Back in my pre-WPI days, I spent a year or two floating around on Catholic social media defending Pope Francis, explaining Amoris Laetitia, and arguing with radical traditionalists and papal detractors about the development of doctrine, papal primacy, and the nature of magisterial authority in the Catholic Church. It was during this time that I forged a trans-Atlantic friendship with Stephen Walford, one of the earliest and most steadfast defenders of the Magisterium and the pope in the face of the rage and ridicule of Pope Francis’s critics. His efforts as a public apologist culminated in his fantastic book Pope Francis, the Family, and Divorce: In Defense of Truth and Mercy.
There was a group of social media interlocutors who would insist that our understanding of the papacy was wrong, that we worshipped the pope, that the pope could (and currently was) teaching error through his official statements and documents. This all seemed to contradict the major teachings of the Church on the papacy, especially since the First Vatican Council. I couldn’t figure out how—without a living, human authority—they were gauging which teachings were legitimate and which weren’t, and when obedience and submission were warranted and when they weren’t. It also baffled me why they were calling me a heretic for being a Catholic who defends the teachings of the pope. I put together my thoughts on this issue back in early 2019 in my essay, “Followers of the Imagisterium,” in an attempt to describe the contradiction of someone who insists, on one hand, that they are doctrinally orthodox while, on the other, openly and defiantly rejecting official Church teachings.
I think in the weeks and months following the Spring 2016 release of Amoris Laetitia, there was a sense in this crowd that Francis might somehow be condemned, deposed, or forced to resign in disgrace. Indeed, there were many calls for “brave” bishops who were willing to defy the pope, petitions, open letters, manifestos, and publicity stunts that likely gave many of these papal critics hope that Francis’s reign of terror would be brought to an end. But for all of the threatened “formal acts of correction” and manufactured scandals, it all amounted to nothing. There’s a reason why Jesus called our first pope a rock.
In the last two years, Pope Francis’s papacy has made great strides, while the resistance to the pope has splintered and scattered. His boldest critics have branched off into apocalypticism, conspiracy theory, unhinged fury, or disillusionment. In this environment, Pope Francis made his first major disciplinary move of his papacy against the resistance, by restricting the Vetus Ordo, the Traditional Latin Mass that had become a rallying cry for what’s left of the movement. Steve Skojec, one of his longtime critics, who appears to have become demoralized by the ineffectiveness of all the efforts to destroy the pope, tweeted today in response to a reader whose email he found thought-provoking:
1. Got a thought-provoking email from a reader, who writes: “When your institution holds all the cards and says that the theological introductions and development of doctrine is correct, while everything else is to be rejected, even if it seems to contradict what was always…
2. … believed, it is a powerful tool of total control, especially when any questioning or dissent is threatened with eternal punishment. If only Roman Catholics get to go heaven, extra ecclesiam nulla salus, then what’s the point of questioning anything coming out of Rome?
3. As long as you remain in the ‘barque of Peter’ you are told you are safe.”
It really does feel like a ball and chain. You’re not free to examine your options without sinning, so you’re trapped.
The coercive aspect of Catholicism seems to work against the idea of free…
4. …will, but not just that. It works against Catholicism’s claims on exclusive truth.
If you know you’ve got the best product available, you can confidently encourage your customers to shop around, because you know they’ll come back.
Basic human psychology here. It bothers me.
I take issue with some of the analysis here, but underneath the obvious frustration is the acknowledgement that Rome “holds all the cards”—he’s been playing against the house—since the beginning of this papacy. Somehow, through the grace of God, other Catholics (including many WPI readers and contributors) have had the gift of sure knowledge that the pope is the Vicar of Christ and the guarantor of orthodoxy in the Church. That authority belongs to no one else, and sometimes accepting that requires an act of surrender. Yes, we have free will. We can use our consciences to accept or reject the teachings of the Church. But we don’t have the ability to change what those teachings are, even if we think they are illogical or make no sense.
Back in those Twitter days four or five years ago, Stephen Walford and I would challenge Steve Skojec about his confidence that history would prove him right and us wrong. I’m not writing this to gloat or to grandstand, but the fact of the matter was that if the Catholic Church is true, then it is incumbent on the faithful to believe that the the pope—whatever human weaknesses and sins he may have—can’t lead the Church into heresy, and Catholics cannot be condemned as heretics for accepting his teachings. The Vatican I document Pastor Aeternus taught:
This gift of truth and never-failing faith was therefore divinely conferred on Peter and his successors in this see so that they might discharge their exalted office for the salvation of all, and so that the whole flock of Christ might be kept away by them from the poisonous food of error and be nourished with the sustenance of heavenly doctrine. Thus the tendency to schism is removed and the whole church is preserved in unity, and, resting on its foundation, can stand firm against the gates of hell. (PA 4, 7)
I saved a tweet, since deleted, by Steve from September 2018, where he wrote:
If Francis isn’t corrected and condemned, then yes, I would be forced to reject the Church’s claim of indefectibility. Which means all else would become suspect as well. But the principle of non contradiction is also infallible, and it demands a reckoning. (7:57 PM 18 Sep 18, Twitter)
It seems that Steve has recently begun to confront the crisis of faith that so many like himself have been unable to acknowledge throughout this papacy: if the Catholic Church is true, it often doesn’t resemble the type of Church we’d prefer to believe in. Francis is the pope, and that means he has the same authority and divine assistance as every pope since Peter. I pray that Steve has a change of heart about Pope Francis and reconsiders his message. I worry that, given all the years he spent trying to undermine him, it’s very unlikely. But where there’s life, there’s hope. All of us are in desperate need of conversion. That doesn’t change. If we think we have it all figured out, that’s usually a sign that we’ve become too complacent.
We Catholics would do well to remind ourselves that without fidelity to the Successor of Peter, the faith becomes corrupted and detached from Tradition. Remember, “Where Peter is, there is the Church.”
Otherwise, the whole thing crumbles.
Image: Adobe Stock.
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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.