For faithful Catholics, the pontificate of Francis has been like trying to survive 12 rounds with a heavyweight champion. Let’s review a few of the hits:
- “Who am I to judge?”
- “Breeding like rabbits”
- “A plurality of religions is willed by God”
- Cozying up to pro-abortion politicians
- A disgraceful deal with the Chinese Communist Party
- Promoting the work of Fr. James Martin
- The scandalous Pontifical Academy for Life appointments
And that’s just off the top of my head! I’m sure you could rattle off many more. After nine years of this pontificate, most of us feel at least a bit woozy.
This unseemly situation can lead to some real soul-searching. As Catholics we are pre-programmed to respect, even like, our popes. But if we are being honest, Francis is a difficult man either to like or respect. His antagonism towards traditional and orthodox Catholics indicates that the feeling is mutual. Such distaste leads to the inevitable question: how can a Catholic be in communion with the pope if he doesn’t want anything to do with him?
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This is no academic question. The Catholic Church has always emphasized the importance of being in communion with Rome. From the earliest days of Christianity, Rome was seen as the locus of the Church’s worldwide unity. To be out of communion with the successor of St. Peter was to separate oneself from the Body of Christ. But at the same time, to be a faithful Catholic means to doggedly adhere to the teachings of the Church as they have been handed on to us via Scripture and Tradition. So what happens when we are required to be in communion with someone who works to upend those teachings?
In order to resolve this troubling paradox, we must understand what being “in communion with” means. First, it doesn’t mean to be “in agreement with” someone on every point of view. After all, every practicing Catholic is currently in communion with every other practicing Catholic in the world, and I guarantee that these millions of Catholics have very divergent views on politics, economics, culture, and a whole host of other subjects. And even more relevant, many of these practicing Catholics likely hold what are heretical views. I would imagine that there are a large number of Catholics, for example, who if asked to explain the Trinity would give what are actually heretical answers out of ignorance or misunderstanding. But we are still in communion.
So what does “in communion with” mean? It represents a visible acknowledgment of the visible Church. In Protestantism’s invisible church, there is no real concept of “in communion with.” A Protestant simply attends the church he likes the best, and if he stops liking it, he leaves and attends another. He is simply a visible member of a local community of like-minded believers, while remaining in the ethereal “invisible church.”
But for Catholics it’s quite different. We believe that we are members of a visible and universal Church, which includes not only all Catholics today, but all Catholics throughout history and into the future—the saints and the sinners. That membership is a mystical reality brought about not by our like-mindededness, but by our shared partaking of Holy Communion.
This communion is both horizontal—between all members of the Catholic Church—and vertical—between the newest baptized Catholic up to the pope and even the pope’s boss, Jesus Christ. In other words, our communion is not an acknowledgement that we all like each other or agree with each other, but a mutual submission of our will to Christ’s.
Furthermore, this communion is structured; it is hierarchical. In the plans of divine providence, Our Lord established a center for this communion here on earth—the bishop of Rome who is the successor of St. Peter. In other words, in order to be in communion with each other, we must be in communion with the pope. This is not optional. We can’t say, “well, I’m in communion with my local parish, but not the pope.” To do so is to reject the communal structure set up by the One who brings about communion, Jesus Christ.
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What about when that center of communion becomes himself a source of scandal? What happens when he appears to oppose teachings that come from Christ?
Some will argue that in this situation Francis is not really the pope—either he wasn’t validly elected or his heresy automatically removes him from office. But this is a man-made attempt to reconfigure a divine reality to “solve” today’s problems. We don’t understand how we can have such a bad pope and still be in communion with him, so we try to fix the problem with human solutions.
This leads, however, to even greater problems. It’s somewhat like the many ancient attempts to explain the mystery of the Trinity with human “solutions” like modalism or Arianism. Such explanations might appear simpler and so easier for men and women to accept, but ultimately they lead to fundamental misunderstandings of the nature of God. Likewise, human solutions to a problematic papacy might appear simpler and easier to accept, but they lead to fundamental misunderstandings of the Church and our communion in her.
As already noted, our communion is structured; it is hierarchical. This means that members have different roles to play, and it is not the role for the individual layman—or an individual priest or bishop—to declare that a pope is no longer pope or that he never was pope. Indeed, the very fact that a virtual unanimity of the hierarchy today acknowledges Francis as pope makes it clear that we must accept him as pope, and therefore be in communion with him.
The papacy is a mystery of our faith, and mysteries, naturally, can be difficult to understand or accept. Our current predicament reminds me of John 6:68-69, when Jesus asks the Twelve if they too will leave him over the hard teaching of the Eucharist. St. Peter responds, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” The chief Apostle didn’t understand how he was supposed to eat Christ’s flesh and drink his blood, but he had come to accept Jesus as the divine Savior and so for St. Peter Christ’s word was good enough.
Likewise, it can be difficult to accept today the hard teaching of the papacy and our need to be in communion with it. In eras of holy and wise popes, this teaching is natural and easy. But we do not live in such an era. So we must say with St. Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” Our Lord has made communion with the pope an essential part of the Catholic Faith—something that has been attested to and practiced for 2,000 years. We cannot abandon it now, even in the face of severe challenges.
This is the test of our day. Will we try to humanly “solve” the problem of the Francis papacy, or will we trust in our Lord and remain in communion with Rome even in spite of the challenges that communion brings? It might feel like we’re in the middle of a heavyweight fight, but our duty is to persevere to the end, regardless of the blows we may receive on the way.
[Photo Credit: Vatican Media]