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Doubts about the Canonical Licity of Pope Francis’ Election

In last week’s newsletter/blog post, I mentioned that “There are doubts among many (I may address this in a future newsletter) about the canonical licity of Pope Francis’ election.”  As anticipated, I received a few very charitable emails asking me to clarify this matter.  So, I am writing this newsletter to address these basic concerns.

When I said that “there are doubts among many” that Pope Francis’ election may not have been licit or valid, I’m not exaggerating.  I get emails all the time addressing this point, and a cursory glance through the internet shows a great number of articles that have been written addressing this very concern.  Some argue that Pope Francis was validly elected, but that he lost his authority by promulgating heresy.  Others say that he was not canonically elected because the Sankt Galen Mafia conspired in violation of Canon Law to campaign for his election among the Cardinals.  Still others say that because there was a third vote on the day Jorge Bergoglio was elected, in contradiction with the rules of the conclave, his election was not valid.

Perhaps the most popular argument, as laid out in this well thought out piece by Fr. Zuhlsdorf, is that Jorge Bergoglio’s election could not have been valid, and indeed NO election at the conclave could have been valid, because Pope Benedict’s resignation was not valid.  As the argument goes, Canon Law requires a pope to resign the “office” of the papacy, which is true, and Pope Benedict did not actually do this. 

(CORRECTION to the initial newsletter-blog post, where we recommended a commentary on Fr. Z’s blog by saying:

“Perhaps the most popular argument, as laid out in this well thought out piece by Fr. Zuhlsdorf, is that Jorge Bergoglio’s election could not have been valid, and indeed NO election at the conclave could have been valid, because Pope Benedict’s resignation was not valid.” 

The verbiage of the line can be misleading, as it appears to indicate that Fr. Z was the one arguing that Francis is not the pope.  This is not the case.  Fr. Z was commenting on an argument posed by Dr. Edmund Mazza as the title of Fr. Z’s blog entry indicated: “The Mazza Hypothesis: Benedict Resigned as Bishop of Rome but not Vicar of Christ.  Wherein Fr. Z ponders with a heavy heart.”  We apologize for any confusion we may have caused and hope this clears it up.)

“Canon 332 §2. If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone.”

What is argued is that in Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation letter, he announced that he was resigning the “ministry” of the papacy, which is not the same thing as the office of the papacy.   He wrote:

“… with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from February 28, 2013, at 8 p.m., the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.

To complicate matters, Pope Benedict has maintained all the trappings of the office of the papacy, referring to himself as the “Pope Emeritus.”  He still dresses in the papal habit, he still possesses his papal ring (though it is deeply scratched), he is still referred to as “Holy Father,” he has retained his papal name, he still resides in Rome, and he imparts blessings on new cardinals whenever they are made.

We have to be clear … this situation is entirely unique in the entire history of the Catholic Church.  While popes have resigned in the past, they have always fully renounced the papacy, removing ALL signs of the office, reverting back to their given name (rather than their papal name), and then removing themselves entirely from Rome.

bishop Ballarmine

When one considers the various arguments and possibilities, combined with the completely unprecedented circumstance of two bishops attired and addressed as “Holy Father,” it is understandable and unsurprising that so many are both confused and scandalized by the situation.  Due to the uniqueness of these circumstances, it is both reasonable and even acceptable for private speculation as to whether Benedict or Francis is the true pope.

Even Sr. Lucia, in writing the text of the Third Secret of Fatima appears to have indicated the nature of the confusion.  She wrote:

And we saw in an immense light that is God: something similar to how people appear in a mirror when they pass in front of it' a Bishop dressed in White, we had the impression that it was the Holy Father'. Other Bishops, Priests, men and women Religious going up a steep mountain, at the top of which there was a big Cross of rough-hewn trunks as of a cork-tree with the bark; before reaching there the Holy Father passed through a big city half in ruins and half trembling with halting step …”

There are three things that stand out in this text.  The first is that Sr. Lucia referenced something akin to seeing a “bishop dressed in white” passing in front of a mirror.  When someone stands in front of a mirror, there are two things: 1) the object as it truly is, and 2) an image of the object as it appears.  In other words, the image in a mirror appears to be the true substance of the thing, while it is only an image.

The second thing that stands out from this text is that Sr. Lucia said that they “had the impression that it was the Holy Father.”  Why only the impression? 

The third thing that stands out is that in the very next line, she said that she saw the Holy Father passing through a big city.  So, in one instance, she saw what she called an “impression” of the Holy Father, and in the next line, she said that she saw the Holy Father without any qualification.

Everything from this portion of the text seems to indicate that she is talking about two different people.  It’s worth noting here that if this is the case, there is no indication one way or the other which is which.  But what needs to be understood is that our current situation is such that it is reasonable for the Faithful to wonder.  I take great comfort in the fact that during the time of the Three Popes controversy of the Great Western Schism, there were saints backing different popes.  In other words, we will not be judged for legitimate confusion on this matter.

As I write this newsletter, I can’t help but think about the turbulent times in which the Jews found themselves during Our Lord’s life, and especially at the time of His Crucifixion.  One thing that has always intrigued me about the Passion narrative is the mention of Annas and Caiaphas.  Prior to the proceedings of the Sanhedrin and the subsequent sentencing of Jesus to death, there had always been only one acknowledged High Priest of the Jews.  But all throughout the Passion, we read about Annas and Caiaphas.  Why do we always hear mention of these two, if there is only one High Priest?

Falvius Josephus, in his 20 volume Antiquitates Iudaicae (Antiquities of the Jews), talks about Annas as the High Priest who was deposed at around 15 AD and replaced by his son, Eleazar.  In the year 18 AD, Annas’ son-in-law became the High Priest, and remained in that position until he died around 36 or 37 AD.

Until this time, the Jews had only ever had one High Priest.  And during a time when the chief priests and the Pharisees enjoyed a great deal of wealth and power, often aligning themselves with Roman authorities and King Herod to increase their own wealth, we see the authority of the High Priesthood apparently split.  It is interesting to note that, despite the fact that Caiaphas was the High Priest at the time, St. John tells us in the 18th chapter of his Gospel that Our Blessed Lord was first brought to Annas, who then sends Him to Caiaphas:

“Then the band and the tribune, and the servants of the Jews, took Jesus, and bound him: And they led him away to Annas first, for he was father in law to Caiphas, who was the high priest of that year.”

Since the death and resurrection of Our Lord, there has only ever been one acknowledged and visible head of the Roman Catholic Church.  But now, even though Pope Francis is clearly the one in authority, we have another who also wears the trappings of the Vicar of Christ.

So, what do we do with this?  What can we do with this?

Despite this situation being completely unprecedented in the entire history of the Catholic Church, there is one thing of which we can be certain; every period of confusion and turmoil in the Church is always followed by a period of clarity and a renewal.

So, I suggest that the best course of action is to follow the example of King David, beginning with God’s rejection of King Saul.

In chapter 15 of the First Book of Kings, the prophet Samuel confronts King Saul over his disobedience.  Saul was to slaughter every man, woman, child, and every beast belonging to Amalec.  Saul did not do this, and as a result Samuel charged him with disobedience, comparing it to rebellion, witchcraft and idolatry.  And because of this, Samuel told Saul that God had rejected him as king, meaning Saul was no longer the King of Israel.  And to give a visible sign of this rejection, as Samuel turned to walk down the mountain, Saul reached out to grab his garment, but Samuel’s mantle tore in Saul’s hand showing a clear break with God.  With this, Samuel said, “The Lord hath rent the kingdom of Israel from thee this day, and hath given it to thy neighbor who is better than thee.”

Saul begged Samuel to go down with him to adore God, saying, “But now bear, I beseech thee, my sin, and return with me, that I may adore the Lord.”  According to the great Fr. George Leo Haydock, what Saul is asking of Samuel is not to expose him in public.  In other words, even though he acknowledges that he is no longer the king, he asks Samuel to help him maintain the “impression” that he is still the king.  And so, Samuel goes down with him, and does not expose the fact that Saul had been rejected as king by God.

In the very next chapter, Samuel anoints David.

What does this mean?  It means that King Saul was no longer the King of Israel, and David was the rightful King.  And yet, all throughout David’s life, he never once raised his hand against Saul, never questioned his authority, and even ordered the execution of the young man who killed King Saul.  Why?  Because he had “killed the Lord’s anointed.”

All throughout the very public feud between Saul and David, there were loyal supporters of each, and the one who struck down Saul, believing he was acting in David’s best interests, was put to death.  No one has a right to take the authority of the king upon himself to do what the king himself will not do.

It is completely understandable for us to be frustrated, confused, hurt and angered by the terrible things happening within our beloved Church, and most especially at the unjust things said and done by those at the highest levels.  But we must not exceed the limits of our own knowledge and authority to make claims and proclamations on matters that are beyond us.  If King David, who was the rightful king refused to depose Saul, who was a pretender, then who are we to do what he would not?  Stand against the injustices as King David did, stand against the falsehoods as King David did, but likewise, stay your hand (metaphorically speaking), as King David did, also.

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As always, please pray for the Church, for our bishops, priests, deacons, and for Lepanto's mission as we continue to unearth the truth and "restore all things to Christ." (Col. 1:20)

Christus Vincit!

Michael Hichborn
Lepanto Insititute