On Thursday, Where Peter Is began receiving unusually high web traffic coming from YouTube. After a little poking around I realized that viewers were being directed to our site from the latest video by an outfit called “Rules for Retrogrades.” In it, host Timothy Gordon – whom you may know as Taylor Marshall’s former podcast partner, spouse to Ask Your Husband scribe Stephanie Gordon, star of the trailer for the possibly-upcoming documentary film The Greatest Reset, or coauthor of the provocatively-entitled Don’t Go to College – begins with an attempt to critique Matthew Shadle’s response to the recent open letter accusing Pope Francis of heresy.[1]

After Gordon finished discussing the article, he moved on to other topics, including his thoughts on a recent livestream debate over whether the last 6 popes were really popes. The two debaters were Peter Dimond (of the Most Holy Family Monastery in upstate New York[2]) and Jeff Cassman, a former most-wanted fugitive and confidence man who now regularly turns up on the internet to defend the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X (SSPX). In the debate, Dimond (who took the sedevacantist[3] position) confidently delivered a barrage of authoritative papal teachings that Cassman (being a radical traditionalist) admitted that he refuses to accept but had difficulty explaining why.

Noting how poorly Cassman performed in the debate, Gordon then began lamenting that the Church has failed to explain with authority how the Magisterium works. Gordon’s confusion is understandable, because, frankly, his position (which is similar to Cassman’s) doesn’t add up. How can someone, all at the same time, (1) profess to be a Catholic who is totally obedient to Church authority and tradition, (2) recognize that Pope Francis is truly the Successor of Peter and validly holds the office of Roman Pontiff, and (3) reject the authenticity of the teachings and disciplinary decisions of Pope Francis when he exercises his authority?

These three positions simply can’t stand together, which is why a fake monk who believes that Baptism of Desire is heretical and that popular magicians David Copperfield and David Blaine “are really sorcerers who use demonic power” (yes, really) gave Cassman an embarrassing thrashing in the debate. We’ve been pointing out for some time now that the “recognize-and-resist” theory cannot be reconciled with Catholicism. Sedevacantism – as implausible, paranoid, and conspiracy-driven as it is – is more logically coherent than the position advanced in one form or another by the likes of Cassman, Gordon, the SSPX, The Remnant, Cardinal Raymond Burke, Bishop Athanasius Schneider, assorted EWTN talking heads, whoever is running First Things these days, those who sign letters accusing Pope Francis of heresy, and the many everyday Catholics they influence.

As I wrote in 2019, “While the SSPX and Sedevacantists agree on many of the same principles about the Church since Vatican II regarding the liturgy, theology, and magisterial teaching (they don’t like it), sedevacantists like to draw attention to one fairly obvious point: if you believe he’s the pope, then why do you disobey him and denounce his teachings?” On the other hand, if – like Dimond – you say there’s no pope, you can argue whatever you want and claim that if there was a real pope, he’d agree with you.

The tradeoff, of course, is that as soon as someone publicly breaks communion with the man that the rest of the universe recognizes as pope, they will lose whatever clout they have in the institutional Church and the world moves on without them. This might explain why every noteworthy attempt to depose Pope Francis or declare him an antipope has been anemic and has ultimately gone nowhere. Many of Pope Francis’s critics are in comfortable positions in the institutional Church that they would likely lose if they went into open schism. Best to wait him out, it seems.

Clearly in agreement that sedevacantism is not an option, Timothy Gordon seems to want someone to fit the square peg of the “recognize-and-resist” ideology into the round hole of orthodox and traditional Catholic ecclesiology. About an hour into his video, Gordon points out, “An ex cathedra statement is infallible, but you know what? Lower-level Magisterium statements by popes like this, in a magisterial document … That still requires submission – religious submission of will and intellect.”

(For the record, this is precisely the point that we have been making since we launched this website.)

Gordon continued, “You can’t just blow that off even though it’s clear error, even though it’s clear contradiction of scriptures. So people just start talking about Denzinger or Cardinal Newman.” Gordon never pauses to consider whether he’s wrong and the magisterial teachings aren’t in error and aren’t in contradiction with tradition, which is what the last six popes and the bishops of the world have been teaching since the Council (just as their predecessors did before the council).

Gordon is exactly right that there isn’t a single recognize-and-resist Catholic out there who can actually point to a single legitimate, official Church teaching that defends their rejection of the authority of the pope. They will point to each other’s arguments, they will point to speculation from theologians and canonists of past centuries, they will even claim – as Peter Kwasniewski has – that somehow faithful Catholics “are capable of recognizing that the pope is assaulting souls or destroying the Church at a given moment or with a given policy” (and presumably agree with Peter Kwasniewski when it happens).

The fact is that none of this is founded on Church authority. To be clear: there is no teaching of the Church that allows for the possibility of a pope officially teaching heresy, and there is no teaching of the Church that allows for the correction of a pope. Church law and doctrine simply do not acknowledge that this is possible. Those who make charges against Pope Francis and seek to “correct” him have simply concluded, on their own (bolstered by each other’s arguments and debatable historical justifications), that he is a heretic. They have decided – with no doctrinal or canonical grounds – that it’s okay to “resist the pope.” They then get to work trying to make up imaginative ways to justify their dissent (so that they don’t have to call it dissent).

And the fact is, deep down many of them know it. Some of them even admit to it, while at the same time trying to justify their opposition to the pope. For example, death penalty apologist Edward Feser suggests that these rules don’t exist because “it would be potentially misleading and destabilizing explicitly to formulate a policy concerning what to [do] in such a situation. Hence you won’t find in the Catechism a section on what to do about a bad pope.” Feser apparently seems to think that the Church (through all her councils, canons, and doctrinal teaching over two millennia) has deliberately withheld from teaching on a matter of such gravity… to spare our feelings?

And with this sort of justification, Feser and countless others have cooked up various rationalizations and loopholes to ease their consciences when they call the pope heterodox, a heretic, an apostate, and an enemy of the faith. You will rarely find two of them who agree on precisely which things Pope Francis has done that are wrong, how serious each error is, or what can and should be done about it. That’s because it’s difficult to get a group of Catholics to reach a consensus when the one thing they all agree on is that they don’t agree with the one person in the Church who has the authority to settle such doctrinal questions.

Occasionally a traditionalist will see through this inadequate solution. Such as Timothy Gordon, in the video, when he says, “We need a clear architectonic – a clear ‘org chart’ of Catholic Magisterium.”

Then, as if a lightbulb went off in his head, he exclaimed, “How the Magisterium works should be in the freaking Catechism!”

He breaks down what he thinks is needed and what he thinks is missing: “It should be like, ‘Here are the levels.’ Why are these ‘theories’? Why are the levels of magisterium [just] theories by Ott, by Denzinger, by Newman. Why is this?” What Gordon is referring to here are what are often referred to as “Theological Notes.” In the years before and after the First Vatican Council, it became clear that on various matters, the Church has teachings with different levels of authority. Several prominent theologians constructed their own charts of the “levels” of magisterial teachings – assigning degrees of certainty and importance to different doctrines and theological propositions. It wasn’t until the Second Vatican Council that the levels of magisterial authority and assent were laid out authoritatively.

Seemingly unaware of any of these more recent magisterial acts, Gordon went on: “There has to be a magisterial statement about the levels of Magisterium. That’s our biggest weakness, and that’s what’s leading to all this. And it’s the real issue with Francis, and it’s the real issue with some of the ambiguities of the Vatican II, post-Vatican II era.”

Fortunately, Timothy Gordon is in luck!

There is a section in the Catechism of the Catholic Church under the heading, “The Teaching Office.” Beginning at no. 888, this section lays out quite clearly the nature, mission, and purpose of the Magisterium. Nos. 891-892 discuss the different levels of Magisterium and how the faithful should respond to the teachings of each level:

891 “The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful – who confirms his brethren in the faith he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals. … The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter’s successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium,” above all in an Ecumenical Council. When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine “for belief as being divinely revealed,” and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions “must be adhered to with the obedience of faith.” This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself.

892 Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a “definitive manner,” they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful “are to adhere to it with religious assent” which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it.

This neat little package gives a very clear overview of the types of teachers (bishops, pope, ecumenical councils), the types of teaching (infallible, ordinary), and the types of assent required (obedience of faith, religious assent). There are also all kinds of cross-references and footnotes to assist in understanding this.[4]

Still, one might argue, “The Catechism is a thick book, and certainly one can’t be expected to open it up or read its contents online!”

Well, if that is the case, in 1989, Saint John Paul II issued a document called the “Profession of Faith,” which is much shorter, only a few paragraphs. It consists of the Creed, followed by three paragraphs:

With firm faith, I also believe everything contained in the word of God, whether written or handed down in Tradition, which the Church, either by a solemn judgment or by the ordinary and universal Magisterium, sets forth to be believed as divinely revealed.

I also firmly accept and hold each and everything definitively proposed by the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals.

Moreover, I adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman Pontiff or the College of Bishops enunciate when they exercise their authentic Magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act.

Before the Catechism and the Profession, these levels of Magisterium (and the required assent) were also promulgated in the Vatican II Constitution of the Church, Lumen Gentium (no. 25), and in Book III of the 1983 Code of Canon Law. Providing even more clarity is the Doctrinal Commentary on the concluding formula of the Profession of Faith, prepared by then-Cardinals Joseph Ratzinger and Tarcisio Bertone.

But I don’t think that’s the type of clarity that Timothy Gordon really wants. He wants loopholes, asterisks, exceptions to the norms. Like a progressive Catholic who wants exceptions to various moral doctrines, Gordon wants permission from the Church’s Magisterium to disregard what the Magisterium clearly teaches. He’s not going to get that from the Church. He can get it from Edward Feser, Christian Brugger, Peter Kwasniewski, or Jeff Cassman, but they aren’t the Magisterium. Neither are Bishops Strickland or Schneider or even Cardinal Burke when their teaching is not in unity with the pope’s and the bishops teaching in communion with him.

The truth that they are unwilling to face is that according to the Church, many of the ideas to which they have strong attachments – from Feser’s unwavering support for the death penalty, to Kwasniewski’s denial of the pope’s authority to regulate the liturgy, to Brugger’s idea that Amoris Laetitia is heretical, to Gordon’s claim that there is “no Christian feminism and no good feminism,” to Cardinal Burke’s notion that it is possible to correct a pope on matters of doctrine – are not aligned with the Catholic faith, no matter how much they would like them to be.

Christ commands us to let go of whatever is holding us back, to pick up the cross, and to follow him. For many of us, that’s too much to bear.

And that’s the true hurdle to unity within the Church.


[1] It seems that Gordon didn’t understand Matthew Shadle’s article or comprehend the points he was making. In brief, Gordon suggests that Shadle, in correcting the open letter’s inadequate grasp of the scriptural references in Desiderio Desideravi, makes an even stronger case that the document is heretical than the letter-writers.

Shadle simply noted in the beginning of his critique that the open letter failed to grasp the full scriptural context of the pope’s reference to the image of the wedding garment. As Robert Fastiggi said in his critique, “The Holy Father is speaking about the desire of Christ for all to be united with Him in the heavenly banquet of the Supper of the Lamb.” Both Fastiggi and Shadle are saying that the signatories seem to ignore Francis’s scripture reference (Rev 19:9) and associate the statement with the parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22, which is representative of the Eucharistic banquet.

What Gordon and the letter-writers seem to miss (or deliberately omit) is that in the same paragraph of Desiderio Desideravi, Pope Francis says that the “whiteness” of the garment is a result of it being “bathed in the blood of the Lamb.” in the same paragraph Francis also issues a warning to Christians about the very real possibility that we may lose the garment: “We must not allow ourselves even a moment of rest … knowing that others have forgotten it or have got lost along the way in the twists and turns of human living” (DD 5).

[2] For more information on this organization, “Most Holy Family Monastery” in Fillmore, New York, which is not a recognized Catholic organization and is not in any way affiliated with the official Catholic Church, you can watch this brief (under 3 minutes) video of Jimmy Akin discussing the organization. For a more in-depth exploration of their errors, please visit the website created by the father of one of their former “monks”: http://www.23rdstreet.com/. This group has also been classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

[3] Sedevacantism (from the Latin sede vacante, meaning “the chair is vacant”) is the notion, held by a minority of radical traditionalists, that there is currently no valid pope. Typically, they believe that the Second Vatican Council and all the popes since the election of St. John XXIII in 1958 have been illegitimate (usually based upon the idea that they are some combination of freemasons, communist infiltrators, or modernist heretics). They also typically reject the sacramental validity of the reformed liturgical rites.

[4] For a much more thorough and in-depth breakdown of Gordon’s video, check out Michael Lofton’s “Reason and Theology” video (warning: it’s long).

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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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