Father Jerry Pokorsky versus Pope Francis

Father Jerry has made a public declaration that, so far from submitting to the authority of the Roman Pontiff over doctrine and discipline, he will instead stand in judgment over the Pope and will oppose him whenever the Supreme Pontiff dares to teach anything contrary to the majority opinion of the conservative Catholic subculture. In the offending article, Thinking the Unthinkable, Rev. Jerry J. Pokorsky errs gravely on faithfulness to the Papal Magisterium. His article is a good example of the path toward formal schism that many conservatives are walking.

“But many of us are now fretting about ambiguous papal pronouncements said to be ‘authentic magisterium’ that directly oppose Scripture and Tradition.”

How did Fr. Jerry reach the conclusion that any papal pronouncement was ambiguous? And if it is ambiguous, why does he interpret the teaching as if it would “directly oppose” the deposit of faith? Papal critics refuse to treat the teachings of Pope Francis with Christian charity, interpreting them in the light of Tradition and Scripture. If they did, then most of the alleged errors would disappear. And what remains would be legitimate disagreements on discipline and perhaps some limited errors in the non-infallible magisterium.

Instead, conservative Catholics have decided to become judges and opponents of the Roman Pontiff, judging every word with bias, making accusations, and proposing that they are more Catholic than the Pope. Why not interpret the teachings of the Pope with charity?

Consider the infallible teaching of the Council of Florence:

“It [the holy Roman church] firmly believes, professes and preaches that all those who are outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans but also Jews or heretics and schismatics, cannot share in eternal life and will go into the everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels, unless they are joined to the Catholic Church before the end of their lives….”

The charitable (and certainly correct) interpretation is that the listed persons end up in Hell only if their departure from, or refusal to join, the Catholic Church is an actual mortal sin. Otherwise, they could be saved without joining, or rejoining, the Church. Why can’t the teachings of the Papal Magisterium be interpreted in the same manner?

The other question for Fr. Pokorsky is who decided that the Pope’s teaching directly opposes Tradition and Scripture? Essentially, this is an example of the conservative Catholic subculture exalting itself above the Magisterium. Like all faithful Catholics, from Cardinals and Bishops on down to the least of the laity, Fr. Jerry is required to submit himself to the direct and immediate authority of the Roman Pontiff over himself. Turning to the conservative Catholic subculture, and relying on its interpretation, in opposition to the teaching of the Pope, is the sin of schism. Rejecting every papal teaching, except the ones that are in agreement with what conservative Bishops also teach, is a rejection of papal authority. The Pope is thereby reduced to the role of a individual local Bishop. We are not called to submit our minds and hearts to the majority opinion of conservative Catholic leaders, but to the teaching of the Roman Pontiff. He has primacy of jurisdiction; he has an immediate direct authority over the whole Church and all of Her parts and members. The Bishops do not need to agree in order for a papal teaching to be believed.

“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….”

Fr. Pokorsky points out that Popes teach from Tradition and Scripture. True, but who is to say that the Pope’s teachings are not consistent with Tradition and Scripture? The assumption is that, if the conservative Catholic subculture and its leaders do not agree that the teaching is an authentic expression of Tradition and Scripture, then it must not be so. Thus, the subculture is given a role above papal magisterium.

What is the definition of schism? Refusal of submission to the authority of the Roman Pontiff, over doctrine and discipline. Fr. Pokorsky is stating his rejection of any and all papal teachings which are contrary to the interpretation of Tradition and Scripture found in the conservative Catholic subculture, and also any papal teachings which are ambiguous. His article is dangerously close to schism.

Fr. Jerry then gives an example, which proves my point, not his:

“For example, the infallible teachings about Mary’s Immaculate Conception and Assumption emerged from unsettled Catholic theology. But the deeper understanding could be explained in light of Tradition and in relationship with the rest of Catholic doctrines and dogmas.”

There is no mention of the Immaculate Conception or Assumption, explicitly, in Scripture. And the testimony of Tradition on the subject of the Immaculate Conception is late, not early. What we rely on for these teachings is the work of the Holy Spirit in the Papal Magisterium, in this case Papal Infallibility. So we cannot reject either dogma on the grounds that it seems to be not consistent with Tradition and Scripture.

Fr. Jerry states that these two dogmas “emerged from unsettled Catholic theology”. If the theology was unsettled, then how is it, later in the article, that he asserts we should rely on orthodox theologians in judging and possibly rejecting papal teachings? The example is of two dogmas which theologians did not agree on with unanimity. And the presence of those dogmas in Tradition and Scripture is arguable. So we are actually relying on faith in the Papal Magisterium. Yet father goes on to argue against such faith.

(Perhaps he meant “settled Catholic theology”. But there is no such requirement for the Pope to exercise Papal Infallibility, that the teaching be settled theological opinion or settled doctrine.)

Are we bound by conscience to accept papal teaching?

“doctrinal violations of Church teaching by bishops cannot bind the faithful in conscience. It is at least conceivable that a pope might also reject and abuse the graces of his office in a similar way. Such errors may muddy the waters of the ordinary magisterium, but obviously cannot bind in conscience.”

I don’t believe such a conclusion is obvious. Again, if the papal teaching is to be rejected, what are we relying upon in its place? Fr. Jerry merely assumes that these papal errors are obvious, when they are not. Doctrinal errors by individual Bishops are recognized by the teaching of Popes and Councils. But the teachings of Popes and Councils are binding upon the conscience.

“Every presumed magisterial thought that a pope eventually decrees must always be judged against Scripture and Tradition. Even conciliar pronouncements, including the pronouncements of Vatican II, must also be aligned with Scripture and Tradition.”

Who is doing this judging of Popes and Councils? No one has a higher authority on earth, so what father is suggesting is that the conservative Catholic subculture should judge every teaching of the Magisterium, to decide whether or not to accept it, based on a personal interpretation of Tradition and Scripture.

The correct position is that the faithful are required to believe what Popes and Councils teach, by faith. And if your own reasoning disagrees, you must live by faith, not by pride in your own understanding. The faithful are permitted by the Church to disagree, occasionally and mildly, with non-infallible teachings. But we are not permitted to stand in judgment over Popes and Councils, and to accept only those teachings and interpretations that are approved by the conservative subculture.

Fr. Jerry Pokorsky asks: “Does this imply a “pick and choose” magisterium?” Yes, it does. You are only willing to accept the teachings that accord with what the conservative Catholic subculture has decided is the right interpretation of Tradition and Scripture. That is cafeteria Catholicism.

Pokorsky: “Sometimes corrections need to be made – as Paul corrected Peter at Antioch.”

Papal critics often paint themselves as taking the role of the Apostle Saint Paul, when he corrected the first Roman Pontiff, the Apostle Saint Peter. But their behavior is nothing like Paul’s behavior.

Paul corrected Peter with a brief theological argument. The error of Peter was one of discipline, and that erroneous discipline was corrected by reference to doctrine. Paul’s correction was brief, limited, and charitable. He did not have recourse to the mass media. He did not gather signatures on a petition. He did not accuse the Roman Pontiff of propagating heresy, teaching heresy, or committing heresy. He did not propose that every teaching of Peter be subjected to the judgment of a group of papal critics, to decide if it is correct or not.

Paul did not accuse Peter of directly opposing the teaching of Tradition and Scripture. Paul did not accuse Peter of deliberate ambiguities in his teaching. Paul remained under Peter’s authority, submissive to the Roman Pontiff.

The papal critics, some of them, have already spoken as if they will never accept teaching or correction from Pope Francis. They are in a state of schism, already. When you give yourself the role of judging every word and deed of the Pope, and of deciding what is and is not correct, you are no longer submissive to his authority. Has Fr. Jerry joined them in their schism?

At a certain point, if you disagree with the Pope, you have to accept his teachings and decisions on faith, even when your own mind cannot see why he is right. If you can’t accept some things on faith, you have no faith.

Who has the authority to judge the Pope? Canon 1404 states: “The First See is judged by no one.”

Pokorsky: “Hence, bishops (supported by orthodox theologians) must recognize their obligation to respond to papal pronouncements that are dangerously ambiguous or contradict Scripture and Tradition. They need to do so respectfully but firmly and without fear, both because – under the guidance of the Holy Spirit – they have solemnly promised to do so by their oaths of office and because they have the historical content of Revelation on their side. Corrections may also come from the faithful who are, after all, endowed with the sensus fidei (sense of the faith).”

What a blatantly schismatic claim! Fr. Pokorsky thinks that a group of Bishops, orthodox theologians, and the faithful in general, have “the guidance of the Holy Spirit” in opposing the Vicar of Christ. No, not at all. The Spirit does not inspire false accusations against the Roman Pontiff, nor does He inspire schism.

And who are these Bishops, theologians, and members of the faithful? They are not any of the liberals. Father Jerry is speaking only about conservatives. Apparently, the Holy Spirit is only given to conservative Popes, and when a Pope is liberal, the Spirit supposedly defaults to a subset of Catholics, beneath the Pope, based on their conservatism. What a ridiculous proposition.

Again, father assumes that the conservative Catholic subculture is infallible in judging papal pronouncements to be dangerous, to contradict Tradition and Scripture, or to be “ambiguous”. So if a papal teaching is merely ambiguous, conservative Catholics are ready to oppose the Vicar of Christ? Is that all it takes to shake your faith? This is just terrible. And there is no such thing as a solemn promise or oath to oppose the Roman Pontiff, whenever he dares to contradict the conservative Catholic subculture that many conservatives now worship in place of Christ. Bishops, theologians, and the faithful in general have no such role. It used to be that liberals proposed using the sensus fidelium to oppose the Magisterium. And now conservatives are using that same approach, which they formerly rejected.

“The First See is judged by no one.” Which theologians are orthodox? Are not the theologians who support and defend the teaching of the Pope the orthodox ones? Who decides which theologians are orthodox? The idea that a subset of theologians is tasked with correcting the Pope is absurd. And what happens if most Bishops follow the Roman Pontiff? What father is suggesting is that a subset of theologians, bishops, and the faithful would stand up and claim to be infallible judges over the Roman Pontiff, despite the absence of any teaching of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium which would give them that role. He is suggesting a schism.

“Authentic papal magisterial authority cannot be in opposition to the doctrinal history of the Church.”

Well, then, why don’t you believe the Pope when he teaches under his authentic papal magisterium? Instead, you treat your own understanding of Tradition and Scripture as if it were infallible, never admitting that you might be the one who is opposing true doctrine.

This is ultimately the fatal error of all these calls to oppose the Roman Pontiff. The opposition does not have the authority to judge the Roman Pontiff or the Holy See. And certainly, truth is not decided in the Church by a process of majority rules. But the conservative opponents of the Pope do not have a majority of Bishops, priests, theologians, or the lay faithful on their side. They are a minority which claims to be above Popes and Councils to judge and correct them. But they have no basis for this opposition, other than the assumption that their own understanding of the Faith is infallible.

The history of the Church is filled with small and large groups of Christians who decided that the Church is wrong, and they are right. History never takes their side. The Church always continues to teach with authority, and all her opponents fall away. So it is also today.

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

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