On or around the same day that I published my last post, Dr. Edward Feser also put up a post on his own blog dismissing what he calls “Benevacantism” by which he means the very subject of my post: that Pope Benedict XVI is still the Pope. I did not see the post before I published my own though I have Feser in my blogroll and highly recommend his blog. I also have a copy of his introduction to Thomas Aquinas book and have been meaning to read his book The Last Superstition for many years. The timing was interesting and I feel compelled to respond though I do not believe at all that he was responding to me or even knows this blog exists.
Before going on though, I do want to point out that I have named and linked to the person I am responding to in this post. I know who Feser is responding to but he does not mention any names. Before I even read his post, I hit “Ctrl + F” and searched “Barnhardt”. This brought a couple of hits in the comment section. I am quite certain that Feser had Ann Barnhardt in mind along with a couple of others when he wrote this and even if he didn’t, he should have specified who he was disagreeing with rather than leaving it to his commenters. He might claim it wasn’t relevant or that he was doing it out of charity, but I can’t help but consider it cowardly. Say or write her name. Ann Barnhardt. It is easy if you try. Unlike this blog, she isn’t anonymous and neither are Edmund Mazza, Patrick Coffin or many of the other prominent Catholics who have made the claim he is “refuting”.
I respect and admire Dr. Feser and consider him much more intelligent, qualified and competent to offer commentary on almost every aspect of Catholicism than me. This does not make him immune from error as I am sure he would readily admit. I openly admit I could be wrong about what I have claimed but if I am, Feser has not made the case for it in this post. I am not hiding behind anonymity either and if Dr. Feser would like to know who I am, he can contact the email in my About section and I will be happy to reveal my real name, the country of my birth and the city in which I live in private to him. Given the subject matter I write about though, I don’t want to deliberately connect my real identity to this blog though I accept that this might happen one day.
Feser opens by mentioning the late Australian philosopher David Stove who I am somewhat familiar with. I know that he wasn’t a Catholic or even religious though he was a very interesting and original philosopher. The connection with “scandalous and pointless” is forced though and I don’t see how it fits in with the the substance of what follows. I can see that it is a scandalous claim but I don’t see how it is pointless given that who the Vicar of Christ is matters very much. If one takes the Papacy seriously, then claims like this should not be lightly dismissed when there are serious questions to be answered. And Feser barely addresses them.
Feser demonstrates by the title alone that he isn’t responding in good faith. “Benevacantism” is deliberately calculated to connect it with sedevacantism which he rightly admits it is not. He also suggests his readers might think it is too silly to be worth commenting on and that he is only doing so because more people are coming to similar conclusions and that he finds it philosophically interesting. The remainder of his post is consistent with this posturing as he later calls it “half-baked” and “a complete theological mess”. Though well before the end, it is clear that he either doesn’t or doesn’t want to understand what he is even responding to.
It is not news that Pope Francis has, over the years, made a number of theologically problematic statements (about Holy Communion for those living in adulterous relationships, capital punishment, and other matters) and done a number of problematic things (such as reversing Benedict’s motu proprio on the Latin Mass). I’ve addressed these controversies many times before and am not going to rehash it all here. The point to emphasize for present purposes is that Benevacantists suppose that the problem posed by Francis’s questionable statements and actions can be dissolved if it were to turn out that Benedict is still pope. For in that case, the problematic statements were not made by a true pope, so that there is no need to explain how a pope could commit such errors.
As I believe I made clear in my own commentary, I don’t believe I am looking for an easy way out. I explained in fact that this is rather a harder path to take that may have real-world consequences. What most believe I would say is that the sum of all these scandals add up to something being very wrong and that the explanations for them by conservative Catholics have become increasingly desperate. If this was recognised tomorrow, it wouldn’t all magically go away and I don’t believe anybody seriously believes it will.
Now, one problem here is that this “solution” is simply unnecessary. The Church has always acknowledged that popes can err when not speaking ex cathedra, and whatever else one thinks of Francis’s controversial statements and actions, they all would, if erroneous, fall into the category of possible papal error. Francis may have said and done more theologically dubious things than the best-known popes of the past who have done so (such as Honorius and John XXII), but they are dubious statements and actions of the same basic kind. The problem is extremely serious, but again, it’s within the boundaries of what the Church and her faithful theologians have always acknowledged could happen, consistent with the clearly defined conditions for papal teaching being infallible. (I’ve addressed this issue in detail elsewhere, such as here and here.)
These explanations helped back in 2015 but not so much now. Something I highlighted in my own post was some of the more dubious canonisations by Francis which cannot be explained away simply as “dubious statements” or “not made ex cathedra”. As we shall see, Feser narrows his focus to two “theories” which he positions as mutually exclusive — though they are not. When he must know that there are entire books written on the subject that go well beyond the two simple theories below:
Theory 1: Benedict didn’t really intend to resign. According to this theory, Benedict distinguishes the munus of the papacy (in the sense of the office itself and its duties), from the ministerium or actual exercise of the powers of the office. What Benedict renounced, according to this theory, is only the latter and not the former. That is to say, he retains the munus of the papacy, but decided to turn the ministerium over to another, who ended up being Francis. Francis, for this reason, is said by Gänswein to be the “active” member of this expanded papal office. But Benedict, who now retains only a “contemplative” role, is still the one who in the strict sense holds the munus and thus the papacy.
Theory 2: Benedict did intend to resign, but failed. According to this alternative theory, Benedict did indeed intend flatly to resign the papacy. But since he holds the views reported by Gänswein, he did not succeed in validly doing so. The reason is that the functions of the papal office simply cannot be divided in the way Benedict, according to the theory, supposes they can be. Hence his resignation was predicated on a false understanding of what he was doing, and that invalidates it. He is therefore still pope.
As mentioned, these are not mutually exclusive premises. Anyone who had seriously considered what was being argued would know this too. In simple terms, what both suggest is that Benedict has made an error — a substantial one which invalidates his resignation (Canon 188) whether he intended to, was forced to (Feser
covers dismisses this later), or genuinely believed he could split the office into an “active” and “contemplative one”. But this is far from all there is to it and I suggest anyone interested actually look into it properly. I linked to some easy ways to begin in my last post.
Now, I don’t think either of these theories is plausible for a moment. But let’s pretend they were. Would they solve the problem they are intended to solve – that is to say, the problem of having to deal with a genuine pope who says and does theologically highly problematic things? Not in the least, which is why I say Benevacantism is pointless.
These aren’t plausible because they are Feser’s own constructions that he has set up to refute. He would well know the name of a logical fallacy that describes what he has done. And once again, nobody I’ve read on this (and remember Feser does not mention or link to anyone making these arguments), thinks this is a magic bullet that will save the church.
It would be redundant to respond to the next few paragraphs as he continues to argue against absurdities of his own construction. And Dr. Feser could prove me wrong by directly referring to the individuals and arguments he is actually responding to. Once again, the two “theories” though inadequately described are not mutually exclusive and nobody I’ve read dismisses one in favour of the other. He also essentially argues that if one or the other were true that things would be difficult and confusing when things are already difficult and confusing. There is already scandal, schism, confusion and all manner of problems that aren’t caused by the small group of people claiming Benedict XVI is still the pope.
The vast majority of the institutional church right down to teachers, diocesan employees, and even parish council members are already hostile to the Catholic Faith. I know because I’ve sat among them and heard what they think as no doubt would have Dr. Feser. There are in reality, very few actual Catholics left in the world. I would say the most we could hope in the West is about 10% of the nominally Catholic population in any nation and it could be half that. And of that group, most would agree with Dr. Feser.
Nobody seriously thinks that some public acknowledgement of the error would solve the problem. It would almost certainly cause a mass schism but it wouldn’t be the true faithful breaking away from the church but the already existent antichurch. There is no easy solution no matter what position you take. What matters is the Truth.
The last point he addresses is the suspicion that Benedict XVI resigned under duress. Which he dismisses because of a lack of evidence (in his opinion), and because Benedict has made public statements since that he did indeed intend to resign. If he’d known what he was arguing against, he would also know that none of this depends on what Benedict thinks. This like the other two are not mutually exclusive and these three points are far from the only arguments that have been brought forward.
Feser has either willfully ignored what has actually been argued or has just lazily responded to a few points he’s seen put forward second or third hand. As I have said, I do respect Dr. Feser but am disappointed by what he has written here. It would have been better if he’d simply said nothing at all.
This ended up being more of a general response than a fisking but I like alliteration so I will keep the title.
UPDATE: Feser had posted another update a few days ago which I didn’t see until now. Nothing in it is relevant to what I have written here except that he did at least mention Patrick Coffin.