Not long after John Paul II died, I received an apologetics question from someone who was corresponding with a hard-core Traditionalist—”probably SSPX” was how the Traditionalist was described to me. My inquirer reported that his correspondent believed John Paul II was “the worst pope ever,” but let’s allow the Traditionalist to put into his own words his position on the man who has since been canonized, and is now known to the world as St. John Paul II:
John Paul II didn't just fail to do something about these errant bishops, he appointed them in the first place. He appointed the Weaklands and Mahonys of the world. For all his personal charisma, in spite of his kind face and the warm manner that made people fall in love with him, he was one of the worst popes in the history of the Church. He had thirty years to restore discipline, appoint good bishops, promote tradition, crack down on the Fr. McBriens of the world, oversee seminary formation, at least ensure that his own liturgist offered the traditional Mass as opposed to ones with dancing girls and half-naked "incense bearers," etc.But he did none of this. He traveled, spoke ambiguously, kissed Qur'ans, prayed in synagogues, kissed the rings of Anglican "bishops," allowed altar girls, smeared Holy Mother Church with his needless apologies, toyed with even the holy rosary, appointed the worst men possible as bishops, and made sure (or at least did nothing as) traditional priests were treated like heretics and booted out. Bad pope.
My inquirer wanted to know how to respond to this.
I began by pointing out that the Traditionalist was engaging in what Catholic Answers’ Senior Apologist Jimmy Akin has termed buckshot apologetics: He has loaded his shotgun with a buckshot of charges, pointed it to the heavens, and hoped to hit something, somewhere, anywhere.
Does this person really believes that John Paul II deserves to be placed in the same league as Alexander VI, usually considered by historians to be the most notorious pope in Church history? The most charitable assumption I can make is that the Traditionalist was making a rhetorical flourish by saying that John Paul was “one of the worst popes in the history of the Church,” and did not think through the ramifications of his remark. After all, he did concede that John Paul was kind, charismatic, warm, and connected with people in a positive manner.
Perhaps this person might say that Alexander VI didn’t fiddle with doctrine and tradition, as he apparently believes that John Paul did, but Alexander VI’s papacy may well have been one of the triggers for the Protestant Reformation because of the scandal it gave to Europe. What, then, is worse? A holy pope who edified people of good will, Catholic and non-Catholic, around the world, thus raising the credibility of the Church in the eyes of untold millions; or a notorious pope whose scandal-ridden life may have been partly responsible for the shattering of Western Christendom?
We can certainly admit that John Paul made prudential mistakes during his pontificate. Indeed, John Paul may well have been the first to admit that he was not have been as firm a disciplinarian as he could have been. That does not mean that he was a “bad pope,” much less “one of the worst popes in the history of the Church.” Popes make mistakes and can be justly reprimanded, as Paul did to Peter (cf. Gal. 2:11); and they are sinful human beings like the rest of us, as Peter himself admitted (cf. Luke 5:8). One of the tests of a good pope is that a good pope admits his mistakes and failures, and John Paul readily admitted his own. The Pope of Apologies acknowledged his own need for forgiveness.
A new contender
I was reminded of this question-and-answer the other day after reading a post on the Traditionalist blog Rorate Caeli, titled Ten Tips on How to Survive a Calamitous Pope and Remain Catholic. Rorate Caeli, for those who don’t know, is the blog on which Jorge Mario Bergoglio was welcomed as Pope Francis on the very day of his election with a post titled The Horror! A Buenos Aires Journalist Describes Bergoglio. Since then Rorate Caeli has been part of the vanguard of Traditionalist web sites stuffed to the brim with unremitting criticisms of Pope Francis since Day One of his papacy.
Couched though it is in terms of “hypothetical possibility,” the Rorate Caeli blogger nonetheless proposes that now is probably a very good time for Catholics to prepare themselves for papal calamity. But, hey, just because this is the same site where Pope Francis’s election was deemed to be a “horror” on the very day it occurred, and the critiques of every aspect of his papacy have continued to this day, that doesn’t mean the site’s writers have Pope Francis in mind or anything. Why would we possibly think that?
To be fair, several of the “tips” are, for the most part, unobjectionable. There is much to recommend suggestions such as “Keep calm,” “Do not give in to apocalyptic warnings,” “Do not generalize,” and “Do not support any schism.” On the other hand, given the context of the publication of this tip sheet, how are we to interpret warnings to Catholics against remaining silent (number 4), against obeying the Pope when you don’t like the instructions he gives (number 7), and withholding support from local churches in union with the Pope (number 8)?
All of this is predicated upon the idea that a hypothetically “calamitous pope” is currently reigning. Who decides that? Who judges that “the instructions of the Pope . . . [deviate] from the treasure of the Church”? Do we each become our own judge of what is part of the teaching magisterium of the Church? Or do we place our trust in bloggers on the Internet to tell us when it is time to withhold just obedience and support for the Church?
Like St. John Paul II before him, Pope Francis is coming under fire not for objectively evil deeds, but basically because he is not telling Traditionalists what they want to hear about the Catholic faith. They have preconceived notions of what constitutes doctrinal and moral orthodoxy, and a pope who contradicts these preconceived notions is considered suspect.
Truly bad popes
Out of over 200 popes, we can probably count the number of truly calamitous popes on two hands. So, who qualifies as a bad pope? Everyone knows about Alexander VI, usually the frontrunner in any mainstream listing of Worst Popes Ever, but who are some of the others? Googling “bad popes” brought up an interesting article from the Esquire magazine’s web site. (Caveat emptor: The language is unnecessarily crude.)
If you go through Esquire‘s list, you may note that their list is remarkably apolitical for the secular media. We don’t find controversial popes of modern times, such as Pius XII and Benedict XVI, who we might expect mainstream journalists to dislike for any number of reasons. What we find are popes who are charged with truly evil deeds. For purposes of comparison with Traditionalist sources who consider John Paul II and Francis “the worst popes ever,” here are examples of popes who made the grade for Worst Ever onEsquire‘s list:
Stephen VI (896–897) held the "Cadaver Synod" of 897. [Angry] at his predecessor, [Stephen VI] dug up the rotting corpse of Pope Formosus and put it on trial. You know, like a crazy person. The former Formosus was found guilty of perjury, violating canon law, and performing bishop duties as a layman. The cadaver was thrice de-fingered and thrown into a river. Naturally.
A couple of centuries later, we find:
Benedict IX (1032–1044, 1045, 1047–1048) sold the papacy in 1044 to the highest bidder. After returning to office for a month, he sold it again in 1045 to marry his cousin. [Benedict IX] was accused of rape, adultery, homosexuality, and bestiality. Pope Victor III claimed of Benedict IX, "His life as a pope was so vile, so foul, so execrable, that I shudder to think of it."
The most recent entry on Esquire‘s list was a pope who reigned five centuries ago:
Leo X (1513–1521) famously said when elected to office, "Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it." And he promptly made it rain. His extravagant expenses angered Martin Luther and caused a gang of cardinals to plot his assassination. The alleged attempt failed, and a not-so-mysterious bout of food poisoning soon plagued the conspirators.
In contradistinction to Traditionalist nominees for Bad Popes, not one pope who made Esquire‘s list was condemned for upholding the doctrines and moral strictures of the Church for which many in the modern world ordinarily attack the Church. Whether or not Esquire‘s historical overview is entirely accurate, the popes who made their list were accused of objectively evil deeds.
How to deal with a pope you disagree with
I think Traditionalist complaints with John Paul II and Francis—and even, in some cases, with the Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI—boil down to disagreeing with a pope’s non-infallible interpretations of Church doctrine and the moral law, with his prudential judgments, and with features of his personality (e.g., in John Paul’s case, his showmanship; in Francis’s case, his informality). And it is within legitimate bounds for Catholics to have issues with an individual pope’s public remarks, with his actions on the world stage, or with his personality quirks. So let’s look at some legitimate responses Catholics might want to consider when faced with a pope they just dislike.
Maintain silence. Or as the old proverb my grandmother liked to quote went, “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.” Unless a pope is engaging in objectively evil deeds like some of his predecessors named above, silence is a better response to disagreement than speaking out. It allows you to observe, to gather all of the available information, to allow time for surprises, before staking out a position that may well prove to be completely discredited by later events. Silence is also a profoundly Christological response to persecution.
Obey, even when you disagree. Catholics are not rugged individualists. Although some American Catholics tend to act as if authority in the Church consists of “me, the Pope, and Jesus,” this is not how authority is exercised or expressed in the Catholic Church. For Catholics, we are called to obey all those in the Church who, by virtue of office, exercise legitimate authority in the lives of the faithful. Obedience to lawful authorities in the Church is not conditioned on whether or not a Catholic agrees with what is required of him. Catholics are supposed to obey anyway, provided the action required is not a sin, and to trust that the authorities have wisdom gained from formation and/or ordination that goes above and beyond their own experience.
Support your priests and bishops. Continue to maintain communion with your local church, both at the parish and diocesan levels. Not only is support for the Church a precept of the Church that Catholics are bound in conscience to obey (CCC 2043), but doing so keeps you in the loop. You have channels through which you can respectfully ask for pastoral guidance and spiritual support. And you enable your local church to be able to continue to care for the legitimate needs of Catholics and non-Catholics in your area during difficult times. Just because you don’t like what a pope has to say on homosexuality, or because you disagree with a pope on who may receive Communion, that is no reason to deny fellow human beings the material support from the Church to which they have a right (either directly, by denying charitable funds earmarked for the needy; or indirectly, by impeding the ability of local pastors to respond to humanitarian crises because of lack of support from the faithful in the diocese).
Trust in God. Soon after my conversion, back when I was a baby Catholic, my mildly anti-Catholic father, just to be ornery, asked me what I would do if the Pope suddenly altered Church doctrine on some hot-button issue. My dad’s example, although he would have been the last person to agitate for feminist concerns, was women’s ordination. What would I do if the Pope suddenly started ordaining women?
I was not an apologist at the time, and my dad really was not asking about women’s ordination or papal infallibility anyway. He wanted to know what I would do if the Pope radically shocked me by doing something I was convinced the Pope could not do.
I thought for a minute and then reminded Dad of the old story of a man who fell off a cliff and managed to grab a branch on the way down. He yells for help, and a Voice from the heavens answers him. The Voice tells him to let go of the branch he is clinging to, and to trust he will be okay. The man thinks over the instructions, then yells, “Is there anyone else up there?”
“Sooner or later, Dad,” I said, “you have to trust and let go, even when doing so seems impossible.”
Because, after all, “to whom shall we go” (John 6:67–69)?
Written By Michelle Arnold