By now it is common knowledge among Catholics who follow social media that the firebrand and rogue traditionalist priest Fr. James Altman has formally declared, in a video posted to YouTube, that Pope Francis is not really the pope and is in fact an anti-pope. This should come as no surprise since he said similar things at a conference for the so-called “cancelled priests” held in June of this year in Chicago. It is noteworthy that in attendance at the conference was a veritable “who’s who” assemblage of the leading lights of the radical traditionalist movement. Fr. Altman was applauded and cheered as a hero by those in attendance even if, to be fair, it cannot be accurately ascertained exactly who was applauding and who was not.
Also, last year we saw the popular Catholic podcaster Patrick Coffin come out of the closet as a “Benevacantist”. He believed that the resignation of Benedict XVI was not valid and that the late pontiff was still the Pope and Francis was not. Now, with the death of Pope Benedict, Coffin asserts that he now believes the See of Peter is indeed vacant.
If you follow my column in this journal you know that I have not been shy about criticizing certain aspects of the Francis papacy. In particular, I have been critical of his episcopal appointments, his seeming lean toward a very latitudinarian moral theology, and of the vague and theologically shallow mess that is the “synodal way”. I have been critical of his rolling back of a more liberal use of the old rite of the Mass and of his disdain for what he dismissively calls the “backwardists” in the Church, which strikes me as both uncharitable and in contradiction to his own frequent calls for an open dialogue in the Church where “everyone is welcome.” Finally, I have also noted that he has sent mixed messages with regard to the whole LGBTQ thing, wherein he says many orthodox and proper things, all the while sending approving letters to folks like Sr. Grammick of New Ways Ministry and continually promoting the work of Fr. James Martin, SJ.
In other words, I have “issues” with Pope Francis and I could not in any conceivable way be considered a strong supporter of this papacy along the lines of folks like Massimo Faggioli, Austin Ivereigh, and Mike Lewis. Therefore, when someone like me says that Fr. James Altman and his fellow radical traditionalists have jumped the shark it should carry some weight. And they have done more than jump the shark. What they have said and written is actually schismatic, and may even indicate that Fr. Altman has formally excommunicated himself.
But of course, that is not for me to judge and it will be interesting to see what moves his bishop now makes in that regard.
Here are the facts. Pope Francis is not an anti-pope and he has not taught anything heretical in a magisterial way. Off-the-cuff statements in airplane conversations with reporters or incautious remarks in an interview with an octogenarian atheist who does not take notes do not an anti-pope make. Nor does the cautious opening for some divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion in an ambiguous footnote in Amoris Laetitia rise to the level of formal heresy.
It is true that Pope Francis does seem to “make a mess” and it is just such ambiguities that trouble me about this papacy. But not because I think he teaches formal heresy, because he has not. Rather, it is because I view the role of the Petrine ministry as one of unifying by clarifying, whereas Pope Francis sows division while muddying the waters. But this just makes him a pope with deficits of judgment I wish he did not have, not an anti-pope from the pits of Hell. And that is what the insanity of a Fr. Altman claims. For him, Pope Francis is not just a lousy pope, but a dupe of Satan and the tool of Hell.
And not even Pope Francis’s now infamous signing of the Abu Dhabi declaration with its affirmation that God, in his wisdom, has willed the plurality of religions, rises to the level of a magisterial affirmation of a kind of religious relativism. Because even this text must be viewed in its overall context as an affirmation of the importance of the religious sense in all human beings, implanted there by God’s design.
As Catholic University theologian Chad Pecknold puts it in an article in The Catholic Herald:
It is puzzling, and potentially problematic, but in the context of the document, the Holy Father is clearly referring not to the evil of many false religions, but positively refers to the diversity of religions only in the sense that they are evidence of our natural desire to know God. God wills that all men come to know Him through the free choice of their will, and so it follows that a diversity of religions can be spoken about as permissively willed by God without denying the supernatural good of one true religion.
The Abu Dhabi statement is replete with phrases that have become commonplace in modern religious dialogue since Vatican II and therefore a charitable reading of it in that light is not only possible, but necessary. But, of course, radical traditionalists will only say that this is just further evidence of the evils of Vatican II, which is like a “tell” in poker, where we can see that for the traditionalists the real issue is not whether Pope Francis holds a losing hand, but rather whether the Church since Vatican II has as well.
One can perhaps quibble with Pecknold’s spin on this, but the fact remains that the Pope’s endorsement of this document can be read in an orthodox manner and there is certainly no necessity to rush to the conclusion that it is a smoking gun for heresy. Do I wish he had signed it? No. But I also wish St. Pope John Paul II, a great ecclesiastical hero of mine, had not kissed a Koran or held that famous interreligious meeting in Assisi. So, for the Fr. Altman’s of the world, was Pope John Paul also an anti-pope?
As for the resignation of Pope Benedict, which many traditionalist sedevacantists hold to be invalid, I can only say that the late Pope himself said that he really did resign the papacy and that he did so of his own free will. And no less a light than his secretary of many years, Archbishop Gänswein–no friend, I think, of Pope Francis–has also affirmed that Pope Benedict really did resign. Are Pope Benedict and Archbishop Gänswein liars? Because that is what you must be committed to claiming if one affirms that Pope Benedict did not really resign and that he knew it. I, for one, do not think the late pontiff was a liar.
But what of all of the pre-conclave machinations of the St. Gallen mafia where a strategy was hatched in order to get Bergoglio elected? Does this not invalidate the whole conclave since such machinations are expressly forbidden in canon law? This criticism presumes that these kinds of pre-conclave shenanigans are the exception and not the norm in the history papal elections. And if you believe that such goings-on are the exception, then you are either woefully ignorant of Church history or just a naïve innocent who actually believes that most conclaves take place in a cone of silence devoid of backroom deals. I am sure that if this standard were applied in a rigorous way that most papal elections would need to be retroactively invalidated. Perhaps then the See of Peter has therefore been vacant most of the time? Or at least back to Pius X, when men were still men and popes knew how to pope?
Therein resides the problem. When one peruses the social media posts of some leading traditionalists there is a constant undercurrent of a latent sedevacantism, if not in fact at least in spirit, in the constant berating of Vatican II and all modern papacies since that time as having succumbed to and officially taught, “modernist” theology. If you doubt me just go onto a typical traditionalist social media post and toss out the name “Pope John Paul II” and see what pops up. You won’t have to wait long. Or if you want some real fun, mention Paul VI or Henri de Lubac. Mention any of those names, and a few others, and it is like tossing a Tomahawk Rib eye steak into a den of starving hyenas. Yes, you can say that it is unfair of me to judge the movement based on social media posts, but that is where the Fr. Altmans live and move and have their being.
In this regard, the Fr. Altmans, Patrick Coffins, and similar folks of the sedevacantist world are merely connecting the dots of this implied logic and saying out loud what others in the movement lack the courage to say. This is why they are wildly popular in this subculture. Because they are saying out loud what many traditionalists are privately thinking. But it is all, in an ecclesiastical sense, quite insane.
Because if one’s deeper issue, as it most certainly is with many of the leading traditionalists, is with the entirety of the modern Church beginning in 1955—when even Pius XII committed the apparently modernist act of revising the Holy Week liturgy—then one cannot escape the “onion peeling” effect wherein some fantastical era of ecclesiastical purity is sought after with the net effect being the utter dissolving of the magisterium as such. And in its place we see the faux magisterium of “mini me” internet Torquemadas issuing YouTube Motu propios filled with all manner of anathemas.
But, you might wonder, why bother with these folks at all? Why give them publicity? Because they matter, that’s why. We live in a digital age, an internet age, and this is where many impressions of the American Catholic Church are formed in Rome. We see this writ large in the Pope’s recent remarks to the Portuguese Jesuits where he openly called out the American Church for being hamstrung by “backwardists” and theologically “rigid” leaders. Where do you think he and his papal advisors get such ideas? I think, of course, that they should know better than to trust social media and there is probably already a predisposition in Rome to view conservative Catholics in America in a bad light, so the internet posts just constitute confirmation bias and a convenient foil.
Nevertheless, there is a real, necessary, and important critique of this papacy that demands a hearing. And there are many scholarly and nuanced theologians of impeccable credentials who are making these critiques. But their voices run the risk of being eclipsed and drowned out by the constant chattering and scorched-earth denunciations of the Fr. Altmans of the American Church.
And that is a pity and a tragedy. Because the problem we face is not that Pope Francis is not really the pope. Rather, the problem, as with all popes, is that he is. And it is with real popes with which we must, for better or for worse, engage and contend.
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