How to Deal with Bad Popes
What do we call it when a pope doesn’t act like a pope? That’s something modern Catholics struggle with, because for over a century, we’ve had some pretty good popes, including a few Saints! Catholics haven’t had to deal with corrupt popes, or even heretical popes, in a very long time. It’s been centuries. So modern Catholics not only struggle with this problem, but we don’t even know what to call it! I propose a simple term, based on the New Testament. “Peter has fallen.”
In order to understand what I mean by this term, and its implication, we need to review the very nature of the Petrine Office, its history, and what it means to be “the pope.”
Being “the pope” means following in the footsteps of Peter, and to actually become Peter (in a sense) for the Church. These are some pretty big shoes to fill, but every pope is called to do just that. Not all of them, however, succeed. Every pope is Peter. It is the first question asked of every pope. During the papal conclave, when a cardinal’s name has received a majority of votes, that cardinal is asked “Are you Peter?” He can respond either in the affirmative or negative. If he responds in the negative, then he has rejected the Petrine Office (office of pope), and the cardinals return to voting for a new potential candidate. If he responds in the affirmative, then he is hailed as the new pope.
Let’s review: the elected cardinal is asked “Are you Peter?” The elected cardinal responds in the affirmative, saying “yes” or “I accept.” Habemus papam! We have a pope! Hence, the pope is Peter! Or he agrees to act as if he is Peter, because he’s accepted that role. However you want to look at it, he functions as Peter within the Catholic Church.
Now, who was St Peter? The man known as Simon Bar Jonah, a fisherman from the region of Galilee, in first-century Palestine, was appointed by King Jesus of Nazareth to become the prime minister of the new Kingdom of Israel (the Church). Let’s be clear about something. Jesus Christ, is the Head of the Church and the King of Israel. (New Testament: Israel = Church = Kingdom.) So, if you claim to be a Christian, then you claim that Jesus Christ of Nazareth is your King, and you are his loyal subject. That’s what you’re saying, whether you realize it or not. You have forfeited any and all claim to democratic control of the Church. You have a King (Jesus of Nazareth), and that King is absolute, reigning by divine right, in a total dictatorship of love. Your only duty is loyalty and obedience to your King.
Like all Kings, Jesus selected a prime minister. We see this example set in ancient Israel. King Hezekiah, from Israel’s history in the Old Testament, serves as a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ, and has many parallels to him in the Scriptures. One of the things King Hezekiah did (as all kings usually do) is appoint a prime minister for the administration of his kingdom. His name was Eliakim, and as a symbol of his authority, a key was given to him, called the Key of the House of David…
It will happen in that day that I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, and I will clothe him with your robe, and strengthen him with your belt. I will commit your government into his hand; and he will be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah. I will lay the key of David’s house on his shoulder. He will open, and no one will shut. He will shut, and no one will open.I will fasten him like a nail in a sure place. He will be for a throne of glory to his father’s house. ~ Isaiah22:20-23 WEB (emphasis mine)
The gist of this passage is that Eliakim was King Hezekiah’s prime minister, and therefore his “right hand man.” Whatever, Eliakim said was backed by the authority of King Hezekiah. The same principle applied to King Jesus and his choice of prime minister, which was Peter…
Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. I also tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my assembly, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give to you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven; and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven.” ~ Matthew 16:17-19 WEB (emphasis mine)
Just as a side note, the new name Jesus actually gave to Simon was “Cephas” which is Aramaic for “rock.” Matthew’s gospel, cited above, was originally written in Aramaic, not Greek, as pointed out by Irenaeus of Lyons in AD 180. The Greek translator used the Greek equivalent “Petros” for Simon’s new name (Cephas), which is why we call him “Peter” in English. But for the record, the actual name Jesus gave to him was Cephas (Aramaic for “Rock”). I know that pointing this out seems like a tangent, but it’s necessary due to my Evangelical upbringing. Evangelicals sometimes like to play games with the Greek translation of Matthew in regards to Peter’s name. It’s important, so just roll with it.
This is why we call the papacy the “Petrine office,” because the Pope acts as Peter in Peter’s absence. You see, there is only one King, but there are many prime ministers. A mortal king could easily have half-a-dozen prime ministers serve in his lifetime, especially if he was crowned at a young age. For example; Queen Elizabeth II, has had no less than fourteen prime ministers serve under her reign in the UK alone. This doesn’t count the number of prime ministers who have served under her reign in commonwealth nations. (She technically still is an empress, even though the British Empire has been downgraded to a commonwealth.) So just in our lifetime, one queen has seen dozens of prime ministers under her reign, as of late, about 170 in all.
The Petrine Office (Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ — a.k.a. “The Church”) functions in a similar way, except the resurrected King is immortal. He has seen 264 prime ministers (or popes) under his reign so far, when we include every pope from St. Peter to Francis. However, if we are to examine what it means to be Peter, we must look at the life of Peter from the records we have of him in Scripture.
St Peter was many things, and he was a powerful leader. But he wasn’t perfect. Peter did fail in his office, from time to time, and when we say he failed, we could say he fell from the standard that Christ set for him, and he usually fell pretty hard! In Scripture we are given six examples when Peter fell…
Heresy: Peter denied that Jesus would go to the cross (Matthew 16:22).
Heresy: Peter demoted Jesus to the level of a mere prophet (Matthew 17:4).
Apostasy: Peter denied Jesus one time (Matthew 26:70).
Apostasy: Peter denied Jesus a second time (Matthew 26:72).
Apostasy: Peter denied Jesus a third time (Matthew 26:74).
Hypocrisy: Peter preached orthodoxy, but denied it by his actions (Galatians 2:12-13).
In all six cases, Peter was rebuked. In the first case of heresy, Peter was rebuked by Jesus (Matthew 16:23). In the second case of heresy, Peter was rebuked by God the Father (Matthew 17:5). In the three cases of apostasy, Peter was warned in advance (Matthew 26:34), and then rebuked by a look from Christ (Luke 22:61), before he was finally restored by Christ three times (John 21:15-19). In the case of hypocrisy, Peter was rebuked by St Paul the Apostle (Galatians 2:11, 14).
In the pages of the New Testament, we see St Peter, the first pope, and prime minister to King Jesus Christ, commit the following sins: two counts of heresy, three counts of apostasy and one count of hypocrisy. This was the first pope!
Now granted, we mustn’t be too hard on Peter. After all, in five of these six failures, he didn’t have the full revelation of Jesus Christ yet. Times were difficult too. Not only did Peter not yet have the full picture, in five of these six failings, but he was under a tremendous amount of stress, especially when he committed the sin of apostasy — three times. Personally, I’m not one to judge Peter. There, by the grace of God, go I. If I were in his shoes, would I have even performed half as well? I kind of doubt it. St Peter remains a hero in faith in spite of his falls. We must acknowledge these falls, even repudiate them, but he was still Peter, the first pope! He was down, but he was not out.
So when we put St Peter into Biblical focus, it helps us put his successors (the popes) into Biblical focus. While a successor can be just as good as an Apostle, no successor can be greater than an Apostle. We have had popes just as good as Peter, but we’ve never had a pope greater than Peter, and we never will. If Peter could fall six times, it’s not unreasonable to think a pope could fall one time, or three, or six, or ten, or even twenty times! Indeed, popes have fallen, and when they do, they tend to do a lot of damage to the Church. That, however, doesn’t mean they cease to be pope. They may be down, but they’re not out.
In modern times, the last few hundred years, we’ve seen popes make bad decisions, or fail to take action when they should have. What we haven’t seen, until recently under Pope Francis, is a pope who commits errors on the same magnitude of Peter’s errors: hypocrisy, heresy or apostasy. We’ve been sheltered by a long list of good popes, or at least acceptable popes, who have shielded us from having to deal with this. On the one hand, this is fortunate. On the other hand, this is unfortunate, because now it seems we no longer know how to deal with a pope who falls.
The First Vatican Council (AD 1869-1870) dealt with two extremes in the Church when it came to the papacy. On the one hand, there were Catholics who held to one extreme called ultramontanism, (today we would call it hyper-papalism), which is the notion that by virtue of the Petrine Office, it is impossible for a pope to error in the area of faith and morals. That if a pope ever did error on such things, even in the most minor teachings, he would de facto cease to be pope, and henceforth be considered an antipope. Then, on the other hand, there was the liberal-modernist extreme, which asserted that the pope had no infallibility on his own, but must rely solely on the aid of ecumenical councils of the Church to assist him in making infallible decrees. Vatican I put this debate to rest. The pope speaks infallibly (without error) whenever he does so on faith and morals ex cathedra, meaning while exercising the fullness of his Petrine Office. It’s a rare event that hasn’t happened since 1950, and usually doesn’t happen during a pontificate at all. However, when it does happen, it bears the full weight of Apostolic authority. In other words, a pope’s words are not infallible, unless he specifically says they’re infallible, and that doesn’t happen very often.
Vatican I solves a lot of problems for Catholics, especially in dealing with a fallen pope, if we would just pay attention to it. When we combine this with the Biblical record of St. Peter’s failures, it helps us have a truly focused and realistic understanding of popes, and their limitations.
The hyper-papalist error ultimately leads to sedevacantism (meaning: "vacant chair")– which is the phenomenon of Catholics rejecting the current pope as an antipope because he failed to fulfill the role of his office, either through hypocrisy, heresy or even apostasy. Sadly, the Catholic Church has been plagued by a growing number of sedevacantists ever since 1970, which has risen exponentially since the election of Pope Francis in 2013. I submit to you that a failure to understand both the First Vatican Council, and the Biblical record of Peter’s failings, has led to this phenomenon. A lack of historical knowledge also plays a role as well…
Pope Honorius I (AD 625-638) was a confirmed heretic, and abused the papal office to spread his heresy, according to three ecumenical councils and his successor, Pope St Leo II (AD 682-683). Yet, Honorius was never declared an antipope. History testifies that a pope can be a heretic. Scripture testifies that a pope can be a hypocrite, heretic and an even apostate! (Albeit this was temporary, as in the case of St Peter, who repented every time.) Yet all of these things are possible with any of his successors. Remember, no successor can be greater than the Apostle his office came from. If Peter could fall in these three ways, so can any of his successors. Pope Honorius I did, at least in the area of heresy. Many other popes have fallen in the area of hypocrisy. We haven’t seen one fall in the area of apostasy, yet, but to say this is impossible is speculative at best. I suppose it could happen.
So if none of these things makes an antipope, what does? In that past, antipopes were primarily the result of invalid and/or coerced elections to the papacy. Could such a determination be made solely on the failings of a pope? That remains to be seen. Whatever the case, all previous antipopes were determined to be such, by ecumenical councils, and the decision of a future pope, and that seems to be the precedent we must follow today.
The sedecavantist position is not Catholic. Indeed, it is anti-Catholic, because the precedent for declaring a pope an antipope is left solely to ecumenical councils and papal decrees. Individual Catholics can’t make that call, nor can individual priests, nor individual bishops. It’s just not within their authority or competency. When a so-called Catholic says he’s a sedevacantist, and he has no decree from an ecumenical council and pope to back up his claim, he’s basically committed a form of schism, and is now the equivalent of a “Western Orthodox” Christian, on par with the Eastern Orthodox Christians. His theology may be “orthodox,” but his status is not Catholic. He’s in schism with the pope and the Catholic Church.
So what do we do when Peter has fallen? Really, there are only two things for Catholics to do when Peter has fallen (meaning the pope fails miserably at his job)…
The first thing we must do is resist his errors. This means we don’t go along with them, and we warn others about them. For example; when Pope Francis taught that it is possible for divorced Catholics to validly receive communion, even when they’re living in a “second marriage” without ever having received an annulment from the “first,” we must resist this error, and warn others about it, as I am doing right now. Also, when Pope Francis changed the catechism to say that the death penalty is no longer acceptable under Catholic teaching, we must resist this error, and warn others about it, as I am doing right now. Likewise, when Pope Francis taught that God wills the plurality of religions, we must resist this error, and warn others about it, as I am doing right now. Finally, when Pope Francis allowed Pagan idolatry in the Vatican, we must resist this abominable hypocrisy, and warn others about it, as I am doing right now. There are many more areas of hypocrisy that Pope Francis has done, which I won’t go into here, but you get the idea. This is how we deal with a fallen pope. We continue to acknowledge him as the pope, albeit a fallen one, and we leave his historical status as fallen pope, or antipope, up to the men who actually have the authority to say so — ecumenical councils and future popes. Beyond that, there is nothing left to do but wait him out.
The second thing we must do is pray for the pope. We can pray that he will be liberated from his errors, and the influence of evil, which seeks to destroy both his papacy and his soul. In other words, we can pray that the pope is delivered from his REAL enemies, meaning those enemies (both mortal and immortal) who seek to destroy his papacy through error, and destroy his soul through lack of repentance. To pray for a pope this way is to pray for the whole Church, and it is to do so charitably, because it’s taking into account the well-being of both the Catholic faithful and the errant pope who is deceiving them. Both are in grave danger. Both are in need of deliverance from evil.
Perhaps this is what Our Lady of Fatima really meant when she told the three shepherd children to pray for the Holy Father who would have much to suffer. Perhaps, in the vision of the Third Secret, the vision of the bishop in white, the bullets and arrows that pierced him were symbolic of the enemy’s attempt to destroy both his papacy and his soul, having already destroyed the faith and souls of so many others. I’m not saying this is the interpretation. I’m just saying “what if?”
Shane Schaetzel is an Evangelical convert to the Catholic Church through Anglicanism and was trained as a catechist through the University of Dayton – a Catholic Marianist Institution. Shane’s articles have been featured on LifeSiteNews, ChurchMilitant, The Remnant Newspaper, Forward in Christ, and Catholic Online. Shane is an author of Catholic books, which can be read here.