The Fall of Rome

Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.
– Francois de La Rochefoucauld

“There have been bad Popes before.” I have frequently heard this from Catholics in the Francis era. Once haunting the moral witness of the Church, John XII’s murders and mistresses and the Borgia and Medici mafiosos that ruled the Roman roost during the Renaissance are now a source of consolation for Catholics concerned about the direction their current Pontiff is taking their church. The Barque of Peter has endured rougher waters than these, and yet it has not capsized, or so the story goes. But however God’s providence will work out in the uncertain days beyond October’s controversial Synod, Francis’s about-face on gay blessings in his response to July’s dubia, and finally the most recent declaration by the Dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith in favor of “pastoral” blessings for gay couples (and the revision of the meaning of blessings to make room for them), it is not true to say that the Roman Church has “been here before.” Evil overlooked and tolerated within the Church is one thing, but the Church extending her hand to bless evil is something else entirely, and portends an altogether different future for all of Christendom.

The fact is that the basic orthodoxy of the Roman See has been a stable feature of Christendom since the Church was born and even her detractors have been frequently forced to admit this. The Eastern Church’s complaints against the West over the addition of the filioque to the Creed, the expansion of the jurisdiction of the Papacy, and Eastern revulsion toward the entire Augustinian synthesis of the Faith which the Roman Church had adopted as her preferred theological grammar, were enough to cause the Church’s first great divorce. But amid it all, even the most acerbic Greek critics of Old Rome were forced to at least pay lip service to her sterling reputation for defending the sacred deposit of the true Faith against heresy. Lacking as the Latin West may have been in theological sophistication in Greek eyes, it had to be admitted that the greatest heresiarchs that had arisen to threaten the Early Church (Marcion, Arius, Nestorius) had not hailed from over there, but much nearer to home. Each time, Old Rome could always be counted on to join the forces of the Orthodox Faith to put them down.

As much as outspoken Protestants may, well, protest that the Vatican has been spouting grievous errors for some centuries, they too often take for granted the bulwark it has often been against the many heresies of modern high criticism and modernist theology. Where moral and theological lines have been drawn in the United States, Evangelicals and Catholics have always found themselves on the same side. This goes back further than the recent ecumenism of Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Honesty on this score is what led so staunch an exponent of five-point Calvinism as John Gresham Machen in his masterful essay against Liberal Christianity, to count the Roman Church as an allied combatant against the internal threat of the new modernist religion:

How great is the common heritage which unites the Roman Catholic Church, with its maintenance of the authority of Holy Scripture and with its acceptance of the great early creeds, to devout Protestants today! We would not indeed obscure the difference which divides us from Rome. The gulf is indeed profound. But profound as it is, it seems almost trifling compared to the abyss which stands between us and many ministers of our own Church. The Church of Rome may represent a perversion of the Christian religion; but naturalistic liberalism is not Christianity at all.

As with the Greeks in the Middle Ages, honesty obliges Protestants today to admit that the modernist heresies we currently contend with did not arise from the Catholic Church, but rather within Protestant folds. It is not at all controversial as a purely historical matter, to class modern “nondogmatic religion” (as Pius IX so perfectly defined it) as a largely Protestant phenomenon.

But of course, it has not stayed that way. So many Roman cardinals, ordinaries, priests, nuns, and friars have received the new gospel of worldliness with joy and have rushed to become its most eager exponents over the past six decades emboldened the “spirit” of the Second Vatican Council, if not its letter. All of this appears to be climaxing with the impossibly titled “Synod on Synodality” where most sensible people expected Pope Francis to lay the foundations for a localized, quiet, though permanent and intractable heterodoxy to operate inside the Roman Church. Exceeding those expectations, Fiducia Supplicans has just arrived, permitting same-sex couples and other couples in “irregular situations” to receive blessings from a priest in non-liturgical settings. Vague caveats are given. Priests may (ought?) bless gay couples outside of official liturgical rites, but not in a way that causes confusion about whether the Church still considers same-sex unions to be disordered and sinful. That it is hard to see how confusion could be avoided given the occasion–a same-sex couple approaches the priest to be blessed as a couple–is not a question taken up by the declaration and its conclusion makes clear that no further guidance is forthcoming. To make sense of blessing gay couples, the declaration introduces a new “pastoral” understanding of blessings, segregating those given spontaneously outside of a formal setting into a category “external” to the Church’s liturgy, and therefore its doctrinal requirements. Perhaps the church’s definition of marriage has not changed, but the Church’s teaching certainly has.

For faithful Protestants looking on, it is a familiar and tragic scene. An atmosphere of vagary and a false cheeriness conceal the administrative fist behind the velvet glove of “inclusivity” and “unity” across difference. “Walking together” replaces robust debate and fidelity to common standards of truth. Doctrinal controversies are sidelined because they are “unkind.” Insisting on consistency between doctrine and pastoral practice is avoided for its “clericalism.” Conservatives are successfully baited into scrapping over texts, documents, and terms, naively (and sometimes vainly) thinking their mastery over letters and their penchant for entertaining invective will win the day while their opponents ignore the issues, toss them just enough language to evade their objections that liberals are changing doctrine, all the while creating facts on the ground. The fact is, same-sex couples are being blessed by Roman Catholic Priests, and it is now not only headlines but photos and videos that reveal the truth: Rome is following the primrose path of the Anglican Communion, the United Methodist Church, and every other denomination that has seen schism come from defying the overwhelming tradition of Church teaching. Those of us who are part of those communions understand the “pastoral” language in the Declaration for what it is: bare words barely concealing bad fruit. The Roman Church is now doing just what it said was impossible only a few short months ago: openly blessing sin.

Faithful Christians of all stripes ought to stop to take the measure of how this doctrinal earthquake will shake the entire Christian world. The Roman Church has, until now, functioned as a bulwark against the encroaching evils of the modern West. No matter the deep divisions between them, Protestants could always count on Rome for agreement on moral and spiritual essentials. Christ is divine, the Scriptures are inspired, Jesus’s miraculous birth and resurrection are historical facts, the moral life excludes adultery, abortion, and all sorts of other activities blessed and celebrated in secular law. In the most recent battles over same-sex “marriage” and transgenderism in America, the Roman Church has functioned as a kind of religio licita, whose ancient pedigree, embedded ethnic affiliations, and sheer size carved out an institutional exception from the imperative to sacrifice to the new gender gods, ensuring that other traditional Christians could at least find a friend in Rome in a newly hostile society.

All of that is over now, and all faithful Christians (to say nothing of Jews, Muslims, Mormons, and whoever else does not toe the line of the new Civil Religion) will now be exposed to the elements of a “negative world” in which Christians who hew to traditional teaching will be socially excluded as a matter of course. In this, Fiducia Supplicans represents something like a theological fall of Constantinople; our right flank is gone. Anti-Catholic snark or Protestant triumphalism could not be more out of touch at a time like this. Faithful Christians the world over have sensed that it has been evening for them in the West for some time. Fiducia Supplicans brings us all to night.

Amid this catastrophe, it is only right for us non-Roman Catholic Christians to sympathize with conservative Catholics (let’s just call them believers) who are hard-pressed for what to do about this. The sensible among them understand that inaction is not an option, even if it is hard for them to see what course to take. They have a great task ahead of them and they deserve our charity and prayers. But charity sometimes means clarifying hard truths. Amid the shellshock of these recent impacts, some dazed Catholic theologians have tried comforting their compatriots by telling stories about past bad Popes. But committing sin and blessing sin are two different things, and the latter is a wholly modern phenomenon that has riven every Christian communion that it has come in contact with.

Sometimes, the 7th Century Pope Honorius I is invoked, since he is the lone Pontiff with the distinction of being remembered as a formal heretic for his erroneous agreement with the Monothelite party and dying well before the 3rd Council of Constantinople could anathematize them in 680. But today’s situation is incomparable. Honorius’s opinion was on a matter unsettled during the span of his Pontificate, and so while his error is embarrassing, it was only defined in hindsight some decades after his death. The status of gay unions, which the Scriptures and the Church’s overwhelming tradition have expressly taught to be ‘abomination’ (to-ebah­ in Hebrew, nefas in Latin) for its effacement of the created natures of male and female, is a different matter. It requires no Council, past or future, local or ecumenical, to clarify. This is not a point of difficult Christological doctrine. This is sin, and the conflict between the Bible’s condemnation and the world’s approval of it is manifest to everyone. Fiducia Supplicans represents a challenge that the Roman communion has never faced. For the first time in history, evil is openly blessed by the Roman Church as a matter of course, on the express orders of its highest temporal authority, who claims direct jurisdiction over all the baptized and the ability to speak infallibly. Heresy has never enjoyed such a stronghold as it now does in the See of St Peter. Telling stories about the past is no comfort. Catholics are going to have to grapple with the meaning of an entirely novel situation: the first truly heretical Pope.

All Christians would benefit from stepping back a moment to consider what’s going to happen now that Rome is lost. Catholics would do well to leave off some of the triumphalism that has become fashionable among a certain set of young so-called ‘traditionalists’ (who are also usually converts from Protestantism) and take a sober look at the several other communions that have already walked the trail their Pope is blazing. Protestants, for their part, should be honest that, despite their differences, their essential unity with Rome has brought them great benefits and comfort in modern times, a benefit they now stand to lose. The proper course for all believers is to reach out to each other and offer aid, comfort, and prayer. Devout Protestants and Catholics are indeed together in uncharted waters now that the Barque of St. Peter has abandoned them all.


Alexander Wilgus

Fr. Alexander Wilgus is the Rector at Redemption Anglican Church in Frisco, TX. He is creator of the Word & Table podcast and Director of Saint Paul’s House of Formation online catechesis program. Fr. Wilgus is married to Lauren and father to four children: Owen, Bryan, Abraham, and Mae.

'The Fall of Rome' have 6 comments

  1. January 2, 2024 @ 12:31 pm Stephanie

    The amount of bending over backward to explain this away that I’ve seen of late has been astounding. “But if you ACTUALLY read it,” “That’s not what it meant,” etc. It is far past time for the Church in the West to lament, grieve, and repent. I agree with you – the Roman Catholics need to get their house in order, but so do the rest of us. I have hope that the bishops of the Global South will carry Christendom in the future, especially for Anglicans. GAFCON and its sharp rebuttals of Canterbury have been encouraging.


  2. January 2, 2024 @ 1:09 pm Philip Enarson

    Wow! A very able, significant and needed response to the abandonment of Christian Orthodoxy by no other then Pope Francis…as prophesied, a Wolf in Sheep’s clothing; ‘they shall arise within your midst’. Thank you Sir for so capably summarizing the implications of such a disastrous happening coming out of the Vatican and at Advent at that. Great shame be on Pope Francis and the many followers he has within and without the church he leads. Yes it’s time for all orthodox, Bible believing Christians to circle the wagons in order to stand up against the growing storm of post modern Christendom.


  3. January 2, 2024 @ 1:41 pm David W. Landrum

    C. S. Lewis once commented that there is no need for the enemies of Christianity to ridicule the Church. Sooner or later, he said, someone from the Christian clergy will do it better than those who attack the church ever could; church leaders will make the church look silly and ludicrous. Here’s a prime example! Christian clergy blessing something the Bible and Christian tradition have said is an improper sexual relationship and “blessing” it. They did the work of those who attack the church–did if for them!


  4. January 2, 2024 @ 7:29 pm Reader Columba

    I would hope disaffected Roman Catholics might consider the Orthodox Western Rite, The Anglican G3 or the ACNA’s Diocese of All Saints as possible alternative church homes? Our houses are a mess, but at least they’re not on fire, as one blogger said about this Roman mess!


    • January 2, 2024 @ 10:41 pm Philip Enarson

      Agreed…directed Roman Catholics are welcome in all GAFCON related churcHes; we welcome you with open arms. You’ll find our form of worship to be quite similar to what you”‘ve been used to. Find an ACNA church near you by googling


  5. January 8, 2024 @ 2:08 pm Fr. Justin Clemente

    Fr. Alex – thank for taking the time to write this. I think you’re right in your assessment of the situation. I particularly appreciate your call to humility and cooperation amongst orthodox Catholics and Protestants alike. I also thought this line was particularly insightful: “Committing sin and blessing sin are two different things, and the latter is a wholly modern phenomenon that has riven every Christian communion that it has come in contact with.” We Anglicans know the difference all too well.


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