Editor’s note. The sentiment, and even conviction, that Francis is an Antipope has been growing. Because these are tumultuous times and it is best not to be distracted, I asked Fr John Rickert to write a rebuttal of that notion. Ann Barnhardt, God bless her, has led the charges that Francis is an Antipope, which is why below she serves as the brief for the prosecution. Fr Rickert speaks for himself and not necessarily for his Fraternity. Permission is granted to copy this article, as long as this disclaimer accompanies copies.
Countering the Claim that Francis is an Antipope
by Fr. John Rickert, FSSP
In certain circles a fear has arisen that Pope Francis is not truly the Pope after all but instead an Antipope. Ann Barnhardt, for example, posted 32 questions and answers to this effect. Although I will use this post as a base to work from, it is not my intention here to argue each of these points individually, and in saying this I realize that some will immediately judge my response inadequate and stop reading. Still, my experience is that people who would demand responses to each point will not be very receptive to what I have to say anyway.
Catholics may be able to compare this to the experience of being peppered by questions, objections, and quotations from the Bible from a hardline Protestant intent on proving the falsity of the Catholic Church; such an interlocutor, in my experience, is not really interested in hearing responses to his points one by one, because he will always have more at hand. The only thing certain is that he will not be satisfied unless you agree with him completely.
So then, if you are willing to consider an argument of a fairly general nature that foregoes detailed nitpicking of numerous points, here is what I have for your consideration.
A preliminary, important point of logic. Barnhardt says, “So long as a person is operating from a false base premise, reality CAN NOT be accurately apprehended, and the logical conclusions drawn from the false base premise will be themselves false, as well.”
This statement is incorrect; it is the logical fallacy of denying the antecedent. I must apply this very point to my discussion here. Even if I refuted all of Barnhardt’s premises for arguing that Francis is an Antipope, it would not follow that her conclusion would thereby be refuted. If I claimed this, I would also be committing the fallacy of denying the antecedent. That is why I will not detain myself with point-by-point refutation of her arguments but instead make arguments to establish the conclusion that Francis is indeed, really and truly the Pope.
The two strongest arguments Barnhardt presents are that Pope Benedict XVI resigned under duress, thereby making his resignation invalid, and that supporters of Cardinal Bergoglio were guilty of canvassing votes before the Conclave, an offense that carries an automatic excommunication1 if committed.
About the resignation, Barnhardt cites Can. 188: “A resignation which is made as a result of grave fear unjustly inflicted, or of deceit, or of substantial error, or of simony, is invalid by virtue of the law itself.”2
In the first place, it is not even clear whether Can. 188 applies to the Pope. As supreme lawgiver for the Church, he is the one who promulgates canons and is not himself subject to any earthly power: “Prima Sedes a nemine judicatur.” The Catholic Church is emphatically not a constitutional monarchy in which the Pope is restrained by a written constitution. That fact makes many people uncomfortable these days, but it is nevertheless true. For further reading on this, see the decree and canons from Vatican I about the nature of the primacy of the Roman Pontiff. Still, let us proceed under the assumption that Can. 188 applies even to the Pope.
Barnhardt says, “Pope Benedict’s resignation was invalid, and obviously so. To argue otherwise requires the willful suspension of disbelief.” No; it requires calling the Pope Emeritus a liar. Here is what the Pope Emeritus said in announcing his resignation:
After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the barque of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me. For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter.
A further point is that, even if Pope Emeritus Benedict were to appeal to Can. 188,3 it would still fall entirely to him to make this appeal. No one else can do this for him. And who would judge the case? When he says that he is renouncing the office “with full freedom,” we simply have to take him at his word and leave it at that. We cannot pretend to know better than he what he himself was thinking.
About the assertion of canvassing before the Conclave, I would say that Barnhardt reads in too much to the reports so as to see what she wants to see. I will take Edward Pentin’s article as reliable. He says, “At the launch of the book in Brussels this week, the cardinal said he was part of a secret club of cardinals opposed to Pope Benedict XVI… He called it a ‘mafia’ club that bore the name of St. Gallen. The group wanted a drastic reform of the Church, to make it ‘much more modern,’ and for Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio to head it.”
This is not quite what is prohibited by St. John Paul II in Universi Dominici Gregis: “The Cardinal electors shall further abstain from any form of pact, agreement, promise or other commitment of any kind which could oblige them to give or deny their vote to a person or persons.” The distinction is that in the case of what Pentin discusses, we have a group of like-minded people who, apparently, wished for Cdl. Bergoglio to be their point-man. On the other hand, the prohibition by St. John Paul II applies specifically to collusion on voting at a Conclave.
To give a different example, Cdl. Raymond Burke has been at the forefront of raising dubia in regard to Pope Francis’ document Amoris Laetitia. He has publicly been joined by a handful of other cardinals, and the likelihood is that he is joined in spirit by a significant number more who remain out of the public eye. Were Cdl. Burke to be elected as the next Pope, we could not say that he and those with him already stand excommunicated automatically in view of the provision from St. John Paul II. The distinction between an agenda and actual collusion may be hard to see in practice, because collusion seems to be the means to the end, but the distinction is important. The means are not the end. It is a principle of Church law that punitive previsions must be taken strictly, so as to give the accused all the benefit of the doubt.
This is all I will say in responding to Barnhardt’s arguments, for reasons stated above. Let me now propose an argument to show directly and positively that Francis is truly the Pope. As a preliminary point, let us consider the origin of the term “common error.”
In ancient Rome, a runaway slave once presented himself for the office of Praetor, which was reserved for freemen. Eventually, his status as a slave was discovered. Instead of voiding his office and all of his acts as invalid, the validity of his office and his acts was accepted in view of the common, albeit erroneous, opinion. Everyone had assumed he was a freeman eligible to run for and hold the office. This event is often regarded as the source of the doctrine of “common error.”
Canon Law has adopted this view, to an extent. Can. 144 says this: “§1 In common error, whether of fact or of law, and in positive and probable doubt, whether of law or of fact, the Church supplies executive power of governance for both the external and the internal forum.”4 Let us parse this out to apply it to the question of the pontificate of Pope Francis.
- (1) In common error or even positive or probable doubt
- (2) regarding law (jus, right)
- (3) the Church supplies executive power of governance
- (4) for both the external and internal forum.
I argue as follows. (1) holds, for, the world in general, beyond the vast majority of Catholics, regards Pope Francis as truly being the Pope.5 (2) applies, because it regards the jus of holding the papal office. Therefore, (3) follows: the Church supplies executive power of governance, which in this case is spelled out by the decree of Vatican I. Finally, (4) also follows, which means that for all purposes, public and private, even in the internal forum of the conscience, Catholics are to accept Pope Francis as the pope.
It is very important to note that this supplied power of governance comes from the Church, not from the reigning Pontiff. Indeed, during an interregnum when the See is vacant due to the death of a reigning Pope, there have sometimes been chaotic circumstances concerning succession. For example, the ones that led to the Great Western Schism. We clearly and emphatically do not have such a situation today. What Canon Law is saying is that the individual recognized by the whole Church in general as the successor, indeed is the successor, in law and in fact, in public and in private.
Does the interpretation I have given of Can. 144 undermine the provisions of Can. 188? No. Someone who is unjustly deprived or driven from office can appeal for redress due to the provisions of Can. 188. But when someone’s actions show that he does not object on the grounds of Can. 188 and moreover common error sets in, then he has, indeed, forfeited his office to his successor, even under the supposition that he did not initially leave his office freely. If Pope Benedict truly believes himself aggrieved and unjustly deprived of his office, then it would have been his moral duty to object to Pope Francis’ exercise of exclusively papal prerogatives, such as naming Cardinals.
I will further argue that this recognition of legitimacy is necessary not only in virtue of Canon Law but by practical implication of the infallibility of the Church. If Pope Francis is in reality an Antipope, then he is not protected from teaching error, and if he did teach error the Church would no longer be infallible. Some have criticized Pope Francis precisely on the grounds that he has taught heresy, but this assertion does not hold under scrutiny. Recall the definition from Vatican I:
Therefore, faithfully adhering to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith, to the glory of God our savior, for the exaltation of the Catholic religion and for the salvation of the Christian people, with the approval of the Sacred Council, we teach and define 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. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable.
So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema.
Pope Francis has said and even written statements that are questionable, ambiguous, or even doubtful, but in no way, not even with Amoris Laetitia, has he attempted to teach “in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians.” One need only recall earlier examples, e.g. Pope Honorius, Pope John XXII, who made erroneous statements, but did not put them forward as definitive teaching, and remained in the office of Pope despite their statements.
Let us, of course, be sure to pray for Pope Francis, so that he may indeed be a shepherd who strengthens his brethren. At the same time, let us not fall prey to specious arguments, which are nothing but wolves in sheep’s clothing that go after sheep separated from the flock and the shepherd.
1Latae sententiae. The excommunication takes effect by the very commission of the act; there is no need to go through a formal trial and judgment.
2Renuntiatio ex metu gravi, iniuste incusso, dolo vel errore substantiali aut simoniace facta, ipso iure irrita est.
3As the notorious Benedict IX did in order to attain to his second time in the papacy.
4§ 1. In errore communi de facto aut de iure, itemque in dubio positivo et probabili sive iuris sive facti, supplet Ecclesia, pro foro tam externo quam interno, potestatem regiminis exsecutivam. Incidentally, note that Can. 209 of the 1917 Code makes almost the same provision.
5For a good discussion on “common error” see Beal, Corriden, and Green, New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law.