A Catholic man and woman are validly joined in holy matrimony.
At some point, the man abandons his wife.
No annulment is obtained.
The man, still validly wed, proposes marriage to another woman; managing to deceive even their pastor into believing that he is single.
Marriage vows are exchanged at the altar with the pastor as witness, and the “newlywed” couple is widely embraced by the entire community as man and wife.
QUESTION: Is the couple validly married?
ANSWER: No, the conditions for a valid marriage, in spite of the convincing outward appearance to the contrary, did not exist.
We might sum up the general principle being applied in this case as follows:
An act of deception, no matter how cleverly conceived or convincingly executed, cannot change the objective reality of a given situation.
Needless to say, this principle applies always and everywhere; i.e., there are no exceptional cases where it does not apply.
So far so good?
Now let’s consider an analogous hypothetical scenario:
A certain cardinal is validly elected pope.
At some point thereafter, enemies of the pope secretly pressure him via threats of harm, perhaps either to himself or to the Church, in order to force his resignation.
The pope acquiesces to this pressure and declares his intent to resign the Office of Peter.
The resignation is invalid, of course, given that “it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely.” (See 1983 Code of Canon Law, Canon 332 §2)
The pope, still the valid occupant of the Office of Peter, manages to convince the faithful – both laity and hierarchy – that the See of Rome is vacant.
A conclave assembles and promptly elects another cardinal who is then presented to the world as the new pope, and he is widely embraced by the entire community as the Holy Roman Pontiff.
QUESTION: Is cardinal #2 the pope?
ANSWER: No, the conditions for a valid conclave, in spite of the convincing outward appearance to the contrary, did not exist.
Now let’s set our sights on reality:
There are any number of reasons to suspect that the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI was in some way forced. Whether or not you see them, stick with me here…
Oh, but Benedict said that his decision was freely made!
Yes, he did, but as Cardinal Walter Brandmüller recently acknowledged:
“The simple declaration of free resignation on the part of the person in question [the pope] is not enough, because depending on the circumstances that statement could easily be forced, and the resignation therefore invalid.”
I’ve had the pleasure of debating this situation with some well-informed and intelligent friends who will readily concede that the circumstances of Benedict’s resignation suggest that it may very well have been forced.
They insist, however, that even if it was forced and technically invalid, the simple fact that a moral unanimity of the Church has since accepted (and continues to treat) Francis as pope provides “dogmatic certainty” that he is, in fact, the pope.
In other words, even if the See of Rome was not truly vacant as conclave 2013 assembled, they firmly believe that Jorge Bergoglio is now the valid occupant of the Office of Peter.
Look, I don’t know for certain that Benedict acted under duress, but what I do know is that an act of deception, no matter how cleverly conceived or convincingly executed, cannot change the objective reality of a given situation.
To suggest otherwise in this case is to imagine that a forced resignation can be valid (i.e., God will remove the papacy from the extorted pope) under the solitary condition that the crime is carried out in such a way as to fool a moral unanimity of people.
Sorry, I’m not buying it.
At this, let’s take a closer look at this claim of “dogmatic certainty” arising from Francis’ acceptance to see if it holds up to scrutiny.
It is a matter of dogmatic certainty that a man once made pope remains pope until such time as either he dies, validly resigns, or is deposed (which has never happened).
No one contests this.
If my friends are correct, then what we would have in this case, at best, are two competing dogmatic certainties, and that, my friends, cannot be; i.e., one of them does not apply in every conceivable situation, most notably, the present one.
My friends have cited the writings of certain venerable theologians in order to demonstrate the “dogmatic certainty” that they believe applies in the present case.
On close inspection, however, one will find that none of said writings speak to the specific circumstances of a conclave assembling under false pretenses; a situation that is not altogether unprecedented.
On April 7, 1378, less than two weeks after the death of Pope Gregory XI, the cardinals who were present in Rome assembled in conclave and validly elected the man who would be known as Pope Urban VI.
For various and perhaps even good reasons, Pope Urban was unpopular with the College of Cardinals.
So, on September 20th of that same year, many of these same cardinals assembled in conclave and proceeded to elect another man who took the name of Clement VII.
History clearly recognizes Clement as an anti-pope; the first of the Western Schism.
This recognition is not based upon the fact that only a portion of the Church recognized and accepted him as pope. (Indeed, the same could have been said of Urban VI thanks to the confusion that followed).
The fact that Clement was not universally accepted was merely a sign of the objective underlying truth that he was not a true pope.
Likewise, when a moral unanimity of the Church accepts a man as pope it is also merely a sign of the objective underlying truth that the man is pope.
NB: In neither case does this sign [of acceptance or non-acceptance] create the underlying truth; it simply reflects it, and the truth, whatever it may be, in no way depends on it.
As such, even if a moral unanimity of the Church had embraced Clement VII as pope in 1378, Pope Urban VI still would have been pope and Clement a pretender.
With all of this said, the reason Clement VII was an anti-pope is very simple and entirely objective; the See of Rome was not vacant when the cardinals proposed to elevate him to the papacy.
The subjective intentions of the cardinals that proposed to elect him – good, bad or otherwise – are irrelevant; i.e., even if every last one of them was somehow convinced that the Chair of St. Peter was vacant as they met, it would not matter one iota.
In light of the points raised here, my interlocutors have responded:
God will not allow the Church (again, a moral unanimity) to follow a false pope. This would be tantamount to the ‘gates of Hell prevailing’!
To which I would point out two things:
One, we know that God did allow arguably 2/3 of the Church to follow a false pope at certain points during the Western Schism and the gates of Hell did not prevail then.
So, why not 7/8 of the Church? How much is too much?
In 1958, if you were to describe the Second Vatican Council and the destruction of the liturgy that followed to a devout Catholic, he likely would have laughed it off, saying, God will not allow it as this would be tantamount to the ‘gates of Hell prevailing’!
If little else is crystal clear these days, it’s that God is willing to allow far more evil to enter the Church than most of us can imagine.
Secondly, my friends are essentially insisting that God will allow certain devious men to force His hand in removing the papacy from His Vicar if only they are crafty enough to extort the pope into resignation with sufficient stealth.
Is anyone really willing to hang their hat on this proposition?
In conclusion, make of these observations what you will, but just know that to insist that Francis’ acceptance provides “dogmatic certainty” that he is pope – in spite of any shenanigans that may have taken place with respect to Benedict’s resignation – you are also necessarily making claims that fly in the face of both faith and reason.
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