I. There is legitimate disagreement among Catholics about Pope Francis
II. Religious submission takes for its object fallible authority
III. Insofar as Pope Francis manifestly denies the faith, I will resist him
IV. Insofar as Pope Francis confesses the faith, I submit to him
I. There is legitimate disagreement among Catholics on this point
During the great Western Schism, St. Vincent Ferrer backed the antipopes in Avignon, while St. Catherine of Siena supported the true popes in Rome. Both saints were utterly convinced and worked passionately to win over the faithful to their cause. If the saints disagreed over the status of the pope in a time of crisis, how much more will we sinners disagree in our time?
We live in evil days. It is a time in which, as Ratzinger once wrote, the Catholic faith is surrounded “with a fog of uncertainty” which has “hardly been seen before at any point in history.” We live at a time when bishops have rejected the whole faith and seek to subvert it. We must stand fast in the faith of our fathers and be willing to give our blood before we compromise a single letter of the faith. This is how our fathers conquered in their day, and this is how we will conquer in ours.
At the same time, we must permit disagreement where it is licit to do so. In this way truth and charity will be maintained. As we shall say later on for example, every Catholic is obliged to confess the dogma of hell, yet Catholics can disagree about whether the Holy Father has denied this dogma. Any disagreement on the latter point must not overshadow the former unity. Catholics must be able to unite over what is essential and disagree on what is doubtful with all humility and mildness, with patience, supporting one another in charity. Careful to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. iv. 2-3). At the same time, as St. Francis de Sales teaches in his section against slander, “you must speak freely in condemnation of the professed enemies of God and His Church, heretics and schismatics,—it is true charity to point out the wolf wheresoever he creeps in among the flock” (Devout Life, Ch. 29). Therefore let us proceed reasonably taking care we do not sin against truth nor charity.
II. Religious submission takes for its object fallible authority
As I stated in my confession of faith, I believe Jorge Bergoglio to be the valid Bishop of Rome as Francis I, to whom I submit with religious submission of mind and will. This type of submission is the normal, daily submission that every Catholic owes to the Roman Pontiff. This religious submission is given to non-infallible authority, and is a step below the assent of faith, given only to what is infallible.
Religious submission therefore is an action of the virtue of piety, defined by St. Thomas as rendering due honor and reverence to superiors. The highest piety is given to God alone, yet to every lesser authority submission is given according to its due mode. Thus anything taught by a bishop is at least Sententia Probabilis if not Communis, due solely its authoritative origin (See The Meaning of Catholic). But even Communis can be set aside for good reason. This good reason is the case in which the high authority of the hierarchy is opposed to the higher authority of God Himself or an infallible truth of the faith. And it is just so with each order of human authority.
Thus St. Alphonsus says that we “obey our confessors in everything which is not manifestly sinful,” (Serm. 4th Sun. after Easter). And again the Roman Catechism says that wives must yield to their husbands “a willing and ready obedience in all things not inconsistent with Christian piety” (2.7 Matrimony duties). And again regarding children, if “commands [of the parents] be wicked or unjust, they should not be obeyed, since in such a case they rule not according to their rightful authority, but according to injustice and perversity” (3.4 Parents).
Thus we see that religious submission to lawful authority is always conditional upon the principle that this authority is also subject to God. If ever an authority refuses to submit to God, as St. Thomas says, we cannot submit to it. This is according to the Scripture We must obey God rather than men (Acts v. 29).
But, as St. Alphonsus says, (ibid.) we cannot justify any refusal to submit unless it is manifest that such submission would be itself a sin. It must be manifest because what is manifest is beyond all judgement and doubt. That which is doubtful requires judgment from authority. Thus we cannot, upon our own judgment and opinion, set aside the lawful command of an authority. If, however, an authority is manifestly opposed to some higher authority, we must assent to the higher authority against him. In this we will contrast the assent of faith and the assent of religion, to which we now turn.
III. Insofar as Pope Francis manifestly denies the faith, I will submit to the higher authority of the faith
Catholic doctrine which has the theological note of De Fide obliges the Catholic to give the assent of faith. This assent is higher than religious submission because it submits to something as infallible, revealed by God and explicitly defined by the Church. Thus to refuse the assent of faith to a De Fide doctrine is a mortal sin against faith, whereas refusal of religious submission to authority is not always sinful as we have shown.
For example, it is De Fide dogma that the damned souls will receive eternal punishment (Ott, 509). The Athanasian Creed states that at the Final Judgment, “they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire” (cf. Mt. xxv. 45). This teaching is confirmed by numerous councils and defined by the Church beginning with the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople II (543) “If anyone says or holds that the punishment of the demons and of impious men is temporary, and that it will have an end at some time, that is to say, there will be a complete restoration of the demons or of impious men, let him be anathema”. Thus this dogma is infallible De Fide to which every Catholic is obliged to give the assent of faith under pain of mortal sin.
Now in reviewing the Holy Father’s two encyclicals, four apostolic exhortations, as well as Amoris Laetitia, Evangelium Gaudii and Misericordia et Misera, there is no mention (in this sense) of “Hell,” “Eternal Punishment” or “Eternal Condemnation.” But we do have this general principle contained in Amoris Laetitia, 297: “no one can be condemned forever (in perpetuum damnari), for that is not the logic of the Gospel. Here I am not speaking only of the divorced and remarried, but of everyone, in whatever situation they find themselves.” And again in a homily His Holiness declared “The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone for eternity” or in another place “God never condemns, he only loves and saves.”
In the context of Amoris Laetitia, His Holiness says that this principle—mens evangelii “mind of the Gospel”—applies to a particular concrete situation: since God does not condemn forever, the Church does not condemn forever. It would seem clear from his homilies as well that he believes this to be an eternal principle of the Gospel. To make matters more confusing, His Holiness has permitted a prominent Italian newspaper to report private statements ascribed to him, indicating that he denies eternal punishment but believes that damned souls are annihilated (the Vatican issued a vague response to this). He has said elsewhere that sinners must repent to avoid hell, but given all of these statements, the faithful can reasonably ask: Holy Father, what do you mean by “Hell”? It would appear reasonable to conclude that if God does not condemn eternally, then Pope Francis does not understand “Hell” as eternal condemnation.
Out of piety, we must always interpret the Holy Father in the best possible way. However, we cannot abandon reason while doing so. All that is necessary in these circumstances is for the Holy Father to provide a confession of faith to leave the matter beyond all doubt. Thus far, the Holy Father has refrained from doing so. As it stands, a reasonable and pious man may conclude that the Holy Father denies the dogma of hell. Thus insofar as he does deny the faith, I submit to the higher authority against him.
IV. I submit to Pope Francis insofar as he confesses the Catholic faith
Since early 2014, Catholics have repeatedly sought–directly or indirectly–a confession of faith from the pope, concerned about the spread of confusion among Catholics regarding this and other doctrines. This has happened at least thirty-five distinct times with only a single response from Pope Francis (albeit unofficial), when he was asked in person.
If a father tells his son to deny the faith, his son will be troubled in his heart. Refusing out of piety to believe that his father wants him to commit manifest sin, the son asks him: “Father, did you really mean that I should deny the faith?” When the father refuses to respond, the son, unless he denies reason, can only come to one of two conclusions: the father is negligent and does not care enough to clarify himself or the father in fact intends to deny the faith. These two conclusions are manifest from the application of reason.
Based on his refusal to provide a confession of faith regarding the many errors and heresies (including moral failures) he is accused of I can only conclude that the Holy Father is negligent or he intends to deny the faith. In either case, it is manifest that Pope Francis resists the faith – either indirectly through negligence or directly through subversion. Therefore in regard to Pope Francis I must exercise the virtue of caution. St. Thomas defines caution as a part of prudence, meaning using knowledge of the past to foresee and avoid evil. Now heresy is a very grave evil, which corrupts the soul, and it is for this reason, as we have seen, that the obligations of piety are set aside if they oppose the obligation of faith. Caution, therefore, leads me to prudently avoid submission to Pope Francis unless he is confessing the faith. At such a time as God sees fit to fully rectify the crisis in the Church, I will have less need of such caution. But until that time, I will confess the faith and submit to the Pope insofar as he submits to the faith, and resist him insofar as he resists the faith.
In the meantime, I submit to you, dear reader, for your own comments on the matter.
Timothy S. Flanders
Ratzinger as Pope Emeritus again notes this in his recent article “The Church and the Scandal of Sexual Abuse”
This is not to say that what is manifest to some may not be manifest to others, as we asserted regarding the saints in the Great Western Schism. Among us sinners, clear reason can be impeded by other factors such as sin, ignorance, or a disordered intellect.
Denz 411. For more references, see here.
The two exceptions are Laudato Si, 148: “any place can turn from being a hell on earth into the setting for a dignified life” and Gaudete, 115: “the unguarded tongue, set on fire by hell, sets all things ablaze (cf. Jas 3:6)” and in a morning meditation he states “perhaps there is the danger, the danger of continuing in this way [of sin], far away from the Lord for eternity. This is very bad!”
Maike Hickson, “Before Pope Francis was accused of heresy, Catholics reached out to him numerous times,” Life Site News, May 7, 2019
ST II-II q49 a8