It’s been noted by many people that Catholicism in real life often bears little resemblance to Catholicism online. If, for example, you went to a typical Catholic parish and took a poll asking, “Is Francis the pope?” you’d likely get a 100% positive response (as well as a few odd looks). Yet if you spend even a little time interacting with Catholics on social media (particularly on Twitter), it won’t be long before you encounter someone insisting that “Jorge Bergoglio isn’t really the pope.”
While this view might sound crazy to the average Catholic, it’s at least somewhat understandable to those who are paying attention to the crisis in the Church today. The troublesome pontificate of Francis leaves Catholics with a few uncomfortable options. Some Catholics act as if nothing is wrong, refusing to acknowledge the painful truth that Francis not doing a good job as pope. Others rightly recognize that sometimes the Church has bad popes, and this unfortunately happens to be one of those times. But a small (and growing) group of Catholics deny Francis is the pope, deciding this solves the problem of a bad pope. While that third option might be tempting, it’s incredibly dangerous to the soul.
Denying the legitimacy of Jorge Bergoglio’s papacy takes two main forms. The first is believing there is no currently valid pope. This is called “sedevacantism,” which means, “the seat (of Rome) is vacant.” The second form claims that not Francis but Benedict XVI is (still) the pope. This view has various names, but I’ll call it “Benepapism” here.
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In this article I do not not intend to refute sedevacantism or its cousin Benepapism. Such refutations can be found elsewhere. My intention is to point out how spiritually dangerous these positions are. I liken these views to a man who enters a kitchen and sees the oven is clearly set to 450 degrees. But he tells himself, “I didn’t see anyone set the oven and I don’t believe it is really at 450 degrees.” So he reaches into the oven and grabs the pot without using oven mitts. Sure, it’s theoretically possible the oven indicator was incorrect and the oven wasn’t really on. But it’s far more likely that he’ll be burned.
Why is rejecting that Francis is pope so dangerous? Because at its root it is diametrically opposed to the fundamentals of Catholicism. It is essentially a Gnostic position, a belief that a few souls have discovered a special knowledge (“Gnosis” is Greek for “knowledge”) that most Catholics do not have.
A core truth of Catholicism is that it is a visible, physical religion. We believe that revelation is public—that anyone and everyone can know who God is because He has revealed Himself, and His plan of salvation, to the whole world. We believe that God became man, a physical being, in order to save us. We believe that the primary means of receiving grace is through physical objects—the Sacraments. We believe that the Church is visible, that we can see her hierarchy and so can know the men—the bishops and popes—who God has put in authority over the Church.
As the second century bishop St. Irenaeus said in refuting the Gnostics of his time:
It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times. (Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 3)
Immediately following this, St. Irenaeus recounts the succession of popes from St. Peter to his own time. In other words, the saint was making it clear the Catholic Church was visible and available to all, unlike Gnosticism. This includes knowing who the current pope is.
Now some might object that there have been times when the occupant of the Chair of St. Peter was in dispute. After all, at one point during the Middle Ages three men claimed to be the pope, with each having a sizable contingent of bishops behind him. Yet this was a debate among those who have the authority to determine who is the pope—the bishops. Today’s sedevacantist and Benepapist position argues that every single active Catholic bishop is wrong about who is pope. Instead of pointing to the bishops, and particularly the bishop of Rome, as a visible means of refuting the “hidden knowledge” of the Gnostics, as St. Irenaeus did, today’s sedevacantists/Benepapists declare their “hidden knowledge” that we cannot trust the bishops to know the identity of the true bishop of Rome.
If you spend any time exploring either sedevacantism or Benepapism, this Gnostic tendency is what you’ll find. Their advocates will confidently claim that if you just watch this video or hear this argument, then you’ll see that Francis isn’t really the pope. (And the corollary: if you don’t accept this conclusion, then you have a hardened heart.) I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told that because I don’t subscribe to one of these views, it’s because I refuse to consider the arguments (out of cowardice or fear of losing my income or whatever). In other words, it’s not possible to simply think the argument—the “knowledge”—is unconvincing, I must just be ignoring it.
As Catholics, we know the truth through public revelation, which is given to us through His visible Church. We don’t know it by spending 60 hours poring over YouTube videos and Catholic blogs. Even if one is rightly troubled by the pontificate of Francis, individual Catholics cannot decide he’s not the true pope. That’s just not how the Church works.
A future pope or council may possibly one day nullify and/or condemn the pontificate of Francis. If, however, you make that decision on your own right now in opposition to all the bishops of the world, then you place yourself above—and outside—Christ’s visible Church.
One certainly sympathizes with sedevacantists and Benepapists. Unlike the papolaters who dominate the Church today, they take the problems of the Francis pontificate seriously. They don’t try to whitewash issues that have led to the loss of many souls. Yet ultimately their views are a spiritual dead end.
For where does sedevacantism/Benepapism lead? How will the papacy issue ever be resolved? How will the Church ever elect a legitimate pope, if every single papal elector is wrong about the current occupant of the Chair of St. Peter (and many, if not all, of them were appointed by an “invalid” pope)? Waiting for a miraculous divine intervention—one that works outside of how God Himself set up the hierarchical Church—is dangerously close to the sin of presumption. In the end, both sedevacantism and Benepapism lead to a rejection of the Church and the formation of a man-made religion.
It’s okay to have difficulties with Pope Francis. In fact, we should. But as St. John Henry Newman said, “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.” We must have faith that these difficulties will be worked out in God’s time. The Church has seen more than a few bad popes, and often the problems they raised were not resolved until decades later. It might be a while until the Church resolves today’s issues, for she works not days or even years, but in centuries.
Ultimately, having serious concerns about Francis while still accepting the legitimacy of his pontificate demands humility. It recognizes that we as individual Catholics do not have the authority to say who is or who isn’t the pope. We recognize instead that Christ founded a visible Church—with fallible men put in charge—and that we must remain in that Church, acknowledging her visible leaders, or we risk being burned.
[Photo: Chair of St. Peter]