Response to theological sophistry…
Is Francis the Pope?
A Devastating Refutation of Eric Sammons
Is Francis the Pope?
That is the question Eric Sammons asks in a recent article on the One Peter Five web site. Of course even without reading it you already know what his conclusion is; for were it anything other than affirmative, One Peter Five wouldn’t have published it to begin with. To test the merits of the author’s arguments is the purpose of this post.
Sammons’ essay “Is Francis the Pope?”, released on Oct. 29, 2019, follows a common pattern among writers of the recognize-and-resist (aka semi-traditionalist) camp: It’s got plenty to say but is woefully short on documenting assertions made from traditional Catholic teaching. In place of genuine Catholic theology and magisterial sources Sammons only presents to the reader ideas that sound somewhat reasonable on the surface but are offered without any real authority to back them up, save perhaps an occasional Bible passage or appeal to the reader’s own Catholic sense and piety.
At the outset, the author states that those who do not believe Jorge Bergoglio (Francis) to be a true Pope can typically be divided into three groups:
- Pope Benedict XVI did not validly resign, so he is still pope.
- The election of Pope Francis was invalid for various reasons, so he was never elected pope, and there hasn’t been a pope since 2013.
- Francis was validly elected, but due to his embrace of heresy, he at some point lost the papal office, so there is currently no pope.
In his essay, Sammons deals only with the third of these positions. People who hold to the first one — known as either Resignationism or Bennyvacantism — the author refers to an article by Ryan Grant here. Those who hold the second position — which includes us sedevacantists, except we go much farther back than simply 2013 in identifying the vacancy — are referred to Robert Siscoe’s essay on it allegedly being a “dogmatic fact” that Francis is Pope, on the grounds that there is supposedly universal peaceful adherence to the man by the entire Catholic Church. We roundly refuted the essence of Siscoe’s sophistry in segment 1 of our latest full-length podcast, TRADCAST 025.
Eric Sammons in a recent YouTube video
So Sammons takes up the ever-so convenient argument from loss of office due to heresy. In other words, he assumes that Francis was validly elected Pope and then considers whether one can conclude that he has subsequently lost the papal office for falling into heresy. This is convenient for him because this gives Francis the distinct advantage of being Pope by default, so to speak, and allows Sammons to argue, however unreasonably, that claiming that Francis is no longer Pope is “judging the Pope”, a dogmatic and canonical impossibility for a Catholic. As Fr. Anthony Cekada showed years ago, however, there is nothing for Francis to lose, especially not the Papacy.
For the sedevacantist, then, Sammons’ piece is really irrelevant because it is premised on Bergoglio having been validly elected to the Papacy, which no sedevacantist believes. Nevertheless, since the essay is filled with multiple howlers and so many peole are “stuck” on a loss-of-office scenario, we are happy to offer an in-depth refutation of it now.
Sammons starts out by stating the third position in what is presumably supposed to be logical form:
The third possibility from above takes the following form:
Assumption: Pope Francis is a heretic.
Conclusion: Therefore, he is no longer pope.
For someone who has a Master’s degree in theology, as Sammons does, this is simply appalling.
In a logical syllogism, a conclusion can only follow from two premises. Whether the premises are facts or mere assumptions is irrelevant to the validity of the syllogism. Put into proper logical form, the argument must look like this:
Major premise: No public heretic is Pope.
Minor premise: But Francis is a public heretic.
Conclusion: Therefore, Francis is not Pope.
Conceding for the sake of argument that Francis is a public formal (i.e. pertinacious) heretic, Sammons asks whether it is necessary to conclude that he is therefore not (that is, “no longer”) Pope. Citing “Bishop” Athanasius Schneider — currently the semi-trads’ all-around hero for telling them all the things they like to hear — Sammons claims that “this question is unprecedented in the history of the Church.” That’s good to keep in mind for future reference, considering how often some semi-trad will claim that sundry Popes have been heretics in the past or that Popes teaching heresy is not a new scenario — on the very same One Peter Five web site, no less.
Now, of course the Church’s theologians over the centuries, especially in the period between the Protestant Reformation and the First Vatican Council of 1870, have very much considered the question of what would happen if a Pope were to become a public heretic (the word “public” is key here because just as the criteria for Church membership must be publicly verified, so heresy only nullifies membership in the Church inasmuch as it is public, not secret). As Sammons himself notes, the theologians tackled this question only “from a hypothetical standpoint”, however, because no one thought this could really happen in practice. And indeed, it had never happened in the history of the Church, as confirmed by the Deputation of the Faith at Vatican I:
- The Question of a Heretical Pope considered by the First Vatican Council
- Heretical Popes and Vatican I: A Follow-Up
The Five Opinions on the “Heretical Pope”
Theologians have enumerated five different possible positions with regard to the question of what would happen if the Pope became a heretic. St. Robert Bellarmine famously outlined them, and we may summarize them as follows:
- The Pope cannot become a heretic, so the question does not present itself.
- The Pope who becomes a heretic even in secret immediately ceases to be Pope by that very fact and is then, as a non-Pope, subject to the judgment of the Church.
- The Pope who becomes a heretic, no matter how public and manifest, remains Pope — he does not lose the Pontificate, nor can anyone take it from him.
- The Pope who becomes a heretic ceases to be Pope only after the Church has judged and deposed him.
- The Pope who becomes a public (not merely secret) heretic immediately ceases to be Pope by that very fact and can then, as a non-Pope, be judged by the Church.
Cardinal Bellarmine, who is the only canonized Saint and Doctor of the Church among those who debated these positions, clearly stated that although the First Opinion is probable, still it “is not certain” — and he identified the Fifth Opinion as the correct one, adding that it is also “the opinion of all the ancient Fathers” of the Church. It is that Fifth Opinion which we sedevacantists hold, and which alone is compatible with the subsequent Catholic teaching on Church membership, as found, for example, in Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Satis Cognitum and Pope Pius XII’s Mystici Corporis.
Sammons blunders badly by claiming that “opinions 2, 4, and 5 are all attempts to square the circle of an outside body in fact judging the pope.” That is true for the Fourth Opinion, which ironically is the one held by John Salza and Robert Siscoe, though it is not right to say that about the Second and Fifth Opinions — definitely not the Fifth! Sammons arrives at his claim by appealing to the Catholic dogma that the Holy See cannot be judged by anyone (“the first see is judged by no one” — Canon 1556). But that is simply a case of begging the question, for it assumes that the public heretic in question actually is the Pope, when that is the very point being disputed. Only if he is Pope can one be accused of judging the First See, not if he isn’t.
The true and full meaning of the Church’s principle that the Pope cannot be judged by anyone, is explained here:
To spill the beans right up front: “Judging the Pope” does not mean judging whether a particular claimant is Pope, which would obviously involve circular reasoning. Rather, it means putting one’s own judgment above that of the Pope by refusing to accept the final sentence rendered by the Vicar of Christ on any given matter pertaining to Faith, morals, or discipline, or by presuming to make his teachings, laws, or disciplinary decisions subject to review, revision, or validation by another. The Pope is the highest authority in the Church, and for this reason no one can question, appeal from, or overturn his judgment.
Yet of course that is precisely what the recognize-and-resist traditionalists do day in and day out. They sit in judgment on the Magisterium of the man they acknowledge as Pope, tell their colleagues what is and isn’t to be accepted from their “Vicar of Christ”, and even go so far as to establish their own “parallel church”, so to speak — in the Society of St. Pius X — complete with its own marriage tribunals, catechism, and final authority on canonical questions. That just as an aside.
Holding on to what isn’t his: Jorge Bergoglio in his role as “Pope Francis”
Returning to “Is Francis the Pope?”, Sammons writes:
It’s also important to note that none of these three opinions offers the specific means by which the Church takes this action. Is it the college of Cardinals? An ecumenical council? What if only some cardinals or bishops take the action? (Note that even for these three opinions, an individual Catholic has no authority to declare a pope deposed; it is always “the Church” that does so.)
Indeed, the Opinions do not elaborate on that issue, and that’s probably because the question was just treated hypothetically. This is unfortunate perhaps, but it is not relevant to the question of which position is correct.
Sammons is right in saying that no individual Catholic has the authority to make a declaration that a Pope is no longer Pope — if by “declaration” is meant legal statement that has the power to bind other consciences (as opposed to simply recognizing a manifest fact). That is true. It is also irrelevant.
Neither does, one might add, any individual Catholic — or group of bishops, for that matter — have the power to issue a declaration condemning a papally approved rite of Mass, rejecting papal canonizations of saints, contradicting papal laws and directives, or disputing papal magisterial teachings. Yet the Society of St. Pius X has, especially in the past, made that its raison d’être.
The writer continues:
And no matter how you finesse the issue, you ultimately have a group of men for all practical purposes judging the pope, or at least judging whether the pope’s actions and words have made him deposed, and yet the first see is to be judged by no one. While these options are in the realm of theological opinion, it’s the infallible teaching of the Church that the pope has universal jurisdiction, which means no one has jurisdiction over him. Although opinions 2, 4, and 5 each attempt to get around that issue, I believe that none sufficiently does; you are always left with men judging the one who is unjudgeable by men.
It is difficult to see how someone who has no problem with “a group of men” constantly “judging whether the pope’s actions and words” — a euphemism for exercising his office as universal teacher and pastor — are binding or even optional for Catholics to follow, should suddenly discover the great danger in judging whether the man is what he claims to be, namely, the Vicar of Christ who “has universal jurisdiction”, as indeed every true Pope does. It is amusingly ironic that the very people Sammons represents — the recognize-and-resisters — should now find out about the jurisdiction the Pope has over each and every Catholic, when the last thing they would ever dream of doing is genuinely allowing Francis to rule over them, that is, bind their consciences on matters of Faith, morals, liturgy, or church law.
Again Sammons shows himself a victim of his own fallacy: He believes that recognizing that someone cannot be Pope, is “judging the Pope.” It is not. It is judging a papal claimant at best — and judging him to be an impostor. That’s the whole point.
In any case, the author then reveals which position evaluated by Bellarmine he believes to be the correct one: the Third Opinion, which holds that no matter how manifest of a heretic the Pope becomes, he remains the lawful and valid Pope. Perhaps we should congratulate Mr. Sammons here, for that Opinion was not only held by no Saint or Doctor of the Church — as far as we know, it was not even held by anyone except one single theologian in the history of the Church! That man is Fr. Marie Dominique Bouix (1808-1870).
But now we have Sammons, so that makes two. What incredibly lucid theological argumentation does the M.A. in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville present that escaped St. Robert Bellarmine, the doctrinal experts at the First Vatican Council, the entire tradition of the Church, and all theologians with the exception of Bouix?
Prepare to be underwhelmed.
Sammons argues that a heretical Church — he says heretical Pope, but a heretical Church would just be the necessary consequence acc. to Catholic teaching — is par for the course for a Christian, who is, after all, commanded to embrace suffering:
The entire Catholic faith is founded upon suffering. Contrary to today’s Prosperity Gospel, which preaches that faith in Christ will lead to riches and comfort, Catholicism takes seriously the words of Our Lord: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mt. 16:24). Catholicism not only says that you can’t avoid suffering as a disciple of Christ, but promises suffering, for this is the way of the Master. The assumption that God wouldn’t allow His church to be in a “most miserable condition” [Bellarmine’s words against the Third Opinion] goes against the fundamental premise of the faith: that the way of Christianity is the way of the Cross. God does not protect us from suffering; He gives us the grace to endure it and even offer it up to Him.
If only St. Robert had remembered that suffering is the vocation of the follower of Christ!
Now, what quotations from the Catholic Magisterium on the Papacy does Sammons present to substantiate his curious thesis that Catholics are called to suffer spiritually at the hands of the Church’s non-infallible heretical teaching authority? None, of course. That’s not surprising, considering that the Church naturally does not teach such poppycock but diametrically contradicts it:
For the teaching authority of the Church, which in the divine wisdom was constituted on earth in order that revealed doctrines might remain intact for ever, and that they might be brought with ease and security to the knowledge of men, and which is daily exercised through the Roman Pontiff and the Bishops who are in communion with him, has also the office of defining, when it sees fit, any truth with solemn rites and decrees, whenever this is necessary either to oppose the errors or the attacks of heretics, or more clearly and in greater detail to stamp the minds of the faithful with the articles of sacred doctrine which have been explained.
(Pope Pius XI, Encyclical Mortalium Animos, n. 9; underlining added.)
Christ established the holy Catholic Church, “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15), precisely so that people would be able to come to the knowledge of the truth “with ease and security” (cf. 1 Tim 2:4), and not so that they would be able to “suffer” heretical Vicars of Christ trying to lead them to hell. Notice that Pope Pius XI does not restrict this doctrinal safety only to rare ex cathedra pronouncements but extends it the Church’s non-infallible Magisterium that is “daily exercised through the Roman Pontiff and the Bishops who are in communion with him”.
By Sammons’ logic, the more heretical the Church’s shepherds, the more invalid her sacraments, the more sinful her saints, the more impious her liturgy, the better it is for Catholics, who get to “suffer” through it all — all the way to Calvary! No, they would be going all the way to hell, where they would be able to prolong their suffering for the remainder of eternity.
But perhaps the Doctor St. Robert Bellarmine’s understanding of the Papacy doesn’t go “against the fundamental premise of the faith” after all, and the Steubenville-educated former Methodist Eric Sammons simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about. How’s that for a possible opinion? Truly, one does not know which to deplore more greatly: the utter hubris or the sheer stupidity of making such an argument against the Church’s greatest theological authorities, on the grounds that they’re “not infallible” — and of course we all know about St. Thomas and the Immaculate Conception, right?
Sammons treats the “heretical Pope” question as though all five positions were a matter of mere opinion even in our day. He claims that “there is no official church teaching on this issue” (italics his). What he ignores is the fact that a lot of water has flowed down the Tiber since Bellarmine wrote De Romano Pontifice, and Vatican I settled a lot of teaching on the Papacy, after which we find pretty much all theologians in agreement that a “heretical Pope”, if such a case be possible, would automatically cease to be Pope:
…it cannot be proved that the Roman Pontiff, as a private teacher, cannot become a heretic, for example, if he contumaciously denies a dogma previously defined; this impeccability was nowhere promised to him by God. On the contrary, [Pope] Innocent III expressly admits that the case can be conceded. But if the case should take place, he falls from office by divine law, without any sentence, not even a declaratory one. For he who openly professes heresy places his very self outside the Church, and it is not probable that Christ preserves the Primacy of His Church with such an unworthy individual. Consequently, if the Roman Pontiff professes heresy, he is deprived of his authority before any whatsoever sentence, which [sentence] is impossible.
(Rev. Matthaeus Conte a Coronata, Institutiones Iuris Canonici, vol. I, 4th ed. [Rome: Marietti, 1950], n. 316c; our translation; underlining added.)
For more examples of what theologians writing after Vatican I have said about the scenario of a “heretical Pope”, please see our informative commentary on the “Open Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church” accusing Francis of heresy, released in May of this year:
St. Bellarmine refers to Five Opinions because at the time of his writing the matter was still disputed among theologians. This is simply not the case anymore today, after Vatican I and subsequent magisterial teaching on the Papacy and the Church, except perhaps with regard to some nuances. In any case, no one holds Bouix’s position, that a Pope can be a public heretic and remain Pope, no matter what.
No one except Sammons, that is.
Matthew 16:18 and the Gates of Hell
Next, our intrepid Steubenville theologian turns to Christ’s promise to St. Peter in Matthew 16:18, the famous scriptural passage about the “rock” against which the gates of hell will not prevail, and comments:
Christ’s promise to Peter in Matthew 16:18 is the foundation of the papacy: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Catholics of course recognize that Our Lord was instituting the papacy with these words, making the papacy the rock on which the Church is built. But note what he says the gates of hell will not prevail against: the Church, not Peter himself. (In case it’s not clear what the “it” is referring to in this passage, the Greek actually means “her,” not “it,” making it clear that Jesus is referring to the Church.) When Peter denied Christ three times, the gates of hell prevailed against him. When he separated himself from Gentile Christians — something Paul rebuked him for (Gal 2:11–12) — the gates of hell had prevailed against him. When Pope John XXII publicly proclaimed heresy, the gates of hell prevailed against him. Yet the Church endured, and Christ’s promise endured.
This is absolutely infuriating! Sammons is misusing the sacred text of God’s Written Word as his personal plaything, blithely interpreting it in accordance with what seems right to him, entirely ignoring the Church’s traditional understanding of the matter, as will be shown momentarily.
Sammons’ analysis is all wrong. The rock is indeed St. Peter in his capacity as Pope, and therefore the Papacy. But per the divine promises, the gates of hell cannot prevail against the Church because she is founded on that rock. The Church cannot fail because the Papacy keeps it from failing. And this is verified throughout the Church’s history and confirmed by Catholic dogma and doctrine.
Why does the author prefer his own ideas about this Scripture passage? He could easily have consulted the Church’s teachings, Catholic Bible commentaries, or the writings of the saints and other approved authors to discover the meaning of this important pericope. Instead, he decided to go with his own interpretation and broadcast it to the masses, thereby misleading countless souls. It is to people like him the very St. Peter referred when he warned that in Sacred Scripture there “are certain things hard to be understood, which the unlearned and unstable wrest … to their own destruction” (2 Pet 3:16).
What, then, does the Church say about Matthew 16:18?
We’ll begin with one of the Church’s greatest Scripture commentators, Fr. Cornelius a Lapide (1567-1637), who writes:
Christ bestowed this gift upon Peter as the future Pontiff of the Church; wherefore He gave the same gift to all the other Pontiffs, his successors, and that for the good of the Church, that it might be strengthened by them as by a rock, in the faith and religion of Christ….
And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Namely, against the Church, because it has been founded upon Peter and his successors, as upon a most solid rock.
The gates of hell, i.e., the infernal city, meaning all hell, with its entire army of demons, and with the whole power of Lucifer its king. For hell and the city of God, i.e., the Church, are here put in opposition. When S. Augustine wrote his work de Civitate Dei, in the beginning of which he speaks of the two opposite cities; the one of God which is the Church ; the other of the devil, i.e., of demons and wicked men : he takes the gates of hell to mean heresies, and heresiarchs ; for they fight against the faith of Peter and the Church, and they proceed from hell and are stirred up by the devil….
Shall not prevail. Heb. lo juchelu la, i.e., shall not be able to stand against it — namely, the Church. So S. Hilary and Maldonatus. More simply, shall not prevail, i.e., shall not conquer or overcome, or pull down the Church. For this is the meaning of the original Greek. We have here the figure of speech, miosis : for little is said but much is meant ; not only that the Church shall not be conquered, but that she shall conquer and subdue under her all heretics, tyrants, and every other enemy, as she overcame Arians, Nestorians, Pelagians, Nero, Decius, Diocletian, &c. Therefore by this word Christ first animates his Church that she should not be faint-hearted when she sees herself attacked by all the power of Satan and wicked men. In the second place, He as it were sounds a trumpet for her, that she may always watch with her armour on against so many enemies, who attack her with extreme hatred. Thirdly, He promises to her, as well as to her head, Peter, i.e., the Pontiff — victory and triumph over them all. Again, Christ and the Holy Ghost assist with special guidance her head, the Roman Pontiff, that he should not err in matters of faith, but that he may be firm as an adamant, says S. Chrysostom, and that he may rightly administer and rule the Church, and guide it in the path of safety, as Noah also directed the ark that it should not be overwhelmed in the deluge. Wherefore S. Chrysostom (Hom. de Verb. Isaiah) says : “It were more easy for the sun to be extinguished than for the Church to fail;” and again, “what can be more powerful than the Church of God : the barbarians destroy fortifications, but not even the devils overcome the Church. When it is attacked openly, it conquers; when it is attacked by treachery, it overcomes.” S. Augustine on the Psalms against the Donatists, says : “Reckon up the Bishops even from the very Pontificate of Peter. That is the very rock which the proud gates of hell conquer not.” This has been made especially plain in the conversion of all nations, specially of Rome and the Romans. For Rome being the head, both of the world and of idolatry, where the idols of all nations were worshipped, has been converted from them by S. Peter and his successors, and has bowed down her proud head to the cross of Christ, which thing is of all miracles the greatest.
(The Great Commentary of Cornelius a Lapide, vol. 2: S. Matthew’s Gospel, Chaps. X to XXI [Edinburgh: John Grant, 1908], p. 219, 222-223; italics given; underlining added.)
Notice that what Lapide says here totally contradicts what Sammons is proposing. Lapide explains that it is the Pope who keeps the Church on the path of orthodoxy at all times, that it is precisely from “heresies and heresiarchs” that the Pope — any true Pope — protects the Church, and that the “Faith of Peter and the Church” is necessarily the same. The divine protection extends to the Pope not only with regard to infallible declarations but guarantees that the Pope will “rightly administer and rule the Church, and guide it in the path of safety” with regard to Faith and morals. The gates of hell cannot conquer the Church because they cannot conquer “the very Pontificate of Peter”, that is, the Papacy!
This is confirmed, of course, in the scriptural pericope of Luke 22:32, which Sammons conveniently fails to bring up at all. It is there that Christ tells St. Peter: “But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren.” That is the classic proof text establishing the “unfailing Faith” of the Popes, as taught by the First Vatican Council:
So, this gift of truth and a never failing faith was divinely conferred upon Peter and his successors in this chair, that they might administer their high duty for the salvation of all; that the entire flock of Christ, turned away by them from the poisonous food of error, might be nourished on the sustenance of heavenly doctrine, that with the occasion of schism removed the whole Church might be saved as one, and relying on her foundation might stay firm against the gates of hell.
(Vatican I, Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus, Ch. 4; Denz. 1837)
Sammons shamefully and gratuitously separates the Pope from the Church, essentially saying that although the Church cannot defect, the Pope can and has, implying that the indefectibility of the Church lies in there always being a chosen set of souls keeping the Faith even against the Roman Pontiff if necessary. This is outrageous and unheard of! What authority does he appeal to in support of his foolhardy thesis? None but his own private interpretation of Scripture and musings on Catholic spirituality! What hubris! What foolishness! What heresy!
Why did this Novus Ordo master theologian not consult the Catholic Magisterium, which has spoken aplenty on the Papacy and on Matthew 16:18? Had he done so, here is what he would have found (all underlining added):
…it is hardly surprising that in past ages those whom the old enemy of the human race has filled with his own hatred of the Church, have been in the habit of attacking in the first place this See which maintains unity in all its vigor: so that by destroying, if it were possible to do so, the foundation, and severing the bond between churches and the Head, the bond which is the principal source of their support, their strength, and their beauty, after having by this means reduced the Church to desolation and ruin by crushing her strength, they might in the end strip her of that liberty which Jesus Christ gave to her, and reduce her to a state of unworthy servitude.
From these events men should realize that all attempts to overthrow the “House of God” are in vain. For this is the Church founded on Peter, “Rock,” not merely in name but in truth. Against this “the gates of hell will not prevail” [Mt 16:18] “for it is founded on a rock” [Mt 7:25; Lk 6:48]. There has never been an enemy of the Christian religion who was not simultaneously at wicked war with the See of Peter, since while this See remained strong the survival of the Christian religion was assured. As St. Irenaeus proclaims openly to all, “by the order and succession of the Roman pontiffs the tradition from the Apostles in the Church and the proclamation of the truth has come down to us. And this is the fullest demonstration that it is the one and the same life-giving faith which has been preserved in the Church until now since the time of the Apostles and has been handed on in truth” [Adversus haereses, bk. 3, chap. 3].
(Pope Pius VII, Encyclical Diu Satis, n. 6)
To preserve forever in his Church the unity and doctrine of this faith, Christ chose one of his apostles, Peter, whom he appointed the Prince of his Apostles, his Vicar on earth, and impregnable foundation and head of his Church. Surpassing all others with every dignity of extraordinary authority, power and jurisdiction, he was to feed the Lord’s flock, strengthen his brothers, rule and govern the universal Church. Christ not only desired that his Church remain as one and immaculate to the end of the world, and that its unity in faith, doctrine and form of government remain inviolate. He also willed that the fullness of dignity, power and jurisdiction, integrity and stability of faith given to Peter be handed down in its entirety to the Roman Pontiffs, the successors of this same Peter, who have been placed on this Chair of Peter in Rome, and to whom has been divinely committed the supreme care of the Lord’s entire flock and the supreme rule of the Universal Church.
You above all, venerable brothers, have known how this dogma of our religion has been unanimously and unceasingly declared, defended and insisted upon in synods by the Fathers of the Church. Indeed, they have never stopped teaching that “God is one, Christ is one, the Church established upon Peter by the voice of the Lord is one;” “the massive foundation of the great Christian state has been divinely built upon, as it were, this rock, this very firm stone;” “this Chair, which is unique and the first of gifts, has always been designated and considered as the Chair of Peter;” “shining forth throughout the world it maintains its primacy;” “it is also the root and matrix whence sacerdotal unity has sprung;” “it is not only the head but also the mother and teacher of all the Churches;” “it is the mother city of piety in which is the complete and perfect stability of the Christian religion”; “and in which the preeminence of the Apostolic Chair has always been unimpaired;” “it rests upon that rock which the haughty gates of hell shall never overcome;” “for it the Apostles poured out their entire teaching with blood;” “from it the rights of the venerable communion are extended to all;” “all obedience and honor must be given to it.” “He who deserts the Church will vainly believe that he is in the Church;” “whoever eats of the lamb and is not a member of the Church, has profaned;” “Peter, who lives and presides in his own Chair, proffers the truth of faith to those seeking it;” “Peter, who lives up to this time and always lives, exercises jurisdiction in his successors;” “he himself has spoken through Leo;” “the Roman Pontiff, who holds Primacy in the entire world, is the Successor of Blessed Peter the Prince of the Apostles and the true Vicar of Christ, the head of the whole Church, and is the visible Father and Teacher of all Christians.” There are other, almost countless, proofs drawn from the most trustworthy witnesses which clearly and openly testify with great faith, exactitude, respect and obedience that all who want to belong to the true and only Church of Christ must honor and obey this Apostolic See and Roman Pontiff.
(Pope Pius IX, Encyclical Amantissimus, nn. 2-3)
From this text [Mt 16:18] it is clear that by the will and command of God the Church rests upon St. Peter, just as a building rests on its foundation. Now the proper nature of a foundation is to be a principle of cohesion for the various parts of the building. It must be the necessary condition of stability and strength. Remove it and the whole building falls. It is consequently the office of St. Peter to support the Church, and to guard it in all its strength and indestructible unity. How could he fulfil this office without the power of commanding, forbidding, and judging, which is properly called jurisdiction? It is only by this power of jurisdiction that nations and commonwealths are held together. A primacy of honour and the shadowy right of giving advice and admonition, which is called direction, could never secure to any society of men unity or strength. The words – and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it proclaim and establish the authority of which we speak. “What is the it?” (writes Origen). “Is it the rock upon which Christ builds the Church or the Church? The expression indeed is ambiguous, as if the rock and the Church were one and the same. I indeed think that this is so, and that neither against the rock upon which Christ builds His Church nor against the Church shall the gates of Hell prevail” (Origenes, Comment. in Matt., tom. xii., n. ii). The meaning of this divine utterance is, that, notwithstanding the wiles and intrigues which they bring to bear against the Church, it can never be that the church committed to the care of Peter shall succumb or in any wise fail. “For the Church, as the edifice of Christ who has wisely built ‘His house upon a rock,’ cannot be conquered by the gates of Hell, which may prevail over any man who shall be off the rock and outside the Church, but shall be powerless against it” (Ibid.). Therefore God confided His Church to Peter so that he might safely guard it with his unconquerable power. He invested him, therefore, with the needful authority; since the right to rule is absolutely required by him who has to guard human society really and effectively….
And since all Christians must be closely united in the communion of one immutable faith, Christ the Lord, in virtue of His prayers, obtained for Peter that in the fulfilment of his office he should never fall away from the faith….
Union with the Roman See of Peter is … always the public criterion of a Catholic…. “You are not to be looked upon as holding the true Catholic faith if you do not teach that the faith of Rome is to be held.”
(Pope Leo XIII, Encyclical Satis Cognitum, nn. 12-13)
Quotes like these could be multiplied ad infinitum, but the ones given here shall suffice. Could Sammons’ position that even the most manifest apostate would still remain Pope be any more absurd in light of them? The Papacy is what guarantees the entire Catholic Church. From it the true Faith is communicated to the entire Church, and all ecclesial communion is derived therefrom.
Interestingly enough, however, towards the end of the world, the Papacy must, in imitation of its Divine Founder, undergo an apparent defeat — not by failing, for this is impossible, but by the long-time absence or obstruction of the true Pope, as prophesied in 2 Thessalonians 2:7. The following posts help to shed light on this mystery:
- Cardinal Henry Manning on the Papacy and the Great Apostasy
- Fr. Sylvester Berry on the Persecution of the Church in the Last Days: A False Pope and a Vacant Holy See
- The Papacy and the Passion of the Church
- Fr. Herman Kramer on Apocalypse 12 and a hindered Papal Election
- A Prophecy from 1869: “Satan is going to wage the Fiercest Attacks to try to Annihilate the Church”
As Cardinal Manning stated in 1861: “Until the hour is come when the barrier [=true Pope] shall, by the Divine will, be taken out of the way, no one has power to lay a hand upon it. The gates of hell may war against it; they may strive and wrestle, as they struggle now with the Vicar of our Lord; but no one has the power to move Him one step, until the hour shall come when the Son of God shall permit, for a time, the powers of evil to prevail. That He will permit it for a time stands in the book of prophecy…” (The Present Crisis of the Holy See Tested by Prophecy [London: Burns & Lambert, 1861], p. 56).
Returning to Sammons, we must now test his sophomoric claims about the gates of hell prevailing against the Pope but not the Church; specifically:
When Peter denied Christ three times, the gates of hell prevailed against him. When he separated himself from Gentile Christians — something Paul rebuked him for (Gal 2:11–12) — the gates of hell had prevailed against him. When Pope John XXII publicly proclaimed heresy, the gates of hell prevailed against him. Yet the Church endured, and Christ’s promise endured.
These are some of the standard objections against the Papacy one finds answered in Catholic dogmatic theology manuals, or even in popular apologetics books. They are refuted as follows:
When St. Peter denied Christ three times, he was not yet Pope, as proved here. When he separated himself from the Gentile Christians, he was guilty of a venial sin of imprudence in his personal conduct — he was not teaching the Church on Faith or morals, as demonstrated here. Pope John XXII didn’t proclaim heresy; rather, at a time when the issue was not yet settled and differing opinions were allowed, he took a position on the Beatific Vision that had also been taken by the Doctor St. Bernard of Clairvaux before him — which position was rejected and declared heretical by a Pope after John XXII (his name was Benedict XII). In any case, Pope John held his position as a private theologian and not in the exercise of his Magisterium; in fact the purpose of his disputation was to discover the truth of the matter, as confirmed by St. Robert Bellarmine. This has been documented here.
So far, Mr. Sammons has only demonstrated that he is utterly clueless with regard to Catholic teaching on the Papacy. Unfortunately, he continues the pattern:
So what does Christ’s promise to Peter entail? Vatican I makes that clear: the Church — through the pope — cannot officially teach error. When a pope declares something ex cathedra, he is infallible in his teaching. For to make a heresy an official teaching of the Church would truly mean that the gates of hell had prevailed not just over the pope, but over the entire Church.
Here the author shows himself to be an extremely sloppy thinker, confusing different concepts that must be distinguished. He talks about official teaching and infallibility in the same breath — as though every official Church doctrine were infallible or, alternatively, as though only what is infallible counted as official Church teaching. He then juxtaposes those ideas with the concept of heresy, giving the false impression that all error is heresy or, alternatively, that only what is heretical is erroneous.
What we have here is an utter mishmash of ideas that must be properly defined and explained before they can be analyzed and put in relation to each other. Sammons does no such thing, of course, preferring instead to dump his half-baked pseudo-theology on the unsuspecting reader, perhaps hoping that he will be impressed enough to be persuaded by it.
What Christ’s promise to St. Peter entails we already saw from copious quotations from the Church’s authorities on the subject. Not all Church teaching is infallible, but all Church teaching is authoritative, requiring the assent of the faithful under pain of mortal sin, as can easily be demonstated.
For example, Pope Leo XIII taught that “whatever the Roman Pontiffs have hitherto taught, or shall hereafter teach, must be held with a firm grasp of mind, and, so often as occasion requires, must be openly professed” (Encyclical Immortale Dei, n. 41); and Pope Pius XI reminded his sheep that “a characteristic of all true followers of Christ, lettered or unlettered, is to suffer themselves to be guided and led in all things that touch upon faith or morals by the Holy Church of God through its Supreme Pastor the Roman Pontiff, who is himself guided by Jesus Christ Our Lord” (Encyclical Casti Connubii, n. 104). Sounds like Pope Pius hadn’t considered what “Christ’s promise to Peter [really] entails”!
This issue is not new, and we have published posts in the past that provide clarity to this often confusing topic:
- Do Catholics have to Assent to Non-Infallible Church Teaching?
- Can we reject Magisterial Teaching if it wasn’t believed always, everywhere, and by all?
Infallibility has nothing — or very little — to do with the obligation of assent that the faithful must give to the Pope’s teaching because this obligation does not arise out of a guarantee of inerrancy but out of the obedience due to the divinely established teaching authority. For a Catholic, this is not a problem; it only becomes a problem for those who accept public heretics as true Popes and are then faced with the impossible dilemma of choosing between heresy and schism in response to a blasphemous, heretical, or apostate “magisterium”.
Sammons continues his theological hack job:
Thus, we see the twofold powers of the pope: he cannot err when teaching ex cathedra, and he has universal jurisdiction. But what’s important to note is that these are his only two divinely instituted powers. As much as the faithful have, over the centuries, built up the papacy into a super-pastor role, making him out to be the source and summit of our faith, only infallibility of ex cathedra statements and universal jurisdiction are of divine mandate and therefore protected by Christ.
That’s simply more bunk from someone whose theological research apparently goes no further than accessing the faint memory of having once skimmed through Fr. Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma.
What is of divine institution and comes with Christ’s special assistance and protection is the papal primacy. This primacy includes the charism of infallibility, which, we might note, extends not only to dogmatic definitions ex cathedra but also to such things as universal disciplinary laws, liturgical rites, and the canonization of saints, among other things. It includes also the complete theological safety with regard to non-infallible teachings and decisions on Faith and morals, on account of which the Pope can demand the complete submission and obedience of the faithful to all of his teachings.
The divinely-instituted Papacy allows the Pope to teach, govern, and sanctify the entire flock of Christ. Pope Pius IX speaks of “the Catholic dogma of the full power given from God by Christ our Lord Himself to the Roman Pontiff of feeding, ruling and guiding the Universal Church” (Encyclical Quanta Cura, n. 5). Thus the papal primacy comes with the episcopal, ordinary, and immediate jurisdiction over all the faithful, as well as the right to temporal sovereignty, insofar as that is necessary or conducive to the exercise of his spiritual primacy (cf. Pope Leo XIII, Encyclical Inscrutabili Dei, n. 12). Indeed, “Exemption from civil authority is a matter of divine right for the Roman Pontiff”, Fr. Sylvester Berry notes in his ecclesiology manual The Church of Christ (1955 ed., p. 313).
Ignoring the real Catholic teaching on all these matters, Sammons embraces a sort of papal minimalism that reduces the Papacy to nothing more than the mere inability to teach heresy ex cathedra:
So when someone asks the legitimate question, “What’s the point of a pope if he can be a heretic?,” I think he is confusing the divinely protected role of the pope with the humanly desired role of the pope. Yes, we’d love to have a pope who is holy, wise, and courageous. We’d love him to be a perfect manager of people. But those desires are not divine protections. A pope can be a heretic but can’t teach heresy ex cathedra due to Christ’s promise, and nothing he does or believes can make him lose his divinely instituted universal jurisdiction, which was given to him by Christ. A heretical pope, therefore, in no way violates any promise or mandate of Christ.
One marvels at the theological junk put forward so confidently by Eric Sammons, whose hubris seems to have found its match only in his incompetence.
Totally ignoring Sacred Tradition and the Church’s Magisterium, he has on his own authority reduced the divine promises to little more than a banality — the inability to proclaim a denial of dogma as dogma — and thus made a mockery of the divinely instituted Papacy, which he believes capable of flooding the Church with every doctrinal aberration and heresy possible, just not under the restrictive ex cathedra conditions outlined in Vatican I’s Pastor Aeternus. What an insult to our Blessed Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ!
The “Bad Dad” makes a Comeback
As he prepares to wrap up his travesty of a theological essay, Sammons once again appeals to his beloved “Bp.” Schneider, who brings up the old, worn-out, and utterly misleading “a bad father is still your father” argument:
One can disinherit children of a family. Yet one cannot disinherit the father of a family, however guilty or monstrously he behaves himself. This is the law of the hierarchy which God has established even in creation. The same is applicable to the pope, who during the term of his office is the spiritual father of the entire family of Christ on earth. In the case of a criminal or monstrous father, the children have to withdraw themselves from him or avoid contact with him. However, they cannot say, “We will elect a new and good father of our family.” It would be against common sense and against nature. The same principle should be applicable therefore to the question of deposing a heretical pope. The pope cannot be deposed by anybody, only God can intervene and He will do this in His time, since God does not fail in His Providence. (“Deus in sua dispositione non fallitur”).
To rebut this nonsense, we will quote from Fr. Cekada’s response to Mr. Schneider, issued in April of this year:
The pope is like a bad dad; you cannot “disinherit him as the father of a family.” Stupid and inapposite analogy. The authority of the father of a family arises out of the natural law as the result of a physical fact, and consists in private dominative power over his subjects (wife and children); he can never cease to be a father. The authority of the Roman pontiff, on the contrary, is based on a divine power conferred upon him as the result of a juridical fact, and consists in public jurisdictional power over his subjects (the members of the Church); he was not always pope, and he can cease to be pope through heresy, insanity, resignation or death. The idiotic “bad dad” analogy is one of the most ancient of the many Recognize-and-Resist tribal myths. See my video Why Do Traditionalists Fear Sedevacantism? and my article The Tribal Myth-Keepers.
(Fr. Anthony Cekada, “The Errors of Athanasius Schneider”, Quidlibet, Apr. 6, 2019; formatting given.)
All of the foregoing demonstrates very well — certainly much more so than anything in Sammons’ piece — that the position that Francis is not the Pope is not derived from a “desire to avoid the suffering that Francis’s papacy entails”, as Sammons muses out loud, but from the fact that it is utterly impossible to adhere to the Catholic doctrine on the Papacy while believing Jorge Bergoglio to be its valid current occupant.
Addendum to the “Heretical Pope”
Before we conclude this rebuttal, we must mention one little detail regarding the “heretical Pope” controversy that is often forgotten and yet is of absolutely crucial import.
Although over the centuries different theologians took different positions on the possibility or consequences of a Pope becoming a public heretic, the question was always considered only under the aspect of the Pope becoming a public heretic in his capacity as a private individual, and never as the head of the Church exercising his Magisterium. Such an idea — which is totally taken for granted by all of today’s recognize-and-resist thinkers — was utterly unthinkable even to those who believed it possible for the Pope to become a heretic as a private individual.
That this is so is evident from the fact that St. Robert Bellarmine treats the question in this manner and does not treat it in the other way, indicating that there was no dispute about the impossibility of the Pope becoming a heretic in the exercise of his Magisterium as the Vicar of Christ. It is evident, furthermore, when consulting theologians who speak about the matter, such as (all underlining added):
- St. Robert Bellarmine: “It is probable and may piously be believed that not only as ‘Pope’ can the Supreme Pontiff not err, but he cannot be a heretic even as a particular person by pertinaciously believing something false against the faith” (De Romano Pontifice, Book IV, Ch. 6).
- Fr. Matthaeus Conte a Coronata: “…it cannot be proved that the Roman Pontiff, as a private teacher, cannot become a heretic” (Institutiones Iuris Canonici, vol. I, n. 316c).
- Fr. Joachim Salaverri: “Whether or not the Pope as a private person can fall into heresy?” (Sacrae Theologiae Summa IB: On the Church of Christ, n. 657, p. 240).
- Fr. Sylvester Berry: “…if a pope, in his private capacity as an individual, should fall into manifest heresy, he would cease to be a member of the Church, and [in] consequence would also cease to be her supreme pastor” (The Church of Christ, p. 229).
And so on and so forth. This important little detail is usually unnoticed, and it is utterly detrimental to the semi-trad position. After all, the only reason why they even bother to talk about this subject at all is that their “Popes” have spread heresy through their “Magisterium” galore, and if that is an impossibility, then their goose is cooked.
Since the Church requires submission to the Roman Pontiff, which includes assent even to his non-infallible teachings, as a condition for salvation, it is utterly impossible that a Pope could become a heretic in the exercise of his Magisterium. Such an idea would be manifestly incompatible with the duty to accept all papal teaching and the duty to reject heresy.
The idea that each individual believer has to figure out for himself whether a certain papal teaching is the Gospel truth to be accepted under pain of mortal sin or a damnable heresy to be rejected under pain of eternal damnation, is a pure invention of the recognize-and-resist traditionalists. It has no foundation in Catholic teaching and is unspeakably injurious to the Papacy, the Church, and the goodness of God.
What Sammons has done in his article “Is Francis the Pope?” is unconscionable and irresponsible. He has produced a colossally flawed piece of theological writing that is now influencing countless individuals on a matter of the greatest importance. The article is so utterly asinine that Sammons is not embarrassed to argue that if we are truly willing to suffer anything for our Faith, we must also willingly be “in communion with a heretical pope.” As the saying goes: Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. How true!
The author concludes his tragic contribution to theological debate by giving some typical recognize-and-resist advice and emphasizing that Catholics must engage in “prayer and mortification for Francis and for the Church.” He adds that “meditating on the Passion of Our Lord can also help us to appreciate the value of suffering and how we can embrace it instead of running from it.”
If Mr. Sammons is truly looking to embrace suffering for the love of Christ, which is of course a noble goal, we invite him precisely to become a sedevacantist, for sufferings will not be lacking to him then — the social ostracization and loss of reputation that are sure to follow will only be the beginning and no match for the spiritual suffering of having no Pope to guide and direct the Church, appoint bishops to dioceses, and settle disputes.
However, as Sammons himself knows: “We say we want suffering, but whenever suffering comes that isn’t exactly the type we desire, we flee from it.” That point is well taken and quite apropos, for most people who come to accept Sedevacantism didn’t desire it — they simply found it to be the only theologically viable position in face of all the evidence. Hopefully one day Mr. Sammons will realize it, as he once realized that the Methodist religion of which he was a member was not the religion of Jesus Christ.
The popular semi-trad web site One Peter Five has once again shown itself to be the happy purveyor of the absurdest theological rubbish. For an article to get published, site editor Steve Skojec seems to require only that the conclusion of any investigation into Francis’ status be in the affirmative — how one arrives at it, what Catholic dogmas or doctrines one throws overboard in the process, does not seem to matter. The really important thing is not to be sedevacantist, after all, because if Francis isn’t Pope… why then surely the gates of hell have prevailed against the Church, right? One does not know whether to laugh or cry at the persistent blindness (cf. Mt 15:14).
So, is Francis the Pope?
The quickest, safest, and easiest way to find the correct answer is to ask onself the following question: Is it possible to affirm of Jorge Bergoglio everything the Catholic Church teaches about the Papacy and still retain the same Catholic religion of Pope Pius XII and his predecessors? Of course the answer is no, and thus the question is quickly settled: Bergoglio is not — cannot be — the Pope of the Catholic Church, and whatever follows from that, follows.
Game over, Mr. Sammons.
Image source: shutterstock.com (modified) / youtube.com (screenshot) / shutterstock.com / catholicherald.co.uk (screenshot)
Licenses: paid / fair use / paid / fair use