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

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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.

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