Fr. John Zuhlsdorf: troubling comments on Popes and Councils

Here is a post from Fr. Z. — Hard views of Pope Francis from Spectators. Fr. Z. comments on Pope Francis’ criticism of the right: “Harsh stuff, but there is one point to make: it is often hard to know to whom the Pope is referring when he talks about all these horrible people in the Church. Who are they? I’ve never encountered such creatures.”

Ironically, in the same post, shortly before the above quoted comment, Fr. Z. says about the left: “On the one side there is the rah rah rah from the catholic libs who think that Pope Francis is the 7th Apparition of Vishnu (whom I believe they may prefer to worship rather than the true King of Fearful Majesty)”. Fr. Z.’s own comments about the left are also “harsh stuff” and, just as he says, it is “hard to know to whom” Fr. Z. “is referring when he talks about all these horrible people in the Church.” Fr. Z. criticizes Pope Francis for speaking much the same way that Fr. Z. speaks.

But that is not the main problem with Father Zuhlsdorf. In a more recent post, The historical view – the “long view” – Wherein Fr. Z rants, Fr. Zuhlsdorf makes some remarkably arrogant and condescending comments about Popes and Councils.

First he says: “Not every pontificate (parenthesis) or event, such as a synod or council, are equally important in the large scheme that God has for the Church.” Well, that is certainly true. The problem is that Fr. Z., in the course of many different posts over the past months and years, speaks as if his evaluation of Popes and Councils is absolute. His attitude toward Pope Francis is condescending, at best: “Pope Francis is confusing. Reasonable people won’t deny that. He is confusing to both the Left and the Right, as well as the tepid, but for different reasons.” But when it comes to specific questions, such as who may receive Communion, Fr. Z. speaks as if his understanding of doctrine and discipline cannot possibly err. If any Bishops agrees, he is extolled as holy and faithful. If any Bishop disagrees, he is denigrated as unfaithful.

Yes, the infallible teachings of the Church cannot be changed, not even by a Pope or a Council. But currently, many conservatives and traditionalists are speaking as if their own understanding of doctrine could never err. They decide what is and is not dogma, and they decide what each dogma means, how it is to be understood, and what effect it must have on discipline. The Pope is considered faithful if he agrees, and unfaithful if he does not.

Not every pontificate is equally important. True. But when was Fr. Z. appointed as the judge over every pontificate and every Pope? I have read very many of Fr. Z.’s posts. I see no willingness whatsoever on his part to be corrected or taught by any Pope. Whatever any Pope says is accepted if it agrees with Fr. Z.’s own understanding, and rejected if it does not. And very many conservatives and traditionalists are taking the same point of view.

Not content with being the judge over Popes, Fr. Z. denigrates certain Ecumenical Councils. First he says “And today, who thinks of Lateran V?” By this he means that said Council is unimportant. Well, the Fifth Lateran Council taught the necessity of subjection to the Roman Pontiff for salvation:

“Moreover, since subjection to the Roman pontiff is necessary for salvation for all Christ’s faithful, as we are taught by the testimony of both sacred scripture and the holy fathers, and as is declared by the constitution of pope Boniface VIII of happy memory, also our predecessor, which begins Unam Sanctam, we therefore, with the approval of the present sacred council, for the salvation of the souls of the same faithful, for the supreme authority of the Roman pontiff and of this holy see, and for the unity and power of the church, his spouse, renew and give our approval to that constitution….”

Sincerely and sadly, I have to day that Fr. John Zuhlsdorf does not accept subjection to the Roman Pontiff, not when the Pope is liberal, not if the Pope issues any major decision on doctrine or discipline that is contrary to his own understanding. The schism has not yet begun, and Fr. Z. has not yet committed the sin of formal schism. But he gives every indication that he has packed his bags, put on his coat, grabbed his keys, and is headed for the door.

Subjection to the Pope is necessary to salvation in the sense that rejection that rejection said subjection is an objective mortal sin, which would deprive one of the state of grace if committed with full knowledge and full deliberation. It is also necessary to salvation in the general sense that the Church must be led by the Pope if She is to be effective in saving souls. Some non-Catholics and non-Christians can be saved, without accepting the authority of the Pope, but only if they have invincible ignorance, so that their rejection of the Pope is not an actual mortal sin.

Finally, Fr. Z. denigrates the Second Vatican Council, sweeping aside its many insightful teachings with a few rude words:

“Frankly, in the long run, Vatican II will not be held as being all that important in the Church’s history. It caused a ruckus – for us – but… what did it define? To my mind, Vatican II is relatively insignificant compared to certain other Councils, such as Nicea I, Constantinople I, Ephesus, Chalcedon and Trent, to name just a few.

Vatican II? Blip.”

Some Councils were less important, in the long run, because they chose to exercise only the temporal authority of the Church, to deal with problems in the Church at that time. Addressing such problems is important, but not so much in the long term. Most Councils, though, issued teachings on matters of faith, morals, and salvation. The teachings of the Church are the teachings of Christ. No teachings of Christ are unimportant. It is reprehensible for Fr. Z. to claim that the teachings of Vatican II are not all that important, or are just a “blip”.

The importance of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council is seen in the many magisterial documents which quote or cite those teachings, including the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which has very many citations from the Council. The fact that the Council chose not to issue dogmatic canons with attached anathemas does not imply that nothing definitive or important was taught.

The reason that Fr. Z. and many traditionalists ignore, dismiss, or denigrate the Second Vatican Council is that the teachings of the Council are contrary to their own understanding of the Faith. So rather than be taught or corrected, they invent various excuses and rationalizations to reject the Council.

Again, this type of attitude is one step short of formal schism. One can commit schism by rejecting any Pope, even he is more sinful than other Popes, or less prudent in matters of discipline, or not as conservative or as liberal as one might wish. And one can commit schism by rejecting any Council, even one that chose not to issue dogmatic canons.

Fr. Z. has written many good posts, helpful to Catholics wishing to be more faithful. He does well in frequently encouraging his readers to go to Confession. But no good deed ever justifies a bad deed. He is harming the Church by speaking as if he had the ability and authority to judge every Pope and Council.

I’m afraid that if Fr. Z. decides to reject Pope Francis, declaring him a heretic or an antipope, he will draw many thousands of his readers away from the Church. He has spent many years gathering a large audience of conservatives and traditionalists to himself. They see him as their guide, as their shepherd. If he goes astray, they are likely to follow.

It is a problem with a priest like Fr. Z. develops a large following, independent of any parish or diocese. A parish priest has a bishop to oversee his work, and his parishioners can complain to the bishop if there is a problem. But via the internet, Fr. Z. has developed a virtual parish that is not, for practical purposes, under any particular bishop. In a parish, because it is based on geography, some parishioners will be liberal, some moderate, some conservative. If the parish priest moves too far to the left or the right, he will hear from his parishioners or they will speak to the bishop. But online, a priest can gather a large audience by being very liberal or very conservative. His whole online virtual parish has one particular point of view. So he has much more influence over the body of this type of “parish”, than a geographical parish. And no bishop is overseeing this type of online community. Schism is much more likely for such a group because they gather based on a particular point of view. They all have the same point of view, so they all go in the same direction, as events in the Church develop.

The same problem occurs with Michael Voris. He has a large following online. He tells them what they wish to hear, various conservative talking points; they support him no matter what he says or does. I’ve pointed out that some of Voris’ teachings are abject heresy. But his supporters don’t seem to care. They do not wish to be taught or corrected. They prefer “teachers” who simply reiterate to them views they already hold. I don’t see how Voris will avoid falling into schism. He takes much the same point of view as Fr. Z. — that the conservative or traditionalist subculture cannot err in its understanding of doctrine and discipline, and that this subculture and its leaders have the role to judge, correct, and even oppose any decision of the Roman Pontiff contrary to their own ideas.

You can read about past schisms in the Church. The most recent one was perhaps the sedevacantist schism. They left the Church because they refused to accept teaching and correction from the Second Vatican Council. Long before the Council, they became convinced that their own understanding of the Church and the Faith could not possibly err. And they still hold that self-exalting view. The sedevacantists, including the SSPX, think it is their role to rescue the Church from the errors of Vatican II. They think that they alone have preserved the true Faith. Well, they are in a state of formal schism and formal heresy, and no future Pope or Council is going to agree with them and thereby wipe away Vatican II and all the papacies and magisterial documents since that time. Either the members of the SSPX and other sedevacantists groups humble themselves, admit their sins of heresy and schism, or remain separate from the Church.

What is about to happen in the Church is just like the sedevacantist schism. Pope Francis is liberal, just as Pope Saint John XXIII was liberal, just as Vatican II was liberal. Many conservatives and traditionalists are currently speaking as if their understanding of doctrine and discipline cannot err, and as if it is their duty to fight against the Pope if he says otherwise. They are readying a schism, not unlike the SSPX schism. And if anyone says that the SSPX is not in a state of schism and heresy, then he testifies against himself that he is following in the footsteps of the SSPX.

Remain Faithful

How can you remain faithful to Jesus and His Church when the schism occurs?
1. humble yourself and admit that your understanding on doctrine and discipline can err
2. pray to God for the light and strength to do His will, not your own will
3. identify yourself first and foremost as a disciple of Christ and as a Roman Catholic, not primarily as a traditionalist or conservative or liberal or moderate or something else
4. Accept whatever changes to discipline the Pope might make, even if you personally disagree. Discipline is not infallible, but the Pope has the authority to make decisions on discipline, and you do not.
5. Be willing to change your understanding of doctrine if the Pope teaches ideas contrary to what you thought was Church teaching. Do not assume that your understanding of dogma is the same as the dogma itself. Perhaps your understanding needs to change. We believe in the teachings of the Church as an act of FAITH, not because our own minds have reasoned to the same conclusion.
6. If any person or group rejects any Pope or any Council, you should reject that person or group.
7. Study the teachings of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium, so that you can recognize the errors in the false teachings of the schismatics and heretics who reject any Pope or Council.

by
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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2 Responses to Fr. John Zuhlsdorf: troubling comments on Popes and Councils

  1. Paul says:

    Ron said: “And if anyone says that the SSPX is not in a state of schism and heresy, then he testifies against himself that he is following in the footsteps of the SSPX.”

    This is interesting. As far as I know, Fr Z, Remnant, Mundabor (and perhaps Bishop Schneider, amongst others – although I’m not sure) appear to hold the view that the SSPX is not in a state of schism. Voris says they are in a state of schism. It seems to me they are, but I could be wrong. I don’t know the official word on this – it’s all very confusing – but I have no desire to join them, regardless.

    Regarding heresy and schism in general: I’ve never understood how I may decide when the Pope has fallen into error. If I may do so, how is Christ’s guarantee worth anything? If I may veto Peter’s primacy, then surely it never was primacy. It seems so obvious – am I missing something?

    • Ron Conte says:

      The Pope can never fall into apostasy, heresy, or schism, and he can never teach heresy. The SSPX claims that Vatican II taught heresy, and that all the Popes since Vatican II have gone astray from the true Faith. They have refused to obey each and every Pope, in succession, and they hold Mass and ordain priests, in contradiction to Church authority. It couldn’t be any more clear that they are in a state of heresy and schism.

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