July 2017 Print

On the Church and the Pope

by Roger-Thomas Calmel, O.P.

Even more now than in times of peace, it has become useful and salutary for us in the Faith to meditate upon the trials of the Church. We might be tempted to limit these trials to the persecutions and attacks that come from the outside. And yet the enemies on the inside are far more to be dreaded: they know the vulnerable spots better, they can wound or poison when we least expect it, and the scandal they cause is far more difficult to overcome. Thus in a parish, no anti-religious school teacher, regardless of what he does, will ever manage to harm the faithful as profoundly as will a self-indulgent and modernist priest. In the same way, a simple priest who defrocks, although it strikes everyone as more serious than the negligence or treason of a bishop, still produces less harm than that caused by the bishop.

In any case, it is certain that if a bishop betrays the Catholic Faith, even without defrocking, he imposes upon the Church a far more overwhelming trial than a simple priest who lives with a woman and stops saying Mass.—Then we must ask: what type of trial can the Church of Jesus Christ suffer at the hands of the pope himself, the Vicar of Jesus Christ in person? The question itself is enough to make many cover their faces and all but shout “blasphemy.” The thought puts them to torture. They refuse to look a trial this grave in the face. I understand how they feel. I am not unaware that a sort of vertigo can possess a soul at the sight of certain iniquities. Sinite usque huc (Lk. 22:51), said Jesus to the three apostles during his Agony, as the soldiers of the high priest approached to arrest him, to drag before the tribunals and to His death.— He said it, the One who is the Sovereign and Eternal Priest. Sinite usque huc: it is as if the Lord were saying that the scandal can go even that far, but let it, and do as I say: “Watch and pray, for the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” Sinite usque huc: Through my consent to drink the chalice I merited all graces for you, while you fell asleep and left me all alone; I obtained for you especially a grace of supernatural strength that is equal to any trial; equal even to the trial that the Holy Church can undergo at the hands of the pope. I have made you capable of escaping even that vertigo.

An Extraordinary Trial

On this extraordinary trial regarding its popes, we have what the history of the Church tells us and what Revelation on the Church does not tell us. For nowhere does Revelation on the Church say that the popes will never sin out of negligence, cowardice, or worldliness in guarding and defending Apostolic Tradition. We know that they will never sin by directly making men believe another religion: that is the sin from which they are preserved by the nature of their charge. And when they invoke their authority in matters where it is infallible, it is Christ Himself who speaks to us and instructs us: such is the privilege they receive the moment they become the successors of Peter. But while Revelation informs us of these prerogatives of the papacy, nowhere does it state that when he exercises his authority beneath the level on which he is infallible, a pope cannot end up playing into Satan’s game and favoring heresy to a certain extent. In the same way, it is not written in Holy Scripture that, although he cannot formally teach another religion, a pope can never end up allowing the indispensable conditions for the defense of the true religion to be sabotaged. This sort of defection is actually considerably favored by modernism.

So Revelation regarding the pope in no way guarantees that the Vicar of Christ will never inflict upon the Church the trial of certain grave scandals: I mean scandals that are grave not only in the domain of private morality but even in the properly religious domain, and we might even say in the ecclesial domain of Faith and morals. In fact, the history of the Church tells us that the Church has indeed known this sort of trial at the hands of the pope, although it was rare and has never been a prolonged acute state. The opposite would be surprising, when we see how few popes have been canonized since St. Gregory VII, how few Vicars of Christ are invoked and venerated as friends of God, as saints of God.

And the most surprising of all is that popes who suffered very cruel torments, for example Pius VI or Pius VII, have been invoked as saints neither by the Vox Ecclesiae nor by the Vox populi. If these pontiffs, who had to suffer so much as popes, did not bear their sufferings with a high enough degree of love to be canonized saints, how can we be surprised that other popes, who see their charge with a worldly eye, could commit grave faults or inflict upon the Church of Christ a particularly formidable and harrowing trial? When reduced to the extremity of having such popes, the faithful, the priests, and the bishops who wish to live the life of the Church employ two measures: one, they take great care to pray for the Supreme Pontiff, who is a subject of affliction for the Church; and two, they attach themselves more than ever to Apostolic Tradition: the tradition on the dogmas, the missal, and the ritual; the tradition on interior progress and on every man’s calling to a perfect love in Christ.

The Mission of St. Vincent

This is where the mission of that Brother Preacher emerges, he who is, without a doubt, of all the saints, the one who worked the most directly for the papacy; this is where the mission of St. Dominic’s son, Vincent Ferrier, is particularly enlightening. He is an angel of judgment, a legate “a latere Christi,” he who had a pope deposed after showing infinite patience towards him. Vincent Ferrier is also, and by the same motion, an intrepid missionary, full of benignity, a fountain of prodigies and miracles, who preached the Gospel to the immense crowd of the Christian people. He bore in his apostolic heart not only the supreme pontiff, who was so enigmatic, so obstinate, so hard, but also the entire flock of Christ; these were the multitude of little people who were so disconcerted, the turba magna ex omnibus tribubus et populis et linguis.

Vincent understood that truly serving the Church was the least of the Vicar of Christ’s worries, but that he was above all satisfying his obscure desire for power. But if, at least among the faithful, a sense of life in the Church, of living in conformity with the dogmas and sacraments received from Apostolic Tradition could be revived, and if a pure and vehement breath of conversion and prayer were to sweep over this languishing and desolate Christendom, then doubtless would come at last a truly humble Vicar of Christ, with a Christian consciousness of his eminent charge. This pontiff would strive to fulfill his charge to the best of his ability in the spirit of the Sovereign Priest. If the Christian people were to return to a life in keeping with Apostolic Tradition, then it would become impossible for the Vicar of Jesus Christ, in his maintaining and defending Tradition, to fall into too deep of a fault, or to give in to a certain complicity with lies. It would become necessary for a good pope and even a saintly pope to succeed the bad or mistaken pope without further delay.

But in days of great sorrow, when a trial comes to the Church from her pope, too many faithful, priests, and bishops wish that things might fix themselves without their having to do much. At most, they accept to murmur a few prayers. They even balk at the daily rosary: five decades every day to Our Lady in honor of her hidden life, of the Passion, and of the glory of Jesus. For their part, they hardly feel like deepening their fidelity to Apostolic Tradition: dogmas, missal, ritual, and interior life (progress of the interior life is obviously a part of Apostolic Tradition). After consenting to be lukewarm in their own place, they nonetheless are scandalized that the pope, in his place, is also not very fervent when it comes to keeping Apostolic Tradition for the entire Church, that is to say, faithfully fulfilling the unique mission entrusted to him.

The more we need a holy pope, the more we must start by placing our lives, with the grace of God and in keeping with Tradition, in the footsteps of the saints. Then the Lord Jesus will finally grant the flock the visible shepherd they have striven to become worthy of.

Let us not add our own personal negligence to the insufficiency or deficiency of the head. Let Apostolic Tradition be alive at least in the heart of the faithful even if, for the moment, it is languishing in the heart and in the decisions of the one responsible for it in the Church. Then surely the Lord will have mercy on us.

Hold to our Interior Life

To enkindle that life of Tradition, our interior life must have Jesus Christ and not the pope for its reference. Our interior life, which obviously includes the truths of Revelation concerning the pope, must have only the Sovereign Priest, our God and Savior Jesus Christ, as its reference in order to rise above the scandals that come to the Church from the pope.

That is the immortal lesson from St. Vincent Ferrier in his times regarding one of the Roman Pontiff’s major failures. For us, now steeped in modernism, our trials are even greater. Our recourse, then, is pressing even more heavily upon us: to live the Apostolic Tradition purely in its every detail—even the capital matter which hardly anyone has spoken of since the death of the Dominican Father Garrigou-Lagrange: the effective tendency to the perfection of love. And yet, in the moral doctrine revealed by the Lord and transmitted by the apostles, it is said that we must strive for perfect love, since the law of growth in Christ is proper to the grace and charity that unites us to Christ.

But the dogma on the Roman pontiff, the universal vicar of Christ who is yet not safe from even grave faults dangerous for his subjects, is really only one aspect of the most fundamental mystery of the Church. We know that two great propositions introduce us to this mystery: Firstly, the Church, recruited among sinners (which we all are) is nonetheless the infallible dispenser of light and grace, for her Head and Savior infallibly animates her, sustains her, and governs her from on high. And secondly, the Church, the Holy Spouse of the Lord Jesus, must partake in the cross, even the cross of betrayal by her own. This betrayal does not keep her from being assisted strongly enough in her hierarchical structure, starting with the pope, and from being inflamed enough with charity; she ever remains pure and holy enough to be able to participate in the trials of her Spouse, including the betrayal of certain members of the hierarchy, while preserving intact her interior mastery and supernatural strength. The Church will never give in to vertigo.

If in our interior life we possess the Christian truth on the pope, and it is situated as it should be within the Christian truth on the Church, then we will rise luminously above the scandal of lies that can come to the Church from the Vicar of Christ or the successors of the apostles. In this, at least in regard to the bishops, St. Joan of Arc presents an incomparable model. In our turn, and in our meager measure, we shall try to be faithful to what was one of St. Joan’s particular graces.

Today when we think of the pope, of the modernism pervading the Church, of Apostolic Tradition and of perseverance in this Tradition, we are reduced to being able to consider these questions only in prayer, in a constant supplication for the entire Church and for the one who, in our days, holds in his hands the keys to the kingdom of Heaven. He holds them in his hands, but he does not use them. He leaves the doors of the stable open to the brigands’ approach. He does not close those protecting doors which his predecessors invariably kept closed under unbreakable lock and indestructible key. Sometimes even, and this is the ambiguity of post-conciliar ecumenism, he pretends to open what will always be kept shut. At this point we are reduced to thinking of the Church only in prayer—for her and for the pope. This is a blessing. But thinking of the Church, thinking of the Spouse of Christ in these conditions of great piety in no way diminishes our resolve to see clearly. May this indispensable lucidity, this lucidity without which all strength would unwind, be penetrated with so much humility and gentleness that we force the Sovereign Priest to hasten to our assistance. Deus in adjutorium meum intende, Domine ad adjuvandum me festina. May it please Him to charge His most holy Mother, Mary Immaculate, with bringing us the efficient remedy most speedily.

Editor’s Note: Translated from the Brève Apologie pour l’Église de toujours pp.112-118 (Éditions Difralivre 1987).