Ann Barnhardt is a very smart woman with a talent for speaking extemporaneously and producing lucid and very nearly grammatical- and spelling-error-free English prose. She has courageously (whether rightly or wrongly) taken a stand and radically altered her life to be true to her deeply-held beliefs. She pulls no punches and very forthrightly speaks the truth as she understands it, without fear or favor. I believe she honestly tries hard to be a good disciple of Jesus Christ, zealous for the salvation of souls, and a good daughter of His Holy Catholic Church.
But trying hard, and speaking forcefully, are not the same thing as attaining perfection or possessing authority, or even just being right. Barnhardt goes too far by trying to lay upon her fellow Catholics, on pain of committing blasphemy, the burden of accepting as irrefutable fact her opinion that Pope Francis is really an antipope, and that Benedict XVI, having failed validly to abdicate, is still the lawful and rightful occupant of the Throne of Peter.
That Jorge Bergoglio, reigning under the name of Francis, is not the true Pope, is Barnhardt’s opinion and nothing more. Yet she argues that to not hew to her opinion on this subject is to blaspheme Jesus Christ as a liar, a charlatan and a promise-breaker Who failed to fulfill His guarantees concerning the Sovereign Pontiff. She also argues, circularly -- and also more consistently with Protestant ideas of private judgment than Catholic ones of authority -- that God in His goodness makes it patently obvious that Francis is not the true Pope, such that we can see it for ourselves without having to be told. She even thinks that priests who speak the name of Francis in the commemoration of the Mass are deserving of temporal punishments that she asks God to visit upon her instead. Thus, the rest of us are not to differ from her views on how much weight to give each piece of evidence that she adduces in favor of her proposition, or what picture these pieces actually make when put together. In other words, no other views of the evidence that she considers dispositive are admissible, and — even if she doesn’t put it in exactly these terms — it is a sin to disagree with her opinion on this issue.
The stumbling block for Barnhardt is that the current pontificate is nothing short of scandalous. She is right about that. If there is one thing the Amazon Synod has made clear, it is that, in our time, filth and corruption go all the way up to the top, and they are increasingly brazen. Desecrations of the holiest places in Catholic Christendom have probably been going on for a long time, after they have been closed to the public and under cover of darkness. The new development is that, with the Synod, desecrations were carried out openly and blatantly, before the cameras, and with the public approval of the Pope himself. And the involvement of the Pope, the touchstone of Catholic unity, is the most painful aspect of this mess.
The Church is no stranger to treason: our Lord Himself hand-picked Judas Iscariot, a tare that He permitted to grow up in the midst of the wheat, knowing he would sell Him for 30 pieces of silver. Nor is the Church a stranger to less-than-stellar popes. The first Pope started out his career by denying Jesus three times. Over the centuries, we have had bungling popes; negligent popes; worldly popes; weak and vacillating popes; fornicating popes. But not even about Pope Alexander VI Borgia, with all his mistresses and illegitimate children, is it alleged that he ever sowed confusion and chaos about Catholic doctrine, or supported and elevated proponents of heresies, because of their heresies, or publicly participated in idolatrous rites. He may have shamelessly shattered the Commandments; but he never tried to suggest, even indirectly, that they weren’t in fact Commandments. Pope Francis, by contrast, has done all of these things.
And so Barnhardt, and other like-minded Catholics, seek refuge in the idea that a man capable of all this can only be an antipope. The survival of Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, allow them nimbly to sidestep the fever swamps of sedevacantism by maintaining that Benedict is still the reigning Pope, due to his having abdicated under coercion, and/or under the mistaken belief that he could abdicate part of the Petrine ministry while retaining part of it. The proponents of this view hold that the conclave of 2013 was null and void, since it is not lawful to hold a conclave while the See of Peter is occupied. Alternatively, it is argued that the conclave was invalid because of illegal lobbying and electioneering by Bergoglio partisans.
The abdication of a Pope is, thankfully, an exceedingly rare event in the life of the Church. The question of Pope Benedict’s abdication, the circumstances surrounding it, and its implications, certainly need to be closely examined. A careful study of this event will be the task of a future pontificate. There does not at this time seem to exist the will to do it, at least among those who are now in power, so glad are they to have seen the back of Benedict, and so little do they seem to have the good of the Church at heart. As to the effectiveness of Pope Benedict’s abdication, and the validity of the conclave of 2013, others have addressed these issues more eloquently and expertly than I can. Still, I will throw in a few observations of my own, to be taken for whatever they may be worth.
First of all, it is difficult to imagine Pope Benedict XVI doing anything without careful deliberation. The existence of fear on his part does not, ipso facto, imply coercion; nor does it rule out deliberation. Fear is very often a factor in making a decision that is nevertheless taken knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily. For example, people often enter into plea agreements, even if they are not happy about doing so, because they fear that to go to trial could result in a worse outcome. The spectacular imprudence of other alternatives than the one they elect does not mean that their decision to take a plea has been coerced. Thus, Pope Benedict’s fears, if any, about remaining in office do not, of themselves, mean he was being coerced into abdicating. Even if it could be persuasively argued that he was coerced into abdicating, he could still later acquiesce in having been deposed, and Christ could still ratify that acquiescence. Arguably, if there was a need for his acquiescence, Benedict has done so by reaffirming his abdication, and by declining to try to resume office.
Secondly, the idea strains all credibility that a careful, thoughtful, conscientious and experienced scholar like Josef Ratzinger, with his profound knowledge of Church law, could produce an instrument of abdication that, for some elementary failure in grammar or phrasing, would fail to do what it set out to do. Mistakes like that are the stuff of first-year law students, which Benedict XVI manifestly is not. Unlike the current Pope, Benedict XVI is a man who weighs carefully every word, and understands that, when you draft a document intended to have some legal effect, every word counts. Also, unlike Ann Barnhardt, Pope Benedict is trained in Latin, so his opinions as to the best choice of words in a Latin instrument to effectuate a legal act are probably weightier than hers.
Thirdly, I do not believe that any after-the-fact musings of either Benedict or his private secretary about the nature of the Petrine ministry, entered upon in an effort, perhaps, to rationalize what he had done, deserve any weight as evidence of his intent at the time of his abdication. Surely, to the extent Benedict’s beliefs about the Petrine Office, or his intent with respect to it, are at issue, the focus of any inquiry would have to center on what he intended at the time he renounced the papacy. Whatever he said after the fact, even if it is picking up the threads of theological or philosophical speculations from years earlier, is at best minimally relevant to determining his thinking and his intent during the relevant time frame. Why? Because people are known to change their minds, and sometimes even change them back again at a later time, and for all sorts of reasons. Even if Benedict’s reflections are relevant, they are not sufficient to tip the scales in favor of an invalid abdication. Not every piece of relevant evidence carries weight, or deserves to.
Fourthly, Benedict’s conduct since his abdication — the continued use of his regnal name, the imparting of apostolic blessings, his continued wearing of the white cassock, his failure completely to disappear from public view — do not constitute smoking-gun evidence that he is still the lawful Pope. Here again, it pays to remember that not every piece of evidence, even relevant evidence, carries weight. On the other hand, when you have a theory that you are determined to prove at all costs, you are apt to see relevant evidence where none exists, or to misinterpret or exaggerate in your own mind the importance of evidence that does exist. When Pope Benedict became the first Pope to abdicate in nearly 600 years, it immediately became clear from the ensuing confusion that the Church really does not have a protocol for dealing with a former Pope, or for how a former Pope should conduct himself. It is quite likely that this lack of protocol is the primary reason why Benedict continues to hold on to some papal trappings. A future Pope may or may not choose to address this issue.
Fifthly, just as she does not have a background in Latin, Barnhardt does not have a background in canon law. This is not a criticism of her: not everybody can be an expert in everything. But without a background or training in a field in which you propose to exercise what amounts to some professional judgment, you are missing some important facts and principles; worse yet, you cannot know what you don’t know. Since Barnhardt feels compelled to give us the benefit of her views on the law of the Church, her lack of canonist training is relevant in considering how trustworthy those views are.
This is a point worth dwelling on, in a world where people who know less and less are bolder and bolder about ventilating their views, and where few opinions are more entrenched than ones based on ignorance. I have been a practicing lawyer for over 20 years, and the bane of my existence is people without any legal training who think they know the law better than I do, and who actually fly into a rage because I do not endorse their legal opinions — even though I am qualified to give a legal opinion and they are not. The reality is that there is a lot more to the practice of law than looking things up in books. In fact, looking things up in books is not even the beginning. You have to first know which books to look in. You have to know which, among myriad authorities, are controlling, and which are merely persuasive, and which ones take priority over others in which circumstances. You have to know how to check your authorities to make sure they’re still current. You have to know how to read one piece of law in light of the whole body of law of which it is a part. You have to know when you are dealing with terms of art, with specialized meanings, and when you are dealing with terms that have the same meaning as in common parlance. You have to know how to think like a lawyer, which can be the end product only of training and experience.
Even this is not an exhaustive list of all that you need to do law competently. And all my experience still only covers a small area. I am trained in one branch of the secular law that is based on the English common law, as currently expressed and applied in one small jurisdiction in the United States; and my field of actual experience is even narrower. Canon law is a field where I fear to tread, even as a trained secular lawyer. It is not true that anybody can do canon law without training, any more than you can do secular law without training. Canon law has different terms of art, different operating premises and different concepts of controlling authorities than that branch of the secular law that I know. It also requires a background in Latin. How much less confident about interpreting canon law should Ann Barnhardt be, who is not even trained in secular lawyering! Yet she tosses out canons, and what she considers to be her authoritative interpretations of them, like a wealthy aristocrat tossing coins to a crowd.
Barnhardt argues that the question of whether Francis is really the Pope centers on the question Jesus asked His disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” Well, Ann, who do you say that He is? You are saying that Christ is not active nor effective in the process of papal succession, and that He can be stymied by mere men, and even by their grammatical errors or semantics games. You hold, in essence, that He does not ratify an abdication (even an imprudent abdication, entered upon using the free will that He confers upon everyone), strip a man who abdicates of the Office, and then confer it upon a successor. Worse: you are saying that, having designated Peter as the touchstone of Christian unity, Christ would then go on to allow His entire Church to falsely acclaim the wrong man as the true Pope. How can the whole Church be wrong about something so critical? Yet she universally acclaimed Francis as Pope upon his election in 2013. Even you, Ann, acknowledged Francis as Pope, even if you didn’t like it. A lot of us didn’t like it, and still don’t. But then, we were guaranteed a true Pope, not a likeable one, or even a good one. Regretting the fact that Francis is the legitimate Pope does not invalidate or reverse the guarantee of universal acclaim.
To repeat, this idea that Francis is an antipope serves as a refuge. The “Antipope Bergoglio” crowd comfort themselves with the idea that Francis is not the true Pope, and that the Church has fallen into the hands of a wicked usurper, because this seems to them preferable to the possibility that a true Pope could permit the proliferation of heresy, idolotry and sexual deviancy within the Church. That is their opinion.
Well, here is my opinion. I believe the situation is much worse than they think. I think that (1) Benedict XVI legitimately abdicated; (2) that the conclave of 2013 was valid; (3) that Jorge Bergoglio, reigning under the name of Francis, and as awful as he is in light of the evidence of his words and deeds, and the sorry state of everything he touches, is the legitimate Pope. I think Pope Francis has made it his business to push the envelope, and we are going to see just how far out that envelope goes. Even now, we are finding out that the lines may not all be where we thought they were.
It is also my opinion that this calamity has been a long time coming. I have long believed that the Church is under a chastisement. I have also long believed that this chastisement would never play itself out until we got a “spirit of Vatican II” pope. This we now have in spades in Pope Francis. Now, since the kind and gentle father we had in Pope Benedict could not bring us around, we have been allowed to fall into the hands of an abusive one. Now the “spirit of Vatican II” is going to carry itself out to its logical conclusion, as far as God will permit for the punishment of our sins.
Barnhardt and those who agree with her maintain that to regard Francis as the legitimate Pope is to disbelieve in the protections that Jesus promised to His Church for her preservation until the end of time, including the charism of infallibility in faith and morals that the Pope possesses in virtue of his office (which charism applies more narrowly than Barnhardt seems to think). But this state of affairs is not the result of God failing of His promises, but of us failing in our fidelity to God. Why else would He permit this if not because of our sins? He is allowing the scourge of our own wickedness to fall across our backs. Now the Church must face up to her infidelity. Jesus promised that the gates of hell will never prevail against her; but this does not mean that He will not permit her to go even to the edge of the abyss, for her purification.
The other day, Barnhardt asked:
“If everything Bergoglio is doing is totally ‘in bounds’ with regard to the Petrine Promise…WHY DIDN’T SATAN, A LEGALIST, DO THIS CENTURIES or MILLENNIA AGO???”
Very simple, Ann. Because the devil can only do as much as God permits, and no more. (Who do you say that He is?) God didn’t permit this centuries or millennia ago. He permitted other sorts of chastisement. But then, centuries and millennia ago, we had not amassed the sins, and racked up the debt of guilt, that we have racked up in our day. And so He hits us with a punishment that is fitting to our crimes.
But He also gives us the grace to repent and convert.