You may know this story, but it bears repeating. On October 27, 1984, Cardinal Jaime Sin of the Philippines attended a ceremonial dinner in Shanghai. Present at the dinner was a famous prisoner of conscience: Bishop Kung, who had been locked up for the previous 29 years and deprived of the sacraments or any contact with the outside world. Bishop Kung’s crime was remaining in communion with the pope and refusing to join the government-run church. The imprisoned bishop had been invited to the dinner as a concession to international pressure, but placed at the far end of the table from Cardinal Sin so they could not talk.
At some point, Cardinal Sin slyly proposed the old Filipino custom whereby every guest sings a song. When Bishop Kung's turn came, he launched into Gregorian chant: “Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam.” (Christ’s words to the first pope: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.”) Some Communist officials cottoned on and tried to hush Bishop Kung, but he continued: “…et portae inferi non praevalebunt” (“and the gates of hell will not prevail against it”). The bishop had got his message out.
Bishop Kung was just one of China’s countless witnesses to papal supremacy. Some have told their stories—like Margaret Chu, who remembers being abducted and told to break off her allegiance to Rome. Chu meditated on that same verse (“You are Peter...”) and decided that to reject the papacy “was the same as leaving Christ.” Many other Catholics lived and died unknown—tortured to death in prisons, buried alive by Red Guards, force-marched until their last breath.
Their witness becomes especially luminous at the present moment, when the Holy Father is at the center of controversy. Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s testimony, which claimed that Pope Francis knowingly made a sexual abuser into an important adviser, has shocked the world and the Church. And Francis’s response has perplexed many observers: First he declined to comment on the allegations, then he delivered a series of homilies on the themes of silence (which he associated with maturity and holiness) and accusation (which he associated with the demonic).
The whole episode appalled even the pope’s admirers. Simcha Fisher, a gifted writer who has consistently defended the Holy Father, was dismayed enough to write that Francis “sounds like an abuser.” The fiercely traditionalist website Church Militant, which had preserved a policy of never criticizing the Supreme Pontiff under any circumstances, abruptly changed course and called for Francis to resign. Nobody has praised this pontificate more eloquently than The Week’s Matthew Walther; he now writes that “Francis has revealed himself as an old-fashioned clericalist who views the faithful with contempt.” U.S. polls suggest a steep drop in the pope’s “approval ratings.” Meanwhile, Protestant apologists are making hay of the crisis, and I hear anecdotes of Catholics troubled in their faith, of non-Catholics finding another reason to doubt.
For two reasons, I haven’t been quite as shocked as some people. Firstly because there is still room to disbelieve Archbishop Viganò: If he has defamed the pope, he would have to be a world-class liar, but it’s not impossible. Secondly because, to be honest, the doctrinal confusion of this pontificate has already challenged me enough.
In both cases, there’s a perfectly logical answer to the challenge. The papacy does not depend on the qualities of the men who take office: Church teaching sets definite limits on the pope's authority and allows for the possibility that he will make colossal blunders. If Viganò’s central allegations are true, it’s no refutation of Catholicism, any more than Alexander VI’s lechery and corruption. If the doctrinal chaos is as bad as it looks, it doesn’t disprove the Faith, any more than John XXII’s battle to impose his false teaching on theologians, or the Third Council of Constantinople's condemnation of Pope Honorius as a heretic.
All entirely true and logical. But those who find it a little harder to persuade themselves to go to Mass, those who are hovering at the threshold of the Church and wondering if they have been led up the garden path, may need more than logic. They need figures like Bishop Kung, who show that it is worth giving up everything to remain in communion with the Holy See. In 1955, just before he was locked away, the bishop was dragged before a crowd of thousands to confess his crimes. He confessed something else: “Long live Christ the King! Long live the Pope!” From 1955 to 1984, there were five popes; but Bishop Kung’s loyalty, like that of Thomas More and John Fisher, did not depend on who happened to be in office. If it’s not rash to suggest this, maybe divine providence has raised up so many Chinese martyrs and confessors of papal supremacy partly to help Catholics through a crisis of the papacy.
I read about Archbishop Viganò’s allegations while sitting in a tent in the English countryside. I thought I had escaped the news cycle, but I switched on my phone’s data to get the weather forecast, and saw emails referring to some major event. As I digested the story, some other campers were saying Morning Prayer outside the tent. One of them was reading the Gospel for the day in his soft Northern accent:
Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Many Catholics, if tempted against the Faith, have no better answer than “To whom shall we go?” Peter is Peter, whatever else he might be. And nothing can prevail against the Church, not even the mistakes of a pope.
Dan Hitchens is deputy editor at The Catholic Herald.