It’s been a while since I’ve written a piece that will generate some controversy. Here it goes.
As I shared an article on the appointment to the Cardinalate by Pope Francis of Bishop Robert McElroy, someone posed the question to me: “How does this match up with the Papacy as the center of unity and the guardian of the deposit of faith”? I returned with an answer that merely scratches the surface, but I figured I would leave this open for discussion.
It is, indeed, a thought worth pondering. I can’t say I’ve cracked the code for this because it just seems like the more and more I work through some of the puzzles, fresh ones are made almost daily.
Firstly, I should say that I don’t spend a lot of time considering the arguments of those who think the Papacy, as a doctrine and a reality, can still be what it claims to be while upholding perpetual heretics across the span of 60+ years, supporting the largest “erroneous” Ecumenical Council of Catholic history, and in the influence of the overwhelming majority of the Catholic Episcopate together with the worldwide faithful. Those who are open to seeing an abrupt return to pre-Vatican II Tridentine Catholicism in the Roman rite after repudiating the Reform for its effacing from the truth of Christ have so long passed the logical test-point of terminating falsification that it can only stand to be a spectacle at how one’s passion can override reason.
So, what’s really on the table?
There is the classic method of separating the categories of substantial dogma and discretionary leadership (i.e., discipline/policy). Is the essence of Christian dogma maintained by the Papacy even when its discretionary form (that is, its execution of the pastorate in the realm of ordinary teaching and disciplinary decisions) is hardly a reflection of the essence of that Christian dogma? Well, we don’t have any magisterial descriptions of precisely the manner in which ecclesial or Papal infallibility is maintained in the ordinary decision-making of a Pope, Council, or worldwide Episcopate. All we have, as far as I can see, is a vague notion of indefectibility such that even the discipline of the Church cannot be consistently retardant to the aim and goal of the Church: the salvation of souls. How elastic is this “consistently”? What are its dimensions? Its parameters? Its time constraints? All of this seems to be more and more arbitrary as the Church’s life continues on and as we behold the survival of great evils that, hitherto, were unimaginable (ex: the Great Western schism).
To be more concrete, it seems like one can argue that Pope Francis seeks to merely repeat the Church’s dogmas (putting a check on the de fide and universally-held-as-definitive dogmas of the Church) while afterward, quite frequently (consistently?) and nonchalantly, trivializing those dogmas by his discretionary management of the Church in nearly every way he makes decisions. This is merely another way of describing what I’ve said elsewhere about Pope Francis parking his feet at the outer circumferential boundary of Catholic dogma and then having a sort of leaning-over-the-line tendency while being able to balance his body back to align where his feet are parked right at the technically-passing-acceptability of Catholic dogma. Take what you will from this, but I’m not here trying to judge what his intentions are at all. I am simply speaking about the objective situation before our very eyes.
Do these discretionary decisions whereby Francis trivializes the faith objectively bring disorder to the vineyard of the Lord? There is no doubt. In that capacity, does he work against the role of the “rock of unity” and “guardian of apostolic treasure”? That is undeniable, it seems to me.
The next question to ask is whether the discretionary care of a government (in this case, ecclesial/papal) can so contradict its own essential constitution (in this case the dogmas of the Church) such that a failure in its management to apply the principles of that constitution is just the same as formally denying those principles? Can a supreme judge give his honest and sincere assent to the law of the land while thereafter making all kinds of decisions that barely match the essence of that law? If so, is he formally denying the standing validity and force of the law itself? I think we can answer that it is not necessarily the case that he denies the validity and force even when his decisions barely reflect the essence of the law. You would have something like the evil of an extremely incompetent judge or, worse, an extremely corrupt judge who is double-minded.
I think the well-meaning Catholic can arguably be sensible if he says that Pope Francis is at least trying to re-assert the law of the land of Catholicism, i.e., the dogmas and the Tradition. Perhaps the bare substance of them, anyway. But can his discretionary rule contradict them? I say it is possible. To that extent, would he be working against the office of unity where unity is union with Christ and His mystical body? Sure, since it causes scandal, and scandals, says the Lord, further causes the “little ones” to weaken and stumble rather than be empowered and solidified in the faith.
However, if we equate this category of scandal-producing discretionary rule with the category of scandal-producing dogmatic-denial (in persistent and formal repudiation of dogma), then we would have a more egregious result, namely, that an officer of the Papacy can do more than simply mislead the faithful in his capacity as a disciplinarian but also in his capacity as teacher and doctor of all Christians. This would be a blatant capsizing, if not an utter terminating falsification, of the Papacy itself. If that is where we are, we should all thank God for the illumination that we’ve been wrong and have the courage to prayerfully move onward in seeking the Lord and His face where it might be truly found.
But let’s return to this question – if discretionary/disciplinary leadership has the potential to cause maximal harm when it is poorly executed (horrible executed), what is the difference between that and the damage incurred by a blatant heretical act of the Church’s doctrinal magisterium? The difference might not be anything in the here and now. Souls will be lost, and that is the very opposite of the Church’s mission.
However, regardless of how nauseating it might be at the moment to even exercise this thought experiment, there is a very important difference to take note of in the long haul. Here’s why. Even with a Pope whose discretionary government of the church is equally as damaging, for the here and now, to the souls of Christ’s faithful as if he were to teach heresies (ex cathedra), you still have the legal force and validity of the dogma on paper maintained for a future time whereby the church can discretionally return to homeostasis. The official letter of dogma remains the same for a time when the leadership of the Church can wake up and smell the incense.
On the other hand, if the force and validity of dogma’s letter were to be formally changed (or changeable), that might be as equally damaging to souls as a poor discretional leadership by the Pope, but it is actually far more damaging in the long run because the Church can never fix that change of dogma by returning to the former correct dogma because just by the fact that it changed once shows that it is essentially changeable and therefore no longer suited to be the agency of an indefectible Church. This would be the clearest falsification of the Catholic Church you could imagine.
Such is the difference between disciplinary damage (for whatever is the Church’s capacity to err in this regard) and dogmatic damage.
But here’s where a lot of people remain stuck. It seems like the amount of darkness (whether disciplinary or not) that can potentially overtake the Catholic hierarchy is not sized by any criteria by which we can be sure that it is “too much” or “too little” (of course, zilch would be the preference. If the amount of darkness that can overtake the Catholic hierarchy can reach near to its capacity, then can the Catholic Church still say of itself that she is the light of the world and the sacrament of salvation to all of mankind? I can’t pretend to have a satisfying answer, but I can learn to sympathize (that is different from agreeing or respecting), especially now, the hesitations that people have had in either becoming Catholic or remaining Catholic. Nevertheless, I can confidently say, speaking for myself, I only see thorns and thistles in all other directions even if it is Mos Eisley (Tatooine) that I am currently residing in.