Of Humanæ vitæ and the approaching Synod on the Family

Ross Douthat and Msgr. Charles Pope have written blog entries pertaining to the approaching Synod and the anxiety it is provoking; Douthat’s piece follows up on his own New York Times column; Pope’s, in turn, on Douthat’s. 1 Some background will help before we get to them.

I. Phonegate

This fall, there will be a Synod of Bishops on “the family.” There has been growing delight on the left, and concern among everyone else (excepting those neo-ultramontanes who have blinded and deafened themselves to every concern about Francis) that the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage is in the crosshairs. 2) “When Francis summoned cardinals to a recent session to prepare for [the Synod] …, he entrusted the opening presentation to [Walter Card. Kasper] … undoubtedly anticipating that Kasper would say something about readmitting divorced and remarried Catholics to communion.” 3 Kasper predictably obliged, and with one exception, reaction was brutally negative—“[Camillo] Card. Ruini noted that some 85% percent of cardinals who spoke up after Kasper were against Kasper’s proposals.  [Ruini] opined of those who said nothing that perhaps they were simply ‘embarrassed.’” 4 Alas, the one high-profile exception was you-know-who, who promptly lauded it as a “beautiful and profound presentation.” 5

Against this backdrop, it was reported in late April that Francis had called an Argentinian woman whose irregular marital situation prevented her from receiving communion. He supposedly told her to go ahead. 6 The Vatican was invited to deny the story; two different spokesmen confirmed to two different outlets that the call had happened while refusing to comment on the content. 7 They instead complained that reporting was “confusing”—a preposterous posture insofar as they were not only in a position to eliminate any confusion, but were, indeed, being asked to do so. 8

One reaction might be to dismiss the allegations as absurd. A year ago, I would have; I would have urged caution, urged that a pope deserves the benefit of the doubt. 9 But it is not now a year ago—it is now, and our response to this has to take into account what we have seen over the last year:

The pope doesn’t just call people! Well, except… this one has repeatedly “just called people” over the last year. 10

The pope probably didn’t make this call! Well, except… the Vatican seems to have confirmed that he did.

The pope wouldn’t make so stupid and scandalous a comment! Well, except… this one has made a habit of making stupid and scandalous comments. 11

The pope wouldn’t do this particular thing! Well, except… this one effusively praised Kasper’s proposal that the Church do on large scale precisely what this call seems to have just done on an individual scale.

The pope wouldn’t do something so weird and passive-aggressive! Well, exceptthis one does. 12

Tellingly, the Vatican did not say “the allegations are frankly absurd, and the holy father said no such thing,” which is what one might expect if you-know-who said no such thing. I should imagine the Holy See should deny such a story as swiftly as the Clinton White House might have denied a story that Clinton had called a woman and had phone sex with her. 13 (Imagine that the Clinton WHPO, when asked, confirmed that the call took place, but, instead of denying the allegation as to content, said that it was private!)

No one supposes that this phone call changes church teaching, but, I argued (and maintain), is the scandal of it not troubling enough? Once the story became public, failure to drop the hammer on it swiftly and firmly allowed it to create scandal because there are many people who will cleave to Francis’ example over the Church’s teaching. They will deem such a dichotomy possible and legitimate, and they will conclude that the pope has “finally changed” the church’s “policy” on “divorce.” Father Dwight Longenecker—in a piece otherwise defending Francis, and so perhaps unwittingly—hit the nail on the head:

The bottom line for ordinary parish priests who are struggling with church discipline and the realities of marriage in modern life is that the secular press’ interpretations of the Pope’s actions become the new standard. 14

Quite. No matter how unwilling many people are to believe that Francis did this, their number and the intensity of their desire pales next to those who are very willing to believe it because they desperately want the church to accept their situation as regular. Francis didn’t change the teaching on marriage—but he didn’t change the rubric for the Mandatum, either, and yet, behold, his actions on Maundy Thursday are used to justify rubrical disobedience. In the same way, those who think the Church’s teaching is wrong, those who are desperate because of their own irregular marital situations, will gladly understand this as cover. 15 They will not seek to remedy their situation, they will not confess it, and they will compound the situation by receiving communion in a state of mortal sin. 16

II. Douthat and Pope

Francis’ praise for Kasper’s borderline-heretical and radioactive proposal, and indeed his very indulgence of the debate, were worrying enough, but the revelation of “the phone call” was the alarm call that should have woken everyone. It woke Douthat, who, in his original piece, destroyed the Vatican’s frivolous attempt to classify the call as a private action of no relevance to doctrine, and astutely proposed that we are risking “what you might call the late-Soviet scenario, in which Catholic doctrine is officially unaltered, but the impression grows that even the pope doesn’t really believe these things, and that when the church’s leaders affirm a controversial position they’re going through the ideological motions … and not actually trying to teach a living faith.” If that impression takes root (regardless of you-know-who’s actual, private intentions), souls will be lost.

In his follow-up, Douthat clarifies his concerns for a non-Catholic audience. 17 He points out that “what’s being proposed and discussed and debated … [is an] official mechanism whereby a divorced and remarried Catholic could, without having their previous marriage declared invalid, do penance for any sins involved in their divorce and then receive communion without their new marriage being a moral impediment to [communion].” For Douthat, “it is very hard … to understand how this kind of change wouldn’t create some pretty significant internal problems for Catholic doctrine as currently and traditionally understood,” and he recognizes that if Francis approved such a change, he “would be either dissolving important church teachings into what looks to me like incoherence, or else changing those same teachings in a way that many conservative Catholics believe that the pope simply cannot do….” And vitally, he further recognizes—he may even be the first to have said so publicly—that even if it is unlikely that Francis will do so, “it is being debated with his apparent encouragement, so the possibility has to be addressed….”

Msgr. Pope is unwilling to address the possibility. His post insists that the teaching is clear, and that it is not going to be changed. In comments, he says that we must not address the possibility, that we must trust the Holy Spirit. “For a little evidence,” he says, “go back to 1968 and everyone expects the Pope to cave on contraception. The ‘majority report’ of theologians urge him, priests and bishops are urging him. Everyone presume[s] the change is imminent. To almost everyone’s surprise Paul VI … had to say ‘No.’ Whatever Pope Francis’ personal practices of the past, when it comes time for him officially rule on the matter and write the synod exhortation, he will not, he cannot teach error in this regard.”

Six or twelve months ago, I would have said something similar. I am less and less optimistic about that, but let us set that aside and stipulate that Msgr. Pope is right. I agree that the parallel is apt, but I’m not sure that the Church’s scandalous dithering over contraception in the 1960s is entirely reassuring. Francis is heading for a “Humanæ vitæ moment,” I want to agree, and have said so, 18 but that’s not reassuring. Humanæ vitæ was catastrophic. Not because it was wrong, mind you, but because its effects were magnified by the Church’s failure to squelch the idea that it would say something else. It was “met with ‘bitter contestation’ from entire groups of bishops and was disobeyed by ‘countless faithful’” because it came only after the Church’s failure to clearly say “no” in a time in which anticipations created a “‘driving crescendo of anticipations of change.’” 19 When it came down, then, those who most wanted the change were not only wounded, they were able to convince themselves that disobedience was warranted because the decision was not only painful, it was illegitimate and wrong: everyone knew that the Church was about to change, and that everyone wanted the change, so what in God’s name was Paul doing?

On standard ecclesiastical assumptions, the Bishop of Rome will not teach error, period, 20 and on those assumptions, it follows that after the Synod, you-know-who must issue a postsynodal exhortation that is analogous to Humanæ vitæ insofar as it will reaffirm the Church’s teaching in the face of massive expectation of a different outcome. So: What happens when a freight train traveling at speed hits an immovable object? In the 1960s, the Church allowed lay opinion to get up to a dangerous speed down a track that led to an unacceptable result. In the end, as Msgr. Pope says, Paul did not actually teach error—but he was silent for too long, in an era in which the truth was openly challenged, and when he finally bestirred himself to teach the truth,  it was too late. The fallible part of the Church had already done the damage. The train was already in motion, and when Paul installed crash buffers with Humanæ vitæ, the result was a violent derailment that scars the Church to this day.

Now you-know-who is repeating the same mistake. There is nothing pastoral about letting people believe that an intimate and painful teaching is about to change when it isn’t. There is nothing merciful about all-but inviting people who are already hurting to go into schism. If our ecclesiastical assumptions are right, the expectations that Francis has raised, the hopes that he has raised or allowed to be raised, are going to crash into the buffers and violently derail at high speed, just like the hopes that were raised before Humanæ vitæ. 21 For many people, it will be unbearably-painful. Francis will (as Msgr. Pope says) suffer for it, just as Paul suffered for Humanæ vitæ, but in the end, it’s the Church that will be worse for it, just as she was after Humanæ vitæ. 22

What Paul should have done was apply the brakes years sooner. He should never have let the train get moving, and if it was moving before his election, he should have stopped it at the very first opportunity while there was still time to do so gently. It’s sterile to talk about what Francis should have done differently, but what he should do now, and the sooner the better, is to stop this train. Right now. Gently if possible, forcefully if not. Expressly and personally reaffirm the teaching, cancel the Synod, excommunicate Cardinal Kasper—a better-looking idea with each new day—and depose the renegade German prelates. Because with every passing day, it picks up more speed and the crash will be worse. The salient lesson of Humanæ vitæ, it seems to me, is not that the magisterium was preserved from teaching error, but that the Holy Spirit was pleased to rescue the Church from error only after every human element failed.

* * *

Tempers snapped so violently when Paul reaffirmed the Church’s teaching on contraception because hopes had been stretched so very taught in anticipation of change; as we reflect today on the run-up to the synod, as we consider that hopes are being stretched ever-taughter in anticipation of a change that cannot, will not come, we must surely foresee a violent reaction. And the more that you-know-who ups the anticipation that he’s about to apostatize on divorce, the more pain and disenchantment and blowback he will create when (or if) he affirms the traditional teaching.

When or if? I must admit that the last year has beaten Msgr. Pope’s optimism out of me. I applaud Douthat for being frank and honest enough to raise the possibility of catastrophic consequences; he sees clearly that “the church’s claim to a constant, non-contradicting authority lies close to the heart of why many conservative Catholics are conservative Catholics.” He’s right. If the Church of Rome apostasizes, there will be a very serious argument that the premise for my being Catholic will stand falsified. 23 The fact that she is even flirting with apostasy is scandalous and distressing enough! But if she actually does it, I may have to face the possibility that the Catholic Church is not what I thought she was. So will you.

That said, the Synod is unlikely to do anything cleanly and clearly, and this pope is incapable of it, so I think it unlikely that I will wake up one morning to discover in the newspaper that I have been wrong all along; whatever comes out of the Synod will probably have to be weighed and disentangled. There are certainly proposals that could come out of it that would be stupid, dangerous, pastorally unacceptable, and yet not actually heresy. 24 But I think we need to start thinking about the possibility. Everyone sees where this is going, the direction we are being dragged, and there seems little that we can do to stop it. So we have to start considering, as Douthat wisely does, what the world looks like the day after a postsynodal exhortation endorsing the Kasper proposal is handed down, lest we be blindsided. We have to start thinking about what can be said to calm the storm thus unleashed to allow the weighing and disentangling just mentioned, because if anything seems certain, it is that what comes out of the Synod will be less straightforward than it appears at first blush.

As Msgr. Pope recognizes, the Church cannot change this teaching. So what, then, will we do if the Synod makes a mushy, vague recommendation of “mercy” (=change) and Francis writes a mushy, vague endorsement of “mercy” (=change)? That seems the most likely outcome and we know what will be done with such statements “on the ground,” as Fr. Longenecker recognizes. If the Church is what she claims to be, she cannot do this. If she does do this, what will we then think?


  1. Douthat, More Catholic than the Pope, NY Times Blogs, April 29, 2014, http://douthat.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/04/29/more-catholic-than-the-pope/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0; Douthat, The Pope’s Phone Call, The New York Times, April 26, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/27/opinion/sunday/douthat-the-popes-phone-call.html; Pope, The Church Cannot Change Her Doctrine on Marriage and Divorce: Concerns for the Upcoming Synod, Archdiocese of Washington Blog, May 4, 2014, http://blog.adw.org/2014/05/the-church-cannot-change-her-doctrine-on-marriage-and-divorce-concerns-for-the-upcoming-synod.
  2. Cf. Ed Peters, Let’s understand what’s at stake, In the Light of the Law, Dec. 12, 2013, http://canonlawblog.wordpress.com/2013/12/12/lets-understand-whats-at-stake. As this post goes to press, Edward Pentin reports that Lorenzo Cardinal Baldisseri, the secretary-general of the Synod, and thus, as Father Zuhlsdorf astutely observes, a man positioned to skew the proceedings of Synod, “says he wants a change in Church teaching on marriage,” that “it is time to update Church marriage doctrine, for example in connection with divorce, the situation of divorcees and people who are in civil partnerships.” Edward Pentin, Synod Secretary General Wants Change in Church’s Teaching on Marriage, The National Catholic Register, May 7, 2014, http://www.ncregister.com/blog/edward-pentin/sec.-general-of-synod-wants-change-in-churchs-teaching-on-marriage; Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, What is Card. Baldissieri up to?, May 8, 2014, http://wdtprs.com/blog/2014/05/what-is-card-baldissieri-up-to/ . Nevertheless, the characterizations are Pentin’s, and it is not yet clear what Baldisseri said.
  3. See John Allen, Fracas over divorce stirred by call from the pope, The Boston Globe, April 25, 2014, http://www.bostonglobe.com/news/world/2014/04/25/fracas-over-divorce-stirred-call-from-pope-francis/jooLklqtjP90teJpEk7drM/story.html?rss_id=Top-GNP .
  4. Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, Secret Consistory: How did other Cardinals react to Card. Kasper’s proposals?, WDTPRS, March 26, 2014, http://wdtprs.com/blog/2014/03/secret-consistory-how-did-other-cardinals-react-to-card-kaspers-proposals); see, e.g., Edward Pentin, Criticism Mounts Over Cardinal Kasper’s Speech on Divorce and Remarriage, National Catholic Register, March 25, 2014, http://www.ncregister.com/blog/edward-pentin/criticism-mounts-over-cardinal-kaspers-speech-on-divorce-and-remarriage; Robert Fastiggi, A Reflection on Cardinal Kasper’s Speech on the Family, Zenit, March 12, 2014, http://www.zenit.org/en/articles/a-reflection-on-cardinal-kasper-s-speech-on-the-family .
  5. Transcript: Pope Francis’ March 5 interview with Corriere della Sera, CNA, March 5, 2014, http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/transcript-pope-francis-march-5-interview-with-corriere-della-sera
  6. See generally Allen, supra note 4.
  7. See Daniel Burke, Pope stirs Communion debate with call to woman, CNN Belief Blog, April 23, 2014, http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2014/04/23/popes-stirs-communion-debate-with-call-to-woman; Vatican: Francis phone call doesn’t mark a change in Church teaching, April 24, 2014, http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2014/04/24/vatican-francis-phone-call-doesnt-mark-a-change-in-church-teaching. It was interesting watching the evolution of the neo-ultramontane spin on the story. First, they insisted that the call never happened. Then the Vatican confirmed it and the neo-ultramontanes said that we still can’t be sure, that the confirmation was ambiguous. Then the Vatican gave a second confirmation, and it became futile to deny the obvious. Thus defeated in spin 1, they next insisted that the call didn’t involve the alleged content. But in light of the Vatican’s refusal to deny the content of the call, which amounted to confirmation, it seems futile to deny the obvious.
  8. Doubts increase over Pope’s alleged phone call on divorce, CNA, Apr 24, 2014, http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/doubts-increase-over-popes-alleged-phone-call-on-divorce/ .
  9. When you-know-who was elected, Rorate coeli and many in its orbit went berzerk. They insisted that Jorge Card. Bergoglio had been an avowed foe of the usus antiquior. I defended him; the evidence tendered was scanty at best and a pope deserves a fair shot. So I did not start as a critic.
  10. See Allen, supra note 4 (“As he’s in the habit of doing, especially with people from his native country or his adopted home in Italy, Francis picked up the phone on Monday after reading the letter and called her” (emphasis added)); Andrea Gagliarducci, Pope Francis calls a traditionalist writer who criticized him, CNA, Nov. 23, 2013, http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/pope-francis-calls-a-traditionalist-writer-who-criticized-him/ .
  11. “Who am I to judge”; “small-minded rules”; “stubbornly try[ing] to recover a past that no longer exists”; “we don’t want to change and what’s more there are those who wish to turn the clock back”; “we can’t be obsessed with abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptives”; “I am a son of the church”; “[g]iven that many of you do not belong to the Catholic Church, and others are not believers, I give this blessing from my heart, in silence”; “even the atheists, everyone!”; “sacristy christians”; “yes? does this sound good?”; “the dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent”; “I want people to make a mess.” These are just examples that spring readily to mind.
  12. Compare Allen, supra note 4 (noting that regardless of Francis’ apparent sympathy for a doctrinal change, “[i]f a substantial bloc of bishops argues against change in October’s meeting, it might induce Francis to stay his hand”), with Christa Pongratz-Lippitt, Pope says married men could be ordained if world’s bishops agree, The Tablet, April 10, 2014, http://www.thetablet.co.uk/news/659/0/pope-says-married-men-could-be-ordained-priests-if-world-s-bishops-agree-on-it .
  13. See generally Sandino, Parsing the Modern non-denial denial, Daily Kos, Jan. 25, 2014, http://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/01/25/1271623/-Parsing-the-Modern-Non-Denial-Denial-A-Field-Guide-to-Statements-of-the-Unindicted. Stories quickly gain legs when they reflect the existing narrative about a person. See Simon Dodd, Developing an idea, Stubborn Facts, April 21, 2007, http://stubbornfacts.us/politics/partisanship/developing_an_idea .
  14. Rev. Dwight Longenecker, Did Pope Francis Just Endorse Communion for the Divorced and Remarried?, Aleteia, April 24, 2013, http://www.aleteia.org/en/religion/article/did-pope-francis-just-endorse-communion-for-the-divorced-and-remarried-5781297871978496; accord, e.g., Sandro Magister, Francis, the Pope of “Humanae Vitae”, Chiesa, May 1, 2014, http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/1350783?eng=y (the Vatican’s rationalizations of Francis’ actions and words “do[] not attenuate their impact on public opinion”).
  15. Cf., e.g., Chris Mooney, What is Motivated Reasoning? How Does It Work?, The Intersection, May 5, 2011, http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection/2011/05/05/what-is-motivated-reasoning-how-does-it-work-dan-kahan-answers/ .
  16. I want to suggest that there is another problem here. Not only does this pope scandalize and jeopardize the souls of those who will be mislead into thinking their marital situation is okay, it also occurs to me that there is a problem at the other end. I know at least one person who is so scandalized by this wretched pontificate that he is flirting with sedevacantism. I think that there are some people out there who cannot reconcile the stupid things that Francis says with their beliefs (often unexamined, neo-ultramontane, and erroneous) about the papacy, and they will reconcile that cognitive dissonance in the most straightforward, painless way, which will never be (of course) to examine and correct their mistaken beliefs about the papacy, it will be to simply declare that Francis is not or cannot be pope, thus lapsing into schism, which is very likely a mortal sin per se.
  17. The insult “more Catholic than the pope,” which Douthat invokes (presumably tongue-in-cheek) in his title, is incompatible with a familiarity with papal history. There have been many pontificates in which one could say with little fear of contradiction that most laymen were “more Catholic than the pope”; there is an era of papal history so depraved that it goes by the name of “the pornocracy”—google it—and you can infer what kind of men sat on the throne of Peter in that era. John XII seems to have been a murderer, fornicator, and gambler: A “coarse, immoral man,” says the Catholic Encyclopædia, “whose life was such that the Lateran was spoken of as a brothel, and the moral corruption in Rome became the subject of general odium.”  See generally John Julius Lord Norwich, Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy (2012). To paraphrase John Henry Card. Newman, be be in any way familiar with papal history is to cease being an unqualified ultramontane.
  18. E.g. http://wdtprs.com/blog/2013/10/i-find-your-lack-of-faith-invalidating/#comment-435128.
  19. Francis will not be prisoner to public opinion, CNA, May 4, 2014, http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/francis-can-stand-against-the-majority-vaticanista-says (quoting Magister, supra note 14).
  20. N.b., this is an assumption, and one with a significantly broader sweep than the Church’s formal teaching about the papal magisterium.
  21. Accord Magister, supra note 14 (“the decision will come at the end of 2015 or at the beginning of the following year, not before, under the formidable pressure of a public opinion that at that point is likely to be almost exclusively expecting a yes”).
  22. The pain caused by thwarted expectations left people too hurt to listen to what Paul eventually had to say. I would venture that few of the ex-Catholics who left over Humanæ vitæ has ever read it.
  23. See Simon Dodd, The Catholic Proposition, 2 MPA 80 (2012); accord Dodd, Authoritative teaching, liturgy, and authority, 3 MPA __ (2013).
  24. For example, as we go to print, Card. Kasper has just told Commonweal that you-know-who believes that half of all marriages are not valid. Patrick Archbold, Kasper: Pope Thinks 50% of Marriages Not Valid, Creative Minority Report, May 7, 2014, http://www.creativeminorityreport.com/2014/05/kasper-pope-thinks-50-of-marriages-not.html. So that suggests one possibility that would, presumably, satisfy Msgr. Pope’s insistence that the Church teaches that marriage is indissoluble, and she cannot and absolutely will not going to change that teaching, for she will do no such thing: She will simply declare that most purported marriages weren’t actually
    marriages at all, and while they would be binding were they actually marriages,
    they aren’t. So that’s okay, right? Nothing to see here. Cf. Benedict XVI, Audience with the Clergy of Rome, Feb. 14, 2013, available at
    http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2013/february/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20130214_clero-roma_en.html (noting that the media’s portrait of the a council may be mistaken for the council itself).

A time for choosing

As it happened, Easter fell on 4/20 this year, the day on which addicts throughout America titter at the happenstance of the date resembling an early drug meme. (I don’t know whether drugs are harmful, but the foregoing suggests detrimental consequences to one’s sense of humor.) This coincidence underlines the choice before Catholics between the Church of God, which warns against drugs, and the World, which, increasingly, shrugs.

Elsewhere, it was urged that recreational use of cannabis need not be confessed. That is error. There is no question that cannabis is a drug, and there is no question that the Church teaches that the recreational use of drugs is a mortal sin: “The use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life. Their use, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, is a grave offense,” i.e. a “mortal-qualified sin,” if you will. 1

It is no answer to gainsay the judgment that cannabis should be treated in a different way from, say, tobacco, or alcohol, and to demand that the Church explain her judgment. Asking “why is pot a no-no yet alcohol is okay” is not essentially different from saying “why are female priests a no-no yet married priests are okay”; the impulse behind that the question is invariably a demand to reweigh the evidence in an effort to evade the teaching rather than a good-faith attempt to understand it. The Church has made a distinction between “drugs” and alcohol; whether that answer makes sense to you or not is  irrelevant.

The pertinent inquiry is not whether cannabis is dangerous, or what else qualifies as a drug: It is what the Catechism means when it refers to “drugs.” Because paragraph 2291 does not specifically define the word “drug,” we resort to background interpretative principles. When a word is neither expressly-defined nor draws a precise definition from the immediate context, its use elsewhere in the document, or an understood technical meaning, we interpret its use in the common, ordinary sense of the time that is suggested by the context. Thus, for example, when John Paul II refers in Evangelium vitae 88 to conditions of hardship imposed by challenges such as “drug addiction” and those of “the mentally ill,” it would be desultory to argue that he had in mind not only those suffering under the weights of, for example, heroin addiction and schizophrenia, but also those whose fondness for coffee is technically an addiction and those whose anxiety about spiders is technically phobic.

Accordingly, the decisive question is whether, when the Catechism was written, the term “drugs” was understood to include cannabis. It did; now as then, cannabis was considered a “drug.” Accordingly, where the Catechism uses the word “drugs,” that reference includes cannabis because the word “drugs” ordinarily includes cannabis.

Seeking to evade that obvious result, my interlocutor argued that “[a] drug, according to the catechism, causes harm to human health and life. Those are the criteria laid out for us … [and] until [the Church] chooses to enlighten us on what, specifically, [is] a ‘drug’ …, we are left to … try to determine … that on our  own.” 2 Sequentially-stated, the theory of that argument is:

  1. The Catechism defines the use of “drugs” as serious subject-matter,
  2. it defines a “drug” as a substance that “causes harm to human health and life,” and
  3. it therefore remands to the individual Catholic to determine whether a particular substance causes harm and is, for that reason, a drug.

That theory is false. Paragraph 2291 of the Catechism, to which her theory refers, is not definitional; it does not say that “a drug is a substance that causes harm to human health and life.” It says that “[t]he use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life.” Those are very different statements. To say that a drug inflicts grave harm is not to say that that which inflicts grave harm is a drug—that would be nonsense, just as to say that water can drown a child is not to say that that which drowns children is water.

It might help to break down paragraph 2291 into smaller chunks:

¶ 2291: Drugs.
The use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life.
(b) The use of drugs, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, is a grave offense.
(c) Clandestine production of and trafficking in drugs are scandalous practices. They constitute direct co-operation in evil, since they encourage people to practices gravely contrary to the moral law.

Whether cannabis causes “very grave damage” would be the pertinent question if ¶ 2291(a) defined a drug as something that “causes grave harm to human health and life,” and ¶ 2291(b) was qualified by that definition, but as we can see, neither of those predicates are true. The Catechism does not define a drug as something that “causes grave harm to human health and life,” it assumes the common and ordinary definition of “drugs,” asserts that they “cause[] grave harm to human health and life,” and makes a freestanding prohibition on their use for non-therapeutic grounds.

In fine: Whether one agrees with the assessment of ¶ 2291(a) in regard to any particular drug has no bearing on the relevant questions which are, again, (1) does the Church teach that recreational use of “drugs” is a grave sin, and (2) do the magisterial documents that express the Church’s teaching on “drugs” understand cannabis to be a “drug”? The answer to both of those questions is, beyond serious cavil, “yes.”


  1. CCC ¶ 2291
  2. Accordingly, she argued, cannabis cannot be considered a drug because it is not dangerous, and its use should not be considered sinful since there are other, more dangerous drugs: “[E]nergy drinks could be said to be more ‘drug-like’  than cannabis, since they are directly responsible for killing more  people and therefore more harmful to human health.  … Tobacco is somehow excluded from this, though it is highly addictive and will horribly kill 25% of those who use it. Alcohol is also excluded, though it is much more addictive and causes much more death and destruction than marijuana.

The new ultramontanes

“The personality of the Pope alone contributed to it. His charm and open nature, so different from the reserved behavior of his predecessor, … gradually gave him … a popularity such as no pope had known before him.” 1 Apposite though that line might seem, it was written of Pio Nono, and the “it” referred to is the rise and apparent triumph of ultramontanism. I want to suggest that there is a dangerous current in the Church today and that rebuffing it requires us to reexamine what happened between the Gallicans and the Ultramontanes. 2

I. The old ultramontanes

Gallicanism and ultramontanism were tendencies, schools of thought in ecclesiology. Broadly-defined, Gallicanism may be thought analogous to Anglicanism in its insistence on the distinct and independent nature of national churches, whereas ultramontanism insists on the prerogatives and authority of the Pope, the “papa ultra montano,” the “father beyond the mountains.” The conventional wisdom is that the First Vatican Council’s constitution Pastor æternus crushed Gallicanism and baptized Ultramontanism as orthodoxy; the treatments of the topic in the the roughly contemporary Catholic Encyclopedia and Encyclopedia Britannica both reflect this assumption. But the assumption is wrong.

What did the Ultramontanes believe? There is a temptation to circular reasoning: The ultramontanes believed what Pastor ætenus teaches, and we know that because they prevailed at the first Vatican council, and we know that they prevailed at the first vatican council because Pastor æternus teaches what the ultramontanes believed. It is difficult to define ultramontanism more precisely than in the broad strokes just used because, perhaps like Anglicanism, it comprised diverse people of diverse tones and emphases. And like any movement, it had moderates and extremists. Nevertheless, the 1911 Britannica article on ultramontanism says—correctly, I think—this:

It is indisputably legitimate to speak of Ultramontanism as a distinct policy, but it is very difficult to define its essential character. For, true to its nature, it has itself drawn up no complete programme of its objects, and, in addition to its avowed aims, its subsidiary effects claim attention. There is something chameleon-like in its appearances; its genuine views are kept in the background from tactical considerations, and first one aspect, then another, comes into prominence. It is evident, therefore, that the request for a definition of Ultramontanism cannot be answered with a concise formula, but that the varied character of its manifestations necessitates a more detailed examination of its peculiar objects. 3

I think correct Fr. Ignaz von Döllinger’s assessment, quoted thereafter, that the Ultramontane view is largely that

[t]he pope is the supreme, the infallible, and consequently the sole authority in all that concerns religion, the Church, and morality , and each of his utterances on these topics demands unconditional submission—internal no less than external.

The Ultramontanes, then, did not merely support papal infallibility as we know it today. They “exalted the Papacy.” 4 They did not merely emphasize its prerogatives, they “support[ed] … an active intervention of the Roman pontiffs in the governance of national churches” and a “vocal insistence on the papal magisterium.” 5 They “argued for a strong papacy whose voice would be decisive in matters of doctrine and authority,” because “only a strong papacy could protect the Church against … heterodox movements. 6

That is not the Second Vatican Council’s ecclesiology. But more importantly, it is not the First Vatican Council’s ecclesiology, either. Pastor æternus gives a much more modest, qualified endorsement of the papal prerogatives, and so it’s little surprise when we read that Pius IX was unable to water down Pastor æternus to accommodate the concerns of the Gallicans because it was already a compromise from what the ultramontanes wanted. 7

Pastor æternus “teach[es] and declare[s] that … a primacy of jurisdiction over the whole Church of God was immediately and directly promised to” and conferred upon Peter,” and that “the Roman Church [therefore] possesses a pre-eminence of ordinary power over every other Church, and that this jurisdictional power of the Roman Pontiff is both episcopal and immediate.” The ultramontanes believed not only this but also that the pope should actively use that authority in an interventionist way. The council did not say that. 8

Pastor æternus “teach[es] and define[s] as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks ex cathedra , that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals.” The ultramontanes believed in infallibility, but many of them would have accepted few of those hedges and caveats; there was a strong current of “the pope can do no wrong, can speak no wrong” that would attribute infallibility to almost every utterance. The council did not say that.

II. The new ultramontanes

When people like the pope, it’s natural to emphasize the authority of the papacy, a fortiori if one senses that the broader episcopal barrel has a number of bad apples in it. That seems to have been the case with Pio Nono. But what happens when there’s a bad pope? As Brantly Millegan pointed out in a prescient article last year, “[t]he danger of good popes” is that when “there has not been an egregiously bad pope in recent memory ,” it’s easy “to think that popes will always be this good, or that God protects the papacy from grave immorality or stupidity.” 9

A year ago, I would not have resisted the label “ultramontane”—keen-eyed readers will notice that posts on this blog appear beneath a papal crest—and would have cheerfully recited the conventional wisdom that since Vatican I, ultramontanism has merged into Catholic orthodoxy. As we have seen, that is not quite right. For a while, though, it was right enough; that kind of sloppy thinking worked when Benedict XVI was pope, because there was no need to delineate carefully between the prerogatives proper to the papacy itself and the substantial deference and respect afforded to its distinguished occupant. But with Francis’ election to the See of Rome, it became necessary to think more precisely, and I have become convinced that in recent decades, in Millegan’s words, conservatives have “overstate[d] the role, powers, and privileges of the papacy.”

We need to pause and back up a little. One of the most helpful things that I read during the last year was a blog post by Joseph Shaw that I resisted for some time because I felt Shaw’s framing was overly tendentious. Nevertheless, reflection persuaded me that he is substantially correct, and so I want to give you just a little of that post, edited to use terminology that I think is more helpful and to focus on the points onto which I latched:

One very easy misconception is that Traditionalism fits onto the same linear scale as ‘liberal’ and ‘[conservative[', but at the extreme [conservative] end … [W]hen [Conservative] Catholics become [Trads] … they give up two positions which are crucial to the standard ‘conservative Catholic’ offering: Legal Positivism and Ultramontanism.

[Conservatives] might deny that they really hold these positions, but … [t]hey accept whatever has just been enacted by the Church as the most authoritative statement on any subject, regardless of the weight of earlier laws, or considerations such as Natural Justice and custom. And they place enormous emphasis on the person of the Pope, seeking at all costs to endorse and live by even their non-magisterial statements and philosophical preferences … [But] neither Legal Positivism nor Ultramontanism are teachings of the Church. It is going to be particularly painful for conservatives under the present pontificate, however, since Pope Francis is even more clearly opposed to these tendencies than his immediate predecessors. …

Perhaps [conservatives] great respect for the Office of the Papacy will lead them to reassess these attitudes, and become [Trads]…. On the blog of … [the conservative] Fr. Longenecker, is a neat expression of the dilemma. … ["]I find [the Jesuit publications] interview very hard. I have accepted that this is the Holy Father’s personal view, and that it is not infallible, but this interview is challenging my prior notion of what devotion to the Papacy meant because previously I would not have selected what the Popes said but assiduously read things like this. I can’t get past the cognitive dissonance.["]

Did you get that? While in theory he accepts the distinctions between fallible and infallible, and between magisterial and private, in practice, up to now, he has tried to accept whatever any Pope has said without ‘selection’. He doesn’t mention this, but this only applies to living Popes, otherwise he would have gone mad long ago. 10

I think that analysis trenchant. From a conservative perspective, I would suggest that most Catholics under forty have no recollection of a bad pope, and our direct, personal experience has been two giants who were adored and respected far beyond what we might know, intellectually, to have been above and beyond the ex officio authority of the papacy. How much mileage did the “reform of the reform” try to extract from Benedict’s liturgical example? There is no particular reason why the Bishop of Rome’s preference in ars celebrandi ought to be normative for the Latin Rite, but we often spoke as though it was, forgetting (or at least failing to emphasize) the point made by Shawn Tribe in the aftermath of the conclave:

Pope Benedict’s liturgies were indeed identified as exemplars in the recent past but that was not because it was the pope’s liturgy that it was an exemplar; rather it was an exemplar because they were liturgies celebrated according to sound liturgical principles. It is the principles that matter and we should keep that always closely in mind. 11

There was a natural tendency to project our personal esteem for and deference to the man onto the office. Our language naturally starts to enlarge the papacy. When that office is taken over by someone else, that shock to the system forces us—or should force us—to consider whether there has been an undue rhetorical excess that has enlarged our rhetoric about the papacy to fit great popes. This should be a chastening experience.

* * *

The old ultramontanism was a spectrum of opinion that ranged from what is today the orthodoxy of Pastor æternus all the way up to what today might be called papolatry.

Today, there is a contingent of neo-ultramontanes among conservatives who are wedded to a way of thinking that, no matter how much they might disclaim it, places excessive emphasis on the papacy, and the dignity and personal competence of the pope. They can’t quite adjust to the new reality, or bring themselves to believe that it must. So much of what we had thought was part and parcel of the papacy was in fact an incident of two good popes. Whenever controversy happens—it’s never far away with Francis—the conservative neo-ultramontanes, of whom Jimmy Akin springs most readily to mind, jump in to spin anything Francis says, to put the most determinedly-positive and orthodox spin possible. They will insist, no matter how implausible the spin must be, that Francis is the victim of forces beyond his control, that what he says is clear and orthodox, but it is invariably misreported and mangled by reporters, that there just isn’t enough evidence. Just this week, we saw the pattern: Deny outright until evidence appears, insist that there’s not enough evidence until there is, and then spin, spin, spin.

A hesitance to believe alarming accusations about a pope, and an impulse to defend him, is, as Millegan notes, a good thing in the abstract. But a refusal to accept the obvious, a radical skepticism about anything that tends to be critical of a pope, is ultramontane and unhealthy. Is it not written in the Letter to the Galatians: “When Cephas came to Antioch, I said ‘now hang on a minute, chaps, what’s the source for this story that he refused to eat with the gentiles? Can you really believe what the gentile’s husband said on their facebook page? I mean, this is our Pope, our Holy Father we’re talking about, we shouldn’t criticize him. I mean, okay, the meal took place, but do we really ‘know’ that Peter separated himself for fear of the circumcision party?”

This disastrous pontificate should force conservatives to more carefully examine what the Church truly teaches about the papacy, and to distinguish between its prerogatives, on the one hand, and the latitude, deference, and respect to which a pope is personally entitled as a rebuttable presumption.


  1. 8 History of the Church 307 (Jeden, ed. 1981).
  2. Careful usage should favor “ultramontane” for an adherent of ultramontanism, for fear of confusion with adherents of the second-century Montanist heresy.
  3. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/1911_Encyclop%C3%A6dia_Britannica/Ultramontanism
  4. Encyclopedia of Catholicism 1278 (McBrien, ed. 1995).
  5. 2 Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought 1087 (Coulter et al, eds. 2007).
  6. Modern Catholic Encyclopedia 849 (Glazier & Hellwig, eds. 2004).
  7. See 8 History of the Church, supra, at 329-30.
  8. Pastor æternus continues, and the ultramontanes would demur, that “[t]his power of the Supreme Pontiff by no means detracts from that ordinary and immediate power of episcopal jurisdiction, by which bishops, who have succeeded to the place of the apostles by appointment of the Holy Spirit, tend and govern individually the particular flocks which have been assigned to them.” This delicate and seemingly contradictory balance was further explicated by the Second Vatican Council but remains a vexing and complex topic in ecclesiology.
  9. Millegan, The Danger of Good Popes, First Things, Sept. 27, 2013, http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2013/09/the-danger-of-good-popes.
  10. Shaw, Mystical not ascetic, LMS Chairman’s Blog, Oct. 8, 2013, http://www.lmschairman.org/2013/10/mystical-not-aescetic-response-to-pope.html. We all recognize, I hope, that there are distinctions between conservatives, traditionalists with a small t, and Trads with a large T. To my mind, conservatives and traditionalists are largely the same thing for most purposes, but as Shaw notes, Trads are in a different place.
  11. Shawn Tribe, Some Liturgical Thoughts for the NLM Following the Election of Pope Francis, New Liturgical Movement, March 15, 2013, http://www.newliturgicalmovement.org/2013/03/some-liturgical-thoughts-for-nlm.html#.U1sP0VdWOSo. Tribe astutely notes that “the idea of a ‘personal liturgical style’ is inherently problematic since the liturgy is no one’s personal possession to alter and shape at whim or will—not even a pope’s.”

The foothills of sedevacantism

Elsewhere, it was suggested that priests ordained in the postconciliar Rite of Ordination might need be “conditionally [re-]ordained (ordained in the Traditional Rite), taking the Oath against modernism … Were they ordained in the true Traditional Rite or the new rite? It makes a world of difference as the form (words) were completely changed in the new rite of ordination! … Every prayer in the Traditional Rite which stated specifically the essential role of a priest as a man ordained to offer propitiatory sacrifice for the living and dead has been removed.”

I agree that the Oath against Modernism should be reinstated, and I agree that the postconciliar revisions to the form promulgated by Paul VI in Pontificalis Romani are unfortunate, but  to the extent that the validity of the revised form is questioned, rather than its felicity, we are, literally, in the foothills of sedevacantism.

My interlocutor expressly denied being a sedevacantist, but this is a train that has only one destination. If the new rites of ordination and consecration are invalid, Jorge Bergoglio’s ordination in March 1969 was perforce invalid, and his consecration as a bishop in June 1992 was also invalid—ergo (long story short) he cannot today be the legitimate Bishop of Rome. 1 It inexorably follows from the denial of the validity of the postconciliar Rite of Ordination that Jorge Bergoglio is not today the legitimate incumbent of the Roman See.

And the tear won’t stop there: If Bergoglio isn’t, either someone else is, or the See is vacant. The last person elected to the papacy before Bergoglio was Joseph Card. Ratzinger, but he can’t have been a legitimate pope either: He was ordained under the old rite, but consecrated a bishop in March 1977, which, if invalid, means that he was a priest when elected to the Roman See, and thus was never the legitimate Bishop of Rome absent a re-consecration which didn’t happen. 2 So we go back further. The last person elected to the papacy before Ratzinger was Karol Card. Wojtyla, pope John Paul II, who was both ordained (November 1946) and consecrated (September 1958) under the old rite, and who was therefore a bishop when elected to the Roman See, and thus did not require reconsecration and was thus legitimately the Bishop of Rome. But he’s dead. If the last person to be elected to and to legitimately hold the Roman See is dead, perforce the See is vacant—which is the very definition of sede vacante-ism.

If one’s theory produces the result that there is not currently a legitimate pope, even if that is not the focus of the argument for which the theory is advanced, I am at a loss to see how that’s not sedevacantism.

The “priesthood is a constitutive element of the Church,” 3 and it follows that it’s impossible for her to prescribe an invalid form of ordination. (And that’s assuming arguendo that it’s possible for her to prescribe an invalid form for any sacrament.) That act must participate in the ecclesial charisms because if God permitted her to get that wrong, one generation could cut the throat of all subsequent generations by breaking the apostolic succession, thereby permitting the gates of hell to prevail against the Church. 4 Whatever concerns we may harbor about the new ordination rite, it must be valid, because if it is not, virtually every priest and bishop walking around today was invalidly ordained, millions of Christ’s faithful have been led into inadvertent idolatry, and, as the numbers of priests ordained and bishops consecrated under the old rite dwindle, the valid celebration of the sacraments and the apostolic succession itself disappears into the twilight.

It’s important to look at the theory that underlies one’s argument, to understand where that theory goes, and to realize that you can’t ride the theory only so far as you want your argument to go. This theory has disturbing implications that should make one think twice.


  1. The long version might go something like this. I am aware of no prerequisite in ecclesiology that a man must be a bishop when he is elected Pope, and there is (unhappy) precedent for that happening in Urban V, Celestine V, and Leo VIII. But since it is obvious that the bishop of Rome must be a bishop, it is obvious that a layman, deacon, or priest elected to the Roman See must be consecrated (and ordained, if a layman or deacon). Therefore, if Bergoglio’s original ordination and consecration were invalid, he was a layman when elected to the Roman See, and while that election is not invalid, he must be (legitimately) ordained and consecrated before he can legitimately assume the Cathedra Petri. Which, of course, he has not been, and will not now submit to, which means that he is not today the legitimate Bishop of Rome.
  2. His appointment as cardinal was also canonically illicit, because while a pope can waive the requirement imposed by John XXIII that a cardinal be a bishop, as was done with Avery Card. Dulles, John Paul II didn’t waive that requirement in Fr. Ratzinger’s case, for the good and sufficient reason that he thought (mistakenly, of course) that Ratzinger was a bishop. Do you see how far one can tumble down the insane rabbithole of sedevacantist logic, and how fast?
  3. Simon Dodd, Straight Talk on Altar Girls, 1 MPA __ (2011).
  4. I should note that it is conceivable that such an act could be done in the Last Days: If the second coming is imminent, it follows that there is no need for a continuing, valid priesthood. I am generally skeptical of arguments premised on the rapture happening before teatime.

Universæ Ecclesiæ 19

In a footnote to my post yesterday regarding the goings-on at Fisher-More College, I noted number 19 of the PCED instruction Universæ Ecclesiæ, which reads: “The faithful who ask for the celebration of the forma extraordinaria must not in any way support or belong to groups which show themselves to be against the validity or legitimacy of the Holy Mass or the Sacraments celebrated in the forma ordinaria or against the Roman Pontiff as Supreme Pastor of the Universal Church.” I noted that this text, on its face, “is a threshold requirement; its application to a continuing community is unclear.” I write today because Scott Alt and Diane Korzeniewski have each written posts that assume an “ongoing state” interpretation that is structurally and textually implausible, and at odds with the mens of the legislator, Pope Benedict. 1

As with most of the canonical issues involved, the waters are murkier than the categorical tone adopted by each side would suggest. 2 Alt and Korzeniewski seem to assume that UE19 requires that its condition must be met throughout—at every moment during—the lifespan of a “Summorum Pontificum celebrating community,” so to speak; if at any time that requirement is no longer met, the group loses its authorization and either ceases to exist ex vi facti or places its “certification” in jeopardy, subject to revocation by the granting authority. Alt says: “Last year, when … Francis curtailed the usus antiquior for the Franciscan Fri­rs of the Immaculate, it was because the[y] … had been plagued by a faction … who were suppress­ing the Novus Ordo. To do that is against the norms of [UE19]. [Pope Benedict] … allowed broader celebration of the Latin Mass [and] also forbade [usus antiquior-]Only­ism among those who say it and attend it. If you are an Only­ist, you have no right to the Latin Mass.” And Korzeniewski wonders “if that is what Bishop Olson of the Diocese of Fort Worth is acting on, in light of what is coming out on Fisher-More College. The instruction doesn’t tell the bishop how to respond, so it’s open to interpretation. ¶ What consequences does PCED foresee if such a conflict arises? Does it preclude withdrawing permission for the TLM?”

I doubt that that interpretation is tenable. Some traditionalists misread Summorum Pontificum by wrenching from their proper context the words “the priest has no need for permission from the Apostolic See or from his Ordinary,” omitting the important fact that they are describing what used to be termed “private” Masses. The “ongoing requirement” interpretation makes the same mistake. It has textual difficulties, and it forgets that Universæ Ecclesiæ is not a freestanding document but an authoritative commentary on Summorum Pontificum. This context matters.

Part III of Universæ Ecclesiæ, in which numbers 15-19 are located, sets out “specific norms” that clarify “the proper interpretation and the correct application” of Summorum Pontificum. Article V section 1 of the latter (hereinafter “SPv§1″) explains the circumstances in which members of the faithful who do not presently have, and who want, the celebration of the usus antiquior in their parish may petition for it: “In parishes, where a group of faithful adhering to the earlier liturgical tradition exists stably, let the pastor gladly receive its petitions to celebrate Holy Mass according to the rite of the 1962 Roman Missal.” 3 The stated purpose of the subsection containing UE15-19 is to clarify the meaning of SPv§1. Thus, UE15 explains how we are to interpret the terms “group of faithful” and “exist[ing] stably” not always and everywhere, but in the specific contest of SPv§1.

The meaning of UE19 is tethered to the same context. Because SPv§1 deals with the threshold requirements for a petition by a stable group of the faithful who do not yet have the usus antiquior in their parish and who are seeking to get it, it would be strange to read UE19 as dealing with an entirely different question, stating an ongoing requirement for the valid celebration of the usus antiquior in parishes where it is already celebrated. Thus, the ongoing-state interpretation disconnects the interpretation from the interpreted text.

And if it is structurally implausible given the relationship of UE19 to SPv§1, it is textually implausible because UE19 itself frames its application in the nature of a threshold test: “The faithful who ask for the celebration.” Thus, the ongoing-state interpretation effectively rewrites UE19: “The faithful who ask for attend the celebration of the forma extraordinaria must not in any way support or belong to groups which show themselves to be against the validity or legitimacy of the Holy Mass or the Sacraments celebrated in the forma ordinaria or against the Roman Pontiff as Supreme Pastor of the Universal Church.” 4

There is a third problem, too: Even if we had the authority to untether UE19 from SPv§1 and re-write it by interpretation, the ongoing-state interpretation would not be an attractive use of that authority. It is a niggardly interpretation of the mens of the Holy Father, Pope Benedict, 5 insofar as it pictures Summorum Pontificum as providing only a benevolent allowance that exists at the indulgence—suffrance, really—of the local ecclesiastics, an exceptional situation that exists only insofar as it does not get out of hand, and one over which hangs the sword of damocles, always ready to drop. This can be reconciled with neither the letter nor the spirit of Summorum Pontificum and its accompanything letter.

* * *

It may be appropriate to add a postscript. If there is a thinly-veiled paranoia in the reactions of Bp. Olson’s traditionally-inclined critics, there is a seething undercurrent of contempt for the usus antiquior and its adherents in those who have criticized the critics. “The college brings in wack job like Gruner, shuts down the ordinary form, thoroughly politicizes the EF, attacks their bishop, fails to mention that the EF is available within walking distance of the school,” Mark Shea complained an ill-considered colloquy with me on Facebook. (Shea subsequently removed his side of the conversation; fortunately, some of it has been preserved.) King, Shea insisted, was using the usus antiquior to “poison[ ]” the students. He has deleted his most inflammatory comment, but you can infer what it was from the version preserved in my rhetorical inversion of it in a reply to him: “These people hold clown Masses [read 'extraordinary form’] and I’m supposed to give a shit that they feel butthurt when the bishop doesn’t let them use the [extra]ordinary form to keep poisoning the hostages they call ‘parishioners’ [read 'students'] against the Church?”

Why is this significant? Because it reveals an attitude, a cast of mind that I would suggest is shared by Olson and by many of the “critics’ critics.” (A strange locution, I know, but what else can we say?) In Alt’s post, it pokes through in this sentence: “Bishop Olson is not try­ing to keep students from the Latin Mass, but rather to save them from an environment that has been indoctrinating them into [TLM-]Only­ism — a form of ‘Catholicism’ at odds with the teaching of the Church.” In Korzeniewski’s post, it lurks in this sentence: “[Students] at Fisher More College are seemingly being indoctrinated in a brand of Catholicism that is not in harmony with Church teaching.” 6 Latent in comments such as these is the attitude that, well, if those weirdos want it that’s all well and good, but it must be watched carefully and with suspicion, especially when the question is exposing other people to it. There is a strange recusant-era suspicion of the malus illecebrosus Missae Romanae, the “seductive evil of the Roman Mass.” In a spirit of benevolent liberalism, we will tolerate it and its adherents—but only so far, and only on a short leash, a leash that must be yanked good and hard if anyone’s getting too rowdy.

And that’s such a weird attitude. If you made similar accusations about the ordinary form—”it’s all well and good if you like it, but it’s likely to lead people astray, and so must be watched with concern”—you would be accused of precisely the kind of intolerant bigotry that those now making such assumptions about the extraordinary form decry in its adherents. One simply can’t imagine a bishop suspending the ordinary form in an oratory in his diocese because he thinks that it’s poisoning the souls of his flock. Once we invert the rhetoric, its strangeness is unmasked.


  1. See Alt, Why Latin Mass Onlyists are Destroying the Latin Mass, Scott Eric Alt, March 6, 2014, http://scottericalt.com/why-latin-mass-onlyists-are-destroying-the-latin-mass, and Korzeniewski, Did Fisher More College run afoul of Universae Ecclesiea 19?, Te Deum Laudamus, March 4, 2014, http://te-deum.blogspot.com/2014/03/did-fisher-more-college-run-afoul-of_4.html (both last visited March 6, 2014).
  2. How Summorum Pontificum interacts with canon CIC 1225 is complicated. Article 2 of Summorum Pontificum authorizes any priest to celebrate Missæ sine populo (canonically-speaking, although not necessarily literally) according to the usus antiquior. It is in that provision and context that we find the language “the priest has no need for permission from the Apostolic See or from his Ordinary.” We probably read Article V as contemplating Missa cum populo, but since a parish is not usually without a church, see 1983 CIC 1214 et seq., and since a bishop’s authority over a parish Church is distinct from his authority over an oratory (compare canons 1219 and 1225), that isn’t helpful here. And all this assumes that a university chapel is an oratory in the first place—because if it isn’t, then what, canonically-speaking, is it? Precisely to avoid this nettlesome thicket, my previous post assumed without deciding that the bishop acted lawfully.
  3. The latin text reads as follows: “In paroeciis, ubi coetus fidelium traditioni liturgicae antecedenti adhaerentium stabiliter exsistit, parochus eorum petitiones ad celebrandam sanctam Missam iuxta ritum Missalis Romani anno 1962 editi, libenter suscipiat. Ipse videat ut harmonice concordetur bonum horum fidelium cum ordinaria paroeciae pastorali cura, sub Episcopi regimine ad normam canonis 392, discordiam vitando et totius Ecclesiae unitatem fovendo.” The translation is mine. As I mentioned in an earlier footnote, insofar as this provision follows articles that deal with the celebration of Missæ sine populo by the priest, and the admission of the faithful to what are canonically “private” Masses, it makes sense to read it as dealing with the circumstances in which the faithful may petition for regular, scheduled, and public celebration of the usus antiquior in their parishes, rather than extraordinary, private, or ad hoc celebrations.
  4. “[A]mendment may not be substituted for construction.” Yu Cong Eng v. Trinidad, 271 U.S. 500, 518 (1926).
  5. But cf. UE13.
  6. Korzeniewski may rejoin, I suppose, that she did not mean to imply that the usus antiquior was the instrument of indoctrination, but that premise is necessary in order for her post to cohere. Her intention is to defend Olson: “I’m amazed that [the previously-quoted] part of it is being minimized and the bishop’s actions magnified. If these reports are true, then even if the bishop acted imprudently and was overbearing, much greater weight should be placed on things that, if true, are grave. Where is the concern for a students’ rights to learn what the Church teaches at a Catholic institution over what an administrator believes it should teach? Where is the concern over parents rights to know their kids are not being taught strange teachings at a self-described faithful institution?” But what does any of that have to do with the usus antiquior absent the assumption that the usus antiquior is an instrument of those problems?

Olson v. Fisher-More College

The newly-minted bishop of Forth Worth, his excellency Michael Olson, has written to President King of Fisher-More college purporting to revoke the college’s permission to celebrate the usus antiquior. Rorate cæli has the lead report, including the original materials 1; useful commentary is available from the Remnant, Father Z, and DAC. 2

Bp. Olson’s letter reads as follows:

Thankyou for your visit today. I am writing you to state formally what I told you during our meeting. These norms take effect immediately.
1. You do not have permission to have the public celebration of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass at the Chapel of Fisher More College. This includes Sundays and weekdays. The weekly celebration of the Extraordinary Form is available to the faithful every Sunday at St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church in Forth Worth.
2. You may only have the celebration of the Mass in the Ordinary Form by priests who explicitly have faculties for such celebration granted by me as the Bishop of Fort Worth.
3. Failure to comply with the above-stated norms will result in my withdrawal of permission to celebrate the Eucharist in your chapel along with withdrawal of permission to reserve the Blessed Sacrament in the Chapel.
I make these norms out of my pastoral solicitude and care for students of Fisher-More College as well as for your own soul. I urge you to comply with them. 3

Whether a bishop retains the authority to ban the celebration of the usus antiquior in these (or any) circumstances following the promulgation of Summorum Pontificum is questionable, but I will assume without deciding that Olson is within his rights. 4 The decision was, nevertheless, unwise.

As Father Z notes, there is much that we do not know. There is, however, some contextual information that we do know, at least through hearsay. We are told (as I had already guessed) that there are difficulties at Fisher-More that “center on Mr. King taking an increasingly severe stand regarding the Council and the changes that have occurred in the Church in the past 50 years.” 5 We are told of King’s “draconian” rule, and that “the level of excoriation for the Church and Her leaders has reached a state that even many good, traditional Catholics are scandalized by the rhetoric,” causing “[m]any students—very solid, traditional Catholic students—[to leave] the university as it seems to be heading towards such extremism the students fear scandal if they continue their studies” 6. It is suggested that there are irregularities with the priests who had been saying Mass at Fisher-More, some of whom may have lacked faculties or been under suspension. 7 Taylor Marshall, who until recently worked at Fisher-More, offered a lengthy public post on Facebook affirming such concerns and adding color and context. 8

Nevertheless, what we don’t know about this situation that is relevant could not fill a thimble. The excess of a remedy is measured in relation to the gravity of the problem (one thinks of Justice Stewart’s line from Robinson v. California that “[e]ven one day in prison would be a cruel and unusual punishment for the ‘crime’ of having a common cold”) and it is inconceivable that any problem could justify this remedy. All of the reported concerns suggest that there are problems at Fisher-More that merit episcopal concern and even intervention. Yet the remedy of suppressing the usus antiquior bears no rational relation to any of them—or to any that I can imagine.

If the problem is with the priests who have been celebrating, or what those priests have been saying, then one would expect that the remedy would address the priests, not the form of the Mass. Can any of us imagine a bishop forbidding the celebration of the ordinary form in a given parish, still less over nothing less flimsy than a question of whether priests who had recently celebrated there had questionable faculties or opinions? It is certainly possible that a proper remedy would have the effect of obliging the celebration of Mass in the ordinary form, because if the remedy is that Mass may be celebrated only by Fathers Smith and Jones, and neither Smith nor Jones know the usus antiquior, the result will be that Mass is celebrated only in the ordinary form. But that is not what Olson did. I therefore concur in Patrick Archbold’s assessment: “[T]his serious action with minimal justification directed at something so ancient and sacred, reverberates far beyond the confines of campus. This is reminiscent of other recent actions directed against the TLM with minimal justification and will likely be seen as very chilling by traditionalists within the Church, increasing that very dangerous sense of isolation.” 9

But if Olson’s remedy is problematic, his fundamental error is his failure to explain his action. When bishops and priests take action with which I disagree for reasons that seem to me valid but unpersuasive, I am inclined to defer to their judgment, even when I would come out the other way as an original matter. 10 Bishops are not middle-managers but “vicars and ambassadors of Christ, [who] govern the particular churches entrusted to them by their counsel, exhortations, example, and even by their authority and sacred power.” 11 I therefore review their decisions under a highly deferential standard that assures only that the decision is not arbitrary and capricious, upholding it “as long as (1) it is possible to offer a reasoned explanation, based on the evidence, for a particular outcome, (2) the decision is based on a reasonable explanation of relevant [factors], or (3) the [bishop] has based [his] decision on a consideration of the relevant factors that encompass the important aspects of the problem.” 12 But Olson’s letter does not explain what caused him to act, nor the connection between the problem and the remedy, and “[w]ithout a clear statement of the … rationale” for a decision, it is difficult at best to “evaluate whether [it] was proper….” 13 To be sure, disapproval of a decision is not certain “when there is an absence of reasoning in the record to support it,” 14 for, in my view, the remedy need only be rationally-related to the problem, and it may sometimes happen that the relationship of the remedy to the animating facts may be clear on the face of the facts. But Olson does not give us even that much; he makes no effort at all to explain what facts concerned him or caused him to take action. The letter is a naked exercise of power. The benefit of the doubt is purchased at the cost of the tendering of reasons, and Olson offers none.

All of this, taken in part or sum, arouses suspicion. Olson’s actions are excessive and strange, and because he cannot be so naïve as to suppose that they would not be subject to review, his refusal to explain them in the letter—the documentary basis for any review—looks like a deliberate attempt to insulate them from scrutiny. That was poorly-judged and infelicitous. If the suppression of the usus antiquior “was absolutely necessary and the only way Bishop Olson thought he could solve the problems at Fisher-More, he should have explained why his action in that regard was uniquely necessary. He should also explained under what authority he, as a bishop, managed to undo a papal act liberalizing the availability of the TLM. Bishop Olson has now caused some degree of scandal among the faithful, who feel their rights trampled upon.” 15 His failure to explain himself can only stoke those suspicions and resentments.


  1. See Adfreo, Bishop Bans Fisher More College from offering Traditional Latin Mass to students, March 3, 2014, http://rorate-caeli.blogspot.com/2014/03/Rorate-Exclusive.html (this and all other URLs cited herein last visited March 4, 2014)
  2. See Brian Mershon, “It is what it is”—Fort Worth Diocese Clarifies Bishop Olson’s Ban on Traditional Latin Mass at Fisher More College, The Remnant, March 4, 2014, http://remnantnewspaper.com/web/index.php/articles/item/323-it-is-what-it-is-fort-worth-diocese-clarifies-bishop-olson-s-ban-on-traditional-latin-mass-at-fisher-more-college; Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, Fr. Z’s first reaction to Bp. Olson banning Extraordinary Form at Fort Worth’s Fisher More College, WDTPRS, March 3, 2014, http://wdtprs.com/blog/2014/03/fr-zs-first-reaction-to-bp-olson-banning-extraordinary-form-at-fort-worths-fisher-more-college ; TantamErgo, Fisher-More denied ability to offer TLM, A Blog for Dallas-Area Catholics, http://veneremurcernui.wordpress.com/2014/03/03/fisher-more-denied-ability-to-offer-tlm.
  3. Transcribed from the scanned copy of the letter supplied by Rorate. The meeting to which the letter refers was, according to King, perfunctory: It “was very short and provided no further details other than the contents of the letter. ‘There wasn’t much discussion,’ [King] said. ‘There was no discussion about the college at all.’” Mershon, supra.
  4. As Father Z is apt to say, all it took to enthuse bishops to follow the requirements of Ecclesia Dei was the superseding enactment of Summorum Pontificum. At any rate, for analyses on the canonical issues, refer to the materials cited by the Zuhlsdorf and Adfero posts cited in notes 1 and 2 above.
  5. TantamErgo, supra.
  6. Id.
  7. Zuhlsdorf, supra.
  8. Because Facebook is not a stable medium, I take the liberty of reproducing the relevant part of his post here:

    . . . .
    … I resigned as Chancellor of the College at the beginning of June of 2013 … for the sake of conscience. I felt it would be a danger to my soul to remain at Fisher More College.

    I resigned when moral, theological, and financial discrepancies came to light regarding the presidency of Michael King. I was an ex officio member of the Board so I knew what others did not. From May to early June of 2013, five of the eight College Board Members also resigned for two reasons:

    1) Mr. King refused to disassociate himself from the public statements of faculty member Dr. Dudley that claimed in his Year of Faith lecture that Catholic professors have the duty to teach young people that Vatican 2 is not a valid Council (he also endorsed other “resistance” positions regarding the Novus Ordo, John Paul II, etc.)

    2) Mr. King, after selling the original FMC campus to Texas Christian University for millions of dollars, had imprudently entered into a real estate deal that financially crippled Fisher More College.

    Much of the politicization around the “Latin Mass and FMC” is Mr. King’s careful attempt to distract attention away from his financial misdealing at FMC. The college is currently teetering on bankruptcy and this latest entanglement with the bishop will lead to a public statement: “Fisher More closed down because the new bishop of Fort Worth persecuted the Latin Mass!” when in reality the College is failing because Mr. King entered into a dubious real estate deal that washed out college’s endowment AND all the proceeds from the sale of the original campus.

    How did a College sell its extremely valuable campus to TCU for several millions dollars in 2012 only to announce at Christmas 2013 that it might be closing without an immediate fund raising campaign through Rorate Caeli?

    . . . .

    FMC hosted a public repudiation of Vatican 2 and the Ordinary Form of the Mass in April of 2013 that was so offensive that my wife and I walked out of it before its conclusion. That did not do much to heal the breach with the local diocese or presbyterate and it contributed to the priests of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter (FSSP) discontinuing their support and presence at FMC. The current FMC website advertises that the FSSP provides a chaplain, but this is not true.

    At the same time, Michael King estranged himself from the diocese of Fort Worth by not allowing the Ordinary Form (as stipulated by the previous ordinary Bishop Vann of Fort Worth). He also contracted an irregular/suspended priest without faculties, and hired “trad resistance” faculty while there was no bishop in Fort Worth to check these developments. Mr. King was able to create a community in his image (he affectionately referred to himself the “father” of this community) during the episcopal inter-regnum of the diocese of Fort Worth.

    Clearly, a bishop’s intervention was inevitable. The current controversy really has nothing to do with the Latin Mass per se. The Latin Mass is at the center because Michael King is politicizing the Latin Mass in his favor, knowing that “bishops vs the Latin Mass” is red meat for some traditionalist blogs.

    Bishop Olson says in the letter that he is doing this for Michael King’s “soul.” The bishop understands that this is a personal intervention – and not an attack on Fisher More College or its students or the Latin Mass.

    It’s a serious pastoral problem. Mr. King no doubt leaked Bp Olson’s letter via one of his few supporters to build sympathy before the inevitable financial collapse that will expose his mishandling of Fisher More College. Mr. King, more than anything, would like to blame the inevitable collapse of FMC (within only weeks or months) on the bishop’s “persecution of the Latin Mass.”

    . . . .

    A reminder may be pertinent at this juncture that the instruction Universæ Ecclesiæ warns that “[t]he faithful who ask for the celebration of the forma extraordinaria must not in any way support or belong to groups which show themselves to be against the validity or legitimacy of the Holy Mass or the Sacraments celebrated in the forma ordinaria or against the Roman Pontiff as Supreme Pastor of the Universal Church.” N.b. this is a threshold requirment; its application to a continuing community is unclear.

  9. Archbold, Bishop Bans Fisher More College from offering TLM to students, Creative Minority Report, March 3, 2014, http://www.creativeminorityreport.com/2014/03/bishop-bans-fisher-more-college-from.html.
  10. See, e.g., Simon Dodd, Straight Talk on Altar Girls, Motu Proprio, http://simondodd.org/blog/?p=180.
  11. LG27.
  12. Tompkins v. Cent. Laborers’ Pension Fund, 712 F.3d 995, 999 (7th Cir.2013) (quoting Hess v. Hartford Life & Accident Ins. Co., 274 F.3d 456 (7th Cir. 2004)).
  13. United States v. Debenedetto, 7th. Cir., March 3, 2014 (quoting United States v. Hawk, 434 F.3d 959, 962 (7th Cir. 2006)).
  14. Williams v. Aetna Life Ins. Co., 509 F.3d 317, 321 (7th Cir.2007).
  15. TantamErgo, supra note 2; accord Patrick Archbold, A Few Additional Comments on The FMC TLM Situation, Creative Minority Report, March 3, 2014, http://www.creativeminorityreport.com/2014/03/a-few-additional-comments-on-fmc-tlm.html.

Terminology note: Pope

Via Rorate coeli, Archbishop Jan Graubner reports recent remarks by Francis I, the incumbent of the See of Rome:

When we were discussing those who are fond of the ancient liturgy and wish to return to it, … [Francis] made a quite strong statement when he said that he understands when the old generation returns to what it experienced, but that he cannot understand the younger generation wishing to return to it. “When I search more thoroughly, I find that it is rather a kind of fad.[*] And if it is a fad, therefore it is a matter that does not need that much attention. It is just necessary to show some patience and kindness to people who are addicted to a certain fashion.”

As Pat Archbold notes, this is “completely wrong, … disrespectful of the reasonable desires of so many good and faithful Catholics,” “staggering in its coarseness and dismissiveness,” and “diametrically opposed to the attitudes and pronouncement of his Holiness Pope Benedict XVI.”

It is, however, entirely characteristic of the attitudes and pronouncements of Pope Benedict’s successor, Francis. I forget the cheaper, more casual insults that he has hurled at traditionally-inclined Catholics, but just off the top of my head, it occurs to me that just as he today tells us that we are “addicts” to a “fad,” in Evangelii gaudium, he told us that we are “self absorbed promethean neo pelagians,” whatever that might mean. Shortly before that, in the Jesuit publications interview, he told us that we are hidebound by small rules, we talk about the wrong things, we are ideologues who wish to exploit the Mass, and so on. And a few months before that, we he told us that we “wish to turn the clock back,” that we are “stubborn” people who “want[ ] to tame the Holy Spirit.”

It has become apparent since that black day on which he was elected that the erstwhile Tom Marvolo Card. Riddle (I think that was it) holds people like me in complete contempt; he think that we have Catholicism all wrong, he thinks we have the wrong priorities, he thinks we’re part of the problem. These are sentiments and fraternal warmth that I am happy to reciprocate in kind. But for all the nasty names Francis is pleased to call us, I will content myself with simply not calling him by just one name. The bishop of Rome has traditionally enjoyed a nickname: “pope,” a familiar corruption of “papa.” It is not a title,** merely an affectionate appellation. For the foreseeable future, following the precedent set with regard to the rev. Hans Kung, I will no longer afford it to Francis.

* Rorate renders the Italian “moda” as “fashion,” but Father Zuhlsdorf renders it as “fad.” I adhere to Zuhldorf’s word choice not only because I trust him as a translator but because it is, in his case, an admission against interest. Zuhlsdorf is convinced that Francis’ pontificate is “in continuity” with that of Pope Benedict the Great, a case that is hardly helped by Francis dismissing as a fashion, but a fortiori as a fad, a project so dear to Benedict’s heart.

** The titles annexed to the office of the Bishop of Rome are Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Patriarch of the West (it is unclear whether Benedict XVI intended to set aside that title permanently), Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the Vatican City State, and Servant of the servants of God.

Questions presented

I’d like to make an open solicitation for views on the canonization process. Specifically:

  • Does the effect of canonization beyond announcement that “this person is in heaven” remain an open question on which the faithful may speculate and differ (see Ott, Fundamentals, §7), or has it been answered by the magisterium? (Put another way, is CCC ¶ 828′s characterization of it as “solemnly proclaiming that they practiced heroic virtue” dictum? If not, can that passage be construed so as to not require assent that the person presents an appropriate model for the lives of the faithful?)
  • Is the act of canonization infallible in any sense? If so, to what degree (see Ott, Fundamentals, §8), and where has this been taught (see 1983 CIC 749 § 3  (manifest evidence standard for putatively-infallible teaching))? (It must have been taught in the last century, because the Catholic Encyclopædia tenders nothing but private theological opinion on this point.)

Submissions by email (acolyteofscalia .at. gmail dot-com) would be appreciated.

A follow-up on Father Pavone

In September 2011, some 52 months ago, Bishop Patrick Zurek suspended Father Frank Pavone, the head of Priests For Life, proffering several inflammatory accusations. Father Pavone chose to comply with the process.

At the time, I made two observations. Father Pavone was doing the right thing, I said, by complying—a “meek obedience to his legitimate ecclesiastical superior” that contrasted with the (understandable) exasperation that prompted Fr. John Corapi to bail out. But it was important that the case be kept on the front burner, I said:

[P]ublic attention is warranted to keep this on the front burner. PFL does important work, and Bp. Zuzek has acted to effectively suspend their income. The longer this drags out, the greater a threat to PFL’s survival it is: A man can tolerate suspension without pay for a week, but make it a year and it becomes an existential threat; make it indefinite and it becomes torture. Thus it is very much in the interest of those who are concerned with the objects of PFL—which one hopes comprises all faithful Catholics—to keep this issue on the front burner, to keep it under close scrutiny in search of a speedy resolution, instead of allowing it to disappear into a bureaucratic dungeon to rot under indeterminate sentence.

I was also concerned that even if Pavone was vindicated, there was a risk that the allegations by themselves would “tarnish PFL’s reputation for a long time to come” because

[t]he guilty are often publicly exposed, but the innocent rarely enjoy complete and public vindication. The allegation runs on page one, the correction runs a month later in small print on page twenty; people mutter “no smoke without fire”; the bishop sends a very public letter asking his brothers to instruct their flocks to stop giving to PFL, but is likely to be less diligent in asking them to sound the all clear.

At long last, Pavone has been vindicated, and the matter is in the past. It remains to be seen whether the all clear will be sounded with the vigor with which the story was trumpeted, but in one sense,I feel vindicated already: That this process dragged on for over two years , leaving PFL in limbo and Pavone in a cell “rot[ting] under indeterminate sentence,” is intolerable. When we talk about the need for reform of ecclesiastical bureaucracy, it is this kind of procedural inefficiency that we must have in mind, not grand plans for ecclesiastical reform.

Pope Francis versus Paul Ryan?

Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) is among America’s most high-profile Catholics, and the media is apt to seize with glee upon any dissonance (real or invented) between his politics and his faith. We therefore turn our attention to Phillip Bump’s article Who is more Fallible on Economics, Paul Ryan or Pope Francis? 1

Bump’s article is prompted by an interview in which Ryan, having been “asked about Pope Francis’ recent sharp critique of capitalism” in Evangelii gaudium, “stood up for the free enterprise system as a way of alleviating poverty as well as being consistent with Catholic teaching.” 2 Ryan noted that Francis “is from Argentina, [where] they haven’t had real capitalism,” which is correct; he is not reported to have said, or suggested, as Bump would make him say, that “one certainly can’t critique another country’s economic system without having lived there for an extended period of time” or that “Argentina’s lame,” which is Bump’s  haracterization of the remarks.

The gravamen of Ryan’s criticism, it seems to me, is that Francis’ views on economics are mistaken and parochial, and that his worldview is limited by his experience. Both points seem correct.

The difficulties with Francis’ economic understanding have been explored in several recent articles, including two that will serve to illustrate the themes, Marian Tupy’s Is the Pope right about the world, and Phillip Booth’s Papal Pessimist. 3

Tupy lays waste to the factual foundation of Francis’ views:

The dystopian world that [he] describes, without citing a single statistic, is at odds with reality. In appealing to our fears and pessimism, the pope fails to acknowledge the scope and rapidity of human accomplishment—whether measured through declining global inequality and violence, or growing prosperity and life expectancy.

“The thesis of Evangelii gaudium is simple,” she says: “‘unbridled’ capitalism has enriched a few, but failed the poor.’” But even in America, “perceived as the paragon of free-market capitalism,” the economy is tightly-regulated.

Maybe the marketplace should be regulated less, and maybe it should be regulated more. But unbridled it is not. Moreover, the government redistributes some 40 percent of all wealth produced in America…. Much of that wealth comes from the rich and pays for everything from defense and roads to healthcare and education, which are enjoyed by Americans from all income groups. … Maybe the rich should contribute more, and maybe they should contribute less. But contribute they do—well in excess of the biblical tithe.

She goes on to eviscerate Francis’ mistakes on so-called “trickle-down” theories. (We should note that Francis has recently advanced what amounts to a defense on the question of lacking factual support: “I wasn’t speaking from a technical point of view,” he told Andrea Tornielli, as though expertise was merely decorative. 4)

Booth notes the problem of Francis’ limited and parochial experience (his conflation of markets with “the exploitation of the poor, corruption and cronyism” is explained by the idiosyncrasies and failures of South American experience with quasi-capitalist experiments), to which we will return momentarily, before writing:

Taking one or two specific issues the Pope raises, it can be seen how he hits the wrong note. Finance and banking are criticised as part of a general attack on the supposed autonomy of markets free from the constraints of government. However, the banking system is wrapped up with government regulation and state guarantees that underwrite reckless risk-taking and unethical behaviour. The Pope is desperately concerned about youth unemployment, but this is a phenomenon that rears its head most notably in countries where the market is not allowed to operate properly, such as Italy and Argentina….

Nobody idolizes the market, as Francis suggests—but

many people do sincerely believe that a free economy best serves the poor and is most compatible with our created human nature. A free economy under the rule of law with economic action cloaked in virtue is needed in Argentina, in Italy, in the countries that experienced the aborted Arab Spring. Socialist systems and corporatist systems serve rich and powerful interests at the expense of the poor. It is they that should be the target of the Pope’s proclamations.

These criticisms from Tupy and Booth, and many more like them, are trenchant—and there is no doubt that Ryan meant to associate himself with them. Father Longenecker’s response to Tupy’s article bears quotation:

What is eye opening is that [she] shows that many of our assumptions about the world are not completely true. The more I read about the facts the more it seems to me that Pope Francis, when he talks about economics and social issues, is repeating rather tired old ideological formulas that don’t always bear up to closer examination.  … To point out the continued poverty of so many, and to call for us to do even more is the pope’s job. There is no room for complacency, and we need to do everything we can for the poor, but we must also make room at the table for professional economists and theorists who can help us understand the complexities of modern economic systems and show us how to be good stewards of our blessings for the good of all, for human flourishing and a just society. 5

As I have said before, “[w]en the bishops intervene in public policy questions, they do well to tread lightly … [and], recognizing that the path from sound doctrine to sound policy is not always straight, short, and well-lit, they should do so in a manner consonant with the limits of their ex officio competence.” 6

A word must be said on Francis’ parochialism, on which both Ryan and Booth alighted. It’s a theme that I have noticed for some time: Many of Francis’ otherwise-bewildering statements snap into sharp focus if one assumes the context of a South American bishop writing to a South American flock. For example, his insistence that baptism not be denied to the children of unwed mothers make sense if he believes that that uncontroversial proposition is controversial (as it is in Argentina, we are told). 7 The irony is that you may remember that before the conclave, the knock on Timothy Cardinal Dolan wasn’t that he was an American but that his experience was too parochial—he just hadn’t spent enough time outside of the United States, and his worldview was thus too limited, too dominated by the assumptions of a man who had spent his entire life in one country. Thus,the better-travelled Sean Card. O’Malley was considered a more plausible American papabile. It was surprising, then, that mouths that had been articulating this concern were immediately cheering Jorge Card. Bergoglio, who made Dolan look cosmopolitan. Against this backdrop, Ryan’s suggestion that Pope Francis’ knowledge of economics comes from and is limited by the experience of Card. Bergoglio is not only plausible but likely.

Bump tries to rescue his narrative by insinuating artificial breadth into the papal charism: Francis is, he says, “the conduit of an omniscient God” and how silly, therefore, to suggest that he “simply doesn’t know what real capitalism looks like” or that he could be “fallible on economics.” The first part is basically correct, but the second isn’t. To be sure, the pope is the vicar of Christ, not only pastor agnus but pastor pastorum, commissioned to teach, govern, and sanctify the Church. But the scope of the magisterium is faith and morals, 8, and a pope has no ex officio expertise in economics. 9 Francis may certainly teach—at very least as an incident to the magisterium—that the purpose of the economy must be to benefit the poor, but he does not and cannot teach with authority (although he may express his own opinion) on whether this economic theory or that economic theory is most likely to accomplish that purpose. (Nor will it do to claim that economics is so inextricably and intimately-related to faith and morals that the magisterium may exercise a kind of supplemental jurisdiction over it. 10) Consider an analogy to the physical sciences. The pope can teach that “the end of science is to know the face of God,” and the pope can teach that embryonic stem cell research is not a morally-permissible methodology by which to pursue any goal, scientific or otherwise. But a pope with no scientific training who opined on the probative value of a specific scientific theory would not merely be ignored, he would be ridiculed, and justifiably-so. If Francis said “the end of science is to know the face of God, and since general relativity has no capacity to do that, it’s not a valid scientific theory,” he would be greeted with hoots of derision. So Francis is certainly fallible on economics; so is Ryan, because all humans are fallible, a principle abridged only in a narrow and defined capacity by the magisterial charisms.

One more analogy. Federal appellate judges “teach” with a sort of “authority” within their jurisdiction—subject to later correction by the Supreme Court, and with a host of other caveats, yes, but the analogy will be serviceable. Sometimes judges write books and law review articles, in which they may bring expertise with them, but in which they bring none of the authority they enjoy when “teaching ex scamno,” so to speak. But sometimes their reach exceeds their grasp. Last year, Judge Richard Posner, who is arguably one of the most influential and respected living judges in America, and inarguably the most cited one, 11 a towering figure in law (like Holmes, for both better or worse), was writing a book review for the New Republic magazine, and he felt that an analogy to the Catholic Church might help make his point. 12 Unfortunately, Judge Posner knows very little about the Catholic Church, and it showed. Illustrating the proposition that the Constitution is “dated and must therefore be updated (without altering the text) so as to preserve its authority,” Posner suggested, with his usual glib self-assurance, that Amar’s proposal

is also the one the Catholic Church applies to the Bible, [to wit] supplementation from equally authoritative sources. The Church believes that a Pope receives divine inspirations that enable him to proclaim dogmas that are infallible and thus have equal authority with the Bible. Jesus Christ’s mother does not play a prominent role in the New Testament, but she became a focus of Catholic veneration, and in 1854 the Pope proclaimed the dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception (that is, that she had been born without original sin). This and other extra-Biblical Catholic dogmas, such as the Nicene Creed, which proclaimed the consubstantiality of the Son and the Father, form a kind of parallel Bible, equal in authority to the written one, which reached its modern form in the third century C.E.

This stunning claim, which completely misconceives the magisterium and the pope’s teaching authority ex cathedra, must surely have been greeted with private incredulity in the bar and the afore-mentioned hoots of derision from Catholics on the bench and in the laity. In the end, if you make a stupid and obviously-false statement, it doesn’t matter how learned you are on another subject, how respected you are, or even how much moral or even legal authority you possess when acting within the scope of the responsibilities of your day job. None of that will save you if you walk out on a limb and make non-privileged statements that are, as Longenecker put it, just plain wrong.


  1. Bump, Who is more Fallible…?, The Wire, Dec. 26, 2013, http://www.thewire.com/politics/2013/12/who-more-fallible-economics-paul-ryan-or-pope-francis/356503.
  2. Bill Glauber, Paul Ryan signals support for Kenosha casino, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel Online, Dec. 19, 2013, http://www.jsonline.com/news/statepolitics/paul-ryan/paul-ryan-signals-support-for-kenosha-casino-b99167734z1-236595381.html.
  3. Tupy, Is the Pope Right…, The Atlantic, Dec. 11, 2013, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/12/is-the-pope-right-about-the-world/282276; Booth, Pessimist…, Standpoint, published December 2013, http://standpointmag.co.uk/counterpoints-january-february-14-papal-pessimist-philip-booth-pope-francis-poverty; see also Dan Calabrese, The right way to respond to Pope Francis on economics, Best of Cain, Dec. 26, 2013, http://www.caintv.com/the-right-way-to-respond-to-po.
  4. See Tornielli, “Never be afraid of tenderness,” Vatican Insider, Dec. 14, 2013, http://www.lastampa.it/2013/12/14/esteri/vatican-insider/en/never-be-afraid-of-tenderness-5BqUfVs9r7W1CJIMuHqNeI/pagina.html.
  5. Rev. Dwight Longenecker, Is Pope Francis Just Plain Wrong?, Standing on My Head, Dec. 12, 2013, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/standingonmyhead/2013/12/is-pope-francis-just-plain-wrong.html.
  6. http://simondodd.org/blog/?p=1006.
  7. See, e.g., John-Henry Westen, Pope Francis says, Baptize babies of unwed mothers, because they chose life over abortion, LifeSiteNews, May 31, 2013, http://www.lifesitenews.com/blog/pope-francis-says-baptize-babies-of-unwed-mothers-because-they-chose-life-o/
  8. See Lumen gentium, no. 25 (2d Vat. Co., 1964).
  9. See id., no. 18; Pastor æternus, ch. IV.9 (Vat. Co., 1870).
  10. Cf. 28 USC § 1367(a); Aldinger v. Howard, 427 U.S. 1, 11 (1976) (Rehnquist, J.) (quoting Fulton Bank v. Hozier, 267 U.S. 276, 280 (1925)).
  11. Fred Shapiro, The Most-Cited Legal Scholars, 29 J. Legal Studies 409 (2000).
  12. Richard Posner, How Many Constitutions Can Liberals Have?, The New Republic, Oct. 19, 2012, http://www.newrepublic.com/article/books-and-arts/magazine/108755/how-many-constitutions-liberals (reviewing Akhil Amar, America’s Unwritten Constitution (2000)).