The Retroactive Fallacy: An Examination of Valid Criticism of Pope Francis

by callthepatriot

The Retroactive Fallacy: An Examination of Valid Criticism of Pope Francis

By   Joseph Andrew Settanni


“If the faith is in imminent peril, prelates ought to be accused by their subjects, even in public.” – St. Thomas Aquinas


The significant criticism and severe rebuking of popes, their correction, has a quite venerable and honorable tradition, so fully consistent even with the very early history of the Roman Catholic Church itself.   Catholic Family News and many other such publications do contain numerous articles and related information covering the substantial and substantive history of such thinking and scholarship, if citations are felt to be needed.

Among the earliest known prominent example, St. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, formerly quite a major zealous persecutor of Christians, had rebuked St. Peter himself to his face; in fact, the latter properly stood corrected and then humbly had accepted the much needed criticism. This is, as they say, Gospel truth, for he was the very same Apostle who had denied Christ three times, indicating that scandal would likely accompany the lives of other popes thereafter.

The prediction Jesus correctly made that he would do this was a deserved reproach given to the Rock (Cephas) of the Church.

Papal Criticism: A Venerable Pedigree Indeed

How may this be both easily and confidently verified? The Glossa of St. Augustine confirms this (Ad Galatas 2.14), as was noted by none other than the Common Doctor, the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologiae, IIa IIae, Q. 33, A. 4). The both respected and esteemed authority of the primary Doctor of the Church stands by this historical assertion.

The passage in question, which should not be theologically doubted, can be quite openly read by any Christian or non-Christian for that matter. It is, thus, not an esoteric subject nor useful for fancy flights of supposed whimsy.

Of course, there have been, e. g., such phenomenal sophists as James Likoudis who have yet casuistically applied the worst sort of “Jesuitical” reasoning to so absurdly suggest, regarding the critical cited passage, that, in fact, Peter and Cephas were actually two different people, as is mentioned in Galatians! He then seeks, thus, to substantially improve upon, contrary to the Angelic Doctor, the precise analytical exegesis of Holy Writ.

Mr. Likoudis, now presumably having superior knowledge, in this particular matter, far beyond either that of the major theological scholarship of St. Augustine or Aquinas, of course, which, however, is not quite likely. And, that is an understatement.  The most probable reason for so contextually also using Cephas, so that the reader of the Epistle would clearly know that the Peter being designated was, in fact, one and the same disciple chosen by Christ to lead the Church, is totally ignored; one guesses, quite purposefully.  Mendacity pays for such casuistry.

So much for Mr. Likoudis, a humble Catholic, and his ilk. Cephas was Peter, have no doubt, though scriptural practical jokers do wish to polemically contend otherwise, at their spiritual peril.

The Argumentation Involved

Many Roman Catholics are being imperiously told that they have no truly genuine or valid right to ever criticize Pope Francis because of his truly exalted religious position, consecrated status as a prominent spiritual personage, supreme range of decidedly major theological and religious responsibilities, he being, as rightful Apostolic Successor, the anointed Keeper of the Keys, etc.

However, historically, there have been people, even those later made saints of the Church moreover, who have, in fact, criticized popes or, on the other hand, have said that there are certain legitimate and correct reasons when such criticism is both justly valid and requisite on the part of the faithful.  After all, realistically speaking, no contemporary papal critics know beforehand, one guesses, of their future canonizations.

Remember now, of course, that a (lawful) pope is, indeed, to be held to be the undoubted true Vicar of Christ on earth, the Supreme Pontiff, for all the people of the world, not just for the believers. Any such strong animadversions, especially for any sincere Catholics, had better be prayerfully thought through on pain of having committed a mortal sin earning eternal entrance to the Netherworld, if not properly repented.

Such possible erroneous judgments can, undoubtedly, be morally devastating, meaning if not competently justified by much surely accumulated and substantiated evidence of quite seriously, not trivially, improper papal conduct. The concrete case to be heavily made had better be conspicuously judicious, thoughtful, prayerful, and profound to a truly great degree, not any frivolous series of baseless accusations, made haphazardly, with no concern for truth.

Thus, no one, if being in what gets called his “right mind,” dares to ever ignorantly, unjustly, or cavalierly cast harsh or extremely severe admonishments upon, e. g., a pope or, as a slight analogy, a king or the president of a country, especially if circumstances, in different historical ages, could result, e. g., in that person’s execution, among other severe and possible penalties. Consequences can be devastating when making any extreme reprimandations.

Normally speaking, therefore, extremely intense and publicly-based censure of the highest magnitude is definitely not, as a result, something to be quite so lightly done as a kind of dismissive afterthought for some, perhaps, throw-away dinner party conversation. True.  Most devoted and sincere, fervent and earnest, Catholics would, thus, hesitate exceedingly before making any spurious or scandalous remarks casting horrible aspersions upon so greatly exalted a personage, the Holy Father himself no less, the Captain of the Ship of St. Peter, the holder of the Ring of the Fisherman.

This is, therefore, no simply light or, perhaps, merely tangential matter, indeed.   Presumably, troubled Catholics would feel terrifically forced to become critics, by consciences urgently moved to tremendously heightened degrees of certainly profound concern, well beyond any and all merely normal limits of true religious thought, pertaining to Church matters and affairs, especially, indeed, regarding the highest-ranking prelate of them all.

Defenders of His Holiness do rather adamantly tell his vehement censorious contemporaries qua critics, nonetheless, to fully hold their peace, be silent, and refrain from any criticism, even if they think it is fully deserved, morally and spiritually righteous, and, moreover, done for the very sake of the salvation of both their own souls and millions of others from damnation to the Infernal Regions.  After all, it was previously said, in this article, that consequences can be very devastating.  No one, furthermore, should doubt this obviously most valid assertion.  But, how far can this legitimately go?

This is not, however, comprehensible and coherent Catholicism; it is, assuredly, an unfortunate form of idolatry called papalotry. While there are certain safeguards truly vouchsafed by the Holy Ghost regarding the Pope, he is still not exempt from the commission of sins; his inherent humanness, imperfection, remains and reinforces the need and obligation of Catholics to pray, of course, for the soul of the Holy Father for seeking his salvation.  Such is not to be doubted, since even he must ever, willingly and lovingly, submit himself to the sacrament of Penance, of Confession.

Some might question this concern by saying that what really matters is only or, perhaps, mainly the consideration of one’s own soul’s salvation and not any of the aberrations or peccadillos of a pope. Yet, if pursued as a rigorous line of (so questionable) argumentation too vigorously, it necessarily results in a callous disregard for the doings of the Holy Father, the Vicar of Christ on earth, the leader or Supreme Pastor of the entire flock of the faithful all over the world.

It then would be religiously and spiritually anomalous to disregard the most serious doings of the Pope for pursuing, instead, a rather myopic predilection for only one’s own soul’s salvation to the exclusion of the papacy and its functioning. St. Catherine of Siena, e. g., had thought so and became a sincerely dedicated papal critic of a great magnitude.

And, as an added thought concerning the need for (only) warranted papal criticism, he is in unity with the Communion of Saints as well, which ought not to be forgotten, for there are implications and ramifications involved. Critical questions may help to better illuminate and explore certain monumental issues at stake.

Is it really good for a morally devoted and spiritually committed Catholic to be continuously shocked and scandalized, grievously stunned and appalled, by the Supreme Pontiff of the only true Church of Christ? Should this consecrated being, anointed as the Pope no less, be simply ignored or, perhaps, discounted as to the theonomic and ecclesiastical nature of contemporary Catholicism qua holy belief?

Can the important need for Catholic holiness and genuine reverence be set schizophrenically segregated from and held at a yard’s length from various and repeated papal inanities? And, if so, for how long may all of this be just supinely tolerated?

On the contrary, it is viably and visibly manifest that the precious souls of faithful Catholics are directly involved and, moreover, are placed in dire jeopardy by the terrible machinations of a wayward pontiff, dallying with dogmas and doctrines, through his most willful scorn of ecclesial propriety and overt lack of Christian humility. Catholic souls, in this matter, are surely at stake; and, as to this, the blood of the martyrs calls out for justice and truth in defense of the Faith.  To the legions of strong defenders of Pope Francis, it is asked: How could this be otherwise?

The wanted and requisite sanctification of the souls of believing Catholics is, moreover, pushed rudely aside to make way for papal pronouncements and expressions of thoughts abusive of their faith, openly contemptuous of the sacredness of Church teachings, and, thus, positively reprehensible concerning the evil nature of the sinfulness made to be given notice.

Being conscious of the blood of the martyrs, it is absolutely agreed, let it be so prominently said here without any hesitation whatsoever, that one must always first have one’s highest priorities definitely straight and properly ordered. First, there is the important need to defend the Faith; second, there is the important need to defend the Faith; and third, there is the important need to defend the Faith; next, one could still, perhaps, come up with some sort of a defense of His Holiness, besides praying for his soul’s salvation, of course.

As His Holiness, Pope Francis, is not isolated from the Church, so, also, are all faithful Catholics bound to the same reality of the Church, for, e. g., pastoral practice cannot be separated from dogmas or doctrine, neither can faith be set against reason. All is part and parcel of the reality of Catholicism, the One, Holy, and Apostolic Church, all to contain the same sensus fidelium.

This so exists splendidly, as explanation, when exercised by the corpus of the faithful as a whole, as the supernatural appreciation of faith on the part of the whole people, when, from the bishops to the last of the faithful, they show a universal affirmation in matters of both faith and morals.

A quite scandalous Sovereign Pontiff does no credit to Catholicism, and his blasphemous and heretical doings, in then necessarily affecting the body of the faithful, cannot be placed in some isolation from the wanted sanctification of the souls of individual Catholics who all, ultimately, participate in the Communion of Saints together. The blasphemy and heresy, moreover, either tolerated or sanctioned by the Pope offends the Sacred Body and Blood of Christ, which is no small matter, indeed.

And, this is so pointedly why, for instance, the hierarchy ought to properly ever be “intemperate” and “immoderate” in defense of the Faith, not shamelessly conciliatory with its hate-filled enemies, either within or outside the ecclesiastical establishment, for the Church, no doubt, is in a horrific crisis of an enormous magnitude. And, the Vatican itself so proves this to be then empirically true, as to the many and still now wildly proliferating and horrendous evils and conditions that, in truth, do exist.

St. Thomas Aquinas and others, including many other saints, have written about when and under what select conditions it becomes necessary to criticize a pope, bishop, or others for the proper sake of defending the Catholic Faith, not done for any slight or just some minor reasons surely. The intense gravity of the matter concerned is to logically compel a valid response both appropriate and proportional, reasonable and relational, as Aquinas would have agreed.

What is so quite often absurdly forgotten, however, is that no saint is ever a saint, meaning declared as such by the Church, during their own lifetimes. Why is this important to relate?

It is only done, and can be then so accomplished as to such a rather particular and important religious designation, posthumously.  Thus, logically, all or any contemporary critics of a pope, consequently, are, as noted, never saints.  This is, by definition, always undeniably true.  But, to supposedly have the noted requirement that one must wait until one achieves sainthood to harshly judge a pope is, as such, a fairly ridiculous demand to so absurdly place upon a papal critic.  Such ultimate holiness is not of this world, for it is, thus, rightly beatification, which is heavenly, indeed.

Saying that no contemporaries of a pope can speak out against a pope is an example of what may be called the “retroactive fallacy” of logic. Or, perhaps, just more simply put as a version of the classic post hoc, ergo propter hoc.  The bar of permitted criticism is, as observed, raised so incredibly high as to deliberately make it virtually or, worse just totally impossible to ever realistically achieve the nth degree of perfection demanded of the papal critics.

This is, of course, an abusive debate tactic unworthy of respect and designed by intent to automatically dissuade any discourse from initially taking place. How so? The pre-premised conclusion, set willfully within the presented basis of the argument itself, cuts off the very foundation of the debate entirely; it is a rather clever trick, so often skillfully used by polished and experienced debaters, of course.

And yet, it is known that, for instance, Catherine of Siena, not yet a saint, had fully rebuked a number of popes. Moreover, if Saint Catherine had not then rightly reprimanded the Popes involved, the Pope’s residence would, most probably, still be in Avignon, France today.  Thank God she was not distracted or deterred by her critics, many of whom, no doubt, vigorously had questioned her theological ability or sensibility in these critical matters.

She did not at all believe in the plain nonsense (retroactive fallacy) that papal criticism was legitimate only if done, in hindsight, by written declarations made public posthumously, and by only Church-declared saints no less.  Her realism was evident.  Her courage was blessed.

This holy woman, gifted with grace, knew clearly that no holder of the papal office is to be placed absurdly above and beyond any needed censure or proper disapproval, for humility’s achievement applies to every Catholic; and, more so, should it apply appropriately to a pope, of all people. He is only the Servant of the Servants of Christ, not just the Bishop of Rome.

Many popes, as examples, have fairly worthily merited the historical assignation of ill repute: Liberius, reigned 352-66 AD; Honorius I, 625-638; Stephen VI, 896-89; John XII, 955-964; Benedict IX, 1032-1048; Urban VI, 1378-1389; Alexander VI (Borgia), 1492-1503; Leo X, 1513-1521; and Clement VII, 1523-1524, all usually cited, more or less, as being notably among the most prominent of papal scoundrels. Fortunately, many popes have been declared saints.

Nonetheless, any actually punitive judgments made against a pope are to be not simply sincere, honest, deliberate, measured, prayerful, and most carefully thought out, as to their innate and justifiable propriety; they must, in addition, always conform to Church teachings, be absolutely consistent with a properly examined Catholic conscience, and be completely conformable to what saints and religiously orthodox theological scholars have so written, as to both notable appropriateness and cognate merit.

Also, besides all of the above, it would not really hurt to seek out religious counselors and guides, priest-confessors, before making such a tremendously serious judgment that will then have truly profound consequences, especially in moral and spiritual terms of reference.  It will reflect upon one’s Catholicism.

Of course, the precise set consideration of judgment and asseveration is to be measured in proportion to many factors, including the public social status of the critic, whether or not being a member of the Church hierarchy, having the right disposition of an examined conscience, etc.   All that is reasonable.

No less a comprehensive test must, axiomatically, forever apply because the special object of such criticism, a pope, cognately requires the ever highest probity of thought, conscience, and knowledge compatible firmly with the true demands of rigorous orthodox Catholicism.  Nothing less will do.  Anything less is inadequate at best and, thus, unworthy of a committed Catholic seeking to affirm the truth, in a honest manner, appropriately ever consistent with the Faith and its holy teachings.


But, for (hardened) supporters of the sin of papalotry, not even all those matters mentioned above, nor a thousand more greatly combined, would ever, in the end, be finally enough.  For them, shockingly, not the Catholic Faith is to be held as being rightly sacrosanct, rather, the personage of a pope is ever made to seem sacrosanct from any (rightly deserved) criticism.  This both theologically and religiously wrong, which ought to be obvious to faithful Catholics.

As to the zealous papalotrists, their (perverted) understanding of Catholicism has gotten horribly inverted, such that even heretical Jansenists could be made to appear much more reasonable in contrast.  This is like the idolatry of making the worship greater than the god or, moreover, being more papist than a pope or more royalist than a king.  It is an obnoxious attitude regularly found in all bigots.

They never consider how, ultimately, excessively ridiculous their so questionable position is, rather, the then bigoted resolve is made, upon such occasions, as to intensify their wrath and determination to defend a pope, regardless of the unfair injustices and insults placed against even the honest and informed critics of an obviously misbehaving, mischievous, pope.

Without a doubt, one can be certain that Liberius, Honorius I, Alexander VI, and others had, in their lifetimes, such dedicated apologists who did a grave disservice to the Church, besides their properly earning the so well-deserved contempt of both many contemporaries and those who came later in time. This is because the truth will, ultimately, survive both bigotry and prejudice.

It can be plausibly argued, moreover, that the greater Church scandal is to be perceived as being among these sycophantic rhetoricians and sophists, even among misguided clerics, who, if they go too far, do vilely “prostitute” their proffered and professed Catholicism in an unworthy cause.   Verily, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, including the too questionable or, perhaps, excessively improper defense of an unworthy pope.  Prayers urged for him notwithstanding.

In conclusion, those who wrongly seek to make all valid disparagements, merited derisions, of Pope Francis quite virtually impossible or necessarily unachievable — by their extremely high standards that few, if any, saints could ever really match – had better appropriately watch out for the probably quite tenuous safety of their own immortal souls, before condemning others so freely or forcefully.

G. K. Chesterton, be it noted, remarked on how many medieval paintings had routinely depicted the floor of Hell littered with the skulls of bishops and priests, for good reason.  May God have mercy upon Pope Francis, therefore, and save him from his often too overzealous apologists, may they not “prostitute” the Holy Faith to take revenge upon his most orthodox and truthful critics.


Athanasius contra mundum!