A Defector Pope?
Fatima Perspectives #1277
Sedevacantists claim Francis is not the Pope, and he is certainly giving them a lot of grist for their polemical mill. But sedevacantists claim we have not had a Pope since at least the time of Paul VI if not John XXIII. They make this claim based on a personal determination that the conciliar and post-conciliar Popes fell from their offices on account of “manifest heresy.”
While the possibility of an heretical Pope falling from office is certainly entertained by theologians, there is no mechanism by which the universal Church could be assured that such an event has occurred during the reign of a Pope accused of heresy. Not even the idea of an “imperfect council” of cardinals to declare that an heretical Pope has deposed himself would provide the necessary surety because it would probably be contested by that Pope’s loyalists should he refuse to resign, leading to something like the Great Western Schism with rival claimants to the papal throne.
Thus, whether a given Pope has lost his office on account of heresy remains essentially an academic question while that Pope is reigning. Only a future Pope or council presided over by a Pope could declare that a predecessor Pope had fallen from office due to heresy — a declaration that has never occurred in Church history. The closest the Church has come to such a declaration is the posthumous anathematization of Honorius I (r. 625-638) by the Third Council of Constantinople on account of his endorsement of the Monothelite heresy (no human but only a divine will in Christ), whose decree of anathema was not only approved but seconded by Pope St. Leo II (r. 682-683). Yet Honorius was never declared to have fallen from office and is included in the canon of valid Popes.
That said, Father John Hunwicke has proposed an eminently simple explanation of how a Pope like Francis, whose “leadership has become a danger to the faith” as even a “moderate” like Philip Lawler observes, can really be the Pope. The answer lies in what Cardinal Newman described as “the suspense of the functions of the Magisterium” during the Arian crisis, when it seemed almost the entire Church had embraced the Arian heresy.
Speaking of the Müller Manifesto, which was the subject of my last column, Father Hunwicke believes that “consciously or unconsciously, Gerhard [Müller] has in mind the teaching of Blessed John Henry Newman about the situation during the Arian crisis,” when “the body of the episcopate was unfaithful to its commission,” the Pope, the great episcopal sees and even general councils “said what they should not have said, or did what obscured and compromised revealed truth” and “spoke variously, one against another… for nearly sixty years …”
Events such as Francis’ joint statement with Grand Imam el-Tayeb, wherein he declares that God wills the diversity of religions, demonstrate, says Fr. Hunwicke, that Francis has:
“consciously stopped even bothering to remain within the parameters set by the Magisterium to which he is as much under an obligation to submit as is anybody else. Fas est et ab hostibus doceri: never forget the chilling words of Fr Rosica, that this pope is free from the constraints of Scripture and Tradition. I can see no present grounds plausibly to speculate that PF’s divagations from orthodoxy will in future tolerate any restraints. It is as if, having discovered himself at the bottom of a hole, he has decided that the only thing to do is to keep digging with redoubled energy until he gets to Tasmania.”
When Francis refused to answer the dubia of the Four Cardinals or the Filial Correction submitted to him by Fr. Hunwicke and many others, his silence in the face of attempted correction indicated, Fr. Hunwicke argues, that the Petrine Ministry had “entered into its current ‘temporary suspense’” and that “we are officially in a period in which the functions of the Papal Magisterium are in a vacatio which will be ended at the moment when the same Petrine Magisterial organ formally returns from dogmatic silence to the audible exercise of the functions rightly attributed to it in Catholic Tradition…”
But Fr. Hunwicke does not say that Francis has lost his office. He says, rather, that Francis and the bishops who are failing to defend the truths of revelation in the current ecclesial crisis have abandoned the duties and limitations of their office and are essentially doing something other than what they are divinely authorized to do: “I do not, of course, in any way suggest that [Francis] and the silent or heterodox bishops have lost the right or capacity to use the Magisterium of his and their offices. On the contrary. Precisely as Newman did, I am simply observing that, as a matter of fact, he is not and they are not at this moment using it.”
That is, the current Pope and many of the bishops have defected from, but have neither lost nor abdicated, their offices. In like manner, the Arian bishops were never deemed by the Church to have lost their offices by falling prey to the Arian heresy. Neither did Pope Liberius lose his office; his “fall” consisted of subscribing to a Semi-Arian formula while in captivity. Rather, they defected from office temporarily only to resume the right exercise of their offices once Arianism was defeated and orthodoxy restored throughout the Church.
Indeed, suppose that tomorrow Pope Francis reversed course and became a staunch defender of orthodoxy and orthopraxis in every department? Would we not say that our prayers had been answered, and would we not follow his teaching because it had once again become aligned with the constant teaching of the Church? Would we not reject the idea that it was “too late” for Francis to resume orthodoxy because he was no longer the Pope? And if we would respond in this way, would we not be recognizing implicitly that a defecting Pope — not an ex-Pope or a non-Pope — had returned to his office like a wayward father to the family of which he is the head?
Is this the answer to the conundrum of a Pope who seems intent on attacking rather than defending the Church? It seems to me a more reasonable explanation than unprovable sedevacantism, complicated and endlessly debatable arguments about the validity of Benedict XVI’s resignation, or impossible-to-verify allegations about what happened during the conclave of 2013.
Would that a search for explanations of this unprecedented situation were not necessary. But so it is — thanks to the failure of the Church’s leadership, beginning with the Pope, to heed the Message of Fatima and its warnings about the consequences of spurning the heavenly directives of the Virgin Mother of God. Now the Church faces a crisis unlike any other she has seen in her history.