Three weeks ago Fr. James Altman released a video titled, “Bergoglio is not the Pope.” In it, Altman goes through a litany of complaints against the Francis pontificate, from scandal to corruption to promoting heresy. He then concludes that because of this evidence, Jorge Bergoglio cannot be the pope. When Catholics, including me, disputed this conclusion, the most common response online from his defenders was, “Why don’t you show where is he wrong in his analysis? You can’t, can you?”
Now in his most recent video, Altman says that the “best thing we could do would be to throw the great millstone around Jorge Bergoglio’s neck and throw him into the deep blue Mediterranean sea.” Unlike some other commentators, I don’t think Altman is actually calling for the murder of Pope Francis. I think he’s recklessly using Biblical language to make his point. It’s a sensational statement made for effect and to generate controversy. Yet, again, when many Catholics pushed back against this latest video, Altman’s defenders responded, “But where is he wrong in calling out the problems of this papacy?”
This response confuses the issue. We need to note that Altman has done two separate things: (1) he’s identified a problem; and (2) he’s offered a solution. And there’s a long history of people correctly identifying a problem, but being wrong—even wildly wrong—about the solution.
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For example, Martin Luther was correct about the corruption of the Catholic Church in his time, but wrong in his solution to break away from the Church. More recently, Bernie Sanders has often been right in identifying the problems in our country, but is usually incredibly wrong in his proposed solutions. Diagnosing a problem is relatively easy; offering a good solution is hard.
Today every Catholic instinctively knows there is a disconnect in how things should be in the Church and how they actually are. You can’t see millions of Catholics leaving the Church without realizing there’s a problem. Progressives see this exodus as evidence that the Catholic Church needs to be more like the Episcopal Church. They are correct to recognize a problem, but their solution would only make things worse.
Fr. Altman is far better than progressives in understanding today’s crisis in the Church. When one listens to his litany of complaints against Francis, a faithful Catholic can’t help but mostly nod his head and say, “He’s right.” (Although I think Altman often engages in over-the-top hyperbole and emotional manipulation in his diagnosis, giving the worst possible interpretation to anything and everything Francis has done.) But, again, being right in identifying the problem doesn’t guarantee that he’s right about his solution.
In a nutshell, Catholics today have three options for how we respond to the troubling Francis pontificate—our “solution,” so to speak, to the problem.
Option 1 would be to believe that the Francis pontificate disproves Catholic claims about the papacy. In response, one would become Eastern Orthodox or Protestant or an atheist. Sadly, I know Catholics who have chosen each of these.
Option 2 would be to try to square the circle by claiming a pope simply can’t be wrong. Choosing this option has two separate paths that appear diametrically opposed, but are based on the same presuppositions. The first path would be the hyperpapalist route: accept whatever this pope says and does as true, regardless if it contradicts previous popes. This path contradicts reason, for it says no pope can be wrong, although popes can contradict each other. The second path would be the sedevacantist route (Altman’s choice): posit that popes can’t contradict each other, and therefore conclude that Francis can’t be a pope since he contradicts previous popes. This path contradicts faith, for it extends the Church’s teaching on the papacy far beyond what the Church herself has taught.
Option 3 would be to recognize that Francis, in his words and actions, sometimes does contradict Church teaching, but realize that this does not mean previous teaching was wrong, nor that he’s not the pope, nor that this invalidates Church teaching on the papacy. Choosing such an option can be messy admittedly, but it charts the path between the scylla of rejecting the papacy and the charybdis of warping the Church’s teachings.
I sympathize with Fr. Altman’s frustration with the Francis pontificate. But that sympathy does not extend to endorsing a path that leads right out of the Church, even to the point of happily calling for the death of the pope.
If Fr. Altman thinks the man that almost everyone on earth believes is pope deserves to be thrown into the sea with a millstone around his neck, he should be doing penance in sackcloth and ashes, not producing emotion-manufacturing videos with a smile on his face.