|Proclaiming the Gospel: Dominican Rite|
The theoretical possibility of the condemnation of a reigning Pope for heresy, in such a way that has canonical consequences, is explained helpfully by Robert Siscoe here. Although this account seems sensible to me, I'm no expert and no doubt some will find fault with it. I don't want to get into the details, however: Siscoe's analysis can serve as a reference point, the view of a traditionalist, but definitely not a sede vacantist. My point would be: if this is what people like him think, then the hoops people are going to have to jump through to make such a thing happen are, for practical purposes, insuperable. Call a council of the Church? Get it to meet? Get it to denounce him? Get it to recognise such a denunciation as activating his loss of office? Elect a new Pope? We'll all be having snow-ball fights in hell before this happens.
But if that is so, what will happen? Or, perhaps better: what is happening?
As Cardinal Burke noted, a formal correction of the Pope might come from just a single cardinal - or, we might add, of non-cardinals. If this doesn't depose the Pope (it certainly wouldn't be enough on the Siscoe analysis), what is the point of it? The point is that it is part of process, in some hypothetical situation, in which it becomes clear to at least some people that the teaching of the Church is one thing, and the published opinion of the Pope (or what can be drawn from his publications and his silence with moral certainty), another. If that becomes clear, then it has implications, at least for the people to whom it becomes clear.
Bear in mind that, in fact, the Church is permanently in this situation, according to some people. The Greeks told us back in 1054 that the Pope was in error for adding the filioque to the Creed. In 1870 the 'Old Catholics' thought that the Pope and the First Vatican Council was in error over the definition of Papal Infallibility. In both cases, they, like many, many, groups in between, went into schism, which is to say that they stopped accepting the authority or communion of bishops and others who sided with the Pope.
In many ways this is a self-defeating strategy, since it leaves the Pope and his supporters on their own with their supposed error. It is particularly problematic if you believe in the Papacy as an institution, since the schismatics lost it. So most people who have, over the centuries, thought the Pope was wrong, have simply muddled along in the Church, sometimes acting disobediently, sometimes keeping their heads down.
That's not to say that it doesn't make a difference that a pope's error be publicly demonstrated, in some manner with serious moral force. It makes a difference for the people who accept this demonstration, and if they are numerous then it will have an affect on the Pope and the Church. The kind of affect is the kind of affect we quite standardly see in the Church, or come to that in any institution, when a large number of people regard the leader as going off the rails, even if they can't remove him. The leader in question will find it harder and harder to get things done: his moral authority and practical power will ebb away.
This can happen to a greater or lesser extent. At the lesser end of the scale the leader can eject or simply ignore the disaffected people and carry one. At the greater end he will find his job impossible, and the institution ungovernable. The general loss of authority will be magnified where the disputed matter is at issue; even if the leader can't get things done on that topic, in other aspects of his job he may find everything carrying on as normal.
It is important to remember that this is a perfectly familiar process in human affairs, and usually far preferable to violent revolution. Under Pope Benedict, many prelates and curial officials seemed to be opposing his initiatives simply by not being very helpful, by ignoring them, quietly contradicting them, and so on. Pope Benedict's most memorable moves were cooked up 'motu proprio', by his own initiative, which is to say that they did not emerge from the curial machinery. The sidelining of the curia has gone even further in the present pontificate, but the policy can be traced back to Pope John Paul II and even to Pius X. All these Popes encountered massive and entrenched opposition, within Rome and around the world. A feeling that the Pope is not just wrong-headed, but acting contrary to the Faith, among a significant proportion of people, would make things much more difficult. But the ways it would make things difficult, for the most part, would be the ways that opponents of papal policies have always made things difficult.
I don't want to suggest that the current crisis is not more serious than what was going on, say, in the 1970s and 1980s, although we should not imagine that was any kind of golden age of Church unity. The attacks on Cardinal Burke and his co-signatories from a small number of other prelates have been peculiarly unrestrained; the silence of many more prelates who are in office may be even more significant. The tone of Bishop Frangiskos Papamanolis is reminiscent of something from the 16th century. If enough people line up on either side of the argument, publicly or not, and if the strength of feeling is great enough, the Church will become ungovernable very quickly. Official documents will cease to have weight if they are regarded as emanating from one party or the other, rather than from the Holy See. Unrelated issues will become impossible to resolve if ordinary civil relations between bishops and Cardinals can't be taken for granted, and if routine meetings are cancelled because of the danger of confrontation spilling over. Outsiders will become unwilling to deal with the Church's representatives if they start looking like the partizans in a civil war, instead of the officers of a unified body. People will be reluctant to give money to the Church for the same reason. This could all happen in a few months, if the crisis continued to build up steam. Or it could fizzle out.
In this situation, leaders can change tack, resign, or soldier on. On the last option, institutional trench warfare can go on indefinitely, interspersed with purges perhaps, but purges tend not to be totally effective, and can only reach so far down the chain of command. Any minimally sane new pope arriving on the scene will be keen to make a big reconciling gesture, even if one side of the argment has been quite effectively subdued (Leo XIII offers a precedent). Even if things develop in the most dramatic way in the coming months, the crisis could still go on for a long time, and when it ends, end with more of a whimper than a bang.
But this being the Church, and not just any other institution, it will have to end with the clarification of doctrine. It can come soon or late, but it will come.
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