BEFORE the Vatican began posting official documents online, I always purchased the newest papal encyclicals and apostolic exhortations at my local Catholic bookstore. Some of these were culturally momentous or ‘controversial’ enough to make the news. Others were obscure except to experts and the devout. A classic example of the former was Ordinatio Sacerdotalis by St John Paul II (1994) which pointed out (infallibly) that women cannot be ordained to the priesthood and never will be. Humanae Vitae by St Paul VI has been dismantled and debated for more than 50 years – not least by liberal alchemists eager to transform their own egotism into a universal writ. They haven’t aged as well as the document. The pontificates of John Paul and Benedict XVI constitute a belle époque. Both men were more intellectually blessed than any of their most recent predecessors (for, say, two or three centuries) and rank with the most brilliant minds – religious or not – in the contemporary West. Their successor, however, is a Bizarro polymath whose oafishness dazzles in multiple arenas. If Francis has a function, it is to mark a terminus: scolding the holy, fraternising with iniquity and idolatrising Vatican II went this far but could no go no further.
That was certainly the hope of George Pell. In his posthumously unleashed assessment of the Bergoglio interregnum, the late cardinal described it as a “catastrophe.” He decried the indifference to heresy, “active persecution” of traditionalists, the “systematic attack” on the Deposit of Faith and dolorous mediocrity. In ecclesiastical history, such evils are normally associated with Diocletian, Caligula or Trudeau. “Intellectually, papal writings demonstrate a decline from the standard of St John Paul II and Pope Benedict,” Cardinal Pell lamented. Despite the fraternal correction and his alleged humility, the vindictive nastiness and theological incompetence of Francis haven’t let up. This comes as no great surprise given that he was said to be “boiling with rage” after four cardinals (backed by Pell) wrote to him in 2016 requesting that he clarify peculiar novelties espoused in the disastrous Amoris Laetitia. Francis has never bothered to reply.
Known to loathe the United States, last week the 1970s revivalist decided to attack those American Catholics whose “backwardness” and “ideologies” prevent them from accepting illicit alterations of doctrine. Apropos of papal writings, 2023 – being the 60th anniversary of St John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris, the 30th of Veritatis Splendor and the 25th of Fides et Ratio – is a tough year to stand out from the magisterial big guns. The best Pope Francis could do was announce last month a not-awaited sequel to Laudato Si’. His paean to pantheism was applauded by the world and is regarded by socialists as inspired. He told a general audience that a “terrible world war” being waged against the earth is afflicting millions with “climate injustice.” There is, in fact, no such war. Nor will global control of people and economies do anything beneficial for either nature or the poor. A hallmark of the Francisian oeuvre is gaudy inversion: the pope likes to ennoble profane shibboleths as dogmas and deprecate sacred dogmas as shibboleths. He seems to think the gimcrack simpatico with anti-Christians he thereby purchases is bridge-building.
Ergo: this pontificate can no longer be interpreted as merely eccentric or as history’s seasonal ebb to the Wojtyla-Ratzinger flow. Nor is it redeemed by an overarching – albeit attenuated – Catholicity that offsets the dereliction. There is something disturbing going on in the Vatican that is a cause of real scandal and confusion throughout the world. It will be studied in that light for decades or even centuries to come. American philosopher Edward Feser has already started that work and his exegesis is compelling. He rejects out of hand the sedevacantism that predictably arose from the shock, once-in-a-millennium resignation of Benedict XVI in 2013. If the startling imitation of Pope Celestine’s abdication in 1294 wasn’t enough to seed suspicions that the new pope wasn’t a pope at all, the Vati-Leaks affair the previous year and the emerging heterodoxy of the Argentinian replacement probably were. Feser points out that the star witness against the theory that Benedict was pushed out by coupists for an anti-pope was Benedict himself.
If Francis legitimately reigns and isn’t just one pastoral half of a ministry whose supreme authority continued to reside in Benedict until his death (another theory), that leaves only the question of his abject unwillingness to defend the immutable doctrines of the Church. For the answer, Feser turns to St John Henry Newman’s explanation for the failure of popes, patriarchs and councils to put an end to the Arian Controversy in the fourth century. They gave no “unvarying, consistent testimony for nearly sixty years,” Newman wrote. In their stead, it was “the body of the laity” giving strength to “great solitary confessors” like Athanasius, Hilary and Eusebius that saved the Christian faith. It was a close-run thing. Feser applies this “suspended Magisterium” thesis to the many silences and flaky statements of Francis and the analogy rings true. What else was St Peter’s trio of denials but the suspension of his own authority for an ignoble intent? From the start, this pope has treated the Office of the Keys as beneath him in a uniquely vain way: in his view, not using it makes him one of the greatest humble men of all time. We Australian Catholics should always remember that Pell the Athanasius told the pope not to pull his head in but to stick it out.