There is only one rock on which it is worthwhile to place everything. This rock is the one to whom Christ said: ‘You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church.’
— Pope Benedict XVI
Meeting with Youth at Błonie Park
27 May 2006
Today is the Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter, Apostle, which commemorates the visible source of unity in the Church—the Successor of Peter, the pope. Communion with the pope is vital to the Church because, as the First Vatican Council taught, “this See of St. Peter always remains unblemished by any error, in accordance with the divine promise of our Lord and Savior to the prince of his disciples… 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” (Pastor Aeternus 7-8).
The above words from Vatican I have been explained away, qualified, and negated by prominent self-described “orthodox” Catholics to a degree that threatens our unity and doctrinal coherence. It is shaking the faithful’s understanding of what it means to be Catholic, and what it means to follow the teachings of the faith.
Many of us have witnessed what’s happening at the parish level, where countless good, well-meaning, committed Catholics (as well as seminarians, priests, deacons, sisters, and bishops) are embracing this anti-papal propaganda. We have also seen so many devoted Catholics swallow apocalyptic conspiracy theories whole—succumbing to the persistent message that to be a “faithful” Catholic requires resistance to Pope Francis and rejection of “establishment” narratives (whether in science, health, history, or politics). This message is imposed relentlessly on US Catholics by media figures, hierarchs, and pastors who are seeking to turn the faithful against Pope Francis and to advance political agendas. These narratives are, in turn, spread widely within networks of trust—parishes, communities, and families—to a much greater degree than many of the issues that seem to preoccupy our hierarchy and the Catholic press.
Historically, such conflicts between Rome and high-ranking bishops have resulted in schism by those who believe themselves to be “more Catholic than the pope.” Sadly, there are many in today’s Church who have used this phrase unironically against Pope Francis. I would suggest that this sentiment is spreading more widely than any time in living memory (including Vatican II and its aftermath). Thanks to social media and the globalization of information, reactionary traditionalist ideas have a much wider reach today than, for example, when Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira started their movements in the second half of the twentieth century.
Yesterday’s episode of 60 Minutes mentioned a recent American Enterprise Institute study revealing that almost 20% of white Catholics in the US believe that the QAnon conspiracy theory is true. We have written in the past on how many tenets of today’s conspiracy theories have been promoted by bishops, including Cardinal Raymond Burke (who claimed that the Covid-19 vaccine would contain a microchip that “needs to be placed under the skin of every person, so that at any moment he or she can be controlled by the State regarding health and about other matters which we can only imagine”), Bishop Joseph Strickland (who signed an open letter that asserted that public health measures for Covid were part of “a disturbing prelude to the realization of a world government beyond all control”), and of course Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò (who DW Lafferty has described as “The Redpilled Pope of the Qatholic Church.”)
The prominence of figures such as these poses a serious challenge from within the Church to embrace and live out Christ’s promise of the Pope’s enduring fidelity to the truth. They also threaten to significantly undermine the Church’s claim to a cohesive relationship between Faith and Reason (cf. Fides et Ratio 16). The reliance on pseudoscience and false prophecy by people who have prominent positions in the Church is another blow to our credibility.
Sadly, many leaders in the US Church don’t approach the mainstream scientific community with much respect, and often instead rely on the ideas of discredited pseudoscientists and celebrities. Fortunately—while Pope Francis is a religious, rather than scientific, authority himself—we do have a pontiff who respects and relies upon the expertise of scientific, medical, and public health authorities.
But more importantly, as Catholics, we are taught that the pope is the rock of the Catholic faith, and that when Catholics—even bishops and cardinals—stray from truth on matters of faith and morals, Christ has provided safe harbor in the person of the Successor of Peter. As Pope St. John Paul II taught in November 1992, “The ‘Rock’ of which Jesus spoke is properly the person of Simon. Jesus said to him: ‘You are Kephas.’ The context of this statement enables us to understand better the sense of that ‘you-person.’ … The word ‘rock’ expresses a permanent, subsisting being; therefore, it applies to the person, rather than to one of his necessarily transitory acts.”
The Catechism teaches, “The Lord made Simon alone, whom he named Peter, the ‘rock’ of his Church. He gave him the keys of his Church and instituted him shepherd of the whole flock” (CCC, 881). This applies to the current pope just as much as it has to Peter and each of his successors. Accepting this requires trust, it is a trust that Jesus Christ himself asked of us. He gave the keys to Peter, and it is upon us to place our hope and confidence that Christ will preserve the truth of the Catholic Church, without blemish, under the leadership of a man from Argentina named Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who we now know as Pope Francis.
While the other successors to the apostles, the bishops, play a key role in teaching and governing the Church, they only do so when joined with Peter. Lumen Gentium teaches, “For our Lord placed Simon alone as the rock and the bearer of the keys of the Church, and made him shepherd of the whole flock; it is evident, however, that the power of binding and loosing, which was given to Peter, was granted also to the college of apostles, joined with their head” (22).
Bishops (and especially cardinals) do the Church no favors when they work to undermine the pope in the exercise of his office. When they become unmoored from the rock that is the Successor of Peter, they are about as helpful as a pebble in a shoe. They make walking the path of faith more difficult for the entire Church. As Pope St. John XXIII wrote, “Every bishop is subject to the Roman pontiff, the successor of Saint Peter, whom Christ called a rock and made the foundation of His Church. It was to Peter that Christ gave in a special way the power to bind and loose on earth, to strengthen his brethren, to feed the entire flock” (Ad Petri Cathedram, 73).
That said, the pope needs the help of the bishops. In his commentary on the rite of inauguration of the Petrine ministry, the former Master of Papal Liturgical Celebrations, Archbishop Piero Marini wrote, “as the Fathers of the Church emphasized, in the Gospel accounts it is always in the presence of the apostles, and never without them, that Jesus makes Peter the rock of the Church and shepherd of his flock.” Pope Pius XI also affirmed this, writing to his brother bishops in his encyclical Ubi Arcano Dei Consilio, “You are the links of gold, as it were, by which ‘the whole body of Christ, which is the Church, is held compacted and fitly joined together’ (Ephesians iv, 15, 16), built as it is on the solid rock of Peter.”
But this relationship of necessity must be one of collegiality, trust, and respect. When a bishop’s stance towards the Vicar of Christ is adversarial—or if he simply cannot accept the legitimacy of the pope’s Magisterial authority over the Church, it is better that he step aside than to continue to work against the pope. If he is a cardinal, who has taken a special oath to be “constantly obedient to the Holy Apostolic Roman Church, to Blessed Peter in the person of the Supreme Pontiff,” he has an even more grave responsibility to support the pope in his work.
Unfortunately, under Pope Francis, this has not always been the case. We all remember how in late 2016 four dissenting Cardinals released a document that has been called “the dubia,” but was really little more than a thinly veiled assault on the person of Pope Francis and on the Office of the Successor of Peter. Soon after, one of their brother bishops delivered what remains the most powerful response from a bishop on this scandal. Bishop Frangiskos Papamanolis of Greece admonished them, writing, “Before publishing it and, even more, before writing it, you should have gone to see our Holy Father Francis and asked to be removed from the list of the College of Cardinals. Besides, you should not have used the title ‘Cardinal’ to give prestige to what you wrote, to be consistent with your conscience and to lessen the scandal you have given by writing as Cardinals.”
It is no coincidence that exactly 23 years ago today, Pope St. John Paul II reaffirmed the solemn duty of cardinals in the Church to support and obey the pope. The day after a consistory naming 22 new cardinals, John Paul spoke about how he would soon be presenting each of them with “the cardinalitial ring, a sign of the special spousal bond now linking them to the Church of Rome, which presides in charity.” In the same homily, he reminded them of the importance of the office of the pope, to whom they now had a unique responsibility to uphold and support. He explained, “The ministry, entrusted to Peter and his Successors, of being the solid rock on which the ecclesial community is supported is the guarantee of the Church’s unity, the safeguarding of the integrity of the deposit of faith and the foundation of the communion of all the members of God’s People.”
Three years later, John Paul held his so-called “mega-consistory.” He reminded the 37 new cardinals of their duty to support the pope, saying, “Your service to the Church is also expressed in assisting and collaborating with the Successor of Peter, in order to lighten the burden of a ministry that extends to the ends of the earth.” This diverse group included many who have been noteworthy figures during Francis’s papacy, including* Cardinals Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, Wilfrid Napier, Cláudio Hummes, the now-defrocked Theodore McCarrick, and—yes—Jorge Mario Bergoglio himself. John Paul went on to tell them that the link between the successor of Peter and the cardinals made them, “in a new way, eloquent signs of communion. If you promote communion, the entire Church will benefit.”
Certainly there are many good bishops and cardinals who take seriously their duty to support the pope and assist him in his work. In fact, many are working hard to dispel false narratives and counter the resistance and antagonism towards Pope Francis. But more hands means lighter work. Let us pray that through the intercession of St. Peter and the Apostles, the bishops of the Church will work together with urgency and devotion to build up unity around the Chair of St. Peter, the Rock, and to support Pope Francis and all future popes.
*Correction 23 Feb 2021: The list of cardinals created at the 2001 consistory in a previous version of this article was incorrect. The list has been updated.
Image: Alberto Luccaroni User:Luccaro – done on my own, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=905356