Some people have reacted with hostility or mockery to my articles about the Pope Bashers behaving like Luther or Calvin. Presumably they think I mean they share the same errors on theology. Since they know they don’t, they think I’m making wild claims. But that misses the point. My point is that, whether or not they realize it, they show the same contempt for the Church that teaches against them and corrects them as the founders of Protestantism did. Both groups use the same arguments to deny the authority of the Pope while insisting that they are the true Christians for rejecting him.
To give an example, let’s look at how the two groups point to the example of Pope John XXII.
To give a brief description, John XXII was a reforming Pope who ruled against the abuses of a certain religious order—the Spiritual Franciscans. They resented the restrictions he placed on their religious practices and, because they thought their ways were legitimate, responded by constantly accusing him of heresy. This reached its peak when, during some private homilies, John expressed the opinion that those who die in a state of grace do not experience the Beatific Vision until the Final Judgment. Certain French theologians expressed concerns. And they convinced John XXII that their understanding was correct. So he changed his personal opinion. Remember, that’s what his private homilies were: opinion. He gave no formal teaching on the subject. What’s important to remember here is that the Church had not yet defined the issue but some Catholics thought he was changing Church teaching. It’s similar to how some Catholics misinterpreted Benedict XVI when he used an example of “a male prostitute with AIDS” and thought he was relaxing the teaching on contraception. The Spiritual Franciscans portrayed this as “The Pope teaches heresy, therefore he has no right to condemn us!”
The matter of when people experience the Beatific Vision, was not defined until after his death. John XXII’s successor, Benedict XII, issued the decree after ordering both sides to present their case#. If a Catholic was to insist on John XXII’s position now, such a person would be a heretic because they would be obstinately holding a position against the definitive teaching of the Church. Likewise, we regard St. Thomas Aquinas as a saint despite the fact that he did not believe that Mary was immaculately conceived. The dogma had not yet been defined either by ordinary or extraordinary magisterium§. But if someone today was to deny it, that person would be a heretic.
With this background, let’s look at this section from Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (Book IV, chapter 7, section 28). Where he misapplied the case to justify rejecting the authority of Popes:
28. Apostasy of John XXII
But let us imagine that the impiety of the pontiffs whom I mentioned is hidden, because they have neither published it by preaching nor by writings, but have betrayed it only in table, in bedchamber, or at least within walls. However, if they wish this privilege (which they allege) to hold good, let them expunge from the list of the popes John XXII, who openly asserted that souls are mortal and die along with bodies until the day of resurrection. And that you may mark that the whole see with its chief props was then utterly fallen, none of the cardinals opposed this great madness, but the School of Paris impelled the king of France to force him to recant. The king forbade his subjects to communicate with John unless he should promptly repent, and published this by herald in the usual way. Compelled by this necessity, the pope abjured his error, as Jean Gerson, who was then living, testifies. This example relieves me from having to dispute with my opponents any longer over their statement that the Roman see and its pontiffs cannot err in faith, because it was said to Peter: “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail” [Luke 22:32]. Surely with such a foul kind of fall did John XXII fall from the true faith that here is a notable proof to posterity that not all are Peters who succeed Peter in the bishop’s office. Yet of itself this claim is also so childish it needs no answer. For if they wish to apply to Peter’s successors everything that was said to Peter, it will follow that they are all Satans, since the Lord also said this to Peter: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me” [Matt. 16:23]. Indeed, it will be as easy for us to turn back this latter saying upon them as for them to cast the other against us.
Under Calvin’s reasoning–because the Pope privately believed something that was not yet defined differently from what we profess now–this was “proof” that Popes could formally “teach error.” Therefore the Catholic Church could not be the true Church.
The current crowd of Pope bashers don’t want to go that far. They only want to argue that the Popes they dislike can teach error and, therefore, be ignored. Meanwhile, the Popes they like are to be obeyed. But there are problems with that. Logically:
- All Popes are human beings.
- All human beings are sinners*.
- Therefore all Popes are sinners.
You will always be able to find embarrassing things in the actions of any Pope. Any critic who wants to refuse obedience can use that argument. When one faction argues that they don’t have to obey Pope Francis because of his “errors,” while another argues that they don’t have to obey St. John Paul II because of his “errors,” who decides whether the claims have merit? If any critic can judge the orthodoxy of a pope, then every pope is prone to error, and we might as well accept Calvin’s reasoning—or that of the sedevacantists.
Even though today’s critics accuse Pope Francis of “Protestantizing” the Church, they make the same error that Calvin did: they treat a personal error on an undefined matter (or, in the case of Pope Francis, they think the Pope is in “error”) as a “proof” of heresy and use it to reject the Church when they disagree. Of course, Calvin goes further in his rejection, taking it to the “logical” conclusion that comes with denying that God protects the Pope in any case at all, but Francis’s critics follow the same course and it leads them to reject the legitimate use of papal authority.
These critics should be cautious. Rejecting obedience to a Pope is a schismatic act (canon 752), and performing a schismatic act while professing to be the true faithful shows a failure to understand Scripture or Tradition. As St. John Paul II (Ecclesia Dei #4) put it:
The root of this schismatic act can be discerned in an incomplete and contradictory notion of Tradition. Incomplete, because it does not take sufficiently into account the living character of Tradition, which, as the Second Vatican Council clearly taught, “comes from the apostles and progresses in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. There is a growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on. This comes about in various ways. It comes through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts. It comes from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience. And it comes from the preaching of those who have received, along with their right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth”.
But especially contradictory is a notion of Tradition which opposes the universal Magisterium of the Church possessed by the Bishop of Rome and the Body of Bishops. It is impossible to remain faithful to the Tradition while breaking the ecclesial bond with him to whom, in the person of the Apostle Peter, Christ himself entrusted the ministry of unity in his Church.
If modern Catholic critics resent being compared to the founders of Protestantism, they should take pains to avoid the forms of schism and not think they can’t be guilty because they don’t share the form of Calvin’s schism.
(#) This doesn’t mean that the Church could have just as easily defined it the other way. God protects His Church from teaching error.
(§) Yes, the ordinary magisterium is binding. Berengarius was condemned for denying the Real Presence. It wasn’t infallibly defined until 1215, but had been consistently taught before then.
(*) Obviously, we are not denying the Immaculate Conception here. I do confess that Our Lady received, from the moment of conception, a special grace that kept her sinless. But the rest of humanity does fall under that premise.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
An earlier version of this piece entitled, “On Anti-Francis Catholics, Calvin, and the False Case Against John XXII” appeared on David Wanat’s personal blog, If I Might Interject.
David Wanat holds a Masters Degree in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. He has been blogging in defense of the Catholic Church since 2007. His personal blog is at http://www.ifimightinterject.com/.