Thursday, September 26, 2019

Papal Nullification: Revisiting the Cadaver Synod

The crisis precipitated by the Franciscan pontificate has faithful Catholics struggling to come to terms with the state of the Church and desperate for any means of redressing the calamities we have witnessed since 2013. Some are speculating that Benedict XVI did not validly resign and is still in fact pope; others are hoping that a future convocation of bishops of cardinals declare that Francis has vacated the papal office. All thoughts are bent on ways to undo or at least halt the unprecedented damage that this man continues to do to the Church every day he remains in office.

One frequently overlooked remedy to the current crisis is that a future pope can annul the acts of a previous pope. This has occurred on various occasions throughout Church history, but probably the most striking example of it was in the conflict between Pope Formosus and Pope Stephen VI, the popes of Cadaver Synod fame.

It is beyond the scope of this brief essay to trace the background of the controversy between the two parties; much of it is political and bound up with the affairs of the late Carolingian dynasty. Pope Stephen VI (r. 896-897) famously dug up the corpse of Pope Formosus and put him on trial for alleged crimes committed during the episcopal career of the latter, which resulted in the body of Formosus being desecrated and sunk in the Tiber. The Cadaver Synod is usually presented as an exemplar of papal corruption during the era of the Saeculum obscurum, the period in the late 9th and early 10th centuries when political corruption and immorality brought the papacy to its moral nadir--and indeed, the Cadaver Synod does exemplify this age of scandal most spectacularly.

But here I am more concerned with the acts of the Synod, rather than its shock value. The Cadaver Synod was a synod convened by Pope Stephen VI and held before the Roman clergy in January of 897. The synod published several acts, which were confirmed by the decree of Pope Stephen:

  • Declared Pope Formosus had been "unworthy" of the papacy
  • Declared his papal election invalid by reason of the violation of the 15th canon of the Second Council of Nicaea prohibiting the holding of multiple benefices by clergy (Pope Formosus had been elevated to the papacy while simultaneously exercising jurisdiction over the See of Porto)
  • Nullified all the decrees of Pope Formosus
  • Declared the orders conferred by Pope Formosus null by virtue of the illegitimacy of his papal election

The nullification of Formosus' orders was politically motivated, aimed at purging the Italian clergy of partisans of Formosus' party. To that end, his election had to be invalidated, to which the appeal of Second Nicaea was an afterthought. In other words, the architects of the Cadaver Synod did not think Formosus' election was invalid and ergo nullified his ordinations; rather, they began by wanting to nullify his ordinations and thus declared his papal election invalid as a means to that end.

Pope Stephen died shortly after the synod, murdered while imprisoned. Stephen's acts were wildly unpopular. The nullification of Formosus' orders had caused widespread chaos in the Church, as many of these clergy had already ordained others, whose own ordinations were now being called into question. The subsequent pope, Theodore II, annulled the decisions of the Cadaver Synod in 897, declaring all of Formosus' ordinations valid.  Another pope, John IX, confirmed the acts of Theodore II in two future synods, one held in Rome and another at Ravenna in 898. The latter synod not only nullified the acts of the Cadaver Synod but ordered them destroyed. The Synod of Ravenna also excommunicated the seven cardinals involved in the Cadaver Synod and henceforth prohibited the trial of any deceased person.

The story does not end there, though. In 904 Pope Sergius III ascended the Chair of Peter. An enemy of Formosus' party, Sergius tried to undo what his predecessors had done; he formally nullified the decrees of the synods of Theodore II and John IX and reaffirmed the decrees of the Cadaver Synod, declaring the orders conferred by Formosus to be invalid.

The interesting thing is that, while Sergius' decrees were never themselves invalidated, they were subsequently ignored. The Church continued to uphold the prior decrees of Theodore II and John IX while simply ignoring those of Sergius III, which are technically the last canonical judgment on the Cadaver Synod. The Church essentially acted like the decree of Sergius III never happened.

It gets even messier—Sergius declared the orders of Formosus invalid. If this were the case, then Sergius' own episcopal orders would be invalidated as well, as he received his own episcopal consecration from Pope Formosus in 893. Theodore II had declared Sergius' episcopal consecration valid by a special decree during his brief pontificate, but if Sergius annulled the synod convened by Theodore II then it is difficult to see how he did not annul his own episcopal consecration. This would not have invalidated his papacy, but it could have invalidated the holy orders he conferred during his own papacy.

The era of the Cadaver Synod controversy spanned 14 years. During this time we see popes frequently having recourse to nullifying the decrees of their predecessors:

  • Stephen VI annulled the acts of Formosus
  • Theodore II annulled the Cadaver Synod and its acts
  • John IX reaffirmed the annulment of Theodore II and had the acta of the Cadaver Synod destroyed
  • Sergius III annulled the decrees of Theodore II and nullified the two synods of John IX

By the time of Sergius' final decrees of nullification, the Church apparently got tired of the back and forth and simply ignored the acts of Pope Sergius.

It is not relevant to this post which partisan was correct or whether these decrees of nullification were abused. The point is that the episode provides a striking piece of historical testimony to the ability of the popes to nullify the decrees of their predecessors—even nullifying entire synods. No pope, theologian, or canonist at the time or since disputed that the popes had the power to do this.

The problem with the Cadaver Synod, canonically speaking, is that Stephen reached too far. He should have been content with condemning Formosus as "unworthy" of the papacy and nullifying his decrees and episcopal appointments. This is within the authority of any pope. But when Stephen tried to declare Formosus' orders invalid he went too far, for rather than seeking to undo the acts of a single man he struck out at an entire swath of the clergy with a judgment which, if true, would have thrown the hierarchy into chaos.

Incidentally, the charge that Formosus was invalidly elected is without merit; the 15th canon of Second Nicaea does prohibit a cleric from holding two offices simultaneously. But it does not state that this cannot be validly done, only that it "savours of merchandise and filthy lucre" and that a cleric "ought" to hold only one office at a time, but it does not say he loses his office if he disobeys the canon. There is no indication that this canon would invalidate Formosus' papal election. And even if his papal election were invalid, this would not invalidate the Holy Orders conferred by Formosus, as the validity of ordination flows from episcopal orders--and nobody had ever denied that Formosus was a legitimately ordained bishop.

The moral of the story is this: it is within the authority of a future pontiff to nullify the decrees of a current or former pontiff. Taking the pontificate of Pope Francis for example, a future pope could nullify Cor Orans, nullify Francis' acts with regards to the Franciscans of the Immaculate and the Knights of Malta; while Francis' episcopal consecrations could not be nullified, all of his administrative appointments could be--that is, a future pope could say "Every cleric who holds an office by appointment of Pope Francis shall immediately cease exercising authority in that office and is to be considered removed from said office" while he takes time to figure out what to do with them. Furthermore, he could declare that the Synods of the Family, the Synod on Youth, and the Synod of the Amazon were all annulled--along with their subsequent Apostolic Exhortations. He could decree that Pope Francis was "unworthy" of the Chair of St. Peter and issue what amounts to a damnatio memoriae of the Franciscan pontificate.

Or, following the example of the Church in the age of Sergius III, a future pope could simply ignore the age of Pope Francis as thoroughly as Francis ignores the his predecessors prior to 1963.

Is it likely that all of this will happen? I doubt it. I suspect the next pope will probably try to out-Francis Francis. But the point is there is a way to undo this sort of damage without having to resort to Sedevacantist or Bennyvacantist hypotheses, or hoping that some sort of gathering of cardinals will declare that Francis has vacated the office. The course I have explained here is a much more realistic way of proceeding, because it has happened before, and on more occasions than just those narrated here.

Of course, like any other hypotheses, what I have written here makes the massive assumption that a future pope will actually want to undo what Francis has done and have the testicular fortitude to do so. Bu given the zeitgeist, I'm not holding my breath. We have much longer to suffer through our own age's Saeculum obscurum.

And what does it say about our own troubles when I have to reach back to the Cadaver Synod to find some precedents for digging ourselves out of them?

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Sample General Intercessions from Traditional Sources

Let's talk for a moment about the part of the Novus Ordo Missae known as the "General Intercessions", or the "Universal Prayer" as it is called in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. 

The GIRM (71) entrusts the priest with regulating these prayers, essentially giving him carte blanche to conduct them as he pleases—the only stipulation being that the priest introduces the intercessions and that prayers be made for the church, political authorities, the suffering, and the local community (although this structure is merely a recommendation that is "desirable" but not mandated). The prayers are to be "sober" and composed with "wise liberty" and should not be overly wordy. They may be read by anybody from anywhere—"from the ambo or from another suitable place, by the Deacon or by a cantor, a reader, or one of the lay faithful."

Because of the broad diversity allowed here, how the General Intercessions are presented can vary tremendously from parish to parish. And, as is usually the case when individuals are granted more leeway in liturgical celebrations, things tend to go awry.

The image at the top of this article was sent to me by a friend recently who noted with irritation that the General Intercessions frequently become occasions of political propagandizing. Even when they are not, they are often banally composed platitudes devoid of any sense of the majesty of the one to whom they are addressed. Often they are merely presented for merely temporal concerns without any reference to man's supernatural end. As Fr. Z used to say, they are variations of "O God, you are big. Help us to be big like you."

When I was a DRE, my pastor stuck me with the very unenviable job of composing these intercessions every week. I was a bit resentful at this; even if it had become common for lay people to read the intercessions, I always felt it was not our job to compose them. One of the most essential duties of a pastor is to lead his people in prayer; if we were using a Mass that required these prayers to be composed, it seemed to be something the priest himself ought to do himself. Still, I did my job and composed the prayers, trying as best I could to meet the demands of my pastor and the liturgy while making sure the intercessions reflected the traditional thought and vocabulary of the Church.

This made me think that there are probably many others who are in a similar situation: faithful, traditionally minded Catholic DREs or lay volunteers who find themselves having to compose the General Intercessions who may dislike the task or not be any good at it.

To that end, I took it upon myself to put together some intercessions taken from traditional sources—the prayers of various saints, bishops, and traditional devotions—that can be used during the General Intercessions in the Novus Ordo. You won't find any phrases like "encounter", "faith journey" or "parish family" in them. I've tried to include several different prayers for each of the four categories referenced in the GIRM so that these can be mixed up and used over several months. Some of the prayers I had to paraphrase or edit a bit to get them in the right format, but they are 90% unchanged.

Also, I can hear some people arguing that these prayers are "overly wordy", which the GIRM specifically suggests we avoid. To that I

I have linked them as downloadable PDFs:

I don't like the thinking behind the General Intercessions in the Novus Ordo. I don't like the idea of the prayers for the Mass being composed willy-nilly every week by whomever. But, given that this is happening and that it is the norm in the Catholic world, maybe we can at least do it better. If you're going to do it wrong, at least do it right.

Of course, as I have said many times before, this problem and many others could all be avoided entirely by using the Traditional Latin Mass. Just saying.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

"But the Eastern Churches have married priests..."

"I don't see what is the big deal about married priests. There's a tradition of married priests in the eastern Churches."

Granted. And such is not the tradition in the Latin Church. Do you care at all about the Latin tradition? Or is it only eastern churches that get a pass? No doubt these same people who say "'s cool, there's married priests in the East" would throw a fit if celibacy were somehow foisted on the East. They would raise the hue and cry and say how it was not part of the eastern tradition and how unjust it was. By the same token, can't you see how unjust it is to shove a married priesthood on the Latin rite churches of the West? Apparently it's always acceptable to dismantle the Latin Church if we can find some obscure justification for it in the annals of the East, but meanwhile the Eastern Churches are sacrosanct.

Also, a few points about this topic, because people are seriously uneducated about it:

It is not true that priests in the Latin rite used to be sexually active until celibacy was mandated in the Middle Ages. Latin rite priests were never sexually active; priestly celibacy is an apostolic tradition.

Yes the patristic Church had married priests, but these married priests were sexually continent. These priests remained married but were expected to live celibate. This is well established in the canons and writings of the fathers. 

In the eastern churches, married priests were expected to live in continence as well.

The tradition of allowing priests in the eastern Churches to be sexually active is not a patristic custom but something that began to encroach upon the east in the era of Justinian II (around 691) due to civil legislation relating to the bishoprics, inheritance, and other secular matters and is based on a misrepresentation of apostolic teaching. It takes its origin from the legislation of the Quinisext Council in Trullo.

Even if there were married priests, there was never an ancient tradition approving of a sexually active priesthood. Never.

Do the research. If you need a place to start, see our essays:

Book Review: The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy by Christian Cochini
The Truth About Priestly Continence and Celibacy in the Early Church
The Council of Ancyra and Clerical Celibacy
The Quinisext Council in Trullo and Priestly Celibacy

Sunday, September 01, 2019

Theology of the Body is not Catholic Teaching

The title of this essay is admittedly a bit provocative, but it is my hope that this will lead to the article being shared with well-meaning Catholics who seem to be muddled on the authority of John Paul II's teachings on human sexuality known as "Theology of the Body."

The immediate impetus for publishing this essay was a recent exchange I had with a young woman who was telling me that "the Church's teaching" on some point of sexual ethics was such-and-such. I told her that I had never heard that such-and-such was the Church's official position, and as if to prove her point she referred me to a citation from a Christopher West book on Theology of the Body. She was surprised when I told her that Theology of the Body is not official Catholic teaching and that Christopher West is certainly not any sort of official organ of Catholic dogma. This was actually news to her; she had been under the impression that Christopher West was some sort of authoritative interpreter or what she took to be a dogmatic teaching of the Church.

Therefore, let me say it again plainly: the teachings known collectively as Theology of the Body are not authoritative Catholic teaching. In this essay I hope to explain why—but contrary to many traditionalist critiques of Theology of Body, I will not in any way be addressing the content of John Paul II's teaching on the subject. So don't get excited; this is not going to be some take-down of the content of Theology of the Body. I think the argument that Theology of the Body is not authoritative can easily be made by an appeal to the manner in which it was communicated by the late John Paul II without ever having to wade into the morass of critiquing the principles of TOB.

Before we begin, it is necessary to understand the background of TOB and why John Paul II thought the Church needed a new grounding for sexual ethics.

Prior to the post-Conciliar era, Catholic sexual ethics were largely centered on the procreative ends of the sexual act viewed through a Thomistic-Aristotelian framework. Those things which were conducive to the natural ends of the sexual act were permissible, those that hindered the fulfillment of those ends were not. This is all well and good, but from the point of view of John Paul II, this approach had two distinct downsides:

(1) The pedagogy of Catholic sexual ethics tended to be reduced to a series of "don'ts" grounded in mere obligation and obedience.

(2) The sexual act tended to be discussed only with reference to things external to the spouses themselves (i.e., the procreation of children, or the obligations laid upon the couple by God and the Church).

The first point is admittedly a problem I have often seen in older Catholic literature on relationships and sexual ethics. There is a Fr. Lovasik flyer or pamphlet on Catholic dating that is essentially one long list of prohibitions. Catholic sexual ethics are weakened when they are reduced to simply telling single people "Don't fornicate! Don't fornicate! For the love of God, DON'T FORNICATE!"

The second objection holds some validity as well; people want—I would argue need—to have intrinsic motivations for their actions. Appeals to authority or the procreation of children, even though they are perfectly valid, are not always enough for some people to get on board. For example, people whose only substantial argument against divorce are that it can harm the children don't have much of an argument when addressing an infertile couple considering divorce. Similarly, in education, it is not sufficient to tell a student "You must learn this material because if you don't you will get grounded by your parents and won't be able to get into college." Both of those things may be true, but they are what we would call extrinsic motivations; students do not truly learn and internalize material—do not truly enjoy and embrace education—unless they have an intrinsic motivation based on wanting to know the material for its own sake because it is interesting to them.

Pope John Paul II wanted to give Catholic couples an explanation of the Church's sexual ethics that was not based on an ethics of obligation or reference to procreation alone. Now, the Church's tradition already had some raw material for this in the concept of "the good of the spouses" as one of the ends of matrimony. John Paul II sought to elaborate on this aspect of the sexuality and chose as his point of reference the school of thought known as Personalism or Phenomenology. It is beyond the scope of this article to give a comprehensive account of Personalism as a philosophy, but it suffices to say that Personalism takes an approach to ethics that makes the reference point of moral actions the dignity of the human person (if you've noticed the ubiquity of the phrases like "human person" and "dignity of the human person" in modern Catholic literature, it is due in large part to the influence of the introduction of a Personalist vocabulary into Catholic thinking).

I am neither pro nor anti-Personalism; and please don't spam the comments with links or YouTube videos arguing one way or another on it. It's not relevant. The point is, John Paul II thought the Personalist vocabulary could help provide Catholics with a fuller picture of sexuality that could fill out the traditional approach by using the good of persons as a point of reference. In other words, instead of just telling Catholics what they should not do regarding sex, John Paul II wanted to tell them what they should do, and more importantly, why they should do it. This goal is at the heart of Theology of the Body. And it's not an ignoble goal. Catholics ought to understand what they should be doing and why with regards to sex. Too many Catholic couples are crippled with debilitating anxiety, uncertainty, ignorance, and embarrassment about sex—and I am talking about traditional Catholics as well as mainstream Catholics.

But I digress. So, John Paul wanted to deliver a fuller explanation of the Church's ideas about human sexuality using Personalist ideas to help build a more anthropological case for the Church's teaching that would give Catholics a deeper intrinsic motivation to live out the Church's integrated vision for marriage, sexuality, and family life. These ideas he fleshed out in a series of Wednesday audiences spanning five years, from September 1979 to November of 1984. It was this series of speeches which were later collected and termed Theology of the Body.

Why is Theology of the Body not an authoritative teaching of the Church? Catholics know (or ought to know) that papal statements carry different levels of authority. An ex cathedra declaration is infallible; papal encyclicals and apostolic exhortations where the pope intends to teach authoritatively are of very great authority as well. These are the sorts of papal teachings that command the assent of the faithful; ex cathedra teachings demand the assent of the Catholic faith, while others call for human assent.

But below this, there are teachings of the pope that are of lower authority. This could include letters (such as John Paul II's "Letter to Artists") or formal addresses (John Paul's "Address to Scientists of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences"). In these sorts of teachings, the pope is often speaking as a private theologian, or even if he is speaking as pope, he is speaking on matters that are more particular and are not considered universal teachings of the Church. Often times he is giving his opinion on a matter. These letters may later be collated into a single body of teaching and granted a higher level authority (Dictatus Papae of St. Gregory VII and the Syllabus of Errors of Bl. Pius IX were both authoritative documents composed of excerpts of papal letters), but the excerpts of the letters were later elevated to this level of authority by subsequent papal acts.

A still lower level of papal teaching comes from verbal statements made by the pope in the context of homilies, audiences, ad limina visits, and other formal occasions. In a papal homily or audience, the pope is speaking merely as a pastor and private theologian. Now, if we recall, TOB was originally this level of communication. It was a series of speeches given in the pope's Wednesday audiences. These audiences were subsequently compiled by independent authors—for example, Christopher West—and marketed as "The Theology of the Body." This has given the illusion of a comprehensive, single corpus of thought to what was essentially a series of homilies on a common theme given over many years. Some Catholics even think Theology of the Body is an encyclical.

A collection of papal speeches cannot be an authoritative teaching of the Church. Though John Paul later reiterated some of the themes from the TOB audiences into his encyclicals, there has never been the sort of wholesale elevation of his particular audience statements to the level of authoritative teaching, such as occurred with Dictatus Papae or the Syllabus of Errors. Theology of the Body is essentially a very popular collection of papal speeches, but it does not constitute "the teaching of the Church" anymore than if we took a collection of Francis' scattered statements on ecology, smooshed them into a single volume and called it "The Theology of the Earth." Such would not be Catholic teaching, no matter how popular it was.

Incidentally, speaking of Pope Francis, there is a level of papal teaching even lower down on the food chain than speeches and homilies: that is unplanned, informal, "off the cuff" remarks. And yet these very sorts of statements are somehow supposed to constitute the most important teachings of the Franciscan pontificate. This just demonstrates how backwards things have become where Catholics feel free to ignore the authoritative teaching of the Councils but a pope's comment on an airplane is treated like a fifth Gospel.

At any rate, regardless of what you think of the content of Theology of the Body, it should be clear that TOB is not any sort of authoritative Catholic teaching. It is essentially a compilation of papal speeches that has gained a broad popularity among contemporary Catholics. I do not blame the young woman for thinking TOB was authoritative; the way it is trumpeted about, the lauds that are heaped upon it, and the ubiquity of Christopher West materials gives the impression that this collection of speeches has way more weight than it does. If only the Church would push authentic liturgical renewal with the same vigor that TOB is popularized!

Mainstream Catholics who think TOB is Catholic dogma are simply wrong—as are trads who will inevitably come back with "Theology of the Body is modernist heresy!" and other such nonsense statements. Ultimately, TOB is merely one pope's idealized pet project for better explaining Catholic sexual ethics to modern man, no more, no less.