Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Response to a popular argument…

The Case of Robert Grosseteste:
Historical Precedent for Recognize-and-Resist?

A large amount of traditionalist recognize-and-resist theology goes back to the research and argumentation of one man: the British writer Michael Treharne Davies (1936-2004). It is propagated chiefly by the Lefebvrist Society of St. Pius X, whose main lay apologist he was for decades, by the Fatima Center, by Catholic Family News, by The Remnant, and by similar organizations or publications.

Unable to use genuine traditional Catholic theology to back up their recognize-and-resist position, these false traditionalists — we like to call them semi-trads or neo-trads — attempt time and again to find some kind of precedent in Church history that they can point to and say, “See, we’re simply doing what was done back then.” Thus, for example, they think they have found precedent in the case of St. Athanasius resisting Pope Liberius (refuted here), in the alleged condemnation of Pope Honorius (explained here), in the supposed false teaching of Pope John XXII (refuted here), and in the alleged declaration of Pope Adrian VI that many Popes were heretics (refuted here), to name just a few.

The latest claimed historical precedent for resistance to the Supreme Pontiff that is currently making the rounds is the case of Bishop Robert Grosseteste (1175-1253) of Lincoln, England. In a lecture given in March of this year at a conference sponsored by the Fatima Center, the American writer and rhetorician Christopher Ferrara pointed to the case of Bp. Grosseteste as supposedly providing precedent for the resistance position (beginning at 28:32 in the video here), and just today The Remnant republished an old article by Michael Davies on the topic.

What did Bp. Grosseteste do that supposedly gives precedent to the recognize-and-resist position? Did this great English bishop establish his own de facto parallel magisterium that carefully sifts and resists what is taught and legislated by the Holy See? Did he ordain priests or consecrate bishops against the explicit prohibition of the Pope? Did he accuse the Holy See of promulgating harmful, evil, or heretical sacramental rites for the entire Western church? Did he reject the canonization of saints he didn’t think were worthy of the status? Did he set up his own marriage tribunals, a privilege enjoyed only by the Holy See?

No, he did not. Yet the SSPX does all this, or has done it in the past, all under the pretext of a “state of necessity” it declared on its own non-existent authority, and which it invokes whenever deemed appropriate, even expressly defying the putative Holy See. Bp. Grosseteste, by contrast, simply refused to obey an immoral command, a command from the Pope to appoint certain men to ecclesiastical office that were clearly not worthy of such an appointment.

For some background on the true Catholic teaching on resistance to evil commands, we refer the interested reader to some of our prior blog posts:

With regard to the case of Bp. Grosseteste in particular, in his exhaustive and eminently argued refutation of Michael Davies, Englishman John Daly directly refutes the claims made by his Lefebvrist compatriot:


The Case of Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln

[by John S. Daly]

As a supposed historical precedent for behaviour such as that of Archbishop Lefebvre in his wholesale disobedience to (purportedly) papal laws and commands, Davies has more than once invoked the memory of England’s great scholar-bishop, Robert Grosseteste (1170?-1253), for instance, in Appendix III of Pope Paul’s New Mass, and in Appendix II to Apologia Pro Marcel Lefebvre, Vol. I. Although “probably the most fervent and thorough-going papalist among mediæval English writers” [Grosseteste’s Relations with the Papacy and the Crown by William Abel Pantin, M.A., F.B.A., in Robert Grosseteste, Scholar and Bishop, edited by D.A. Callus, 1953, p. 183], nevertheless, when Pope Innocent IV attempted to command him to appoint unworthy candidates to ecclesiastical offices, Grosseteste defied him outspokenly:

In 1250, when he was at least eighty years of age, he went to the Papal Court to make his protest. He stood up alone, attended by nobody but his official …. Pope Innocent IV sat there with his cardinals and members of his household to hear the most thorough and vehement attack that any great pope can ever have had to hear at the height of his power. [Sir Maurice Powicke, introduction to Callus’s collection of essays, p. xxiii.]

But with typical lack of the attention to detailed reasoning which is always necessary in theological controversy, Davies has never demonstrated that the two cases are truly parallel. Nor, in fact, could he have succeeded in doing so if he had tried, for they are not. What is fundamentally objectionable in Archbishop Lefebvre’s position (given his wrong-headed acceptance of John-Paul II), and completely incompatible with Catholic doctrine, is not his refusal to obey an intrinsically immoral command – for instance, to say the Novus Ordo Missæ [“New Mass”] – but his refusal to obey commands which, though they may appear to him to threaten harm to the Church and to be most ill-advised, are by no stretch of imagination intrinsically immoral – such as the command to wind up the Society of St. Pius X; coupled with his open disobedience to long-standing ecclesiastical laws (touching on the rights of ordinaries, for instance, and the requirements for lawful Ordination). And although Grosseteste provides an excellent instance of a historical Catholic figure who defied a pope who issued a command which he (Grosseteste) considered it would have been patently immoral to obey, he certainly does not provide any precedent for opposing any command which it would not be intrinsically immoral to comply with; still less can it be claimed that he ever infringed any ecclesiastical law on any pretext whatsoever.

His position is accurately stated by Pantin (loc. cit., p. 191):

The problem of an unlawful command might seem to many a hypothetical or academic one; to Grosseteste, with his conviction that any unworthy appointment to a cure of souls was a mortal sin, it appeared very real. (Emphasis added)

This crucial distinction, between a command which one is convinced it would be a mortal sin – “contrary to Christ’s precepts,” to use Grosseteste’s own words taken from his memorandum to the pope at Lyons in 1250 – to comply with, and a command which one deems a sin on the part of the authority issuing it but which it is not intrinsically immoral to heed, is what either eludes Davies or is deliberately suppressed by him.


Source: John Daly, Michael Davies: An Evaluation, 2nd ed. (Saint-Sauveur de Meilhan: Tradibooks, 2015), pp. 306-307. Formatting retained from original. An electronic version of this book is available in PDF format FOR FREE. Click here to obtain it.


In their forlorn attempts to hold the Novus Ordo papal pretenders for legitimate Popes while refusing their religion, the semi-traditionalists continually confuse evil commands that a morally corrupt but true Pope may give to an individual, from ecclesiastical laws that are made for the universal Church and that, coming from a true Pope, are divinely guaranteed not to be evil or harmful:

Certainly the loving Mother [the Church] is spotless in the Sacraments, by which she gives birth to and nourishes her children; in the faith which she has always preserved inviolate; in her sacred laws imposed on all; in the evangelical counsels which she recommends; in those heavenly gifts and extraordinary graces through which, with inexhaustible fecundity, she generates hosts of martyrs, virgins and confessors.

(Pope Pius XII, Encyclical Mystici Corporis, n. 66)

…as if the Church which is ruled by the Spirit of God could have established discipline which is not only useless and burdensome for Christian liberty to endure, but which is even dangerous and harmful and leading to superstition and materialism.

(Pope Pius VI, Bull Auctorem Fidei, n. 78; Denz. 1578)

…[T]he discipline sanctioned by the Church must never be rejected or be branded as contrary to certain principles of natural law. It must never be called crippled, or imperfect or subject to civil authority. In this discipline the administration of sacred rites, standards of morality, and the reckoning of the rights of the Church and her ministers are embraced.”

(Pope Gregory XVI, Encyclical Mirari Vos, n. 9)

The Church’s infallibility extends to the general discipline of the Church… By the term “general discipline of the Church” are meant those ecclesiastical laws passed for the universal Church for the direction of Christian worship and Christian living… The imposing of commands belongs not directly to the teaching office but to the ruling office; disciplinary laws are only indirectly an object of infallibility, i.e., only by reason of the doctrinal decision implicit in them. When the Church’s rulers sanction a law, they implicitly make a twofold judgment: 1. “This law squares with the Church’s doctrine of faith and morals”; that is, it imposes nothing that is at odds with sound belief and good morals. This amounts to a doctrinal decree. 2. “This law, considering all the circumstances, is most opportune.” This is a decree of practical judgment.

(Mgr. Gerard van Noort, Dogmatic Theology II: Christ’s Church [Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1957], n. 91; italics removed.)

The Church is infallible in her general discipline. By the term general discipline is understood the laws and practices which belong to the external ordering of the whole Church. Such things would be those which concern either external worship, such as liturgy and rubrics, or the administration of the sacraments…. If she [the Church] were able to prescribe or command or tolerate in her discipline something against faith and morals, or something which tended to the detriment of the Church or to the harm of the faithful, she would turn away from her divine mission, which would be impossible.

(Jean Herrmann, Institutiones Theologiae Dogmaticae, vol. 1, 4th ed. [Rome: Della Pace, 1908], n. 258)

The same holds true, of course, also for the doctrines that the Holy See issues in the exercise of the papal magisterium. Although not all doctrine comes with the guarantee of infallibility, nevertheless the teaching of the Pope is always guaranteed to be safe to adhere to, for which reason the Church can demand complete submission of intellect and will to the Holy See in matters of Faith and morals:

All who defend the faith should aim to implant deeply in your faithful people the virtues of piety, veneration, and respect for this supreme See of Peter. Let the faithful recall the fact that Peter, Prince of Apostles is alive here and rules in his successors, and that his office does not fail even in an unworthy heir. Let them recall that Christ the Lord placed the impregnable foundation of his Church on this See of Peter [Mt 16:18] and gave to Peter himself the keys of the kingdom of Heaven [Mt 16:19]. Christ then prayed that his faith would not fail, and commanded Peter to strengthen his brothers in the faith [Lk 22:32]. Consequently the successor of Peter, the Roman Pontiff, holds a primacy over the whole world and is the true Vicar of Christ, head of the whole Church and father and teacher of all Christians.

Indeed one simple way to keep men professing Catholic truth is to maintain their communion with and obedience to the Roman Pontiff. For it is impossible for a man ever to reject any portion of the Catholic faith without abandoning the authority of the Roman Church. In this authority, the unalterable teaching office of this faith lives on. It was set up by the divine Redeemer and, consequently, the tradition from the Apostles has always been preserved. So it has been a common characteristic both of the ancient heretics and of the more recent Protestants — whose disunity in all their other tenets is so great — to attack the authority of the Apostolic See. But never at any time were they able by any artifice or exertion to make this See tolerate even a single one of their errors.

(Pope Pius IX, Encyclical Nostis et Nobiscum, nn. 16-17)

The true Catholic doctrine of the Papacy is a most beautiful thing. All Catholics must adhere to it because it is infallible dogma. It is for this reason — because we keep the true Faith whole and entire (cf. 2 Cor 5:7) — that we sedevacantists can, nay must, reject the papal claimants after Pius XII as impostors: While it is possible that a man should claim to be Pope who isn’t, it is not possible that the Papacy should fail.

You have a choice, therefore: You either believe in Francis or you believe in the Papacy.

Catholics choose the Papacy.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons
License: Public domain