|Fresco at Siena: Election of Antipope Paschal III|
by Spinello Aretino (b. 1350 – d. 1410)
In recent days I have received so many messages, from so many people, asking me about the possibility of an antipope on the Chair of Peter. Under normal circumstances I might have been surprised, but considering what just went down in Rome with the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, I was (sadly) not surprised at all. The question was put forward so many times that I had to seriously contemplate the "what if" possibility myself.
Before I go on here, I probably should clarify that I do not believe Pope Francis is an antipope. I'm not saying that, and I'm not even suggesting that. Nor am I giving credibility to those who are saying that. I want to broach this topic simply because, with all the doubts and rumours floating around, it needs to be discussed in a reasonable way with some common sense.
I also should probably state something else too. In recent weeks I (like many others) have become very disappointed with Pope Francis. That's a big admission for me, because if you go back through the history of this blog, you'll find that I've been one of his most ardent defenders. Part of this was because I believed the mainstream news media was misinterpreting his message. In fact, I still do believe that. However, I made the mistake of believing that his real message was something closer to that of Saint John Paul II, Pope Pius XI or Pope Leo XIII. I'm sure that the economic writings of those popes do factor into his thinking, but I now tend to think Francis has his own ideas that are a bit different as well. I had thought that Pope Francis was likely the most misunderstood pope in recent history. I have since come to realise that this may be true, but perhaps it was I who misunderstood him. I'm not going to go into the reasons for my change of thought here. I believe I've covered them sufficiently in two previous blog entries: here and here. Suffice it to say, I will no longer be such an unconditional defender as before. Rather, from now on, I will defend the pope when he should be defended, but I may choose to criticise him when he should be criticised. I know there are other Catholic media on the Internet who disagree with this approach, and believe we should keep silent when the pope errors. I respect their perspective, and admire their loyalty. That may work well for them, but it does not work well for me. If I see a priest, bishop or even a pope, doing something that is in clear contradiction of Catholic teaching, I reserve my right (as a Catholic) to speak up and say something in criticism. I also reserve my right to keep silent, as prudence may dictate, from time to time. There is a time to speak, and a time to keep silent. I reserve my right to both.
Having said all that, I will clarify now that I don't exactly know what to think of Pope Francis. I do believe he has surrounded himself with some advisers who are questionable. I think some of the "off the cuff" statements he's made were at times damaging to the Church. I am disappointed with the way he's handled a traditional Franciscan order. I wholeheartedly believe he put the wrong people in charge at the Extraordinary Synod on the Family. I agree with Cardinal Burke that his failure to clearly define his own positions on the matters, discussed at the synod, has (up to this point) harmed the synod and the Church. Truth be told, I am worried about the direction he is leading the papacy and the Catholic Church in general. On the other hand, I also believe Pope Francis has done some very good things too. I think he's made some very good decisions (especially on the Personal ordinariates for Anglicans), and has called out some secular powers (especially in the economic realm) which needed to be called out. I admire his courage, and his devotion to Mary. I especially like the way he talks about the devil in his regular sermons, and reminds the Church that the devil is real, and is prowling about, seeking the ruin of souls. I am at times impressed with his personal candour. I like his desire to reform the Curia. I applaud him for encouraging our bishops to sell their mansions and large cars, and I especially applaud him for leading by example on that. So in an attempt to be balanced here, I want to say that I think Pope Francis has good intentions, and is trying to be a good pope. I think he is succeeding in some areas, but is failing in others. Unfortunately, the areas he's been failing in lately, happen to be some of the most important aspects of his job title. I also believe Pope Francis is a man who is not afraid to accept criticism (when it is warranted) and is capable of pivoting when needed, to correct matters that need to be corrected. So all in all, I believe the pope is human, he does make mistakes, and he can correct them. This is important to point out, because we Catholics must all understand that our leaders are human -- even the pope -- and that being human does not automatically disqualify a pope or nullify a papacy. I recall another pope, of recent memory, committing a huge blunder, for all the world to see. When in a misguided and imprudent gesture of inter-religious dialogue, he actually kissed a Koran. This was a scandalous event to every Catholic around the world, and a confusing one to every Muslim. He shouldn't have done it. I think he later realised that it was a mistake, and he never did it again. That man is now a Saint, not because of his human errors as pope, but because of the holiness in which he lived his life. He is Saint John Paul II, and it is his Catechism, the one he commissioned and approved as pope, that I now use as my standard of Catholic faith. Indeed, it was this contribution he made to the Church, the Catechism, that brought me into the Catholic Church as a convert. So we have to step back and look at these things in perspective. Popes are human. They make mistakes. They can learn from their mistakes, and they can change to correct them. So this is my hope and prayer for Pope Francis.
Many people are under the false impression that popes are always infallible. This is not true. The Catholic Church teaches that a pope is only infallible when he intends to be, by stating so, and speaking from the Chair of Peter (ex cathedra). Just to give you some perspective, this has only happened twice in the last 150 years. Most popes never exercise their gift of infallibility. Yes, they are allowed to be human. We need to give Pope Francis some space to be a human and work these things out.
Now on to this business about popes and antipopes. An antipope is a term that is used almost exclusively by Catholics. The prefix "anti-" comes from Greek origin, and has a few meanings. The most common meaning is "opposite of" or "opposed to." However, in the context of religious figures, such as the pope for example, it would mean "false" or "impostor." So an anti-pope is a "false pope," or an "impostor pope," meaning not the real pope. (NOTE: an anti-pope is not the same as an anti-christ or the Antichrist. I've already explained in my book Catholicism for Protestants, that it is impossible for a pope figure, whether real or false, to be the anti-christ. It makes no logical sense.) Now an anti-pope is not just some kind of theoretical thing. It really can happen, and indeed, it has happened before. There are examples in history when men have sit on the Chair of Peter who were not the true and actual Successor of Peter. In all cases, the matter was eventually corrected. Probably the worst example in history came in AD 1378-1417 with the Occidental Schism (or "Western Schism") when three men reigned as "pope" simultaneously. Only one of them was the real pope (Gregory XII), while the other two were antipopes (John XXIII and Benedict XIII). The schism was so great that it eventually had to be resolved with an Ecumenical Church Council (Council of Constance, AD 1414-1418) in which the two antipopes were deposed, and the real pope abdicated (resigned or retired) for the good of the Church. A new pope was elected, and the crisis was resolved. There have been other antipopes throughout Church history, but this was probably the most serious case. We haven't experienced any serious antipopes in recent Church history. There have been a few non-serious antipopes in recent history, but I say non-serious for a reason. Nobody takes them seriously. The most recent one is Pope Michael, who lives with his mother in Jackson County, Kansas. You can watch a full feature-length video on him here. While this may seem humorous at first, keep in mind that this person is a real antipope, who has opposed the papacy of three legitimate popes: Saint John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis. This may seem like silly business, but this man does have a following (small as it may be) of people who he is leading into error. Part of what makes this humorous is the location of the man and the circumstances surrounding him. Imagine if you will that instead of Kansas, he lived in Paris, Berlin or even Rome! How many more followers would he have then? Imagine, if you will, that instead of speaking with an American English country drawl, he spoke eloquently in three or four different languages! How many more followers would he have then? Imagine, if you will, that instead of operating within the sphere of a few radical traditionalists, he was actually and ordained priest, and rose to the level of bishop, and even cardinal, before being declared "pope!" How many followers would he have then!?! My point here is that while antipopes can start out as a joke, they can turn into something much more serious depending on the circumstances.
Then of course we must address those circumstances that led to the creation of this Kansas antipope -- Pope Michael. There are groups of people whom I have labelled "Catholic Fundamentalists." Some people like to call them "Radical Traditionalists" or "Rad-Trads" for short. These are Catholics who operate OUTSIDE of the Catholic Church. Unlike regular Traditional Catholics, who stay within the Church, love the traditional Latin liturgy, and promote clarity of Catholic doctrine; Catholic Fundamentalists (or Rad-Trads) often separate themselves from authorised Catholic jurisdictions. These groups are called "sedevacantists." It's a word that comes from two Latin words: sede meaning "chair" and vacanti meaning "vacant." Literally translated, the word means "vacant chair." In other words, these people believe there is no pope. In fact, they believe the last pope was Pius XII, who died in 1958. These people believe the Chair of Peter has been vacant ever since then, and that every pope since Pius XII has been an antipope, including the current Pope Francis.
Now any rational person, who understands Catholicism, can see this sedevacantist conspiracy belief system is absolutely nuts! For if it is true that the Chair of Peter has been vacant since 1958, it means we have no legitimate cardinals anymore! Without cardinals we have no simple way to elect a new pope. The papacy is essentially dead. Unless, of course, you happen to have found a way to elect a new pope without cardinals, which is what a small group of sedevacantists did in Kansas, giving us the antipope -- Pope Michael.
Now don't get me wrong. There are many good and holy people who are sedevacantists. I've met more than a few. However, you have to understand, these people are living in a mental construct that makes no logical sense when you get right down to it. After talking with these people, it isn't long before you discover that their arguments (creative as they may be at times) are rooted primarily in emotion. They just can't understand how the Catholic Church could be so messed up today unless there is a conspiracy of some kind. They wrongly assume that the problems in the Church must be due to the lack of a legitimate pope, and so they rationalise their sedevacantism. When you stop and think about it. The antipope in Kansas -- Pope Michael -- is the only logical resolution to the 1958 sedevacantism conspiracy theory. That's how people fall for it. That's why the antipope in Kansas has any kind of a following at all. Most sedevacantists realise this is ridiculous, and don't follow Pope Michael. Yet they still have a problem and they know it. If there has been no legitimate pope since 1958, how do we get a new one now?
That's their problem, because thankfully, I am not a sedevacantist, so I don't have to worry about it. I believe all the popes elected in Rome since 1958 were real popes, as do 99.9% of all those who call themselves "Catholic." The question has been raised however, in more than one recent message to me, "what if" we get another antipope in our lifetime?
HOW TO IDENTIFY...
The first thing we have to do is understand how to identify an antipope. It's not always easy. It could involve heresy, but it doesn't have to. For example, you could get a perfectly orthodox Roman Catholic as an antipope. It's happened before. In such cases, there would be something wrong with the election process. In ages past, sometimes conclaves were put under political pressure from the state. This can result in the election and instalment of an antipope. Or it may have nothing to do with the election process at all. It could simply be a failure, by the man who was elected pope, to fulfil the role of his office. This could be done by extreme corruption or heresy. That's not to say that legitimate popes can't be corrupt. They can be, and we've had our share in history. However, the surefire giveaway of an antipope is known heresy. You see, it is possible for a legitimate pope to believe heresy. It's even possible for a legitimate pope to act on heresy. Yes, it's even possible for a legitimate pope to speak about heresy in candid "off the cuff" remarks. However, it is IMPOSSIBLE for a legitimate pope to actively teach heresy to the faithful while exercising his pastoral role of the entire Church as pope. This is what the Holy Spirit guards the legitimate pope against. So, if we have a man in the papacy, who issues an OFFICIAL encyclical, or edict of some sort, that mandates the belief in a heresy, then we have an antipope.
Here's the good news about that. When it comes to identifying an antipope, it is NOT the responsibility of the laity. Granted, lay Catholics should be watchful of such things, but in the end, it is not our responsibility to decide who is an antipope, anymore than it is our responsibility to decide who is a legitimate pope. Those responsibilities fall squarely on the shoulders of Catholic bishops -- particularly cardinals and archbishops. Our responsibilities as laity, deacons and priests, is to simply look to our local bishop or ordinary for spiritual guidance. Granted, we should compare everything our leaders say with the Scriptures and the Catechism of course, as we should always be diligent, but we must understand that the role of identifying an antipope is their burden to carry -- not ours. It would be inappropriate (and reckless) to take this burden upon ourselves. We have not been given the responsibility, or the gifts of the Holy Spirit, to make this determination. By judging for ourselves if the man in the Vatican is an antipope, we are behaving like Protestants, by taking spiritual matters (of great importance) into our own hands. If you're worried about the man in the Vatican being an antipope, you need to look to your local bishop or ordinary for guidance. Does he believe he's an antipope too? Do his brother bishops believe he's an antipope? If not, then there's a good chance you're wrong, and your fears are unwarranted.
HOW IT WILL BE RESOLVED...What do faithful Catholic laypeople do during this time? The answer is simple. We pray. We offer rosaries. We visit the blessed sacrament. We attend mass. We go to confession. All and all, we just do the same thing we always do. That's how we handle it. Then we wait, watch and see. If there is a schism, we prayerfully wait, watch and see who the authentic new pope is. Then once that is known, we align ourselves accordingly, if possible. If it's not possible, we just wait, watch and see some more. In time, the schism will end, because Jesus promised the Gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church.
If an antipope should arise anytime in the near (or distant) future, the problem will be resolved in some similar way to how it was resolved in ages past. In a worst case scenario, an ecumenical council of the whole Catholic Church will be called, as we saw with the Council of Constance in AD 1414-1418. A more likely scenario would be an emergency conclave by the majority of cardinals. They will simply declare the current occupant of the Chair of Peter an antipope, and elect a new pope. That's it. Done. That's all there is to it. Now I would expect such an act would be followed by some general confusion for a while, but as soon as the dust settles, the majority of the world's bishops would realign with the new pope, and the antipope would eventually be forced to resign due to political and religious pressures. In these days of lightning-fast mass communication, I imagine those political and religious pressures would accumulate rather quickly, forcing a quick resignation as a result. If not, well, we'll just have two "popes" for a while, until things start to sort themselves out. In time the antipope will be easy to identify, as well as the authentic pope.
I think what has so many people worked up is simply the times in which we live. Modernism, and it's bastard child moral relativism, has taken over the Western world since the 1960s onward. Modernism and moral relativism have not only transformed our society, but they have also infected all of Christianity as well. Many mainline Protestant denominations have completely succumbed to its influence. This explains the reason for the rise of Evangelical Protestantism. Evangelicalism is really nothing more than an organised exodus from the mainline Protestant denominations. Those denominations went liberal during the 1960s through present, and as a result, many of their members bolted to more conservative Evangelical churches. My family is a perfect example of this. My father was a Lutheran, and came from generations of Lutherans before him. My mother was an American Baptist (a more traditional type). Both left their background to become Evangelicals in the 1990s. Why? In part, it was an exodus from their previous denominations going liberal. We must keep in mind, that the larger Evangelicalism gets, it only reflects how rapidly mainline Protestant denominations are shrinking due to liberal modernism. The Catholic Church has not been immune from the influence of liberal modernism either. Indeed, it would seem it's affected some of our theologians for about 100 years now. Then about 40 to 60 years ago, it got into our seminaries, and from there it's blossomed into every diocese in the West. However, not all priests and bishops have been entirely corrupted by it. As we saw in the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, there was still a majority willing to stand up for authentic Catholic teaching. I think the same can be said of most Catholic bishops, who up until now have been a silent majority. Considering what happened at the synod, I don't think they'll be silent much longer. The Extraordinary Synod on the Family may have been a turning point in 50 years of liberal tyranny within the Catholic Church. There may still be a long fight ahead of us, but I think October 13, 2014 will be remembered as the day the faithful Catholic remnant began to fight back.
We are living in a tumultuous time in Church history, and Western history too, because Western history is Church history. This is a tempest, a great storm, that will sink many ships (Christian denominations), but the greatest ship (which is the Roman Catholic Church) will not sink. It may get tossed about by the waves. Some of its crew may even be swept overboard, but I tell you, this Barque of Peter will not sink! It cannot sink, because we have the assurance from Christ himself that it cannot. (The Gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.) If you're getting seasick, or are having difficulty hanging on, then get down below deck. Bury yourself in prayer, study, reparations and the sacraments. You'll be safe there. In time this storm, like all others before it, will subside. Yes, this may be the worst storm we've seen in a long time (since the Arian heresy), but even that storm abated eventually. No storm can last forever. When the sun finally pierces the clouds, and the waves settle, this great Barque of Peter will find safe harbour again. Some smaller ships (Protestant denominations) will sink, but this great ship will not. We have our Lord's assurance on that. So please everyone, just settle down, get back to basics, and start praying for our Lord's victory in his Church. A storm is always most intense just before it ends.
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