‘But the Pope said so!’: Excuses that may not help on Judgment Day
November 28, 2017 (LifeSiteNews) – People often find it difficult to judge about contemporary problems because current affairs are too “close” to us to be able to see them clearly. We feel too much immersed in them, almost as if we are treading water and trying not to drown. One useful way of gaining perspective is to step back in time, into other periods of crisis, and to speculate on what the implications of those crises might have been for Catholics living through them. Here, this exploration will take the form of hypothetical dialogues between Christ and a soul at its particular judgment.
Scenario #1 takes place in the year 366.
The Judge: O Christian soul, why did you dare to sing the songs of the Arians, with their refrain “there was a time when He was not”? For in truth, there is no time when I was not. I am the eternal Son of the eternal Father.
Soul: Well… I was confused when Pope Liberius signed an accord with the Emperor. Everyone was saying that the pope had admitted that there could be some debate, you know, some flexibility in the formulas… that it was not all black-and-white…
The Judge: You should have known better. My Church has always confessed My divinity. When Arius arose, he was immediately condemned as a heretic. The truth was solemnly defined at the Council of Nicaea, and My saints have defended it ever since.
Soul: Who was I to judge? Hearing conflicting things, I figured: “If the pope is confused, then how could I be expected to know for sure?” Aren’t we just supposed to follow the pope?
The Judge: You say: “Who was I to judge?” Yet in your baptism and chrismation I gave you the Spirit of Truth by which to distinguish truth from falsehood, and the duty of knowing your faith and following it unto death.
Soul: But what of the pope, the rock on which the Church is built?
The Judge: The papacy I established as a guardian of the unchanging truths of the Faith and a barrier against novelty. That is why he is called a rock and not sand. This Liberius, My thirty-sixth pope, was unworthy of his charge; he wavered when he should have stood firm. Seeing all time before me, I declare to you that he will be the only pope among the fifty-four bishops of Rome from St. Peter to St. Gelasius I who will not be revered as a saint.
Soul: I am ashamed. I stand justly condemned for my failure in faith. Have mercy on me, O Lord!
The Judge: I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. Angels, lead away this soul to the furnace of purgation, that he may be cleansed of his vices.
* * *
Scenario #2 takes place in the year 638.
The Judge: Why, friend, did you hold and promote the wicked error that I have only one will, a divine, while having two natures, a divine and a human? Did you not see that this error is an insult to the truth of My humanity and of My mission to assume, heal, and elevate all that is in man?
Soul: But Lord, Lord, I was merely following what Pope Honorius wrote in his letter to Patriarch Sergius, where he disowned writers who spoke of “two wills.” As you know, many are following this letter.
The Judge: The Church had already taught the truth about Me. The faithful knew it. Pope Honorius was derelict in his duty. His word is nothing if it contradicts the traditional teaching of the Church. Those who follow him in this matter, so far from being excused, are partakers in his unfaithfulness.
Soul: But wasn’t it his fault for misleading me?
The Judge: You could and should have known better. Did you consider yourself an educated Catholic?
Soul: Well, yes, I suppose.
The Judge: You were literate at a time when few others were. You had the ability to study, and you did study. You knew—or could easily have known—the traditional faith of the Church.
Soul (blushing): Yes, Lord, all that you say is true.
The Judge: A successor of Pope Honorius, Pope Martin I, will show forth to all the world the unwavering faithfulness I expect of My shepherds. Martin will summon a synod to condemn Monothelitism, bravely opposing the Emperor. He will be seized, imprisoned, and exiled unto his death, and afterwards venerated as a martyr. The Third Ecumenical Council of Constantinople will ultimately discard the last vestiges of this error and condemn Honorius with words that I shall inspire on their lips: “We define that there shall be expelled from the holy Church of God and anathematized Honorius who was at one time Pope of Old Rome, because of what we found written by him to Sergius, where he in all respects followed the latter’s view and confirmed his impious doctrines.” Pope Leo II, endorsing the anathema, will write: “Honorius…consented to the pollution of the unpolluted rule of the apostolic tradition, which he received from his predecessors.” He will condemn him as one “who did not, as became the apostolic authority, quench the flame of heretical doctrine as it sprang up, but quickened it by his negligence.” Why is it that Martin I, Leo II, and countless other popes will know and teach the truth of the Faith, when Honorius himself did not?
Soul: I cannot say, Master.
The Judge: It is because, as a matter of principle, they reject every profane novelty and “contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints,” as My servant Jude said. I have placed it within reach of every diligent shepherd of the flock to know and to hand on the true Faith, just as I have placed it within reach of every earnest Christian soul to receive and to embrace the same Faith unto salvation.
Soul: I see now how negligent I have been!
The Judge: Did I not condemn false prophets and false teachers in Sacred Scripture? And those who follow them?
The Judge: Anyone who distorts the word of God as handed down in Scripture and Tradition is a false prophet. Is this not so?
The Judge: Therefore a pope who does this is also a false prophet and teacher.
Soul: Yes, the conclusion follows.
The Judge: It is just for me to condemn you out of your own mouth. Angels, bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness!
* * *
Scenario #3 takes place in the year 1332.
The Judge: Are you surprised to see that countless souls of the just are already enjoying the vision of My divine glory?
Soul: I do not understand the question, Master.
The Judge: You belonged to the papal court, did you not? As a member thereof, you made a name for yourself by adopting and defending the thesis of Pope John XXII that just souls are admitted to the beatific vision only at the end of time, with the general resurrection.
Soul: Yes, I was his lawyer, and assisted him in the research that supported his position.
The Judge: His position is execrably false. The testimony of Scripture, the Fathers, the Doctors, and the constant faith of the people—all these stand in serried ranks against it. How could you have dared to aid and abet the pope in his foolish reasoning?
Soul: It seemed like a subject open to theological debate. I believe a German cardinal told me that...
The Judge: It is not for you to decide what is open to debate and what is not.
Soul: But what if the pope decides that something is open to debate?
The Judge: He, too, is bound by the same faith as every Christian. Indeed, he is more bound than all others, and must show himself stalwart in resisting every deviation, innovation, or obfuscation, be it ever so small. What may be pardoned in a lesser man may not be pardoned in the supreme shepherd.
Soul: You are saying that I should have refused to cooperate with him in this matter?
The Judge: Yes—and all the more so, the more the pope insisted on his idiosyncratic views. My loyal subjects, including the bishop Guillaume Durand, the Dominican Thomas Waleys, the Franciscan Nicholas of Lyra, Cardinal Fournier, and King Philip, valiantly resisted John’s error and have suffered as a result, winning great merit for their souls. In fact, I tell you, searching the hearts of men, that before two years of time have passed upon the earth, the pope will retract his error and die repentant.
Soul: The truth is always victorious.
The Judge: It is victorious—in those who seek it and hold on to it, come what may.
Soul: What will happen after my lord dies?
The Judge: Cardinal Fournier will be elected Pope Benedict XII. Among his first acts, he will solemnly define in a papal bull the opposite of what his predecessor endeavored to teach: the souls of the just, whether immediately or after due purgation, are admitted to the beatific vision, and thereafter await the resurrection of the dead and the general judgment.
Soul: But Lord, if you had only let me live long enough to see this papal bull, I would have taken the right side!
The Judge: No, there you are wrong, My friend. Remember My parable about Dives and Lazarus? It is pertinent to your case... I know that you would have become a contumacious heretic and that your eternal punishment would have been worse. I therefore mercifully summoned you now to a lesser punishment.
Soul: I bow before your decree and accept your just sentence.
The Judge: Angels, take this lawyer and lead him to the place where he will find himself most at home—with the scribes and pharisees who changed the law of God to suit the human traditions of their cultural milieu.
* * *
Are there any other historically-based scenarios we might imagine? Yes, but they will have to wait for a later treatment. This trio of scenarios, in any case, helps us to see that there are certain excuses we should never make for ourselves when it comes to adherence to Christian doctrine on faith and morals. This is our responsibility; we cannot abdicate it and try to put the blame on someone else.