Anti-Francis Catholics frequently identify themselves as “orthodox” or as strict adherents to Church teaching. While doing so, they must reconcile those claims with the fact that they have chosen to reject the official teachings of the current pope as heretical or doctrinally erroneous. In many cases, they will dismiss magisterial acts as mere opinions or prudential judgments. When presented with the teaching that religious assent must be granted to even the non-definitive magisterial teachings of the pope on matters of faith and morals (Canon 752), the typical response is that this insistence to obedience is ultramontanism, and contradicts what was taught by the Church during the pontificates of his predecessors.
This claim is problematic because they can’t reconcile it with the actual words of past popes. In fact, during previous pontificates, many of these anti-Francis Catholics frequently cited the statements defending the authority of the Popes to bind and loose (cf. Matthew 16:19). No previous Pope would have considered his teachings optional. For example, St. John Paul II taught:
This supreme authority of the papal Magisterium, to which the term apostolic has been traditionally reserved, even in its ordinary exercise derives from the institutional fact that the Roman Pontiff is the Successor of Peter in the mission of teaching, strengthening his brothers, and guaranteeing that the Church’s preaching conforms to the “deposit of faith” of the apostles and of Christ’s teaching. However, it also stems from the conviction, developed in Christian tradition, that the Bishop of Rome is also the heir to Peter in the charism of special assistance that Jesus promised him when he said: “I have prayed for you” (Lk 22:32). This signifies the Holy Spirit’s continual help in the whole exercise of the teaching mission, meant to explain revealed truth and its consequences in human life.
For this reason, the Second Vatican Council states that all the Pope’s teaching should be listened to and accepted, even when it is not given ex cathedra but is proposed in the ordinary exercise of his Magisterium with the manifest intention of declaring, recalling and confirming the doctrine of faith. It is a consequence of the institutional fact and spiritual inheritance that completes the dimensions of the succession to Peter. (General Audience, March 17, 1993)
St. John Paul did not invent this teaching. He based it on the consistent Catholic teaching on how the Church exercises her magisterial authority. In fact, throughout history, the only Catholics who proposed the same arguments as Francis’s critics are those who broke with the Church. Traditionally, those who argued that a pope could err or that his teachings were “opinions” were those who the pope had ruled against.
Understanding this, we begin to see the real problem underlying the attacks on Pope Francis. Whether the critics act out of defiance or out of ignorance, they do not like that his teachings differ from their interpretation of Catholic doctrine. Ultimately, they simply think his words should match their views. This has been a problem throughout the history of the Church. It might have been a result of confusion between moral and doctrinal error. Many critics seem to think that the existence of morally bad popes in history means that this pope can teach doctrinal error. But that’s a non sequitur, as the Church clearly teaches that a pope can be protected from teaching error† even if he acts wrongly in his personal behavior. Appeals to Pope John XII and others as examples of “bad popes” are irrelevant to the question of the possibility of a pope teaching error.
Once we recognize this error among papal critics, their justification for disobedience vanishes. Yes, Saint Paul withstood Saint Peter to his face (Galatians 2:14). But this was not because of any teaching error by Peter, but because when he withdrew from the Gentiles to avoid conflict with Jewish Christians, it led some to think that Jewish practices were required—against St. Peter’s own teaching (Acts 15:7-11).
We need to realize that the critics who claim to defy the Successor of Peter out of love for the Church are—at best—misled about the teaching authority of the Church. The teaching of the pope is the teaching of the Church. Laudato Si’ and Amoris Laetitia are official Catholic Church teachings and not opinions or “prudential judgments.”
It appears that these critics are declaring themselves judge and jury over the teachings of the pope. They claim to hold the correct interpretation of the Church teaching and refuse to consider the interpretations of those who are entrusted with that authority to clarify and deny the teachings. As long as they continue to have this attitude, they will refuse to consider any authoritative correction of errors in their understanding. This is dangerous because, while it is easy to correct someone who is innocently mistaken about what the Church teaches, being obstinately opposed to what the Church teaches is the definition of heresy (canon 751).
The tragedy of the modern critics is that they have invented a “theology” of dissent that makes a variety of false claims, such as the idea that a pope can be a formal heretic and teach error, or that he can be deposed by the Church. None of this is actually taught by the Magisterium. Canon 1404 says, “The First See is judged by no one.” Throughout the history of the Church, only those in dissent have tried to claim that they could.
In the past, there have been morally bad popes. There may be more of them in the future. I deny the notion that Pope Francis is one of those. But even if he was, this has never meant that past popes have ever taught error in their official teaching. Yes, some disciplines may have been changed for the needs of the time, and some development of understanding have led to the prohibition of things once tolerated. But it was not a case of the Church once taught evil was all right but now it’s wrong. ‡
In this time when people are willing to justify disobedience in the name of fidelity to the Church, we should remember that the new champions of this argument are simply using the same old errors. Such Catholics cannot be considered “orthodox” when they argue that dissent against the teachings of the pope is justified. It’s the same old error, but with new actors playing the part.
(†) For example, a thoroughly wicked Pope might be prevented by the Holy Spirit from teaching at all to prevent an erroneous teaching.
(‡) Sometimes Churchmen would support evils like torture or slavery. These are what we would call vicious customs. They were not invented by the Church. Rather, the local customs (often pre-Christian) were accepted as the norm. Slavery had been on the decline during the middle ages to the point that, when Europeans began taking slaves in the Canary Isles, Pope Eugene responded (1435) with an angry denunciation in Sicum Dudet. The worst one could say is that the some of those leading the Church stayed silent when it should have spoken. But that’s a moral failing on the part of the individual.
Image: Luther Before the Diet of Worms by Anton von Werner (1843–1915). Wikimedia Commons.
An earlier version of this piece, “New Actors Playing an Old Part: The “Theology” Of Dissent,” appeared on David Wanat’s personal blog, If I Might Interject.