December 10, 2019 (Steven O’Reilly) – Should there be an “imperfect council” to potentially consider whether Pope Francis is a formal heretic and or apostate, and if so determined, to declare the See of Peter vacant?
Over the last few years Catholics have seen only a few courageous cardinals and bishops speak up regarding the actions, words and silences from Rome on various topics. Their efforts to speak up for the truths of the faith have come to us via various Dubia, “manifestos,” “Declarations of Truths,” articles, and interviews. I do not knock these efforts. The problem is that they have been predominantly limited to individual efforts, or limited cooperative or small group initiatives. While these efforts have addressed a true need and have had a positive impact in the lives of the faithful, they appear to be insufficient in the face of the current stage of the crisis in the Church. That is not to say there is necessarily a “sufficient” response or solution, but only that more needs to be on the table at this moment of Church history.
The Shadow of Heresy and Apostasy
Obviously, Amoris Laetitia by itself is a major crisis for the Church which has caused confusion in the minds of the faithful in a number of ways. Even ‘proponents’ of Amoris Laetitia have seemed confused (n. 1) about the meaning of Amoris Laetitia (see The Confusion of the Francis-Apologists and Confusion at Vatican Insider?). In April 2019, a group of Catholic scholars published an Open Letter which accused Francis of the canonical delict of heresy on matters pertaining to Amoris Laetitia (see Accusation of Heresy, here, and here).
Yet, as with the Dubia with the pope, this letter remains unanswered by the body of bishops to whom the letter was addressed. While Amoris Laetitia remains a pressing doctrinal controversy, we now find ourselves with increasing rapidity lurching from one doctrinal crisis to another (e.g., the “inadmissibility of the death penalty” [see here]), and one moral scandal to another (e.g., the McCarrick scandal, a homosexual orgy in Vatican apartment, and Peter Pence funds invested in the movie “Rocket Man”).
To think, less than two months ago, October presented us with the scandal of the Pachamama idolatry at the Amazon Synod which brought to thoughts to mind for many of the “abomination of desolation” (cf Matthew 25:15). Speaking of this scandal, Cardinal Burke reportedly said that a “demonic force” entered St. Peter’s Basilica during the Amazonian synod (see Gloria TV and LifeSite News) and Cardinal Müller opined “hundreds of thousands of Catholics in the Amazon area and wherever the videos of this Roman spectacle have been seen will leave the Church in protest” (Source: LifeSite News “Cardinal Müller warns ‘hundreds of thousands’ will leave Church over Pachamama idolatry” by Dorothy Cummings Mclean).
October also brought to our attention a report from Italian journalist (also a friend of Pope Francis) Eugenio Scalfari who wrote that in his discussions with Francis, the pope had denied the divinity of Christ (see Why blame Scalfari?) — and this on top of a prior interview in which the Pope is alleged to have denied the eternity of Hell. Neither of Scalfari’s reports have been denied by Pope Francis. Then we have Francis signing the Abu Dhabi document which asserted, erroneously, that God willed the diversity of religion. Now, adding insult to this injury to the Catholic Faith, Pope Francis and the Imam who signed the document are proposing that the UN establish a World Day of Human Fraternity (see here and here).
And, as if all the preceding horrors were not enough to dishearten Catholics, the faithful are holding their breath to see what Pope Francis will do in his post-synodal Exhortation on the subject of priestly celibacy and “female deacons” (see here). Further, none of the above even begins to address the Pope’s many assaults and insults directed against traditional religious orders, priests and “rigid” Catholics.
The Faith of Many Believers has been Shaken
Given the above, it is understandable many Catholics are perplexed. Some Catholics have left the Church over the confusion and seeming contradictions of the Faith. One may see on twitter some Catholics appearing to question and even entertain doubts about the teaching of Vatican I on papal infallibility, and others flirt with Eastern Orthodoxy, while other Catholics — a growing number of them — wonder if Francis is a true pope at all and not instead an anti-pope, if not even possibly the False Prophet himself.
One article in the catechism not (yet) changed by Pope Francis is CCC 675 speaks of an end-time deception: “Before Christ’s second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers. The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the ‘mystery of iniquity’ in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth.”
Now, I am not asserting we are definitely in the period described by CCC 675 but it is curious that several Cardinals have referenced this article (CCC 675) from the catechism directly, or at least pointed to the end times when speaking of the present crisis in the Church (and indirectly of Francis). In May 2018, Cardinal Eijk wrote a piece in the National Catholic Register on the controversy in Germany over communion for non-catholic spouses of Catholics. Commenting at the time on the failure of Pope Francis to intervene on the side of orthodoxy in the matter with clarity, Cardinal Eijk opined and then quoted the Catholic Catechism (CCC 675) [see National Catholic Register. “Pope Francis Needed to Give Clarity on Intercommunion” by Cardinal Willem Jacobus Eijk]. Cardinal Burke also suggested the possibility we are in the end times (e.g., see here). Cardinal Müller made reference to CCC 675 in his “Manifesto” and seemingly to Pope Francis who has not answered the Dubia (NB: It should be noted that the Pope is no where mentioned by name in the Manifesto of Faith) when Muller says (emphasis added):
To keep silent about these and the other truths of the Faith and to teach people accordingly is the greatest deception against which the Catechism vigorously warns. It represents the last trial of the Church and leads man to a religious delusion, “the price of their apostasy” (CCC 675); it is the fraud of Antichrist. “He will deceive those who are lost by all means of injustice; for they have closed themselves to the love of the truth by which they should be saved” (2 Thess 2:10).
Above we have three cardinals referencing the end-times and apostasy all with some logical connection to events, words or silences associated with Pope Francis. Cardinal Brandmuller as well, in critiquing the Instrumentum Laboris of the Amazon Synod, wrote: “It is difficult not to think of the eschatological texts of the New Testament!” (see Maike Hickson’s article in LifeSite News “Cdl. Brandmüller: Everything is at stake at the Amazon Synod“, October 17, 2019).
Vatican I and Pastor Aeturnus
There are papolaters among both Francis-defenders and Francis-opponents who would seem to make everything that a pope says infallible, basing themselves on Pastor Aeturnus (the definition of papal infallibility from Vatican I). In our present crisis, this error leads the former to accept all that Francis has said, elevating his many utterances to a magisterial level, while the latter–seeing the errors in what Pope Francis says–are led to reject Francis all together as incompatible with Pastor Aeturnus. This latter group thus denies Francis was ever pope.
However, common sense suggests that if everything a pope might say or write is infallible, the First Vatican Council’s definition in Pastor Aeturnus specifying the unique and requisite conditions for papal infallibility would not have been necessary (see Of infallible popes and the (chronically) fallible Mr. Walford). It must be remembered that Pastor Aeturnus only dealt with the pope as a public person and did not intend to address the question of the pope as a private person. As Rev. James T. O’Connor points out in his translation of Bishop Vincent Gasser’s Official Relatio of the draft of Pastor Aeturnus: “Using Robert Bellarmine as a source, Gasser maintains this (NB: i.e., the inability of the pope to fall into heresy as even a private person) is a probable and pious opinion, but, it is not this opinion that the Draft proposes to define since Gasser has been at pains to stress that the Draft is treating the Pope in his role as a public person, supreme teacher of the Church, when he defines doctrine of faith or morals for the entire Church, a position Bellarmine held as “common and certain.” (The Gift of Infallibility: The Official Relatio on Infallibility of Bishop Vincent Gasser at Vatican Council I. Translated with commentary by Rev. James T. O’Conner. St. Paul Editions, 1986. P. 54).
Pastor Aeturnus only speaks of a pope not erring and having unfailing faith as it says, in limited circumstances, when as a public person and as supreme teacher he defines doctrine of faith and morals for the entire Church. It does not appear to me that Pope Francis has anywhere made such a definition. Thus, Vatican I is saved.
As I said in Part III of a prior rebuttal to Stephen Walford, in cases of papal errors in history (e.g., Honorius, John XXII, Celestine III), we certainly see the sort of confusion that might occur in doctrine, discipline or pastoral care when a pope’s words and judgments do not meet the limited conditions which govern the gift of infallibility. However, in considering the case of Pope Francis, I believe some tend to limit the hypothetical nightmare scenarios of what God might allow by imagining potential papal errors only through the prism of what we know to have happened in the past. This forgets that (1) to those who lived either before or through the times of Honorius or John XXII that some of their papal acts and or omissions might have seemed unimaginable–in the moment–with respect to the promises made by our Lord to Peter; and that (2) there might be even worse scenarios (i.e., Francis), in kind or degree, which are possible–even if not previously imagined. Therefore, one should take caution not to fall into one of the two extremes when living in times of such confusion and potential error; that is, where either one begins to doubt the Lord’s promises to Peter, or one adopts the errors of a wayward pope out of an exaggerated understanding of papal infallibility.
However, the above said, there are credible challenges to the opinion a pope could not fall into formal heresy when not exercising his office as supreme teacher (see the Open Letter). We see, for example, the example of the High Priest in the gospel accounts who was able to prophesy in virtue of his office, even though he himself – at the same time – denied Jesus Christ: “And this he spoke not of himself: but being the high priest of that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation” (John 11:51). Might we then, by analogy to the High Priest (cf John 11:51), consider the possibility of a pope who — while not rejecting the faith by an act in his office of supreme teacher — might yet still fall from the faith?
Do Not Let the Perfect be the Enemy of the Good
As I suggested at the outset, the initiatives of a few cardinals and bishops to date (e.g., Manifestos, Declarations of Truth, articles, interviews, etc.) are welcome and praiseworthy. However, looking ahead, I do not believe these are sufficient moving forward, given the trajectory of this pontificate and the increasing pace of the crisis. It does not appear these initiatives have gotten wide enough circulation. Granted, though anecdotal, I am continually amazed at the number of faithful Catholics that appear to be unaware of the crisis–and are thus vulnerable to the errors that are spreading. Therefore, it seems that the few “resisting” prelates (Burke, Brandmuller, Muller, etc.) need to now engage in a combined effort which is commensurate with the gravity of the threats to the Faith and to Catholics. I don’t think it wise to defer the question any longer, as was done with the “correction” of Pope Francis, which never materialized. Pope Francis might sit on the throne of Peter for another several or more years. What then? Thus, an imperfect council seems to me to be the logical next step. Necessity demands it.
With all the above in mind, let’s return to the question that led off this article: “Should there be an “imperfect council” to potentially consider whether Pope Francis is a formal heretic and or apostate, and if he is, to declare the See of Peter vacant?” (see Time for an imperfect council to consider the case of an imperfect pope). In March 2019 Bishop Athanasius Schneider weighed in and seemed to say “no” to an imperfect council (see Rorate Caeli Guest Op-Ed – Bishop Schneider: On the question of a heretical pope; and here). Cardinal Burke, at least at one point in time, seemed to be favorably inclined to the possibility, at least on a hypothetical basis (see interview with Catholic World Report (12/19/2016 and What to do with a heretical pope…Nothing?).
There is a diversity of opinion among prelates and scholars on the subject of a heretical pope and how or whether the see of Peter could be declared vacant in such a case. For example, a couple years ago there was a conference of scholars which discussed the hypothetical case of a heretical pope. However, the attending scholars failed to reach a consensus conclusion on the question (see Paris conference on deposing a heretical pope looks to the past, not the present). To what degree this outcome reflects the sentiment of the broader population of Catholic scholars and prelates on the question, I cannot say.
The “perfect” scenario would be to know at the outset what could or should be done with a heretical pope before calling a council. That said, I don’t see why the present lack of consensus on the question of “what to do with a heretical pope?” should stand in the way of calling an “imperfect council” which could at least address the first questions: “is the man we consider pope really pope (n.2), and if he is, is he a formal heretic or apostate?” I see no reason why an imperfect council could not meet and limit itself, at least at the outset, to addressing these specific, practical questions and offering probable conclusions and suitable guidance.
This imperfect council should meet to reach conclusions on these questions, inviting all bishops to attend — even scholars and bishops favorable to Pope Francis, who might offer a defense of him on disputed points. Francis himself should be invited and given the opportunity to clarify his position on the disputed questions. However, the bottom line seems to be this: If Francis is not a valid pope, the faithful must be warned; or if Francis is teaching heresy and apostasy on some point, the faithful must be warned. In such an event that the imperfect council warns us Francis is a heretic or apostate, the question of “what to do with a heretical pope?” — i.e., whether to declare the See of Peter empty — becomes secondary. The faithful in such a case would at least be forewarned to shun and ignore the pope, unless — curiously enough — he teaches within the conditions of Pastor Aeturnus.
In the meantime, let us pray for Pope Francis that he remembers the Lord’s words to Peter: “Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you like wheat. But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou being once converted, confirm thy brethren” (Luke 22:31-32).
Steven O’Reilly is a graduate of the University of Dallas and the Georgia Institute of Technology. A former intelligence officer, he and his wife, Margaret, live near Atlanta with their family. He has written apologetic articles and is author of Book I of the Pia Fidelis trilogy, The Two Kingdoms. (Follow on twitter at @fidelispia for updates). He asks for your prayers for his intentions. He can be contacted at StevenOReilly@AOL.com (or follow on Twitter: @S_OReilly_USA).
Note 1: This blog in a three part article previously responded to Stephen Walford’s book which defended his interpretation of Amoris Laetitia (see here, here and here). Also, Roma Locuta Est has address Where Peter Is and its justification for Amoris Laetitia (see On the Doctrine of Mitigating Circumstances).
Note 2: While I believe it is a longshot, I don’t exclude the possibility that a future pope might declare the conclave which elected Pope Francis invalid, thereby making him an anti-pope or false pope. There are various arguments that suggest the possibility of this conclusion, some less credible than others. The weakest of these I rate to be the claim Francis is an illegitimate pope because “Benedict is still pope”; I find this theory lacking in any convincing evidence (see here, here, here, here, here, here and here).
Other arguments center on a defect in the 2013 conclave, like some relevant violation of Universis Domini Gregis, the papal legislation governing conclaves, due to the involvement of the St. Gallen Group, or outside powers. There are some intriguing questions (e.g., here and here). but these lack sufficient proof or evidence that would invalidate the conclave. One problem with the conspiracy theories is this. UDG specifically declares simony does not invalidate a conclave. Thus, if a financially based conspiracy does not invalidate, how could one that does not involve simony invalidate the conclave? Thus, it seems to me that one would have prove there was an active plot to secure Benedict’s resignation, and to elect Cardinal Bergoglio. The only other option I can imagine would be to demonstrate a foreign power influenced the election outcome.
Another means by which a conclave could, theoretically, be invalidated would be to appeal to Cum ex Apostolatus Officio which seems to suggest a heretic or apostate could not be validly elected pope. Dr. Roberto de Mattei hinted at this in his book (see Dr. Mattei and “Filial Resistance to the Pope”) though he does not provide how this might be the case of Francis, though there are questions whether his actions as bishop of Buenos Aires were schismatic (see Amoris Laetitia: A history of doctrinal development or of doctrinal dissent?). All the above said with regard to Cum ex Apostolatus, there are significant issues with using the document for this purpose as noted in an excellent article on the Unam Sanctam Catholicam (see here).
Aside from the arguments above, the other one with which I am familiar–and personally find most intriguing–argues that while the 2013 conclave was a valid one, Cardinal Bergoglio was not free to accept his election to the papacy. I outline the argument in Curiouser and Curiouser: Who Dispensed Jorge Bergoglio SJ from his vows? and address some questions to a canon lawyer in A Discussion of Cardinal Bergoglio’s Jesuit Vows and the 2013 Conclave).
I do believe an imperfect council should include as part of its purpose a review of the arguments and evidence for an invalid election or acceptance of an election.