Pope Francis Shuffles Papal Titles Better Than a Magician Shuffles Cards

By Jules Gomes Published on April 19, 2024

A theologian, a historian, and a bishop walk into the Vatican archives. This isn’t the opening line of a joke, and what the trio excavate is no laughing matter. For sure, the reigning pope Pius IX isn’t laughing.

Pius IX is determined to dogmatize papal infallibility. It’s his Hail Mary to save the Papal States from Italian unification and his tinpot theocracy from collapsing. But the plucky, intrepid, and erudite trio are unearthing historical facts and Scriptural truths to detonate his claims.

A century and a half later, the successor of Pope Pius IX is laughing at his predecessor like parrots at a bag-piper (sorry, Shakespeare). Like a naughty boy chucking toys out of his pram, Pope Francis is pulling to pieces the pomp and circumstance of Pius IX’s puffed-up papacy.

God’s Juggler

Francis has been juggling papal titles in the Annuario Pontificio (Pontifical Yearbook). He’s just reassigned to himself the title “Patriarch of the West” — a title Pope Benedict XVI jettisoned. “Patriarch of the West” negates universal jurisdiction, a triumph for Patriarch Bartholomew!

In 2020, Francis dumped the title “Vicar of Christ” into a section of the Annuario Pontificio categorized under the rubric of “historical titles.” The new edition of the Pontifical Yearbook had a single page with Francis downgrading himself as “Francis, bishop of Rome.”

Cardinal Gerhard Müller excoriated Francis’s shuffling of papal honorifics, noting: “It is theological barbarism to devalue the pope’s titles ‘Successor of Peter, Vicar of Christ, and visible head of the whole Church’ as mere historical ballast.”

Trolled yet again by Pope Francis, traditionalist and conservative Catholics wept and gnashed their teeth on Twitter, tearing their robes like the high priest in Matthew’s gospel, shouting: “He hath spoken blasphemy, what further need have we of witnesses?”

Is Francis Rewriting Papal History?

But has Francis really blasphemed against the Petrine office, or is he calling out the Emperor with No Clothes? Is it Cardinal Müller who is guilty of historical revisionism?

After all, a milky way of traditionalist Catholic stars from Cardinal Raymond Burke to Bishop Athanasius Schneider have begun to blame the “ultramontanist papacy” as “the source of our ills.” The traddie celebrities even seek to exorcise a “harmful” “spirit of Vatican I.”

What would they say to their hero, St. Robert Bellarmine, who exalted the pope as “vice God”? Or to Pope Boniface VIII, who in his bull Unam Sanctam, declared that “it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff”?

Despite attempting to hedge the pontiff’s unlimited powers in a weighty essay, Burke caves in to pontifical myth-making and concludes: “We must in all things teach and defend the fullness of the power with which Christ has endowed his Vicar on earth.”

Have Burke and his buddies examined the rigorous scholarship with which the theologian, historian, and bishop mentioned at the beginning of this article attempted to ringfence papal power when Pius IX was poised to promulgate the dogma of papal infallibility at Vatican 1?

Exposing Papal Forgeries

Let’s start with the theologian in the trio. The Edinburgh Review would describe Fr. Ignaz von Döllinger, a hyperpapalist in his younger days, as “the greatest Catholic theologian and the most learned Church historian in Germany during the present century.”

“He knew everything,” British Prime Minister William E. Gladstone wrote of Döllinger. In luring Döllinger to teach at his Catholic university, Cardinal John Henry Newman begged: “In gaining you, we should gain the presence and countenance of a worldwide reputation.”

In 1870, writing under the pseudonyms “Janus” and “Quirinius,” the German theologian fired nuclear javelins against the preposterously exaggerated claims of papal power and universal jurisdiction in a failed attempt to stop Pius IX from dogmatizing papal infallibility.

The God who used the Assyrians and Babylonians to discipline Israel and Judah is the God who is using Pope Francis to trim the fat of an over-bloated papacy.

Döllinger dismissed papal infallibility as nothing but “moonshine” based on “forgeries and fictions,” warning that the dogma would prove to be a “millstone” around the neck of the Church.

In his book The Pope and the Council, Döllinger listed at least seven major forgeries including the pseudo-Isidorian decretals, Liber Pontificalis, Donation of Constantine, Donations of Pepin and Charlemagne, and the Gratian Decretum.

Earlier popes used the blatant forgeries to decisively extend their power and turn the Petrine office into “an absolute monarchy subjected to the arbitrary power of a single individual,” wrote Döllinger.

This laid the fictitious edifice for papal infallibility, he explained, “first, by the principle that the decrees of every Council require papal confirmation; secondly, by the assertion that the fulness of power (contra Cardinal Burke!), even in matters of faith, resides in the Pope alone, who is bishop of the universal Church, while the other bishops are his servants.”

Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely

Döllinger the theologian had a close friend and student, the English historian John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, whom Cambridge historian Oliver Richardson described as “the most catholic of Catholics and the least papistical of papists.”

Readers will recognize Lord Acton by his aphorism: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But few know that the context of this maxim is a letter written to Anglican bishop Mandel Creighton, who was defending unlimited papal power.

“I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favorable presumption that they did no wrong,” Acton argued in the same paragraph. “Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.”

Peter Is Not the Rock

The bishop in our trio fired the killshot. In a speech published later, Archbishop Peter Richard Kenrick of St. Louis, Missouri, challenged papal infallibility at Vatican 1, noting that “the Scriptures are not to be interpreted contrary to the unanimous consent of the fathers.”

The archbishop demonstrated how most of the church fathers did not believe that the “rock” of Matthew 16:18 (“You are Peter, and, on this rock, I will build my Church”) was Peter.

Kenrick summarized the five diverse patristic interpretations of the key biblical proof text used to support the papacy: 44 fathers understood the rock to be Peter’s confession of faith, 16 interpreted the rock as Jesus, 8 interpreted the rock as all the apostles, and a few believed the rock to be the faithful. Only 17 fathers thought the rock was Peter.

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The archbishop, who had dug deep into the bowels of history, argued: “If we are bound to follow the majority of the fathers in this thing, then we are bound to hold for certain that by the ‘rock’ should be understood the faith professed by Peter, not Peter professing the faith.

“This interpretation is the weightiest of all,” Kenrick thundered, “since it is followed by 44 fathers and doctors; among them, from the East, are Gregory of Nyssa, Cyril of Alexandria, Chrysostom, Theophylact; from the West, Hilary, Ambrose, Leo the Great; from Africa, Augustine.

“From this it follows, either that no argument at all, or one of the slenderest probability, is to be derived from the words, ‘On this rock will I build my church,’ in support of the primacy,” Kenrick concluded.

Papal Infallibility Fails the Test of History

Citing Matthew 16:18, Pope Benedict XVI echoed Kenrick’s words in a 2011 sermon: “Jesus builds the Church on the rock of the faith of Peter, who confesses the divinity of Christ.”

“As far as the doctrine of the (papal) primacy is concerned, Rome must not require more of the East than was formulated and lived during the first millennium,” he wrote as Cardinal Ratzinger, speaking of the conditions required for full communion with Orthodoxy.

Fr. Francis Sullivan, in his book Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church, agreed: “It is true as we have seen, that it was only the western church after its separation from the East, that accepted the authority of the popes to define dogmas of faith.”

Cardinal Newman famously said, “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.” Our trio consisting of Döllinger, Acton, and Kenrick, discovered that to be “deep in history” is to cease to believe in papal infallibility and to become the “least papistical of papists.”

Unlike them, Pope Francis is neither a theologian, a historian, nor an expert in patristics.

Is he aware of Döllinger spelling out how the papacy was puffed up using a bucketload of forgeries? Has he read Kenrick’s knock-out speech published soon after Vatican 1? Has he combed through Acton’s justification of Luther’s Reformation? I don’t know.

This I do know: if Francis is accused of being Machiavelli redivivus at worst, he is God’s demolition man at best. The God who used the Assyrians and Babylonians to discipline Israel and Judah is the God who is using Pope Francis to trim the fat of an over-bloated papacy.

Perhaps, God, in His wisdom, thought it wise to take the papacy down a peg or two and has blessed the Church with the biggest wrecking ball to occupy the Chair of Peter since Pius IX. The Hand that crafted the universe continues to write straight with crooked lines.


Dr. Jules Gomes, (BA, BD, MTh, PhD), has a doctorate in biblical studies from the University of Cambridge. Currently a Vatican-accredited journalist based in Rome, he is the author of five books and several academic articles. Gomes lectured at Catholic and Protestant seminaries and universities and was canon theologian and artistic director at Liverpool Cathedral.

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