Rorate Caeli

Ten tips on how to survive a calamitous Pope and remain Catholic

Italy, France, Spain... Our readers must have noticed we are quite fond of bringing you news and opinion pieces by Catholic writers from these very ancient Catholic lands, and there is a very important reason for it.

The Anglosphere has had a few centuries of a very distorted relationship with the papacy. And that is quite understandable: the heritage of Henry VIII and Elizabeth, of Cromwell and the relentless persecution of both English Recusants and the Irish native population understandably elevated the veneration by English-speaking Catholics for the Bishops of Rome to quasi-divine levels. And that has seeped through to many Catholics who should know better. Saint Thomas More had no problem with straight talk about the many problems with the Church that ended up causing so dire consequences in the early 16th century, including from his very close friend Erasmus. This is just to show that the straight talk we hear and read from Italy, France, or Spain is not much different from what we might have heard more often from English-speaking Catholics in the past few centuries if the Reformation had never happened...

Which is one of the reasons we have always tried to bring interesting views from Italy, France, and Spain. These ancient Catholic countries have seen it all, and the non-experience of Protestantism (which for France almost cost a divided nation, and plenty of bloodshed) left Catholics with a much saner view of the Papacy, its precious legacy but also the deep memory of the often seriously flawed and often detestable human beings who have been bishops of Rome. Veneration for the Successor of Saint Peter is laudable and necessary, but Papolatry is as worthy of condemnation as any kind of idolatry, and it has always been viewed as ridiculous and pathetic by those Catholics who have lived in deeply Catholic cultures throughout their lives. It is not a coincidence that it was a Spaniard who was extremely influential in the Council of Trent who wrote the following:

Nunc illud breviter dici potest, qui summi Pontificis omne de re quacumque iudicium temere ac sine delectu defendunt, hos sedis apostolicae auctoritatem labefactare, non fovere; evertere, non firmare…. Non eget Petrus mendacio nostro, nostra adulatione non eget.” ("Now it can be said briefly that those who defend blindly and indiscriminately any judgment whatsoever of the Supreme Pontiff concerning every matter weaken the authority of the Apostolic See; they do not support it; they subvert it; they do not fortify it… . Peter has no need of our lies; he has no need of our adulation.") [Melchior Cano, De locis theologicis, liber V]

Now, no Catholic wants to live through a calamitous pontificate, but it can happen at any age . We can hope we will not have to live through one in our lifetime, but just in case it happens (this is merely a hypothetical possibility, naturally), it is good to read the wise advice coming from another Spaniard.


Ten tips on how to survive a calamitous Pope and remain Catholic

by Dr. Francisco José Soler Gil

Oh, but... can a Catholic think that a Pope is calamitous? Of course he can. But must not a good Catholic believe that the Holy Spirit is the one behind the election of a Pope? Evidently not! It is perhaps enough to recall the response that then-Cardinal Ratzinger gave to his interviewer, professor August Everding, in a famous interview granted in 1997 [1998]. Professor Everding had asked the Cardinal if he truly believed that the Holy Spirit intervenes in the election of a Pope. Ratzinger's answer was simple and clarifying, as usual: "I would say not in the sense that the Holy Spirit chooses any particular pope, because there is plenty of evidence to the contrary – there have been many whom the Holy Spirit quite obviously would not have chosen! But, that He does not altogether relinquish control, but rather like a good educator keeps us on a very long cord, so to speak, allowing us a great deal of freedom, but never unfastening the cord – that’s how I would put it. It needs to be taken in a very broad sense and not as if He says, 'You’ve got to pick this one!' What He allows, however, is limited to the fact that everything cannot be completely ruined."

Now then, even if a Catholic takes it for granted that no Pope can ruin the Church completely, history shows that, in terms of pontiffs, there have been all kinds: good ones, regular ones, bad ones, truly bad ones, or calamitous ones.

When can we say that a Pope is calamitous? Of course, it is not enough for it that the Pontiff support false opinions on this or that issue. Because a Pope, as any other man, will necessarily ignore many matters, and have erroneous convictions on many others. And therefore it could happen that a Pope who is an aficionado on stamp or coin collecting could make grave mistakes regarding the value or date or certain stamps or coins. When rendering his opinion on matters that are not of his competence, a Pope has greater possibilities of erring than of being right. Exactly like you and me, dear reader. Therefore, if a Pope showed some inclination on making public his opinions on the art of pigeon-breeding, ecology, economy, or astronomy, the Catholic expert on such matters would do well in enduring patiently the outlandish blurbs of the Roman pontiff on matters that, naturally, are alien to his Cathedra. The expert will naturally lament the eventual errors, and more generally the lack of prudence that some declarations make evident. But an imprudent and loquacious Pope is not for this reason alone a calamitous Pope.

On the other hand, [a Pope] is, or can thus be, when he, by word and deed, causes damages to the treasure of the faith of the Church, temporarily obscuring aspects of the image of God and of the image of Man that the Church has the duty to defend, transmit, and deepen.

But can there be such a case as this?... Well, in fact it has happened already several times in the history of the Church. When Pope Liberius (4th cent.) - the first non-canonized Pope - gave in to strong Arian pressures, he accepted an ambiguous position regarding this heresy, leaving in the lurch the defenders of the Trinitarian dogma, such as Saint Athanasius; when Pope Anastasius II (5th cent.) flirted with the defenders of the Acacian schism; when Pope John XXII (14th cent.) taught that the vision of the God by the just does not occur before the Last Judgment; when the Popes of the period known as "Great Western Schism" (14th-15th cent.) excommunicated each other; when Pope Leo X (16th cent.) not only intended to pay for his luxuries with the selling of indulgences, but also to theoretically defend his power to do so, etc, etc, a part of the treasure of the faith remained obscured for a more or less lengthy period due to their actions and omissions, therefore creating moments of huge internal tension within the Church. The Popes responsible for these must be properly called "calamitous".

The question then is, what can be done during the time of a calamitous Pope. What behavior is conveniently adopted in times like this. Well then, since recently lists of tips have become common, to achieve joy, to lower cholesterol, to try to be more positive, to stop smoking, to get thinner, I will allow myself to propose to the reader a series of tips in order to survive a calamitous Pope without stopping being Catholic. I should not have to say that it is not a definitive list. But it may be useful anyhow. Let us begin:

(1) Keep calm.

In moments of anguish, the tendency to hysteria is only too human, but it solves nothing. Calm down. Because only by way of calm can the convenient decisions for each case be taken, and the words and deeds one might soon regret can be avoided.

(2) Read good books on the history of the Church and the history of the papacy.

Used that we are to a series of great Popes, living through a calamitous pontificate can be a traumatic experience, if one does not manage to put it into context. Reading good tomes on the history of the Church and on the history of the papacy helps to analyze in a better way an ongoing situation. Above all because in these books other cases are shown - numerous cases, unfortunately, or just because that is the way human nature is - in which the waters of the Roman source looked murky. The Church suffers from such weaknesses, but does not collapse because of them. It happened like this in the past, and we can expect it also to happen in the present and in the future.

(3) Do not give in to apocalyptic warnings.

When some are subjected to the ravages of a calamitous pontificate, they take them as signs of the imminence of the end times. It is a concept that always comes up in such circumstances: apocalyptic passages motivated by similar evils can also be read in texts by medieval authors. But this fact should precisely serve to us as a warning. It does not make much sense to interpret each storm as if it were the Great Tribulation. The end times will come when they have to come, and it does not belong to us to know neither the day nor the hour. Our job is to fight the combat of our own age, but the global view of things belongs to Someone else.

(4) Do not stay silent, nor look away.

During a calamitous pontificate, the defect that is the opposite one of adopting the behavior of an apocalyptic prophet is that of minimizing events, being silent when faced with abuse, and looking away. Some justify this attitude by recalling the image of the good sons who covered the nakedness of Noah. But what is certain is that there is no way of righting the course of a ship if the deviation is not revealed. Moreover, Sacred Scripture has an example that is much more appropriate than Noah's: the hard yet just and loyal reproaches made by the apostle Paul to the pontiff Peter, when the latter let himself be taken in by human concerns. This episode of the Acts of the Apostles is there so that we learn to distinguish loyalty from silent complicity. The Church is not a party in which the chairman must always get unconditional applause. Neither is it a sect whose leader is acclaimed at every moment. The Pope is not the leader of a sect, but a servant of the Gospel and of the Church; a free and human servant who, as such, can occasionally adopt reprehensible decisions or attitudes. And reprehensible decisions and attitudes must be reprehended.

(5) Do not generalize.

The bad example (of cowardliness, of careerism, etc) of some bishops and cardinals during a calamitous pontificate should not lead us to disqualify in a general way all bishops, cardinals, or clerics. Each person is responsible for his own words, his own actions, and his own omissions. But the hierarchical structure of the Church was instituted by her Founder, due to which it must be respected, despite every criticism. The objection to a calamitous Pope should not extend to all his words and deeds. Only those that deviate from the immemorial doctrine of the Church, or which set a direction that may compromise aspects of said doctrine. And the opinion on these points must not be based on private events, opinions, or preferences: the teaching of the Church is summarized in her catechism. When the Pope moves away from the catechism, he must be criticized. Not in other matters.

(6) Do not help initiatives for the greater glory of the calamitous pontiff.

If a calamitous Pope asks for help for good works, he must be heard. But other initiatives should not be supported, such as, for instance, multitudinous meetings that serve to show him as a popular pontiff. In the case of a calamitous Pope, acclamation is unnecessary. Because, based in them, he might feel supported to deviate the course of the Church's ship even more. It is not good enough, then, to say that it is not the Pontiff, but Peter, who is being applauded, Because the result will be that this applause will be used for the personal ends not of Peter but of the calamitous Pontiff.

(7) Do not follow the instructions of the Pope in that which deviates from the treasure of the Church.

If a Pope would teach doctrines or would try to impose practices that do not correspond to the perennial teaching of the Church, summarized in the catechism, he cannot be supported nor obeyed in his intent. This means, for example, that priests and bishops are under the obligation to insist on traditional doctrine and practice, rooted in the deposit of the faith, even at the cost of exposing themselves to being punished. The lay faithful must likewise insist on teaching traditional doctrine and practices in their area of influence. Under no circumstances, not even out of blind obedience or fear of reprisals, is it acceptable to contribute to the spreading of heterodoxy or heteropraxis.

(8) Do not financially support collaborationist dioceses.

If a Pope would teach doctrines, or would impose practices, that do not correspond to the perennial teaching of the Church, summarized in the catechism, diocesan Pastors should serve as a wall of contention. But history shows that bishops do not always react with sufficient energy when faced with these dangers. Even worse, they at times endorse, for whichever reasons, the efforts of the calamitous pontiff. The lay faithful who lives in a diocese ruled by such a Pastor must therefore remove his financial support to his local church while the inappropriate situation persists. Obviously, this does not apply to aids that are directly destined to charitable ends, but it does apply to all the rest. This also applies to any kind of collaboration with the diocese, whether it be for example some kind of volunteer work or institutional position.

(9) Do not support any schism.

When faced with a calamitous Pope, the temptation of a radical rupture may come up. This temptation must be resisted at all costs. A Catholic has the duty to try to minimize, from within the Church, all the negative effects of a bad pontificate, but without breaking the Church or breaking with the Church. This means that even if, for instance, his resistance to adopt some theses or some practices would lead to the application for him of penalties, he must not as a consequence initiate a new schism nor support any of those already in place. It is necessary for him to keep being a Catholic under any circumstances.

(10) Pray.

The permanence and salvation of the Church does not ultimately depend on ourselves, but on the One who wanted her and created her for our good. In moments of distress, it is necessary to pray, pray, and pray, so that the Master will wake up and calm the storm. This tip was placed last, not because it is the least important, but because it is the most important of all. Because ultimately what matters is that we truly believe that the Church is supported by a God who loves her, and who will not allow her to be destroyed. Let us pray, therefore, for the conversion of nefarious pontiffs, and so that calamitous pontificates may be followed by pontificates of restoration and peace. Many dry branches will have been lost during the storm, but the ones that remained united with Christ will bloom again. May God allow this to be declared also about us.

[Source, in Spanish. Translated, with minor adaptations for better comprehension where needed.]