The Galat Case: A Lesson in Prudence for Papal Critics

Yesterday’s article on the excommunication of papal critic Professor José Galat, formerly the rector of La Gran Colombia University and founder of Spanish language TV station Teleamiga, has stirred up quite a firestorm in the comment box. And not without reason.

Galat is not, however, just a papal critic. As reported by Maike Hickson, he takes his criticisms to the point of unfounded conclusions:

Galat himself recently made statements on his own television show, where, citing the “Sankt Gallen Mafia,” of whom Belgian cardinal Godfried Danneels is among the most famous members, he claimed that Pope Francis was unlawfully elected. He also claimed that Pope Francis is distorting many aspects of the Catholic Church’s fundamental teaching. [emphasis added]

Of the existence of the so-called “Sankt Gallen Mafia,” which is said to have colluded to elect Jorge Bergoglio pope, there is no real question. By the admission of some of their own members, the group existed. Quite a good deal is known about their operations. Other details have come to light about international pressure against Pope Benedict XVI to resign. Questions have also come up about possible canonical irregularities in the election of Pope Francis.

Of the assertion that Francis is distorting the teaching of the Church, there can also be no question. From significant segments of Amoris Laetitia to certain assertions in Evangelii Gaudium to his many, many less-well-known statements that appear to run contrary to what the Church has perennially taught, this pope has done great damage to the faithful in their ability to comprehend and accept authentic Catholic teaching.

Whatever one thinks of all these things, it seems to me that within reasonable parameters, there is room for a measure of skepticism. Skepticism about the abdication, skepticism about the election, skepticism about whether material heresy may have crossed the line into formal heresy, and so on. It seems that no honest Catholic today feels sure about very much except that we’re dealing with a crisis in the papacy of unprecedented proportions.

But skepticism, difficulties, doubts, and questions are just that. They do not rise to the level of certitude. They do not give to any of us the right to make formal declarations of fact when we don’t even have all of the information needed to make a determination, let alone the authority to do so. These things, by their nature, give rise to uncertanties, not the other way around. And we should give these uncertanties to God in prayer, asking Him to guide us and to aid and restore His Church.

In other words: it’s a big mess, but fixing it is above our pay grade. We each have our tasks. Let’s leave the big problems to the big players.

By way of analogy, one of the things we (rightly) push back against in the midst of the ecclesiastical assault on Holy Matrimony is the idea that via the “internal forum” a couple can determine that their marriage was never valid, even if a tribunal has not been involved, or has reached a decision upholding the union. But how is this any different than those of us who run around telling ourselves and anyone who will listen that Francis isn’t just a lousy pope, he’s an antipope? Do we really think we can defend the Church’s juridical authority in the former case and totally ignore it in the latter?

Further — and I think this is what really lies at the heart of the matter — do we have so little trust that God is guiding His Church that we think we have to jump in and do it for Him? Are we, finding ourselves int he midst of this storm, reacting like the apostles before us? Do we wish to prod Him from His (apparent) sleep, crying out, “Master, does it not concern thee that we perish?” Have we forgotten Our Lord’s reaction to such squeamishness?

And rising up, he rebuked the wind, and said to the sea: Peace, be still. And the wind ceased: and there was made a great calm. And he said to them: Why are you fearful? have you not faith yet? And they feared exceedingly: and they said one to another: Who is this (thinkest thou) that both wind and sea obey him? (Mark 4:39-40)


We have a Church that is both human and divine. It has been guaranteed the guidance of the Holy Spirit to keep the faithful from being bound to error, but we were never promised the impeccability of the men who would lead it. St. Paul warned the bishops of precisely the problem we face at this very moment:

Take heed to yourselves, and to the whole flock, wherein the Holy Ghost hath placed you bishops, to rule the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. I know that, after my departure, ravening wolves will enter in among you, not sparing the flock. And of your own selves shall arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. (Acts 20:28-31)

And in the Scriptures, we were even given, under divine inspiration, an example of an errant pope:

But when Cephas was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed. – Galatians 2:11

In his commentary on Galatians 2, St. Thomas Aquinas explained the nature of Peter’s error, and thus, Paul’s rebuke:

Apropos of what is said in a certain Gloss, namely, that I withstood him as an adversary, the answer is that the Apostle opposed Peter in the exercise of authority, not in his authority of ruling.

St. Thomas goes on:

The occasion of the rebuke was not slight, but just and useful, namely, the danger to the Gospel teaching. Hence he says: Thus was Peter reprehensible, but I alone, when I saw that they, who were doing these things, walked not uprightly unto the truth of the gospel, because its truth was being undone, if the Gentiles were compelled to observe the legal justifications, as will be plain below. That, they were not walking uprightly is so, because in cases where danger is imminent, the truth must be preached openly and the opposite never condoned through fear of scandalizing others: “That which I tell you in the dark, speak ye in the light” (Mt 10:27); “The way of the just is right: the path of the just is right to walk in” (Is 26:7). The manner of the rebuke was fitting, i.e., public and plain. Hence he says, I said to Cephas, i.e., to Peter, before them all, because that dissimulation posed a danger to all: “Them that sin, reprove before all” (1 Tim 5:20). This is to be understood of public sins and not of private ones, in which the procedures of fraternal charity ought to be observed.

Note well the distinction made here: a differentiation between Peter’s exercise of authority and his authority of ruling. The former is subject to rebuke, even on a matter that was “a danger to the Gospel teaching”; the latter, however, is not. Peter was still the pope, even though he was leading the faithful astray, and his authority from Christ was unquestioned by Paul.

It would be much easier for us to deal with the multiple “dangers to Gospel teaching” presented by Francis if he were not a legitimate pope. But we ourselves have no authority of ruling, and no one may judge a pope. Whatever suspicions we may have, we have been told by the Church that Benedict XVI resigned and we have been told that Francis was elected by the conclave. There is no rival claimant to the Petrine Throne. The Universal Church has accepted Francis as pope.

He is, whether we like it or not, the man we must accept as the Roman Pontiff. He holds the keys of St. Peter. If, like the marriage tribunal I used in the example above, he is determined at some point to have in some way nullified his office, then we may rest assured that we will come to know it after the fact. But we do not know it today.

This is a cross. There is no question. It is a heavy one, and for some, it has scandalized them to the point of losing their faith. This is certainly a tragedy, and it is one that Pope Francis will have to answer for. No matter how much he causes us to grind our teeth, we should be praying for him, because to stand accountable before the Lord for using the highest office in the Church to confuse and scatter the flock is…well, about the most terrifying thing you can imagine.

Speculation on these matters might feel cathartic, but it helps nothing. It does not remove him from office. It does not change what is being done. And for some who are already struggling with their faith, or why they’ve converted, running into endless debates on who is pope and who isn’t and why and why not just compounds the confusion they already feel about the chaos in the Church. It has the potential to lead people astray, or to cause them to give up completely.

This is why we have the comment policy we do, and why we enforce it even when it sometimes seems a bit heavy handed. I’m not looking forward to standing before God and having to answer for why I let reckless and idle speculation run wild here. We’re careful in the stories we report to give you the information we have about the problems that exist, but not to draw conclusions that we have no right to come to. We ask for that same prudence to be extended to your discussion of these articles.

The selective application of ecclesiastical penalties against Professor Galat when so many dissenters are empowered or promoted to positions of influence in the Church is surely an injustice. On the other hand, if Galat could have just refrained from arrogating to himself the authority to say with certainty what we cannot know with certainty, he might never have wound up in trouble in the first place.

Whatever happens with Galat — and we should hope and pray that he receives justice, not the jackboot — it’s a lesson for all of us. One we’d do well not to forget.

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