Every so often, perhaps because they are exhausted by all the cognitive dissonance adhering to the Novus Ordo Sect while trying to be Catholic brings, certain conservative and semi-traditionalist writers and pundits will push the idea that despite the current morass, things really aren’t quite so bad after all. Compared to other periods of Church history, they contend, the present situation is not nearly so troublesome, or at least it is certainly not without equal precedent. In short: Relax, folks, we’ve weathered other storms before!
In 2018, for example, semi-trad apologist Paul Folbrecht made an argument to that effect as part of a lengthy attempt to refute Sedevacantism. We responded accordingly:
- Peace in the Crisis? Catholic Family News Promotes a Dangerous Tranquility (PART 1)
- Peace in the Crisis? Catholic Family News Promotes a Dangerous Tranquility (PART 2)
- Peace in the Crisis? Catholic Family News Promotes a Dangerous Tranquility (PART 3)
Others, who perhaps do not have the resources to look into Church history, do not even bother making a historical argument at all. They simply tell themselves that, despite initial appearances, nothing that has happened since the death of Pope Pius XII is anything the Church cannot do.
For example, take a look at what James D. at Camp of Saints posted recently. There we have a blogger who, apparently tired of fighting, decided to come off the fence — and jumped onto Bergoglio’s turf. Although acknowledging that he has “doctrinal differences” (!) with the man he believes to be the Pope of the Catholic Church, he conveniently decided that “[m]uch of what has changed in the Church since 1958 has been unwise. None of it has been illegal.” Apparently things like worshipping a pagan fertility goddess in the Vatican Gardens or making the declaration that God has willed a diversity of religions counts as merely “unwise” rather than “illegal” — terms that really have no meaning with regard to doctrine to begin with. In which case one wonders, of course, why the blogger has doctrinal differences with his “Holy Father”, if everything is but a matter of prudence or permission.
In any case, the “it’s really not so bad” argument does rear its unreasonable head now and again, and on Jan. 22, 2020, we saw such an example on a major news and commentary site, namely, that of the so-called National Catholic Register, where Vatican reporter Edward Pentin published an interview he had conducted with Dr. Carlos Eire, a distinguished history professor at Yale University with a Ph.D. from the same (1979).
In this post we will look at some excerpts from the interview and dissect them critically. Ed Pentin’s questions are italicized and in bold; Prof. Eire’s responses are in regular typeface:
Having studied the history of popes, do you think the grace of the office will overcome any challenges and controversies?
Oh, definitely. This is nothing compared to previous crises or previous popes. This is child’s play.
(Edward Pentin, “Church Historian Discusses the Papacy, Past and Present”, National Catholic Register, Jan. 22, 2020)
With all due respect to the professor: Even if he takes a different overall view on the matter than we do here, to call the current post-1958 catastrophe “child’s play” is simply indefensible. It may perhaps seem like child’s play to a secularist, one who has no understanding of the Catholic Faith at all and only looks at externals, but to a Catholic or someone who means to be one, this comment is totally off the mark.
Yes, there have been very difficult periods for the Catholic Church in the past, but none comes close to what we presently experience, even if we suppose, for the sake of argument, that the Vatican II Sect is the true Roman Catholic Church and its heads have been true Roman Pontiffs, as Eire obviously believes.
What periods in Church history does the professor have in mind when he claims that today’s madness doesn’t even compare? He will tell us later on in the interview, so we will wait until then.
As for his claim that the grace of the papal office will ultimately prevail, one must point out rather matter-of-factly that a true Pope is always divinely aided in the exercise of his office — in accordance with the promises of Christ — and not only “ultimately”: “Mother 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”, Pope Pius XII said in his Allocution to the Consistory of June 2, 1944. He made no mention of the Popes getting it right only eventually, with intermittent defection from the Faith.
The divine assistance promised to St. Peter and his successors prevents any Pope from creating precisely the kind of apostate chaos Francis and his five predecessors have unleashed. The grace of the papal office is attached to the office, after all, and so it makes no sense to say that it will work out only eventually. Of what use would the divine protection of the Papacy be if it only worked sometimes or ultimately, when, “because our lifespans are short”, as Eire himself points out later on in the same conversation, “an individual might never see it”?
Continuing with the interview:
But critics say Pope Francis has impinged on doctrine, such as Amoris Laetitia.
Yes, but whenever there’s been any kind of doctrinal conflict or there has been any kind of logjam, it has come, it has gone, sometimes there’s a fallout, but it’s resolved. As with the Old Catholic church after Vatican I, there’s always some fallout, but the Church has survived the crisis.
This makes no sense. Yes, there was a “fallout” after Vatican I, but the crucial difference Eire misses is that it was the so-called “Old Catholics” who had “impinged on doctrine”, not the Pope! If there is “any kind of doctrinal conflict or … logjam”, then a Catholic must be on the Pope’s side, who is always guaranteed to be the safe bulwark of orthodoxy. That is the whole point of the Papacy, the very reason why Christ instituted it to begin with: “This chair [of Peter] is the center of Catholic truth and unity, that is, the head, mother, and teacher of all the Churches to which all honor and obedience must be offered. Every church must agree with it because of its greater preeminence — that is, those people who are in all respects faithful…”, Pope Pius IX declared in his encyclical Inter Multiplices (n. 1).
The Church survived all crises in the past because of the Papacy, not in spite of it.
Continuing with Dr. Eire’s response:
In my Catholic intellectual tradition course, which I co-teach with two colleagues, we’ve tried to get the students to realize that crisis is constant. The details of the crises might be different, and the intensity of the crises might vary, but for heaven’s sake, 70 years in Avignon — and then all the following years of the Great Schism of 1378 where you had not two, but at one point three rival popes — and the Church survived. Conciliarists deposed two popes and elected a new pope, but that only resulted in three popes.
If you were to cross the English Channel during that schism, if you crossed from England to France, you were immediately excommunicated. If you crossed from France to England, it would go the other way, because England recognized the pope in Rome, and France, of course, recognized the pope in Avignon and so there was a mutual excommunication.
It would be even more shocking because there at least you have to get into a ship and cross the water, but on the continent, you just go a few kilometers this way and there was another pope being recognized, and vice versa. So, we shouldn’t really get too concerned, because it will resolve itself.
Here the professor touches upon two anomalies in Church history: the Avignon papacy and the Great Western Schism. Both of these supposedly make the current nightmare look like child’s play by comparison. But do they really?
The “Avignon papacy” is the term used to refer to the time period from 1309-1376, when a series of Popes did not live in Rome but in Avignon, France. It was certainly a turbulent time for the Church, but if the main problem with Bergoglio today were that he resides in Paris, Berlin, or Buenos Aires instead of the Vatican, that could be considered child’s play by comparison to what we are truly witnessing.
The aftermath of the Avignon papacy resulted in the
In his interview with Pentin, Eire resorts to dangerously imprecise language: He speaks of “three rival popes”, of “two popes”, and again of “three popes”, when he knows fully well that there cannot be more than one legitimate pope at a time — any other
There is no denying the great evil that was the Great Western Schism. However, to say it makes the post-Vatican II catastrophe look like child’s play is simply not accurate.
For one thing, none of the papal claimants from 1378-1417 were apostates, as the Modernist Vatican II “popes” are, none more conspicuously than Francis. Secondly, although the problem of rival papal claimants can be resolved fairly easily by all claimants resigning voluntarily, the situation we find ourselves in today is of a different caliber altogether:
- supposing, for the sake of argument, Francis to be Pope and the Vatican II Sect to be the Catholic Church, as Dr. Eire holds, this would leave us with a defected magisterium, a defected papacy, a defected church;
- even with the reality of sede vacante since the death of Pope Pius XII in 1958, the situation is intolerable: a human remedy to the problem seems (seems!) beyond all possibility; confusion and disagreement reign everywhere, even among all those who acknowledge the true nature of the ecclesial situation
But no matter which of these two positions any particular reader of this blog takes, it is simply preposterous to say that it pales in comparison with the evil of the Great Western Schism. Far from it! If anything, the reverse is true.
As far as Eire’s claims of mutual excommunications go, certainly excommunication is no light matter. However, this does not really add anything of substance to the difficulty already acknowledged, for it goes without saying that no matter what claimant you accepted as the true Pope during the Western Schism, there was always at least one other claimant insisting that you had picked the wrong man and were worthy of anathema. Even a miracle worker as holy as St. Vincent Ferrer
Finding himself threatened with excommunication from all sides back then, a Catholic could take refuge in knowing that in the face of a perplexed conscience, if all alternatives seem to be equally sinful, and a choice must be made, then any of them may be chosen without sinning: “If the two alternatives appear equally wrong, and one must be chosen, either may be chosen without sin, for the agent is not free” (Fr. Henry Davis, Moral and Pastoral Theology, vol. 1 [New York, NY: Sheed and Ward, 1935], p. 72, fn. 1; italics added).
As agonizing and scandalous as that turbulent period of Church history was, what we have today is certainly not any less so, and in fact much worse, for we are not merely facing uncertainty with regard to who (if anyone) the Pope is, but with a colossal apostasy throughout the world, a magisterium that teaches heresy and other error, and a church that establishes evil liturgical and disciplinary laws and canonizes public sinners as saints. Would that the only problem were the true Pope living outside of Rome, or that there merely be a quarrel about which of three Catholics claiming to be Pope is the true one!
Returning now to the interview with Dr. Eire:
What is your opinion on cases where a pope has been accused of unorthodoxy or perhaps even heresy?
It is very rare. But again, there is no really big trouble unless Vatican I is invoked, unless infallibility is invoked. That’s where things would get hairy. Being a heretic and not speaking ex cathedra
Once again Prof. Eire shows himself dangerously misinformed on Catholic theology. His remarks reveal that he believes that unless a Pope proclaims heresy ex cathedra — which is impossible, anyway — then there isn’t really anything to worry about. This contention assumes, incorrectly, that Catholics only have an obligation to assent to ex cathedra statements. It also assumes, just as incorrectly, that whenever a Pope is not infallible, he could be heretical. But fallibility is merely the possibility of erring, not the possibility of erring heretically. An erroneous teaching is one thing; a heresy is something else altogether, as it constitutes a rejection of Divine Revelation.
The following two posts demonstrate, using pre-Vatican II Catholic sources, how the Papal Magisterium teaches the faithful and what kind of assent is owed to it:
If the Pope were capable of proposing heresy in his non-infallible Magisterium, then the entire Catholic doctrine on the Papacy would collapse, the Church would be deprived of all credibility, and the Papacy would not only not be a guarantor of orthodoxy but be a positively harmful institution constituting a danger to the salvation of souls. This is not only absurd but also directly contrary to Catholic teaching, which holds that “the teaching authority of the Church … 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…” (Pope Pius XI, Encyclical Mortalium Animos, n. 9).
The question of the possibility of a heretical Pope came up at Vatican I, of course, and was presented to the Deputation of the Faith for a response. Abp. John Purcell of Cincinnati, Ohio, who attended the assembly, relates the answer the council’s theological experts gave:
The question was also raised by a Cardinal, “What is to be done with the Pope if he becomes a heretic?” It was answered that there has never been such a case; the Council of Bishops could depose him for heresy, for from the moment he becomes a heretic he is not the head or even a member of the Church. The Church would not be, for a moment, obliged to listen to him when he begins to teach a doctrine the Church knows to be a false doctrine, and he would cease to be Pope, being deposed by God Himself.
If the Pope, for instance, were to say that the belief in God is false, you would not be obliged to believe him, or if he were to deny the rest of the creed, “I believe in Christ,” etc. The supposition is injurious to the Holy Father in the very idea, but serves to show you the fullness with which the subject has been considered and the ample thought given to every possibility. If he denies any dogma of the Church held by every true believer, he is no more Pope than either you or I; and so in this respect the dogma of infallibility amounts to nothing as an article of temporal government or cover for heresy.
(Abp. John B. Purcell, quoted in Rev. James J. McGovern, Life and Life Work of Pope Leo XIII [Chicago, IL: Allied Printing, 1903], p. 241; imprimatur by Abp. James Quigley of Chicago; underlining added.)
This stands in stark contrast to the fairly nonchalant remarks made by Dr. Eire. (More on the Vatican I “heretical Pope” question can be read here.)
Getting back to the interview, Eire’s response continues:
And actually, most Catholics don’t know about the famous case that was invoked during the First Vatican Council, which was the case of Pope Honorius I, who in conversations with the patriarch of Constantinople expressed agreement with the heretical proposition about Christ — Monotheletism — the idea that the Christ had only one will, the divine will. Pope Honorius said, “Sounds right to me.” So, during Vatican I this was brought up as an example of popes not being infallible. But this is where the ex-cathedra cloud comes in: Honorius was not speaking ex cathedra. That was a private conversation.
The case of Pope Honorius I was debated up and down before, during, and after the First Vatican Council. The facts are not quite as the Yale historian presents them. Some years ago we published an exclusive translation of a series of lectures by Fr. Louis-Nazaire Bégin on the Honorius question, first printed in 1873. The author, a doctor of Sacred Theology who was later appointed Archbishop of Quebec by Pope Leo XIII (1898) and created cardinal by Pope St. Pius X (1914), shows that Pope Honorius “did not fall into heresy, and that the Sixth [Ecumenical] Council [i.e. the Third Council of Constantinople] did not condemn him as a formal heretic, but only as guilty of negligence.”
Here are some of the conclusions Fr. Begin reached after an exhaustive study of the subject matter:
We come now to a very serious question, one which touches the very heart of our subject. This is the question: Did Pope Honorius fall into the heresy of Monotheletism? I answer, “No!” Here I find myself to have for adversaries a throng of writers hostile to the Catholic Church. On the other hand, I am supported by men who are the most eminent for their knowledge and erudition.
In his first letter [to Sergius, Pope Honorius] repeats several times that “the Scriptures demonstrate clearly that Jesus Christ is the same Who operates in things divine and in things human;” that “Jesus Christ operates in the two natures, divinely and humanly.” Nothing could be clearer or more obvious! The heresy is right away knocked down. It is thus evident that Honorius confesses in Jesus Christ not only two natures, but also two wills and two operations. Thus, this Pontiff professes in his letters the Catholic truth; he rejects only the being used to express it, and this for reasons of prudence, in order not to appear to favor Nestorianism or Eutychianism, and also because Sergius astutely portrayed these new expressions as a cause of troubles in the Church and an obstacle to the return of Monosphysites to orthodoxy.
John, secretary to Honorius, who wrote the letter to Sergius and who must have known better than any other the thoughts of the Pontiff, said on this matter: “When we spoke of a single will in the Lord, we did not have in view His double nature, divine and human, but His humanity only…. We meant that Jesus Christ did not have two contrary wills, that is to say one of the flesh and one of the spirit, as we ourselves have on account of sin, but that, with regard to His humanity, He had but one natural will.”
Pope John IV gave to Honorius’s words absolutely the same sense. It is therefore quite evident that the doctrine of Honorius in his letters to Sergius is irreproachable from the point of view of sound theology, because in addition to the divine will, which no one has denied, he confesses the human will in all its perfection.
…[Honorius’] unique goal, and certainly a very praiseworthy one, was to maintain peace in the Church by preventing the introduction of new words and removing all obstacles to the return of heretics to the true doctrine.
Readers interested in the full text of Fr. Begin’s study of Pope Honorius can find it here:
Writing after Vatican I, the author had the benefit of being able to draw from all the research done in preparation for the council, from the acts of the council, and from its teachings. The book in which his treatment of the Honorius issue is included bears the required imprimatur of the Archbishop of Quebec, Canada. It is clear, therefore, that Fr. Begin’s study is a most reliable source — both in terms of assessing the facts of history and of ensuring doctrinal orthodoxy — for unraveling the confusing case of Pope Honorius according to the mind of the Church. It is unfortunate that Dr. Eire has apparently never come across it.
The interview continues:
That was very rare.
It’s very rare, but they did dig up his remains and throw them into the Tiber so it’s that rare. It’s been that rare. But for heaven’s sake, all the disagreements about the Immaculate Conception before it was pronounced a dogma — people fell on both sides, including the popes. But this pope is probably skating on the thinnest ice that anyone — not just living, but dead or watching — is. And they probably are [watching]. It must be that surprising.
Pope Honorius’ remains were thrown into the Tiber? Does Eire have a source to back that up, or is he confusing Pope Honorius with Pope Formosus (r. 891-896), whose corpse was dug up for the infamous Cadaver Synod and later thrown into the Tiber?
As the Catholic Encyclopedia relates:
… [Pope] Stephen VI lent himself to the revolting scene of sitting in judgment on his predecessor, Formosus. At the synod convened for that purpose, he occupied the chair; the corpse, clad in papal vestments, was withdrawn from the sarcophagus and seated on a throne; close by stood a deacon to answer in its name, all the old charges formulated against Formosus under John VIII being revived. The decision was that the deceased had been unworthy of the pontificate, which he could not have validly received since he was bishop of another see. All his measures and acts were annulled, and all the orders conferred by him were declared invalid. The papal vestments were torn from his body; the three fingers which the dead pope had used in consecrations were severed from his right hand; the corpse was cast into a grave in the cemetery for strangers, to be removed after a few days and consigned to the Tiber.
(Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. “Formosus, Pope”)
We will not dwell further on the Pope Formosus case here, since it is incidental to the Pentin-Eire interview. It is clearly a vivid anomaly in the history of the Church, but one which neither disproves the Papacy nor Sedevacantism. St. Robert Bellarmine, Doctor of the Church, addressed the strange case in his De Romano Pontifice (Book IV, Chapter 12), in the portion of the book in which he answers objections concerning the orthodoxy of specific Popes.
The final portion of the interview we will look at is the following:
Could one argue that even if a pope changed the whole essence of the papacy, because the office is steered by Christ and the Holy Spirit, that in the long run it really wouldn’t matter? The pope could change it radically and it would still survive.
Oh yes, definitely. We have many examples, not just the popes, but councils that voted the wrong way and then it took some years, but things were corrected. It happens. But what’s always surprised me, both as a historian and a believer, is sort of the… let’s call it “the bounce-back principle,” an effect which you don’t normally see with human institutions. And that’s what I think is one of the more remarkable facets of the history of the Catholic Church.
Several things must be said here.
First, no Pope could change “the whole essence of the Papacy” because then the Papacy would be destroyed. Changing the essence of a thing means changing what that thing is, in consequence of which what the thing was before is no longer in existence. Such an essential or substantial change of the Papacy is impossible and absolutely precluded by the promises of Christ. Substantially changing the Papacy would mean substantially changing the Church, and that would mean defection from the Faith, defection from Christ.
This much should have been clear to Pentin but even more so to Eire. Let’s briefly review the Catholic doctrine on the matter. Pope Pius IX spoke of “the Church instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ”, in which “truth must always continue firm and ever inaccessible to all change, as a deposit given to that Church to be guarded in its integrity, for the guardianship of which the presence and aid of the Holy Ghost have been promised to the Church for ever” (
The same Pope also taught very clearly:
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.
(Pius IX, Encyclical Amantissimus, n. 2; underlining added.)
His successor, Pope St. Pius X, likewise taught that “in spite of a great number of pernicious opinions and great variety of errors (as well as the vast army of rebels) the Church remains immutable and constant, ‘as the pillar and foundation of truth’, in professing one identical doctrine, in receiving the same Sacraments, in her divine constitution, government, and morality…” (Encyclical Editae Saepe, n. 8).
Clearly, then, a change in the essence of the Papacy is absolutely ruled out a priori by Catholic doctrine. Such a change, if it were possible, would mean a different papacy, just as a change in the essence of the Church would mean a different church. The latter, incidentally, is precisely what the Second Vatican Council engendered, thus exposing itself as a false council, ratified by a false pope: “…[T]he Church succeeded, during the second Vatican Council, in re-defining her own nature”, proclaimed “Cardinal” Karol Wojtyla, the future “Pope Saint” John Paul II, in his book Sign of Contradiction (New York, NY: The Seabury Press, 1979), p. 17; see scan of page here.
Instead of accepting the Catholic teaching on all these things, however, Prof. Eire believes in and promotes the “bounce-back principle”, by which he seems to mean that the Church founded by Christ can defect into heresy at any point but in the future will right herself again and so “bounce back” into orthodoxy — “eventually”! It’s just too bad if one happens to die before the Great Bouncing Back and so, following Eire’s logic, has to either defect into heresy with the Pope or else refuse him submission and thus become a schismatic in the meantime.
Don’t worry, it’ll bounce back!
No, the “bounce-back church” of Carlos Eire is definitely not the Roman Catholic Church founded by our Lord Jesus Christ, in which, as we just saw, “truth must always continue firm and ever inaccessible to all change” (Pius IX). The Roman Catholic Church is infallible, not inflatable. It does not need to “bounce back” from heresy because it can never be in heresy to begin with.
She is, after all, “the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15).