What’s Your Theological Deal-Killer?

Sitting over an overpriced gin and tonic at the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel, I probed the excommunicated bishop about his secret sedevacantism. I didn’t toss the issue naked on the table, since he would simply have denied everything. But I knew from several sources that, while the man publicly claimed to accept the legitimacy of then-Pope John Paul II, privately he sowed doubts among his friendlier seminarians. He whispered that the “formal and material heresies” taught by that pope had quite possibly deprived Karol Wotyjla of the throne. That would have left the seat (sede) of Peter empty (vacantes). A small but intense contingent of Traditionalists have held this position for decades, although the public leader of that movement, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, always insisted that his resistance to Popes Paul VI and John Paul II amounted to “true” (versus false) obedience, carried out in a grave emergency situation for the Church — akin to the Arian heresy, when St. Athanasius refused commands from the dithering Pope Liberius.

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Archbishop Lefebvre’s was an emotionally stressful position to hold, since commitment to Catholic tradition encourages us to maximize the authority of the pope — which is hard to do when you’re defying direct papal commands and ignoring the bishops he has appointed. One can square this circle neatly by saying instead that Catholics should always obey the pope, and that God prevents popes from making decisions catastrophic to the Church — such as the vandalization of the Roman Rite of the Mass. The pope deserves our veneration and our respect. The pope would never allow such a development of doctrine as Vatican II’s decree on religious liberty. Therefore, we haven’t had a valid pope since Pius XII.

I think that this sad conclusion is encouraged by the happy fact that, since the Counter-Reformation, we have had a very good run of largely prudent, often saintly popes. People tempted by this position need to read a little further back — for instance, one of my favorite books for understanding the extent and limits of papal authority, Russell Chamberlain’s The Bad Popes. This grimly funny chronicle of the felonies of popes in the distant past is a nice corrective to the temptation to treat every papal opinion as dogmatic and to canonize every pontiff on his deathbed. It will vaccinate the reader against the dismal disappointment that comes when one forms a cult of personality around a mere mortal man.

There are plenty of wacky stories about sedevacantists getting valid episcopal orders through squirrelly means, or even electing their own popes — since hey, it’s clear that the Church always needs one! But I’m not here to make fun of such people. If you grant their premises, their conclusions seem to follow. And the pastoral abuse suffered by Catholics for the past four decades at the hands of real live heretical nuns, liturgists, catechists, priests, and bishops was so widespread and egregious that I think Christ will be very forgiving of their traumatized victims.


What I wanted to know from the bishop was this: If you really believe that a validly elected pope has embraced and taught formal heresy, doesn’t that shake your faith in the papacy itself? Isn’t it kind of a cop-out to make such grand claims for papal authority — and then when a pope seems to misuse it, to simply claim that he’s no longer pope? Wouldn’t it be more intellectually honest, at some point, to opt out — and become, say, Eastern Orthodox? You’d still have the Sacraments, and all the Christological councils. That’s where I would go if, per impossibile, some future pope ordained a woman. Or a tuba.

The bishop pointed out that none of Paul VI’s or John Paul II’s “heretical” statements were given ex cathedra. Okay, I countered, but what if one of them had been? What if the pope tomorrow were to stand up and proclaim, ex cathedra, that abortion was morally licit? Or (to sharpen the point still further) that Mary had not in fact been assumed into heaven? Would that convince him to reject papal authority? What hypothetical circumstance would convince him that the Roman reading of Christ’s promises to Peter had in fact been exaggerated?

The bishop was offended by the question. He insisted that such a thing would never happen. I agreed, then said: “But what if it did?” He refused to entertain such a blasphemous hypothetical. I insisted that he must. “Is your position really that the pope teaches infallibly, except when he doesn’t — and then he’s no longer pope? That seems like kind of a sad loophole through which to save your faith. We argue for the primacy of Peter by pointing to a perfect historical consistency of doctrinal teaching coming from Rome. If that consistency were broken, would we just look for other arguments instead?” He shook his head and we shook hands.


This incident sparked me to start thinking, intensively for many years, about precisely such blasphemous hypotheticals and troubling counterfactuals, and wondering which ones for me would be “theological deal-killers.” Just as St. Thomas Aquinas looked for the best arguments against the Faith so he could counter them, I decided to deepen my own faith by considering just what it would take for me decide that the Church had, in fact, been wrong. Or else that I had mistaken the nature of the Church, and it might reside somewhere else than I’d been brought up to believe.

It might sound like I’m looking around for a fire exit, finding potential excuses for flouncing off someday into a Tibetan Buddhist temple, or a flashy Ground Zero mosque. Not at all. Instead, as someone who writes apologetics, I’m trying to keep my arguments honest and make sure that I never squirm through loopholes such as the excommunicated bishop used. I also want to be ready to counter the strongest objections to the teachings of the Church and to correct exaggerations that well-meaning people draw from one-sided readings of Church documents. Some of those exaggerated positions are popular among the folks I meet at Latin Mass up here in New England; and to be honest, when I hear what they believe our Church really teaches, I encounter a “theological deal-killer.” I say to myself, “I don’t think that the Church teaches that, but I know it can’t be true.” That sends me back to the sources, to read the Church’s full teaching in its true context. I think mine is the best response to intellectual doubts. Next week, I’ll go through a list of what I and some friends consider “deal-killers” and explore the faithful Catholic answers. In the meantime, I invite readers to post their own — to clarify their faith and make it more tangible by marking out its rational limits.

Of course, some people think it’s virtuous to beat their intellects into submission, along the lines of Rex Mottram in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Rex is an opportunistic convert with an… expansive notion of the virtue of docility. As the priest trying to instruct Mottram recounts:

“Yesterday I asked him whether Our Lord had more than one nature. He said: ‘Just as many as you say, Father.’ Then again I asked him: ‘Supposing the Pope looked up and saw a cloud and said “It’s going to rain”, would that be bound to happen?’ ‘Oh, yes, Father.’ ‘But supposing it didn’t?’ He thought a moment and said, ‘I suppose it would be sort of raining spiritually, only we were too sinful to see it.’”

If you don’t have, at least in theory, any theological deal-killers, then you’re in grave danger of joining Rex Mottram, out in the “rain.”


  • John Zmirak

    John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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