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There is a dangerous undercurrent in some Catholic circles: challenging the legitimacy of Francis' papacy. In the comments section of a recent article, Steve Jalsevac, the managing director of LifeSiteNews, commented, "[M]ore are now questioning who is the real pope at this time."
I'm no theologian or canonist, but I think I can help Mr. Jalsevac and others figure out who the real pope is.
If Pope Francis is not actually our pope, then there are only three logical scenarios that would explain how this came about. In all three of these scenarios, we find that the See of Peter is now vacant, with no plans underway to fill it. Let us explore each scenario closely.
This is the only scenario in which someone else might have been pope when Mr. Jalsevac made his comment on Dec. 23, 2022. If indeed Pope Benedict's attempted resignation was invalid, then he would have remained pope until his death. However, as thoroughly explained in this piece by The Pillar, canon law explicitly provides for a valid papal resignation, so long as "it is made freely and properly manifested." Pope Benedict met both these criteria in his resignation.
Regarding the manifestation requirement, Pope Benedict read his declaration, composed in Latin, at an ordinary consistory meeting of cardinals, which was also recorded on video. It's hard to imagine how his resignation could have been more properly manifested. Regarding his free action, Pope Benedict said, "For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom, I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter ... ."
Those who harbor the position of this first scenario may think that Benedict was pressured into resigning by some secret threat from Vatican elites, thus compromising his freedom. However, given the clarity of Benedict's assertion that he did act freely, such people must ask themselves: Was Benedict lying, deluded, or was he telling the truth? (Thank you, C.S. Lewis.)
Under this scenario, the See of Peter has been vacant since Feb. 28, 2013. Jorge Bergoglio would be but a cardinal of the Catholic Church, having the powers of a bishop. Thus, Bergoglio's episcopal ordinations would be illicit, because by canon law, only the "Supreme Pontiff freely appoints bishops or confirms those legitimately elected." And the special powers which flow from those ordinations are now illicitly exercised among the unsuspecting faithful.
Of course, a future pope might legitimize Bergoglio's ordinations, but it's not clear how the next pope would be elected. When Bergoglio resigns or dies, his successor will be elected by the College of Cardinals, the majority of whom were promoted by Bergoglio himself. Can such a college validly elect another pope if Bergoglio's own election was not valid?
And if the See of Peter is truly vacant, what shall we say of all those cardinals who accept that Francis is the pope? One of those is the beloved Cdl. Raymond Burke, an eyewitness to the papal conclave, who has repeatedly and recently affirmed Francis as pope. Like Benedict, if these cardinals aren't correct, then they're either deluded or lying.
This is the scenario proposed by Dr. Taylor Marshall and others. However, the faithful should note that Pope Francis has not been charged or convicted of heresy by any canonical process.
Church history is rife with churchmen who thought that the pope was a heretic. In the middle of the third century, Bp. Cyprian of Carthage and Bp. Firmilian of Caesarea accused Pope Stephen I of heresy because Stephen adjured that baptism performed within heretical sects was valid if it was done the right way and with the right intention. Firmilian fervently wrote of Stephen:
But indeed you are worse than all heretics. ... For it is yourself that you have cut off. Do not deceive yourself, since he is really the schismatic who has made himself an apostate from the communion of ecclesial unity. For while you think that all may be excommunicated by you, you have excommunicated yourself alone from all.
Yet time proved Stephen right, and it was Firmilian who had to eat those awful words.
The lesson for our time is that mere accusations of heresy do not constitute formal heresy, however much the accuser thinks he is right. Though many argue that Pope Francis has made heretical statements, he cannot invisibly forfeit his chair. To forfeit, he must be proven a heretic by some canonical process so that the whole Catholic world knows of it. Otherwise, Catholicism is just another brand of Gnosticism, wherein only the elites with special spiritual insight know who the real pope is.
Finally, it seems that Marshall has failed even to convince himself. On Jan. 25, as a guest on The Glenn Beck Program, Marshall said, "Pope Francis, for example, is trying to ban the traditional Latin Mass." If he truly believes that Bergoglio isn't actually the pope, he shouldn't go on a nationally syndicated radio show and refer to him as "Pope Francis."
None of these three scenarios is tenable. Pope Francis is really the pope but, in many ways, he's a poor one. I argue that if one were to measure how many people know and live their Catholic faith better due to his influence, the Franciscan papacy may come up short.
Denying the papacy of a legitimately elected pope is a grave spiritual matter. By such a denial, one effectively removes oneself from the pope's authority, and influencing others to deny the pope is scandalous. The gravity of this situation was clarified by Pope Boniface VIII in his papal bull Unam Sanctam, which he concludes with this admonition: "Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff."
By the grace of God, we have a pope, and his name is Francis. Rather than question his legitimacy, let us earnestly pray for him who is the visible head of our unity.
The author reached out to Mr. Jalsevac at LifeSiteNews for a response, but he declined.
St. Joseph, patron of the Church, pray for us.
Acknowledgment: The author gratefully acknowledges the influence of this special presentation produced by Church Militant.