I will take one more instance. A man is converted to the Catholic Church from his admiration of its religious system, and his disgust with Protestantism. That admiration remains; but, after a time, he leaves his new faith, perhaps returns to his old. The reason, if we may conjecture, may sometimes be this: he has never believed in the Church’s infallibility; in her doctrinal truth he has believed, but in her infallibility, no. He was asked, before he was received, whether he held all that the Church taught, he replied he did; but he understood the question to mean, whether he held those particular doctrines “which at that time the Church in matter of fact formally taught,” whereas it really meant “whatever the Church then or at any future time should teach.” Thus, he never had the indispensable and elementary faith of a Catholic, and was simply no subject for reception into the fold of the Church. This being the case, when the Immaculate Conception is defined, he feels that it is something more than he bargained for when he became a Catholic, and accordingly he gives up his religious profession. The world will say that he has lost his certitude of the divinity of the Catholic Faith, but he never had it.

—Saint John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid to a Grammar of Assent, p. 240

The continuing aftermath of the Amazon Synod serves as a reminder that there is a certain hazard that orbits around the Church despite the endless attempts to eliminate it over the past two millennia.

This hazard is a belief that the Church can fall into error but the critic cannot. Whether the critic’s rejection of the Church is rooted in heresy based on how the critic reads Scripture, or whether it is simply a schism based on a differing interpretation of the discipline of the Church, the fact remains that the critic has effectively made himself a “Pope” who insists on his own view of the Church while rejecting the authority of the real one. The result is we see people repeating the same errors over and over, convinced that the falsehoods they have been told are true. Throughout history, and quite notably during this pontificate, the result has been a repeated tragedy.

Repeating the Logical Errors

Those critics make a shipwreck of their faith in this way deny that they are doing so because they define heresy and/or schism in an unduly limited manner. Since they do not believe what Tertullian, Sabellius, Arius, Nestorius, Berengarius, Wycliffe, Luther, etc. etc. erroneously taught, they reason that—because they don’t hold the same errors—they are not guilty of what those infamous individuals did. But in doing so, they embrace the the logical fallacy of  Denying the Antecedent. Just because one does not break with the Church over the same grounds as others did does not mean that they are not in error. Consider this:

  • If I am in Los Angeles, I am in California.
  • I am not in Los Angeles.
  • Therefore I am not in California.

There is more to California than Los Angeles (contrary to what the media might think). Likewise, contrary to what the Pope bashers might think, heresy and schism involve more than the errors of those listed above.

Repeating the Canonical Errors

The Church defines concepts like heresy and schism in light of what those who embrace them reject, not according to the false teachings that particular heretics and schismatics might hold. Canon 751 reads:

can. 751 Heresy is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.

If one refuses to submit to the Pope on a matter involving his office (teaching, governing), such a person is committing a schismatic act, whether they formally reject the Papacy as a whole or just a specific act. Moreover, this is not limited to the ex cathedra teachings of the Pope. The ordinary teachings of the Pope are also binding. Canon 752 says:

can. 752 Although not an assent of faith, a religious submission of the intellect and will must be given to a doctrine which the Supreme Pontiff or the college of bishops declares concerning faith or morals when they exercise the authentic magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim it by definitive act; therefore, the Christian faithful are to take care to avoid those things which do not agree with it.

This canon bases itself on the official teachings of past popes and councils, including Pius IX (Syllabus of Errors #22), Pius XII (Humani Generis #20), and Lumen Gentium #25. It’s also found in Vatican I and Unam Sanctam. Nevertheless, many Catholic dissenters who reject the teachings of the Pope claim that those who advocate obedience are Ultramontanists or Papolators* and are the ones in error. The truth, however, is that if they refuse submission, they are behaving in a schismatic manner. When they deny that submission is not required at all, they hold a heretical position. As Canon 331 reminds us:

can. 331 The bishop of the Roman Church, in whom continues the office given by the Lord uniquely to Peter, the first of the Apostles, and to be transmitted to his successors, is the head of the college of bishops, the Vicar of Christ, and the pastor of the universal Church on earth. By virtue of his office he possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely.

Since these critics insist that they—not the Pope—are faithful Catholics, they invent counterfeit theology that they argue exempts them from obeying this Pope or this Council. They insist that the “errors” taught by the pope/council are proof that these teachings and laws on obedience to papal teachings cannot be binding. To support their arguments, they often use out-of-context quotes or theological speculation. For example, many critics use one of the theological opinions of St. Robert Bellarmine,§ that if a Pope becomes a manifest heretic, he stops being Pope. That effectively means that, should the Pope happen to join the Foursquare Gospel Church, he’s effectively renounced his office by leaving the Catholic Church. But the Pope’s critics conflate this one opinion with three positions that the Saint actually rejected: that the Church can depose him. There is actually no procedure for deposing a Pope (canon 1404), and the idea that one can appeal to a Council against the Pope is the heresy of Conciliarism. Indeed, canon law says (canon 1372):  A person who makes recourse against an act of the Roman Pontiff to an ecumenical council or the college of bishops is to be punished with a censure.

Repeating the Theological and Historical Errors

Since there’s no canonical process that allows for anybody in the Church to accuse, judge, or depose a sitting Pope, some try to point to certain morally bad Popes to argue that because they existed, it means that the current Pope can also be a bad Pope. The critics like to imagine themselves as following St. Paul in opposing Peter (Galatians 2:11-14) by opposing Pope Francis for “teaching error.” But while St. Peter and the bad Popes had personal moral failings, the critics claim that the fact that a Pope can be morally bad also means he can teach error (a non sequitur fallacy) and when he does, he must be opposed.

The problem is this: neither Scripture nor Church history can justify that position. Our Lord taught that the moral failings of a Pope do not take away his authority to teach (cfMatthew 23:2-3). Church history shows that a morally bad Pope does not justify rebellion. The Popes who led morally bad lives did not justify the Protestant Reformation. Luther had obligations to obey the Pope, his bishop and his religious superiors. He believed they erred and therefore he was not obligated to obey them. If a Pope can err—and must be opposed if we think he has—when teaching in the ordinary magisterium, then we cannot justify the assertion that Luther was wrong to refuse obedience to the Pope as well.

This is why I say that the Pope bashers are like Luther: not because I think they have the same theology, but because they share the same attitude towards the Church’s authority. We often hear critics of Pope Francis vehemently denouncing everything they dislike in the Church as “Protestant,” so it is ironic that they duplicate Luther’s treatment of disliked Church Teaching.

Some of Francis’s critics even go as far as to misapply the term “antipope.” The term is properly used to distinguish one who is falsely set up to be Pope against the real Pope. There have been several in Church history, all promoted by those who opposed the outcome of a conclave or the policies of the true Pope.

In the current iteration, some critics claim that Benedict XVI was forced out of office, and Pope Francis was installed by his enemies as an antipope. Under this argument, whatever Pope Francis does is invalid. The problem is, there is no basis for the claim. Using a form of the No True Scotsman fallacy, they believe that everything Benedict XVI has said affirming his renouncing of the office and his recognition of Pope Francis has been “coerced.” It’s a sedevacantist claim which is about as silly as the idea that St. Paul VI was a “prisoner of the Vatican while a imposter took his place.”

Repeating the Factual Errors

Whenever I read the writings of those who broke away from the Catholic Church, they all make false claims about the Catholic Church which purport to show that the Church “fell into error” and had to be opposed. For example, men like St. Hippolytus (who died reconciled to the Church) and Novatian, Luther and Calvin, Lefebvre, etc., treated abuses as intended policy under the Popes they disliked, took Scripture and Church Fathers out of context, misrepresented the real intent of the teaching etc. Unfortunately, modern critics do the same.

For example, Luther miscited Church Councils and Augustine in order to portray a “break” between the past teaching and the teaching of his time. Calvin treated the veneration of religious imagery as idolatry. They contrasted their views on what they wanted the Church to be with their portrayals of certain problems in the Church. And they did this without answering the question, “Is this portrayal actually true?”

Likewise, as we saw during the Synod on the Family and see with the Synod on the Amazon, critics are portraying the words and actions of the Synod in as negative a light as possible. They are contrasting their negative portrayals with their own interpretations of what past Councils and teachings of the Church said. They insisted their interpretation of events were indisputable and factual, even though a large number of Catholics disputed their claims.

This was seen most publicly with the reaction to the so-called Pachamama image. The title was given to an object that—by the accounts of those who brought it—had no religious significance at all. The name stuck and was adopted by the secular media. Critics of the Pope used the popularized label as “proof” that it was an idol (Begging the Question fallacy) and when the Pope referred to it using that popularized label, critics seized on that as “proof” that he was “promoting paganism” despite the fact that the Pope said there was no intent to worship it and that the Vatican clarified that the Pope’s use of the term Pachamama was common usage and not a technical description.

Repeating the Rash Judgment

The response of the critics was very much a violation of the Church teaching on false witness^. As the Catechism points out:

2477 Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty:

— of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;
— of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them;
— of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.

2478 To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way:

Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.

When critics do not give a favorable interpretation of what the Pope says, and when they do not accept his statements that reveal a Christian intent in his words and acts, they are judging him rashly (if they assume) and calumniating him (if they do know his intent but say something contrary to it).

At this point, someone might ask me, “How do you know you’re not the one misinterpreting the Pope.” I would reply that, based on the transcripts that report the Pope’s words in full, what he says shows that he very much believes in God, the Catholic Church, and its teachings. I would view any claim that he intends syncretistic or heretical meaning with the same level of disbelief that I would have if someone told me that Elizabeth Warren was in favor of a laissez faire approach to healthcare. That is to say, it is entirely out of character. But many Catholics do not read his writings. They instead rely on brief quotes in articles—which are often drastically out of context. When reading something by Pope Francis, you need to read the whole thing to understand the points he makes.


As always, I don’t write to point fingers at and condemn specific individuals. My intention is to show how certain attitudes of hostility against the Pope have no basis in terms of logic, Church teaching, theology, history, or avoiding false witness. If one wants to avoid falling into error, he or she needs to avoid those accusations and tactics that lead people to dissent while thinking they are the faithful ones.

As St. John Henry Newman pointed out, those who lost faith in the infallibility of the Church—forgetting that God protects His Church from binding us to obey error—have failed to grasp what the Church is and who is in charge. If we do not want to trick ourselves out of the Church, we must cling fast to the Church, trusting that God will always protect the Church from teaching error.

If we refuse to do that, if we think that the Church which does not go where we desire is a Church that errs, then we will be deceived into rejecting what God has made necessary. And, if we reject that Church, we will be rejecting Our Lord who established it (Luke 10:16).



(*) My personal favorite was when one Pope basher called me a “Papist,” which is a term used by anti-Catholic Protestants against faithful Catholics. A Freudian slip perhaps?

(§) I wrote about this HERE. The Saint’s book is available on Kindle if you don’t want to take my word for it. But briefly: there are five positions that he considers. Three he rejects (all involving the claim that the Church can depose the Pope). Two he accepts. Those latter two are: 1. That the Pope cannot be a heretic (I hold this view). 2. That the Pope only stops being Pope if he is a manifest heretic.

(†) Interestingly enough, there has been an editing war going on with Wikipedia’s entry. If the reports are accurately reported, critics of the Pope are editing the article to portray the image as Pachamama and to make it seem that the Pope was implementing the worship of a vile idol.

(^) One priest I know on Facebook pointed out it is also Rash Judgment of the indigenous peoples to assume their actions were idolatrous. I think he makes a good point.

Main image:Lucas Cranach the Elder, Portrait of Martin Luther(1526), Wikimedia Commons

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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/.

How the pope’s critics sound like Luther
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