Happily not in Communion with Francis

Crisis Magazine recently published an article written by its editor-in-chief, Eric Sammons, titled: “In Communion—But Not Happy—With Pope Francis.”

Popular theologian, author, and speaker, Dr. Peter Kwasniewski – who evidently also considers himself to be “in communion but not happy with Francis” – applauded Sammons’ efforts on social media, saying:

I’m very glad Eric Sammons wrote this article. There is so much hyperventilation about what it means to “be in communion” with the pope. I think Sammons makes a good case that the meaning of it is fairly minimal. I think the benefit of Sammons’ approach (and, after all, it is only a short article) is that he accepts a certain messiness in the situation. 

Note the incongruities: The reality of being in communion with the pope is, according to Kwasniewski’s review of Sammons’ treatment, “fairly minimal.” At one and the same time, however, he suggests that one does well to “accept a certain messiness” in the relationship.   

This brand of “yes-but” tension is a common feature of tradservative discourse as its adherents try to make sense of the present crisis by squaring the conciliar circle, pledging allegiance to the perennial doctrine of the Church in one breath, whilst swiftly rewriting it to fit Occupied Rome’s (allegedly) Catholic bona fides in the next. Some common examples include: 

  • The Church is a Holy Mother, but her authoritative teachings can at times be as poison to her children.
  • The Novus Ordo isn’t a Catholic rite with Apostolic roots, but it comes from, and belongs to, the Church.

In the case presently under discussion:

  • The man currently claiming to be pope manifests a false faith with which we can have no part, but faithful Catholics are, and must remain, in communion with him.

The good news is that no such contradictions exist, i.e., the traditional, long held doctrines of the Church in these matters are as true today as ever.

Like Dr. Kwasniewski, I too am very glad that Eric Sammons wrote this article. He has provided all concerned with a good opportunity to reconsider (or consider for the first time) the Magisterium’s consistent teaching on the matter of unity vis-à-vis the pope.

I encourage readers to access Sammons’ article via the hyperlink above for a more thorough reading. Here, we will consider just a relative handful of relevant excerpts. 

After reciting a partial list of Bergoglian errors and offenses, Sammons opines:   

This unseemly situation can lead to some real soul-searching. As Catholics we are pre-programmed to respect, even like, our popes. But if we are being honest, Francis is a difficult man either to like or respect. His antagonism towards traditional and orthodox Catholics indicates that the feeling is mutual. Such distaste leads to the inevitable question: how can a Catholic be in communion with the pope if he doesn’t want anything to do with him?

Insofar as the point is that communion with the Roman Pontiff has nothing to do with the man’s personality, Sammons is correct. When he attempts to explain what “in communion with the pope” actually means, however, he misses the mark: 

So what does “in communion with” mean? It represents a visible acknowledgment of the visible Church. In Protestantism’s invisible church, there is no real concept of “in communion with.” A Protestant simply attends the church he likes the best, and if he stops liking it, he leaves and attends another. He is simply a visible member of a local community of like-minded believers, while remaining in the ethereal “invisible church.” But for Catholics it’s quite different.

Let’s stop here for a moment. Evidently, Sammons hasn’t noticed that attending the church that one likes best is a near-universally accepted feature of the post-conciliar landscape. Most “full communion” Catholics, if honest, will readily admit to actively seeking out – and periodically changing – their preferred parish, preferred liturgy, and preferred priest. 

In other words, the concept of “in communion with” is no more “real” in the conciliar church (that is, among those who claim to be “in communion with Pope Francis”) than it is in the Protestant world. The reason for this, of course, is because neither one is Catholic, but I digress. 

Picking up where we left off…

But for Catholics it’s quite different. We believe that we are members of a visible and universal Church, which includes not only all Catholics today, but all Catholics throughout history and into the future—the saints and the sinners. That membership is a mystical reality brought about not by our like-mindedness, but by our shared partaking of Holy Communion.

We believe… Hold that thought.

As best I can tell, Sammons seems to be suggesting that being “in communion” is a visibly acknowledged reality for anyone who receives Holy Communion in a Catholic community (e.g., parish or chapel), in particular one that accepts as valid Bergoglio’s claim to the papacy.   

Communion. Membership. Visibility. 

Indeed, all of these things are interrelated, and yet the attentive reader will notice that Sammons, after initially proposing to provide a definition of what “in communion” means, shifted focus before ever doing so. Instead, he changed the question to how is membership in the Church brought about?

His answer to this new question is also off the mark.

Membership in the Mystical Body of Christ is brought about by Baptism, which necessarily places one “in communion” with the other members of the Church, including, of course, her head on earth, the pope.

This membership and communion, however, is not a permanent condition (otherwise the Protestants – read, the heretics – would have it). Rather, being, and remaining, “in communion” entails certain requirements and, very importantly, it must be – and by its very nature is – made manifest.  

Sammons hints at this when he subtly connects communion with the Church’s visibility, but he fails to provide a cogent explanation as to how they are related and how communion – another word for which is unity – is made visibleHe merely suggests (incorrectly) that membership is “brought about” by “our shared partaking of Holy Communion.” 

In truth, our participation in the same rites and sacraments is a visible sign, an outward manifestation, of our membership in the Church wherein communion – that is, unity of faith and charity – exists among the faithful. Of the reception of Holy Communion one can say that in addition to evincing unity, it nurtures and strengthens the bonds of faith and charity (i.e., communion) among the members of the Church, both with Christ and with one another. 

NB: This alone does not, however, bring about communion where none actually exists.

Case in point: Nancy Pelosi and others like her.

Simply saying “I am Catholic,” calling Francis “pope,” and walking up to receive the Blessed Sacrament at the Vatican (even if she had done so at a Traditional Latin Mass) is not enough to either bring about, or testify to, actual communion with all Catholics today, throughout history, and into the future. 

Obviously, something more is required.

Prior to taking a stab at defining what “in communion” means, Sammons set about dispelling misconceptions that, to be frank, are held by pretty much no one.  

First, it doesn’t mean to be “in agreement with” someone on every point of view. After all, every practicing Catholic is currently in communion with every other practicing Catholic in the world, and I guarantee that these millions of Catholics have very divergent views on politics, economics, culture, and a whole host of other subjects.

OK, this much is obvious. Sammons continues:

And even more relevant, many of these practicing Catholics likely hold what are heretical views. I would imagine that there are a large number of Catholics, for example, who if asked to explain the Trinity would give what are actually heretical answers out of ignorance or misunderstanding. But we are still in communion.

Even more relevant? The suggestion that one’s ability to explain a complex theological principle is germane to a discussion about membership and communion is, to be as charitable as humanly possible, patently absurd. So much so that no further commentary is necessary.

At this, let’s return to the concept of we believe…

This one little phrase is the closest Sammons comes to touching on a necessary part of the answer concerning what “in communion with” actually means. Unfortunately, his entire article amounts to little more than an invitation for readers to join him in treating “we believe” as an exercise in channelling one’s inner Descartes:

I believe that I am in communion with Francis, therefore I am in communion with Francis! I say that I am in communion with Francis, therefore I am fulfilling my duty to be in communion with Peter!

A Catholic treatment of “in communion with”

Recall Sammons’ suggestion that “like-mindedness” is an essentially Protestant trait that has little to do with the Catholic understanding of being in communion with all Catholics throughout history and into the future… As we shall see, however, like-mindedness in the truths of the faith – and the outward manifestation of the same – is an essential element of communion. 

Our Lord, in His divine wisdom, ordained in His Church Unity of Faith; a virtue which is the first of those bonds which unite man to God, and whence we receive the name of the faithful – ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism’ (Eph. iv., 5). (cf Pope Leo XIII, Satis Cognitum, 6).

The bonds of unity (communion) are both internal (the theological virtues) and external (faith and charity). Both are necessary in order for communion to exist. 

NB: Where there is no external unity of faith, there is no communion.

So, what is “unity of faith” and in what does it consist?

Unity of faith is the agreement of minds in the same profession of faith, under the supreme Magisterium of the Church. (Salaverri, On the Church of Christ)

Teaching specifically about membership in the Church, Pope Pius XII writes:

Actually only those are to be included as members of the Church who have been baptized and profess the true faith … therefore in the true Christian community there is only one Body, one Spirit, one Lord, and one Baptism, so there can be only one faith … Now since its Founder willed this social body of Christ to be visible, the cooperation of all its members must also be externally manifest through their profession of the same faith… (Pope Pius XII, Mystici Corporis 22, 69) [Emphasis added]

NB: Those who openly profess a false faith that stands in opposition to the true faith – not simply by virtue of misunderstanding, ignorance, or lack of education – are not in the true Christian community, i.e., no communion exists between those persons and the actual members of the Church. 

This teaching could hardly be simpler, and yet Sammons writes:

To be out of communion with the successor of St. Peter [is] to separate oneself from the Body of Christ. But at the same time, to be a faithful Catholic means to doggedly adhere to the teachings of the Church as they have been handed on to us via Scripture and Tradition. So what happens when we are required to be in communion with someone who works to upend those teachings?

The answer to Sammons’ rhetorical, utterly illogical, question is obvious: 

The faithful are not, never have been, and never will be “required to be in communion” with any person who, far from professing the true faith, actually “works to upend those teachings.” The mere suggestion that one is required to, or even can, share external unity of faith with such a character is preposterous.  

Yes, but Pope Francis recites the same Creed! We, therefore, profess the same faith!

No, simply paying lip service to the Creed doesn’t suffice:

The practice of the Church has always been the same, as is shown by the unanimous teaching of the Fathers, who were wont to hold as outside Catholic communion, and alien to the Church, whoever would recede in the least degree from any point of doctrine proposed by her authoritative Magisterium. (Pope Leo XIII, Satis Cognitum 9)

Get that? The Church has always practiced… The unanimous teaching of the Fathers…

In other words, reject or otherwise reconfigure this teaching at your own peril; encourage others to do likewise, and you just might be fashioning your own millstone.

So, has Francis receded in the least degree from any point of doctrine proposed by her authoritative Magisterium?

Dr. Peter Kwasniewski evidently believes so, even going so far as to publicly accuse him of multiple counts of heresy! And yet he and Eric Sammons publicly profess to be “in communion” with him?

What these men seem not to recognize is that when one insists, “I am in communion with Francis,” it is tantamount to a public declaration stating, “I and Francis share unity of faith, not just internally, but externally!” 

I doubt that either Kwasniewski or Sammons are willing make just such an explicit declaration. The fact that they still insist that they are in communion with Francis only serves to demonstrate beyond any doubt whatsoever that their concept of what communion actually means is gravely deficient.

But… we are in communion with the Office of Peter, which is bigger than the man!

Sorry, that dog won’t hunt. Communion with the pope is communion with a person.

Since He was all wise He could not leave the body of the Church He had founded as a human society without a visible head … He never ceases Himself to guide the Church invisibly, though at the same time He rules it visibly, through him who is His representative on earth. (Pius XII, Mystici Corporis).

In other words, Our Lord Jesus Christ wills that there be a visible head of His Church on earth. The visible members of the Body are joined to the visible head, not the office. It is the pope, therefore, with whom the faithful are in communion. To substitute the office for the person, as though interchangeable, renders the head invisible, thus paradoxically destroying the office as Christ established it.

But some claim the office has been empty for a long time! What about them?

Whether or not such claims are true, the claims themselves are not incompatible with the nature of the papacy, nor with the indefectibility of the Church.

By all means God can permit that at some time or other the vacancy of the see be extended for a considerable time. (Cardinal Billot, Tractatus De Ecclesia Christi 5th Edition)

Sammons writes, “It can be difficult to accept today the hard teaching of the papacy and our need to be in communion with it.”

This attitude is utterly incompatible with a Catholic understanding of the papacy.

The “teaching of the papacy” is anything but hard! Communion with Peter isn’t a burden that one must strive to meet and maintain, it is the exact opposite; it is a comfort and a source of tremendous joy. The pope, as we shall see, is the rule of faith and principle of unity that makes it possible for even the simplest of the faithful (as well as those with a PhD) to peacefully avoid the poisonous food of error that ever threatens to endanger the soul.   

That being said, communion with the pope – that is, unity of faith and charity – does entail a certain obligation, namely, it concerns one’s commitment to his or her place in the superior-subject relationship that defines the papacy [see HERE], a relationship wherein the faithful (including lesser clergy) recognize and treat the pope as the “rule of faith.”   

The filial affection that one naturally has for the pope – even a cantankerous pope – is based upon this superior-subject relationship, one that inspires childlike trust in the pope as a Holy Father who, as our rule of faith, will never teach us or guide us in such a way as to endanger our souls.

In this case, “rule” denotes a standard or a means of measurement, like a ruler. The authoritative teaching of the pope, even when he does not intend to invoke the fullness of his authority to define infallibly, is that by which the faithful are easily able to gauge what represents the true faith and its application in every age and circumstance. 

Msgr. Van Noort explains:

There exists a twofold rule of faith: one remote and one proximate. The remote rule of faith is the Word of God (handed down in writing or orally), which was directly entrusted to the Church’s rulers that from it they might teach and guide the faithful. The proximate rule of faith, from which the faithful, one and all, are bound to accept their faith and in accordance with which they are to regulate it, is the preaching of the ecclesiastical magisterium. (Christ’s Church: Dogmatic Theology – Volume 2) 

It should go without say that the ecclesiastical magisterium refers to the bishops united with the pope, or the pope teaching on his own. The pope, therefore, is considered the proximate principle, or cause, of unity of faith.

Van Noort states further that the Church’s preaching is “an easy rule, one that can be observed by all alike, even the uneducated and unlettered.” 

Contrast this with the approach taken by those who, like Eric Sammons and Peter Kwasniewski, insist that they are “in communion with Francis,” but ultimately rely upon their own scholarship as the rule of faith, parsing even his authoritative teachings in order to determine for themselves what is safe and what is dangerous.

This type of behavior is antithetical to true communion with the pope. In other words, despite their claims of communion with Francis, their actions testify in no uncertain terms that they are not in communion with the man. Moreover, their actions testify to the fact that they do not truly accept the man as pope.

Much more could be written with regard to communion with the pope, but I will conclude by asking you to ponder the following before deciding whether or not you are in communion with “Pope” Francis, happily or not:

Are you prepared to publicly affirm that you and Francis share external unity of faith, i.e., will you testify before God and man that you profess the same faith as he, and that he is your rule of faith? Do you willingly accept as your faith the guidance and teaching that comes from Francis? Is this guidance and teaching that by which you regulate your faith in response to contemporary challenges?