Friday, December 13, 2019

A Forgotten Truth: Unity With Peter

I would like to remind everyone about Jesus’ words to Saint Peter. “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church” (Mt 16:18). We have the assurance that this saying of Jesus is realized in what we call the infallibility of the Church. The spouse of Christ, headed by the successor of Peter, can live through crises and storms. Her members may sin and err. But if we remain united to Peter, we will never be able to separate ourselves from Christ profoundly or lastingly. Ubi Petrus, ibi Ecclesia. Where Peter is, there is the Church.

—Cardinal Sarah, The Day is Now Far Spent

I believe bishops are strong on two conditions. First of all is reliance on Peter and his successors. Our Blessed Lord told His Apostles: “The devil had asked to sift you as wheat.” There is no indication that Our Blessed Lord denied that there would be a demonic trial or testing; there is even a suggestion that He permitted it. Though the other Apostles were there, He spoke only to Peter: “Peter, I have prayed for you.” Our Lord did not say: “I will pray for all of you.” He prayed for Peter that his faith fail not, and after he recovered from his fall that he confirm his brethren. I think bishops are strong only when they are united with the Holy Father. As we begin to separate from him, we are no longer under the prayer of Christ And if we are not under the prayer of Christ, we are no longer protected, nor are we strong guardians or angels of the churches.

—Ven. Fulton J. Sheen, A Treasure In Clay

In these times, certain Catholics have forgotten a critical truth about the Catholic Church: that unity with the successor is essential to unity with Christ. This is not because of any special holiness of Karol Wojtyla, Joseph Ratzinger, or Jorge Bergoglio. It is because God protects His Church under the leadership of St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis. If we want to remain united to Christ, we cannot pretend that we can oppose the Pope when he teaches.

Some of the Pope’s critics argue that they are not refusing union. They’re just defending the faith against the Pope speaking in error. The problem with that defense is that every schismatic group in Church history has used it: The Pope can go astray if he doesn’t teach infallibly! We must oppose him if he teaches error in the ordinary magisterium! Then whatever they dislike is portrayed as error. 

The problem is: the Church mostly teaches in the ordinary magisterium. The Church only issues infallible definitions when they need to clarify the ordinary teaching. For example, the Church has always believed in Transubstantiation. But she did not see a need to infallibly define it until Berengarius denied the teaching. But it was always obligatory to obey when the Pope taught.

This is an important thing to remember. If one claims that only binding teachings are ex cathedra#, then we have nothing to say to the dissenters who reject the teachings not yet defined infallibly§. But the Latin extraordinarius has the sense of  “out of the common order,” not “of higher quality.” When the Church teaches in an extraordinary manner, it is because she is dealing with an out of the ordinary situation. But, whether the situation is ordinary or extraordinary, the Church is to be obeyed when she teaches. When one teacher (priest, bishop, cardinal) contradicts another, we cannot use “confusion” as a reason to choose our own way: Unity with Peter determines who is right and who is not*.

Unfortunately, many people have misunderstood this. Because the Church stressed the infallibility of the ex cathedra definition, some think that the ordinary teaching can err. But the ordinary magisterium is also protected. The difference between the two is that the extraordinary is set out in a way that settles a definition once and for all. The ordinary is able to be refined and adapted to the conditions at hand. We must be careful not to confuse the two: refining how a teaching is applied is not a rejection of the past teaching. Addressing new circumstances is not “getting political.”

For example, the Pope addressing the possibility that some divorced and remarried Catholics might not meet all three criteria of mortal sin—nobody is denying grave matter—is not changing the Church teaching denying those in a state of mortal sin from receiving the Eucharist. Instead, it is addressing the fact that some Catholics have been badly catechized or are forced into a situation they cannot escape@. This doesn’t mean that a former sin is now allowed. It means that the Church is dealing with the new situation of Catholics who don’t know how to distinguish their right hand from their left (cf. Jonah 4:11) and are in need of help to escape their situation.

Now some have argued with me, saying that this means that the Pope could contradict past teaching and we’d have to obey. Such Catholics have forgotten that Jesus Christ protects His Church from teaching error. The Popes—even the most wicked—have never taught errors. They might have been tempted to. They might have personally been in error. But a Pope has never taught errors. This is not (as also mentioned above) because of personal holiness: human being (except Our Lady, by a special grace) are all sinners in need of salvation. It is because without protection from error by God, we could never know when to obey or disobey a Church teaching. Since God made the Church necessary (see Lumen Gentium #14), and made obedience to the Church obligatory (Matthew 18:17, Luke 10:16), it follows that He must protect the Church when the successor of Peter teaches if The Church is going to be the pillar and foundation of truth (1 Timothy 3:15).

So, as Cardinal Sarah and the Ven. Fulton J. Sheen have warned us: if we want to be united with Christ, we must be united with the successor of Peter. If we forget this truth, we have wandered far from Our Lord, Jesus Christ, no matter how holy we might be.


(#) A view condemned by the Church. See Pius IX, A Syllabus of Errors; Pius XII, Humani Generis; Lumen Gentium #25; Canon 752; CCC #892.

(§) Some critics, remembering my past article on John XXII, might argue that I’m contradicting myself. But in the case of John XXII, there was not even an ordinary teaching. That doesn’t mean that the Church could have gone either way. God protects His Church—and did so here.

(*) Yes, some dissenters misuse the words of the Pope. That’s why it’s important to listen to what the Pope actually says, not what others (even me) say about him.

(@) See the 1997 document Vademecum for Confessors which makes a similar distinction for confessors over contraception.


  1. First of all, I issue a mea culpa as to previous arguments. There is no such thing as fallible magisterial teaching. The fact remains that a pope can teach error, but such error is not magisterial teaching.

    You mention Amoris Laetititia and claim that it is not a break from previous magisterial teaching. Can you show me how it is not in direct contradiction to Familiaris Consortio 84, which precludes any possibility of divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion without penance and continence? Can you show my how it doesn't contradict 1 Cor 11:27-29?

    1. Regarding the first point, that depends on how you mean it: if you mean that the Pope doesn’t err when he teaches, but only when he doesn’t intend to teach, then you are correct. But if you mean that when a Pope teaches something that you think is in error it isn’t binding, that would be incorrect.

      Regarding AL vs. FC, what we need to realize is Pope Francis is speaking on a different subject. Nobody denies that divorce and remarriage is grave matter. That’s part 1 of the three parts of mortal sin. The other two parts are knowledge and consent.

      What St. John Paul II did was affirm that those who knowingly and freely go against the Church teaching prohibiting remarriages after divorce. What Pope Francis did was tell the bishops and confessors not to automatically assume the knowledge and consent was present, but to investigate every case. In dealing with couples where knowledge and/or consent is deficient, the task is to move them to living as brother and sister if annulment is impossible. That is, of course going to be difficult. And sometimes this couple might fall into sin, repent, and try again.

      One example of knowledge. In a diocesan briefing for RCIA teachers, we were told of a case where a young woman was married and divorced a month later. Later when she remarried, the priest incredibly told her that her previous marriage “didn’t count” and performed the ceremony. Obviously the priest was wrong and the marriage was invalid. But if the couple believed it was valid, that’s going to be a terrible shock to adjust to, and the couple might fall repeatedly.

      As for consent, we need to remember that in some countries (I’m assuming you are American, like I am), women don’t always have the same rights they do here. There can be legal/social coercion of the woman. There can be emotional or physical pressure on one of the couple. There can be fears of what might happen to the children.

      These things don’t make divorce/remarriage “all right,” but they might remove some of the conditions that make it a mortal sin. The Pope doesn’t say “everyone can come to communion.” He says, “help them to get right with God.” If the conditions show the couple are in mortal sin, that needs to be dealt with as such. But, if not all three conditions of mortal sin are present, then the approach needs reflect that.

      This was why I linked to the Vademecum for Confessors in the footnotes: to give an example of how sometimes grave sins (in that case, contraception) are not mortal.

      I hope this helps explain where I’m coming from. I certainly don’t want to overturn Church teaching.

    2. FC 84 expressly condemns that approach because it leads people into error concerning the indissolubility of marriage. Therefore Francis is wrong, especially since his actions since then have reflected approval of an interpretation that attempts to overturn Church teaching (which is impossible). For example his praising of the Argentinian allowance of those objectively in mortal sin as the right interpretation and his refusal to answer the Dubia asking for clarification.

      Even if we concede that AL doesn't contain explicit error, it is certainly ambiguous and hints at error, which Francis has done little to nothing to correct.

    3. I’ll have to stand by my interpretation of both documents. FC 84 doesn’t exclude the interpretation of those with reduced culpability. I would also reject your interpretation of the Argentinian document. It doesn’t say what you think it means.

      I would recommend this: when thinking Pope A contradicts Pope B or document C, it would be wise to first ask whether the “conflict” is in our own mind and whether we have misunderstood something.

      That’s the difference between the saints and the heresiarchs of the Reformation.

    4. We'll just have to agree to disagree. I just feel like there is too much logical gymnastics required to defend Pope Francis anymore.

    5. Yes, we will. Personally, I find that the foundation I gained studying ecclesiology helped me not to be shaken when I encountered something I didn’t understand.