The Pope’s Reign and Ruin

A superbly written article from Brendan Michael Dougherty at National Review which shows real understanding of the subject matter as well as a flair for communication. Just one important point: The Papal Personality Cult began a little earlier than Vatican I. It started when Napoleon abducted Pius VII.

The then Cardinal Secretary of State, Ercole Consalvi (pictured above - a deacon, never a priest or bishop, despite the ostentatious sartorial mode) had little cards with the Pope’s picture on it made and distributed all across Europe. So a tradition began. It accelerated after Garibaldi’s attack on the Papal States. As things tend to accelerate towards their end (motus in fine velocior, as the Latin maxim has it), is what we see now is the end rapidly coming? "The First See is judged by no one", in other words, The Church has no mechanisms for dealing with a corrupt and heretical Pope. Will the real product of the Pontificate of Francis be a move towards a more collegiate/ concilliar model, as was hinted at by Pope Francis early on, despite the reality that he has become the most authoritarian Pope in history.

The papal cult that continued to grow from the first Vatican Council and reached its zenith under John Paul II has come crashing down under Francis. 

Pope Francis closed out his summer by praising the Mongolian and Russian empires for their tolerance and humanity, before criticizing American Catholics for their backwardness and narrowness. No, you read that right the first time. He praised the horde of Genghis Khan and the imperialism of the Russian czars for their tolerance, then went on to criticize American Catholics for a sin he made up, called “indietrismo” — which means backward-looking. This from a man occupying an office whose occupants used to vow to shed blood if that’s what it meant to keep “inviolate the discipline and ritual of the church just as I found and received it handed down by my predecessors.”

Now, back in Rome, the pope is getting back to one of his favorite pastimes: rehabilitating a well-documented sex-pest because he has the right progressive friends in the curia. This time it’s Fr. Rupnik, a Jesuit and plainly terrible artist. Rupnik serially abused a group of nuns. The Vatican’s investigation into Rupnik and his religious center finished with a report — I kid you not — praising his confreres because, despite a media uproar, they “chose to maintain silence” and “to guard their hearts and not claim any irreproachability with which to stand as judges of others.” In other words, good job keeping the omertà and not being so judgmental about the sexual criminal in your midst.

All this is preparation for the ballyhooed “Synod on Synodality,” which is literally a conference of bishops dilating on the authority of conferences of bishops. The aim of the Synod, rather plainly, is for a large group of bishops to debate each other about survey material they guided some small number of lay Catholics through in their home diocese, and whether this pile of papers gives sufficient cover for the pope to begin chucking certain moral and dogmatic teachings of the church overboard in favor of newer understandings. It’s a truly strange exercise meant to obscure the pope’s role in changing the faith. Basically, he’s going to ask a bunch of bishops to write up a document showing that the church in general has come to a new understanding of itself.

It’s hard to unpack how much of a failure this already is. The very idea of a “Synod on Synodality” is like having a Meeting about Meetings. That uncomfortable guttural sound and hissing you are hearing from Rome is the ecclesial snake choking on its own tail. The pope’s constant comments on “backwardness” and condemnations of “ideology” are his attempt to get past the idea that the Catholic faith has real intellectual substance that has been defined, clarified, and distilled through the ages. This process whereby early scriptural and liturgical statements about the divinity of Jesus Christ, the nature of the Holy Spirit, and God the father are — over the centuries — expressed in new terms such as “the Holy Trinity” is what St. John Henry Newman called the “development of doctrine.” Newman had rules for distinguishing between true and false development, tracing all the way back to St. Vincent of Lérins. “A true development is that which is conservative of its original,” Newman wrote, “and a corruption is that which tends to its destruction.” The law of non-contradiction applies.

But Pope Francis does not operate like this. He has already claimed to “develop” doctrine to make the idea of the death penalty, formally recognized as morally permissible by the church, into a sin. He did this by asserting that some new understanding of human dignity had come about in history. And this new understanding, combined with a series of ill-defined social observations and opinions that prisons were now sufficient to protect the public from criminals, made the death penalty morally impermissible.

There are several stunning things to notice in this. First, these assertions did not interact with or even pretend to engage the vast body of moral and theological reflection on this topic in church history. Secondly, these social assertions were themselves open to serious challenge. Had prisons really improved that much worldwide in just a few decades? Weren’t some criminals like El Chapo obviously able to command murderous criminal enterprises even while imprisoned? But most stunning of all was that the new teaching had no religious warrant whatsoever in Sacred Scripture, ecumenical councils, doctors of the church, the Christian faithful, or the Magisterium. Throughout history, the church’s self-understanding was as the guardian and interpreter of Divine Revelation — those mysteries that God disclosed by a special action in history. But in this revision of its moral doctrine, the church was asserting and hoping to demonstrate its competence to draw radical moral conclusions directly from its own reading of the present social conditions of humanity, apart from Revelation.

In the 19th century, when the Catholic Church was responding to the age of revolutions by asserting the infallibility of its teaching authority and the pope’s peculiar charism of infallibility, some critics worried that papal authority would begin to appear like a special bauble that occupants of the office could use to innovate. Newman was emphatic that papal infallibility was tied up intimately with the infallibility of the church as a whole, and that the power was largely a negative one, built for the purpose of condemning error. Certainly not for pioneering new truths.

But it’s quite clear these days that Pope Francis’s greatest fans want him to use papal authority to condemn moral, social, and liturgical traditionalists, and even to revise or significantly reform church teaching on the matters associated with moral and social traditionalists: the church’s ban on artificial contraception, its reservation of Holy Matrimony to men and women, its reservation of Holy Orders to men. The pope’s current head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith — the office formerly used to assist popes in guarding orthodoxy — now boldly talks about the “doctrine of the Holy Father” as if the personal moral enthusiasms of Pope Francis were binding on all Christians. They even sometimes talk of Christian duty to “the present Magisterium” of the church, rather than the “perennial” one.

But I have to warn them that the effort is self-defeating. A church of today that pretends to release us from the church of yesterday is a church that confesses its irrelevance. After all, it implies the existence of a church of the future, which can and may well be anything. The office of the papacy has — since the time of the Apostles — been charged with preservation and conservation, not innovation. That’s why its occupants used to take such blood-chilling oaths promising fidelity to what was handed to them. The attempt to use it for other purposes will only damage the office. In fact, that is precisely all that Pope Francis has accomplished. The papal cult that continued to grow from the first Vatican Council and reached its zenith under John Paul II has come crashing down. It has a lot further to fall.

Dougherty is outstanding here, his erudition shines through his prose and he clearly and succinctly marks out the key points. To quote the Cambridge historian Richard Rex:
The ideological waves of our time break relentlessly against the Rock of Peter and seem to be wearing it down. Faith alone assures us they cannot prevail, for the signs we can see are not good. Schism is already visible in Germany and the United States, and it is close to the surface elsewhere. Some cardinals and bishops talk blithely of changing the teaching of the Church—and may be so far deluded as to believe that this is part of their job description. The vile doings revealed in the sexual abuse scandals, along with the contemptibly inadequate handling of such matters by the ecclesiastical authorities, have compromised the moral authority of the Church to an unprecedented extent. In the end, one can do little better than leave the last words to Chesterton: “Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all.”

The legacy of Francis will stain the reputation of the Catholic Church for years to come. It is a legacy of heresy, the indulgence of heretics, the promotion of usurpers and abusers, the Jesuitification of the Roman Curia, the sheer unpleasant pettiness of the man himself, his controlling nature, his arbitrary way of proceeding etc etc. This is why the bishops do us and the Church such a great dis-service by constantly promoting him.



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