When A Pope Sadly Strayed: A Morean Tale of Hope

Your question is indeed a difficult one, kind and anxious reader. So many and sundry evils emerge from confusion—diverse and contrary evils. Who can hold to the unchanging Truth in fervent Love? I thought it best, however, to recall wisdom from the past. Let true fathers teach us. Did you ever hear tale of what I shall shortly relate about what happened, once upon a time, in a matter not entirely dissimilar to that of which you speak?

A terrible theological disagreement ripped through Holy Mother Church. Those with a theological stake in the argument were punished. I mean those who held to the True Tradition of the Church. One can imagine the possibility, in our long history, of an errant bishop punishing a right-thinking priest. But imagine the Pope himself doing so! How devastating: A Pope preaching heresy and punishing those who humbly correct the error. The situation was tragic and heart-wrenching. Yet, the good critics knew that the Pope had no authority to reverse what God handed on through the constant and universal Tradition of Holy Mother Church. Thus, they knew his preaching was in vain and his punishments, unjust afflictions which God in his wisdom permitted and the grievances concerning which God, in his justice, would some day redress.

To know that God, although merciful and slow to anger, is nevertheless just, to know that God acts decisively when at last aroused to wrath by the long-standing abuse of the presumption of men, a presumption not rooted in genuine clemency but rather in sloth, in the negligence of higher things, … I say, to know this was indeed some solace for the men of that age. But only an abstract solace. And who can thrive on an abstract solace? On the formal structure of hope? They needed also a concrete reason to hope.

Year after year of abuse from this Pope wore on their patience and conviction. “Perhaps,” they even doubted, “perhaps it is we ourselves who have strayed from the truth. Perhaps truth is not so steadfast. Perhaps it has settled itself into the views of the day, not to try our modern colleagues any more than they can handle. After all, how is it possible to think of this truth, long held, long past on, long believed in the Church? And after all, is it that central to the faith? Perhaps we must adjust this peripheral truth to the vague weakness of what the modern ear can hear. Why man the battle stations, if there is nothing to defend but a changing truth?”

This thought crept in. It grew in their minds, silently churning: “Perhaps all that we are called to is formal acceptance of whatever the reigning authority proclaims. Perhaps this is our distinctive duty. Our brothers, the Orthodox, reject this subjection to the Pontiff. They have so much of the right material, but they have lost this formal element. If we cling to the materials, are we become like them? Perhaps ours is the task of blindly accepting whatever he proclaims. And in his daily preaching, he is proclaiming this message of his, this opinion. Let us turn off our minds, relent, and accept whatever he preaches.”

But the doubt only grew, “Yet, previous Pontiffs have insisted, with express words on other matters, that their teachings must ever be held the same. It is as though they preached in advance against future Pontiffs who, if that were possible, might – but it is unimaginable! – preach against their explicit condemnations. Paul, too, preached similarly, in his Epistle to the Galatians. What does this all entail? If we embrace the formal authority, shuffling off the skin of substance, what on earth are we embracing at all? The formal authority is for the purpose of putting us in union with the Truth, with our Loving Lord, that we might repent of our sins, embrace his transforming mercy, cooperate with his Law of Love through works, and at last attain to that eternal embrace.”

They reasoned further: “Perhaps, then, this is All a lie. Every last bit. The truth of the Church, the truth of the Gospel. Our very Lord Himself! If, that is, past Pontiffs have explicitly forbidden X, Y, and Z, they clearly upheld material content and not just their formal authority. Yet, this idea that passes through our heads, this idea that we ought blindly accept whatever the current Pontiff proclaims, never even thinking that perhaps he has strayed from the right path, this coping strategy contradicts the way previous pontiffs have understood their actions, actions that yoked our ancestors — and, indeed, us too and our current pontiff — to embrace material content. But perhaps the whole thing is a sham. Perhaps the entire edifice we thought to have been founded by Our Lord, perhaps it is all a lying facade. Perhaps there is no True Church, no True Religion. Perhaps we each must make our own way. O Man, Thou God. Thou Hast Indeed Become Like Unto Him. As Thou Took The Apple, at my request, Now Take the Life of Your Youth and Become the Man of Tomorrow….”

These were dark thoughts, the darkest of thoughts. They did creep in. It is no use us pretending they did not. This is not to say that such thoughts dominated. But they passed through the mind, much as a “floater” passes through the eye of an old man, obscuring clear sight, and only later passes into oblivion, as the clear sun rises to dispel the darkness of the night. They attempted to rouse themselves to hope. But how?

One of them decided that they all ought to heed the power of the telling of history. After all, if God’s providence is the cause of history, then in history may lie an anchor of hope. In history rightly read. “Rightly read” is indeed judged, in its highest standard, according to the dictates of reason illuminated by faith. Two can see the same event, but only one digs down to its truest meaning. Two can witness the fall of a nation, but only one sees the hand of God in it. Indeed, two might diversely claim the hand of God for the fall of a nation, but only one assigns the real cause. At any rate, the details often flee before our eyes. The short-sighted scurry after the details, like boys chasing bits of paper blown about in a storm. But the long-sighted worry themselves not. For history is in a certain sense the art of reason seeing real meaning.

At any rate, perhaps this one prelate got the story wrong. I am not quite certain. But that he saw real meaning in real events—of that I am convinced. And it happened to make all the difference for these anxious priests and theologians, so burdened with the errors of the day. So, he took his seat in the midst of them and opened his mouth and related the following narrative:


there reigned a Pontiff

who caused a great stir.

Your waning time, dear fathers, I shall spare;

all-a-gory detail shall not be shared….

This pope of years long gone signed off on a document that shook the confidence of the devout and rattled the faith of believers. Equally, it won the applause of the ruling elite and of many straying bishops, in the midst of an age of confusion and rebellion, an age that loved the praise of men more than the glory of God.

The remnant faithful had, for some several decades, been defending the teaching of the faith, and doing so under duress and great adversity. These were battle weary, yet they marched forward. Families protected their children from the poisonous fumes of rebellion, fostered and dominant among political rulers and even bishops and priests.

The pope’s document shattered their confidence. (I speak not of the confidence of good clerics. Let me rouse you to hope by this story of a situation direr, and of the victory of fighters littler than you. A fortiori ought you to take hope.) The document seemed on its surface a capitulation of the One True Faith, a capitulation that won the applause precisely of those who rejected or watered down that faith. Upon hearing of the pope’s document, these devout parents were devastated, heartbroken. “What to do? This is our father in the faith; he has spoken. Yet, his document undercuts precisely what the faithful have defended for decades, and what goes back to the very foundations of the Church. It touches the very worship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the Sacraments. Sure, it has good elements, but its problematic elements undercut these good elements.”

A devout priest, seeking neither title nor recognition, not hoping for ecclesiastical advancement, longing only for the courts of Our God and for the salvation of souls, the only ultimate pastoral end worthy of a cleric, reassured them. He reminded them of our Lord’s saying,

“The gates of hell cannot prevail against the One True Church, though the gates of hell march to the very door of the Church herself, whispering evils into the hearts of compromised clerics. Now, you seek my counsel, my advice. Of course, do not show your young and impressionable children this document, lest they read it and be led astray. Then, their eternal salvation would be put in peril. Teach them the true faith. As they grow older, you may expose them to the shame of this document in the context of the security of knowledge of the never-changing faith. For that matter, if you have relatives insufficiently formed in the True Faith, do not expose them to this text, lest they take occasion to blaspheme Our Lord. Some of those who are adults in the faith and those who are theologians have the grace and duty to read it and, while doing so, not to let go of our Sacred Tradition. I might add: This document was written under great duress.”

And so these parents did what that wise and loving priest advised. Their domestic church rendered this document another item proscribed on their wisely-constructed “Index of Forbidden Books,” along with false philosophies, degenerate literature, subtle heretical subversions of the faith by Marcion and Valentinus and Mani, confusions and mistakes of earlier theologians whom otherwise they revered greatly. Some of this literature they deemed appropriate for no one; some of it they deemed appropriate only for mature and formed readers.

To be sure, some gainsaid the educational principles of these parents. Some insisted, with pseudo open-mindedness, that even the young and the not yet virtuous could and should read all such literature without harm. Dear fathers, you may agree with me in retorting, “Not so!” To drag unformed minds through difficulties without adequate preparation and guidance is like a big brother beating his younger sister.

Further, the teacher is not the end, so as to delight in the squirming of hungry souls like sheep without a shepherd under the power of a mighty mind; rather, the Truth is the end. And Truth Exists. Truth Reigns. We are all for Truth. Hence, to stir up a young mind to an active frenzy and not to lead it to Truth, when Truth calls and beckons and is ready to feed with Ample Power… – This is no good service. Dear fathers, the purpose of the “Disputed Question” is not to stir up minds to dizzy cluelessness about the faith. Rather, it is to arouse a real pursuit of Truth.

At any rate, fathers, there were others who, discovering the prudent move these parents took, reprimanded them for closing off opportunities for their little ones. “It is not that we condemn your opinions, but you condemn the new document. Can’t we each by right, in a way? The document, moreover, brings us such freedom; it opens so many possibilities. Maybe you are right; maybe we are right. Who can judge? Let us live in the freedom of the children of God, and enjoy the ambiguity of this document. The past teachings were so confining!”

Fathers, I know you will agree with me that Truth sets one free. Freedom of opinion does not lead to truth, but truth to freedom of the heart. I cannot imagine my way to happiness, though my imagination is ever so unshackled. If the Son is Who he said He is, these protective parents did right by their children.

Still deeply troubled, these parents asked each other, “How could the Pope have done this?” Among the faithful, there was massive confusion. The Pope had caused grave scandal. Arguments this way and that. The pope’s name was not John XXII. No, it was Liberius. He reigned in the 4th century, perhaps some of you remember, after the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea and before that of Constantinople.

Eventually, four ‘iterations’ of his creed made their way around. No one knew which was the creed Liberius actually signed. The best of these iterations was a creed so ambiguous that an Arian could say, “Amen” to it, for it was so watered down that one could safely ignore the saving truth infallibly clarified at Nicaea. The worst iteration was a pro-Arian formulation explicitly contradicting Nicaea.

These good parents saved their children from probable ruin by ignoring each of these Liberian creeds in the domestic abode and nurturing their children in the Ancient Faith and Practice of Holy Mother Church, so crisply and authoritatively taught at Nicaea. To this day, many wise parents ignore that sad and unfortunate creed(s) of Liberius. Fathers, if parents not given to a life of prayer and virginity could maintain such fidelity, ought not we do the same? Can we not ignore the errant preaching of our day?

Granted, perhaps such parents could have culled a few good elements from this otherwise lamentable creed, such as belief in God the Father, etc. But the parents about whom I speak saw these good elements as already taught in Nicaea. So, they remained content with their library until, in their old age, Constantinople I added authoritative, important additions, organically reaffirming the entire authoritative past and building thereon, not lopping off life-giving limbs here and there, but remaining true to the same judgment and the same sense as that pronounced in Nicaea: That of the One True Faith.

Other parents were less pessimistic (less realistic?) and did their best to interpret the objectively sad creed in accordance with the Ancient Faith, rejecting any proposed interpretation that contradicted that Faith. These optimists tried to stress the good points, and squeezed, out of the ambiguous statements, the stark dogma of Nicaea. Eyes perplexed, straining and twirling…. They were moved by the “formal authority” of the Pope; so moved, they bent over backwards to read the true faith into the document. Whether they did right or not, I shall leave to your judgment. Concerning the pro-Arian creed, even the optimists simply passed it over in silence, recognizing it as anathema, though they didn’t like to think of this.

But let me be clear: Neither of these sets of parents were renegades. Both sets sought to defend the One True Faith, and both were deeply concerned about the massive confusion among the faithful and the tragic, self-serving ways of pro-Arian bishops who took this creed as license for the very rebellion against the Faith that they had covertly supported for decades. And then there was the sack of good old Athanasius. Liberius had the gall to boast of his ousting. And there was much rejoicing of the world. Dear fathers, remember the poor suffering of good old Athanasius. Remember him, if anything should happen to you.

At length, after many trials, God in his Wisdom vindicated his true children. Those brave parents, in their old age, took great solace that the Nicene Creed was at last reaffirmed and even augmented at Constantinople. Liberius’s raving creeds and his plundering decisions were all relegated to the dustbin of history. These parents needed solace. After all, they had had some apprehension that perhaps they should have turned off all reason, and blindly accepted the creed of Liberius. (Does this speak to your hearts, fathers?) These apprehensions caused them trouble, even anguish. The pain of these apprehensions they offered up for this Vicar of Christ. (How Urgently, dear fathers, does Evil Want you to Abandon this Delicate Stance.) Still, their apprehensions were not so significant as to disturb the deep peace, higher than the imagination can soar, that they retained. After all, God had given them the faculty of reason. Right? Further, God called for its use, right?

Finally, consider this dilemma that crossed their minds: If indeed they thought they should turn off all reason and listen to the latest confusing creed on Day X of year XYZ, ignoring the once authoritative statements of the past contradicted by the latest speech, consider what logically would follow. Why not simply reject altogether the papal authority, given that on Day W of year ZZZ, some future pope could simply reverse the awful confusion of year XYZ? Consider the possible doubt: Is Christ even with his Church any longer? Was He ever? Are all the miracles lies? All the conversions lies? All the peace of heart lies? All the final repentance lies? All the years lies? All the promises lies? All the fidelity, the zeal of our fathers, vain and empty foolishness?

“But no!” those noble parents commandingly spoke, discerning evil spirits. “These thoughts are yet more confusions. The seed of the Devil! Let us simply accept the already defined faith, and offer up our pain for Holy Mother Church and its Chief Shepherd. And, of course, we praise Liberius for his original courage. We obey where obedience is due, even when it amounts to the great imprudence of the deposition of that holy Alexandrian bishop.” When Constantinople reaffirmed what had already been definitively laid out, they drank deeply of the great peace of Christ that comes, not from the declaration of a mere man, not from the world, but only from the Power of God.

Dear fathers, let us drink from the wisdom and courage of these parents. We are, after all, commissioned by Christ to preach the truth, in season and out of season. And of course, do not be so foolish as to neglect to give obedience where obedience is due. One fault does not cancel the rest of the authoritative decisions. Remember, the Holy Father has canonized our great teacher, Thomas.>>

The priest’s words consoled those anxious fathers. They drank deeply from his wisdom and courage. They held fast to the Ancient Faith, which proclaims One God that Changes not because He already is All Life. His Life is not a passing life, that it should change, just as the Gospel itself is not a quaking read, that it should bend this way and that. And indeed, they were vindicated. The pope who preached heresy during his reign recanted on his deathbed. Although it was sufficient, in itself, that the Church already held the true faith day in day out, in the ordinary universal magisterium, it was helpful for all, and of deep consolation for those brave priests, that the succeeding pope, Benedict XII, defined ex cathedra the dogma of the faith in which we now believe: That the souls of those who die in grace, without any purification or punishment weighing on their souls, immediately are brought to that face-to-face vision of God. God vindicated his true children. He always does, though his justice is often patient of man’s abuse.

And so, dear reader, let us pray.

O Heavenly Father of us all, thank you for the courage and far-sightedness of those who trusted that, with your grace, all things are possible, including obedience to the Law that you re-iterated for us in your Divine Son, the Law that gives life to and fattens the bones and which is a way and condition of final salvation. Not only did they obey your Law, but, under great adversity from within the very bosom of the Church, they held fast to your saving Truth. Charity is born of Truth and lives only in Truth. The Truth takes flesh in real life, making right living possible, able to convert those who are sinfully alienated from God into his true lovers and friends. Let us not doubt or deny that Truth can come into the flesh of our circumstances and heal them.

Dear reader: Doubt not that Truth has come in the flesh and still comes into the flesh of our morass, with grace sufficient to generate children of Abraham from stones of death!

Shorten not God’s legislating and judging hand! Quench not the flame of his healing love! Deny not the dignity of the freedom of the children of God!

Can True Life be found by a false imagination? False is the imagination of that leaps from the lying sin of pessimism (“Did God say you can eat of no tree at all?”) to the defiant sin of presumption (“You shall not be judged according to any works but accepted entirely by mere faith though you sin and sin boldly”) to the apostate, anomian denial of Law and Truth (“What is sin? Quid est Veritas?”)?

Cover not, under a bushel, the Light that streams not from a mere man’s face but from Christ’s Divine Face, the Light that is to enlighten the darkness of the human mind! Wear not a false humility, to the deprivation of your fellow man (“Am I my brother’s keeper?”)!

Doubt not that Truth has come in the flesh! Doubt not that Truth still comes into the flesh of our morass, with grace sufficient in power to generate children of Abraham from stones of death! Shorten not the arm of God, lest his patience — meant for our conversion and not for our presumptive indulgence (Rom 2) — be likewise shortened.

Let the Reader understand