There aren’t too many modern writers personally honored by a pope. Among the very few chosen, one of the most distinguished is the Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846–1916). A laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1905 for his novel Quo Vadis (1896), he continued to write until the end of his life, keeping a distance from Polish politics. At his death, which occurred towards the end of 1916 in Switzerland, Pope Benedict XV sent an address to be read in honor of the great writer.
An enthusiastic advocate of the ideology of progress, after a tumultuous youth, Sienkiewicz completely revised his views, arriving at a perspective inspired by the Catholic theology of history. The values of sacred tradition, as represented by medieval philosophy, are not foreign to him, especially concerning the understanding of the state and the doctrine of just war. The roots of the latter can be found primarily in the texts of Saint Thomas Aquinas. In contrast to the modern world, he exhibited an incurable skepticism, reluctantly avoiding contemporary themes and debates. When questioned about his persistent devotion to the Christian, Medieval, and Renaissance history of Poland, he responded by asking, why describe a “banal and sad present? Let those who wish to toil on this land; I no longer want to, I can’t, so I will speak about something else.” Perhaps to leave no room for doubt, after asserting that “there are reasons to be enthusiastic about the past,” he emphatically concluded, “The present deepens desolation and despair, while the past gives strength and revives hope.”[i]
Heresies are widespread everywhere, even with the cooperation of such hierarchs.
While the pursuit of the beauty of well-crafted prose should always take precedence to delight the heart, I was delighted to discover that Henryk Sienkiewicz’s historical novels offer readers minds of undeniable quality. For example, in The Deluge (1886), the second title – alongside With Fire and Sword (1884) and Pan Wołodyjowski (1888) – in the celebrated historical trilogy by the Polish author, we encounter an extraordinarily clear lesson about the limits of obedience.
The context is that of a discussion between King John II Casimir Vasa (a real historical figure who lived between 1609–1672) and the legendary swordmaster, Pan Wołodyjowski. The conversation revolves around the betrayal of the Polish crown in favor of the invading Swedes by the powerful Prince Janusz Radziwiłł (1612-1655). Upon learning about Radziwiłł’s alliance with the Swedish army of Karl Gustav (1622-1660), Colonel Wołodyjowski will throw his command baton, refusing to obey the treacherous prince. King John II Casimir emphasizes the key point of this crucial episode in his discussion with Wołodyjowski:
“ ‘You were the first little soldier to throw the baton of a colonel at the feet of the late prince voevoda.’
‘Not the first, your Royal Grace; but it was the first, and God grant the last, time for me to act against military discipline.’ Pan Michael stopped, and after a while added, ‘It was impossible to do otherwise.’
‘Certainly,’ said the king. ‘That was a grievous hour for those who understood military duty; but obedience must have its limits, beyond which guilt begins.’ ”[ii]
Emerging from the pen of one of the greatest Catholic writers in the entire history of literature, the words of the King are worth a thousand pictures. I repeat them to permanently engrain them in our memory: “Obedience must have its limits, beyond which guilt begins.”
“Obedience must have its limits, beyond which guilt begins.” If his words were suitable for indicating the rightness of resistance to the commands of a treacherous prince, they are equally suitable for urging us to resist any heretical hierarch – bishop, cardinal, or even a pope.
In a context that is that of a war and adventure novel, this epochal sentence cannot be overlooked, especially now, in the turbulent context of disputes arising from the heresies promoted at the highest levels of the Church hierarchy. We see that conservative theologians like Cardinal Burke are being attacked for statements of common sense:
“If your bishop, or the supreme pastor of the Church, is affirming things not in accord with Sacred Tradition/the deposit of the faith, that can’t command your obedience. You can’t command obedience to do something against faith & morals”[iii]
Such a statement is a faithful echo of a verse from the Acts of the Apostles when, in front of the Sanhedrin, Saint Apostle Peter and the other apostles enunciate the reference axiom: “We ought to obey God, rather than men” (Acts, 5:29). However, many faithful and Catholic theologians believe that it does not apply to the Pope. They cite a reference sentence from the authoritative teachings of the First Vatican Council (1869–1870):
“Further, by divine and Catholic faith, all those things must be believed which are contained in the written word of God and in tradition, and those which are proposed by the Church, either in a solemn pronouncement or in her ordinary and universal teaching power, to be believed as divinely revealed.”[iv]
What is always omitted by the proponents of hyper- or super-papalism (Peter Kwasniewski) is a certain condition that, although only implicit, is absolutely obligatory: the Church and the Magisterium to which we are always duty-bound to obey cannot be represented by heretical hierarchs. Towards them, we are not duty-bound to obey, even if we maintain our respect and faith in the hierarchy established by Our Lord, Jesus Christ. Period.
Indeed, as the King himself says, this is truly “a grievous hour” for those who understood religious duty.
Common counterarguments indicate that the text mentioned in the First Vatican Council does not specify anything in this regard and that a Pope cannot be a heretic. We all know how extensive and complex this discussion is. I will only say that dogmatizing the pious thesis of Albert Pighius (c. 1490-1542), who believed that a Pope cannot err and teach heresies, not even as a private person, is an unacceptable speculative abuse that bears a striking resemblance to the monarchical absolutism fashionable in the decadent period before the French Revolution (1789). In any case, enough has been written on this subject, so I will refrain from any further elaboration in this direction.[v]
I will underline only what the principle of reality itself, with the permission of Divine Providence, teaches us: there are heretical hierarchs. Furthermore, heresies are widespread everywhere, even with the cooperation of such hierarchs. Faced with this situation, we can always repeat the words of King John Casimir: “Obedience must have its limits, beyond which guilt begins.” If his words were suitable for indicating the rightness of resistance to the commands of a treacherous prince, they are equally suitable for urging us to resist any heretical hierarch – bishop, cardinal, or even a pope. Indeed, as the King himself says, this is truly “a grievous hour” for those who understood religious duty.
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[i] Alina Nofer-Ładyka, Henryk Sienkiewicz, Varsaw, Wydawnictwo: Wiedza Powszechna, 1963 (third edition), apud Stan Velea, “Foreword” to Henryk Sienkiewicz, Prin foc și sabie (With Fire and Sword), București, Editura Leda, 2008, p. 14.
[ii] Henryk Sienkiewicz, The Deluge, Translated from the Polish by Jeremiah Curtin, London, J.M. Dent & Co., 1895, p. 224.
[iii] The quote is taken from a tweet by Michael Haynes, shared by Michael J. Matt: https://twitter.com/Michael_J_Matt/status/1715849503012462919
[iv] Denzinger, The Sources of the Catholic Dogma, Translate by Roy J. Deferrari from the Thirtieth Edition of Henry Denzinger’s Enchiridion Symbolorum, New York, Preserving Christian Publication, 2009, p. 445, art. 1792.
[v] For those who desire a substantial reading on this subject, I strongly recommend the work of Arnaldo Vidigal Xavier da Silveira.: Can a Pope be Heretic? The Theological Hypothesis of a Heretical Pope, Translation by John Spann, Portugal: Caminhos Romanos, 2018.