The Traditionalist and the Pope: The Papacy as a Relation

Papacy as Relation

By: John Lane

For many traditionalists, sedevacantism is an uncomfortable idea, a kind of unnecessary, rash, prideful, excess. They regard their own position, that Francis is pope, as more modest, less extreme, less disruptive or divisive – in a word, more Catholic.

But this raises the question, what exactly are the available options for traditional Catholics vis-à-vis their view of the papacy in our day? There are really only three possible views: The See of Rome is vacant; there is a pope; or I don’t know.

Now, this third position actually reduces to one of the basic alternatives, for the following simple reason: If one’s doubt is objectively based, which given the public facts is evidently the case, Francis is a “doubtful pope” – but a doubtful pope is no pope. And, in the absence of doubt, is certitude.

This appears to leave us with two possible views – he’s certainly pope or he isn’t. But does it? Is it actually possible for a traditional Catholic to maintain that Francis is certainly pope? This may seem like a provocative and even oppressive question, one of those “angles” designed to strong-arm you into sedevacantism, but it isn’t. It may well be that even in the light of what follows, you decline to alter your view, and you remain someone who says that Francis is pope, and in this writer’s opinion, that’s entirely your business.

In any case, I hope to show that in fact there is only one real traditionalist (i.e., Catholic) position, and in essence you already hold it. And this is, as one non-sede priest said to me some twenty years ago, “John, none of really thinks he [JP2] is really pope.”

So, to summarise, it would be nice not to have to consider sedevacantism a possible, let alone likely, reality, but in order to rule it out one has to have certitude that we have a pope. It is this writer’s contention that in fact this isn’t possible. There isn’t a pope available.

Why is this so? It has to do, at root, with the very nature of the papacy itself. The papacy is a relation.  The question then is this: Does this relation exist, between traditionalists and Francis?

What is a relation? Creation consists of many kinds of things, including rocks, trees, animals, etc., which we categorise as substances. These substances display various qualities such as hardness, greenness, furriness, etc., which we categorise as accidents. They also exist in hierarchical and relative order, such as father-son, predator-prey, parasite-host, etc. These we categorise as relations.

Now a relation has two terms. Without either term, the other does not exist. A father is not a father if he has generated no son, a predator would not be a predator unless there were creatures which naturally were his prey, etc. Likewise, the superior-subject relation has two terms, and if there is no superior, there is no subject, and vice versa.

The following is from the commentary on the 1917 Code of Canon Law universally recognised as the greatest of all, that of Frs. Wernz and Vidal. In this place they are explaining the dictum mentioned above, a doubtful pope is no pope.

[J]urisdiction is essentially a relation between a superior who has the right to obedience and a subject who has the duty of obeying. Now when one of the parties to this relationship is wanting, the other necessarily ceases to exist also, as is plain from the nature of the relationship. However, if a pope is truly and permanently doubtful, the duty of obedience cannot exist towards him on the part of any subject. For the law, ‘Obedience is owed to the legitimately-elected successor of St. Peter,’ does not oblige if it is doubtful; and it most certainly is doubtful if the law has been doubtfully promulgated, for laws are instituted when they are promulgated, and without sufficient promulgation they lack a constitutive part, or essential condition.

But if the fact of the legitimate election of a particular successor of St. Peter is only doubtfully demonstrated, the promulgation is doubtful; hence that law is not duly and objectively constituted of its necessary parts, and it remains truly doubtful and therefore cannot impose any obligation. Indeed it would be rash to obey such a man who had not proved his title in law. Nor could appeal be made to the principle of possession, for the case in question is that of a Roman pontiff who is not yet in peaceful possession. Consequently in such a person there would be no right of command – i.e. he would lack papal jurisdiction. The same conclusion is confirmed on the basis of the visibility of the Church. For the visibility of the Church consists in the fact that she possesses such signs and identifying marks that, when moral diligence is used, she can be recognised and discerned, especially on the part of her legitimate officers.

But in the supposition we are considering, the pope cannot be found even after diligent examination. The conclusion is therefore correct that such a doubtful pope is not the proper head of the visible Church instituted by Christ.

Now, the question for traditional Catholics is whether it is possible to identify a true papal relation with the current Roman claimant. He certainly claims to be pope, and he is certainly said to be pope by nearly all Catholics, but does that claim have sufficient substantive content to make it real, to make it actual? And, please note, as Wernz-Vidal so clearly shows, this relation must be certain, not doubtful.

Our contention is that traditional Catholics are not subject to the New Church popes. Insofar as a man is subject to the Vatican in our era, he ceases being a traditional Catholic. Or, in crisp terms, a traditional Catholic, by definition, has no pope. And, needless to say, this is in no way his own fault.

In order to assess the essential question, it is useful to understand a little about the unity of the Church, and the essential role of the pope (the superior-subject relation) in producing, fostering, and defending that unity.

The Church has two external bonds of unity – faith and charity – and a third factor in her external unity, the pope. The Vatican Council teaches:

Our eternal Pastor willed to build a holy Church in which … all the faithful would be bound together by the bond of the one faith and of charity. And in order that the universal fold might be kept in oneness of faith and communion by priests who would themselves be joined in close union, He gave St. Peter charge over the other apostles and thereby established in his person the unfailing principle and visible foundation of both unities.

(Quoted in Mgr. G. Van Noort, Dogmatic Theology, Vol. II, Christ’s Christ’s Church – Mercier Press, 1958, p. 126.)

Note that the pope is both the principle and visible foundation of both visible unities, faith and charity. What is a principle? It can be thought of as a source; it is the reason as well as the origin of an effect. The sun is the principle of light and heat in the atmosphere, for example, but the moon is merely a reflector, not a principle. The pope therefore not only guarantees the Church’s visible unity, he is actually its proximate source. He produces it.

Again, the Church possesses two visible bonds of unity – faith and charity – and these are produced and protected by her hierarchy, chiefly the pope. For this reason, we speak of the threefold unity of the Church, faith, charity (or communion) and government. Faith in this context means the external profession of faith by the Church’s members, and charity means social charity, very often called “communion.”

Leo XIII affirms these same truths, in Satis Cognitum:

When the Divine founder decreed that the Church should be one in faith, in government, and in communion [i.e. social charity], He chose Peter and his successors as the principle and centre, as it were, of this unity.

Summarising what we have said so far, the papacy is essentially a relation, which like all such realities has two terms, the superior and the subject. If either is lacking, then the relation does not exist. The Church is the city seated on the mountain which cannot be hid, and her essential visibility is chiefly in her threefold unity of profession of faith, of communion or social charity, and of government. The papacy was established in order to produce, foster, and protect the unity of the Church in faith and charity.

Why is the Catholic Church a visible unity of profession of the same faith by all of her members? It is because:

  • She teaches with authority the same doctrine to every generation of men throughout the entire world.
  • She does not tolerate doubt or denial of her doctrines, acting energetically to correct and, if necessary, punish those who refuse to believe.
  • As a result of these factors, the members of the Church with moral universality actually profess the doctrines she teaches. Hence, she is not merely a theoretical unity of faith, but an actual, existing, visible, unity of profession.

It is because of his relation to the Church as the principle and defender of the twofold unity of faith and charity that St. Peter is called the Rock, upon which Our Blessed Redeemer founded His Church. For Peter was to be, firstly in person, and subsequently in his successors, the principle of the two-fold unity of faith and charity – the proximate cause of both. How so? By his preaching of the faith, and by virtue of his position as supreme head on earth, such that, in order to be a member of the Church, one must be in communion with him. And likewise, he was to be, personally and in his successors, the chief and necessary defence of both faith and charity, by his divinely guaranteed judgements on matters of faith, and by his divinely assisted government of the Church, by which her members are guided as docile sheep by their true and faithful shepherd.

Thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. (Matt. 16:18)

Again, why will the gates of hell not prevail? Because of Peter and his Successors, who preach the true faith and who govern, guide, and discipline the faithful in accord with it. The gates of hell will not prevail against the Church because of the papacy, because the pope is there continually teaching her and correcting her.

In this connection it is notable that when our Blessed Redeemer promised the primacy to St. Peter, He demanded first a profession of faith.

Jesus saith to them: But whom do you say that I am? Simon Peter answered and said: Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answering said to him: Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven. And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. (Matt. 16:15-18)

And when Our Lord actually bestowed the primacy, after His glorious Resurrection, He drew forth from St. Peter a profession of charity.

When therefore they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter: Simon, son of John, lovest thou me more than these? He saith to him: Yea, Lord, thou knowest that I love thee. He saith to him: Feed my lambs. He saith to him again: Simon, son of John, lovest thou me? He saith to him: yea, Lord, thou knowest that I love thee. He saith to him: Feed my lambs. He said to him the third time: Simon, son of John, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he had said to him the third time: Lovest thou me? And he said to him: Lord, thou knowest all things: thou knowest that I love thee. He said to him: Feed my sheep. (John 21:15-17)

In this sublime manner Our Lord declared the nature of the two great and essential visible bonds of unity of the Church, which would be established, protected and fostered by St. Peter and his successors, and with and under Peter, by the entire hierarchy of the Church.

These fundamental visible ligaments of the Church were also signified indirectly by the manner in which Holy Church was born from Our Lord’s side on Calvary.

Leo XIII instructs us, in Divinum Illud Munus:

The Church which, already conceived, came forth from the side of the second Adam in His sleep on the Cross, first showed herself before the eyes of men on the great day of Pentecost.

What was it that physically emerged from Our Lord’s side, from the depths of His Sacred Heart? Blood and water, signifying the two chief sacraments – the water signifying the sacrament of baptism, by which men first enter the Church and are made members of it, and which is the sacrament of Faith, and the blood signifying the Blessed Sacrament, the crown and perfection of all the sacraments, and which is the Sacrament of Charity.

Being clear about this fundamental reality – that the Church is a visible social body composed of those who are bound together by the common profession of the same faith and the mutual communion of social charity – we are in a position to better understand the externals of the Church, the central and most sublime of which is her public worship. The members of the Church all share in the same worship, the same Mass and sacraments. This is essentially the profession of faith and social charity in act. The famous bull Unam Sanctam of Boniface VIII succinctly refers to,

…the Church, He has called one because of the unity of the Spouse, of the faith, of the sacraments, and of the charity of the Church. This is the tunic of the Lord, the seamless tunic, which was not rent but which was cast by lot.

The Mass is, in the wonderful precision of Monsignor Joseph Fenton’s language, the act of the Mystical Body; the Mass is that act in which the Church is most herself. The Mass, again, is the proper activity par excellence, of the Church, of Christ living His life mystically, throughout time. It is the most excellent and perfect profession of faith, and it is purest expression of social charity. In the Mass the Mystical Body of Christ is expressing itself, acting most truly and perfectly as itself; in a word, being true to itself.

Returning to our principal question, let us remind ourselves of what, in general terms, the proper relationship of a Christian to the pope is. Here is St. Pius X:

When one loves the pope one does not stop to debate about what he advises or demands, to ask how far the rigorous duty of obedience extends and to mark the limit of this obligation. When one loves the pope, one does not object that he has not spoken clearly enough, as if he were obliged to repeat into the ear of each individual his will, so often clearly expressed, not only viva voce, but also by letters and other public documents; one does not call his orders into doubt on the pretext – easily advanced by whoever does not wish to obey – that they emanate not directly from him, but from his entourage; one does not limit the field in which he can and should exercise his will; one does not oppose to the authority of the pope that of other persons, however learned, who differ in opinion from the pope. Besides, however great their knowledge, their holiness is wanting, for there can be no holiness where there is disagreement with the pope.

What an extraordinary contention, one might be tempted to think. What a pious exaggeration, many traditionalists may aver. Well, let us back away from such a confronting formulation for a moment, and consider instead some concrete examples of how Catholics prior to 1958 regarded the pope – that is, what the relationship was.

Take the ordinary teaching activity of the Holy Father, in encyclicals and other “non-infallible” instruments.

How do Catholics respond to the ordinary teaching of the Holy Father? In 1943, Pope Pius XII issued his encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi, in which he made a statement about the origin of jurisdiction in the Church. Now, up until then, it had been a disputed question whether jurisdiction originated immediately from the pope, or whether jurisdiction came with episcopal consecration, and was fully subject to the pope despite not originating directly with him. There was no question that all jurisdiction was subject to the authority of the Roman Pontiff; the question was solely its immediate origin. Monsignor Fenton, writing in the American Ecclesiastical Review, described the effect of this statement by the Holy Father on the science of theology:

One of the most important contributions to sacred theology in recent years is to be found in the Holy Father’s teaching about the immediate source of episcopal jurisdiction within the Catholic Church. In his great encyclical letter Mystici corporis, issued June 29, 1943, Pope Pius XII spoke of the ordinary power of jurisdiction of the other Catholic bishops as something “bestowed upon them immediately” by the Sovereign Pontiff. More than a year before the publication of the Mystici corporis the Holy Father brought out the same truth in his pastoral allocution to the parish priests and the Lenten preachers of Rome. In this address he taught that the Vicar of Christ on earth is the one from whom all the other pastors in the Catholic Church “receive immediately their jurisdiction and their mission.”

In the latest edition of his classic work, Institutiones iuris publici ecclesiastici, Msgr. Alfredo Ottaviani declares that this teaching, which was previously considered as “probabilior” or even as “communis,” must now be held as entirely certain by reason of what Pope Pius XII has said.  The thesis which must be accepted and taught as certain is an extremely valuable element in the Christian teaching about the nature of the true Church.  Denial or even neglect of this thesis will inevitably prevent anything like an accurate and adequate theological understanding of Our Lord’s function as the Head of the Church and of the visible unity of the kingdom of God on earth.  Thus, in giving this doctrine the status of a definitely certain statement, the Holy Father has greatly benefited the work of sacred theology.

There was absolutely no opposition to this teaching of the Holy Father. The docility of the most learned men in the Church to this simple statement, made in the course of an encyclical, is a striking example of the very real relation between the ecclesia docens and the ecclesia discens. Nothing like this can be observed in the relationship of Paul VI or successors and the faithful – especially the learned faithful!

One further example, this time in the realm of discipline, should suffice to illustrate truly papal authority in action – the suppression of the Jesuits by Pope Clement XIV. This was possibly unjust, imprudent, and a truly foul act. Certainly, it is open to Catholics to regard it as all three. It was certainly, however, a valid exercise of papal authority, and the entire Jesuit order took it as such and, with complete docility, dissolved. A more magnificent example of true submission to authority could hardly be cited; it was beyond naturally virtuous: it was truly heroic.

Now let us consider the situation, the relationship, of traditional Catholics to the New Church popes. We are not here concerned with the relationship of non-traditional Catholics to those same putative authorities. Suffice to say that in their case some kind of real relation exists, and it generally results in the destruction of faith. That is its inveterate tendency, and whatever else may be said about it, for that reason it cannot constitute a truly pope-subject relation. So, for the non-traditional Catholic there is a real relation that is not papal, but for the traditional Catholic there is no substantial, enduring, relation at all. What is there amounts to a purely verbal acknowledgement. Let’s now make good that contention.

Leaving aside the usual controversies about the nature of Vatican II and the clarity or otherwise of its texts, what became clear from the reaction of the orthodox was that they were not going to adopt its novelties and errors, whatever the correct answer to those controversies might be. Nobody who understood that religious liberty stood condemned by the Catholic Church was going to flip to embracing it, even if it could be shown that Vatican II really did authoritatively teach it. Or at least, it was well understood that if one did so, then one would cease being a traditional Catholic.

The point is simply this, the thing that made one a traditionalist was precisely one’s attachment to tradition. This attachment was not subject to modification or diminution by the so-called Holy Father. A novel situation had developed, in which the usual docility that Catholics have, and have always had, to the pope was lacking. This was, I repeat, entirely the doing of the putative pope.

Many voices could be heard begging Paul VI to rule, to command, to teach with clarity and authority, but to no avail. One could say that there was no lack of willingness on the part of the supposed subjects to be ruled, but there was a decided refusal on the part of the putative ruler to do so. However, it is more accurate and clearer to say that the relation itself was lacking. We say, this was Paul VI’s responsibility, his doing; Paul VI and his agents maintained that the issue was a lack of good will on our part. Actually, whoever is right about that, the relationship was itself chimerical, it did not exist. This is what it really meant for the Modernists to accuse us of schism.

The same reality was evident in the reaction to the New Mass. Paul VI made it abundantly clear that in practice the old Mass was forbidden. Traditional Catholics are defined by their failure to accept this. Again, leaving aside all of the theoretical controversies surrounding the matter, what was manifestly lacking was a superior-subject relation that was capable of being reduced to act.

The further question arises, are traditional Catholics sharing the same worship with those who assist at the New Mass? Without considering the question of whether the Novus Ordo Missae is valid, and therefore whether it constitutes a Mass at all, the primary reason that traditionalists don’t assist at it is because it does not properly express the Catholic faith. Our conviction is that it is not a sound profession of faith. We do not, if we ponder our own stance even for a moment, think of the New Mass as a proper act of the Mystical Body, we regard it as a foreign intrusion, something to be avoided as dangerous, harmful, and offensive to God. On reflection, it seems positively blasphemous to say that in the New Mass, the Mystical Body of Christ is being true to itself.

Yet the true Roman Rite was actively suppressed by Paul VI, and it is precisely in declining to accept that suppression that the traditional Catholic milieu was separated from what appeared to be the rest of the Church. This was hardly an example of Paul VI acting as the principle of unity; it was exactly the opposite.

How different are these two examples – Vatican II and the New Mass – to our earlier recitations of the response of Catholics to doctrinal instruction and disciplinary decisions of true and undoubted Roman Pontiffs!

Nor is this difference in any way the fault of traditional Catholics, who bear absolutely no responsibility for the situation. Traditional Catholics are, I maintain, absolutely innocent on the score of obedience, submission to authority, docility to the Church, respect for hierarchy, or any other aspect of the truly pope-subject relation one might like to consider. Despite decades of what can only be described as mendacious, malicious, propaganda, aimed at cowing them into adopting the revolution that has all but destroyed the Church in the West, no single charge has stuck. Everybody who has examined the record knows that traditional Catholics are the intended or actual victims of the Vatican, and in no way the guilty party.

In closing, it is illustrative of the situation to consider some examples of traditionalist commentary, selected after a quick Google search. This first from, a vehemently anti-SSPX (let alone sedevacantist!) organisation.

Enter FrancisChurch, the apotheosis of this diabolical disorientation. You know the true Church will follow her bridegroom and experience a final Passover. But having read the gospels, and being a very good student, you also know that Peter and Judas were two different people. Saint Peter denied knowledge of Christ out of fear and then repented; Judas sold Our Lord after being possessed by Satan. Peter is not Judas; Judas is not Peter. Then who or what is the priest formerly known as Cdl. Bergoglio?

He and the people with whom he surrounds himself are dangerous to the eternal salvation of souls. They deceive the faithful about the immutable truths of the Catholic faith, and they deceive those outside of the Church about the nature of sin, the need for salvation and the uniqueness of the One True Faith to mediate it. The problem is, the person now branding faithful Catholics as “racists” and “Nazis” calls himself Peter, and his magisterium (he made up his own, which you didn’t think was possible) seems really focused on leading souls to Hell.

Is there a real papal relation present there?

This second excerpt is from OnePeterFive, again hardly a friend of sedevacantist traditionalists.

What do we do when time and again, we are confronted with the unthinkable? What happens when the pope himself — THE POPE HIMSELF — says contraception is OK, or approves Holy Communion for people living in adultery, or changes the Catechism in a way that reverses the Church’s infallible bi-millenial teaching on the moral liceity of the death penalty (in a way that opens the door to reversing everything else), or signs an interfaith document that undermines the exclusivity of salvation through the Church? What do we think when we hear again and again through one of the pope’s most trusted confidants that he thinks hell doesn’t actually exist, and that the souls of the unrighteous are merely annihilated? What about when he says the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 wasn’t really a miracle – wasn’t “magic” – but just some act of sharing? What about when he says of the Blessed Mother that she wanted to accuse God of lying to her? Or that Jesus actually “became sin“? What of a hundred or a thousand other troubling things?

What are we to think when we recognize that his immediate predecessors did some similar things, even if they did them less openly or egregiously? What do we make of the idea that Paul VI, who ushered in the single most destructive period in the internal life of the Church in history, who smashed to pieces the liturgy of the Roman Rite and replaced it with some cheap imitation, and drove countless multitudes of Catholics straight out of the Church with his novelties, is a saint?

What do we do when we’re told that despite our profound misgivings about this, tough luck, his canonization is infallible?

What are we to think of all of the bishops who are not just spineless, but actively opposed to the living of the true faith?

Again, we ask, is there a real papal relation present?

Well, the reader may have his own thoughts, but one thing that he cannot reasonably think, is that there is a Holy Father to whom he has a truly submissive relation, one to which he entrusts the salvation of his eternal soul. Well, he can try and think that, but if he attempts seriously to reduce it to practice, he’s going to find himself in the position of the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, or countless others who, suffering the same mental confusion, met with the consequences.

This brings us back to the central contention of this article. We are, all of us, by virtue of rejecting the key reforms of the New Church authorities, implicitly or explicitly sedevacantist. One really does not have a pope if one is a traditional Catholic. If I am right about that, then concluding explicitly what is already implicit in our actions, is refreshing, liberating, and simplifying.

aka Spin Job