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On the lunatic fringe, Francis is not the Pope

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 27, 2017

It has finally happened. I’ve received an email from a sincere reader explaining that Pope Francis is not the Pope, because Pope Benedict really never resigned. Hence, Pope Francis is an anti-pope.

In this case, the argument is that Pope Benedict resigned only from being “a bishop in Rome”. But there are many bishops in Rome. So Pope Benedict did not resign from being the Pope.

Of course, this argument is easily dismissed, for the Pope is not “a bishop in Rome” but “the bishop of Rome”, and the bishop of Rome is the Pope. The offices are the same. Rome is the universal see.

Centuries ago, it was possible to entertain at least some confusion concerning popes and anti-popes. News coverage was poor, communications were slow, and getting to the bottom of what happened in a conflict over the papacy could take a good deal of time. This was especially true if rival families were fighting over the papacy, or if some emperor had exiled the current pope.

For such confusion to exist today, it is necessary to invent what we call “loopholes” or “conspiracy theories”. The most interesting of these in the modern period was the assertion that Pope Paul VI had been kidnapped. The theory even relied on “before” and “after” pictures of Paul VI which purported to show that the cut of his jib (literally, his nose) was different in the “after” picture. This was offered as concrete evidence that the person acting as pope in Rome at the time was not Paul VI at all, but an imposter.

(Is such a thing possible? I could recommend the 1993 movie “Dave” as a test of this premise (and I do recommend this delightful film for different reasons). Dave successfully impersonates the President of the United States. But this is not a legitimate test of any real-life premise; it is a movie—though as a comedy, perhaps it does have something in common with the Church we all know and love.)

Anyway, there can be no question about the following four points:

  1. Pope Benedict XVI (a) announced that he would resign, (b) announced his resignation, (c) has mentioned his resignation since, and (d) has steadfastly avoided the slightest suggestion that he still has any claim on the See of Peter. Although he is officially called Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger (his birth name) stated that he preferred to be called simply “Father Benedict”.
  2. Pope Francis was duly elected Pope by the College of Cardinals.
  3. There is absolutely no other way for a pope to lose his office except through death or resignation. He cannot lose it through “heresy”, nor can he lose it because of sin, nor for gross ineptitude.
  4. The Church has all the guarantees she needs in her Divine Constitution to endure a pope who may be very bad in any number of ways, without any danger that the truths of the Faith will be abrogated, that the sacraments will lose their power, that Christ will cease to be the Church’s head and bridegroom, or that Christ’s promise to be with her will become void.

Belloc’s Rule

Remember the famous proof formulated by the great Catholic apologist Hilaire Belloc:

The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine—but for unbelievers a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.

When it comes to Catholic affairs, no conspiracy theories are needed. Such theories simply give solace to people who are unwilling to accept the tensions Our Lord permits in the Church and in Catholic life as a whole. These tensions, when they do not come from external assault, are the result of the very real sins of the Church’s members in combination with misunderstandings, personality differences, deficiencies of various kinds, differing priorities, and conflicting prudential judgments.

The Church could not have been established with human members, let alone sinners, unless such tensions were permitted. Moreover, “loophole” and “conspiracy” theories only serve to weaken the Church further than she is already weakened by the necessary elements of her constitution. Indeed, such theories often lead to serious sins, including their own brands of heresy and schism.

What we call the lunatic fringe is made up of people who refuse to tolerate the level of confusion they are asked to endure by their Lord and Savior—a Lord and Savior who permits nothing to happen to anyone that cannot be used for the soul’s good. It is precisely this desire to escape the suffering occasioned by human confusion that has ever been the hallmark of the lunatic fringe. Such a desire is not illegitimate, surely, but like every other human desire, it must be carefully restrained and channeled for the glory of God.

Things will likely get worse before they get better. Moreover, at another time they will get worse in some other way before they get better. Why should we borrow trouble? Therefore I urge everyone: Do not respond to the lure of the absurd. We Catholics have a plethora of common, garden variety explanations for all of our trials, not least the confusion within ourselves. And we also have a treasure trove of spiritual remedies for each trial.

There is no need to look elsewhere for vain explanations. Do not—I repeat, do not—be fooled.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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