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When Creeping Normalcy Bias Protects a Chaotic Pope

Reactions to the Open Letter accusing Pope Francis of holding seven heretical propositions — a letter that now bears the signatures of 81 clergy, religious, and scholars — have ranged from strong support (Zmirak, Coulombe, Verrecchio) to sympathetic critiques (Lawler, Feser, Weinandy, Shaw) to undisguised hostility (Akin, Armstrong, Condon, most media outlets).

The authors in the “sympathetic critiques” category make some good points worthy of further consideration. I am all the more inclined to listen to them because they agree, right off, that Pope Francis is a colossal problem, that his pontificate has left a wreckage of errors and scandals, and that we are in full meltdown mode. In other words, they have eyes to see and ears to hear, so their disagreements with the Open Letter have more to do with the nature of the arguments to be made, the forum in which to make them, and the ramifications for future steps. Such critics are not in denial. Our disagreements are like those among the Allied Powers as to the best strategy for resisting the Axis.

They complain, incidentally, that we have made the work of orthodox Catholics and especially bishops harder by supercharging the atmosphere, but the irony is that we have already helped them to be seen as moderates in the conversation, when what they are saying would have sounded extreme a year ago. “We don’t hold that the pope is a formal heretic. We just hold that he has introduced massive confusion, has led bishops and episcopal conferences widely astray, refuses to do his duty as vicar of Christ by upholding traditional doctrine, fails to respond to reasonable petitions, and threatens to drive the Church into schism. That’s all.”

Meanwhile, one of the signatories, Professor Claudio Pierantoni, has entered the ring with a formidable defense of the Open Letter. Pierantoni brings clarity without embellishment. I highly recommend this interview as a substantive response to our critics.

However, what has really surprised me in the past week — though perhaps it should not have — is the extent of the insensibility that has descended upon the so-called “conservatives” in the mainstream. Much criticism I have read serves only to confirm the gravity of the situation the letter addresses. The general lack of alarm at the seven manifestly heretical propositions, or the contortionist glosses of papal texts to exonerate their author from said heresies, in spite of all words and deeds converging upon them, proves at least this much: Francis’s battle of theological attrition has been successful beyond the St. Gallen Mafia’s wildest dreams and is poised for new conquests.

Just a few short years ago, everyone who considered himself a conservative was up in arms about Amoris Laetitia and skeptical of the elaborate rabbinical apparatus that attempted to square it with the Church’s perennial teaching. Now it’s as if they’ve given up; they shrug their shoulders and say, “I’m sure it’ll all be fine someday. It’ll come out in the wash. Put credentialed theologians and canonists on the case, and everything Francis says and does can be justified.” We strain the canonical gnats and swallow the doctrinal camel.

It seems that many simply do not wish to confront the weighty and ever mounting evidence of the pope’s errors and reprehensible actions, of which the letter provided only a sample sufficient to make the case. This is not to say that Francis altogether lacks true words and admirable actions. It would be nearly impossible for someone to say false things or do bad things all the time. That is beside the point. It is enough for a pope to assert a doctrinal error only once or twice in a pontifical document, or to perform really bad acts (or omissions) of governance a few times, in order to merit rebuke from the College of Cardinals or the body of bishops, sharers in the same apostolic ministry. With Francis, however, there is a lengthy catalogue, with no sign of coming to an end. If this does not galvanize the conservatives into concerted action, one has to wonder — what would? Do they have a line in the sand? Or has papal loyalism dethroned faith and neutered reason?

Things that made everyone anxious just a few years ago are now taken in stride: now we all just live in a post-Bergoglian Catholic Church, where you can make exceptions about formerly exceptionless moral norms, give Communion to those living in adultery, and say God wills many religions as He wills two sexes, or — a point not addressed in the Open Letter — dismiss the witness of Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium (trifecta!) on the death penalty. The frogs have grown accustomed to floating in ever hotter water and have decided to call it a spa.

It may therefore be concluded that the pope’s strategy of dismantling the Catholic Faith plank by plank in slow motion is working. He ignored the dubia on Amoris Laetitia because he knew he could not answer them in an orthodox sense without undermining his entire double-synod Kasperian project. He has ignored over thirty attempts to reach out to him, whether by the mighty or by the lowly, by small groups of reputable scholars or by petitions with hundreds of thousands of signatures. The Open Letter simply draws the final conclusions.

I admire and appreciate the work being done by our assiduous Catholic apologists, who beaver away, day after day, to refute Protestant Fundamentalists, militant atheists, homosexual and feminist agitators, and other such opponents. But to think the current crisis of Pope Francis can be contained by means of a few pat “Catholic Answers” is like trying to extinguish the flames of Notre Dame with a squirt gun.

Frankly, it is a world-class scandal for a pope even to seem to be lending support to only one heretical proposition, let alone showing textual and behavioral adherence to (at least) seven such propositions. It is, moreover, no defense of the pope to say his statements are “ambiguous” and can be taken several different ways. Even if the sum total of evidence did not adequately resolve our doubts, such vagueness about grave matters would be no less reprehensible in a pope than outright error. The pope is given to the Church to clarify Christ’s teaching, not to obscure it; to instruct in the truth, not to make room for fashionable theories that leave the faithful confused as to what they should believe and how they should live.

Let us not forget that Pope St. Leo II condemned his predecessor Pope Honorius for negligence in upholding the orthodox faith. A teacher wrote to me:

If my students don’t understand something I’ve taught, if they have a concern about the content (or their parents do), or think I’m contradicting myself, I stop and explain it clearly, and I apologize for causing any confusion. I’ve never read Francis say anything like that, ever. There’s an old story of a man who never lied. A stranger to the village came to meet him and question him. He realized he never lied because all he did was talk in circles.

This is why people — accurately — call the Argentinean pontiff a Peronist. He speaks out of both sides of his mouth so that the progressives will get the encouragement they need to carry on, while the ultramontanists can get a comforting reassurance to go back to sleep.

The open letter has stirred conservatives to a frenzy because they can’t bear the thought of a heretic on the throne of Peter. Well, as parents say to children, “guess again.” The third Council of Constantinople judged Honorius after his death to have “confirmed the wicked dogmas” of Monothelitism and anathematized him. Outside infallible ex cathedra pronouncements, it is possible for a pope to deviate from the Faith. It can happen. And Francis runs circles around Honorius. Francis is an unprecedented trial for the Church of God.

A friend of mine wrote me these sobering words, with which I entirely agree:

Paragraph 675 of the Catechism speaks of a final trial of the Church. We are entering some sort of arrest, scourging, mocking, and crucifixion of the Church that is going to be very difficult for people who love the Church to understand. Just as Christ’s disciples had their faith shaken — “this can’t be happening if he really is the Messiah” — so it is happening now for the sons and daughters of the Church: “this can’t be happening if the Church really is infallible and indefectible and the gates of hell will not prevail.” We are headed for a vast purification that will leave much of the Catholic landscape utterly unrecognizable, washing away the petrified filth of vice and error and restoring her to her lost beauty. But it is going to be very difficult to make sense of it as it happens, and, as Our Lord ominously warns, many will lose their faith.

In this modern-day Passion of the Church of Christ — replete with temptations all the more dangerous for their more than human subtlety, cloaked in garments of sophistry and pushed by figures of authority — let us hold fast to the Catholic Faith and pray more fervently than ever. In this way, Our Lord’s haunting question “When the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Lk. 18:8) will be able to be answered: Yes.

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