Alas, having more readers means having more critics, and this case is no exception. My euphoria at having achieved what amounted, in my own mind, to catapulting to the top of the New York Times Bestseller List overnight quickly dimmed as a I read past my name in lights. Novus Ordo Watch was clearly not very impressed with my piece. The author, whoever he or she is, takes me to task for ignoring “traditional Catholic teaching on the Papacy.”
Luckily, whoever reads the NOW piece cannot remain ignorant of “traditional Catholic teaching on the Papacy” for long, because what follows the opening round of chastisements of your humble correspondent is about ten printed pages of quotes from Church luminaries down the ages, from Pope Pelagius to Pope Leo XIII. How is one to argue against such giants as these?
For the reader (i.e., for my Mom and Michael Matt) who may not recall the details, let me lay the scene for you again. In the little Remnant essay that caused this big war, I innocently advanced a new position that would allow us to maintain the integrity of the papacy, I opined, while bypassing the berserk theological chainsaw massacre that is the reign of Mario Bergoglio. “Sede-Vacationism,” I called it, congratulating myself for my cleverness.
Reprising ideas found in Ernst Kantorowicz’s 1957 classic political science tract, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology, I argued that the current beanie-wearing yahoo tooling around in the popemobile and issuing fatwas against drinking straws (when he isn’t busy covering up sex scandals and insulting abuse victims) should be considered both the pope and not-the-pope at the same time. Doing so would preserve the integrity of the Church—for we would avoid thereby the scandal of an empty See of St. Peter—while also allowing us to avoid any more damage done by Pope Pokémon I, jumping around from one globalist mashup to the next and surely just minutes away from incardinating Ringo Starr. “The king is dead; long live the king!”—the essence of the phrase “the king’s two bodies”—means that the office is bigger than the man.
Novus Ordo Watch disagrees. I said in my piece that the papacy had “gone off the rails.” Mr. Watch spotted me the point, but only to set me up for the takedown.
“It’s not like in 2,000 years no one ever thought of that possibility,” NOW retorts. “What does happen when a pontificate goes off the rails? Quite simply, the answer is: It cannot happen. Although the Church does not definitively exclude the possibility that a Pope may become a heretic as a private person and thereby automatically and immediately lose the Pontificate without the need for a declaration, the Church teaches authoritatively (i.e., bindingly) that as long as there is a valid Roman Pontiff occupying the Chair of St. Peter, the Papacy cannot fail in its purpose.”
There follows a “list of magisterial quotes” (NOW’s description, not mine) which, taken singly or all together, puts paid to my foray into armchair theology. I should have stayed home and rearranged my geraniums rather than wade into the fight with the big boys, only to get cut down to size by a battalion of popes and other Church bigwigs showing me that, no, in fact, Mr. Morgan, “Sede-Vacationism” isn’t a thing, and never will be.
But wait. Is that what all the saints and master theologians are really saying? What’s really going on here?
However sorry an excuse for a pope, however much a stuffed shirt, an understudy yanked from behind the curtains with his iced latte still in his hands to blink into the stagelights in astonishment, there was a pope, a man with a name and a body and a pulse, who was carrying on the apostolic line.
Let’s go back to the early days. When, in the second century, St. Irenaeus listed the twelve successors to St. Peter as proof of apostolic authority, what was he trying to achieve? Was he trying to show that there is a Papacy, a disembodied office that floats free of the world of men? Or, was he trying to show that popes are like the Kim dynasty in North Korea, having plenary power simply by dint of being next in the hereditary line? No. St. Irenaeus was not doing either of these things. He was arguing that the man who was pope at the time was pope, and had authority, because the man who was pope before him was pope, and so on, until you get to the first pope, who was pope because Jesus Christ said so. Irenaeus was directing our attention to where it should be: Jesus.
Fast forward back to today. The sedevacantists are absolutely correct that a heretic pope who persists in heresy is pope no longer. Francis, I’m looking at you. They are also absolutely correct that the Novus Ordo “Newchurch” is an unqualified disaster, and that all the guitar playing and drum beating and hand clapping at the green-banner “Mass” is a complete abomination, an insult to God. (I might be going beyond what even Mr. Watch would be prepared to say about the Vatican II catastrophe.)
But where the sedevacantists err is in their assertion that there can be a papacy without a pope. This is not Christianity. This is Platonism, the same as arguing—something Aristotle often refuted contra his former teacher—that there can be “whiteness” apart from white things, or “horseness” apart from horses. Whatever we say about the papacy, we must follow St. Irenaeus in tracing apostolic succession, not as astrology, with the moon moving through different Houses of the Papacy among the stars, but as going from one man, utterly unworthy of the office, to the next, ditto. It’s the succession through people that counts, because Jesus founded His Church on a “rock” named Peter, a retired fisherman who was slowly changed into the Apostle whose bones anchor the building where Bergoglio now says Mass.
Now, this does not mean that Francis is Peter. Far from it. Let us be clear on one point: Jorge Mario Bergoglio is probably the most spectacular heretic in a hundred years. He is the Liberace of heresy. Some heretics whisper their heresies under their breath. Francis wears his like a big ostrich-feather headdress, like a pair of white leather knee-high boots, like an honest-to-goodness sequined cape. “Look at me!” Francis cries. “Yo soy un herético! Un herético grande!” And then he shakes hands with Jeffrey Sachs and declares it the Feast Day of Eva Perón.
Francis is also, without a doubt, the grande-est heretic in all of papal history. Yes, there have been bad popes. But those popes were just bad men. Fornicators, schemers, liars—sinners to the nth degree. What they didn’t do was say that their sins were normative. They didn’t say, “Yes, I’m a sinner, but you know what, I’m changing the rules.” They wouldn’t have dared. They were occupying an office, but they weren’t the office themselves. Francis is different. He makes offhand remarks on his way to the lavatory on an airplane and suddenly two thousand years of tradition are kicked to the curb. What changed? Why did bad popes before cause much less damage theologically than the Argentine Terminator is doing today?
What happened was infallibility. And the formal doctrine of papal infallibility is a recent formulation. In fact, it wasn’t until Vatican I that the Church defined the extremely limited sense in which popes could be infallible--a definition which Mr. Watch seems disposed to exaggerate. Mr. Watch’s argument hangs largely from this thread. The pope can’t be Bergoglio (how I wish that were true), because popes are infallible. One strike and you’re out; or, rather, quit pitching, because any strikes and the whole game is over.
But there’s a much better way to navigate rough waters than infallibility. May I suggest, faith in Divine Providence? How would that work? Mr. Watch actually tells us. In his essay, he cites, at length, a most helpful work, Rev. Edmund J. O’Reilly’s The Relations of the Church to Society.
Mr. Watch turns to Fr. O’Reilly to show that my suggestion that a second Avignon is a situation to be avoided is, to continue the baseball metaphor, way off base. “Contingencies regarding the Church,” Fr. O’Reilly writes, speaking of the long stretch of rival claimants to the papacy during the Avignon crisis, “not excluded by the Divine promises, cannot be regarded as practically impossible, just because they would be terrible and distressing in a very high degree.” In other words, Avignon was bad, but not fatal. We got through it, even though it was a big mess.
How did we get through it, though? In the next breath, and quoting again from Fr. O’Reilly, Mr. Watch wins the argument—for The Remnant:
“We may stop here to inquire what is to be said of the position, at that time, of the three claimants [to the papacy], and their rights with regard to the Papacy. In the first place, there was all through, from the death of Gregory XI in 1378, a Pope—with the exception, of course, of the intervals between deaths and elections to fill up the vacancies thereby created. There was, I say, at every given time a Pope, really invested with the dignity of Vicar of Christ and Head of the Church, whatever opinions might exist among many as to his genuineness; not that an interregnum covering the whole period would have been impossible or inconsistent with the promises of Christ, for this is by no means manifest, but that, as a matter of fact, there was not such an interregnum.”
Mr. Watch seizes on the coda to Fr. O’Reilly’s argument—that such an interregnum is not technically impossible—to show that my position is wrong. But what actually happened during the Avignon days? There was actually a pope. However sorry an excuse for a pope, however much a stuffed shirt, an understudy yanked from behind the curtains with his iced latte still in his hands to blink into the stagelights in astonishment, there was a pope, a man with a name and a body and a pulse, who was carrying on the apostolic line. Thank God the Avignon popes weren’t infallible. Thank God we as a Church held on, weathered the storm, and prayed to God to sort it all out for us. Thank God, I say, that our forefathers had faith, and didn’t just close up shop and say, “Sorry folks, pope’s closed. Better luck next time.”
But I am more than just wrong, in Novus Ordo Watch’s view. I am also dangerous. Mr. Watch rounds out his errand into the French wilderness by accusing me, and The Remnant in general, of schism. Now, I will pass over in silence the irony of a sedevacantist accusing someone of schismatic leanings. All I will say is that Mr. Watch should have read the last part of my essay as carefully as he did all the rest. I emphatically reject schism. What I do say is that the schism that Francis is trying to effect in the Body of Christ should be turned around and foisted back on the pope himself.
It is the pope who should be split from the office, the heretic in white who should be ignored until his brother bishops summon the intestinal fortitude to throw him out of the Vatican on his ear. Just because the pope is the pope doesn’t mean we have to listen to him. Francis is like the general shouting at the army to surrender to the enemy. A court martial may take a little while to arrange, but until the grand jury is empaneled let’s just pretend the guy with the riding crop is not George S. Patton but Little Bo Peep.
All of this is logic-chopping, however. The heart of the matter is the heart of our Faith. In order to refute the sedevacantists’ arguments, one must turn, not to this or that pope or this or that theologian, to this or that historical period or this or that crisis, but to Jesus Himself. The question comes down to this: was Christ a Platonist, or wasn’t He? What I mean is, when the Eternal Word of God came down to earth for the salvation of mankind, did He do this as pure spirit, as Idea, as ethereal Form?
If that were the case, then nearly every aspect of Jesus’ earthly existence would have to be excised from the New Testament. Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, was born in a stable, swaddled in a feeding trough for barn animals, protected from a lunatic king who had sent his troops out to impale male children with swords, raised by and apprenticed to a woodworker, beaten with a cat-‘o-nine-tails, crowned with thorns, splattered with spittle in scorn and mockery, dragged through the dirt, and nailed to a tree. When He breathed out for the last time, he was lanced under the ribs, and blood and water flowed from His side. In His life, He had hungered and thirsted. He had been weary. He wept salty tears. He sweated blood. He drew in the sand and brought lifeless bodies, poor heaps of flesh and bone, back from the dead. He was God, and man. He was spirit, and matter. He lived in this world, with us, and we knew Him—those blessed of our race who dined with Him, walked with Him, and washed the dust from His feet by guttering candlelight—as a human being, a person, someone who could be touched and embraced, whose sandals could be loosed, and whose Face could be wiped on the way to the executioner’s.
This is the truth of Christianity. It is not a program, not a kind of software. It is life in the body, life always, for men, who have eyes and ears and who live in this world, with only the Church—headed by the pope—to save him.
No, Christ was not a Platonist. He was here. He was a real, live man. And the Church He founded as a sign of visible unity, as we wait in joyful hope for His Second Coming, has a visible head, a vicar who stands in Christ’s place until the King of the Universe has returned to reign in everlasting glory. None of the popes is worthy of the job. But for reasons we do not understand, we are made of stuff, animated by soul. We are not angels, which have no bodies. We are poor men. And God will never abandon us. The Church He established—as the sedevacantists so rightly point out—will never lose to the enemy. The Church Militant is not an abstraction but a real band of warriors, and the fight is right here and right now. We are in the thick of it, and we cannot say that the Church on earth is without a tangible leader. To argue this is to argue against everything we know about the God-Man Who started all of this in the first place.
So, yes, Francis, joke that he is, is still the pope. He is a flaming heretic, and I quit listening to him years ago, but until he is deposed or else decides to retire, he is the successor of St. Peter. Going back in time, the hands that touched the forehead of Bergoglio are, ultimately, the Hands that gave the keys to the kingdom to the suntanned peasant from Galilee. This is the truth of Christianity. It is not a program, not a kind of software. It is life in the body, life always, for men, who have eyes and ears and who live in this world, with only the Church—headed by the pope—to save him.