Rethinking the Papacy

I have an image from a particular event playing in my mind. The event takes place in a large entertainment auditorium. The auditorium is modern par excellence, meaning it’s as ugly as sin. The ceiling is comprised of funky clam-shaped lighting. The walls look like an alien exploded onto two large panels of stained glass. There is a creepy statue of a man emerging from what looks like a swamp. I am told it is Jesus’ Resurrection. The auditorium has seating for thousands. The spectators at this specific event are staring at a large stage filled with circus performers. The circus actors are supposedly performing tricks and dances. In truth, there are many women, with very little clothing, gyrating their bodies to a pathetic techno beat. The scene is at best a waste of time. At worst it is a horrendous, untasteful, and impure exhibition.

But there is one more thing to say about this image. Seated at the center of the stage is a man. He is dressed in white, has a set of maracas in his hand, and a large inane smile on his face. He is the Vicar of Christ. The Rock. The one upon whom we are told the Church has been built. And from this image of Peter’s successor, I am tempted to despair. Many have already. I will not wag my finger at such unfortunate souls, for there go I, but for the grace of God. And yet, this event perfectly summarizes the current papacy: a surreal and unholy circus.

With the image of this deflating and disastrous papacy in mind, I wish to provide a review of a timely and necessary book. It is a two-volume set by the inimitable Dr. Peter Kwasniewski titled: The Road from Hyperpapalism to Catholicism: Rethinking the Papacy in a Time of Ecclesial Disintegration.

The content is drawn from past articles and lectures by Dr. Kwasniewski, although it comes together with exceptional consistency and flow, as though it had no other purpose but to compose this work. The volumes are serious books – hopeful books – and each one deserves its own analysis.

Volume 1: Theological Reflections on the Rock of the Church

The context for Volume 1 is well-known. A quick browse of the Catholic internet reveals many vociferous thoughts regarding Pope Francis. He’s a heretic and, therefore, not the pope… He’s infallible and, therefore, must be obeyed always… His infallibility is of no consequence seeing as he changes moral teachings in the catechism… There has never been a pope as bad as Francis… He’s a saint. He’s a son of Satan.

Volume 1 is a profound response to such fiery reactions. It begins by explaining why Catholics even need a pope. The short answer is: Christ knew that the Church needed a visible head and that in moments of crisis we’d be lost without one. From there Kwasniewski examines the Catholic Church’s history of popes. Just who are the bad popes? What have they done? And who are the good ones? What does a good pope even look like? Helpful, well-researched statistics and explanations are provided for the reader throughout. This section alone is worth the price of the book. A brief snippet:

Let us look at numbers for a moment. This article has listed eleven immoral popes and ten popes who dabbled, to one degree or another, in heresy. There have been a total of 266 popes. If we do the math, we come out with 4.14% of the Successors of Peter who earned opprobrium for their moral behavior and 3.76% who deserve it for their dalliance with error (p. 43).

On the basis of such facts, he argues that God has orchestrated a series of popes for 2000 years with so great a record of success that it is reasonable to trust the institution. Yet, he acknowledges that it is also reasonable to expect dark patches at times. I found such analysis to be objective, accurate, and composed. Indeed, the hyperbolic dismissal of history and theology is not Kwasniewski’s method. Thanks be to God for that.

Following this, a serious look at the current trials in the Church are examined, head on. For instance, what does it mean to critique a pope? How could a pope be wrong, or even a heretic? Why have we expected perfection? Was papal perfection always expected? How are we supposed to survive in a Church that has been infiltrated? And, most of all, how does all of this relate to hyperpapalism (the exalted, and ultimately erroneous, approach to the papacy that makes it the sole measure of Catholicism)?

It is evident throughout the book that hyperpapalism runs deep within the modern Church. Kwasniewski, like a surgeon caring only for a patient’s health, adeptly diagnoses the areas of concern, leaving no illness to fester in secret. For instance, he offers salient thoughts, with proper distinctions, on how a pope could preach heresy. With charity, logic, and firmness he explores the issues of sedevacantism, as well as the temptation to leave the Catholic faith altogether. The role of Vatican I – when not read in continuity with past tradition – and how it has impacted hyperpapalism is dissected. So too modernism, moral corruption, the proper role of bishops, and the impact of social media on the papacy and the Church. Kwasniewski even shares his own personal journey from exaggerated ultramontanism to true Catholicism. Many readers will be able to relate to his story. Overall, Volume 1 shines the light of truth brightly onto this darkened dilemma consuming the modern Church.

Yet it is not enough to only present analysis and rational explanations of hyperpapalism and its effects. Not with this current crisis of faith. Rather, Volume 1 also offers a no-nonsense solution. That is, it gives a clear, loving, and utterly necessary slap to readers. At least it did for me. We are urged to stop seeking the easy way out of our crisis. The answer is not in accepting everything the pope says with a blind and irrational submission. Nor is it to abandon the papacy completely, much less declare a different man to be pope. The answer – one that is anything but easy – is to enter the fight. It is, first and foremost, to take up the spiritual weapons given to us by the Church. It is to work diligently at understanding the Church’s consistent teachings, and to refuse to be disturbed by every word that comes from the mouth of a pope on an airplane. It is to live in the truth of Christ, and not be shaken when demonic storms brew. It is to be a true member of the Church Militant. With this is mind, I give the final word on Volume 1 to Kwasniewski:

I think we can be quite confident that Our Lord does not want His Church to go into a period of self-doubt, self-denial, and self- psychoanalysis. This is an unhealthy introspection, a turning-inward that leaves us constantly second-guessing ourselves. We ask for bread and we seem to be getting stones, or maybe particolored pebbles. But the bread is there in the pantry of Catholic Tradition; it’s there for the taking. Our Lord stocked it well, and gave it the miraculous property of never running out (p. 64).

Volume 2 (Chronological Responses to an Unfolding Pontificate)

Volume 1 brought necessary context to help Catholics resist external errors and inner disquietude. It was, if I may say, like a calm before a storm – the storm being Volume 2. Volume 2 is the demands of Volume 1 put into action.

In Volume 2 Kwasniewski offers a plethora of essays and lectures detailing chronologically the papacy of Francis. It felt like a trip down memory lane. A lane wrought with serial killers and poisonous spiders perhaps, but a stroll down memory lane nonetheless. Sixty-two chapters deal with controversial issues of the current pontificate – such is the legacy of Pope Francis (we must pray for his conversion). It was interesting to see how hard Kwasniewski worked early on to give Pope Francis the benefit of the doubt, without actually compromising clarity and truth. Yet, as can be seen in subsequent chapters, the truth eventually demanded uninhibited critiques of Pope Francis’ actions, words, and omissions.

The topics are many, as one might expect. Amoris Laetitia, the Abu Dhabi declaration, McCarrick/Viganò, the “change” to the death penalty teaching, the (far too) many synods, Pachamama, Traditiones Custodes, and the renewed reign of Modernism all receive weighty reflection. It is stunning, because it is honest. A few brief examples:

There is no need to beat around the bush: this new teaching is simply contrary to what the Church has always officially taught (p. 49).

In times of distress, the only safe path to follow is the tried-and-true path of tradition, that which was handed down and accepted by all Catholics until the postconciliar rupture (p. 65).

[A priest] said to me: ‘Would you criticize this document if it had come from Benedict XVI?’—the implication being that I am criticizing it only because it comes from Francis. That is simply not true. I would say the same things regardless of who the author was (p. 173).

The more evangelization is talked about, the less evangelizing actually takes place (p. 279).

Volume 2 is hard-hitting. But it is never uncharitable. In short, it is exactly what is needed for faithful Catholics disillusioned with the modern Church. I would even state that Volume 2 offers a valid example of what it means to engage with Modernism and hyperpapalism, and to do so in the spirit of Christ. It is ferocious – a flailing of a whip within our corrupt temple. It is difficult – providing a straight and true path forward instead of a wide and easy highway. Finally, it is real – the reader is handed Catholicism as it was meant to be, with all the fights, trials, tribulations, and, ultimately, hope for eternal glory.


It is easy to be long-winded with such a profound two-volume set, especially considering the importance of the topic. Permit me a few brief thoughts before closing.

  • Theology books are notoriously dry. But this is never the case with Kwasniewski. I will never take for granted how he is able to take complicated theological topics and present them with not only clarity but wit. The Road from Hyperpapalism to Catholicism is filled with such gems as, “When Our Lady shows up, she doesn’t say ‘Talk more’ or ‘Kill ’em on Twitter!’; she says ‘Pray and do penance’ (Vol. 1, p. 166).
  • Kwasniewski is a prolific writer. However, this does not mean his content suffers. Quite the opposite. In particular, I got the impression that Kwasniewski put his heart and soul into The Road from Hyperpapalism to Catholicism.
  • I have been asked what my favorite part is. I cannot answer that. There is too much goodness from which to choose. However, I will give specific mention to the overall spiritual nature of Volume 1. It truly felt like I was being urged to greater sanctity as I read it. Kwasniewski always keeps the spiritual health of the reader in mind.
  • Volume 1 and 2 can be purchased separately (and can be read in isolation as stand-alone books), but this would be foolish. Volume 1 is a treasure, and provides the context for Volume 2. Meanwhile, Volume 2 is the real-life application of Volume 1. The two books belong together.

Brief thoughts aside, I must conclude by returning to my opening image of that man in white, sitting center-stage in the Vatican’s Paul VI auditorium, while half-naked women contort and twist around him. How did we come to this point? How did the papacy become a literal clown show? How could God permit such horror? Where is God?

To these heartbreaking questions, Kwasniewski provides real answers with his latest masterpiece. Hyperpapalism did not spring up overnight. Nor will it go away quickly. But the return to faithful Catholicism – toil, tribulations, sanctity, and all – is the only path forward. Such is The Road from Hyperpapalism to Catholicism.

I am most grateful to Dr. Peter Kwasniewski for this pair of books. So, too, will all who read it with a willing and fervent spirit.


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