William Kilpatrick is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center. His books include Christianity, Islam, and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West (Ignatius Press), What Catholics Need to Know About Islam (Sophia Press), and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Jihad.
Many in the Catholic media tend to cover-up for Pope Francis either by putting the best possible interpretation on his actions or else by failing to report news that might be damaging to his image.
One of the main stories that the Catholic media covers-up is that a debate has arisen among Catholics as to whether or not Francis is really the pope.
Since those who claim that he is not the pope constitute a small minority, the Catholic media has, by-and-large, chosen to avoid the topic. It’s a hot-potato issue and those who get caught on the wrong side of it might pay a heavy price.
To claim that the pope is not the pope is like claiming that the president of the United States is not really the president. One would have to be very sure of his case before going out on that limb. As we have discovered, claiming that the election of Joe Biden was rigged has turned out to be a risky proposition.
Yet one of the reasons that some Catholics believe that Francis is not pope is the claim that his election was rigged. The charge was leveled, by the way, about eight years before anyone thought to make a similar claim about the election of Joe Biden.
According to this version of events, a group of high-ranking liberal prelates who met regularly in Saint Gallen, Switzerland, managed to engineer the election of Jorge Bergoglio by employing various devious tactics. For example, it’s said that they were responsible for manufacturing a scandal around the name of the other chief “contender” for the papacy, Cardinal Angelo Scola. For more on the “St. Gallen Mafia” see here.
Another reason that is often given for the claim that Francis is not pope is that the resignation of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI was not valid. But this is a very complicated topic, the resolution of which depends on one’s interpretation of canon law, and on discerning the intentions of Pope Benedict.
But the whole issue of the validity of the papal election would probably never have been raised except for another problem with Francis—namely, that he seems to many to be a bad pope, a very bad pope.
A “bad pope” can mean that a pope is corrupt and immoral, or it can mean that he holds erroneous beliefs, or it can be a combination of the two. In the case of Francis, the “bad pope” charge usually refers to erroneous beliefs rather than personal immorality (although the fact that Francis surrounds himself with corrupt people has raised suspicions about his character).
Interestingly, the charge of “bad pope” is far less contentious than the charge of “not pope.” In fact, many of those who defend the validity of the Francis papacy are quick to admit that he is indeed a bad pope.
For example, this is the position of Michael Voris, the head of Church Militant—a popular website that has a large following among traditional Catholics.
Church Militant has been highly critical of Francis and has exposed numerous scandals related to him, yet Voris strongly rejects the argument that Francis is not the pope. Like other defenders of Francis’s legitimacy, he points out that Church history reveals many cases of popes who were guilty of simony, or sexual immorality, or of adhering to erroneous belief.
The latter category is the most problematic since it calls into question the doctrine of papal infallibility. But, as Voris and others point out, there’s a difference between holding an erroneous view and teaching it as a doctrine that must be believed by all Catholics.
Thus, personal views expressed by a pope—such as Francis’ off-the-cuff, in-flight remarks to reporters—do not qualify as infallible pronouncements. And some canon law experts say that none of the official documents signed by Francis meet the strict conditions for infallibility.
But the argument that plenty of past popes have been in error may be a red herring. It may not apply in the case of Francis. Those who contend that Francis is not the pope are not saying that he misunderstands this or that item of Catholic doctrine, but that he does understand Catholic teaching and he rejects it—or, at least, a large part of it.
What Francis desires, in other words, is not to reform the Catholic Church, but to replace it with a new, more enlightened institution—one that is more in keeping with the spirit of the times.
Critics of Francis say that he is trying to turn the Catholic Church into a humanist religion. Many, of course, see nothing wrong with that. They think that the Church should be more concerned with human needs than with human failings.
But a distinction needs to be made between “humanist” and “humanitarian.” The Catholic Church has always been devoted to humanitarian concerns. Most large and medium sized cities in the U.S. are sure to have a Catholic hospital—a Saint Elizabeth’s or a St. Joseph’s, or a Saint Francis. In every part of the world, Catholic hospitals, Catholic orphanages, and Catholic charities attest to the Church’s humanitarian spirit.
“Humanist,” however has a somewhat different meaning. Humanism is a man-centered rather than God-centered philosophy. It focuses on mans’ dignity and autonomy and his ability to solve problems through reason and science. In general, modern humanism rejects God and the supernatural. Likewise, Humanists believe that man can be moral without reference to God or religion.
Thus, the idea of a humanist religion is a bit self-contradictory. Yet, many have concluded that Pope Francis’ 2020 Encyclical Fratelli tutti (“Brothers all”) is essentially a humanist statement. Jules Gomes, who writes for Church Militant titles his review of Fratelli tutti, “Glory to man in the Highest.” And borrowing from theologian Richard Niebuhr’s description of liberal Christianity, he characterizes Fratelli tutti as the good news of “a God without wrath who brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment, through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
The” Christ without a cross” reference brings to mind Francis’ recent visit to Malta. As Raymond Ibrahim writes, “Although it is traditional for papal podiums to depict the crucifix, during his recent visit to the Island of Malta, Pope Francis ditched the cross lest it offend Muslim migrants.”
It sometimes seems that Pope Francis puts a higher priority on creating a one world religion than on passing down the teachings of the Catholic Church. If that’s the case, then it’s possible that he’s willing to “ditch” or water-down Church teachings that might stand in the way of interreligious harmony. In the Document on Human Fraternity that he co-signed with Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb, there is, to my recollection, no mention of Christ,
Although Christ is mentioned in the book-length Fratelli tutti document, Francis tends to focus on those passages and parables that fit into a humanist frame-work, such as the story of the Good Samaritan. But for the most part, the Encyclical is all about “shared humanity” “common humanity,” and “new humanity.” And just to be sure you get the message, the Vatican subsequently launched a “Fratelli tutti” Foundation which, according to its new head, Cardinal Mauro Gambetti, “aims to promote and support sustainable growth and a new humanism.”
Is Francis really the pope? The argument doesn’t exactly rage-on, but the question hasn’t gone away. Those who raise the question don’t base their doubts on the fact that Francis is, like some past popes, a “bad pope,” but that he is in a category all by himself: not someone who out of ignorance or laziness embraces an erroneous interpretation of Catholic teaching, but one who deliberately seeks to destroy the Church and to build on its ruins a new, more humanistic, more enlightened and more compassionate establishment.
There are a number of indications that Francis wants to re-engineer the Church. But if one were to boil down the Francis agenda to a single theme, it would be his de-emphasis on sin. Francis doesn’t deny the existence of sin, but when he talks about the subject, he focuses almost exclusively on corporate sins: factories that pollute the air, arms manufacturers who profit from war, Capitalists who care only for money, and countries that close their borders to needy migrants.
But he has little to say about personal sins—the kind that bother the consciences of most people. Instead, he conveys the impression that sin is no big deal. Sexual sins? On one occasion Francis said they are “the lightest sins.” Abortion? Francis admits that abortion is a very serious matter—but not so serious that we should trouble the consciences of pro-abortion politicians by withholding communion from them. The murder of a French priest by Islamic terrorist? Francis responded to the news by noting that Catholics can be violent too. He gave the example of an Italian Catholic who had murdered his girlfriend. A promiscuous homosexual priest? “Who am I to judge?” said the pope when asked to comment.
The non-judgmental approach seems to be Francis’ preferred approach to sin. And this is in keeping with the humanist belief that humans are basically good by nature, and only go astray when forced to by unjust societal conditions.
By contrast, the Bible is quite judgmental about sin. Sin leads to the death of the soul. Sin is the reason for the Incarnation. According to Christian belief, Christ became man and died on the cross to save mankind from their sins. By undercutting the importance of personal sin, Francis erases the whole rationale for Christianity.
That seems a strange thing for a pope to do and it prompts some questions: Is he doing it intentionally? Is he really the pope?
One can answer, “who am I to judge?” Or one can look more deeply into the matter.