Phil Lawler’s schismatic proclamation against Pope Francis

In his post, This Disastrous Papacy, Phil Lawler utterly condemns Pope Francis, as if he were one of the worst Popes in history. And his papacy has not even ended yet. Not only is Lawler not qualified to judge any Pope or papacy — no one on earth is so qualified [per Unam Sanctam] — but he judges unjustly. He writes:

“For over 20 years now, writing daily about the news from the Vatican, I have tried to be honest in my assessment of papal statements and gestures. I sometimes criticized St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, when I thought that their actions were imprudent.”

He literally sees himself as having the role of judging everything that every Pope says and does. And whenever any Pope, even a Pope-Saint, does or says anything contrary to Lawler’s point of view, he speaks out against that word or deed. Anything that seems the least bit off to him, he proclaims as an error. He honestly assesses each Papal statement and gesture with himself as the measuring stick. I see this point of view again and again in posts by Lawler and Mirus, and certainly by many other conservative Catholic commentators. The Pope is liberal and they are conservative, therefore they must be right. A liberal can’t teach and correct conservatives, can he? That is their unstated assumption.

Lawler then goes on to proclaim the papacy of Pope Francis as “disastrous,” to suggest that the Vicar of Christ poses a “danger to the integrity of the Catholic faith,” and to claim that the Supreme Teacher of the Universal Church has shown “disdain for what the Church has always taught and believed and practiced.”

Lawler also claims that “there have been bad Popes: men whose personal actions were motivated by greed and jealousy and lust for power and just plain lust.” How does he know what the motivation was of past Popes? He utterly condemns some past Popes based on what was supposedly in their hearts and minds, and those are Popes from the distant past. Rash judgment and utter condemnation of multiple Popes is not a sign of humility.

Yes, the successive Popes are sinners, and some sinned gravely to some extent. But I would never presume to know the motivations in the hearts and minds of any of the Popes, nor would I ever assume that the Popes with the worst reputations were necessarily guilty of every accusation.

Lawler goes even further in accusing Pope Francis. He uses the figure of a household with sons and a father to describe Pope Francis as a father whose “pathological behavior threatens the welfare of the whole household.” The he states outright, “I consider this papacy a disaster,” and next he goes entirely off the edge of the cliff. He states that we cannot look to Rome for guidance any longer.

“We have grown accustomed to looking to Rome for guidance. Now we cannot…. But if we cannot count on clear directions from Rome, where can we turn?”

Lawler then suggests that we be guided by the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Bishops, since we cannot be guided by the Roman Pontiff. Finally, he says: “But if I am right, and the current Pope’s leadership has become a danger to the faith….”

Well, it is sad to say, but the set of assertions by Phil Lawler (in the above-quoted article) constitutes formal schism. He has publicly condemned the Roman Pontiff and has stated that we cannot look to him to guide the Church any longer. By the statements in that post, Phil Lawler has utterly rejected the papal Magisterium, and the role of Pope Francis as the Father and Teacher of all Christians. He is clearly stating a refusal of submission to the authority of the Roman Pontiff over doctrine and discipline. And that is the sin of formal schism.

The same post contains a doctrinal error by Lawler. He asserts that Pope Francis can still teach under Papal Infallibility, by issuing “an ex cathedra statement, in union with the world’s bishops.” But in fact, the dogmatic teaching of the First Vatican Council on Papal Infallibility does NOT include the agreement or approval or participation at all of any of the world’s bishops. In Papal Infallibility, the Roman Pontiff teaches by his sole authority [per Lumen Gentium 25]. But Lawler does not accept that authority, so he distorts the dogma of Papal Infallibility so that he does not have to accept a teaching under Papal Infallibility unless the world’s Bishops agree.

What is Schism?

Canon 751: “schism is the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him”.

Phil Lawler’s public statements constitute a clear and obstinate refusal to submit his mind and heart to the authority of the Roman Pontiff over doctrine and discipline. And Lawler does not avoid the sin of schism by admitting that Pope Francis is “not an antipope” and “is our Pope”. Not every schismatic thinks that the See of Peter is vacant. Schism is not limited to those who consider a current Pope to be invalid or an antipope. Schism is the refusal to submit one’s heart and mind to the decisions of the Pope on doctrine and discipline.

So whenever any Catholic, no matter what his reputation or background may be, refuses to be subject to the authority of the Pope over doctrine or discipline, he commits the sin of schism.

“It arises from the necessity of salvation that all the faithful of Christ are to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.” — Fifth Lateran Council

Concerning Pope Francis in particular, we are not solely obligated to accept his teaching if and when he teaches under Papal Infallibility. We are also required to give the teachings of the ordinary Papal Magisterium, teachings which are non-infallible, the religious submission of will and intellect. To assert that you will not accept any of the teachings of the Roman Pontiff, unless you yourself happen to agree with that teaching, is the sin of formal schism.

“In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.” [Lumen Gentium 25]

The Roman Pontiff is the Bishop of Rome and the leader of all the Bishops as well as the leader of the whole flock of Christ. The faithful are to accept his teaching and adhere to it with religious assent, which is the type of assent given to non-infallible teachings. The infallible teachings of the Magisterium, including infallible teachings of the Pope, require the full assent of faith (theological assent). Moreover, the judgments made by the Pope, that is to say, his decisions on discipline not only on doctrine, also must be sincerely adhered to.

Anyone who refuses to give “this religious submission of mind and will” to the “authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra” sins gravely against Christ and the authority of Christ given to the Church. And whoever obstinately refuses to give the submission of his mind and will, with sincerity, to the teachings and judgment of the Roman Pontiff, commits the sin of schism.

Can We Disagree?

The infallible teachings of the Roman Pontiff require the full assent of faith, even if your own reasoning does not see the correctness of the teaching. That’s why it’s called faith.

If you only believe what your own mind and heart tells you is true, you literally have no supernatural faith at all. Faith is belief in something greater than yourself. If your attitude is that you must speak out whenever any Pope issues any decision on discipline or doctrine, which does not agree with the understanding in your own heart and mind, you are not a faithful Catholic and you sin gravely against the theological virtue of faith.

The Roman Catholic Magisterium is the sole authoritative interpreter of the teachings of Tradition and Scripture, and of past magisterial teachings. If any Pope seems to be contradicting that teaching, perhaps you have misunderstood. You are not the measure of all things on faith and morals.

The non-infallible teachings of the Roman Pontiff require religious assent (submission of mind and will). But since these teachings can err, to a limited extent only, they allow for a limited possibility of licit theological dissent. Without rejecting the Roman Pontiff, his office, or his teaching authority, while accepting the body of all his teachings and decisions on discipline, a faithful Catholic can occasionally disagree with a particular magisterial teaching, to a limited extent.

The decisions of the Roman Pontiff on discipline are not teachings, so they are not considered to be infallible or non-infallible. However, Peter holds the keys. Each Pope does have the authority from Christ to decide matters of discipline. We must accept his authority on such matters. The faithful can licitly disagree, preferring a different discipline. But we cannot assume that we are necessarily right, and the Pope is necessarily wrong. And one cannot condemn the Pope and utter all manner of calumny against him, simply because one considers his decisions on discipline to be imprudent.

No faithful Catholic may judge the Roman Pontiff and decide that he is a danger to the integrity of the Catholic faith, that his papacy is disastrous, that he has a disdain in his mind and heart for the teachings of the Church, and that his behavior is pathological. No Catholic may decide that he will no longer accept guidance from the Holy See or from the Roman Pontiff, and that he will replace that guidance with past magisterial documents and the decisions of individual Bishops other than the Pope. Such expressions very greatly exceed the possible limited disagreement of licit theological dissent.

The Schism

The conservative Schism has already begun. Many conservative commentators have positioned themselves as opponents of the Vicar of Christ, to argue against everything he does and says, and to judge him by the standard of their own hearts and minds. They do not see the Pope as having the role to teach and correct them. And they arrogantly imagine that it is their role to teach and correct the Pope, and to fight against his decisions on doctrine and discipline. Pride goeth before a schism.

As the First Vatican Council clearly taught, every Roman Pontiff has the gift of truth and of a never-failing faith. Popes are sinners. But the promise of Christ that the Church will remain indefectible, and His teaching that the Church is founded on the Rock that is Peter and his successors, necessarily implies that no Pope can ever teach material heresy, nor commit the sins of apostasy, heresy, or schism. The prevenient grace of God utterly precludes it. More on these points in my book:
In Defense of Pope Francis

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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1 Response to Phil Lawler’s schismatic proclamation against Pope Francis

  1. Gues says:

    I am an ex-trad, and it seems like we are seeing a repeat of Gallican errors. When I was a trad trad many would whine and moan about “Ultramontanism”. Here are a few errors of Gallicanism:

    -The superiority of general councils over the authority of the pope.
    -The inviolability of the rights and customs of the French Church.
    -The consent of the universal church to validate papal judgments on faith and morals.

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