“They, therefore, walk in the path of dangerous error who believe that they can accept Christ as the Head of the Church, while not adhering loyally to His Vicar on earth. They have taken away the visible head, broken the visible bonds of unity and left the Mystical Body of the Redeemer so obscured and so maimed, that those who are seeking the haven of eternal salvation can neither see it nor find it”
— Venerable Pope Pius XII
Mystici Corporis Christi, 41
When I was rediscovering my faith, one of the questions I saw popping up frequently on Catholic Answers and other Catholic apologetics forums and sites was: “Why should I confess to a priest instead of going directly to ask God for forgiveness?”
At that time, the answer seemed consensual among those answering: setting aside the issue of sacramental grace, the apologists claimed that if you simply asked God for forgiveness, you would never know if God was really forgiving you, or if it was rather you who were forgiving yourself. Without the voice and guidance from another human being (and especially, an anointed human being with God-given authority to forgive sins,) it gets really easy to mix up our own thoughts with those of God’s. The act of praying to attain forgiveness may very well become an act of patting oneself in the back.
A variant of this argument would come in Petrine/apostolic form: “Why do we need the Pope, the bishops, and the hierarchy in general to know Jesus?” People with a secular mindset had difficulty squaring Jesus with the Church’s teachings. Their idea of Jesus, preformatted by our modernized, secular, and westernized culture, was completely at odds with the Jesus being preached at Church. The secularized Jesus seemed more love-like – so it was claimed – than Catholic Jesus. Their Jesus, it was more comfortable, because He was less demanding. The secularized person could just reject the Jesus preached at Church, and claim that he didn’t need the Church to know Jesus.
Again, the apologists’ counterargument would go like this: the Pope and the bishops are the ones who have been ordained by Jesus Himself to continue His mission here on Earth. As the “Vicar of Christ,” the Pope exercises a vicarious function, replacing Jesus as the visible head of the Church, His Body. The danger of not following the Pope would be that you would never know whether that Jesus you worshipped was actually real… or a human construct based on your own concepts, values and prejudices.
The apologists would point to a simple fact: revolutionaries think that Jesus was a zealot, quixotically fighting against the establishment. Socialists lecture about a Communist Jesus. Feminists claim that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, LGBTQ activists, meanwhile, argue that the love affair was between Jesus and John. And atheists, on their end, ignore the current academic consensus by postulating that Jesus wasn’t a real person and was all a product of first-century religious superstition. Apologists would joke about how all these interpretations of Jesus were actually incompatible: Jesus didn’t exist, but He was married to Mary Magdalene while being gay.
From here we could reach a conclusion, which I believe is accurate: all those groups interpreting Jesus outside of the Church’s guidance, were actually calling an alter ego of themselves “Jesus.” In other words, they set up a false Jesus in their own image and likeness and then worship that distorted image of Him. They were indirectly worshipping themselves.
This also happens at an individual level, removed from clearly defined ideologies. A person would worship a Jesus who taught us “not to judge” and to “love your neighbor”… but would reject (or simply ignore, sometimes unwillingly) the Jesus who said “what God has joined together let no man put asunder” or “whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart”.
In other words, he would follow the teaching he was already willing to follow and shun whatever he didn’t want to follow. This was a Jesus who demanded no change, no conversion. In other words, an alter ego, an abstract and idealized version of oneself.
A relativistic Jesus, adapted to one’s own truth.
But none of us cannot avoid interpreting the world through a subjective lens, how could we be able to recognize the real Jesus in the midst of the cacophony of warped images we projected unto Him? The answer that was given to me at the time was: Only by following the Church, namely the Vicar of Christ, could one gain access to the true interpretation of Jesus.
Why? Isn’t the Pope’s interpretation as subject to the same kind of subjectivism as the interpretation from anyone els’se? No. Peter had the Jesus-given power to bind and loose in Earth as in Heaven. It was to Peter that Jesus gave the keys of His Kingdom. Peter had the authority, conferred by Jesus Himself, to tend to His sheep.
This meant that Peter had a special assistance from Jesus, allowing God’s flock to not be stranded in a chaos of different interpretations. A divine assistance that he passed tohis successors through an unbroken chain, across the centuries, right up until Pope Francis. Peter’s interpretation was not just any interpretation: it was the interpretation of the Vicar of Christ. Therefore, even if it could be influenced by the humanity of the one bearing that title, it could not induce us into error. Heeding the Pope’s teachings about Jesus would help us to take a glimpse at the real Jesus, that no other person on earth, no matter how intelligent, scholarly or powerful, would be able to give.
These arguments remain unchanged, and have not been refuted. However, they are seldom wielded nowadays by a substantial number of the apologists who were making these points before Pope Francis’ election. These days, many of those apologists actually try to do the opposite: to find arguments to undermine the Pope’s authority, and to devise loopholes justifying dissent.
The reason behind this shift? The apologists now disagree with the Pope’s interpretation of Jesus. “I follow Jesus, not the Pope” has become a common cry for many in Catholic social media, unaware of how much this slogan mirrors Protestants and secularized Christians. According to these Catholics, the Pope’s teachings should not contradict Jesus’ teachings.
Of course, the Pope has said, several times, that his controversial reforms (Amoris Laetitia, the death penalty Catechism revision) do not contradict established doctrine. He cites the gospel to justify them. To no avail. If the apologist interprets the Pope to be in contradiction with Jesus’ teachings, and the Pope interprets himself not to be in contradiction, the apologist’s interpretation should prevail… according to the apologists.
In doing this, the apologists go out of their way to pervert their vocation, by using their intellects to do the opposite of what they are intended to do: to turn souls away from the Vicar of Christ. They become what I call, counter-apologists.
When, if we return to the arguments I mentioned above in favor of papal primacy, we see that they are not contingent on the Pope being able to satisfy the demands of formerly faithful apologists. In fact, the existence of apologists is completely immaterial to the truthfulness of those arguments. What matters is this: did Jesus give to Peter the keys or not? And did Peter pass it along to his successors or not? And is Francis a successor of Peter or not? Since (aside sedevacantists and conspiracy theorists who question Benedict XVI’s resignation,) no Catholic apologist would answer any of these questions in the negative, we must assume that the arguments in favor of the Pope still stand, even for those apologists.
This must also mean that the dangers of ignoring these arguments remain true. If eschewing the teachings of the Vicar of Christ opens us to a relativistic Jesus, fashioned according to one’s own truth, the same can happen if the counter-apologists are the ones eschewing the teachings of the Vicar of Christ.
Can this be demonstrated by experience? I argue: yes. It is not uncommon to see how the Jesus preached by the counter-apologist mimics the counter-apologist almost perfectly. We never see the Jesus preached by the counter-apologist disagreeing with the counter-apologist’s views.
Just like the revolutionaries view Jesus as a zealot fighting against the establishment, the papal critics view Jesus as someone fighting against the establishment. The difference is that, this time, the establishment is not a corrupt government, but a corrupt Church hierarchy.
Just as the Socialists view Jesus as someone who supports their politics to a tee, so do the counter-apologists. In fact, both tend to have a highly politicized view of the Christian faith.
The papal critic worship a Jesus who teaches “what God has joined together, let no man put asunder” or “whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart”, but will reject (or simply ignore, sometimes unwillingly) the Jesus who said “do not judge.”
One slogan that pervades a modernized understanding of Jesus is “WWJD?”, i.e. “What would Jesus do?” Catholics molded by the online apologetics movement from the last couple of decades tend to view this slogan with suspicion. They argue (not without a point) that this slogan is oftentimes invoked to promote a liberal and emasculated view of Jesus’ actions, in opposition to Church’s orthodoxy. WWJD becomes, therefore, a symbol of this relativistic Jesus those Catholics rightfully fight against.
The problem is: these Catholics will then co-opt the slogan and twist it on its head. There is a meme that frequently makes the rounds in Catholic media circles: “When asked WWJD, remind them that flipping over tables and chasing people with a whip is within the realm of possibilities.”
This is ironic, since many people who share this meme (though, of course, not all) tend to be papal critics on their own. This is not surprising, for many of the overtones underlying this meme also underlie the criticism of Pope Francis. The table-flipping and people-whipping is a metaphor of their yearning for a more purified Church, where sin is called a sin, and doctrine is clearly and forcefully presented, without caveats or watering down, irrespectively of pastoral sensitivities.
In other words, they have construct a Jesus in their own image, adapted to their own truth. They do this by excising from the real Jesus His merciful demeanor to sinners, even before they repent of their sins. In other words, it’s a warped image of Jesus, not the real Jesus.
When Pope Francis presents the real Jesus to them, they say they will follow Jesus instead of the Pope. But the Jesus they follow is a relativistic Jesus, no different from the liberal Jesus. Their Francis-opposing Jesus is as authoritative as the Marxist Jesus, or the feminist Jesus, or the gay Jesus.
Theirs is not the Jesus of the Vicar of Christ and is, in fact (just like any of the other jesuses) a Jesus opposed to the Vicar of Christ.
Just for this reason, we can know it is not the real Jesus. The real Jesus said:
“That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.”
— Mt 16:18 (DRV)
Only Jesus had the authority to teach in the name of the Father, not the liberal trying to hammer the Christian message into his ideology. So, having the liberal teach against Peter is paradoxical. For the same reason, only Jesus had the authority to take a whip and chase the sinners away from the Temple, not the papal critic who wish to purge the Eucharistic line from the sinners that Peter said we should embrace.
You cannot follow Jesus without following His Vicar. As Venerable Pope Pius XII teaches, in harmony with every single one of his predecessors and successors, the Church is not governed by two heads, but only one, for they are in harmony with each other and indivisible:
“But we must not think that [Jesus] rules only in a hidden or extraordinary manner. On the contrary, our Redeemer also governs His Mystical Body in a visible and normal way through His Vicar on earth. You know, Venerable Brethren, that after He had ruled the “little flock” Himself during His mortal pilgrimage, Christ our Lord, when about to leave this world and return to the Father, entrusted to the Chief of the Apostles the visible government of the entire community He had founded. Since He was all wise He could not leave the body of the Church He had founded as a human society without a visible head. Nor against this may one argue that the primacy of jurisdiction established in the Church gives such a Mystical Body two heads. For Peter in view of his primacy is only Christ’s Vicar; so that there is only one chief Head of this Body, namely Christ, who never ceases Himself to guide the Church invisibly, though at the same time He rules it visibly, through him who is His representative on earth. After His glorious Ascension into Heaven this Church rested not on Him alone, but on Peter, too, its visible foundation stone. That Christ and His Vicar constitute one only Head is the solemn teaching of Our predecessor of immortal memory Boniface VIII in the Apostolic Letter Unam Sanctam; and his successors have never ceased to repeat the same.”
— Mystici Corporis Christi, 40
The solution for the papal critic to be cured of the curse of the relativistic Jesus is exactly the same as for everyone else. Stick with Peter. Only Jesus had authority to say who He is: and He granted that authority to Peter.
[Featured image: “The Delivery of the Keys”, Perugino, 1481-82]
Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.