A few days ago, an article entitled “Where Peter Actually Is” by Fr. Ambrose Dobrozsi appeared on the website of the new-ish Catholic magazine The Lamp. In his article, Fr. Dobrozsi attempts to put forth a balanced view of the papacy and the relationship between the pope and the practice of ordinary Catholics, one that avoids the excesses of both those who reject or ignore the pope’s authority and those who believe that “Whatever the pope says is Catholicism.”

For the most part, the article succeeds in articulating the Church’s traditional position on papal supremacy. Unfortunately, it also contains a significant error in judgement about this website. The author seems to have failed to adequately consider that the contributors to Where Peter Is affirm the possibility that Catholics of good will may have serious disagreements on which papal decisions are well-justified and which are mistakes. Perhaps due to this lack of consideration, Fr. Dobrozsi made rash accusations about the mission of this website and our understanding of the papacy, such as stating that we think “whatever the pope happens to say is the most Catholic.”

The article title is a clear play on the name of this website. And despite his later tweet saying that he “wasn’t making any judgement about WPI as a publication,” he also tweeted, “To be honest I started with the headline and came up with an article to follow it.” This does suggest that our website’s name (which ironically is taken from a quote by his patron saint) served as the inspiration for his article. He also writes disparagingly and inaccurately about what he describes as our “publication’s mission.”

Because I thought Fr. Dobrozsi’s article was otherwise very good, you may consider this an addendum to his article and a correction of his rash judgement against me and Where Peter Is.

In his article, Fr. Dobrozsi wrote (quoting me and referring to WPI without naming either):

Those who support the pope, on the other hand, use his statements as the final word on Catholicism. If anyone disagrees with whatever the pope has said, that person must be resisting the will of the Holy Spirit. One media figure described his publication’s mission in exactly these terms, “The purpose of our site is to promote the Catholic faith in light of [the] pope’s mission and vision, not to tear him down or distort his message. And according to those who actually know and understand Francis, we do it better (at least in the English language) than most anyone else.” The implicit claim is clear: promoting the Catholic faith means being in line with the mission and vision of the pope. Tearing down the pope or distorting his message, on the contrary, is directly opposed to the Catholic faith. Whatever the pope says is Catholicism.

But such a position would be absurd. It is not the case that whatever the pope happens to say is the most Catholic, and in fact such a position would be contrary to the Lord’s intention for founding the see of Peter. The doctrine of papal infallibility and the authority of the Petrine office just very simply do not work that way—and, moreover, a Catholic understanding of God’s work in the human soul does not work this way.

Fr. Dobrozsi lifted the quote from a tweet I wrote late last year in response to a charge from another priest, Fr. Chase Goodman, who tweeted to me, “you do not care where Peter is, only where Francis is. Everything I’ve read from you has been polemical. Just as 1p5, LSN, and whatever other right wing grifters are polemical, but in the opposite direction.”

In my response to Fr. Goodman, I attempted to clarify that our goal was to present Pope Francis’s message accurately, and I asserted that we do this better than anyone else in the English-speaking world. (I have been told this by three people who are close to Pope Francis and are very familiar with his thought and with how other outlets distort it.) This should be seen as a service to the Church, even to those who disagree with his vision. Catholics should be able to engage with the pope’s thought, and doing this requires hearing and comprehending the pope’s side of the story. What is most important to us is that the views of Catholics are well-informed and rooted in the truth, which is why we strive for accuracy, provide citations, and link to our sources. Yes, the writers for this site generally admire and agree with Pope Francis on most issues, but none of us believe that any sitting pontiff is the “final word on Catholicism.”

We launched this website in early 2018 because we noticed a gap in English-speaking Catholic media that we sought to fill. For one thing, there were virtually no websites that consistently presented Pope Francis’s teaching, mission, and vision accurately and sympathetically at the time. Secondly, we were becoming increasingly aware that a distorted view of the papacy and what Saint Paul VI once described as a “warped ecclesiology” similar to that espoused by the Society of St. Pius X was beginning to take hold among mainstream conservative Catholics, particularly in the United States. Once-mainstream conservative Catholic media outlets such as First Things, EWTN and its affiliates, Catholic World Report, and The Catholic Thing became voices of resistance to the pope – not just on prudential and personal matters, but on teachings of the ordinary Magisterium on matters of faith and morals.

In his analysis of our website’s “mission,” Fr. Dobrozsi conflates these two distinct issues that we seek to address. It is not at all our view that “promoting the Catholic faith means being in line with the mission and vision of the pope” and “Whatever the pope says is Catholicism.”[1] Sadly, it seems he lacks enough familiarity with this site to make a fair assessment of our position on the papacy. Fr. Dobrozsi, in making these erroneous statements about our views, has seemingly fallen for the oft-repeated falsehood hurled at us by our critics, that we believe “every utterance of the pope is divine law” (or something along those lines).

This is not true. I stand by what I wrote in the past, that “Peter, the first pope, was far from perfect. Francis, like Peter before him, is an imperfect man to whom the keys of the kingdom and authority over the Church have been entrusted by Jesus Christ. Like Peter, Pope Francis commits sins and can potentially make serious mistakes. To paraphrase a famous quote by Pope Emeritus Benedict, the only thing the Holy Spirit ensures is that the thing cannot be totally ruined.”

This is something that Fr. Dobrozsi explains well in his article: “The pope’s authority to govern the Church is absolute, and must be obeyed as a matter of faith even regarding those commands, like the appointment of nuncios, which are not regarding matters of faith. … The certain protection of the Holy Spirit, guaranteeing the catholicity of the pope’s words does not apply to all of the commands that the pope makes. Yet nonetheless, even the mistakes of the pope must be carried out.”[2] Pastor Aeternus chapter 3 spells this out clearly, anathemizing those who say that the pope does not have “the full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the whole Church, not only in matters that pertain to faith and morals, but also in matters that pertain to the discipline and government of the Church throughout the whole world” (Denz.-H, 3064).

Unfortunately, during Pope Francis’s pontificate, many prominent conservative Catholics who were once known for their orthodoxy and fidelity to the pope have changed their position on the office of the pope. Many have even written and spoken publicly that Catholics have a duty to reject his teachings. Examples abound, such as moral theologian E. Christian Brugger (to whom Robert Fastiggi and I recently responded), who recently advanced the view that ordinary members of the faithful can judge a pope’s official teachings on faith and morals, writing, “if popes assert anything contrary to divine revelation or good morals, even with the intention of formally teaching it or implicitly affirming it as true, the assertion enjoys no guidance by the Holy Spirit and so possesses no authority over the consciences of Catholics. In fact, Catholics are bound when they discover the error to reject such teaching.”

We see the same tendency in Cardinal Raymond Burke, who has spent the last six years making good on his pledge to “resist” the pope if the teaching that resulted from the two Synods on the Family wasn’t to his liking. We see what First Things has become, in contrast to the views of its founder, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, who once wrote, “God has promised the apostolic leadership of the Church guidance and charisms that He has not promised me … I think the Magisterium just may understand some things that I don’t.”

We see high-profile Catholics who reject Catholic doctrines on the authority of the pope given platforms in popular Catholic media, such as Philip Lawler, Edward Pentin, Chad Pecknold, and Peter Kwasniewski – all of whom appear regularly with Raymond Arroyo on EWTN’s The World Over. We see it when radical traditionalists appear in films like Mass of the Ages and see prelates like Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone promote the film at its premiere.

Our hearts break when Catholic authors we love and admire succumb to this heterodox and potentially schismatic view of the papacy. Likewise, it is disappointing, but no longer surprising, when a respected professor at the John Paul II Institute writes of Amoris Laetitia that “An appeal to the opinion or presumed intentions of the successor of Peter is not the decisive criterion of Catholic obedience to the magisterium.” I don’t know how this can be interpreted as anything other than an explicit rejection of Lumen Gentium 25’s instruction that on faith and morals, we must submit to the teachings of the pope such that they “are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.”

That this false view of Catholic ecclesiology has entered the Church and corrupted the faith of many of its most respected and prominent conservative leaders is both very dangerous and tragic. My opinion – and I think it is well-justified – is that this fundamentally broken understanding of the Magisterium is a greater threat to the Church than any squabbles Catholics might have over politics, liturgy, or whether the pope clarifies some statement he made on an airplane. In 2016, four cardinals mounted a revolution against the Living Magisterium that continues today, and many Catholics seem more concerned about what direction the priest is allowed to face in some diocese halfway across the country.

I cannot state strongly enough that I have always respected critics of Pope Francis who have maintained a traditional and orthodox understanding of papal supremacy. That they can acknowledge and accept papal authority while being honest about their prudential disagreements with his decisions is commendable. That said, few of these critics seem to recognize the seriousness of the anti-papal ecclesial crisis in the Church today. This is much different than the ongoing trend of Catholics succumbing to worldly ideologies and drifting away from the Church. We are facing a situation where Catholics who take their faith seriously, who want to be faithful and devout, are being seduced by false teachings about the very Rock upon which this Church was built.

The nonchalance with which many conservative Catholics regard radical traditionalism compared to, say, their outrage over San Diego’s Bishop Robert McElroy being appointed to the college of cardinals suggests misplaced priorities. Relatedly, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them are more favorably inclined towards the SSPX bishops than to Cardinal Blase Cupich. If you are more concerned that Pope Francis met with Fr. James Martin and said nice things to Sr. Jeannine Gramick than you are about the fact that a cardinal of the Catholic Church is in open defiance of papal authority, then I think your priorities are misplaced.

Whether a Catholic likes Pope Francis or his vision for the Church is secondary to whether they accept his authority and subscribe to a Catholic understanding of ecclesiology. Yes, it is true that this site does promote the “mission and vision” of Pope Francis. Yes, it is true that we criticize Catholic figures who falsely claim to be aligned with the pope. Yes, we may disagree about liturgy, episcopal appointments, and the wisdom of the prudential decisions of the pope. Even still, we share the same faith – a faith that is under assault by a pernicious, reactionary ideology that has consumed many of our coreligionists and is determined to undermine the Successor of Peter. Even if we disagree on whether Pope Francis’s vision is right for the Church, we should be able to agree on at least that much.

Notes:

[1] I don’t know whether Fr. Dobrozsi truly meant to describe as “absurd” the statement, “Tearing down the pope or distorting his message, on the contrary, is directly opposed to the Catholic faith.” If he did, I disagree. I don’t think it’s absurd to think that a Catholic should, at the very least, afford the pope the respect and goodwill due to him by virtue of his office. I also don’t think it’s absurd to think distorting the pope’s words and teachings is bearing false witness against him.

[2] Regarding faith and morals, Fr. Dobrozsi’s article does not distinguish between the different levels of assent owed to different types of magisterial teaching. In his ordinary teaching on faith and morals, the Church teaches that the faithful owe religious submission of intellect and will. That said, as Pope Saint John Paul II taught, “all the Pope’s teaching should be listened to and accepted, even when it is not given ex cathedra but is proposed in the ordinary exercise of his Magisterium with the manifest intention of declaring, recalling and confirming the doctrine of faith.” Still, his main point is correct: all magisterial teaching on matters of faith and morals is owed the assent of the faithful, regardless of whether it is solemnly defined.


Image: Adobe Stock. By TeamDaf.


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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

Common ground with (some) papal critics
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