Exit the Pope?

It is not disrespect of papal magisterium to register difficulties with supposedly pastoral recommendations on the basis of prudential criteria.

My reading of papal history has lately convinced me that the papacy permits the contradiction of one of the oldest axioms of philosophy: the parts are sometimes greater than the whole. That is especially true in our age when the greater share of the Fourth Estate has given up all pretense of objectivity. We are not trusted with the news to make our opinions. We are given narratives framed by opinion, and dissidence is censored to an extent that is both unconstitutional and antithetical to the truth.

For such elements of the wide ranging “media,” Pope Francis is a name to conjure with. And the conjuring is not only not generally in the hands of Christians but actually in the hands of those who are antagonistic to Christian belief and especially to the claims of the Church. Papal imprudence is given magnified effect, while ordinary magisterium is ignored. The pope himself is very vulnerable to such manipulation because of his imprudence.

Imprudence like: after finding the synod insufficiently open to the blessing of same-sex couples deciding to impose it on the Church by ukase. (That is the word for the decrees of the autocratic czar of all Russia.) 

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Imprudence like: placing in the dicastery of doctrine a man whose writings would no doubt make him “non idoneous” to be a bishop, let alone a cardinal entrusted with an essential curial post. 

Imprudence like: taking the pushback of Fiducia Supplicans as a personal insult to which he pretends to give profile in courage and claim to be suffering for the truth. This from a person most free with insults (e.g., EWTN is “diabolical”).

Imprudence like: making the bishops know that he will not tolerate criticism, as he has shown in his scandalous treatment of even the most pious dissent (e.g., Bishop Strickland). This came before Fiducia and had an effect on our own bishops’ conference.

Imprudence like: allowing a “spontaneous, private, fifteen-second” blessing become a piece in The New York Times and not reacting to the priest’s gloss that “he was waiting a long time to be able to bless” a couple. 

Imprudence like: pretending to allow an “exception” of the non-acceptance of Fiducia in Africa as due to “cultural” issues and not “religious” principles that are grounded in the Bible and Tradition.

Imprudence like: using every media opportunity to present the false narrative that opposition to Fiducia is a denial of the Church’s duty to sanctify the faithful. It is not a question of denying to pray for (bless) individuals but of refusing to give the impression of endorsing what is explicitly contrary to Bible teaching, the Catechism, and traditional pastoral practice. He who is not with the pope is therefore against the grace and mercy of God. That is a false dichotomy that is deeply embarrassing.

Papal infallibility never was supposed to be a cover for the personal moral and intellectual fallibility of the men who held that ministry. Not seeing how papal decrees and table talk will be confusing to ordinary believers is not only to be tone deaf but also to be negligent. Permitting the media to control the message is a disaster for orthodoxy. Does the pope not recall what St. Paul said (in a context that was not opposing traditional morality but religious scruples) about not offending the weak?  Papal infallibility never was supposed to be a cover for the personal moral and intellectual fallibility of the men who held that ministry.Tweet This

Lately, I have been thinking much of Ionesco’s Theater of the Absurd play Exit the King (Le Roi se meurt) I saw in a production of a French touring company in college. The king is dying but is in denial. His health, like his kingdom is in collapse. The play is about a man coming to terms with his decline and death. The king’s two spouses have diametrically opposed strategies for him. The first wife, Marguerite, along with the king’s physician, are pushing for him to be aware of and accept his impending fate. The second wife, Marie, tries to shore up his denial of reality.

The palace itself is crumbling, the population has grown old or migrated away, the staff no longer obey the king’s directions, there is no longer an army to resist invasion. His Majesty believes that he can command the forces of nature but cannot do anything to forestall his nation’s decline. The tug-of-war between denial and self-congratulation and realism and fear is the conflict that powers the plot. The delusion of the king, his enormous ego and self-deception, is echoed by the sycophantism of his second wife in counterpoint to the bitter first spouse. The tragedy of the king is his lack of awareness; but unlike Shakespeare’s King Lear, this drama is played for laughs. 

The play has a multitude of applications, but I think it says something special to Catholics about current affairs in our gerontocratic age, with both Church and State in the hands of old men presiding over serious decline in religious culture and civilization in general. There are questions about realism and about the acceptance of reality. Hubris and frustration echo through the chaos, and events control men and not men events. An image that comes to my mind with this is the cracking of the great dome of St. Peter’s. Our Holy Father seems on a collision course with his own pretended legacy of fraternity and humility.

This is connected with what I regard as the weak response of the U.S. hierarchy to Fiducia Supplicans. Even the Dutch Bishops’ Conference demurred. I know of a bishop who instructed his priests to read the declaration in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament and then did not comment on the soi-disant “clarification.” 

There was an anonymous poem about an Anglican pastor, “The Vicar of Bray,” who changed his theology with each monarch from Charles II to George I. “Old principles I did revoke/ set conscience at a distance/ Passive obedience was a joke/ a jest was non-resistance.” The hierarchy of African countries had much more courage than ours, with minimal exceptions. Their embarrassed silence is deafening. Have the bishops forgotten “qui tacet consentit”—“silence gives consent?” 

It is not disrespect of papal magisterium to register difficulties with supposedly pastoral recommendations on the basis of prudential criteria. Despite the patronizing attitude evinced by the nuncio, the bishops keep bending their backs to whatever comes with a Roman imprimatur in an ungainly yoga that does not do them proud. Is it too much to expect some show of discomfort with misguided policy?

I do not expect many bishops to sign the petition against Fiducia making its rounds. However, wouldn’t that be a way of promoting a “synodal way” and open dialogue? Even if that is asking too much, can we not plead that they not “put conscience at a distance,” like the Vicar of Bray?


  • Msgr. Richard C. Antall

    Monsignor Antall is pastor of Holy Name Parish in the Diocese of Cleveland. He is the author of The X-Mass Files (Atmosphere Press, 2021), and The Wedding (Lambing Press, 2019).

tagged as: Church Pope Francis

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