In the debate over the doctrinal soundness of Amoris Laetitia — and of the orthodoxy of Pope Francis’s teaching in general — is one area where papal critics cannot provide a single clear or compelling answer: how this ends.

While they can be quite clear in explaining where they think they are right and Pope Francis is wrong, there is a lack of clarity about when or how they think Francis’s “errors” will be corrected, or by whom. Some of the possible solutions that have been presented by papal critics lack any canonical weight or any precedent in the history of the Church.

Indeed, Catholic law and doctrine fail to foresee the possibility of a heretic pope (and many theologians say it’s impossible), and there are no provisions for licit dissent or conditions upon which the primacy of the pope is not to be respected on matters of faith and morals. The closest thing I could find to an instruction for those who ultimately cannot assent to a particular teaching of the Magisterium is in the CDF document Donum Veritatis, On the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, which states,

“Faced with a proposition to which he feels he cannot give his intellectual assent, the theologian nevertheless has the duty to remain open to a deeper examination of the question.

For a loyal spirit, animated by love for the Church, such a situation can certainly prove a difficult trial. It can be a call to suffer for the truth, in silence and prayer, but with the certainty, that if the truth really is at stake, it will ultimately prevail.” (DV 31)

The public outcry over Pope Francis hardly looks like suffering in silence and prayer. The public nature of the dissent on display is calling for action on the part of the bishops against the pope, open defiance of papal teaching in the form of public letters or petitions, and books and essays written to persuade the faithful of their position that the pope is heterodox and aiming to undermine the unchanging teachings of the Church.

Cardinal Raymond Burke, for example, has been hard at work inventing possible ways to overcome these barriers, whether he’s describing a “formal act of correction” of a pope by a handful of his cardinals, or he’s delivering an address on his understanding of the limits of papal authority. He seems to have abandoned the actual code of Canon Law and the Catechism for radical traditionalist fantasies about how disobedience to the pope is really obedience, and dissent from the papal magisterium is assent to the Truth. These are concepts that cannot be justified by the Magisterium or any existing Church teaching or discipline.

The best evidence that such dissidents can come up with to justify dissent are hazy historical examples, such as Popes Honorius, Liberius, and John XXII. Previously, such popes had been used by Protestants, Gallacans, and those opposed to the dogma of papal infallibility, but in more recent times have been employed by radical traditionalists against the popes of the Vatican II era. Now these examples are being exploited by a new set of papal critics, those who specifically oppose Pope Francis.

Ultimately, however, the argument is useless. Regardless of how emphatically and convincingly someone insists on the historicity of the heresy of Honorius, they still can’t point to a single point of doctrine or canon law that says anything about how Catholics are to respond should a pope teach heresy. They are flying blind. I think this helplessness contributes to the degree of anger and vitriol directed towards the Holy Father and those who defend him. While they seemingly have no problem with defying his doctrinal or moral authority, it’s much harder to dispute his disciplinary authority. Therefore, when he explicitly allows the washing of women’s feet on Holy Thursday or revises the annulment process, those who oppose him have no means of resistance. Each new document, each reform put forward by Francis, represents a change that cannot easily be undone.

My assumption is that most of his critics, especially the least outspoken, are simply waiting him out: hoping his age will catch up with him and the papacy will be over soon, grimacing with each new reform, trying to be patient while waiting for the next pope.

But what then? The Church never retracted something from the AAS. The Church has never condemned an apostolic letter or exhortation. The Church has certainly developed many doctrines in ways that prior popes might never have dreamed, but it seems unreasonable to assume that the teachings of Francis would be erased by some kind of explicit rollback.

Now, if Cardinal Burke was elected pope in the next conclave, I don’t doubt that’s precisely what he would do. Unless the Holy Spirit intervenes with an unprecedented dose of Divine Assistance, he’d be likely to initiate (with little concern for public acceptance) a wide-ranging unraveling of many post-Vatican II reforms, not just the ones initiated by Francis. I would also expect that he would enforce among the bishops a strict adherence to his personal understanding of doctrinal orthodoxy. Heads would roll. But is this realistic? The general impression is that Cardinal Burke is not electable.

Other papal critics, perhaps those with better imaginations, envision that the end of the world is upon us, and that Francis is the false prophet who leads a great many of the faithful into apostasy. It’s a clean resolution: rather than foreseeing a scenario in which the Church undoes everything that Francis has done, they just see the world ending. There’s no need for a “savior” pope if the second coming happens. Once again, we are speaking about something that is pure speculation and not Church teaching: an apostate pope. Additionally, it’s hard to imagine that the “apostates” are those who faithfully respect the doctrinal authority of the pope. And will Francis’s younger detractors be singing the same tune if we’re still standing 40 or 50 years from now?

If the world doesn’t end, the likelihood of a Francis-selected majority of cardinals electing someone like Burke to the Chair seems slim. More probable is a scenario where the next pope will be younger and in the mold of Francis.

It’s possible, even likely, that with each future pope the “Francis effect” will become more deeply entrenched in the message and mission of the Church. If the next pope was someone like Cardinal Luis Tagle from the Philippines, Cardinal Carlos Aguiar Retes from Mexico City, or Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin — someone fully aligned with and determined to build on Francis’s legacy — where do his critics turn? Does this resistance against the pope continue indefinitely?

History has shown that the answer is quite possibly yes. And it would be tragic. As a Church, we’ve experienced enough doctrinal disputes that involve resistance to papal authority, followed by schism or schism-like divisions, to understand that such wounds are long-lasting, if not permanent.

When Christ founded his Church, he built it on the Rock, the papacy. Those who are prepared to resist the authority of the papacy indefinitely (until we have a pope more to their liking) might want to contemplate that.

Does the potential of long-term defiance of the teachings of the Successor of Peter appeal to them? Does that seem truly Catholic?

Image: Cardinal Luis Tagle and Pope Francis

Mike Lewis is a writer and graphic designer from Maryland, having worked for many years in Catholic publishing. He’s a husband, father of four, and a lifelong Catholic. He’s active in his parish and community. He is a founding editor for Where Peter Is.

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18 Responses

  1. M says:

    I worry sometimes that the thing might not be far worse than it seems. I worry that we could end up with a real apostate pope or an “alternate magisterium” – who feed souls who crave certainty and clarity above all else, what they want. I hope just a crazy thought, though. Imagine two Catholic churches side by side- Which one is the real church, many would wonder. Keep up your good work.

    • LD says:

      In the US, we already have an alternate magisterium, EWTN media. The USCCB has been negligent in overseeing this destructive force.

  2. Marthe Lépine says:

    “Does the potential of long-term defiance of the teachings of the Successor of Peter appeal to them? Does that seem truly Catholic?”
    It seems to me that such long-term defiance might very well end up being the cause of a schism, but in this case the apostasy might not from the side that Francis critics expect… Funny how some people who criticize “cafeteria Catholics” when those Catholics are deemed to be on the left, are acting in exactly the same way now while ignoring, or rejecting, Church doctrine on the protection promised by Christ to His church and the consequent impossibility that a pope would teach errors.

  3. Marthe Lépine says:

    Sorry, I typed too fast and missed a couple of word on line 4: It should be “the apostasy might not be coming from the side that Francis critics expect…”

  4. Anne Lastman says:

    Fors the potential of long term harm appeal to these critics absolutely. Im sorry but this dissent began almost immediately even before AL was released. I was present at a conference in Rome and know what I heard. What has happened it simply has intensified since then. The outcome? Another pope preferably Burke. Then we will have 3 living popes.
    The harm which is caused by two living popes is what we are seeing.
    If it became possible to change papacy into a Job by retiring, it becomes possible to dismiss another pope who is considered not “what we want”
    Again sorry but Burke and certain social media personalities are leading the scrum.
    The Words of Jesus that He will protect the Church from error are not accepted. Huge politics are at play snd longer it continues the more damage long term it does.
    Confusion reigns but nothing to do with the Holy Father pope Francis.

  5. Pete Vickery says:

    Pope Francis spent his life with the poor, helping them and even dressing like them. He went into neighborhoods in Argentina that even the taxistas would not enter. He is humble and has the smell of the sheep. Burke has done none of this. He’s a first world pampered prelate. The sheep know their shepherd and will follow Pope Francis.

    • Yaya says:

      Amen!
      I have watched many a video of Papa Francis among the sheep. They love him because he is so like our Lord Jesus, gentle, patient. He preaches life’s hardships and life’s joys in ways so many of us relate.

      Virgencita, Madre de Dios, protect Papa Francis!

      I will continue to pray for all of us on both sides of the aisles.

  6. Chris dorf says:

    In my lifetime I’ve spent much time around those brought up/baptized Catholic that became members of other sects of Christianity. Some of those were Baptist fundamentalist or Evangelical Fundamentalist. Without being specific sometimes the conservative Catholic remind me of these two groups home designer absolute certainty of salvation and absolute certitude that they’re following the truth.

  7. carn says:

    “Critics of Pope Francis, What’s your End-Game?”

    I will assent to any clear teaching by the Pope. Hence, my “End-Game” depends with various issues upon when and how some unclear issues are resolved.

    Note, that the teaching of the Pope does not only consists of what he says in some exhortation or in some preaching; it also consists also of all the rules, guidelines and so on like e.g. canon law or the catechism, which the Pope could formally change at a whim.

    If an exhortation says A and canon law says non-A, then the teaching of the Pope is not clear regarding A, even if in his exhortation there is not a shimmer of doubt about what he tries to teach about A. But as long as he at the same time says through canon law non-A, that does not help anything regarding clarity.

    “But what then?”

    Easy. The next Pope just says “No. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.” and most of the unclear issues are resolved.

    Hence, maybe its good that Pope Francis is unwilling to answer the dubia.

  8. jong ricafort says:

    Thanks Mike, the End-Game for the church critics and enemies will fall on Thessalonian Prophecy, the Mystery of Iniquity..
    As I ponder on the Mastery of our beloved Pope Francis on exposing the church enemies particularly on how to know among the Clergy who are the Disobedient….Pope Francis is a True Master in the Art of War, He is always one step ahead of the Game.
    The bottomline for me is Pope Francis is a Luminous Pope, that is what we need in the Hour/Age of Darkness that the Church must painfully embraced as St.John Paul II had already contemplated the Final Confrontation will be between the Vatican II Church and the anti-church which for me the description of the Counterfeit Church is that it only resembles catholic faith and chosen tradition but No Pope and Living Church Magisterium.
    If ever a Pope emerges from the counterfeit church…Do we need to worry, maybe…but for me if an Anti-Pope is elected after Pope Francis either by conclave or by killing/oustering Pope Francis…and putting into exile Pope Emeritus BXVI if He is still alive because the opposition forces are getting desperate by the day..all faithful catholic must expect the coming of the Second Pentecost in which Mama Mary will CRUSH the proud head of the Anti-Pope indwelt by Satan for all the people to see…and the 5th Dogma will be proclaimed and embraced by all beliefs/faith.
    “In the End My Immaculate Heart Will Triumph”
    while the dissenters had not yet known the End-Game, Mama Mary already concluded the End Game.and it favors all the faithfuls loyal to Pope and Church. STAY IN THE ARK.
    Godbless!.S&IHMMP4us.Amen

  9. Hans Georg Lundahl says:

    Blogged reply:
    http://assortedretorts.blogspot.com/2018/06/responding-to-critics-of-pope-francis.html

    It is possible Mike Lewis as moderator will prefer you comment under my post over under his.

  10. Let God be the judge and not me. Here are some facts and not fantasies.
    Fr. Kolvenbach said Father Bergolio and now Pope Francis was not qualified to be a Bishop.
    When Bishop Bergolio assumed the Role as ordinary of the Archdiocese of Boenes Ares there were 20 Priestly Ordinations Annually and when he left there were 2.
    When John Paul II became Pope in October he went back to his native Poland in 7 months. Benedict went back to Germany within the year. Francis has not gone back to Argentina. He is Pope for 5 years. Is it possible they are happy that he left and do not want his return.
    He said to an Atheist Hell does not exist. He says the devil exists. If the devil exists does he live in Hell or is he or she a resident only on earth.
    Popes are only infallible when they teach from the Chair of Peter. So i feel we need not fear for many statements of this Pope do cause Confusion. Don’t breed like rabbits, Who am I to judge. I will appoint Fr. Barros as bishop in Chile. I will not listen to the Bishops and the People of Chile. I will call the abused victims Calumnists and after chided by Cardinal O’Malley i will give an honest response. People who listen to the wishes of Christ I call rigid. mess things up.
    My response to all. Do not lose Hope. There is always hope in death.

    • Mike Lewis says:

      Father, it is very disappointing to see an active parish priest adopting what appears to be an extreme position against the Holy Father. This is a litany of the typical accusations against Pope Francis used by those who most fiercely oppose a unified Catholic Church. I worry about the sources you are reading and who you have been listening to. You appear to have swallowed their propaganda, hook, line, and sinker. I pray to God that this does not get passed down to your parishioners.

      No one is perfect, but your enmity against Francis is simply beyond what a responsible Catholic should display. And your ecclesiology appears not far from the flawed position of Marcel Lefebvre and others. Finally, is your final sentence a thinly veiled death wish for the pope?

      I ask you, for the sake of your soul and those in your pastoral care, to reflect upon the words of St. Pius X here: https://wherepeteris.com/which-pope-said-this-4/

      • LD says:

        Fr. Mikalajunas’ bishop, Robert Cunningham, is the one who suggested, under oath, that the age of consent shold be 7 years old and sexual abuse victims are partially responsible for seducing priests.

  11. D Paul says:

    The writings of Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, detail the “end game”. It was dissected very well in the writings of Malachi Martin, SJ, especially in “The Jesuits”. This is all about Marxism and the destruction of the traditional Church. Just like the USMC, you destroy and then rebuild. “Amoris Laetitia” should be a clue even for the “deaf”. The goal is a one world socialist government and a new spiritual belief system based on world unity. If you think that he has been controversial so far, you “ain’t” seen nothing yet.

    • Mike Lewis says:

      I am asking what the pope’s critics expect to accomplish with their rebellion. Not what conspiracy theories they ascribe to their ideological opponents.

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