The story of John XXII: A revisionist hoax

As John Henry Cardinal Newman rightly observed, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” In practice, it’s not so much that Protestants are unwilling to wade in historical waters, but rather that they are wont to revise history in order to justify their faulty ecclesiology.  

The same can be said for Catholic tradservatives who appear to operate under the assumption that there is nothing whatsoever that Francis can preach, teach, say, or do that will in any way jeopardize his claims to membership in the Church (and thus his claims to the papacy), and this for the simple reason that the majority of self-described Catholics, ill-formed in the faith though they may be, think he’s their pope.  

These, my friends, are the true hyperpapalists of our day, and their penchant for revising history is well summed up in the oft invoked phrase, “Yes, but we’ve had bad popes before!”

On August 19, 2022,  Eric Sammons, Editor-in-Chief of Crisis Magazine, published an interview with Dr. Peter Kwasniewski wherein the two men provided a case study in tradservative revisionist history as they discussed how “the controversy surrounding Pope Francis has led many Catholics to rethink the papacy itself.”

It is a lengthy interview. You can watch it on YouTube, or if one prefers, a transcript is available on the Crisis website

Here, we will focus mainly on Dr. Kwasniewski’s twisting of the historical record as he attempted to demonstrate that there is a precedent for the heresy riddled magisterium of Francis, thereby supposedly justifying his fellow tradservatives’ un-Catholic posture relative to the man they call “pope.”  

First, some context.  

In the portion of the interview that I wish to highlight, Dr. Kwasniewski is attempting to support the following claim:

The Holy Spirit protects them [the popes] from irrevocably committing the Church to error and disaster …  But just that the Pope is not going to be able to wreck the Church, and he’s not going to be able to bind people to error permanently. That’s what is guaranteed. Everything else, as far as I’m concerned, is fair game.

If nothing else, one can appreciate the candor. 

Dr. Kwasniewski is making it known that he does not consider a “Church” that authoritatively teaches grave errors that endanger the souls of the faithful – an impossibility according to centuries of papal magisterium – to be “wrecked.” 

In his mind, evidently, this kind of “Church” is perfectly compatible with the guiding presence of the Holy Ghost in the Church, Our Lord’s prayer that Peter’s faith not fail, and His promise to be with us to the end of the age, provided only that the heresies being taught are not presented as irrevocably binding and permanent. 

As for the authoritative teaching of Holy Mother Church leading souls to Hell, apparently Dr. K does not consider this a “disaster” but rather a real possibility since, apart from things properly infallible, “all bets are off.”

It’s a stunning admission. The idea that one must be on guard against the authoritative teachings of the Church of Rome and her pope, inasmuch as they just might be poisonous, is thoroughly Protestant.

In any case, that’s the claim that Dr. Kwasniewski sought to defend in his interview with Eric Sammons when he pointed to the story of Pope John XXII – who held an erroneous view of the beatific vision – as an example of how a pope can teach serious error that requires faithful Catholics to do doctrinal battle against the Roman Pontiff. 

Dr. Kwasniewski states:

And take Pope John XXII, I mean, he’s one example, he’s not the only example, but he preached false doctrine. He preached an error, let’s just say he preached an error about the afterlife. It was a serious error, however, not just some kind of incidental, trivial thing. And I mean, he said that ‘the souls of the just would not be admitted to the beatific vision until the end of time.’ 

Well, that’s a pretty serious error. And it certainly flies in the face of what had been taught earlier, and then what was subsequently dogmatically defined by his successor, Benedict XII. 

But what happened when John XXII preached that? Did everybody just of bow their heads and fold their hands and say, ‘We have to accept that. We better start rewriting the catechism’? Did they say, ‘Well, that’s wrong, but out of respect, out of religious submission of intellect and will, we have to go along with what the Pope was saying’?

No, they opposed him. His theologians, Dominicans, Franciscan, they objected to him. They said, ‘This is false. You have to recant this.’ There was a king who got involved, the king of France, who actually threatened the Pope and said, ‘If you don’t retract this, you better retract this or else.’ 

So, what really happened here and how did John XXII react to his interlocutors? 

For a partial answer, we will turn to popular tradservative historian Professor Roberto de Mattei, who in 2015 penned an article entitled, A Pope who Fell into Heresy, a Church that Resisted, wherein he, like Kwasniewski, attempted to draw similarities between John XXII and Francis. (Don’t laugh. They’re serious.)  

De Mattei writes: 

In three sermons he [John XXII] gave in the Cathedral of Avignon between November 1st 1331 and January 5th 1332, he sustained the view that the souls of the just, even after their perfect purification in Purgatory, did not enjoy the Beatific Vision of God. Only after the resurrection of the flesh and the general judgment would they be raised by God to the vision of the Divinity.

Get that? John XXII gave three sermons in Avignon that contained a solitary doctrinal error on a theological question as yet unsettled much less defined. This is what the vaunted historian considers a “pope falling into heresy,” an event that supposedly sheds light on the alleged pontificate of Francis.  

One can just imagine Jorge Bergoglio – who manifests more heresy than this on a typical day before lunchtime – saying, “You think that’s something? Here, hold my yerba mate.” 

Professor de Mattei also appears rather keen to distort the historical record in service to his tradservative bias. He writes:

On the eve of John XXII’s death, he stated that he had expressed himself simply as a private theologian, without any binding to the magisterium he held. Giovanni Villani reports in his Chronicle, the retraction the Pope made on his thesis on December 3rd 1334, the day before his death, at the solicitation of Cardinal Dal Poggetto, his nephew, and some other relatives.

The implication here is obvious: Readers are being led to believe that John XXII (like Jorge) was intractable in his error – from the latter days of 1331 until just prior to his death in late 1336 – and his 11th hour turnabout took place only because he was pressed to recant before meeting the Lord. 

The Catholic Encyclopedia, however, tells a different story:

John appointed a commission at Avignon to study the writings of the Fathers, and to discuss further the disputed question. 

Pope John XXII, far from being immovable in his opinion, treated it as an open question. He requested an examination of the beatific vision from the Dominican theologian Durandus of Saint-Pourçain, whose report, De visione Dei quam habent animae sanctorum ante judicium generale, was presented to the pope in 1333. 

The Catholic Encyclopedia goes on:

In a consistory held on 3 January, 1334, the pope explicitly declared that he had never meant to teach aught contrary to Holy Scripture or the rule of faith and in fact had not intended to give any decision whatever. 

So, more than eleven months before he died, John XXII openly declared before his cardinals that he never intended to render a magisterial decision on the matter. Bear in mind, there is no indication that this is the first time he ever articulated his intentions as such, it obviously was not, otherwise he wouldn’t have appointed a theological commission to study the question at hand. 

What it does indicate very clearly is that it was hardly a death bed confession as Professor de Mattei suggests. Moreover, the behavior of John XXII bears no resemblance at all to that of Jorge “I will not say a word” Bergoglio who flatly ignored the dubia submitted by four cardinals, as well as numerous other entreaties to affirm the true faith.

Recall what Dr. Kwasniewski said about John XXII’s erroneous statement: “Well, that’s a pretty serious error. And it certainly flies in the face of what had been taught earlier, and then what was subsequently dogmatically defined by his successor, Benedict XII.”

I want to give Dr. K the benefit of the doubt as to his sincerity – meaning, when he makes an absurd claim, I prefer to think that he does so in genuine ignorance – but he certainly makes it difficult. 

The doctrinal issue at hand as John XXII preached was still a matter of debate, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia it was a “disputed question,” and it was one that – as Dr. K himself acknowledged – wasn’t defined until after his death.  

And yet, even knowing this, he still points to this incident as if it amounted to a denial of “what had been taught earlier,” and was in some way similar to Jorge Bergoglio’s outright denials of Catholic doctrine on matters long ago settled. (NB: Dr. K has attached his name to no less than two public statements flatly accusing Francis of heresy, that is, the rejection of infallible doctrine!)

As for the mode of expression, John XXII made no attempt whatsoever to teach his erroneous understanding of the beatific vision authoritatively; none, rather, he preached it in three sermons over the course of roughly two months.

And what sort of doctrinal weight does Dr. Kwasniewski assign to such things as papal sermons? 

Given his attempt to suggest that a solitary error in John XXII’s preaching is somehow comparable to the multiple heresies and blasphemies to be found in Francis’ [allegedly] authoritative teachings, one might assume that he considers the doctrinal weight of a papal homily to be rather substantial. As such, readers may be surprised to discover what he really thinks about papal preaching:

“Look, everyone knows a papal homily is barely magisterial,” Kwasniewski wrote in a September 27th Facebook post about Jorge’s latest ramblings. “It’s about as magisterial as a scientist’s telephone call to a research assistant.”

So, John XXII erred on an open theological question in what amounts to a telephone call to an associate. 

This is what Peter Kwasniewski and Roberto de Mattei consider a fitting precedent for a Holy Roman Pontiff [sic] who routinely leads souls to Hell via his authoritative magisterium.

When history isn’t on one’s side, there are two options: Either revise one’s opinion to reflect reality or revise the history. 

The entire tradservative industry, to its utter shame, rests upon the latter.