If you asked a Pope, especially one in the Middle Ages and even up till Trent, what was the number one thing they feared, most Popes would have said their greatest fear was a General Council. Many secular princes, when faced with a Papal decree or another action which alarmed them, frequently threatened to call a Council as a threat. This was especially true in the 14th and 15th centuries with regard to Conciliarism, where conditions in the Papacy and in the Universal Church, especially scandal among Bishops and the problem of schism, created near-universal resistance among both clergy and lay faithful. In times where the institutional and hierarchical authority of the Church is most vulnerable due to its internal conditions, typically these same persons, like in every organization, were and are resistant to the very bodies which would demand their reform. For example, knowing this, the Council of Constance produced the decree “Frequens“, demanding the convocation of a General Council after five years, then after seven, then hopefully every ten. The purpose of this decree was essentially to turn the Conciliar Process into a semi-permanent one, one which would manifest the desire of the Church Universal and counterbalance the influence of what was considered an overbearing and corrupt Papacy. Although Conciliarism is not an acceptable ecclesiology for many reasons, it nevertheless embodied a legitimate desire for checks and balances in the governance of the Church, especially in times of crisis.
In the subsequent centuries, most notably at Trent and the First Vatican Council, with a concomitant reform of the Papacy and Episcopacy’s moral authority, the former’s role most especially, contra Protestantism, was strenuously promoted and enforced, along with a renewed ecclesiology, bound to a renewed understanding of the Sacrament of Order. The Second Vatican Council likewise strengthened this understanding via its dogmatic decrees on the role of the Episcopacy, affirming their special role as leaders of the Church and participants in her Ordinary Magisterium.
Now, we find ourselves in a sticky situation. We have returned to a time similar to the Middle Ages in regards to the corruption of the moral and administrative degradation and disintegration of the Papacy and the Episcopacy, and yet we have a far more developed and authoritative theological conception of the role of the Pope and the Bishops. It is precisely this theology which is being exploited by malignant actors, who know, as I have said before on these pages, that they can rely on the predictable fidelity of orthodox faithful (clergy and laity) to what is considered dogma, while they themselves carry no such loyalties. Thus, when conditions have historically prevailed in the Church in which local Churches or Bishops have endured heresy, schism or moral breakdown, it was generally hoped that the Roman Pontiff would be an authoritative voice of reason, and one who would confirm the faith. Nowadays, the contrary is the case: when the Pope has been asked to adjudicate moral cases, he rails against “casuistry”, or declares he is not fit to judge, in stark contrast to the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:13*. Although occasionally Pope Francis will speak clearly about traditional theological realities such as the devil or the role of the Virgin Mary, his affirmations in favor of what has always been considered part of the Sacred Deposit have been inconsistent and selective. Now, in a perverse inversion of the past, the very voices which derided the Papacy as the voice of Peter and of Christ in authoritative morals, now insist upon strict obedience to him. This is a caricature of the ultra-montanism of old. Ultramontanes of yesteryear wanted to hear the Pope expound on faith and morals with regularity. The neo-ultramontanes are interested in neither faith nor morals, but they love regular press.
Today the Pope issued an Apostolic Constitution, Episcopalis Communio, which strengthens and confirms the role of Synods in the Universal Church, and bestows upon them far greater authority than they ever possessed. It is a document of startling tone deafness, especially in light of the massive amount of controversy surrounding precisely the good will, competency and moral probity of the Roman Curia, the worldwide Episcopate, and the Roman Pontiff himself. Do these men understand that the eyes of faithful Catholics, from Goose Bay to Guinea, are upon them with burning intensity? We have been rocked with a unprecedented sequence of scandal. Good people disagree as to its etiology, but no one disagrees in regard to its epicenter: the Episcopate. Curiously, this Pope, who has repeatedly suggested he wants to decentralize his own doctrinal authority and devolve it to things like National Bishops’ Conferences, now seeks to ultimately centralize it around himself. In doing this, he has fundamentally institutionalized a doctrinal kangaroo court, stacked with his own partisans, whose public words and actions leave little doubt that they hold the Deposit of Faith and Catholic Dogma in low regard, if not in outright contempt.
We have no surfeit of witnesses, testimonies and documentary evidence as to how the Synods during this Pontificate have proceeded, with an ever increasing realization that the cards are stacked against the forces of orthodox Christianity. These include statements and documents both informal and formal, such as one by Jose Luis Cardinal Lacunza Maestrojuan, of Panama, who asserted that the commandment of Christ in regard to marriage was less merciful than Moses, a blasphemy of the first order; or reports that Synod Fathers found pro-gay material on their desks, while pro-marriage material, like the famous pro-marriage and family book, Remaining in the Truth of Christ was forcibly removed from the Synod Fathers’ mailboxes. Many Catholics have found cold comfort in the fact that the last Apostolic Constitution, Amoris Laetitia, was of a Magisterial level of authority which did not necessarily cause it to constitute a complete rejection of Encyclicals like Casti Connubii, or the former Apostolic Constitution on the Family, Familiaris Consortio. Yet such solaces are cold indeed.
It is said that near the end of the Crisis of the Great Western Schism, the Antipope John XXIII, of the so-called Pisan line, attempted to convoke a Council in Rome in order to accomplish the work of ecclesial reform, even though the Council of Constance was already in process. John XXIII, considered by his contemporaries to be a man worldly and unscrupulous, was regarded by many with disgust, and his attempts at reform were widely considered insincere. During that Council, at Vespers in his chapel, during the intonation of the Veni Creator, the immemorial hymn to the Holy Spirit, a screech-owl descended and landed on the Antipope’s head. He himself and his own hand picked Cardinals considered it an evil omen, and the Council quickly dissolved as it became clear no one wanted to attend because of its numerical, moral and canonical irrelevance.
The Holy Father, invoking Ecclesial reform and gathering and empowering his partisans around him, has done nothing more than to invoke the screech-owl anew. It is my sincere prayer that this recent act does not magnify the contempt with which many clergy and lay faithful alike hold both for him and his governance.
1 Corinthians 5:13 “For though absent in body I am present in spirit, and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment.”