I could take a smug attitude about all this, but I don’t. A new “tendency” is making its appearance within some traditionalist Roman Catholic circles – an attempt to theorise on the abdication of Benedict XVI and his replacement by Pope Francis. I even wrote on this in Problems Downstream on 12th February 2013.
There is an American priest by the name of Fr Paul Kramer who is quite a high-profile promoter of devotion to Our Lady of Fatima along with Fr Nicholas Gruner, though quite conspiracy-theory and apocalyptic in his outlook. I know little about this priest’s background other than his having studied at the Angelicum in Rome (as so many of have done, the Lazy A we called it) and having been ordained by a diocesan bishop in Europe – perhaps through the good offices of Don Gregor Hesse and the late Bishop Paulo Hnilica. Bishop Hnilica was a Jesuit who survived the Gulag slave camps in Soviet Europe and who was one of Pope John Paul II’s closest friends – but got his hands dirty with Vatican money. This group of Roman priests, with which I became acquainted and under whose influence my old seminary was founded back in 1990, is quite aggressively traditionalist and right-wing in its political ideas. These priests are formally incardinated in a diocese somewhere (usually Italy and Eastern Europe) and are otherwise accountable to no one.
I usually ignore the activities of these priests as for other traditionalists like the Society of St Pius X and the sedevacantists. The subject still interests me in an academic way, as when I wrote about The “Petite Eglise” of the Deux-Sèvres. These variations in the prevailing Roman Catholic ideology from the anti-French Revolution reaction in the nineteenth century are of some relevance to us Anglicans. Many mistakes, usually based on rehashes of the ancient Donatist heresy, can be avoided.
So Fr Kramer has voiced a concern I had when I first heard of the abdication of Benedict XVI. No act under fear or constraint is valid in law. If Benedict XVI was forced out of office – and distinctions are not always very clear – he is still the Pope and Pope Francis isn’t. It almost rings like a story of Cardinal Guiseppe Siri of Genoa being elected Pope to replace Pius XII, and he would have been blackmailed to refuse the election, and Roncalli was elected as John XXIII. If this is true, then all the Popes since John XXIII have been invalidly elected, and increasingly by bogus Cardinals. The scenario is outrageous, but logical if the basic supporting facts could be proven. The latter scenario is called the Siri Thesis.
To make things even more complicated in the Paul VI and John Paul II era, there has also been a Cassiciacum Thesis developed by Fr Guérard des Lauriers, a Dominican and former university professor, consecrated a vagus bishop by Archbishop Ngo-Dinh-Thuc. This thesis proposes a matter and form metaphysical theory applied to an ecclesiastical office. The man occupying the Roman See occupies it materially, but not formally. That would explain his lack of infallibility and authentically Catholic authority. Anyway, I am digressing, just by way of comparative references.
Some call Fr Kramer’s “position” Resignationism. This theory consists of claiming that Benedict XVI is still the Pope because his abdication was canonically invalid, and therefore the See of Rome is impeded or vacant. Fr Kramer apparently claims “inside information” of Benedict’s resignation having been forced.
I must admit that I have read articles and watched documentaries about Benedict XVI’s resignation having been given because he was blocked at every turn by the Curia. See this Google search on “Benedict XVI resignation”. Perhaps the precise act of abdication itself was free, but he might have been forced towards this decision. Where is the line drawn? In all likelihood, we will never find out for certain. I see many positive points about Cardinal Bergoglio / Pope Francis, but that would be irrelevant if the validity of his Papal election can be questioned. Finally, it is not my problem since I am not a member of that Church.
If this is only the opinion of a single priest or a marginal group, it is of no consequence. Perhaps as information filters through, assuming it is reliable, such an idea might become more mainstream. The priority in Rome would be transparency in order to resist conspiracy theories.
Secrecy is a breeding ground for conspiracy theories, and I have to frank and say that I don’t think such a scenario is entirely impossible. We have to be critical in all we read and watch, since much of the “evidence” is here-say. What kind of credence can we give to such doubts? Was Benedict XVI pushed out because of sympathies for the traditionalists? Would this explain why Francis is being so careful and stand-offish in this respect?
I see these problems in historical terms. A kind of unhealthy mysticism grew up in the nineteenth century around the person of Pius IX and the general Catholic reaction to the French Revolution, the kidnapping of Pius VI and Pius VII by Napoleon Bonaparte and the resulting political instability in the whole of Europe. This particular Zeitgeist is not entirely gone, even though both Benedict XVI and Francis have attempted to demystify the Papal office and bring things more down to earth. For the group of “Roman” priests I mentioned, heavily promoting the prophecies of Fatima and a highly apocalyptic world-view, this “mysticism” surrounding the Papacy is highly significant.
Seeing this kind of drift, we do well to demystify the Papal office and rediscover an older basis of being Catholic – the local Church and relations of Communion between local Churches. This is the intuition of Conciliarism, Anglicanism, Gallicanism and Old Catholicism. We have our little part to play.