St. Paul wrote that the Church is “one body and one Spirit…[with] one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:4-5); however, someone could be forgiven for believing that we currently have multiple “faiths”—i.e., multiple religions—existing within the one Catholic Church. Consider our present situation.
The German “Synodal Way” is on a straight path to schism, while American traditionalists are accused of having a “schismatic mentality.” A growing number of Catholics are questioning whether Pope Francis is really the pope, while others are cheerleading his every confusing move. Meanwhile, millions of Catholics are just trying to survive this confusing mess with their faith—and sanity—intact.
Some might say that these types of divisions have always existed in the Church, and they’d be right (see 1 Corinthians). Yet today’s divisions are different. They represent not conflicting views on how best to practice Catholicism, but conflicting views on what makes our “rule of faith,” the kernel of core beliefs and the means by which we receive those beliefs. This, then, makes the various camps within Catholicism in practice different religions, even though they all outwardly belong to the same visible Church.
What are some of these various religious camps uneasily coexisting within the Church today? Let’s look at the four most prominent in an attempt to understand today’s confusing Catholic Church.
First, there are the hyperpapalists, whose rule of faith in essence has become the pronouncements of The Current Pope, even if those pronouncements clearly contradict previous popes’ pronouncements or even official teachings of the Church. We know what to believe by simply looking to see what The Current Pope says we should believe.
The hyperpapalists—with or without saying so—have made Lumen Gentium 25 their overriding principle of faith. That Vatican II text states we must give our “religious submission of mind and will” to the pope, and the hyperpapalists have (mis)interpreted this to mean that, in practice, we must agree with all The Current Pope’s statements and decisions, even if they are not directly related to faith and morals and even if they are not in any way official magisterial declarations. The pope has become like a modern political party leader, who cannot be questioned. To do so could jeopardize his “Catholicism Party.”
So if this pope says civilly divorced and remarried Catholics can receive Communion, even though the perennial teaching of the Church—and the explicit teaching of a recent pope—says otherwise, we need to shift gears and follow The Current Pope. Only by doing so can we keep to the (ever-changing) rule of faith.
The cousins of the hyperpapalists form another camp, the sedevacantists. Like the hyperpapalists, they also believe we must slavishly follow the pope’s teachings and opinions on all matters. However, since it’s clear that our current pope’s opinions diverge from those of previous pontiffs, they conclude that this pope cannot actually be a pope and therefore the see of Peter is vacant.
For sedevacantists, then, the rule of faith is The Last Legitimate Pope. Everything in the Church after The Last Legitimate Pope is to be condemned and rejected. Typically the sedevacantists look to a certain moment in time—perhaps, the 1950’s—as the pinnacle of Catholicism that must be regained.
Next are the liberals, who simply want to remake the Church into the image of mainstream Protestantism and make their rule of faith an acceptance of The Current Thing (contraception, abortion, homosexuality, transgenderism, etc.). They want the Church to conform to the world, rather than the other way around. They may at times be confused with hyperpapalists, since Pope Francis often appears to agree with them, but if we get a more conservative pope in the future they will quickly transform into critics of The Current Pope (and maybe even become sedevacantists!).
A final religious camp are the restorationists. The rule of faith for restorationists is that integrated core of teachings and practices that have been handed on from generation to generation in the Church. They accept Francis as the legitimate pope but believe that he often strays in his teachings and opinions from that rule of faith that’s been passed on to us, and they are willing to criticize him when that happens.
Unlike the sedevacantists, restorationists do not reject the legitimate application of the development of doctrine. They understand that the liturgy and our understanding of the faith can develop over time, slowly and organically. This development isn’t equivalent to the latest papal pronouncements; it reflects the developing sensus fidelium—the “sense of the faithful” (which never rejects the sensus fidelium of previous generations).
In summary: the hyperpapalists want a Catholicism that is only the current pope; the sedevacantists want a Catholicism that only has a perfect pope; the liberals want a Catholicism where the zeitgeist is the pope; and the restorationists want a Catholicism that includes all the popes, past and present.
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