Would God permit a bad pope?
February 28, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – The “indefectibility” of the Church means that the hierarchy and the faithful, and thus, the sacramental and social life of the Church, will always remain intact somewhere. We know that it cannot mean everywhere, otherwise the fall of north Africa to the Moslems, or the schism of half of Europe during the Protestant revolt, would never have been possible. We know that it cannot be nowhere, as if the Church would disappear into an invisible ideal to be rediscovered later—as Protestants often believe happened to the Church from about 300 to 1500 AD.
The reason so many people are renewing their study of the Arian crisis is that there were indeed times during that terrible trial when very few bishops and priests were really Catholic, as compared with a vast number on the heretical side. Athanasius made a famous quip about “You have the buildings, but we have the faith,” because most of the physical churches were in the hands of Arians or semi-Arians.
About a week ago, the Church celebrated the feast of the Chair of St. Peter, when we recall Our Lord’s bestowal of the keys of the kingdom on the Prince of the Apostles and the establishment of the latter’s episcopal seat in the city of Rome. It is a salutary annual reminder to us both that the Church is founded on the rock of St. Peter, a visible head, and that the essence of this rock is Peter’s faith in the Divine Redeemer, whose Passion for the sake of the truth He must make His own, in order to be worthy of the great office conferred on him, and to execute its responsibilities well.
Matthew 16:18—“thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”—has a long exegetical history. St. Augustine took “rock” to mean the faith of Peter and therefore the faith of the Church. St. Thomas Aquinas argued that it was both Peter’s act of faith, which every Christian can emulate, and Peter’s position of authority, which he alone receives.
In the Counter-Reformation period, the application of Matthew 16:18 to the papacy was obviously foremost in the Catholic mind, but the whole context of Matthew 16 shows that what Jesus is praising is Peter’s confession of faith in His divinity and messianic mission; this is the foundation of the Church, not a man or even an office, abstractly considered. The fundamental duty of the pope is to continue to confess Christ the Son of God by upholding the true Faith in all of its dogmatic and moral teachings—in other words, to ensure that the Gospel remains intact, undiluted, uncorrupted, unhidden. This already begins to tell us much about what’s problematic with the current successor of St. Peter.
When someone recently challenged me “You need to adjust your critique based on a wider view of Church history. I mean, look at Alexander VI!,” I replied: “Having studied papal history, I would take Alexander VI in a heartbeat. Whatever his moral failings, in his official capacity he upheld the teaching of the Church and humbly submitted to the venerable liturgical rites of Rome. He did the minimum that a pope is required to do—safeguard traditional doctrine and worship.”
Yes, Matthew 16:18 and surrounding is definitely talking about a person and his faith, which is the basis for the gift of a special role from Christ; but the key to the role being properly lived is the possession and exercise of the very same faith. A heretical or apostate pope would be a contradiction in terms; indeed, he would cancel himself out, like +2 and –2 in algebra. Of course, we know that this heresy or apostasy would have to be manifest, called out as such, and stubbornly maintained in the face of challenge. We’re getting close to that point.
Given the hardships of the moment, I am not surprised that a reader wrote to me:
Why does God “help” us to a certain point, but not more? For example, why would God not allow His Church to fail, but then let her get close anyway—why not draw the line sooner? Or in Genesis, why allow Adam the freedom to choose to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, but then prevent him the chance to eat from the tree of life—why not protect him more from the first tree? Of course, with no help from God we would be hopelessly lost; but how can we grasp just “how much” He chooses to help us? In a way, it can almost seem like it’s a “game” to God; but I have to assume there is some divine order to it.
This is the question of all questions. Why does God permit evil at all? Why does He permit this much and not more—or less? I see the answer in terms of the “severe mercy” that Sheldon Vanauken talks about. God is not trying to make it easy for us; He aims to sanctify us, ween us from sin, and make heroes of us. Every Christian is called to be a martyr, whether bloody or unbloody. His mercy is demanding, and it will take us to the very edge, the limit. When we embrace this, we do our purgatory on earth, so to speak. That is the teaching of the mystics, too, such as St. John of the Cross: the purgative way, the illuminative way, and the unitive way. If we want union with our Lord, we must let Him teach us; and if we want to become teachable, ready to receive what He desires to give, we must suffer. Suffering stretches the capacity of our faith, our hope, and our charity.
God being infinite has so much to give that He must carve out the space for Himself in our souls through mighty trials and tribulations. It’s no game, but the very essence of a love that will not and cannot compromise, that refuses to share space with any unworthy love.
I say this regarding the interior life of each Catholic, and each believer’s vocation to witness to the truth, which is the essence of martyrdom. But there is also a benefit to the Church at large whenever God permits trials of this magnitude, namely, that the truth of her traditional teaching will shine all the more brightly when its enemies have been confounded. Our understanding of the papacy, its inseparable link with tradition, and the outer limits of its deviation will be deepened; our faith will be purified of the extremes of hyperpapalism and sedevacantism.
Those who wish to read more on why the pope’s office must be seen as measured by tradition and regulated by the constant Faith of the Church may find helpful the article I published earlier in the month, “Happy Catholics Don’t Make the Pope More than He Is.”