The Pope Needs Reform, Not the Papacy

The Pope Needs Reform, Not the Papacy
The Pope Needs Reform, Not the Papacy

As the title of Henri Sire’s book The Dictator Pope has it, we can say that Pope Francis behaves like a true despot.

At the end of August (2022), he finally organized a consistory of cardinals but, in practice, muzzled them by dividing them into language groups. He only allowed a rapporteur from each group to speak at the plenary session but only to summarize the group’s discussion.

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Then, in early September, he imposed a new constitution on the Order of Malta, bypassing internal debates on amendments to its governing statutes. Simultaneously, he removed the Order’s authorities and appointed interim leadership until a new one is elected under his constitution.

From a strictly juridical perspective, he perhaps had the authority to do both things. The cardinals are his advisers, so he can listen to them or not. As for the Order of Malta, despite being sovereign in the temporal order, it is essentially a religious order, so the pope has the power to intervene in its canonical structuring.

However, the Catholic Church is not a government department coldly ruled by decrees. Instead, she is a living reality whose administrative laws serve as a skeleton supporting immemorial customs that vivify and smoothen their application. Furthermore, neither the cardinals nor the Order of Malta’s religious and laity are the pope’s slaves but brothers and sons.

Ignoring the ancient customs governing the relationships between the pope and cardinals and between him and religious orders (or Catholic movements, for the Order of Malta is a mixed entity) is equivalent to governing the Church with that dirigisme with which Enlightenment despots ended organic medieval monarchy.

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Paradoxically, this papal despotism is used to equalize and democratize the Church. In a March 2015 interview with a Mexican television, Pope Francis stated, “I think this [the Curia] is the last court that remains in Europe. The others have been democratized.”1

By appointing cardinals “from the periphery,” Pope Francis is effectively demolishing the College of Cardinals, an eminently elite institution whose members have held the protocol rank of “princes of the Church” since Boniface VIII (1294—1303). By intervening in the Order of Malta, Pope Francis seeks to end an aristocratic institution inherited from the Crusades—two aberrations, in his mind, for which the Church must do penance.

Pope Francis wants “a Church with an Amazonian face”2—desacralized, vulgar, and pauperized after the Amazon natives’ “good living.” The latter will be granted their own rite in the Church, incorporating ancestral pagan superstitions. At the same time, the Catholic faithful who love the traditional Latin rite are persecuted for their alleged backwardness (indietrismo).

Pope Francis feels entitled to change Church teaching on adultery, conditions to receive Communion, the death penalty, and just war while eyeing changes on artificial contraception and homosexual relations. His dictatorial behavior has shocked the sensus fidei of millions of Catholics and legitimately drawn reaction and resistance from dozens of prelates and hundreds of intellectuals and lay leaders worldwide. For my part, I wrote an article on the motu proprio Traditionis custodes stating that “The Faithful Are Fully Entitled to Defend Themselves Against Liturgical Aggression—Even When It Comes From the Pope.”3

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However, some intellectuals who have publicly resisted Pope Francis’s doctrinal deviations and abuses of authority have raised the possibility of recasting the papacy per se. They attribute the current pope’s tyranny and the passivity of the overwhelming majority of the hierarchy to an inflated role of the papacy throughout the twentieth century. In their view, this so-called hyperpapalism results from a permanent imbalance that the proclamation of the dogmas of papal supremacy and infallibility by the First Vatican Council unwillingly introduced into the life of the Church.4

Some argue that the exaggeration of papal authority started in the Middle Ages with the affirmation of papal power in the pontificate of Saint Gregory VII (1073—1085). For them, the relationship style between the pope and the local churches should return to how things were in the first millennium, before the Eastern schism (1054).

Although these authors do accept the First Vatican Council’s dogmas of papal supremacy and infallibility, they say it is necessary to correct abuses in their exercise and, consequently, how the faithful view the papacy. Thus, they reexamine complaints of supposedly excessive meddling by the popes in the election of bishops and the direction of local churches as if the grousing were legitimate. In so doing, they recycle false beliefs first expressed by Orthodox schismatics and later by supporters of Gallicanism.

Paradoxically, this erroneous proceeding by some writers in the traditionalist camp to reevaluate the exercise of the papacy coincides with earlier proposals by leading progressives. Suffice it to mention the well-known 1996 lecture at Campion Hall, Oxford, by Most Rev. John R. Quinn, the controversial archbishop emeritus of San Francisco, titled “The Claims of the Primacy and the Costly Call to Unity.”5

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True, the motivations of both currents are very different. By proposing to change the way the pope exercises the papacy, progressives strive to realize the Second Vatican Council’s ecumenical dream of uniting all churches and Christian denominations without any of them converting to Catholicism proper. The proposal of these traditionalists aims to protect the Faith and the Church’s traditional rites from the conciliar novelties that Pope Francis enforces manu militari.

Nevertheless, both evaluations of the papacy’s performance are similar, as are the practical proposals for rectification. Both currents take the first millennium as their model and guide. They call for a diminished Curia role, a devolutionist return of authority to local bishops, changes in how the latter are chosen, a more decentralized Church, and a greater application of the principle of subsidiarity. Both progressives and neo-Gallican traditionalists manifest the same antipathy for the papacy as the Church’s “full and perfect monarchy.”6

Progressivism is sheer Revolution within the Church. Therefore, it is not surprising that its leaders—moved by their “liberty, equality, fraternity” ideals—seek to reduce the pope’s attributes as much as possible or have him use them to transform the Church into an egalitarian democracy. What is strange, however, is to see traditionalist writers spreading opinions contrary to counter-revolutionary principles, advocating a recasting of the papacy into something akin to what progressives suggest. Unwittingly perhaps, they fall into the defect denounced by Joseph de Maistre—an author they dislike for being at the origin of nineteenth-century ultramontanism. He wisely warned that the Counter-Revolution should not be a “contrary revolution” but rather “the opposite of the Revolution.”7

There is no denying the merit of these traditionalist writers in denouncing Pope Francis’s errors and abuses. However, they make the same mistake as promoters of the German Synodal Way, who blame the Church’s traditional structure and doctrine for clerical sexual abuses when they should blame sinful clerics. The solution to clergy sexual abuse, they claim, lies in suppressing priestly celibacy and the hierarchical differences between clergy and laity. Likewise, neo-Gallican traditionalists advocating a reinterpretation of the papacy sustain that Pope Francis’s many abuses and the passivity of bishops and faithful toward them result from a hypertrophied papal authority and ‘ultramontanism,’ unwittingly encouraged by the dogmas of papal supremacy and infallibility.

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As is well known, clerical sexual abuse is not due to priestly celibacy or the Church’s hierarchical structure but to dissolute morals among the clergy. That is particularly true of those allowed to enroll in seminaries and unwisely ordained priests by complacent bishops despite their homosexual orientation.

Likewise, Pope Francis’s doctrinal deviations and abuses of authority do not result from the hypertrophy of papal authority but his modernist convictions and the dictatorial character denounced by Henri Sire in his mentioned book. The passivity of bishops and faithful who disagree with the pope but dare not resist him does not stem from any diminished role in Church life. Indeed, at least doctrinally, their role was increased by the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution Lumen gentium, which introduced two novelties: episcopal collegiality and the notion of the Church as the People of God. Rather, in most cases, such passivity stems from careerism, cowardice, fear of going against the grain, and a lack of supernatural spirit.

There is no need to change Church discipline on priestly celibacy or her teaching on the clergy’s superiority over the laity to solve the sexual abuse crisis. Similarly, to address today’s papal tyranny, there is no need to redefine the papacy or its ordinary ways of exercising the Petrine ministry. What is needed is a profound conversion of the pope, bishops, and faithful. That conversion will help the pope act truly as the Vicar of Christ, not His almighty replacement. For their part, a converted people, filled with faith and fidelity to Tradition, will know how to distinguish between the voice of a true shepherd and one that leads the flock over a cliff.

If a hypertrophied papal authority resulted from excessive veneration of the papacy by the faithful, the ultramontanes and their successors would have been the staunchest defenders of pontifical errors and abuses after the First Vatican Council. After all, they were the advocates of defining papal prerogatives as dogmas of the Faith. However, what happened was precisely the opposite, as I have demonstrated previously.8 From the time of Leo XIII to the Second Vatican Council, followers of the ultramontane current rose against the pope’s errors and abuses of the papacy. It was liberal Catholics—whose party had deemed those dogmatic definitions “inopportune”—who sought to impose those errors and abuses on all Catholics. With Cardinal Charles Lavigerie, such liberal Catholics claimed, “The only rule of salvation and life in the Church is to be with the pope, with the living pope. Whoever he may be.”

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Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, the twentieth century’s leading counter-revolutionary among the laity, gave a shining example of ultramontane fidelity. In a harrowing and humiliating moment, the Brazilian Catholic leader expressed his veneration for the papacy in touching terms. In 1968, the TFPs of Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay collected 2,038,112 signatures in the streets of those countries’ prominent cities on a petition asking Pope Paul VI to take action against communist infiltration in the Church. The several thousand sheets containing the signatures (some stained with blood as communist activists attacked young TFP volunteers) were delivered to the Vatican Secretary of State. However, the Holy See failed even to acknowledge receipt. In contrast, a few weeks later, a delegation of progressive priests took a challenging document to the Vatican, and Paul VI quickly promised to study their demands. The Brazilian TFP founder used his weekly column in Folha de S. Paulo to call out the pope’s unworthy behavior. He imagined correspondence from Jeroboam Cândido Guerreiro—an imaginary Protestant reader:

“Don’t you realize, Dr. Plinio, that Vatican doors and the pope’s heart are open to all currents and opinions except to ideological tenets and voices blowing from your end of the spectrum?

Frankly, I am astonished at how easily, in your articles, you pretend to see none of this and manifest yourself as a fervent and intransigent Catholic as if today’s pope were not Montini but Sarto (“Saint” Pius X), the cruel hammer of heretics from the beginning of the century.

I am not writing this to mortify you, Dr. Plinio, but the truth must be said: Open your eyes. The modernized papacy and the New Church reject you and your confreres more than anyone else in the world…

Yet, despite having the door shut in your face, you present yourself in public as a papist, as fanatical as when you were a young member of the Marian Sodalities hollering the hymn: “Long live the pope, may God protect him, the Shepherd of Holy Church!”…

Have the courage to explain to the public your contradictory position.”

In his article, Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira answers this fictitious letter with a hymn of love for the papacy:

“It is not with the enthusiasm of my early youth that I stand before the Holy See today. It is with even greater, much greater enthusiasm. The more I live, think, and gain experience, the more I understand and love the pope and the papacy. That would be true even if I found myself in the circumstances Mr. Jeroboam Guerreiro depicts.

I still recall the catechism lessons explaining the papacy: its divine institution, powers, and mission. My young heart (I was then about nine years old) was filled with admiration, rapture, and enthusiasm. I had found the ideal to which I would dedicate my entire life. From then until now, my love for this ideal has only grown. And I pray to Our Lady that she increase it in me until my dying breath. May the last act of my intellect be an act of faith in the papacy. I want my final act of love to be an act of love for the papacy. I would die in the peace of the elect, well united to Mary, my Mother, and through her to Jesus, my God, King, and excellent Redeemer.

My love of the papacy, Mr. Guerreiro, is not abstract. It includes a special love for the pope’s sacrosanct person yesterday, today, and tomorrow. It is a love of veneration and obedience.

I insist: It is a love of obedience. I want to give every teaching of this pope, and those of his predecessors and successors, the full measure of adherence that Church doctrine prescribes to me, holding as infallible what She says is infallible, and as fallible what She teaches is fallible. I want to obey the orders of this or any pope to the full extent the Church commands me to. That is, by never placing my will or the might of any earthly power above them, and by refusing obedience to a pope’s order only when it involves sin. In that extreme case, as the Apostle Paul and all Catholic moral theologians teach, one must obey the will of God instead.

That is what my catechism classes taught. That is what I read in the treatises I studied. That is how I think, feel, and am with all my heart.”9

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Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira’s love of the papacy showed his tremendous esteem for pontifical ceremony. At a meeting with younger members of the Brazilian TFP in January 1976, they projected the film Vatican City Under Pius XII. It showed Pope Pacelli wearing the tiara and carried in the sedia gestatoria surrounded by flabelli and the papal guard. After the screening, Dr. Plinio improvised this explanation of pontifical pomp:

“All these scenes are deduced directly from what theology teaches us about the papacy and from the Church’s wise teachings on how to organize life.

The papacy is the highest institution on Earth. It is higher than any temporal power because what concerns the spirit is worth more than what concerns matter. What concerns the supernatural is worth more than what concerns the natural. And the pope has universal power over all peoples everywhere, whereas all other sovereignties in the world are limited. There is no king or president of the world, but the pope is the shepherd of the whole world and has jurisdiction over souls throughout the globe. He is the representative of the supreme supernatural power—God’s power on Earth—and it behooves him to exercise to the highest degree the transcendent powers proper to the Catholic Church of teaching, guiding, and sanctifying. He is the highest hierarch of the whole Church and thus must also be surrounded by the most extraordinary manifestations of respect that can be paid to a man.

It follows from all this that life around the pope must be organized to correspond to three ideas: respect, love, and strength. Respect: the pope must be venerated. Love: the pope being the representative of Christ on Earth, all of humanity’s love for Our Lord Jesus Christ must apply immediately to the pope, His representative on Earth. Strength: the pope is a shepherd, and no shepherd can be weak because he must defend the sheep and thus use force against wolves; the power of governing the sheep is part and parcel of the power to fight wolves.

So you see around the pontiff religious pomp and, at the same time, paternal and visible force, represented by the three pontifical guards that defend the Vatican palaces: the Swiss Guard, the Palatine Guard, and the Noble Guard (composed of members of the Roman patriciate who took turns, serving for free in the Guard). They guaranteed the pontiff’s integrity and the safety of the Vatican’s colossal art treasures, in addition to controlling the enormous flow of people there. But its primary significance is that, as the case may be, the pope has the right and duty to use force to defend the faith. And in these guards, whose uniforms are so distant from the Crusades, there’s a reminiscence of the Crusades.

The Church wisely organized things so everyone who went to see the pope could carry their devotion and love to the highest degree and their respect and fear in the face of strength. A visit to St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Palace was a spiritual exercise from which the faithful left with their souls more united to the pope than before.

Pay attention to people’s faces when they talk to the pope, but especially when he moves on. It’s almost the face of someone who has just received Holy Communion. Someone receives just a short word from the pontiff, but what a word! He will forever keep the timbre of the pope’s voice, his smile, the temperature of his hand, how he shook it or did not, and the imponderables surrounding the pope. The person keeps all that for a lifetime and even unto death.

I experienced it myself. I took several objects to be blessed by Pius XII, including some candles of those sold on Via della Conciliazione. They were beautifully worked, with reliefs, figures, etc. He blessed them. As I returned to the hotel, I thought: “When I die, I want to hold the candle blessed by the Vicar of Christ. In this way, I will remain united to the See of Rome until I am unconscious, hanging between life and death, and my intellect no longer articulates any thought. My hand will cling to this candle that represents what I love most on Earth: the pope, with whom everything on Earth is worthy of love, without whom nothing is worthy of love but only contempt, marked by original sin and under the devil’s dominion.”10

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A superficial or biased person would deduce from these exclamations of love for the papacy that Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira was a victim of ‘papolatry,’ someone incapable of objectively analyzing the pope’s teachings and gestures, let alone resisting their enforcement. That person would be deeply mistaken because Dr. Plinio’s admiration for the papacy was an acute expression of love for the Holy Church and, in short, Our Lord. Therefore, if the reigning pope taught or did anything contrary to the Church’s perennial teaching and action, that very love of God led him to oppose it with the quickest and strongest reactions.

As early as 1965, five years before writing the imaginary reply above to Jeroboam Guerreiro, Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira closely followed the studies of Arnaldo Xavier da Silveira on the theological hypothesis of a heretical pope. He participated in a three-day symposium to discuss the matter along with Bishops Geraldo de Proença Sigaud and Antônio de Castro Mayer.

Since October 1969, nine months before the Folha article, he had followed Xavier da Silveira’s studies on the Novus Ordo Missae of Paul VI and participated in two symposia in the presence of Bishop Mayer. They resulted in the book concluding that the New Mass was unacceptable in conscience for a well-educated Catholic.

Six months before his Folha’s Jeroboam article praising the papacy, Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira had written another in the same daily, titled “The Right to Know.”11 In it, he informed the Brazilian public of a letter to Paul VI by Cardinals Ottaviani and Bacci, authors of A Brief Critical Study of the New Order of Mass, and a letter addressed to Fr. Annibale Bugnini from the Saint Anthony Maria Claret Association of Priests and Religious (with a membership of 6,000 priests). The Association’s letter concluded: “We Catholic priests cannot celebrate a Mass which Mr. Thurian, of [the] Taizé [community], declared he could celebrate without ceasing to be a Protestant. Obedience can never impose heresy (on us).”

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Just as significantly, almost two years before his enthusiastic comments on the Vatican City Under Pius XII film, Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira wrote “The Vatican Policy of Détente with Communist Governments—Should the TFPs Stand Down? Or Should They Resist?”12 The document denounced the wrongheaded policy, which is continued today by Pope Francis in his criminal agreement with Red China subjecting the Underground Church in China to the whims of Xi Jing Pin. Addressed to Paul VI, the TFPs’ Declaration of Resistance was published as a paid ad in 37 Brazilian newspapers and 14 more in other countries. It stated: “Our soul is yours; our life is yours. Order us to do whatever you wish. Only do not order us to do nothing in the face of the assailing Red wolf. To this, our conscience is opposed.”

Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira recalled this paragraph in the first of a two-article series in December 1983 and January 1984. They were titled “Luther, Absolutely Not!”13 and “Luther Thinks He Is Divine.”14 Both reacted to John Paul II’s benevolent letter to Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, in charge of the Vatican’s ecumenism, on the 500th anniversary of Luther’s birth and dated October 31, the anniversary of his revolt. His reaction to John Paul II’s participation in a festive act of love and admiration for the heresiarch in a Protestant temple in Rome was even stronger: “Dizzying, frightening, groaned my Catholic heart at this. However, my faith and veneration for the papacy redoubled.”15

In January 1977, writing an update to his work Revolution and Counter-Revolution, Dr. Plinio made a highly critical assessment of the Second Vatican Council with the same clarity and courage:

“Using ‘aggiornate’ tactics (about which the least that can be said is that they are contestable in theory and proving ruinous in practice), the Second Vatican Council tried to scare away, let us say, bees, wasps, and birds of prey. But its silence about Communism left full liberty to the wolves. The work of this Council cannot be inscribed as effectively pastoral either in history or in the Book of Life.

It is painful to say this. But, in this sense, the evidence singles out the Second Vatican Council as one of the greatest calamities, if not the greatest, in the history of the Church.”16

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I could give many more examples of resistance, but that would exceed the limits of this essay. Those given suffice to show that Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, inflexible ultramontane defender of the Vicar of Christ’s attributes on Earth, decisively resisted the Second Vatican Council, Paul VI, John Paul II, and their erroneous teachings and actions—perhaps even before the birth of some of these traditionalist writers calling for a reinterpretation of the papacy. He did this energetically because his legitimate resistance sprang from his deep veneration for the papacy.

Someone may wonder: How can we extricate ourselves from this stalemate if it is unacceptable to recast the papacy or change how it is exercised even in the face of Pope Francis’s abuses?

In my 2018 book, Pope Francis’s “Paradigm Shift”: Continuity or Rupture in the Mission of the Church? I mentioned Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira’s 1976 suggested conclusion to the Chilean TFP’s book, The Church of Silence in Chile. It is to recognize the authority that Pope Francis and diocesan bishops have but interrupt routine daily coexistence with the demolishing prelates just as a wife and children can interrupt cohabitation under the same roof with an abusive husband and father without breaking the marital and filial bonds.17

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Finally, I believe that what I wrote four years ago is even more valid today. I thus repeat it at the end of this essay:

“In the present confusion, which threatens to worsen very soon, one thing is sure: Catholics faithful to their baptism will never break the sacred bond of love, veneration, and obedience that unites them to the Successor of Peter and the successors of the Apostles. This is true even when these may eventually oppress them in their attempt to demolish the Church. If in the abuse of their power and seeking to coerce the faithful into accepting their deviations those prelates condemn them for their fidelity to the Gospel and for legitimately resisting abusive authority, it is those shepherds, not the faithful, who will be responsible for the rupture and its consequences before God, the rights of the Church, and history. Saint Athanasius is a case in point. Although he was a victim of the abuse of power, he remains a star in the Church’s firmament forever.”18

When Divine Providence decides to put an end to the apocalyptic crisis the Holy Church is going through, and a holy pope comes to govern her, as prophesied by numerous saints and privileged souls, the stains now disfiguring the papacy will shine with the same supernatural splendor as the wounds of the Passion shone on our Divine Redeemer’s resurrected Body. At that hallowed hour, the holy hands of the Successor of Peter will bless particularly those who behaved like the good sons of Noah19 in today’s days of upheaval with unfaithful popes. Holding fast to the sensus fidei, they increased their veneration for the papacy, without falling into the trap of pretending to reform by human hands that which divine hands established: “Thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build My Church” (Matt. 16:18).

Yes, indeed! The pope needs reform, not the papacy.

Photo Credit:  © Anatolijs Laicans –


1. “Pope Francis Speaks With Mexican Television,” America, Mar. 13, 2015,
2. Pope Francis, apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia (Feb. 2, 2020), no. 61,
3. José Antonio Ureta, “The Faithful Are Fully Entitled to Defend Themselves Against Liturgical Aggression—Even When It Comes From the Pope,”, July 25, 2021,
4. See First Vatican Council, First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ, (Jul 18, 1870),,
5. John R. Quinn, “The Claims of the Primacy and the Costly Call to Unity,” (June 29, 1996),,
6. Louis Billot, Tractatus de Ecclesia Christi (Rome: Aedes Universitatis Gregorianae, 1927) 1:535.
7. Joseph de Maistre, Considérations sur la France, in Œuvres, ed. Pierre Glaudes (Paris: Robert Laffont, 2007), p. 276.
8. José Antonio Ureta, “Leo XIII: The First Liberal Pope Who Went Beyond His Authority,”, Oct. 19, 2021,
9. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, “A perfeita alegria,” Folha de S. Paulo, Jul. 12, 1970,
10. “Saint of the Day,” Jan. 10, 1976, adapted for this essay from spoken to written style.
11. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, “O direito de saber,” Folha de S. Paulo, Jan. 25, 1970,
12. “The Vatican Policy of Détente with Communist Governments—Should the TFPs Stand Down? Or Should They Resist?”,
13. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, “Luther, Absolutely Not!”,
14. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, “Luther Thought He Was Divine!”,
15. Corrêa de Oliveira, “Luther, Absolutely Not!”
16. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, Revolution and Counter-Revolution (York, Penn.: The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, Property, 1993), 145.
17. See José Antonio Ureta, Pope Francis’s “Paradigm Shift”: Continuity or Rupture in the Mission of the Church? trans. José Aloisio Schelini (Spring Grove, Penn.: The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property, 2018), 166-71,
18. Ureta, Pope Francis’s “Paradigm Shift,” 170-71.
19. See Gen. 9:20—27.