Are There Limits to Papal Power?

G.K. Chesterton once quipped that a rhinoceros in a china shop has all the power, but no authority. The curator, on the other hand, may be a lightweight compared to the rhino, but he does have the authority to arrange, disarrange, the cups and saucers – and needs just enough power to do what his authority permits and requires.

The distinction between power and authority can be a subtle one. It’s easy enough to see in rhinos and hurricanes, muggers and bullies and strongman dictators, but not so much in legitimate authorities. In light of what is going on in the Church (and society) at present, it would do us well to ponder that distinction for a few moments.

Authority is the ‘quality by which men or institutions make laws and expect obedience from others’, as the Catechism puts it (#1897). As a capacity to make laws, authority ultimately derives from reason, for law itself is defined as an ‘ordinance or reason, for the common good, by the proper authority, and promulgated’. (cf., Summa Theologica (ST), I-II, q. 90, a. 4)

Authority itself may derive from various sources, but, as Saint Paul states, it ultimately comes from God (Romans 13:1). Rarely, however, is authority directly bestowed by the Almighty. Rather, we know who’s in charge primarily through law itself, for example, by the due process of election (in democracy) or primogeniture (in monarchies).

Hopefully – and this is often a dim hope – those given authority also have the requisite human qualities, which is to say the right virtue and consequent power, that make them fit for office. We may call this ‘personal authority’, which is given not from without, but flows from within. Christ had this in full, which is why the Gospels say that ‘He spoke to them with authority, which is to say, not like the scribes and Pharisees. These latter had only external authority, bestowed on them by their office, but with little capacity to actually wield it. And such continues in some of the mediocre leaders of our own day, who lean much upon police and their guns to enforce their unjust decrees.

The Greek word for Christ’s authority is exousia, which may be translated as ‘fullness of being’. His authority and His power were in seamless harmony – derived from Who He is, the eternal and almighty God, and you can’t get more authoritative than that. Every other exousia, from the devil on up, derives from Christ’s own.

As Saint Thomas rightly points out, however, human authority is to be exercised legitimately only within the limits God has set, not least the natural and divine law, and within the boundaries of other laws and spheres of authority – the so-called ‘rule of law’, such that each power be balanced by other powers and by other spheres of responsibility which keep it within proper bounds (CCC, #1904). When any ruler transgresses those limits, authority breaks down, becomes law-less, and no longer binds in conscience. Like the rhino, they may still have power, but it is wielded arbitrarily. As Machiavelli put it, the will of the prince is the law.

Which brings us to the Pope. Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (1964), teaches that his power – potestas – is ‘full, supreme and universal’ (#22). This teaching is derived from the Constitution of the First Vatican Council on apostolic primary, Pastor Aeternus of 1879, which mentions the ‘full power’ of the papal office at least three times.

This may at first glance seem excessive, for power that is ‘full, supreme and universal’ could also be said Almighty God. In his question on this matter (I. q. 25, a.3), Saint Thomas says that even God’s power is ‘limited’, not by any other authority, but by the very nature of Being itself. God cannot do a contradiction, like make a square circle, or change the past, or commit a sin. As Thomas concludes, it is better to say that such things cannot be done, than to say that God cannot do them.

So, too, papal power is to be exercised within the limits of the authority bestowed on him – or, more properly on his office – by Christ and the constitution of the Church He founded. For even the Pope is a servant, first of God as well as of the truth Christ has revealed through His Church. The task of the Pope is first and foremost to preserve, defend and hand on the Tradition and Deposit of Faith, within the law, and even the customs, of the Church.

The question before us is, what happens if a Pope seems to go beyond this, and his use of papal power exceeds papal authority? This may seem somewhat odd, for, to paraphrase Napoleon, what power has the Pope? Unlike secular authorities, he has no police force or army to extend his power beyond his authority (and, no, the Swiss Guard and Vatican constabulary don’t count here – after all, there are only a 150 of the former, and a 138 of the latter, and two billion-plus Catholics. Their main task is simply to ensure peace within the city-state, and protect the person of the Pope, Cardinals and other residents of the Vatican City State).

What the Pope does have, however, is sway over consciences and concomitant moral behaviour, which in many respects is more powerful than la Grande Armée. But this influence is not unlimited. The Pope is a guide to our conscience – a very authoritative one – but not everything he decrees is binding. As Cardinal Newman put it in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk: if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts, I shall drink – to the Pope, if you please – still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.

So, how might we discern where the limits of the Pope and conscience?

In his discussion on whether human law binds in conscience, (I-II, q.96, a.4), Saint Thomas says that law derives its authority from the divine and natural law. Hence, the Pope, in clarifying the principles of such laws – e.g., in matters such as contraception, life issues, social teaching – has the authority to bind consciences. But this comes from the natural law itself, written in our own hearts.

It is when we come to disciplinary and contingent matters – human and positive law – that things are more uncertain. As Thomas continues, in such laws, three things must be considered, violation of any of which make a law unjust: When it ceases to be for the common good, or when it exceeds the authority of the lawmaker, or when it places undue or disproportionate burdens on those under the law. Such laws, Saint Thomas concludes, do not bind in conscience, except if, in disregarding them, we were to cause worse disorder, that is, as he puts it, in order to avoid scandal or disturbance, for which cause a man should even yield his right.

As the highest authority in the Church, there is no court of appeal from papal decree, and no authority on earth which may ultimately judge the Roman pontiff. There is also no canonical procedure for removing a pope – only his death, resignation or some act of God can dislodge him from papal office.

That is not to say the we are slaves of the pope, or obeisant to his decrees. I have written before on the proper notion of obedience – which is only a virtue if exercised in accord with reason. For that, we turn to the art of epikeia (ST, II-II. q. 120), using our conscience to apply the law in the best way possible, hopefully without direct disobedience. We may, and sometimes should, act praeter legem, ‘beside the law’, to achieve the common good in any given concrete situation.

Bishops are always permitted to interpret laws, even if they are within the authority of the Pontiff, for the good of the people, as per canon 87.1:

A diocesan bishop, whenever he judges that it contributes to their spiritual good, is able to dispense the faithful from universal and particular disciplinary laws issued for his territory or his subjects by the supreme authority of the Church. 

And this canon itself is to be interpreted in light of the ultimate canon of the Code, which states that the salvation of souls, which must always be the supreme law in the Church, is to be kept before one’s eyes. (can. 1752)

At the end of the day, however, when a direct order is given that within the jurisdiction of the ‘full, supreme, universal’ authority of the papal office – even if such a law may seem unjust – we should generally ‘yield our right’ and obey, and let God manifest how justice is ultimately to be done. We cannot enter into the Pope’s own conscience – far be it! – nor can we make ourselves our own Pope, and usurp or defy his authority, even if – and I say if – it seems to be used simply as ‘power’.

To take but one recent example: Some called for Bishop Strickland to defy the Pope against his recent deposition – leaving aside the justice thereof – but whither would such lead us? A diocese with two warring bishops, vying for the loyalty of the faithful? ‘Scandal and disturbance’, indeed, leading even to the undoing the very structure of the Church, if taken to its logical, and ontological, conclusion. The chaos of the Great Western Schism gives a glimpse of what might ensue. The Pope, good, bad or indifferent, is still the principle of unity in the hierarchical Church – just as is the bishop in his diocese, and obedience is better than sacrifice, sayeth the Lord (cf., 1 Sam 15:22-23).

But when it comes to that to which the Pope exhorts, or even permits, well, there is far more scope for our conscience. No Catholic is bound to believe in anthropogenic global warming or receive a given medical treatment, or stop attending the Traditional Latin Mass; nor is any priest ever bound to give communion to the divorced and remarried or to pro-abortion politicians, or, alas, are they ever constrained to bless a homosexual couple, who present themselves so. (Already, some bishops’ conferences have refused to implement the recent declaration Fiducia, in an apparent Paul versus Peter remonstration, but more of that in a subsequent post).

In the midst of the apparent chaos unfolding in our Church, we should learn to trust the one attribute of God’s mentioned in the creed: His omnipotence, of which the Apostles were not quite aware on that storm-tossed sea. By his infinite power, the Almighty can bring justice out of the tumult caused by unjust laws. History abounds with examples, and God will bring a greater order therefrom, in the time and manner He so wills.

In the meantime, we can only do our best in the vagaries of this vale of tears, finding our way through the thickets of the law using our conscience, the aboriginal Vicar of Christ, to return to another of Newman’s apt phrases, through which God speaks, first and foremost.