A Catholic Approach to the Papacy

On this solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, celebrating their respective life and martyrdom, it is beneficial to dwell a moment upon the papacy (and by extension, the episcopacy), as we make our way towards eternity in these confusing times.

It is no secret to readers of these columns that I share with many other Catholics certain reservations about the current Pope, or at least, how he exercises his papacy, and particularly some of the things he says and writes. I have striven in my own mind and soul to maintain a sense of equanimity and balance. Anxiety (perturbatione in the original Latin) is something we pray to be freed from daily at the end of the Our Father at Mass.  Perhaps the following reflections will help to achieve some level of peace for your own minds.

To begin, we should always show a respect for the office of the Pope, regardless of who fills the shoes of the Fisherman, along with charity for the man behind the office. I have heard or read of Catholics who call him ‘Frankie’, ‘Bergoglio’ or even worse, which does not reflect well. When we call him ‘Pope Francis’, ‘Holy Father’, ‘Your Holiness’, we are not reverencing Jorge Bergoglio, per se, who, like all of us, is a vessel of clay, but rather the office the man holds, as the Vicar of Christ. As in the military (and we are the Church militant), we salute the ‘rank’, not the person.

On that note, we should always see things in historical terms. We have had a whole panoply of Popes since Christ bestowed the office first upon Peter, to the 266th, who currently sits on his chair: Saints, sinners, the vain, the irascible, good administrators and bad ones, Popes who have committed adultery, vastly more who are chaste and pure, intellectuals and academics, peasants and farmers, diplomats, shy Popes, gregarious Popes, dour and cheerful and so on. We have been blessed with a series of stellar and saintly men, especially in the last few centuries.  The last two Pontiffs in particular were intellectual and spiritual giants, historical men chosen by God.

The danger in this is that we have become perhaps overly dependent upon the Pope, even falling into a sort of quasi Pope-olatry.  We must remember as Catholics that our faith and our hope are in Christ, the Church’s true foundation, whom the Pope represents as His Vicar.  Every Pope, from the best to the worst, by his own human weakness to some degree obscures this representation of Christ, which is why even Popes, perhaps especially Popes, have to go to regular confession (John Paul II purportedly went every week sometimes, one may guess, even more often).

This current papacy is offering us a reminder in a very incarnate way that the Pope is not some sort of Delphic oracle, and not everything he writes, and especially not everything he says, is from God, nor even free from error.  The Holy Father can be wrong, and at the very least ambiguous, hesitant, even incoherent at times.  We are free to, and should, analyse, interpret, criticize, even disagree with some of the things he says and writes, but all in the spirit of charity and reverence.  In fact, the Code of Canon Law (can. 212.2) suggests that this is not just a right, but at times even a duty for the laity:

In accord with the knowledge, competence, and preeminence which they possess, (lay people) have the right and even at times a duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church, and they have a right to make their opinion known to the other Christian faithful, with due regard to the integrity of faith and morals and reverence toward their pastors, and with consideration for the common good and the dignity of persons

True enough, as the First Vatican Council dogmatically declared, the Pope has the charism of infallibility, freedom from error, but like any charism, a gratia gratis data (a grace freely given), this grace is only exercised under certain conditions.  These conditions were made clear in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, from Vatican II (par.25). The whole document should be read, but here is the key passage:

The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful – who confirms his brethren in the faith – he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals

In sum, infallibility is only exercised when the Pope teaches as Pope, to all the faithful, on faith and morals, in a definitive way, which, to understate the case, does not happen all the time. To such utterances, we owe the ‘assent of faith’. To pronouncements of the Pope that are not infallible, but simply authoritative, we should offer him obedience and respect, with ‘religious submission of mind and will’.

Oftentimes, however, perhaps most of the time, the Pope speaks in an exhortative manner, urging us to action, to prayer, to virtue, to give to the poor, to be merciful, to welcome the sinner, and so on.  This we interpret and apply in the context of our own lives and vocations. He may also give his opinion on matters outside faith and morals (e.g., on global warming), or on matters that are provisional and conditional, with which we are free to agree or not.

The central point in this current discussion is that whatever the Pope says or does, we must always interpret and accept through the lens of Scripture and Tradition.  Even the Pope cannot add one iota to, nor change in any way, the revelation given to us by Christ, which was completed in the Apostolic era. The reason we have a Pope and a Magisterium, as the Catechism states, is that

even if Revelation is already complete, it has not been made completely explicit; it remains for Christian faith gradually to grasp its full significance over the course of the centuries.

It is the task of the Magisterium, led by the Roman Pontiff, to interpret, expound and guard this revelation through each specific historical epoch, with the aforementioned charism of infallibility, or at least the authority, granted to the Pope and bishops from Christ

The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God…has been entrusted to the living, teaching office of the Church alone…the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome (CCC, #85, cf., Dei Verbum, 10):

However well or badly a given Pope carries out this office should not cause us as Catholics to demean or disregard the papacy itself, nor, God forbid, to lose our faith and leave the Church.  The Papacy is our visible, incarnate link to Christ, and we believe in the office of the papacy not on the basis of reason, but of faith.  It is a mystery stricte dicta, beyond the realms of our human imagination.  We don’t believe in the papacy because it makes sense to us, but because Christ revealed it.  Ponder the following words of Lumen Gentium (par. 22):

the college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter as its head. The pope’s power of primacy over all, both pastors and faithful, remains whole and intact. In virtue of his office, that is as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church. And he is always free to exercise this power

No earthly institution would give such power to one man, and the world will never ‘get’ this, but the wisdom of God is folly to Man, and such is the will of Christ, in working through our human weakness and limitations. Both the Church and the papacy have not only survived, but thrived in the midst of good, bad and indifferent Pontiffs, to say nothing of the countless bishops, priests, religious and laity for two millennia, and counting.

To paraphrase a riposte between Napoleon Bonaparte and an unnamed Roman Catholic cardinal:

Your eminence, are you not aware that I have the power to destroy the Catholic Church?

The cardinal responded ruefully:

Your majesty, we, the Catholic clergy, have done our best to destroy the church for the last 1800 years.  We have not succeeded, and neither will you.

Now, don’t get me wrong:  This is an anecdote, and no Pope or bishop that I know of, not least Pope Francis, is out to ‘destroy’ the Church.  Sure enough, in their (and our) human weakness, any given Pontiff can obscure Christ’s truth at times.  That is why, when we read what the Pope says or writes, we should always interpret his words in the light of Christ’s revelation, through the lens of Scripture, the Tradition of the Church, previous teachings of the Magisterium, and so on. No one papacy, not even the last two great ones, ‘defines’ the Church.  Even John Paul II and Benedict stood on the shoulders of those who came before, and their own vast, clear and profound teaching can only really be understood and applied by immersing oneself to some extent in what every other Magisterium has said and taught.

One may peruse all of Francis’ encyclicals and exhortations, sermons and addresses, and never come across anything that is explicitly heterodox (and, yes, not even in the most controversial sections of Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia).  One may find ambiguities, conditional statements, opinions with which one may disagree, selectively edited and nuanced footnotes and references (even from the great Saint Thomas!), all of which may lead to a certain confusion and hetero-praxy, if read outside of the Church’s consistent Magisterium and Tradition.  A whole series of articles could be devoted to this topic alone, and the blogosphere is full of them already.

For example, the Pope will never permit divorce or the dissolution of marriage as a principle (which would be heterodox) but he may expedite the annulment process to such an extent that the practice seems a tolerance of quasi-Catholic ‘divorce’.  The same goes for his other statements on homosexuality, cohabitation, reception of Communion and so on.

We are free to question this approach. Perhaps, we may presume, Pope Francis is trying to get the truth across and save souls, opening the ‘gates of mercy’ so wide in his pastoral zeal that his statements seem to compromise this truth.  We know not whether Pope Francis has a ‘master plan’, nor his intentions, nor the secrets of his heart.  Many have wondered at his choice of advisers.  All we can do is read what he writes, and interpret what he says, as Pope, as best we can, in the light of what has come before, and accept what we can.

As I wrote recently, quoting the great Thomas More, we must get to heaven by the ‘tangle of our wits’, more necessary now than before.  Christ never said the path would be easy, especially when we have to see our way through the tangle of obscurity and obfuscation. Yet those who are committed to the truth will see the truth through ambiguous, even erroneous, statements, while those who are not, well, they will conclude what they want.

If your eye be sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness

And, of course, we must pray that wisdom, clarity and courage are given to the Pope, who carries a large burden and responsibility on his shoulders (indeed, one of the largest).  The shoes of the fisherman are not easy to fill, and no one is really worthy of this office, for they are, in the end, the shoes of Christ.  We must see past the human weakness, to the Christ Who dwells within (and that applies to each one of us).  For it is in following the shoes of the Fisherman that, by straight or sometimes winding roads, we find the road to heaven.


Holy Proto-Martyrs of Rome, orate pro nobis!