Beyond Papolatry

St. Peter, holding the keys to the Church, kneels before Jesus while the Apostles look on. An engraving dated 1530-60 by the artist Master of the Die after Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio or Santi) (1483-1520), located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In the two volumes of The Road from Hyperpapalism to Catholicism: Rethinking the Papacy in a Time of Ecclesial Disintegration, Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, Catholic philosopher and theologian, leaves little with which future historians will be able to salvage the reputation of Pope Francis. Volume 1—to me, the more interesting half of this extraordinary work—takes a more theoretical approach, addressing questions about the duties of popes, the problem of ‘private judgement,’ the errors of Sedevacantism, the proper spiritual response to abuse in the Church, and the relationship between depravity in the hierarchy and the spiritual health of the laity. Volume 2, on the other hand, adopts a more journalistic take, analysing the specific scandals of Pope Francis’s tenure, from his corruption of curial offices to his disastrous synods.

Volume 1 begins with a fascinating confession. Kwasniewski describes his inordinate ‘papolatry’ of years past. He provides an excerpt from a letter to a friend, dated March 1995:

The Pope is the incarnation of the apostolic power and trust, it is he who holds the keys that loose on heaven and on earth. The whole inheritance of the depositum fidei rests in his hands, and it is only made living and binding through his mediation. The Pope exercises on earth a role similar to the Virgin Mary in heaven; just as she is the mediatrix of all grace, he is the mediator of all doctrine and discipline. The “constant teaching of the Church” is not simply, or even primarily, historical; it is present, active, animate. Wherein does it reside on earth? In the Vicarius Christi; it is like a second nature ingrafted onto him by the working of the Holy Ghost, when he is consecrated Pope.

Kwasniewski quotes himself with detectable embarrassment. In this passage, he asserts that the apostolic power is not so much embodied in the episcopacy, but incarnate in one man who holds in his hands the entire deposit of the Faith—a Faith that is binding on us only at his declaration and mediation. The Faith, the young Kwasniewski proceeds to explain, is not primarily the teaching of the Church as handed down from the time of the last Apostle’s death, with each generation of the faithful responding to the imperative to “hold fast to the teachings which have been received” (2 Thess. 2:15). Rather, the Faith, as taught by the Church, is what the Pope says it is, and the Holy Ghost—like a puppet master holding the strings—allegedly animates him in this role.

Such an understanding of the Christian Faith would certainly be news to a medieval peasant, and indeed the vast majority of Christians throughout history. Probably, down the ages, most of the baptised didn’t even know who the incumbent of the papal office was, and those who did certainly had no idea what he thought or how he was ‘mediating’ the Faith on any given day (a point that Kwasniewski criticises his younger self for overlooking). 

Kwasniewski explains that he awoke from his hyperpaplist slumber when he began to read St. John Henry Newman. What fascinated Kwasniewski was Newman’s cautious attitude towards the widespread appetite for a definition of papal infallibility during his lifetime. Newman wholly accepted that popes were, in a highly conditional and qualified sense, infallible. He thought, however, that declaring a definition would not be prudent in the current ultramontane climate of the Church, that it would set a precedent for passing definitions when there was no urgent need, and “in the very act of doing so, a precedent and a suggestion to use his power without necessity, whenever he will, when not called on to do so,” as Newman wrote in a letter to his friend Ambrose St. John.

Has Newman not been vindicated in his worries about future abuse of the papal office? As Kwasniewski shows with an extensive analysis in Volume 2 of the manifold abuses and misuses of the papal office under Francis, the Holy Father has repeatedly shown that he thinks the Catholic religion is what he wants it to be, without respect for how his predecessors—even his immediate predecessor—have bound him in the exercise of his office. Francis has repeatedly made rash and imprudent decisions—from his ridiculous synods to his attacks on traditional members of the faithful—when there was no urgent need to do so, and many good reasons to act otherwise. As a friend recently said to me, “Francis speaks of the scourge of clericalism, but he is the greatest clericalist in the Church.”

Of course, all this points to something with which Francis-critics might be less comfortable, namely the important role of ambiguity within the Church. I have heard many traditionalist Catholics comment that the great evil of Francis’s papacy is that of ‘weaponizing ambiguity.’ In fact, I think Francis has been crystal clear about his intentions for the Church and the kind of revolution he wishes to effect in the service of his 1970s nostalgia. A lack of clarity is not the problem. A lack of ambiguity, and the undermining of the key role of ambiguity in the Church over the last few centuries, is the real problem as I see it.

I’ll explain. In previous ages, the Christian Faith was seen to be the possession of the whole faithful, with the highest offices making declarations on practice or definitions of doctrine only negatively, that is, only when some crisis arose. The clergy did not see themselves, as they largely do today, as authors of the Catholic religion, but as its guardians. The Church, generally, was allowed to live its life organically, without constant top-down interference. No Catholic Christian (who thought about it) doubted that popes had the charism of infallibility, but how popes exercised it, under what conditions, and for which points of doctrine or practice it could be used, were all left ambiguous. This meant, of course, that even popes weren’t sure whether they were speaking infallibly or not, and consequently they didn’t say very much. After all, a flippant dinner comment after a few glasses of Barolo could be interpreted as an infallible proposition requiring immediate and obedient assent—perhaps that’s why popes always dined alone until after the 1870 definition on papal infallibility… 

We now know what the conditions are for exercising this charism, because it has been defined. As the First Vatican Council put it, the pope speaks infallibly only “when in discharge of the office of pastor and doctor of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church.” Thus, outside the strict conditions under which he could be interpreted to be speaking infallibly, the Pope is free to chat away as much as he likes without giving a moment’s thought to the nonsense he’s spouting, and he enjoys a gaggle of neo-ultramontanists hanging on every silly word.

Anyway, back to Kwasniewski’s volumes. Volume 2 assesses why the interpretation and implementation of Vatican II is an enduring problem for the Church, as well as analysing Francis’s various bizarre synods, his tampering with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, his mishandling of scandals in the hierarchy, his positive distortion of doctrine, his introduction of Amerindian paganism to the Vatican, and other issues. We are left with a picture of a man who has helped to normalise homosexuality and divorce in the Church; encouraged Eucharistic sacrilege; fomented an already emerging schism of the German church; instrumentalised the Catechism to promote explicitly condemned opinions; sold out Chinese Catholics—even ousting faithful bishops from their sees to replace them with Communist agents; institutionalised ideological language, inserting ‘LGBT’ into Vatican documents; undermined the highest calling in the Church, namely that of consecrated contemplatives; introduced the worship of pagan fertility gods; criticised married couples open to life as those who “breed like rabbits”; invited population-control fanatics to be Vatican advisers; and covered up—or at least gravely mishandled—abuses by sexual-predator clergy. One cannot help but come away with the sense that we are looking at the worst pope in history.

Remarkable it is, then, that Pope Francis has recently decided to centralise the supervision of new religious orders. The claim has been made that this decision is on account of the extraordinary number of new religious communities that have turned out to be hotbeds of sexual abuse. This decision, however, also flies in the face of the Catholic Church’s policy of subsidiarity—whose implementation has been profoundly weakened under the current papacy—the principle that all that can be done locally should be done locally. Moreover, it leaves more decision-making in the hands of a man with a record of defending sexual abusers, at least when they happen to be his friends.

Now, in the current moral climate of the Church, Rome has looked about for the Church’s last remaining signs of health, and has found them in the Latin Mass congregations, where doctrinal orthodoxy, good catechesis, faith-retention, faithfulness to moral teachings, and devotion continue—a very rare spectacle in the Catholic Church today. Having identified these last signs of health in the Church, Rome is actively seeking to crush those communities wherein such signs are found. With the Pope’s document, Traditionis Custodes, and subsequent accompanying documents, Rome is developing the policies that will make these last remaining communities of faithful Catholics disappear altogether. In fact, if there is one shortcoming of Kwasniewski’s The Road from Hyperpapalism to Catholicism, it is that this assault on the traditional Catholic movement—to which Kwasniewski belongs—is not sufficiently covered. This, however, could not be avoided as the essays of the volumes were compiled before the unfolding of this next stage in the Francis papacy’s wretched chronology.

The Catholic Church is fast ceasing to be the institution that it doctrinally purports to be. The community of God’s faithful, who participate in the work of redeeming this fallen world with the grace merited by Jesus Christ on the Cross, led in this holy work by the Apostles’ successors and those priests of the Order of Melchizedek who share in the episcopal charism—all this is being eclipsed by the new, grey, corrupt, lawless, sordid, parasitic company that Kwasniewski refers to as “Vatican, Inc.” Over this institution, Pope Francis operates like a CEO who enjoys exercising his arbitrary will, protecting and promoting those whom the law of the Church would punish, and punishing those whom the law would protect. In an excellent chapter of Volume 2, entitled “Is the Pope the Vicar of Christ or CEO of Vatican, Inc.?” Kwasniewski explores yet another case in which the Holy Father, who appears to have no concept of the way in which law binds, ran roughshod over due process because, well, he wanted to.

With the rate at which the Church’s faithful are apostatising, adding to this the institutional assault on those remaining faithful Catholics attached to the Latin liturgy, the Catholic Church has put itself on the path to suicide. If the Church as we know it is to survive, it must change course immediately. Such a shift in direction would require a profoundly revisionist approach to the last six decades of the Church’s history, but also generally to the accumulated hyperpapalism that has made the abuse and misuse of the Church’s highest visible office possible in our lifetime. I have no doubt that in any future attempt to salvage what is left of the Church, the analyses of Kwasniewski will be invaluable. What we have in this outstanding philosopher and theologian is a faithful son of the Catholic Church who conjoins every one of his devastating attacks on current abuses to a case for why Catholics should—despite everything—stay in the Church and be faithful to Jesus Christ, their Lord. Kwasniewski has, with these two volumes and with his many other works, provided a vital service to the Church, but one for which the hierarchy will not thank him any time soon.

Sebastian Morello is a lecturer, public speaker, and columnist. Trained by Sir Roger Scruton, he has published books on philosophy, history, and education. He lives in Bedfordshire, England, with his wife and children. He is essays editor of The European Conservative.