Once the crazy talk starts, it is hard to stop

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | May 08, 2019

The pope who took office in 1958 when I was ten was Pope Saint John XXIII. He died when I was in high school and so, understandably, he was the first pope whom I considered at all in relationship to the tensions in the Church of which I was slowly becoming aware. I remember that some people thought he was a rather hapless cleric with a big heart, causing more severe Catholics to wonder whether he was good for the Church. His idea of opening the windows of the Church to let in fresh air made the advocates of a strict scholasticism (such as Cardinal Ottaviani) feel like the ecclesiastical order was slipping away from them.

John XXIII was succeeded by Pope Saint Paul VI in 1963, who saw the Second Vatican Council to its close. He also superintended the post-conciliar reform of the liturgy, ultimately promulgating what we know today as the Ordinary Form. He issued a major social encyclical; and, of course, he stunned the world by rejecting the majority report of his theologians and issuing Humanae Vitae. Critics of Paul VI, especially those who opposed the liturgical reform, circulated the theory that, at a certain point in the pontificate, Paul VI had been kidnapped, and that an impostor carried on for him in Rome. They even circulated “before” and “after” pictures purporting to show that the shape of the Pope’s nose had changed.

In 1978, Paul was succeeded by Pope John Paul I, who died after about a month in office. But we learned that one of his favorite authors was Mark Twain, and that some elements in the Church were very suspicious of him because he smiled so much. Rumors circulated that he had been murdered. He was, of course, succeeded by Pope Saint John Paul II, who remained in office from 1978 until 2005.

For the present purpose I can treat JPII’s long pontificate in a very few words. His meetings at Assisi, promoting concern for world peace among leaders of many different religions, including opportunities for each to publicly engage in his own rites and prayers, were regarded by some as deal-breakers. Indeed, before long the Pope began to be attacked by a number of traditionalist groups for his “novelties”. Even though he angered Modernist types by his cogent and insightful defense of traditional sexual morality, marriage and the male priesthood, he also disappointed the conservative wing. At one point, the more extreme in this camp circulated a document which listed 200 heresies of which JPII was “obviously” guilty.

Next came Pope Benedict XVI, in office between 2005 and 2013. Initially billed as God’s Rottweiler and the German Shepherd, Benedict annoyed liberals but pleased conservatives with his clear provisions for the use of what we now call the Extraordinary Form—the Latin Mass according to the Missal of 1962. At the same time, he continued to give priority to the Ordinary Form, and he was unable to bring the Society of St. Pius X into full communion with the Church. Moreover, traditionalists were unhappy because he defended the Second Vatican Council, which so many of them believed was full of errors. Therefore, a number of theories were advanced to show that Benedict was a hostage in the Vatican, forcibly prevented from doing what he really wanted to do.

In 2013, of course, Pope Benedict resigned and Pope Francis was elected. Francis is rather obviously more comfortable with liberals than conservatives (to use somewhat faulty terminology). He seems to have far more patience for those tempted by theological dissent and moral relativism than he does for those who prize doctrinal clarity and moral rectitude, which he often seems to dismiss as “rigidity”. He also tends to speak somewhat carelessly. And yet he is very strong on the Sacrament of Penance and devotion to Mary. But one thing is sure: Theories that the current successor to Peter is not really the Pope or should be removed from office are making the rounds once again.

I am 71 years old, and I cannot remember a time when such theories were non-existent. Did you know that some who claim the name Catholic do not believe we have had a valid pope since Pius XII? Others argue that the dearth of legitimate popes extends back even further, for Pius XII taught the possibility of baptism by desire and expressed a cautious openness to the theory of evolution.

I wonder what they will say about the next pope. We live in a democratic age in which the rank and file are wont to substitute their own judgment even for that of the Successor to Peter. We are free, of course, cautiously and without disobedience to consider the pope wrong about quite a few things.

But it really is like the title says: Once the crazy talk begins, it is hard to stop.

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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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