The arguments in his defense don’t stand the test of time
In the wake of Bishop Joseph Strickland’s removal by Francis, the question of Francis’ own status has resurfaced. Is he really the pope? Or is he an imposter or an anti-pope or something worse?
When the question was initially raised years ago, quite a few Catholic theologians and commentators came to Francis’ defense. They quoted scripture, canon law, and past theologians, and they seemed quite confident that they were right and that critics of Francis didn’t know what they were talking about.
But, as the years passed and as Francis’ appointments, actions, and pronouncements became more obviously out of line with Catholic teaching, many of the arguments in defense of his legitimacy began to wear thin.
One frequently-used argument was that the although Francis seemed to flirt with heresy, he never went over the line because…well, because, as pope, he was being protected by the Holy Spirit from falling into grave error. As Jeffrey Mirus observed in one of his columns, “the Holy Spirit through the charism of infallibility, makes it impossible for a pope to bind the whole Church to error.”
But this is a circular argument. It assumes as true the thing that has to be proven—namely, that Francis is really the pope. But, as Francis continues to rewrite the faith along heterodox lines, Catholics will be forced to reconsider the role of the Holy Spirit in all this. If Francis is really the pope it must mean that the Holy Spirit does not provide nearly as much guidance to popes as Catholics have supposed. If Francis is really the pope, it means that the Holy Spirit gives popes much more leeway than many of us had imagined.
The oft-used argument that there have been several bad popes (about thirty) has the same effect. If the Spirit permits bad popes to be elected, then it must mean that the Cardinal-electors have more freedom to make a mess than is commonly thought.
But if the Holy Spirit permits the election of bad popes, why are we so sure that he would prevent the election of a false pope? Does he ensure that the majority of cardinals will be immune to deception or self-deception or to political pressure—or blackmail?
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