, dynamo of doctrinal development, and standard meter bar of orthodoxy. This is not only contrary to Catholicism, it is corrosive of it, because it replaces the primacy of inheriting the deposit of faith from divine revelation through apostolic transmission with the primacy of papal voluntarism. Such a distortion of the dogma of Pastor Aeternus could only end in flames.
What is happening in the Church today should be distressing, but not necessarily surprising. The life of the Church is an image of the life of Christ. Periods of humble obscurity and times of triumphant glory; at one moment receiving the insincere accolades of the world, at the next moment dragged in front of a hostile court of human opinion; betrayed by one apostle and abandoned by all but one of the others; publicly denied by the prince of the apostles. The Church may be enduring her Good Friday—mocked, scourged, stripped, humiliated, crucified. If so, what can we expect to happen next? Most likely the tomb; the dark quiet when the Church will be to all appearances dead and buried. Is that cause for despair? No! For after Holy Saturday comes Easter Sunday.
 Preface to the first volume, p. xii.
 St. Vincent of Lérins, Commonotorium, ch. 4.
 Preface to the second volume, p. xiii.
 Volume 2, p. 68.
Dr. John Joy teaches Theology at St. Ambrose Academy in Madison, Wisconsin. In his spare time he also serves as President of the St. Albert the Great Center for Scholastic Studies and Managing Editor for the Aquinas Institute. His primary academic interests are in the theology and philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, dogmatic theology, and especially questions of infallibility and the magisterium of the Church. He is the author of On the Ordinary and Extraordinary Magisterium from Joseph Kleutgen to the Second Vatican Council (Muenster: Aschendorff, 2017) as well as various articles published in Nova et Vetera, Seminary Journal, New Blackfriars, and Antiphon.