Is Pope Francis Catholic?

Everyone knows that this phrase is a common rhetorical question, the answer of which is supposed to be, “Of course!”
The earliest record of this phrase is in 1959, when boxer Max Baer Jr was asked whether his opponent hit hard. He answered, “Is the Pope Catholic!?”
But since 2013, this phrase has taken on a more serious tone for many people. Many are seriously asking themselves whether Francis is Catholic.
These concerns can be a serious barrier for those wishing to enter the Church – not to mention a crisis for those who are already Her members.
At our present time, some are condemning traditionalist commentators for focusing on such things, saying that they are driving people away from the Catholic Church.
But is this just whistling past the graveyard?
Is it not obvious that Francis himself is the great obstacle to evangelization, and the great standing dissuasion for those looking for answers?
Anyone who has been paying attention knows that there is a growing interest in Christianity – especially amongst young men disillusioned with events since 2020. Some have returned to the Church after years elsewhere – and some are even being baptized from no Christian background at all.
But in most cases, this is in spite of the obstacle posed by Francis. It’s like a great flood is being held back by a tottering dam. Streams are getting through, but the dam is still holding back the water.
Some are appalled by Francis’ agenda, manifestly shared with the princes of this world. There are those who want Christ, but conclude – based on the scandal of Francis – that the Catholic Church cannot be the Church of Christ.
So what should we make of all this?
One of the most important things that we can do for evangelisation and the exaltation of our Holy Mother the Church is to burst the dam.
We must answer the question, “Is Francis a Catholic?”
Requirements of being a Catholic
Another common phrase today is “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.”
As a colloquialism, meaning that it’s hard to throw off a Catholic upbringing, or that it’s quick and easy for such persons to return to the sacraments, this phrase is true.
But as a statement of theology, about the actual membership of the Church, it is false.
If we want to answer this question in relation to Francis, we first have to know the criteria which determines whether someone is a Catholic, a member of the visible Church – and in reality – and not just by desire.
These criteria are relatively unknown today, but they were taught authoritatively by Pope Pius XII in his encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi:
Actually only those are to be included as members of the Church who have been baptized and profess the true faith, and who have not been so unfortunate as to separate themselves from the unity of the Body, or been excluded by legitimate authority for grave faults committed.
To summarise, the members of the Church are those who:
Are baptised
Profess the faith
Have not separated themselves from the body
Have not been excluded by legitimate authority.
Baptism is what constitutes someone a member of the Church. It will necessarily do this, unless – in the case of adults – one of three things occur that prevent it having this effect, or which cause a person to lose the membership they once possessed. These three things are: (i) departure from the public profession of the Catholic faith; (ii) separation from the unity of the body and from lawful authority; (iii) “perfect” excommunication decreed by the Roman Pontiff. (1)
So we can see, the true idea that baptism imparts an indelible character doesn’t mean “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.” The analogy used is that of a brand on a sheep: if the sheep is lost, the brand doesn’t make it magically be within the sheepfold, but rather shows from where the sheep has come, and to where it should return.
Nor did Pius XII invent these criteria out of nowhere. They are also taught by – for example – St Robert Bellarmine, the Catechism of the Council of Trent, the Council of Florence. It is easy to see these criteria in the teaching of the Fathers and later Theologians (2) – not to mention every catechism in the Tradivox series.
These criteria are classical, traditional and certain.
Baptism, unity and excommunication
Having seen the criteria by which we can know whether someone is a Catholic or not, let’s return to the question with which we started this piece. Is Francis a Catholic?
Well, the infant Jorge Bergolio was baptized on Christmas Day, 1936. Naturally, this was in the traditional rite and occurred before our current period of disciplinary chaos – so unlike many baptisms today, there are no grounds to doubt that he is validly baptised!
It is similarly certain that he has never incurred a perfect excommunication decreed by any Supreme Pontiff.
That’s two out of four criteria satisfied. For the sake of this piece, let’s bypass the question of whether he has separated himself from the unity of the body through schism, and consider the important question of the profession of the faith.
Meaning and importance of professing the faith
The profession of the faith is a crucial condition for being a Catholic.
Let’s be clear that “professing the faith” does not mean a merely verbal “professing to believe the faith” or “professing to be a Catholic.” It means the outward profession of the Catholic Faith, and a manifestation of submission to the Church’s magisterium.
The Church is a visible society – She is “the congregation of the faithful.” As such, Her members are visible, and identifiable as such – at least in most cases. But this would be impossible if the criteria for membership did not pertain also to visible, verifiable, or knowable things.
The character of baptism is invisible; but the rite itself is visible. Open separation from the body is visible – such persons are no longer “congregated.” Similarly, the profession of faith must be visible too. But the virtue of faith is invisible – except insofar as it is professed externally.
Further, the Church is also identifiable by Her possession of the four notes of unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity. The mark of unity means, among other things, that She is visibly united in faith.
If those who visibly and deliberately profess a different faith are somehow still members of the Church, this unity of faith would be lost. That means: the Church would no longer be one body. She wouldn’t be professing one faith. She wouldn’t be united. In fact, She wouldn’t be visible: She’d be invisible. (3)
But this wouldn’t be the Church that Christ established. One might be able to locate a certain structure with various official institutions and a material continuity with the Church, but it would not be the Church of Christ according to classical theological criteria.
This is pretty important stuff. It’s so basic that it can be found in more or less every traditional catechism – as can be seen by consulting, once more, the Tradivox series. Let’s consider, then, the three main ways by which we profess the faith. They are:
Our ordinary conduct
Not denying the faith
Directly affirming it under certain circumstances.
Our ordinary conduct
We profess the faith in ordinary, almost implicit ways – such as by observing the precepts of the Church, affirming and defending the Faith to others privately or publicly, and things like frequenting public worship and the sacraments and kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament.
Not denying the faith
It might sound strange, but we can profess the faith by not doing anything which denies it. But we can deny the faith in many ways.
Corresponding to the above, we can deny it by refusing the ordinary, everyday things mentioned.
Sometimes those who neglect these ordinary things do so out of ignorance or just laziness – and this would not necessarily manifest a denial of the faith.
But sometimes such omissions do indeed manifest a denial of the faith: and in some circumstances, this can be known and judged by onlookers.
This general ability to observe and recognize our fellow Catholics – not least by their profession of the same faith – is a fundamental aspect of the Church’s visibility.
Such an observation is not a legal judgment: it’s just an apprehension or judgment of fact, comparable to noticing that someone is a man or a woman, living or dead, or a member of one’s family or a stranger.
This does not presume that we can always recognise who is and isn’t a Catholic: there can indeed be some grey cases, but the existence of grey does not refute the existence of black and white.
We should assume the best of our neighbour. But just as this is not a moral judgment of someone’s soul, it is also not a judgment calling for metaphysical, mathematical certitude. Rather, it just calls for moral certitude – which is true certainty, based on what is the normal and rational mode of human behaviour.
Lest anyone doubt all this, let’s look at the great twentieth century theologian Louis Cardinal Billot SJ. He even points out that this ability to recognise whether someone is a Catholic or not is especially important when it comes to submitting to our lawful pastors – because it would be most dangerous to submit to a non-Catholic. After discussing the profession of faith, Cardinal Billot concludes:
[The Church is] a society whose members have to recognize each other even individually, especially in those things which have to do with the subordination of the sheep to their shepherds. For this visibility certainly does not require that there be no doubt about anyone at all about whether he be a member of the Church or not, but it is sufficient that there be certitude about most of them; and I mean that certitude which is moral certitude, and sufficient in practice among men. (4)
Open denial of the faith
Let’s consider an example: consider a prominent Churchman who has a private audience with a journalist friend. After this conversation, the journalist tells the world that this public figure denied the existence of Hell. Perhaps the journalist is lying or mistaken: we can give the churchman the benefit of the doubt.
But the normal standard of human behaviour would be for the churchman to immediately, clearly and definitively set the record straight. The higher the position of such a man, the more important such a duty would be.
But imagine if instead of this, a vague press release denied it in a loose, roundabout way. Still we need not jump to any conclusions. But imagine if after this grave scandal, the churchman gives this journalist another private audience, and the same thing happens again with another dogma of the faith: the journalist confidently asserts that all of this churchman’s friends know that he denies the divinity of Christ.
And imagine if this happens again, and again, and again – sometimes “corrected” with vague statements which seem more like winks and a nods – and always with a further interview.
In these circumstances, do we not have moral certainty that this churchman wants these views released and manifested in this way?
It would be imputing extremely bizarre and irrational behaviour to both of the men involved to conclude otherwise. But we’re not obliged to create contorted explanations to get this churchman off the hook. It is theoretically possible that there could be another explanation. But what is real here? What’s based on the ordinary rules of human conduct?
Such explanations also miss the key point: it’s not the churchman’s reported words or silence alone that need explaining: rather, what needs to be explained is each subsequent interview and audience.
In any case, the glaring point is this: this churchman could get himself off the hook, and is choosing not to do so.
“But,” we might ask. “Does he have a duty to get himself off the hook? Perhaps he has good reason for staying silent! Perhaps he doesn’t know about the controversy, perhaps he is being humble, or perhaps he is just ignorant of the faith, and mistaken in good faith!”
These are just so many more gratuitous contortions.
But yes, he does have a duty to get himself off the hook – at least under some circumstances.
Directly affirming the faith under some circumstances
St Thomas Aquinas teaches:
“It is not necessary for salvation to confess one’s faith at all times and in all places, but [it is] in certain places and at certain times – namely when by omitting to do so, we would deprive God of due honor, or our neighbor of a service that we ought to render him.
“For instance, if a man, on being asked about his faith, were to remain silent, so as to make people believe either that he is without faith, or that the faith is false, or so as to turn others away from the faith.” (5)
There’s not much to add to such a statement, except that it appears everywhere, from the catechism written at the college at Douay, France, which produced many of the holy English Martyrs to the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which said:
Can. 1325: The faithful of Christ are bound to profess their faith whenever their silence, evasiveness, or manner of acting encompasses an implied denial of the faith, contempt for religion, injury to God, or scandal for a neighbor. (6)
Is there any need to comment on these texts? It’s no good arguing that the 1917 Code has been superseded by that of 1983. This is a truth of faith and morals taught universally by the Church, and canon 1325 is simply expressing this obligation, not creating it.
So there are some principles. Let’s return to the question.
Does Francis profess the faith?
Based on the above, we can see that sometimes saying some Catholic things is not sufficient to show that Francis professes the faith. We have to look at the big picture, the “gestalt.”
Writing in the year 2022, it would be tiresome to recount all of the evidence that Francis does not profess the Catholic Faith, so let’s be brief.
We’re all aware of the countless ways in which Francis’ ordinary, everyday conduct manifests a departure from the profession of the Catholic faith. The example above alluded to his repeated interviews with the late Eugenio Scalfari.
To that we could add the toleration and defence of the Pachamama ceremonies – recalling St Thomas Aquinas’s observation that if anyone was “to worship at the tomb of Mahomet, he would be deemed an apostate.” (7) There’s nothing special about this tomb in this context – and the relevance to Pachamama is obvious.
So, it’s not credible to claim that Francis professes the faith in his ordinary course of actions, even if he does do “some Catholic things” – a sophism warned against by St Pius X.(8)
We’re not going to recount all the other possible examples – perusing the archives of this website should be sufficient.
But what about the other points: directly denying the faith, and failing to profess it directly when he should?
Amoris Laetitia
Let’s consider the Amoris Laetitia saga.
In 2015, Francis promulgated Amoris Laetitia. In 2016, 45 academics wrote a letter to the ean of the College of Cardinals, claiming that this document contained a number of propositions which were classed as heretical or otherwise erroneous. This letter asked for these propositions to be condemned – not out of malice, but as a request for clarification on matters of faith and morals.
In September in 2016, Cardinals Burke, Caffarra, Brandmüller and Meisner submitted five “dubia” (questions) about this document, and later made their letter public when they received no response. This submission asked Francis to “resolve the uncertainties and bring clarity” about five points of faith and morals.
Also in September 2016, the bishops of Buenos Aires wrote a document on the implementation of Amoris Laetita. In it, they affirmed that the controversial passages meant that couples who have divorced and remarried may, under certain circumstances, receive the sacraments of Penance and Holy Communion – without any requirement for a change in their situation. In a private letter – which was subsequently leaked, and then in June 2017, promulgated by Rome in the Acta Apostolica Sedis, along with the Buenos Aires document itself – Francis wrote:
“The document is very good and completely explains the meaning of chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia. There are no other interpretations.”
Many other efforts appeared in the following years. Cardinals Meisner and Caffarra both died in 2017 without receiving a direct answer.
But really, there was no need for an answer. Promulgating the above letter in the Acta was in itself the answer to the dubia: it was promulgated, despite Francis being on notice of the problems, and knowing of the requests for clarity. It is the clarification.
In 2017 an group of initially 62 Catholics presented Francis with a “Filial Correction” for “propagating heresies,” which stated that:
[T]he pope has, by his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, and by other, related, words, deeds and omissions, effectively upheld 7 heretical positions about marriage, the moral life, and the reception of the sacraments, and has caused these heretical opinions to spread in the Catholic Church.
In 2018, Archbishops Peta and Lenga and Bishop Schneider issued a public “Profession of immutable truths about sacramental marriage,” evidently in opposition to the ideas expressed in the document.
In 2019, a number of prominent clergymen and scholars issued an open letter accusing Francis of “the canonical delict of heresy.” This striking letter stated:
We accuse Pope Francis of having, through his words and actions, publicly and pertinaciously demonstrated his belief in the following propositions [cf. the letter] that contradict divinely revealed truth.
After detailing seven propositions, the letter states:
Pope Francis’s public statements, and his public actions […] The two forms of evidence are related. His public actions serve to establish that the public statements listed below were meant by him to be understood in a heretical sense.
On the question of whether Francis could be mistaken in good faith, or is pertinacious in adhering to these points, the letter lists his various credentials, including his theological studies, academic positions held, and evidence of his familiarity with other authoritative documents – as well as the dubia. It concludes:
He can therefore be presumed to be well informed enough on Catholic doctrine to know that the heresies he is professing are contrary to Catholic doctrine.
It ends with a request to the bishops of the world to publicly admonish Francis “to abjure the heresies that he has professed.”
Needless to say this hasn’t happened.
Are these things conclusive?
Obj. 1.
Are the errors discussed actually contrary to the faith?
Resp. 1. The signatories of the final letter seemed to think so, and demonstrate this convincingly.
Obj. 2. Is it clear that he has departed from the profession of faith?
Resp. 2. Again, the signatories of this letter seem to think that it is.
Obj. 3: “The pope is above canon law, and so is not obliged to profess the faith when circumstances would otherwise require it.”
Resp 3: We’ve already seen that the requirements to profess the faith under certain circumstances, and not to deny it, do not come from canon law. This isn’t a canonical matter – it’s a matter of reality, of what is in the nature of things.
Further, this objection doesn’t even make sense. The teaching of the Roman Pontiff is the proximate rule of faith for the whole Church, and the pope has immediate and episcopal jurisdiction over every Christian. Vatican I directly teaches that all members of the Church:
… are bound to submit to this power by the duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, and this not only in matters concerning faith and morals, but also in those which regard the discipline and government of the church throughout the world.
When he bestowed the primacy on St Peter, Christ our Lord commanded him, “Feed my lambs, feed my sheep.” At the Last Supper, Our Lord said to him: “I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren.” It would be absurd to think, that due to his primacy of jurisdiction, the Roman Pontiff is not obliged to reassure and confirm his subjects by professing the faith when there are grave doubts raised.
If anyone could be obliged to profess the faith in these circumstances, it is the Roman Pontiff.
And let’s also observe that this objection concedes the main point under dispute. It’s admitting the existence of the problem, and admitting that anyone else in this situation would have a duty to profess the faith directly – just not Francis.
In other words, the objection is this: “The ordinary reality, inherent in the nature of things, doesn’t apply to Francis, because he is the pope.”
If anything could be called “an inflation of the rights of the Roman Pontiff,” it is this.
Obj. 4: “Francis has more important things to do than answering rabble-rousers amongst conservative and traditionalist ranks. He has no obligation to respond – neither to such persons, nor to vexatious or false complaints – so no conclusions can be drawn from his silence.”
Resp. 4: First, has he really been silent? He might not have answered directly – but he has answered.
Next, calling these repeated concerns from respectable Catholics “vexatious” or “false” is assuming the very point in question.
Further, as we have seen above, there is nothing more important for the Roman Pontiff to do than to confirm the brethren in the faith. By his silence in the face of these things, Francis confirms his assent to the propositions under question, and consents to the accusations made against him. He confirms this by actions on the side, as with the letter to the bishops of Buenos Aires.
Obj. 5: “No, we cannot infer anything from silence. We must assume innocent until proven guilty.”
Resp. 5: Yes, we must assume innocence: but not in an unreal way. But in any case, we’re holding back from even considering anything about innocence or guilt in themselves – and a wicked, guilty or even faithless man remains a member of the Church, so long as he professes the faith externally.
Further, we’re not talking about a state of non-membership as a punishment for wrongdoing. This is a wrong-headed way of thinking about the matter. In relation to this matter at hand, it just is the factual state of someone having departed from the profession of faith.
In other words, this is not a question of moral goodness or evil, but of apprehending facts.
It is a fact that Francis has affirmed things that are contrary to revealed doctrine, as has been made clear in the 2019 Open Letter.
It is a fact that he is aware of their contradiction with the Church’s teaching.
It is a fact that he has repeatedly reaffirmed them after each warning, request, and accusation.
It is a fact that he has a duty as a Christian, let alone in virtue of any office held, to profess the faith in response to these things.
It is a fact that he consistently refuses to do so.
Also, let’s not miss the wood for the trees. The Amoris laetita saga is one “plotline” amongst the very many others since 2013, and all along he has been saying and doing other things (under similar protest) which manifest a rejection of the faith of the Church.
It is evident from the whole package of his words, acts and omissions that he does not profess the faith. Somehow explaining away individual points will not change this. In this case, it’s like saying that if a lawyer gets his client acquitted of murder, then the victim must never have died.
Obj. 6: “But he still claims to be a Catholic, he still professes to believe the Catholic faith!”
Resp. 6: This is irrelevant. Professing to believe the faith is not the same as professing the faith. And what bearing could this have, when everything else shows that such claims are vain?
Obj. 7 and Conclusion: “You have no right to make this judgment. Francis needs to be warned and his non-membership declared by an authority.”
Resp 7: This is the most absurd objection of all, demonstrating an attitude of legal positivism and voluntarism. We should be interested in reality and the world of real things – and this real world is not some theoretical courtroom.
We’ve already noted that we’re not considering loss of membership as a punishment. The Church is governed by law, and law is at the service of the faith. Yes, St Paul tells Titus to avoid heretics after one or two warnings: but as far as this concerns us, this is a precept ordered towards safeguarding our own faith from those who are shown to be ravening wolves – not least by their refusal to correct themselves and to profess the faith.
Let me repeat: as far as we are concerned, the point of avoiding heretics is the safeguarding of the faith, and of removing ourselves from peril to the faith. This is a duty. The idea that we cannot fulfil this duty until told so by a legal authority is absurd, and simply misses the point; and the existence of such a process in canon law does not prove otherwise.
This final point shows that in some circumstances, we have more than a “right” to notice whether or not someone is a Catholic or not. We have a duty.
This is because we have a duty to submit to the Roman Pontiff and receive his teachings. In the text above, Cardinal Billot stated that the visibility of the Church and the external profession of faith or of especial importance when it comes to “the subordination of the sheep to their shepherds.”
We cannot submit in religion to a man who is not of the Catholic religion. If we have a duty to avoid things and persons which pose a serious risk to our own faith, how much stronger is this duty towards those who claim to rule us in religion? But how can we fulfil this duty if we cannot recognize that he is not a Catholic? As St Robert Bellarmine said:
[I]t would be the most miserable condition of the Church, if she should be compelled to recognize a wolf, manifestly prowling, for a shepherd. (9)
But, as the same saint asked Cajetan:
How will we shun our Head? How will we recede from a member to whom we are joined? (Ibid.)
These are indeed the key reasons for his other statement:
[T]he Holy Fathers teach in unison, that not only are heretics outside the Church, but they even lack all Ecclesiastical jurisdiction and dignity ipso facto. (Ibid p.561)
But we can leave these issues to one side, because we have arrived at the question which must be answered.
Given that it is clear that Francis does not profess the faith, and that we have the right and duty to recognize this –
And given that professing the faith is a requirement of being a member of the Church, a Catholic –
Can it reasonably be said that Francis is a Catholic?

Footnotes:
Joachim Salaverri, On the Church of Christ, in Sacrae Theologia Summa IB translated by Kenneth Baker SJ 2015. N. 1056-1058.
Salaverri 1060
Mgr G. Van Noort, Dogmatic Theology Volume II: Christ’s Church, (6th edition, 1957, trans. Castelot & Murphy), p 242.
Louis Cardinal Billot’s Treatise on the Church, translated by Fr Julian Larrabee, immediately before Thesis XI.
ST II-II Q3 A2.
The 1917 or Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law, in English Translation with Extensive Scholarly Apparatus, trans. Dr Edward Peters, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2001
ST II-II Q12 A1.
“[I]n their books you find some things which might well be expressed by a Catholic, but in the next page you find other things which might have been dictated by a rationalist.” Pope St Pius X, Encyclical Pascendi Dominic Gregis, 1907, n. 18, available HERE.
St Robert Bellarmine, On the Roman Pontiff, Vol II (Books 3-5), trans. Ryan Grant, Second Edition, ebook version, Mediatrix Press, 2017, p 559.

Source:
Is Pope Francis Catholic? Extended version - LifeSite
Malki Tzedek
Sadly, not so rhetorical this time around.