Can the Pope Betray Us?

THE NOW WORD ON MASS READINGS
for October 8th, 2014

Liturgical texts here

 

The subject matter of this meditation is so important, that I am sending this to both my daily readers of the Now Word, and those who are on the Spiritual Food for Thought mailing list. If you receive duplicates, that’s why. Because of today’s subject, this writing is a bit longer than usual for my daily readers… but I believe necessary.

 

I couldn’t sleep last night. I woke up in what the Romans would call the “fourth watch”, that period of time before dawn. I began to think about all the emails I’m receiving, the rumors I’m hearing, the doubts and confusion that are creeping in… like wolves on the edge of the forest. Yes, I heard the warnings clearly in my heart shortly after Pope Benedict resigned, that we were going to enter into times of great confusion. And now, I feel a bit like a shepherd, tension in my back and arms, my staff raised as shadows move about this precious flock that God has entrusted me to feed with “spiritual food.” I feel protective today.

The wolves are here.

I grabbed my Rosary and sat in the living room, the sunrise still a couple hours away. I thought of the Synod on Family Life underway in Rome. And the words came to me, words that seem to carry a weight from another world:

The future of the world and of the Church passes through the family. —SAINT JOHN PAUL II, Familiaris Consortio, n. 75

Without wanting to exaggerate, it seems as though this Synod is quietly acting like a sieve, sifting the hearts and minds of laymen and clergy alike, like wheat and chaff thrown up and into the winds of moral relativism. We may not see this immediately, but it is there, just beneath the surface.

And many are afraid that Pope Francis is chaff.

He is a man who in his short reign has left no one comfortable. The progressive elements in the pews have waited for long sought after loosenings of the Church’s moral teachings… but the Pope talks more about the devil than doctrine. The conservative quarters have waited for a new hero in the cultural wars… but the Pope tells them to be less obsessed with moral issues and more possessed by Jesus. He has denounced abortion while washing a Muslim woman’s feet; he has warmly greeted atheists and Protestants while seemingly pushing away faithful cardinals; he has written and spoken like a fisherman rather than pontificated like a theologian; he has called the Church to poverty while overturning the money-changers’ tables.

Does this Pope’s actions remind anyone of Jesus?

For on the one hand, I hear of clergy who, like Matthew, have left behind their comforts to become more conformed to Christ’s poverty, as Francis has challenged them to. One priest sold his sports car and gave the proceeds to the poor. Another decided to use his current cellphone until it died. My own bishop quietly sold off his residence and moved into an apartment.

Then I hear of other Catholics, men and women whom one would call “conservative”, denouncing Francis (much like the Pharisees) in articles, letters, YouTube videos, even faxes to parish offices warning that this Pope may very well be the “false prophet” of Revelation. They quote “private revelation” as though it were Sacred Scripture while ignoring Scripture as though it doesn’t apply in this case. They warn of the division this Pope will cause while themselves becoming that very source of division by injuring the frail consciences of the weak and shaking the confidence of the confused.

And then there are those voices of our separated brethren who loudly bang their pulpits and lean over their microphones to declare that the Catholic Church is an anti-church leading humanity into a one world religion—with Pope Francis at the helm.

Yes, these too are all dangerous shadows beginning to move among the flock of Christ. And it has been keeping me awake.

As all these thoughts passed through my mind like prayer beads passing through my fingers, I thought of Monday’s first reading:

Brothers and sisters: I am amazed that you are so quickly forsaking the one who called you by the grace of Christ for a different gospel (not that there is another). But there are some who are disturbing you and wish to pervert the Gospel of Christ. (Gal 1:6-7)

My readers here know that I have defended Pope Francis’ remarks on several occasions. In fact, writing after writing has contained quote after quote of many popes all the way down to the early Church Fathers. Why? For the simple reason that Jesus told the Apostles (and thus, their successors) “whoever listens to you listens to me.” [1]cf. Luke 10:16 I think it is better for you to hear the mind of Christ than the mind of Mark (though I pray they are the same).

Because of this, I have been accused of “papalatry”—essentially raising the Holy Father to an infallible status such that every syllable parting his lips is without error. This, of course, would be an error. In fact, today’s first reading reveals that, from the very beginning, a pope can and does make mistakes:

…when I saw that they were not on the right road in line with the truth of the Gospel, I said to Cephas in front of all, “If you, though a Jew, are living like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

The problem is that Peter began to err in the pastoral application of the Gospel. He did not change any doctrines, but misplaced mercy. He needed to ask himself the same question that St. Paul posed:

Am I now currying favor with human beings or God? (Monday’s first reading)

I have said it before and I am going to say it again: despite 2000 years of sinful men occupying the hierarchy all the way to its summit, no pope has ever altered the dogmas of the faith. Some would call it a miracle. I simply call it the Word of God:

I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it… When he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth. ((Matt 16:18-19; John 16:13)

Or as it says in the Psalm today:

…the fidelity of the LORD endures forever.

The Catechism states it in a way that, frankly, leaves little room for confusion:

The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor, “is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful.”Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 882

Can the Pope betray us? What do you mean by betray? If you mean, will the Pope change the immutable teachings of Sacred Tradition, then no, he will not. He cannot. But can the Pope make mistakes, even poor judgments in pastoral decisions? Even John Paul II admitted toward the end of his life that he wasn’t hard enough on dissidents.

Popes have made and make mistakes and this is no surprise. Infallibility is reserved ex cathedra [“from the seat” of Peter, that is, proclamations of dogma based on Sacred Tradition]. No popes in the history of the Church have ever made ex cathedra errors. —Rev. Joseph Iannuzzi, Theologian, in a personal letter

So yes, the Holy Father can make statements in the daily course of his interactions that are not always on the ball, since infallibility is limited to his teaching authority. But this does not make him a “false prophet”, rather, a fallible person.

…if you are troubled by some statements that Pope Francis has made in his recent interviews, it is not disloyalty, or a lack of “Romanita” to disagree with the details of some of the interviews which were given off-the-cuff. Naturally, if we disagree with the Holy Father, we do so with the deepest respect and humility, conscious that we may need to be corrected. However, papal interviews do not require either the assent of faith that is given to ex cathedra statements or that internal submission of mind and will that is given to those statements that are part of his non-infallible but authentic magisterium. —Fr. Tim Finigan, tutor in Sacramental Theology at St John’s Seminary, Wonersh; from The Hermeneutic of Community, “Assent and Papal Magisterium”, October 6th, 2013; http://the-hermeneutic-of-continuity.blogspot.co.uk

Personally, I have found Pope Francis’ homilies and apostolic exhortation to be immensely rich, prophetic, and anointed with the Holy Spirit. Because nearly all of us have lost our first love. Nearly all of us have bowed in one way or another to the spirit of the world. We are a generation sorely lacking in saints. We are a civilization hungering for holiness, thirsting for authenticity. And we have to see that this crisis of faith is staring back at us in the mirror. Perhaps part of my restlessness today is that I am not the little shepherd that I know I should be…

Anyone appointed to be a watchman for the people must stand on a height for all his life to help them by his foresight. How hard it is for me to say this, for by these very words I denounce myself. I cannot preach with any competence, and yet insofar as I do succeed, still I myself do not live my life according to my own preaching. I do not deny my responsibility; I recognize that I am slothful and negligent, but perhaps the acknowledgment of my fault will win me pardon from my just judge. —St. Gregory the Great, homily, Liturgy of the Hours, Vol. IV, p. 1365-66

And so, the media is captivated by Pope Francis because he is living that simplicity of life beckoned by the Gospel that carries an inexplicable attraction, even for atheists. But to be honest, I see nothing all that new in this pontificate. St. John Paul II was the first to break the papal mold of formality, dining with staff, walking amidst the crowds, singing and clapping with the youth, etc. And what he did externally, Benedict XVI did interiorly through beautiful, rich, evangelical writings that have anchored us over four decades more than most people realize. Pope Francis has now taken the spontaneity of John Paul II and the depth of Benedict XVI and distilled it to the essential: Christ crucified for love of humanity. And this reorientation back to the heart of our Catholic Faith has begun a shaking and sifting in the Church that will not end until a purified people emerge.

Can the Pope betray us—as in lead the Church into the arms of the Antichrist? I’ll let the two living popes have the last word. And then, I’m going to go to bed after I pray for all of you, Christ’s beloved flock. For this watch is nearly over.

My prayer is this, the closing words of today’s Gospel:

…do not subject us to the final test.

For with the same realism with which we declare today the sins of the popes and their disproportion to the magnitude of their commission, we must also acknowledge that Peter has repeatedly stood as the rock against ideologies, against the dissolution of the word into the plausibilities of a given time, against subjection to the powers of this world. When we see this in the facts of history, we are not celebrating men but praising the Lord, who does not abandon the Church and who desired to manifest that he is the rock through Peter, the little stumbling stone: “flesh and blood” do not save, but the Lord saves through those who are flesh and blood. To deny this truth is not a plus of faith, not a plus of humility, but is to shrink from the humility that recognizes God as he is. Therefore the Petrine promise and its historical embodiment in Rome remain at the deepest level an ever-renewed motive for joy; the powers of hell will not prevail against it —Cardinal Ratzinger (POPE BENEDICT XVI), Called to Communion, Understanding the Church Today, Ignatius Press, p. 73-74

…faith is not negotiable. Among the People of God this temptation has always existed: to downsize faith, and not even by “much”… so we must get the better of the temptation to behave more or less ‘like everyone else’, not to be too, too rigid… it is from this that a path which ends in apostasy unfolds… when we begin to cut faith down, to negotiate faith and more or less to sell it to the one who makes the best offer, we are setting out on the road of apostasy, of no fidelity to the Lord. —POPE FRANCIS, Mass at Sanctae Marthae, April 7th, 2013; L’osservatore Romano, April 13th, 2013

 

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1. cf. Luke 10:16
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