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Peter, Trump, and Francis

No pope and no body of bishops—or laity, for that matter—have the authority to change, revise, reverse, alter, or fundamentally rework what has been gifted to the Mystical Body of Christ in Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture.

Last summer, while visiting family in Montana, I had a conversation with my brother-in-law—an Evangelical Protestant—about the papacy in general and the pontificate of Francis specifically. Chris’s questions were very thoughtful and not contentious in any way; he was genuinely interested in what Catholics believe about the pope. So, for instance, he asked a common and understandable question: “Is the pope able to change doctrine or belief?” The question, he added, was inspired in part because he had read Francis was trying to change Church teaching in some ways; it was both confusing and fascinating to someone who had a master’s degree from an Evangelical seminary and also had a certain level of interest in things Catholic.

My response was threefold. First, I said, it’s essential to understand the Church teaches that Jesus Christ gave the apostles what is called “the deposit of faith”—consisting of Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture—and that the apostles, in turn, entrusted this depositum fidei “to the whole of the Church” (CCC 84ff; cf Dei Verbum 10). This body of belief and doctrinal truth cannot be changed or altered, but can be—must be!—defended, defined, explained, explicated, and otherwise conveyed. However, the “task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church…” (DV 10)

Secondly, I told Chris, the pope holds a unique place in the Magisterium, or teaching office, of the Church. So, for instance, the “task of interpretation [of the deposit of faith] has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome”; the Petrine office, in other words, always has a central and essential role in “unpacking” this deposit of faith.

Third, it’s vital to understand that no pope and no body of bishops—or laity, for that matter—have the authority to change, revise, reverse, alter, or fundamentally rework what has been gifted to the Mystical Body of Christ in Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. This is why the Second Vatican Council stated, “This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed” (DV 10; cf CCC 86)

I then said (perhaps not as well or as clearly as I hoped) that the authority of the pope is both tremendous and remarkably limited. It’s not just that the pope cannot change anything in divine revelation, but that his office is one largely defined by negative powers. That is, the pope rarely puts forth “new” ideas or interpretations, but far more often exercises his authority by saying, “No, that is false” or “No, that is heretical” or “No, that is unbalanced”. And when he does define some particular point, it is almost always in order to save it from a false, mishapen, or lacking interpretation. Thus:

But when either the Roman Pontiff or the Body of Bishops together with him defines a judgment, they pronounce it in accordance with Revelation itself, which all are obliged to abide by and be in conformity with, that is, the Revelation which as written or orally handed down is transmitted in its entirety through the legitimate succession of bishops and especially in care of the Roman Pontiff himself, and which under the guiding light of the Spirit of truth is religiously preserved and faithfully expounded in the Church. The Roman Pontiff and the bishops, in view of their office and the importance of the matter, by fitting means diligently strive to inquire properly into that revelation and to give apt expression to its contents; but a new public revelation they do not accept as pertaining to the divine deposit of faith. (Lumen Gentium, 25; emphasis added)

All of that is an introduction of sorts to some excerpts from a few recent articles about Pope Francis and what he is doing—or seems to be doing. It seems to me that most people—and that includes most Catholics—have a quite hazy or even fairly faulty understanding of what the papacy is all about. In an era in which the President of the United States has wide-ranging powers over policy and laws, and in which the papacy is increasingly understood in grossly political terms, it’s good to revisit the basics.

The first article is “Pope Francis is the Anti-Trump”, published February 1st in The New Yorker by the hyperbolic James Carroll, author of Constantine’s Sword. It’s helpful here to keep in mind Thomas F. X. Noble’s statement, in his May 2001 review of Constantine’s Sword, that in Carroll’s work “the history is always amateurish and often wrong; the theology is an affront to any form of historic Christianity; and the author comes off as smug, sanctimonious, and unctuous.” The same holds for Carroll’s New Yorker essay, although in fairness he may have stumbled upon a nugget or two of truth. So, for instance, Carroll writes of the recent strange matter of Francis’ and the Knights of Malta: “Headlines conveyed the impression of a bizarre Vatican dustup sparked by yet more conservative resistance to the liberalizing impulses of the Pope from Argentina.” There is some truth there, I think, but one would do well to ask, “What is bizarre? And why is it bizarre?” (Partial answer: Francis seems to create “bizarre” messes and situations. On a regular basis.)

Carroll segues into a passage critical of—who else?—Cardinal Raymond Burke (mentioned some 16 times in the short essay), smirking at how the Cardinal “consistently denigrates Islam, describes Sharia law as a global threat, and echoes Pope Benedict’s fear of Muslim dominance in Europe” after having lamented the “world-historic conflict that Donald Trump has so stupidly escalated.” Some readers might wonder why Carroll is so dismissive of Cardinal Burke’s concerns while placing blame on President Trump for supposedly escalating a “world-historic conflict” if, in fact, such a conflict does not exist or is of no consequence. This is followed by an argument for Francis as “anti-Trump” because he is, Carroll claims, “the world’s staunchest defender of migrants, and of Muslim migrants.” Christian observers might note, with only modest cynicism, that “Christian migrants” are apparently of little or no interest. True to his sophistic, sputtering style, Carroll concludes by saying:

Who are the faithful? Who are the infidels? Who would have thought that, on an elemental point of liberal democracy, the United States could take instruction from the white-robed man in Rome? And who would have thought that liberal democracy itself could have a stake in the unfinished struggle for the soul of the Catholic Church?

The answer to the last two questions is simple: anyone who knows anything of substance about history and the Catholic Church. Which may not include Mr. Carroll, and most likely does not include the editors of The New Yorker.

Keep that in mind as we move along to the second piece, a February 7th First Things essay titled “Peter Says No” by Fr. John Hunwicke. Do read the entire piece, but for my purposes here are a couple of key quotes:

It is relevant to the thesis I am examining to point out the extreme length of this apostolic exhortation, as well as the immense volume of words that emerges almost daily from the Domus Sanctae Marthae. Papal prolixity, a malady both acute and chronic, combined with assertions (however ingenious) that non-x has “developed” into x, and has managed to do so in a less than three decades, can hardly be what Newman dreamed of when he praised the Roman Church for “serving as a sort of remora.” The current attitude stems from the kind of false ultramontanism that Newman feared. ..

Before we go on, it may be valuable to listen for a moment to some whispers heard now in the baroque churches and palaces of Rome, to the murmurs of which the very cobblestones are conscious. And we shall find that we hear much about the action of the Holy Spirit in Bergoglian Rome. One high curial official, a senior canon lawyer, explained: “The Jubilee Year of Mercy expects [sic] the humble obedience (on the part of the Church’s shepherds) to the Spirit who speaks to them through Francis.” Another, now a newly minted cardinal, and a man schooled by his formation in the Legion of Christ to obey his superiors without criticism, revealed that the American bishops planned, at their November 2016 meeting, to discuss Amoris laetitia:

“I think it is very important that they have that discussion. But at the same time I think it’s very important that we all understand that this is the Holy Spirit speaking. … Basically, this is the Holy Spirit speaking to us. Do we believe that the Holy Spirit wasn’t there in the first synod? Do we believe he wasn’t there in the second synod? Do we believe that he didn’t inspire our Holy Father Pope Francis in writing this document?”

I wonder in how many other periods in the history of the Catholic Church the Third Person of the Holy Trinity was perceived as being so readily at the disposal of the politicians.

In fact, the terminology of “inspired by the Holy Spirit” is, strictly speaking, not something used often, if at all, in reference to papal actions and utterances. In fact, it is used to refer mostly to the actions and words of Christ, as well as the writings of the inspired authors of Scripture; otherwise, there is usually reference to being “guided” by the Holy Spirit in understanding the deposit of faith. So, for example, St. John Paul II told the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1993 (and quoted, by the way, by Francis in September 2014):

Indeed, to arrive at a completely valid interpretation of words inspired by the Holy Spirit, one must first be guided by the Holy Spirit and it is necessary to pray for that, to pray much, to ask in prayer for the interior light of the Spirit and docilely accept that light, to ask for the love that alone enables one to understand the language of God, who “is love” (see 1 John 4:8, 16).

Put another way, no pope or mystic or anyone else is inspired by the Holy Spirit in such a way as to add to or change the deposit of faith. Granted, that is not what the prelate in question was stating, but it also seems clear his effusive language demonstrates a troublesome desire to bestow Pope Francis with a power or quality that isn’t part of the actual papal package—even when it comes to making an ex cathedra statement, which is matter of protecting from error rather than revealing some new revelation (or, as Lumen Gentium puts it, when “he is expounding or defending a doctrine of Catholic faith” with “the assistance of the Holy Spirit” [par 25]).

As Father Hunwicke notes: “And if it is not within the pay-grade of the Roman Pontiff to promote novelties when he speaks ex cathedra and to claim the support of the Holy Spirit for so doing, we may suspect that the same limitation will rest upon him when he uses a lesser register of his magisterium.” Exactly so. And:

When Peter speaks, he says no. It is true that he also offers words of affirmation, comfort, and encouragement, as all pastors do. But when he exercises the role most typical of the Petrine mystery—the safeguarding of the faith—he speaks in the negative.

And yet there is apparently a movement (as evidenced by the quotes from Cardinal Farrell and others) to ascribe to Francis a sort of positive inspiration—notably in the move to allow Communion to divorced-and-“remarried” Catholics but perhaps even beyond that—as if this pontificate has somehow attained a level of inscrutable wisdom never before seen among the successors of Saint Peter. One wonders: how is it that Amoris Laetitia is “the Holy Spirit speaking” when there is so much confusion and completely contrary interpretations among bishops (nevermind the laity)? Father Hunwicke is quite right, I think, to be dismayed by this “use of the Holy Spirit as a piece of cheap machinery to evade perceived inconveniences in inherited Christian teaching” and to conclude: “Catholics seeks a different and higher kind of deliverance. In order that we may say yes to Christ, Peter says no to the world.”

Now, back to Trump and Francis, via a recent piece (February 15th) by Ross Douthat in the New York Times titled “The Trump Era’s Catholic Mirror”. Douthat writes, in making a most interesting (and quite compelling) comparison of the President and the Pope, that

… for all the differences in detail, the drama in the church is a kind of photonegative of the drama in Washington, D.C. In both contexts, a provisional center has cracked up, and a form of steamrolling populism has taken power. In both contexts, ideas from the fringes — far right and far left, radical and traditional — suddenly have unexpected resonance.

The difference is that in Rome the populist isn’t a right-wing president. He’s a radical pope.

Friendly media coverage casts the pontiff as a man of the center, an ecclesiastical equivalent of Angela Merkel or Barack Obama or David Cameron, menaced by authoritarians to his right. But he is no such thing, and not only because his politics are much more radical and apocalyptic than any Western technocrat. In the context of the papacy, in his style as a ruler of the church, Francis is flagrantly Trumpian: a shatterer of norms, a disregarder of traditions, an insult-heavy rhetorician, a pontiff impatient with the strictures of church law and inclined to govern by decree when existing rules and structures resist his will.

Those are strong words, without doubt. Are they fair and accurate? As someone who follows these matters on a daily basis, I’m inclined to say, yes, they are both. One quibble I have is with placing Obama in the “center”, as I think he is a leftist ideologue; in fact, I’d say that Trump is less an ideologue—at least in any conventional sense—than either Obama or Francis (as Trump certainly isn’t a classic conservative by any stretch). But the rest of the description holds fast, as Francis is not, I’m fairly convinced, content to just say “No”, but wishes to change and move as much as possible, mindful that he must do so with care and some stealth. That is why Francis likely will never answer the dubia, or make explicit his goals with the controversial and convoluted eighth chapter of Amoris Laetitia.

John Paul II had a strong and magnetic personality, which he employed on a regular basis, but with Francis it seems to me we have a pontificate that rests almost entirely upon personality and “gesture”. There is not much by way of substance, in direct contrast to the two previous pontificates. As an Evangelical Protestant in the 1990s, I was attracted to John Paul II, but not so much by his personality as by his intellect and insight, by his ability to present and convey the Tradition and orthodoxy (as well as his critiques of secularism and much more) in a compelling way. And Cardinal Ratzinger was long a favorite theologian, whose theological insight stands out among all pontiffs. With Francis, increasingly, there is a semi-mythological narrative at work: the Argentinian is a humble man of the people who seeks to fight rot and corruption while reaching out to the fringes with a breathtaking unleashing of mercy.

Which brings me to the final essay: “Warning: Our strengths are often our weaknesses. Same with the Pope” by Jeff Mirus at Catholic Culture. Dr. Mirus has written several very sober and thoughtful critiques of the current pontificate, and is not given to rash overstatement. So it is worthwhile to consider fives points he makes in this piece, of which I quote just the first:

I am sure it will occasion no surprise when I state that we simply cannot see such telltale signs of holiness, or at least not yet, in Pope Francis. I cannot say he is not holy; I do not know him personally; and I may well be a very poor judge. But I can say that many of the usual signs of holiness are conspicuous by their absence. You may take this observation as evidence of my own breathtaking conceit. But precisely because Pope Francis frequently appears to denounce and condemn those whose personalities prize doctrinal orthodoxy and the moral law, it seems that we who are thus condemned have a serious responsibility to consider whether this constant criticism is coming from a person with all the earmarks of a saint—or not.

When I raise this question, I stumble immediately on five significant clues to how it must be answered. The first clue is that the more time that goes by in this pontificate, the more we see that Pope Francis is regarded as great and wonderful almost exclusively by non-Catholics and what we call cafeteria Catholics—those who pick and choose which teachings of Christ and the Church they will accept.

That is my experience and perspective as well. Which brings me full circle back to my conversation with my brother-in-law. I don’t recall my exact words, but I indicated that this pontificate, while often frustrating and even distressing, has been a reminder for me of basic truths about the nature of the papacy and the reality of the Church, which was founded by Jesus Christ, is kept and guarded by the Holy Spirit, and is the “household of God” and “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15). The Catechism states, in one of my favorite passages:

Christians of the first centuries said, “The world was created for the sake of the Church.” God created the world for the sake of communion with his divine life, a communion brought about by the “convocation” of men in Christ, and this “convocation” is the Church. The Church is the goal of all things… (par 760)

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About Carl E. Olson 1217 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.


  1. Pope Francis recognizes the hypocrisy in the catholic church & in many modern Christian religions where the so-called “holy” leaders preaching is so far removed from what Jesus taught and too often tied tightly to extreme right politics.

    • As opposed to when it is so far removed from what Jesus taught and is too often tied tightly to left wing extremist politics?

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