An insightful reality check…
Fernandez on Papal Charism and the ‘Doctrine of the Holy Father’: Brazen Baloney or Traditional Teaching?
This blog is certainly the last place on earth that would want to defend ‘Archbishop’ (and almost ‘Cardinal’) Victor Manuel Fernandez, the Vatican’s new doctrine chief who is notorious for having written the book Heal Me with your Mouth: the Art of Kissing (1995). However, truth is truth, even if the ‘wrong’ person speaks it.
When the National Catholic Register released an interview with Fernandez on Sep. 11, 2023, one point immediately caught the ire and contempt of the recognize-and-resist traditionalists (we like to refer to them as “semi-trads”) on the internet. Here is the relevant excerpt:
[Interviewer:] You said in a July interview with Crux that you take Pope Francis’ words about accepting the recent magisterium very seriously and that the faithful should allow their thought “to be transfigured with his criteria,” particularly when it comes to moral and pastoral theology. What is the “recent magisterium” exactly? How does it differ from the non-recent magisterium, and what do you mean when you say “transfigured with his criteria” regarding moral and pastoral theology? Is it binding; and, as prefect, how will you deal with those in the Church, especially bishops and priests, who won’t subscribe to the Holy Father’s magisterium, as they might see it as contradicting established Church teaching?
[Fernandez:] When we speak of obedience to the magisterium, this is understood in at least two senses, which are inseparable and equally important. One is the more static sense, of a “deposit of faith,” which we must guard and preserve unscathed. But on the other hand, there is a particular charism for this safeguarding, a unique charism, which the Lord has given only to Peter and his successors.
In this case, we are not talking about a deposit, but about a living and active gift, which is at work in the person of the Holy Father. I do not have this charism, nor do you, nor does Cardinal Burke. Today only Pope Francis has it. [sic] Now, if you tell me that some bishops have a special gift of the Holy Spirit to judge the doctrine of the Holy Father, we will enter into a vicious circle (where anyone can claim to have the true doctrine) and that would be heresy and schism. Remember that heretics always think they know the true doctrine of the Church. Unfortunately, today, not only do some progressives fall into this error but also, paradoxically, do some traditionalist groups.
(Edward Pentin, “Exclusive: Archbishop Fernandez Warns Against Bishops Who Think They Can Judge ‘Doctrine of the Holy Father’”, National Catholic Register, Sep. 11, 2023)
Aside from his claim that the Argentinian apostate Jorge Bergoglio (‘Pope Francis’) is the Pope (and therefore has the papal charism of safeguarding divine doctrine), what Fernandez says in the above excerpt is not incorrect. Of course the Pope — any true Pope — possesses a special assistance from God to help him understand, defend, and teach sound doctrine. This should not surprise us. What should surprise us is that this is apparently news to the semi-trads.
Fernandez’ reference to “the doctrine of the Holy Father” was immediately taken by the recognize-and-resisters to mean that a Pope can have his own personal doctrine, that is, each Pope can make up whatever teaching he wishes. “There is literally no such thing as ‘doctrine of the Holy Father’; in fact, that’s heretical to even suggest”, professional resistance pundit Eric Sammons, who is editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine, boldly pontificated on Twitter.
But obviously, Fernandez was simply speaking of the papal magisterium; he was saying that it is through his teaching office that each Pope safeguards the Deposit of Faith by means of the documents he issues. (In fact, he has since confirmed exactly that.) In his Apostolic constitution explaining the nature and role of the Papacy, Pope Pius VI made reference to “our doctrine” — without implying, of course, that he was proclaiming his own truths rather than those handed down to him by the Apostles (see Bull Super Soliditate).
Granted, Francis has been cranking out his own doctrines and markets them as Catholicism, so one may forgive the recognize-and-resisters for reading Fernandez’ remarks in that light. They do, after all, have every reason to be suspicious of the erotic poet ‘Smoochie’ Fernandez. And who knows, perhaps the new doctrine chief meant for his words to be understood in a heretical sense. But if so — and that is the point — it is not apparent from what he actually said (although, admittedly, his follow-up comments about revelation being a “bottomless well that is ever-present” seem deliberately vague and confusing).
Yes, the Pope enjoys special Divine Assistance
With regard to a Pope’s guarding of the Deposit of Faith by means of a special assistance from God, there is plenty of support for what Fernandez said in the traditional Catholic teaching on the Papacy.
Pope Pius XII, for example, taught that Christ Jesus “opened up to His Church the fountain of those divine gifts, which prevent her from ever teaching false doctrine and enable her to rule them for the salvation of their souls through divinely enlightened pastors and to bestow on them an abundance of heavenly graces” (Encyclical Mystici Corporis, n. 31). The same Pope went on to state that our Blessed Lord “never ceases Himself to guide the Church invisibly, though at the same time He rules it visibly, through him who is His representative on earth” (n. 40).
Further on in the same document, Pius XII affirmed that it is the Lord Jesus “who enriches pastors and teachers and above all His Vicar on earth with the supernatural gifts of knowledge, understanding and wisdom, so that they may loyally preserve the treasury of faith, defend it vigorously, and explain and confirm it with reverence and devotion” (n. 50). That is exactly what Fernandez was getting at.
Thus it follows, as Pope Pius XII taught elsewhere, that in “points of Christian doctrine, ‘the proximate and universal norm of truth’ is for all the living Magisterium of the Church, which Christ established ‘also to illustrate and explain those matters which are contained only in an obscure way, and implicitly in the deposit of faith’” (Encyclical Ad Caeli Reginam, n. 45); and he warned that “even though to someone, certain declarations of the Church may not seem proved by the arguments put forward, his obligation to obey still remains” (Allocution Magnificate Dominum).
Specifically with regard to human frailty — after all, the Pope is a sinner, too — Pius XII had noted in an allocution of Feb. 20, 1949: “The Pope has the divine promises; even in his human weaknesses, he is invincible and unshakable; he is the messenger of truth and justice, the principle of the unity of the Church; his voice denounces errors, idolatries, superstitions; he condemns iniquities; he makes charity and virtue loved” (Ancora Una Volta). Notice that Pius XII was describing not simply what the Pope ought to do or is expected to, but what he actually does: The Pope is the messenger of truth and justice and of the unity of the Church; he denounces errors; he makes virtue loved; etc. Can we affirm this of Francis? Of course not.
Nor is this a doctrine made up by Pius XII. His predecessor Leo XIII, for instance, taught more or less exactly what Fernandez affirmed in the interview. Clarifying that Catholics “receive their rule of faith from the Church, by whose authority and under whose guidance they are conscious that they have beyond question attained to truth”, Pope Leo emphasized:
…To determine, however, which are the doctrines divinely revealed belongs to the teaching Church, to whom God has entrusted the safekeeping and interpretation of His utterances. But the supreme teacher in the Church is the Roman Pontiff. Union of minds, therefore, requires, together with a perfect accord in the one faith, complete submission and obedience of will to the Church and to the Roman Pontiff, as to God Himself. This obedience should, however, be perfect, because it is enjoined by faith itself, and has this in common with faith, that it cannot be given in shreds; nay, were it not absolute and perfect in every particular, it might wear the name of obedience, but its essence would disappear….
In defining the limits of the obedience owed to the pastors of souls, but most of all to the authority of the Roman Pontiff, it must not be supposed that it is only to be yielded in relation to dogmas of which the obstinate denial cannot be disjoined from the crime of heresy. Nay, further, it is not enough sincerely and firmly to assent to doctrines which, though not defined by any solemn pronouncement of the Church, are by her proposed to belief, as divinely revealed, in her common and universal teaching, and which the [First] Vatican Council declared are to be believed “with Catholic and divine faith.” But this likewise must be reckoned amongst the duties of Christians, that they allow themselves to be ruled and directed by the authority and leadership of bishops, and, above all, of the Apostolic See.
And how fitting it is that this should be so any one can easily perceive. For the things contained in the divine oracles have reference to God in part, and in part to man, and to whatever is necessary for the attainment of his eternal salvation. Now, both these, that is to say, what we are bound to believe and what we are obliged to do, are laid down, as we have stated, by the Church using her divine right, and in the Church by the supreme Pontiff.
Wherefore it belongs to the Pope to judge authoritatively what things the sacred oracles contain, as well as what doctrines are in harmony, and what in disagreement, with them; and also, for the same reason, to show forth what things are to be accepted as right, and what to be rejected as worthless; what it is necessary to do and what to avoid doing, in order to attain eternal salvation. For, otherwise, there would be no sure interpreter of the commands of God, nor would there be any safe guide showing man the way he should live.
(Encyclical Sapientiae Christianae, nn. 21-22, 24; underlining added.)
In his beautiful encyclical on the unity of the Church, the same Pope Leo XIII taught that “Christ instituted in the Church a living, authoritative and permanent Magisterium, which by His own power He strengthened, by the Spirit of truth He taught, and by miracles confirmed. He willed and ordered, under the gravest penalties, that its teachings should be received as if they were His own” (Satis Cognitum, n. 9).
In his famous encyclical letter on Christian marriage, Pope Pius XI taught precisely in the context of non-infallible teaching and decisions that the Sovereign Pontiff “is himself guided by Jesus Christ Our Lord” (Casti Connubii, n. 104).
If ‘Abp.’ Fernandez had said all this, the recognize-and-resist traditionalists, who consider themselves the orthodox remnant that is truly faithful, would be foaming at the mouth, accusing him of the most papolatrous hyper-uber-papalist-positivism ever. Yet, it is simply Catholic doctrine — doctrine they apparently reject.
Why is this teaching a problem for the semi-trads? Because they realize they cannot affirm this of Francis, Benedict XVI, John Paul II, John Paul I, Paul VI, or John XXIII, and they do not want to conclude that these were not true Popes. The resisters have been checkmated, and so they try all kinds of theological acrobatics to make their position appear reasonable and traditional. It is neither.
We could go on and on with more quotes from the Popes’ pronouncements, but the point has been sufficiently proved: Fernandez’ claim that each Pope enjoys the divine assistance for safeguarding doctrine, and that his inferiors have no business evaluating or revising the papal magisterium, is actually traditional Catholic teaching. The mistake is not to affirm that the Pope does indeed have these privileges, rights, and powers; the mistake is to think the apostate from Buenos Aires is the Pope.
Recognize-and-Resist vs. Sedevacantism: A Question of Authority?
This episode demonstrates once again how far removed from the traditional Catholic understanding of the Papacy today’s recognize-and-resist traditionalists really are. And why are they? Because they have spent decades accepting false popes teaching the foulest of errors in their official magisterium, as true popes, and have on that account modified the Catholic teaching on the Papacy to the point of complete mutilation, simply in order to “make it fit”. Although they were able to get away with it for a while, this is no longer possible today: The square peg that is Jorge Bergoglio simply will not fit into the round hole of the Papacy.
It cannot be so difficult to understand that by the time one has shoehorned into the office of the Papacy a public apostate who teaches that others religions constitute “different ways of coming to God” and are an “enrichment” to humanity that is “necessary” and in fact “willed by God”, there is no Papacy — and therefore no Catholicism — left. There cannot be, for Catholicism teaches that the Church “possesses in the primacy of Peter and of his legitimate successors the assurance, guaranteed by the divine promises, of keeping and transmitting inviolate and in all its integrity through centuries and millennia to the very end of time, the entire sum of truth and grace contained in the redemptive mission of Christ” (Pope Pius XII, Allocution to the Consistory, June 2, 1944; English translation from Papal Teachings: The Church).
Therefore, necessarily, one of the two is fake: either the Catholic teaching on the Papacy is false, or Jorge Bergoglio is a charlatan. The former is heresy; the latter is at least possible — and, at this point, rather obvious.
In general, the whole scenario the semi-trads propose is just grotesque: The Holy See issues an encyclical, an apostolic letter, or some other decree from the Pope, and then a number of self-appointed journalists, lawyers, college professors, YouTubers, and bloggers get to review the stuff and declare whether it is something a faithful Catholic can safely embrace. This does not even happen only once or twice, but routinely, for decades; and not just with regard to a few questionable assertions made in dubious circumstances only, but concerning official doctrine and practice, the universal catechism, canon law, liturgical rites, the canonization of saints, marriage annulments, questions of church governance, etc. Is this not utter insanity? By what authority do they presume to do such things?
In his bull Super Soliditate, referenced earlier, Pope Pius VI taught rather clearly: “In every age it has been preached as the teaching of the Gospel that the sheep were entrusted to Peter by Christ, for him to provide for their food, not Peter who was entrusted to the sheep to receive his spiritual nourishment from them.”
Curiously, the same people who have no problem sitting in judgment of papal teachings and decrees (that is, of the man they recognize as the valid Pope) are all troubled that sedevacantists ‘dare’ to say Francis is not in fact the Pope of the Catholic Church — when such a conclusion is merely the doctrinally necessary consequence to recognizing the heresy-ridden ‘magisterium’ of Bergoglio! So when it comes to saying out loud that which must be concluded regarding Bergoglio if the Catholic Faith is true (and it is!), the semi-trads suddenly feel themselves incompetent to do so because of a lack of authority! How ironic!
Why is it that their lack of authority does not keep them from passing judgment on the teachings and other official acts of the (supposed) Pope, to the point of telling the whole world what can and cannot be accepted as in harmony with orthodox Catholicism?
Let us be clear: We sedevacantists do not presume to issue a declaration in the legal-canonical sense, as if we could render an authoritative judgment in virtue of which the whole Church would be bound. Rather, we merely apply the Catholic Faith to the manifest facts at hand — facts that are generally not disputed by the semi-trads — and draw the inevitable conclusion. This conclusion must be drawn — not because we have the authority to bind anyone else to it, but because one will deny the Catholic understanding of the Papacy if one does not draw it, as we have seen.
The “authority” with which the sedevacantist concludes Bergoglio is not the Pope is the same kind of “authority” with which the semi-trad concludes that if Bergoglio did not use bread at Mass but rice instead, then the Holy Eucharist was not validly confected, regardless of any other consideration and even if the rest of the world insists it was valid. If this practical judgment were not permitted or possible, the Catholic Faith would be useless in the practical order.
Fr. Felix Sarda y Salvany (1844-1916) touched upon this in his magnificent work against so-called “Liberal Catholicism”:
Of what use would be the rule of faith and morals if in every particular case the faithful could not of themselves make the immediate application, or if they were constantly obliged to consult the Pope or the diocesan pastor? Just as the general rule of morality is the law in accordance with which each one squares his own conscience…, in making particular applications of this general rule, subject to correction if erroneous; so the general rule of faith, which is the infallible authority of the Church, is and ought to be in consonance with every particular judgment formed in making concrete applications – subject, of course, to correction and retraction in the event of [a] mistake in so applying it. It would be rendering the superior rule of faith useless, absurd and impossible to require the supreme authority of the Church to make its special and immediate application in every case and upon every occasion which calls it forth.
(Rev. Felix Sarda y Salvany, What is Liberalism? [aka Liberalism is a Sin], translated and adapted by Condé B. Pallen [St. Louis, MO: B. Herder, 1899], pp. 168-169)
There will be those who object, “But what if you are wrong? What if you’re mistaken and Francis is a valid Pope? Then you’re in schism and going to hell!” But it is not so.
First, the semi-trad does not escape the same objection in principle: What if you’re wrong in your resistance? What if ecumenism, religious liberty, and the entire Novus Ordo magisterium is God’s will for His Church and in harmony with traditional Catholic doctrine? What if you’re just mistaken about it all?
Second, let us, for the sake of argument, assume for a moment that Francis were indeed a true Pope and that Sedevacantism were false. The first thing we must remember is that people go to hell for personal mortal sin, and sin is always in the will. People who, in this enormous ecclesial nightmare, sincerely do all they can to arrive at the truth of the matter and genuinely seek to please God and follow His truth and His law, and still get it wrong, are not guilty of mortal sin on that account. They have simply made a sincere mistake. The mortal sin of schism is not committed by making a sincere mistake after exhausting all one’s means and abilities to get to the truth of the matter, precisely for the love of God and in order to avoid both schism and heresy. So you find out at your judgment that you were wrong about who the Pope was! But you acted consistently in accordance with Catholic doctrine: You refused him submission only because it was evident to you that he could not possibly be the Pope and therefore had no right to your submission. There is no mortal sin there, and hence any such anxiety is entirely misplaced.
God does not play shell games, as if meaning to damn as many souls as possible. Our beloved Redeemer suffered His holy Passion so we would be saved, not so we would still go to hell.
It is popular and common thing to hear traditionalists of any stripe maintain that whether Bergoglio is a true Pope or not is not that important and, in any case, a matter of opinion at best. But all of the foregoing has shown how misguided that is. For if you don’t abandon Bergoglio’s claim to the Papacy, you will, necessarily, abandon the true doctrine of the Papacy.
Dear recognize-and-resisters: The problem isn’t some “hyperuberpapalist ultramontanism” that exaggerates the nature, authority, or infallibility of the Papacy. Nor is it some “spirit of Vatican I”, as Peter Kwasniewski likes to argue. It isn’t a problem of too much loyalty to the Holy Father either. Instead, the problem is: There is a false pope reigning in Rome!
So, for heaven’s sake (literally!), don’t try to change what Catholics believe about the Papacy; change what you believe about Jorge Bergoglio!
Title image source: YouTube (screenshot)
License: fair use