One of your most recent books is the two-volume treatise The Road From Hyperpapalism to Catholicism: Rethinking the Papacy in a Time of Ecclesial Disintegration. Judging from the title, one could confuse it with a work by a liberal theologian or indeed a synodal reflection by Pope Francis himself. Yet your view reflects a different position entirely.
Indeed, there is a superficial resemblance between those who today question a hypertrophism of the papacy and the liberals or progressives who try to find ways to get around uncomfortable teachings like Humanae Vitae.
But at a deeper level my concerns are exactly the opposite of theirs. As any Catholic ought to do, I gladly embrace Humanae Vitae because it is an authoritative judgment that reaffirms what the Catholic Church has always taught on the subject of contraception. The pope here perfectly fulfills his role as the remora (as Newman says), the ‘barrier’ against harmful novelty or deviation from the deposit of the Faith. The liberals, on the other hand, wish to be freed from traditional teachings they no longer agree with. They are dissenters from Catholic tradition. Today’s traditionalists are not dissenters, but rather, upholders of the perennial magisterium and practice of the Church, which is now under attack from the pope himself.
This is why I compare our situation to an autoimmune disease: the body is attacking itself. The head is attacking the members and, indeed, attacking the eternal head, Jesus Christ, as well as the entire line of vicars who have served in the capacity of head of the Church over the past 2,000 years. And that’s why I also speak of “ecclesial disintegration.” The Church will not actually disintegrate, in the sense of ceasing to exist; but there are centrifugal forces tearing apart the Church on earth. It is truly a dramatic time.
What exactly do you mean by ‘hyperpapalism’? Does it differ in any way from the already established term ‘papolatry,’ where a pope is perceived like a guru?
The trouble with the term ‘papolatry’ is that, to some ears, it sounds excessively pejorative. After all, who really worships the pope? He isn’t being put on a pedestal before which his courtiers kneel and burn incense. The term ‘hyperpapalism’ strikes a different note—that of an exaggeration, a distortion, too much of a good thing. Papal authority is required for the coherence and continuity of the Church, for her visible unity, for her doctrinal safety; and yet it is currently being abused in a direction quite the contrary of its purpose. Healthy Catholics who know their Faith and live it, confronted with such a scandal, would simply criticize the abusive pope—respectfully, yes, and with prayers for him, but without ‘guilting’ themselves into silence or, worse, thinking they ought to let themselves be abused. But ‘hyperpapalist’ Catholics think (or pretend to think) that we must all simply change our minds with each new pope and move in whatever direction he says, without leaning on any other support for knowing the content of the Faith or the right way to live. They make no distinctions.
In connection with ‘hyperpapalism,’ you mention ‘ultramontanism,’ which has contributed to this distorted view of the papacy. But shouldn’t we make a distinction between ‘ultramontanism’ as a faithful defense of the papacy and ‘ultramontanism’ as a view of the authority of the pope? In the latter case there are indeed writers who essentially see the pope as the embodiment of God’s will. But I probably wouldn’t attribute it to all ultramontanists. It seems to me that those who were close to fideism in particular, unless they were outright fideists, were slipping to the extreme. I do not think it is a coincidence.
I’ve been criticized by some people for using the term ‘ultramontanism’ negatively. Well, let us not dispute too much about language. Looking over the mountains to what the pope of Rome is saying or doing can be a helpful shortcut in a period of revolutionary upheaval when everyone is confused and in need of a clear path forward, but it doesn’t seem to be a good normal policy for Catholics always to be looking over their shoulder to find out what the pope is saying or doing—as if they had no access to the content or practice of the Faith otherwise.
For most people through most of Church history, the pope was a distant figure one never saw and about whom one heard little. He was there to do what only he could do, but most affairs were taken care of locally. This kind of subsidiarity and non-centralization is indeed a feature of a well-functioning social body. It seems to me that the increasing magnitude of the papacy in modern times, particularly from the middle of the 19th century onward, has caused a corresponding weakening in the episcopal body’s pastoral care and doctrinal alertness, since it seemed the pope would ‘take care of’ whatever needed to be done or said. The universal encyclical, a letter from the pope to all bishops or even to all mankind, replaced diocesan pastoral letters, interventions, and initiatives.
Notoriously, the relationship of the faithful and the clergy to the sacred liturgy became rather external and superficial in recent centuries, because they had all become habituated to thinking of the liturgy as simply whatever the pope or the curia declares it to be: in other words, a pure legal positivism. Yet throughout Church history the faithful and the clergy were, on the contrary, deeply knowledgeable of and devoted to their traditional liturgical rites. The rites were as much a part of their lives as every other aspect of culture, woven into their family customs, arts and crafts, music and poetry, town celebrations of feasts and fasts. The rites of worship were their ‘daily bread,’ their profound source of identity, their main occupation. Seen from that angle, ‘ultramontanism’ could have the appearance of a great weakening of Catholic identity, like a body in which the limbs are paralyzed but the head retains its functionality.
Postconciliar times have revived discussions not only about the authority of the pope, but also the extent of his infallibility. These questions used to be asked by people associated with the Catholic traditionalist movement but more and more voices from the so-called conservatives are joining the debate under Pope Francis. But does this debate have any meaning? Is it any good?
It is urgently necessary to have these discussions now, for the simple reason that papal infallibility does have clearly defined limits. Vatican I by no means taught that the pope was an absolute monarch whose will is law. When the German bishops wrote a clarification for Bismarck saying that bishops remain true authorities and that the pope is bound by divine law and natural law, etc., Pope Pius IX himself endorsed their letter!
The tradition and history of the Church show that popes can err on points of doctrine (the condemnation of Honorius and the resistance to John XXII are notable in this respect, but there are other examples too); that they can commit the worst imprudences; that the discipline they establish may be dubious and worthy of criticism. It is simply insane to think that the papacy automatically wraps a mantle of inerrancy and impeccability around papal acts. His word is not the Word of God, and his acts are not, simply speaking, the acts of Christ. Rather, he is given the grace of office to teach true doctrine and to promote the common good of the Church—but he must cooperate with this grace. He is no automaton, like an AI computer that cranks out answers and policies. A papal saint is one who cooperates well, to a heroic degree, and a bad pope is one who does not.
Currently we have one of the worst popes ever to have reigned in the series of 266 popes of the Catholic Church. His pontificate has been an unending series of clerical and financial scandals, doctrinal chaos, globalist-environmentalist surrender, ecumenical-interreligious error, and, now, ecclesiological rupture in the area of liturgy. I truly believe that the Bergoglian pontificate will go down in history as a low-water mark of the Catholic Church. That is what volume 2 of my work The Road from Hyperpapalism to Catholicism documents in painful but necessary detail. Volume 1, on the contrary, lays the groundwork for a genuinely Catholic appreciation of the papacy: what it is, what it is for, what its limits are, and how we are to respond, spiritually and theologically, to times of tempest.
How is it possible that theologians are still asking questions concerning papal infallibility? Wasn’t the problem sufficiently resolved by the First Vatican Council?
The difficulty is not so much with Vatican I as it is with the ‘spirit of Vatican I,’ that is, the popular conception of what was taught on infallibility, which does not match the more careful articulation of the doctrine at the council, in Gasser’s relatio, in the German bishops’ letter, and in subsequent theological discussion. On this point, I would highly recommend the work of Dr. John P. Joy, whose book Disputed Questions on Papal Infallibility was recently published (Os Justi Press, 2022). It is succinct but profound and penetrating. He brings more clarity to the subject than anyone else I have ever read. After reading Joy, one can experience a tremendous peace of soul, knowing that the Church’s teaching, though it transcends reason, does not contradict reason—and even better, does not contradict the ‘supernatural common sense’ known as the sensus fidei fidelium.
Do you see any dangers on the “road from hyperpapalism to Catholicism”? Isn’t there a danger that the papacy will be seen as just a kind of honorary office, or a slide into something like Eastern Orthodoxy or even Protestantism? How should we avoid these false pitfalls?
One challenge we are facing today, I would say, is a relative lack of awareness that the Catholic Faith is handed down through many channels and in many forms. It is not the pope’s personal possession, it is the common heritage of the Church and therefore of every baptized man, woman, and child.
For example, hundreds of catechisms over the centuries bear witness to what is called the universal ordinary magisterium, which is infallible. Sacred Scripture, though subject to magisterial interpretation, is the inerrant and infallible Word of God, and in many cases its plain meaning—e.g., its condemnation of homosexuality—establishes the unchanging and unchangeable Faith of the Church, without the need for any hermeneutical filter. The consensus of the Church Fathers, which does exist on certain questions, is also considered a safe sign of true doctrine. The 20 ecumenical councils prior to Vatican I offer us de fide dogmas and solemn anathemas. The popes themselves have left us with precious, lucid, repeated teaching on many important matters. All these things determine what a given pope may do or teach, and what he may not do or teach. This is not Protestantism (sola Scriptura) or Orthodoxy (sola Traditione); it is instantly recognizable as the symphonic and self-consistent vision of Catholicism. I have written about this in a couple of articles that I might mention for those who wish to go deeper: “How Protestants, Orthodox, Magisterialists, and Traditionalists Differ on the Three Pillars of Christianity” (OnePeterFive, May 26, 2022); “Are Traditionalists Guilty of ‘Private Judgment’ Over the Popes?” (OnePeterFive, December 22, 2021).
There is, of course, the danger that Catholics will become so impatient with a bad pope or bad bishops that they will be tempted to ‘break free’ from the institution and try, somehow, to set up a ‘safe place’ far away from this corrupt hierarchy. But that is quite impossible to do. We can be faithful critics of what has gone wrong, but we must remain in union with the pope and the bishops, at least to the extent of accepting what they do and teach that is in harmony with the Faith or not obviously in disharmony with it. It’s like being a member of a family in which one has to keep a certain distance from some relatives, without, as it were, disowning them. Not an easy situation, and one sometimes feels these days as if one is walking on a tightrope. But that is our challenge, given to us by Divine Providence, and we cannot either contradict our reason or abandon our love for Holy Mother Church. We have to keep living the Catholic life of prayer, sacraments, and good works, even when we are legitimately displeased with or scandalized by the hierarchy.
In saying this, I do not mean to say that there would not be some situations where a certain underground existence may be practically necessary, but this is something of a last resort and a temporary expedient. We are always praying and working ultimately for a normal, above-ground solution in every case. Traditionalism does not seek a new Church—that would be Protestantism—but a cleansing and renewal, on earth, of the one and only Catholic Church of all times. We are interested in restoring what has crumbled and faded, not in bulldozing the structure or whitewashing it. That, ironically, was what the revolutionaries of (and after) Vatican II sought to do. We can see the results of their theological and liturgical iconoclasm everywhere.
Finally, let me ask you for a few words of advice for our readers.
In my view, sincere and earnest Catholics must above all hold fast to the Faith as it was always taught and lived prior to the time of great confusion that descended on the Church during and after the last ecumenical council. Nothing in our Faith tells us that we cannot have a wicked pope, and we know that the pope’s non-infallible teaching is, by definition, fallible—that is, capable of being in error. If the constant teaching and practice of the Church prior to the council—the cumulative witness of so many liturgical rites, councils, popes, catechisms, and saints—was wrong, then the claims of the Church herself are destroyed. That conclusion is unacceptable. Tradition always takes precedence over the present and the future; it is and has always been the guiding light for Catholics. In times of confusion, we take refuge in what is stable, established, approved, certain, and known to be good. This is the essence of the traditionalist position; it is no more than supernatural common sense.
It is a privilege to be alive at this time, carrying the torch of tradition through the darkness. Those who are seeking the light will see it, rejoice in it, and follow it. They will be the remnant God uses to reestablish His kingdom, if indeed He wishes it to flourish again.