Attacks against the Pope and the Papacy have been something that the Catholic Church has lived with since Peter was first appointed to the position by our Lord Himself. Today we see attacks on the Pope and his authority from three very different sources.
An initial Clarification
Some attacks against the Pope and the Papacy are rooted in false doctrine and are things Catholics in good standing cannot believe. However, there are legitimate reasons to criticize a Pope or disagree with some of his actions or words. If the Pope is speaking very informally, that can be a sign that he does not intend to have his words in that context taken as official Church teaching. Currently we see a sexual abuse scandal rocking the Church. It is perfectly legitimate for Catholics to disagree about how Pope Francis and previous popes have handled these issues, even when that disagreement might involve criticism.
The Pope has the authority given to him by Christ. To be truly Catholic, one must be in communion with the Pope. And using the Pope’s personal flaws to deny that God gave the Pope special authority is wrong. But the Pope as a person is not flawless. St. Catherine of Siena actually rebuked Pope Gregory XI when he continued the practice of living away from Rome, the city of St. Peter! We should be careful in doing this because the office of the Papacy deserves respect. However, if a man is not living up to the requirements of the office Catholics may criticize his actions while still acknowledging the importance of the Pope.
Non-Catholics attack the Pope from various different angles. Some, like the High Church Anglicans, Old Catholics, and the Orthodox Churches profess that no bishop has any authority over any other bishop and no bishop can proclaim official teaching except when all the bishops of the world meet in an Ecumenical Council. Most Anglicans and Orthodox deny that an Ecumenical Council can be held until the Church East and West re-unites.
Most Protestants disagree with the Catholic interpretation of the Scriptures about Peter. Catholics believe that when our Lord changed St. Peter’s name from Simon to Kephas (Petros in greek, Rock or Peter in English), it meant that He would build or found His Church on the rock of Peter. Protestants typically think of Peter’s name, Petros, as something different from the word Petra, which means rock. But Petros is merely the masculine form of the word, and Peter would not have been named a feminine name (Petra). Protestants also overlook the commission of Christ to Peter in John 21 to feed His lambs and sheep, or any other authority that Jesus gave to St. Peter.
Some Catholics have all sorts of things to say about the Pope, most not very Christian, or loving. They deny that he has much authority over them and tell us that he is too old fashioned and needs to get with the times. They will tell you that the Pope needs to stay out of people’s bedrooms, and give in to the ordination of women and open practicing homosexuals. These Catholics deny various core beliefs that the Church has held for nearly 2000 years. One wonders why if the Pope has no authority to tell them what to do, they continue to call themselves Catholics. They say it is because they want to reclaim their voice and power and bring about reform in the Church. Some pay lip service to the Pope, but claim that you don’t have to listen to anything the Pope says unless it is Ex Cathedra. Since so few doctrines have been proclaimed in that manner, there is little they do not question or reject.
On the extremely traditional side, some have openly proclaimed that they believe all Popes from Pope John XXIII to Pope Francis were never really Popes. Often these Catholics believe that Vatican II was a heretical council that did not keep to the Tradition of the Church. Because a Pope can never officially teach heresy, and John XXIII convened Vatican II, the argument goes that he must not have been a valid pope. Those elected after him were elected by cardinals invalidly appointed by the “antipope” John XXIII, and so they were not valid Popes either. Furthermore, every Pope since John XXIII has accepted the validity of Vatican II. If Vatican II were a heretical council, then all of these “Popes” would actually be heretics.
The problem with this argument is that no one has the authority to judge something heretical if a Pope, together with an ecumenical council, has declared it to be true.
Most people who believe that the Popes since John XXIII have been antipopes (people claiming to be popes who are not actually the Pope) are sedevacantists. A sedevacantist is someone who believes the the Chair of Peter is empty (sedevacantist comes from Latin words meaning “empty seat”). Therefore, there is no current Pope and there has not been a genuine Pope since Pius XII, the last Pope before John XXIII.
Some people have even gone to the extreme have elected their own “Popes.” In Kansas there is a man who calls himself Pope Michael I. He was elected in a “conclave” of six people, including himself and his parents. There was a former Franciscan priest who claimed to be elected by fax, phone and internet. He called himself Pope Pius XIII. There are a few men in France who also claim to be the Pope. But as there can only be one Pope at a time, we have to look at all the evidence, and currently the only man who has any valid claim to the Papacy is Pope Francis.
What Obedience Means
An example of what it means for someone to trust the authority of the Pope and render obedience to him can be seen in the life of St. Athanasius. St. Athanasius, who lived in the 4th century, was one of the chief defenders of Jesus’ divinity. At the time he lived, the Arian heresy, which said that Jesus was not God, was very widespread. Pope Liberius condemned Athanasius in spite of the fact that Athanasius was defending the faith of the Nicene Creed against heresy.
In spite of the fact that Liberius had condemned him, Athanasius never denied that Liberius had authority as a Pope. Pope Liberius had most likely been imprisoned and tortured by Arians. Therefore his condemnation of Athanasius was made under duress. Athanasius realized that, even if Liberius was acting completely freely, the Pope had been misinformed. Even if Pope Liberius had held some semi-arian personal beliefs for a period of time, he had not proclaimed them as the doctrine of the Church. So St. Athanasius gave respect and honor to the Pope and did not proclaim himself chief over the Pope, or disobey him.