Catholics believe in the indefectibility of the Church, which includes the pope, on a biblical basis, as well as a traditional and conciliar one. St. Robert Bellarmine (in teaching that was reiterated by the First Vatican Council in 1870) taught that the pope could never bind the faithful to heresy; that it would and could never happen.
Yet, lo and behold, today we hear a growing loud, relentless, chorus of naysaying, faith-challenged folks who seem to think this can happen. We have people like Phil Lawler, author of the book, Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis is Misleading His Flock (2018), who wrote in its Introduction:
I did my best to provide assurance—for my readers and sometimes for myself—that despite his sometimes alarming remarks, Francis was not a radical, was not leading the Church away from the ancient sources of the Faith. But gradually, reluctantly, I came to the conclusion that he was. . . .
I found I could no longer pretend that Francis was merely offering a novel interpretation of Catholic doctrine. No, it was more than that. He was engaged in a deliberate effort to change what the Church teaches.
Lawler pontificated: “Pope Francis has not taught heresy, but the confusion he has stirred up has destabilized the universal Church.” This sure looks to me like the classic mindset that I have described as “quasi-defectibility.” It’s been used by radical Catholic reactionaries for at least fifty years, particularly with regard to Vatican II, but also recent popes, and the Pauline ("New") Mass.
The idea is that an ecumenical council and/or popes supposedly espoused something akin to a defection from traditional teaching, but not quite. Purveyors of this dangerous notion get right up to claims concerning the cliff and abyss of heresy or defectibility and then draw back. It’s the ambiguity and fog of uncertainty that is key in this self-deluded mindset. I’ve been closely studying and refuting the arguments of radical Catholic reactionaries for over twenty-five years, and have written two books about them. I wrote about quasi-defectibility in 2012:
I have used the term “quasi-defectibility” to describe the far more radical position of holding that the Church is still the Church, but in very dire condition and barely surviving. I’ve always agreed (closely following my mentor, Fr. John A. Hardon, S. J.) that modernism is the greatest crisis in the history of the Church. Disagreement with radical Catholic reactionaries (and “traditionalists” to some extent, depending on the person) occurs regarding its exact cause and location, and the solutions to the problem.
And also as far back as 2000:
It’s another attempt to have it both ways, to be ambiguous and nebulous, just as Vatican II is accused of being. . . . validity is a moot point within the overall context of the radical skepticism and lack of faith (acceptance of quasi-defectibility or literal defection) of reactionaries.
My voice is but a soft whisper compared to the avalanche of anti-Francis rhetoric now taking place every day (and I am grateful to Catholic365 for allowing me to express it; sadly, I wouldn't be allowed to do so in many other venues). For some reason, people love the negative, pessimistic, despairing, “o woe is us!” outlook more than the positive, optimistic, hope- and faith-filled way of life and vision. I’ve never understood that, but it is a fact of life.
Phil Lawler's claim that Pope Francis is going to overturn an actual dogma of the Church is an actual assertion of defectibility: a thing that has never happened in the history of the Church, and which faithful Catholics believe never would or could happen. But he’s sharp enough to realize the utterly radical, alarming nature of that claim, so he steps back and adopts the reactionary tactic of quasi-defectibility: allowing him to have it both ways, and talk out of both sides of his mouth. He can sound the alarm and play the (false) prophet (like Christopher Ferrara, The Remnant, 1 Peter 5, Life Site, Rorate Caeli, Peter Kwasniewski, Taylor Marshall, and many others have been doing) about how terrible things are, yet without — like Gandalf — going over the hopeless cliff of defectibility and sedevacantism.
Reactionary Michael Matt (of Remnant infamy) narrated an abominable and vapid video (endorsed by the now-removed Bishop Strickland) entitled “Pope Francis, Nancy Pelosi & the Tyrannical Culture of Death” (7-3-22), in which he stated, "Rome and Pope Francis have lost teaching authority" and "a diabolically disoriented clown like Francis knows that it’s his job to destroy this Church because he has to get rid of true religion” and "This pope is preaching an entirely new gospel" and "the Catholic Church cannot now be trusted" and "Francis is in opposition to 2000 years of Church teaching" and that Christian teaching itself "is all being gradually undermined by the Francis experiment, which of course is just a continuation of the experiment of the Second Vatican Council."
Now, if all of that pitiable rhetoric is not an expression of defectibility, what is it, I ask? If it's not (as many will note) canonically / technically / legally / theologically defectibility, I nevertheless contend that it is at the very least, "quasi-defectibility" or "the spirit of defectibility." These latter terms are not legal classifications, but rather, the philosophical and sociological observations of a professional Catholic apologist like myself, whose duty it is to warn about and protect the flock from theological and spiritual error.
When, on May 12, 2023, Bp. Strickland tweeted: “I believe Pope Francis is the Pope but it is time for me to say that I reject his program of undermining the Deposit of Faith,” if that was not technically an expression of possible or actual defectibility, it was at the very least, "quasi-defectibility" or "the spirit of defectibility."
When, on October 6, 2023, Cardinal Gerhard Müller appeared on EWTN’s The World Over with Raymond Arroyo, and warned that the synodal process might bring about a “hostile takeover of the Catholic Church,” and that “if they will succeed, that will be the end of the Catholic Church,” if that was not an expression of defectibility, then it was at the very least, "quasi-defectibility" or "the spirit of defectibility."
My question to everyone is: what did Cardinal Müller mean, if not that it is quite conceivable in his mind that the Catholic Church could possibly "end" as a result of this alleged "hostile takeover"? How is that not a rejection of ecclesial indefectibility? It is adopting the view that the Catholic Church is -- or could possibly, theoretically be -- like the Anglican "church": a farcical, chameleon-like body that changes and overthrows traditional doctrines at will.
Someone might object to my use of terms like "quasi-defectibility" or "the spirit of defectibility." But they are perfectly valid and appropriate and accurate as descriptions of this sort of confused and dangerous thinking. I would say that Jesus taught something very similar, in noting that the person who lusts has already committed adultery. That's the "spirit" of adultery if you will. The Pharisees exhibited a "spirit" of legalism and hypocrisy, etc.
And if anyone wants to doubt it, "spirit of x" is biblical terminology. See: "the spirit of sonship" (Rom 8:15, RSV); "a spirit of stupor" (Rom 11:8); "the spirit of the world" (1 Cor 2:12); "spirit of gentleness" (1 Cor 4:21; Gal 6:1); "spirit of faith" (2 Cor 4:13); "spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him" (Eph 1:17); "a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self-control" (2 Tim 1:7); "the spirit of antichrist, . . . the spirit of truth and the spirit of error" (1 Jn 4:3, 6); and "the spirit of prophecy" (Rev 19:10).
Well, likewise, there is a despairing, faith-challenged spirit of indefectibility-rejection or potential schism in what is going on now in disturbingly many reactionary and even otherwise orthodox Catholic circles, especially in good old Protestant-dominated America. It looks like Protestant ecclesiological thinking and theologically liberal dissident and "pick-and-choose" thinking has infested millions of ostensibly "conservative" American Catholics.
The devil is laughing so hard that he is splitting his gut, over all these utterly unfounded and scandalous divisions. "Divide and conquer!" Catholics (at least confused American ones) are being laughed at by non-Catholics, too. We are providing a terrible witness and embarrassing ourselves and -- what people falsely think is -- Holy Mother Church (i.e., in the eyes of the world, watching this farce unfold), which is no small sin. This in turn, gets into the biblical notion of "bad fruit" ("For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit": Lk 6:43).
These trends will lead to despair and potentially the ruin of the faith of many millions of people, the longer they continue. And let no one think that the pope-bashing is simply the result of the current pope, who is so unfairly despised. It occurred under Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. I know; I was there, defending both men.
The pope-bashing will continue (you can quote me on that), as sure as I'm sitting here typing this, because it is, as I noted above, a "spirit" of dissent and Protestant-like disbelief and lack of faith that God can infallibly and even indefectibly guide His Church and popes, who lead that Church. It won't go away anytime soon. It's now entrenched and will do untold spiritual damage. But please pray hard for those who are in bondage to it, and pray that this terrible resurgence of anti-papalism and anti-indefectibility will be vanquished and relegated to the dustbins of history as soon as possible.