Modernism and “The Miracle of the Papacy”

I knew something about the “bad popes” of the past—and the technical limits of papal infallibility. But I still believed in some strange apotheosis whereby the contemporary popes could do no wrong. 

Once upon a time, I was a Millennial hyperpapalist. For three years, I kept a Microsoft Word spiritual diary filled with Pope Francis quotations—and wrapped him in a mantle of practical infallibility. For longer than that, I (like my old college friends) held all recent popes up as “rock stars” who could never be criticized. 

To be sure, I knew something about the “bad popes” of the past—and the technical limits of papal infallibility. But I still believed in some strange apotheosis whereby the contemporary popes could do no wrong. 

Which brings me to a brilliant new two-volume set by Dr. Peter Kwasniewski called The Road from Hyperpapalism to Catholicism. It’s a powerhouse of analysis, showing the perils of idealizing the papacy at the expense of history and magisterial teachings. Ultimately, Kwasniewski shows that there is a “miracle of the papacy”—but it’s not the kind of miracle that my old hyperpapalist self would have thought up. 

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As he confesses, Kwasniewski himself had a college phase in which he was “papolatrous to an almost satirical degree.” He writes that he, “believed that the pope had all the right answers on any and every question, and the one and only problem we were facing was widespread disobedience to him.”

Kwasniewski presents St. John Henry Newman as a corrective model. Newman sincerely accepted Vatican I’s dogmas, but he also had reservations about what Kwasniewski calls the council’s “spirit.” Newman understood Vatican I’s definition of papal infallibility restrictively. In this way, Newman took seriously the council’s statement that popes are to “guard” and “explain” the deposit of faith, not “disclose a new doctrine.” 

But such cautiousness couldn’t stop Vatican I’s false “spirit” from spreading the notion that the pope is a kind of divine oracle. Today, there are apologists and websites devoted to defending anything coming from the current pontificate. The problem, however, is that this pontificate’s engine is Modernism. 

Modernism—to quote Kwasniewski’s electric final essay—was a “loosely-defined set of tendencies and views” that “criss-crossed the Catholic intelligentsia of Europe at the end of the nineteenth and the start of the twentieth centuries.” Put simply, Modernists wanted to “update” the Church according to the spirit of the age. Positing that truth is dynamic and not static, Modernists tried to find novel facets of it—and thus reverse Church positions. 

To understand how this evolution works, take Kwasniewski’s incisive treatment of the death penalty. Pope Francis believes that the death penalty is “inadmissible.” But if Francis means that it’s intrinsically evil, he’s directly contradicting, for instance, his papal predecessors. But “for a Modernist,” Kwasniewski says, “the Church at a more primitive period of the development of human consciousness was right to promote the death penalty…but now in our stage of higher consciousness…we can see that the death penalty is wrong.”

Or take the question of giving Communion to persons in an objective state of adultery, the signature issue in Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia. The Modernist, Kwasniewski explains, would say that old notions of mortal sin have “evolved” now that we more deeply grasp God’s “mercy.” 

It’s not hard to see how drenching old Catholic positions with copious amounts of Hegel could start a fire. When Francis’ death penalty statement came out, a prestigious medical journal ran an editorial grumbling that it was time to update the Church’s abortion stance, too. 

At the end of the day, it was a single comment about Modernism that shook me out of my hyperpapalism. It was mid-2016. Pope Francis had made a shocking statement about marriage, and I thought: What is he trying to do? Tucked under an online report was a comment from an old acquaintance of mine. He said that Francis was deliberately trying to change the Church because he was allied to Modernism. 

I changed that day—and six years later, I don’t miss my old hyperpapalist self. Instead, I now appreciate what Kwasniewski calls the “miracle of the papacy”:

There have been a total of 266 popes. If we do the math, we come out with 4.14% of the Successors of Peter who earned opprobrium for their moral behavior and 3.76% who deserve it for their dalliance with error. On the other hand, about 90 of the preconciliar popes are revered as saints or blesseds, which is 33.83%. We could debate about the numbers (have I been too lenient or too severe in my lists?), but is there anyone who fails to behold in these numbers the evident hand of Divine Providence? A monarchy of 266 incumbents lasting for 2,000 years that can boast failure and success rates like this is no mere human construct, operating by its own steam.

No matter what the Modernists have in store for us, “the miracle of the papacy” will live on.


  • Julia Meloni

    Julia Meloni writes from the Pacific Northwest. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Yale and a master’s degree in English from Harvard.

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