In talking with friends who are having trouble accepting the teachings of Pope Francis, I have learned not to discount the serious and legitimate concerns they have. They are torn. On the one hand, they know that the papacy is important and efficacious for Christian unity. On the other hand, they firmly believe that what they are hearing from this Pope is flat wrong. For them, we have headed into uncharted territory for which the limited examples of Pope Honorius and Pope John XXII only offer limited insights.

While not a friend, I think one of the most vocal of the “loyal opposition” is Taylor Marshall, who wrote the following on Twitter.

“Catholic options in 2019:

1) #TeamFrancis = Pope Francis is right. His predecessors are wrong.

2) #Recognize&Resist = Francis is valid Pope who must be resisted w filial respect

3) #PseudoResignationism = B16 is still Pope & PF is Antipope

4) Sedevacantism. No Popes since 1958”

There are only two options available to Catholics: The Pope can lead the Church astray or he cannot. The only correct choice is to believe the Pope cannot.  Taylor Marshall states that he is firmly in camp #2, implying he believes the Pope can.

Why is it important to believe that the Pope cannot lead the Church astray? First, we have to understand why the papacy is so important to begin with.

The Pope wears a lot of hats (except the papal tiara, of course), so that it can be difficult to define the point of the papacy. Popes have engaged in a number of activities that seem hardly appropriate for the office, such as commissioning art or waging wars. In modern times, popes are expected to be head of state and head of government, reforming the Curia and at the same time, being a pastor to a billion souls via his Wednesday audiences, just as one example.

But at the end of the day, what is the point of the papacy?  From Jesus we know that the papacy is the foundation upon which the Church is built. A contemporary phrasing is that the Pope is the guarantor of the unity and truth of the faith.  

There are, of course, strong and weak theories about this aspect of papacy. At either end of the spectrum, perhaps we could encapsulate it like so:

  1. The unity of the Church requires that the Pope be impeccable in all respects.
  2. The unity of the Church requires nothing from the Pope himself.

Where does the truth lie? Perhaps not surprisingly, somewhere in the middle.

Yes, popes do a lot of things better or worse than other popes. Some were brilliant and magnanimous. Others were corrupt and maleficent. But the simple question is this: “Was it better to submit to the Pope?” The answer, invariably, despite political and dynastic interests, through wars and corruption, has been and is “yes.”  This is both a theological point as well as a practical point: whatever you think about the Pope, he has always been a guarantor of the unity of the Church in truth even if he himself did not necessarily live out his papacy in a manner worthy of the task.

Unfortunately, we can’t definitely prove this. How do we know for certain that the pope we have today is the one that it supposed to guarantee our unity in the truth? How do we know the Church of today is even true? Ultimately, it is a question of history and of faith; we trust in the Spirit to guide the Church upon the “rock” of the papacy, which Christ instituted, and we believe that this line of popes is validly carried to Pope Francis today. (As Taylor Marshall himself notes, however, there are plenty of folks who believe differently.)

Assuming that the line of popes advanced by the Catholic Church is indeed valid, we know from clear examples in history that the popes are not impeccable and, certainly on this site, no one is claiming that any pope, including the present one, has been. His teachings may very well be revised or clarified by a future Pope or Council (though this isn’t to say that the Pope has erred in his teachings).    

But what’s interesting to note are those people, like my friends and Taylor Marshall, who believe a derivation of #2. They might argue that the papacy is important. They might argue that it’s also important for all Catholics to respect the papacy. But the critical difference here is that for those who adhere to #2, the pope himself need not be actually effective in preserving the unity of the Church in truth. According to them, he can, has, and does lead the Church astray.

In recognizing both the value of the papacy and the apparent (in their mind) error that has been taught, Taylor Marshall and other dissenters have serious and legitimate concerns. Certainly, one cannot obsequiously follow the pope in his error, because this would imply that the pope is above Christ, which is undoubtedly false. If the pope has taught error, the Church must correct the Pope before he causes disunity in the Church or leads it into irreparable harm. Individuals must speak up to force the Pope into orthodoxy before it is too late.

This opens up dangerous avenues of thought. The line of questions might proceed like this:

  1. Who are these people that must correct the Pope?
  2. Did the Holy Spirit intervene to coalesce these people into his true Church regardless of the pope’s teachings?
  3. How do we identify the true Church?
  4. Is the true Church simply all those who respect the papacy (as an office) and adhere to a specific set of previous magisterial teachings?
  5. What is this set of teachings and who is responsible for determining which are acceptable and which aren’t?
  6. If that responsible party is not the current pope, then what role does the pope serve and what authority does he actually have?
  7. If the pope is merely a figurehead, a type of banner around which “true Catholics” rally, does it really matter at all what he teaches?
  8. Since we know that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church, could the pope could teach error indefinitely so long as faithful Catholics remain committed to the papacy in theory?
  9. Is the papacy just an unnecessary accessory or invention?

This is merely a rough sketch of the path to schism which has the potential of occurring at any step along the way. Perhaps there is a good answer somewhere in there that prevents that from happening.

No matter what that answer is, however, if the pope can lead the Church astray, then Catholics must believe in some other principle, besides the papacy itself, by which the unity of the Church in truth may actually be guaranteed. What is this principle? So far, in all the apologetics by our site and others for the papacy, we have made claims and attempted to defend them. We have cited Scripture and Church documents to advance our point, including the most conservative “It is absolutely necessary for the salvation of all human beings that they submit to the Roman Pontiff” and the Vatican Councils. It has been unclear, however, upon what basis modern dissenters claim both to adhere to this same Catholic faith and to have an obligation to correct the Pope.  

Is the unity of the faith solely the result of the direct working of the Holy Spirit in each man? Perhaps it is a system based on knowledge and truth as revealed by Christ to individuals, especially in Scripture but also through previous papal or conciliar pronouncements. We don’t know for sure what dissenters actually believe in, but for it to be theologically valid, dissenters must believe God is acting in a special way in each Catholic who opposes the Pope’s teachings. They must believe that God has given them the grace relevant for preserving unity in truth, but not others, and, paradoxically, most certainly not the Pope.

Any principle which rejects the actual effectiveness of the popes to preserve the people in the unity of the Church in truth and which advances an individualistic, charismatic approach to faith and Tradition would constitute a liberal theology that is at odds with the express language of even the “liberal” Second Vatican Council. Such an interpretation would enable individuals with a variety of beliefs to exalt their opinions and false views to the level of divine inspiration and set up the eventual fractionalization of the Church. This is the slippery slope upon which those who adhere to #2, or even a derivation thereof, walk.

Unlike Protestants who, to their credit, frequently maintain a view of Christian unity in the face of the many Christian denominations, Catholics take unity much more literally–a better word might be “incarnationally.” The Church is called to be visibly one, in belief and in practice. And so, while it would be absolutely wrong to assert that the Holy Spirit has no role in bringing unity to the Church of Christ–the Spirit does work to build true and authentic community–such unity does not occur in merely a “mystical” way. The fullness of unity in Christ does not occur apart from visible union under the pope. As explicitly stated in a variety of Church documents, submission to the pope and his teachings is a prerequisite to the unity of the Church won by the Spirit.

Why does the Church make such a big deal about the papacy? Why does it insist that the pope has special graces to perform his ministry?  Because, ultimately, our entire Church rests upon his shoulders–and not so much his but Christ’s. By the grace of God, the pope is the spokesperson for the will of the Lord. He serves the Church by being obedient to the voice of Christ, and consequently he authoritatively leads the faithful in his care to greater holiness in the truth. To put it most simply, the pope is the only visible guarantee that the present Church is the true Church which Christ founded and which the Spirit sustains.

For a person to firmly believe and declare that the pope has led the Church astray would necessarily upend that person’s entire Catholic faith including Catholic concepts of unity and indirectly the entire, “incarnational” apostolic Tradition. Sadly, this is exactly what many have struggled with and have consequently abandoned the Catholic faith because of it. Note that many who leave may still uphold the “theory” of the papacy; they may strongly believe in the importance of apostolic succession; they just refuse to hold that the current pope is the head of the “true Church,” for whatever reason.

While I appreciate the honesty of those like Taylor Marshall who recognize the importance of the papacy in the midst of their protestations, it is not sufficient to support a papacy apart from the pope. It is necessary to be with the pope himself, because to be opposed to him and his teachings means to be against the unity of the Church.  

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Daniel Amiri is a Catholic layman and finance professional. A graduate of theology and classics from the University of Notre Dame, his studies coincided with the papacy of Benedict XVI whose vision, particularly the framework of "encounter" with Christ Jesus, has heavily influenced his thoughts.  He is a husband and a father to three beautiful children. He serves on parish council and also enjoys playing and coaching soccer.

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