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Papal Authority's Abuse and the Diminution of Faith
The Church's claims are too consequential to get wrong
This is an inside-baseball Catholic post. Many of you have followed me to this Substack from my previous career of Catholic commentary, so this’ll be old hat for you. For those who read me for other reasons, I just wanted to warn you up front in case this topic isn’t of interest.
There's nothing simple about the mental gymnastics required to square all the papal circles these days, but there's no lack of trying. Things get more and more contorted as orthodox theologians try to stuff reality into doctrinally-compatible boundaries.
At the heart of all of this is the question of authority. Authority as wielded by a man whose office is said to be infallible, but whose actions are often anything but. A man whose office is also said to hold absolute primacy, whose jurisdiction is supreme, but who is resisted and questioned routinely by the faithful as though he’s just another cringeworthy columnist for the National Catholic Reporter.
The sedevacantists — those strange, LARPy faux-Catholics who think there’s been no valid pope since Pius XII — make stronger, more historical arguments as regards the increasingly absurd “recognize and resist” position (namely, that it's unworkable with the traditional view of papal supremacy), but the conclusion they reach — a no true Scotsman fallacy that has eliminated the papacy de facto — is silly. After all, the papacy and its authority are so central to the functioning of the Catholic Church and its teaching office that it’s simply impossible to do without it for any significant length of time. And as Vatican I declared in its dogmatic constitution on the topic:
If then, any should deny that it is by the institution of Christ the Lord and by Divine right, that Blessed Peter should have a perpetual line of successors in the Primacy over the Universal Church, or that the Roman Pontiff' is the successor of Blessed Peter in this primacy; let him be anathema.
Perpetual lines of successors don’t have 70-year gaps with imposters filling in, fooling the entire world, with all the bishops and priests backing the hoax. That’s not how any of this works.
That said, I see how the sedes arrive where they do. The Church’s claims regarding the centrality & authority of the papacy — the same claims that ironically make sede arguments unworkable — make the papacy and its power and authority simply too vital to Catholic integrity to ignore when a particular pope becomes problematic. Similarly, they make impossible the idea that the office can fall into the hands of heretics & devils successively for generations.
In an attempt to deal with the apparent contradictions, I see theologians restrict dogmas like papal infallibility to conditions so rare that they’re impossible to falsify.
When someone says to you, “Well, Pastor Aeternus limits infallibility to ex cathedra statements only” and that “this has only been done twice in history” they’re playing a game. They know that there are other papal statements considered to be infallible — like papal bulls in the context of ecumenical councils, or apostolic letters like John Paul II’s Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (on the reservation of the priesthood to men alone), or even the declaration of canonizations of saints. Nevertheless, when the waters get choppy, the old, “Well, the pope is only infallible when he says something we already know is true within the context of a solemn pronouncement so rarely used that it’s almost non-existent” is used to fend off critics.
Yet they will happily remind you that since infallibility is a dogma, we are still burdened with the demand to accept, on pain of mortal sin, that this is necessary to believe for salvation. That to even doubt it obstinately is a “damnable sin.”
Why is something so limited (and arguably irrelevant) so vital to salvation? Nobody knows. Why does infallibility not work as an active protection from the quotidian heresies of a pope like Francis, who leads the faithful into error, sin, & perdition with a great many of his public statements and even attempts at formal teaching? In other words, in the way a teaching on infallibility that was actually worth a damn would do? Beats me. There’s a reason most people don’t have the limited technical understanding of infallibility that theologians like to trot out when they’re cornered: because it doesn’t make any flipping sense.
How can some of these same theologians argue (and rightly so, considering the subjects) that (modern, at least) canonizations aren't infallible, when the tradition argues the contrary?
The questions go on and on.
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If the only thing infallibility protects against is a pope declaring a heresy by means of an almost-never-used and extremely formal pronouncement that, by its very nature could not be authoritative if it proclaimed error (since this is one of the criteria for determining if it’s an ex cathedra statement in the first place), it’s utterly worthless.
If infallibility does not protect against a pope putting heresy, error, or blasphemy in the catechism, and in the official acts of the Holy See, and in his homilies, and public addresses, and in the official documents he signs, etc., then the papacy isn’t actually infallible in any way that matters.
Nevertheless, we call a conspicuously erroneous papacy infallible; we say that a Church that, by means of official acts of governance portrays itself as though it hates the faith and the faithful is nevertheless indefectible, and then we scoff at people who say that comparing the teaching versus reality in this regard is manifestly self-contradictory and absurd.
The technical justification squad, as I like to call them, with all their careful casuistry, aren't persuasive: "Well, because the pope didn't say it according to this very specific formula, it's technically NOT part of his personal magisterium, ergo that heresy is NBD, ackshually."
Does anyone actually believe this? Even the people saying it?
Since the latest soul-crushing bomb dropped from Rome yesterday, the same old debates among the faithful have raged, with the same tired clichés being trotted out. "Liturgy is discipline, it doesn't fall under infallibility" can be checked off the bingo card. So can 57 variations of, "We have to submit to the pope, except when we decide he's obviously wrong!"
I called people out for sharing the following meme, because the problem is, to my mind, a glaring one:
I considered myself part of "recognize & resist" for so many years because it seemed clear that the post-conciliar Church had lost the plot, and the actions she was taking was causing the faith to simply disintegrate on the ground, and that what had come before was superior, and significantly more consistent.
But we can't all be mini-popes forever.
The idea that we only have to listen to the authority that was placed over us, allegedly by God himself, when WE decide that it's being exercised legitimately, must be seen as the dangerous, quasi-protestant approach that it is.
When I say dangerous, I don't mean in the objective sense, but dangerous to the integrity of Catholic teaching on the papacy and magisterial authority in general, and the submissions we lowly peons are supposed to offer in deference before it. Recognize and resist puts us all on the sede spectrum, as we say: "You've only got the authority of the papal office and can only demand my obedience if I say so, bub."
This kind of response is justified with hand waiving towards “tradition” and “perennial teaching” and the rest, but the fact is, papal supremacy is a helluva drug. It’s completely autocratic and doesn’t give a fig whether you like it or not. One of the more noxious sede websites helpfully compiled some quotes from Pope Leo XIII to drive home this point, which I’ll re-post here:
“To the shepherds alone was given all power to teach, to judge, to direct; on the faithful was imposed the duty of following their teaching, of submitting with docility to their judgment, and of allowing themselves to be governed, corrected, and guided by them in the way of salvation. Thus, it is an absolute necessity for the simple faithful to submit in mind and heart to their own pastors, and for the latter to submit with them to the Head and Supreme Pastor.” (Epistola Tua)
“…it is to give proof of a submission which is far from sincere to set up some kind of opposition between one Pontiff and another. Those who, faced with two differing directives, reject the present one to hold to the past, are not giving proof of obedience to the authority which has the right and duty to guide them; and in some ways they resemble those who, on receiving a condemnation, would wish to appeal to a future council, or to a Pope who is better informed.” (Epistola Tua)
“That obligation, if it is generally incumbent on all, is, you may indeed say, especially pressing upon journalists…. The task pertaining to them … is this: to be subject completely in mind and will, just as all the other faithful are, to their own bishops and to the Roman Pontiff; to follow and make known their teachings; to be fully and willingly subservient to their influence; and to reverence their precepts and assure that they are respected.” (Epistola Tua)
“No, it cannot be permitted that laymen who profess to be Catholic should go so far as openly to arrogate to themselves in the columns of a newspaper, the right to denounce, and to find fault, with the greatest license and according to their own good pleasure, with every sort of person, not excepting bishops, and think that with the single exception of matters of faith they are allowed to entertain any opinion which may please them and exercise the right to judge everyone after their own fashion.” (Est Sane Molestum)
“…to scrutinize the actions of a bishop, to criticize them, does not belong to individual Catholics, but concerns only those who, in the sacred hierarchy, have a superior power; above all, it concerns the Supreme Pontiff….” (Est Sane Molestum)
Where this leaves us is in quite a pickle. How can we recognize papal supremacy but also resist it? How can we not resist it when resistance is clearly warranted? How can we live with all the contradictions without tying ourselves into knots?
The answer for me, at least, is: I can't. I'm not going to break my brain trying to smash round pegs into square holes. If the pope can put heresy in the catechism, if he can promote adultery and sacrilege, if he can sign his name to religious indifference, all bets on infallibility are off, and I don't care what absurdly restrictive conditions you think the dogma has.
I also know I am not, and could not be, in communion with the pope and the bishops who are on his side. I wasn’t before I stepped back from the Church, and I wouldn’t willingly do so now even if my other issues of faith were resolved. These pedophile-protecting, orgy-attending, faith-hating monsters in mitres don't believe in the same things actual Catholics do. Accusing the faithful of schism for being faithful to the teachings that were handed down, rather than the tyranny of the present papacy, is laughable, but in a way, it’s also technically correct, since schism is canonically tied to refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff (Can. 751). If I still cared as much as I used to about such things, I’d embrace schism over faux communion in a second.
“If I still cared as much as I used to” being the important qualifier.
For me, these issues have become more fundamental. I’ve come to the conclusion that I simply can't trust the Church. I can't trust the men I've been taught God gave the power to loose and bind. I know they want to crush everything I ever believed. But I also can't trust orthodox but clericalist, holier-than-thou trad priests, like the one who tried to prove he was a tough guy by denying my children sacraments without due cause. And I can’t go into a sideshow, alt-universe church like the SSPX, which claims loyalty to a pope they will not obey or reconcile with unless he meets their demands, creating an insular and untenable long-term bubble for people to “act like real Catholics” by not being part of the actual, fully integrated Church.
In other words: I can’t trust the structures in the Church, or even the Church-adjacent, to actually look out for the well being of the faithful, myself and my family included.
There are still good folks in the Church. There are still good clergy. But they can’t actually fix anything, just make the best of a bad situation. And my mind keeps returning to the way I watched as the Legionaries of Christ used true believers as a means of deceiving potential recruits & donors. The LCs relied heavily on the passage from scripture about bad trees and good fruits.
"A bad tree can't produce good fruit!" the LCs would say, as their founder, whom they claimed "never said no to Christ," was off raping seminarians and his own illegitimate children and their priests were bilking devout old folks out of their life savings to the tune of millions of dollars.
They figured out that contra the scriptures, bad trees can produce enough good enough fruits to fool people. That beloved popes -- sainted even! -- will defend your monstrous organization from scrutiny if you display enough of those fruits, even if you’re the devil in a roman collar.
And that's what I see in the Church now. Just a bigger, more global reminder of the same evil and corruption I finally opened my eyes to in my beloved Legion and Regnum Christi. Good people doing good things for a corrupt, monstrous organization, thereby fooling many into seeing legitimacy where it is otherwise not in evidence. Having real people with real faith is an essential part of the ruse; it’d never be convincing otherwise. You just need a spunky minority willing to suffer anything for the cause, and it’ll cover for an overwhelming multitude of hierarchical sins.
And so, I find myself fundamentally confronting the question of belief in the first place: “Do I really believe in God, and if so, what do I believe about him?” Everything I know about God, every reason I ever believed in him, had to do with what I was taught from infancy as a cradle Catholic. They were not conclusions I came to on my own, and they rested entirely on a) the Church says so and it was founded by Christ himself, and is guided by him in such a way that it cannot err and b) if you don’t do what the Church says, God will punish you. Forever.
It’s an eschatological gun to the head, and a weird way of honoring the free will we place such a premium on.
Last week, I spent a whole day writing about my experiences with the faith, and why I’ve come to question it so deeply. How painful it has all become. In the end, it was too personal, and after sitting on it a couple of days, I couldn’t bring myself to hit “publish.” Maybe another time. But some discussions I’ve had with folks over the past couple of days have made me feel I need to say something. Some of the words I’ve written here today come directly from those interactions, which sparked this reflection.
Sometimes, I think I was naïve to have given my life, as much as I knew how, to the service of the Catholic Church, and to attempting beliefs I’m not sure I ever truly held of my own accord. I fought for them nevertheless, because I thought that was what God wanted me to do, and especially because I didn’t want him to be angry with me. (Better to keep his anger focused on the other guys, which, I think, lies at the core of a lot of the trad purity spiral: people afraid of God who want to appease his wrath with sacrificial victims.)
There’s so much masochism and self-loathing buried in the Catholic ethos, and it’s really destructive when applied to certain types of personalities, like mine. I took a personality test last year, and I scored about as high as a person can on neuroticism, which is the tendency to negative emotion and interpretation. But I realize how this was baked in from an early age. There was a lot of fear, anger, and risk aversion in my family growing up, and then there was the Catholic mentality, which is almost fetishistic about suffering. I know this wasn’t just my family, because I see other Catholics say it all the time, when confronted with some difficulty: “Well, we deserve worse. We deserve hell.” Imagine what thinking this your whole life does to you! “You can do nothing good without God. The only thing you create on your own is sin.” Why even try then? Or how about, “You just have to accept your crosses and not try to escape them, or you’ll wind up with a worse one.” Not exactly the kind of thing that encourages a man pull himself up by his bootstraps and better his situation. No, just wallow in the misery so you don’t make it worse. Leave your ambition at the door, and know that “Whom God loves, he chastises,” so your miserable life means you’re favored, or something.
I’m just not willing to accept these axioms anymore. When I’m told that God is my father and deserves all my love, but owes me nothing and is perfectly content to damn me because I deserve it just for existing, I reject this, as any father should.
If God is a father, he does owe us something. Every father owes his children love, guidance, nourishment, and protection. That is his duty, and if he fails at it, we call him a bad father. A deadbeat. A loser.
If God doesn’t owe us anything, how can we call him a father at all?
I’m not saying that’s who God is, by the way. I’m saying that’s who many Catholics think he is, even if they wouldn’t admit it when asked directly. Their beliefs implicitly demonstrate this, and I have a problem with that.
One of the tiredest platitudes in all of Christendom is, “Don’t leave Jesus because of Judas.” This trickles down into bizarre admonitions that it’s the men who are running the Church who are hurting us, and we have no right to be upset with God for that.
And yet, these are men to whom God has, we are told, given supreme authority over us. The power to bind and loose. Authority to which we owe our religious submission of mind and will. To whom our pastors vow obedience. These men are not just incidental to the life of faith. They’re not just random jerks who showed up that we get to shrug off. They are apostolic successors. They are men who share in the one priesthood of Christ. We have been told for centuries that they are our ontological betters, and that we owe them a degree of submission to which other men are not entitled. But it’s clear that many of them are evil, and some are even psychopathic.
If my earthly father left me, as a child, in the care of known psychopaths, yes, I'd be angry with him. It would be his fault for doing so. And so yes, I’m angry, as a child of God, for our having been left in the hands of men who hate us, and at God for not intervening to protect us.
The bizarre thing is that I’m expected never to say this out loud.
I don’t know what to believe anymore. Some have been spreading rumors that I’ve become an atheist. That’s not true, because atheism requires as much faith as theism does. It’d be more fair to call me an agnostic, in the true sense of that word: I don’t know what I can’t know. My prior beliefs are unverifiable, and as such, unfalsifiable. They could be correct. They may be wrong. I can only keep investigating to try to sort out what I really believe from what I was conditioned to accept.
I look at the mess the Church is in, the hoops we have to jump through to try to keep all the doctrinal pieces in place amidst so much apparent contradiction, the nearly complete inefficacy of grace (which rather than transforming the faithful, often leaves them the most bitter and contemptuous of men), the self-loathing, the liturgical persecution, the transparent corruption, the sexual perversion that runs rampant through the hierarchy and clergy, and I do not see the hand of God. I do not see a Church worth trusting in any practical sense, and I wonder why I should trust it, then, when it tells me what I must believe.
My entire identity and sense of purpose has been wrapped up in my Catholicism since I was a child. That has been taken from me, and my pleas to God to help me see clearly, help me believe, to help me figure out how to love him when I can’t even be sure he’s there, have all been met with silence. But I’ve invested so much of myself in this Church that the shape of my thoughts all bear its impression. Even in moments when I’m most inclined to disbelieve, the fear that I am angering God who will punish me for not doing what I don’t know how to do arises within me. And when I’m cognizant of this impulse, it makes me frustratingly aware of the control that the Church has over my mind.
When I look at Rome, I see it hell-bent on stamping out the most authentic manifestations of the religion of my forefathers, a way of living the faith that I, too, drew nourishment from while I could. Meanwhile, the “Holy Father” snarls at his children, “Why did you make me hit you? You’d better do as I say, or I’ll hit you again!” And so many Catholics gloat and scoff and tell those being abused how they got what they deserved.
It’s one of the ugliest things I’ve ever seen, but I’m supposed to believe that grace perfects nature?
Though I see these things from something of a distance now, unwilling as I am to be a part of any of this mess until I can make some sense of it, it still hurts. Everything I cared about, everything I fought for for so long is being trampled underfoot by those entrusted by God with the care and protection of those things.
God’s own refusal to step in and set things right, after I’ve been told my whole life that he guides and protects his Church, that he is my father in heaven who will not give a stone when asked for bread, makes me feel utterly duped, used, lost, and alone.
The failure of the Father to protect his children was, I think, what started me down the path of losing faith a few years ago. It happened when I realized that I was wrong about what wasn’t possible, about what lines he wouldn’t allow to be crossed, and that he wasn’t going to save us from what was happening. I tried to hold on, but it all started slipping through my fingers. Nothing made sense, and we were left on our own to try to hold the pieces together of a religion that was crumbling before our eyes.
That’s been, I think, the most crushing blow of all.