Good Popes and True Popes

In my last article, I tackled the subject of Papal Infallibility.

But today I wanted to look into the subject of Papal Fallibility.

Is a bad pope no longer a true pope?

By “true” I do not mean “having pure and good intention.” By “true,” I mean “having legitimate authority as the Successor to St. Peter.”

To be candid, I grew up under the papacy of Pope St. John Paul II. This was a great privilege. For decades our Church was shepherded by a man who was immanently wise, immanently good, and immanently holy. We could take it for granted that the flock of Jesus was in good hands.

That isn’t to say that he was without his detractors. I remember when he was named Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year,” and someone commented: “‘Man of the Year?’ Not if you’re a woman!” This comment was directed at the Holy Father’s defense of unborn life and his reassertion that the Church as no power to ordain women.

His successors also were sometimes met with harsh criticism. After Pope Benedict XVI was elected I mentioned to a fellow Catholic about my affection for him. Her response was, “It was like we were praying for bread and we got a stone!” Netflix even made a movie called The Two Popes which apparently paints Pope Benedict XVI as an angry and resentful authoritarian. Pope Francis himself has been labeled a communist by those who dislike him and his social policies.

I bring this up because I’ve noticed some people, particularly on social media, who are saying that our current Holy Father is not a true pope.

Now, criticizing the pope is not something to take lightly. That isn’t to say that popes throughout history were perfect and without the need for correction. St. Catherine of Sienna famously remonstrated Pope Benedict XI into leaving the luxurious courts of Avignon to return to Rome. St. Francis of Assisi also criticized the worldly excesses of the Holy Father and the Cardinals. And if you go all the way back to the Scriptures, St. Paul publicly criticized St. Peter at Antioch for giving scandal to the Gentiles.

So the pope is not immune to critique. But to say that the pope is not a “true pope” is wrong. As Professor Edward Feser recently wrote: “Too many are hypnotized by the false conditional ‘X is a true pope only if X is a good pope.’”

I brought up Pope St. John Paul II earlier because he was such a unique and transformative presence of Christ in the papacy. That has not always been the case throughout our history. In the past we have had many bad popes, some of which I mentioned in my previous article. Another example would be Pope John XII, who died while engaged in the middle of adultery with a married woman. You could also look at Pope Urban VI who had some of his cardinals tortured and executed. But just because they were bad popes, it does not mean that they were not true popes. I don’t want to say that Pope St. John Paul II was the exception. But Catholics throughout the centuries have had to live under popes that were not good and holy men. If that has happened before in the Catholic Church, there is no reason to think that it cannot happen again.

But the Holy Father is the head of the Church and his office is to be respected as such. In the same way, if any priest falls into sin, he is still a priest and his office must be respected as such. Or a simpler example would be this: if I cheat on my wife, I am a bad husband. There can be no question about that. But the act of cheating on my wife does automatically end my marriage. Even though I am a bad husband, I am still a true husband, not a false husband.

So what do we do if at some time we have a “bad pope?”

First, we must pray.

Too often we turn immediately to criticism before we turn to God. Pope Francis very humble said to the Church “Pray for me” in his first speech as pope. The Holy Father will always be in constant need of our prayers. This would be especially true if a pope fell away from closeness with God. We must always remember that God is more powerful than we are. We must also remember that it is God’s Church and that He promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against it.

Second, we must be holy.

Notice that the example of papal critics I gave earlier were all saints. That is because too often our desire to criticize comes from pride. Even if we are correct in our judgments, pride can still take hold of a person who desires to be vindicated. I remember that CS Lewis was once asked to write an article about the writings of a theologian he clearly disagreed with. However, he declined because he did not think that he could do so charitably. Truth must always be done in charity.

Third, we must be true to the Catholic faith.

The two previous points are not loopholes that allow us to dodge the important work of speaking the truth. St. Paul would have shirked his duty to Christ if he did NOT criticize Peter at Antioch. But we must, as Christ commanded, “remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.” (Matt 5:7) This is not just a matte of optics. We cannot help our Holy Father effectively if we are blinded by our sins.

But we must speak the truth always “whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching.” (2 Timothy 4:2). If a pope was committing adultery like John XII, we should speak out against it. If another was committing torture and murder like Urban VI, we should oppose it. We are to stand for the Gospel of Jesus and pray that His pope will come to repentance.

We must constantly pray that true pope is also a good pope.

Copyright 2023, WL Grayson.

W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.

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