Showing posts with label papacy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label papacy. Show all posts

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Thoughts on the Ultramontanism Label

A tactic used by some foes of the Pope is discrediting his defenders by calling them Ultramontanist or Ultramontane. The term has had different connotations in different ages of the Church. Initially, it was used to denote Catholics who defended the authority of the Pope over all aspects of the Church, in opposition to those Catholics who claimed there were limits on the Pope’s authority—usually from those who claimed that a Council could outrank a Pope (a view condemned as a heresy) or that a ruler had a more immediate authority over the Church in his nation than the Pope.

In the current form, the label is a Straw Man and an Ad Hominem attack. It attempts to portray the defender of the Pope as a blind fanatic who believes everything that comes from the Pope’s mouth is an ex cathedra statement. Since it is true that not everything that comes from the Pope’s mouth is a teaching, not everything he says or does is sanctified simply because the Pope says it. The defender labeled as Ultramontanist is treated as a simpleton who is ignorant about the Catholic faith and easily misled.

The problem is, no informed defender of the Pope ever made such a claim about the Pope. I don’t doubt you can find some misinformed Catholics out there who believe that, but I’m sure you can find some misinformed Catholics who literally worship Mary too. But if you do find any, you can be sure they don’t represent accurate Catholic thought.

The Catholic who defends the Pope is not doing the theological equivalent of “my country, right or wrong!” Rather he is saying that the Catholic attacking the Pope has misrepresented what he teaches and has failed to give the assent required (Canon 752) when the Pope teaches. The Popes are not protected from error, nor making a binding teaching, when they grant interviews or press conferences. They are not protected from error when governing Vatican City (or, previously, the Papal States). They are not protected from error when they write a book, like St. John Paul II’s Crossing the Threshold of Hope or Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth

But when they intend to teach, making known their intention in an official Church document—for example, by an encyclical—then we are required to give assent. This requirement is not limited to infallible statements. Pope Pius IX condemned the notion that only an infallible statement is binding. Vatican I declared those who limited the authority of the Pope over the Church to be anathema.

If then any shall say that the Roman Pontiff has the office merely of inspection or direction, and not full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the universal Church, not only in things which belong to faith and morals, but also in those things which relate to the discipline and government of the Church spread throughout the world; or assert that he possesses merely the principal part, and not all the fullness of this supreme power; or that this power which he enjoys is not ordinary and immediate, both over each and all the Churches and over each and all the pastors of the faithful; let him be anathema. (Pastor Æternus, Chapter 3)


Vincent McNabb, ed., The Decrees of the Vatican Council (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1907), 42.

Defending the Pope when he issues such a teaching statement (considered part of the ordinary Magisterium of the Church is not “Ultramontane.” It is offering correction to the Catholic who is failing to give the required assent.

Indeed, the critic who uses the “Ultramontane” label when a defender of the Pope defends a teaching of the ordinary magisterium shows the real lack of knowledge. All of the Church teachings which were defined infallibly were also previously defined through the ordinary magisterium. The Church defining Transubstantiation in AD 1215 did not mean people were free to believe otherwise in AD 1214. Indeed, Berengarius of Tours was condemned in the 11th century for denying Transubstantiation because it had been taught by the Church, even though not defined in a formal ex cathedra act.

No, the defenders of the Holy Father are not Ultramontane. They are correcting the error from the critic who has misrepresented the Pope while defending his lawful authority as the successor of Peter. They are giving the same respect and assent to the Popes from 1958 to the present that was also due their predecessors. That’s not a blind devotion. That’s expected of the faithful, as St. Pius X said in November 1912:

And how must the Pope be loved? Non verbo neque lingua, sed opere et veritate. [1 John 3:18] When one loves a person, one tries to adhere in everything to his thoughts, to fulfill his will, to perform his wishes. And if Our Lord Jesus Christ said of Himself, “si quis diligit me, sermonem meum servabit,” [John 14:23] therefore, in order to demonstrate our love for the Pope, it is necessary to obey him.

Therefore, when we love the Pope, there are no discussions regarding what he orders or demands, or up to what point obedience must go, and in what things he is to be obeyed; when we love the Pope, we do not say that he has not spoken clearly enough, almost as if he were forced to repeat to the ear of each one the will clearly expressed so many times not only in person, but with letters and other public documents; we do not place his orders in doubt, adding the facile pretext of those unwilling to obey - that it is not the Pope who commands, but those who surround him; we do not limit the field in which he might and must exercise his authority; we do not set above the authority of the Pope that of other persons, however learned, who dissent from the Pope, who, even though learned, are not holy, because whoever is holy cannot dissent from the Pope.

This is the cry of a heart filled with pain, that with deep sadness I express, not for your sake, dear brothers, but to deplore, with you, the conduct of so many priests, who not only allow themselves to debate and criticize the wishes of the Pope, but are not embarrassed to reach shameless and blatant disobedience, with so much scandal for the good and with so great damage to souls.

(Allocution Vi ringrazio) [†]


[†] Ironically, the site this came from was quite happy to share it in 2012 when Benedict XVI was Pope. They don’t feel the same about Pope Francis. 

Face with rolling eyes 1f644

Monday, February 20, 2017

It Didn't Start With Francis

While I don’t particularly like the song, it’s practically mandatory 
to show this video in a post like this


One common trend in social media is a number of Catholics claiming that things were wonderful under St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and the opposition against Popes only arose in reaction to the things Pope Francis did. From their comments on social media, I can identify three groups:

  1. There are a lot of Catholics who were not aware of the controversy in those pre-Internet/Smartphone times
  2. There are a lot of recent converts out there who missed the attacks against previous Popes, and are encountering something they never were aware of.
  3. Some Catholics have conveniently “forgotten" their hostility to previous Popes

I will leave it to God to judge whether anyone is in category three, but I think the first two probably explains a lot of it.

Before the internet, the only way to get information was either to rely on the media, or order encyclicals from either Daughters of St. Paul or the publishing company of the American bishops (I can’t even recall what it was called back then). On one hand, Catholics had to wait until the document was published in the country. On the other hand, so did reporters, and they would usually call a local pastor to get commentary for their news articles. So things were slower back then. There were still attacks, of course.

We Forget How and Why the Rebellion Happened…

No, it didn’t start with Francis, and it didn’t start with Vatican II.

We forget that the priests and religious who caused problems after Vatican II were ordained before Vatican II. We forget some of them were highly respected. Fr. Schillebeeckx, for example, was a highly respected moral theologian, whose early manuals are still cited by orthodox Catholics because of their quality. We forget some of them were highly respected by the bishops who would later find them problematic. We forget that some who were later honored by St. John Paul II were viewed with suspicion by the Holy Office, (St. Padre Pio, Benedict XVI), and some of them were silenced.

We forget that a generation rose up and rejected authority, political and religious. Nations that were not Catholic, or even Christian, had unrest. We forget the unpopularity of the Vietnam War, the mistrust of government, and the hostility to unjust laws (like segregation) influenced a generation. Unfortunately, they didn’t stop at opposing injustice. A large portion of a generation began to think the state and the Church were to blame for these things by their very existence. When the state enforced the law, when the Church insisted some behaviors were morally evil, this was “fascism.” Never mind they were using this epithet against a generation that opposed fascism.

We also forget the dramatic change that came in 1968 (not 1965). Everybody was expecting the Catholic Church to “change her teaching” on contraception. Because they misunderstood how the Church worked, they assumed that because the majority report (going beyond their authority of investigating whether the Pill was contraception) urged a change in teaching, that it was a guaranteed thing. So when Blessed Paul VI reinforced the traditional Catholic teaching, many were angry. They irrationally felt betrayed over the Church “betraying” them in something she never promised and would never do.

Because we forget this, I think we are unable to understand the scope of what the Church faced, and what a monumental task it was to repair. Theologians were called to get back in line with the Church, and when they didn’t, several were suspended from teaching theology.

We Forget the Rebellion from the Right Happened at the Same Time

We also forget that certain Catholics, trying to remain faithful, became embittered with the inadequate response from the bishops. Committing a post hoc fallacy, they assumed that because the unrest followed Vatican II, the unrest was caused by Vatican II. So they began to agitate for reversing the Council. The SSPX rose at this time. When the bishops, and later the Pope, began to crack down on their abuses, they refused the obedience which was a keystone to the pre-conciliar teaching that they professed to support. Archbishop Lefebvre was suspended by Blessed Paul VI for illicitly ordaining priests against a direct order not to, and was excommunicated by St. John Paul II for consecrating bishops against a direct order not to.

What people forget is the SSPX and those who sympathized with them hated Blessed Paul VI and St. John Paul II for their actions taken. These people constantly gave their actions a negative twist, accusing them of heresy and modernism[†]. Even some who were not part of the SSPX blamed the Holy Father for not cracking down on the dissenters they disagreed with, while saying that the defeat of that faction should take priority[¶], but he was ignoring them to punish the SSPX and others.

Between Scylla and Charybdis with St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI

This resulted in the Pope being hated by both sides, each accusing the Popes of favoring the other side. Cries of “Why don’t you punish them for X?” appeared in religious newspapers, magazines and others. It was assumed that the continued existence of a faction without a public censure was “proof” that the Pope identified with this side. When St. John Paul II wrote about social justice, he was accused of identifying with socialism. When he wrote on abortion, he was accused of being right wing.

Generally speaking, vocal factions in the Church argued that whatever he did against them was proof of being political or heresy[§], while what he did that they agreed with was “too little too late.” They certainly confused Catholics trying to be faithful. With so much smoke, people wondered if there was fire. Catholics trending towards liberalism began to believe the accusations that the Pope was cold hearted and insensitive. Those trending towards conservatism began to believe the accusations that he was weak on dissent and was sympathetic, uncaring, or ignorant of what was going on in the Church.

The Rise of the Internet and the Smartphone

We also forget that knowledge (or misinformation) of and criticism about Papal actions grew with technology. The Printing Press was invented in 1440. The Telegraph was invented in the 1830s. The Fax Machine was invented in 1846. The telephone was invented in 1876. The radio was invented in 1894 (Vatican Radio began in 1931). With each step, it was easier and faster to distribute news, and the Church was able to distribute her documents more widely and quickly. But everything still depended on hard copy (except for the relatively few items on microfilm and microfiche). If a copy was not available in bookstore or library, you had to either drive long distances or do without[Ω].

The media depended on experts to interpret what the Church said, and that depended on some ludicrous situations. When it was announced that the Pope was releasing a new encyclical, the media wondered if this meant the Church was finally changing her teaching on contraception, abortion, and women’s ordination[√]. Then they would call local pastors and bishops and be disabused of their notions.

The next phase of communications emerged when Internet was commercialized in 1995. Over the next 20 years, more information would get onto the internet, but so would misinformation. In addition, more people would be given an audience[ø]. This also meant the critics of the Pope would be able to increase their reach. Then in the late 2000s, the Smartphone combined the internet with instant access without having to be at a computer, allowing the individual to be instantly informed about things happening around the world.

Unfortunately, a chain is as strong as its weakest link, and, when it comes to news on the Church, that weakest link was the media that believed that someday the Church would have to change her teaching. These reporters, with their religious illiteracy, did not understand the nuances of moral theology or how the Church taught. For example, when Benedict XVI gave a book length interview with Peter Seewald in 2010, he gave a hypothetical example of a gay prostitute with AIDS to illustrate how a person might begin to think about an issue in terms of morals. But the media thought the Church had finally changed!

It wasn’t the first time. In 2006, his lecture in Regensburg was wrongly portrayed as a denunciation of Islam, and his Caritas in Veritate (2009) was portrayed as a movement towards liberalism in terms of economic policy. Reporters and their editors thought that the world would eventually change the Church, and viewed each unfamiliar concept as a change towards their politics.

This led to a new situation. The Church would speak, the media would misrepresent, and Catholic critics would blame the Pope for the confusion. Never mind that the media never once stopped to confirm their information. Never mind that they’ve been consistently wrong, and the actual documents or transcripts show Popes did not say what they were alleged to say when taken in context.

Getting From There To Here

So, what we have here is a set of attitudes from different factions that contribute to confusion:

  1. A rebellion against the authority of the Church when it goes against a faction
  2. A belief that the Church has to change or revert to avoid error
  3. A belief or fear that this change is imminent
  4. A tendency to make hostile interpretations of actions as having sympathy or support for the other side (believed to be in error)
  5. A religiously illiterate media that does not understand the depth and nuance of Church teaching
  6. Blaming the Pope for those misinterpretations.
  7. Increasingly rapid communications from people responsible for the above problems
Put these factors together and we have instantaneous response to the actions of the Pope which are affected with the biases of the person responding. It’s the same actions, but it happens faster now than it did in previous pontificates and reaches a far larger audience.

And Now, Here We Are

This is why I must shake my head in sadness and disbelief when I encounter Catholics who say, “Things were never this way before Pope Francis.” They certainly did happen back then. But before the Smartphone (which only took off in the later years of the pontificate of Benedict XVI), before the Internet (which arrived only during the pontificate of St. John Paul II), things were much slower and some errors could be refuted before they spread too far. 

But now, with the internet and the smartphone, a wild rumor can spread around the world before the Vatican Press Office can respond[π]. If a reporter wrongly thinks the quote,“Who am I to judge?” means the Pope is going to change Church teaching on homosexuality, there’s not much the Church can do to stop the misinformation from happening. She can only offer a correction and encourage people to listen to what was made in context.

This is the situation Pope Francis inherited.

  1. A rebellion from day one when radical traditionalists called his election “a disaster.” 
  2. Some hoping and some fearing change to Church teaching.
  3. A belief that this change would happen.
  4. A hostile interpretation as heretical overshadowing everything he said or did
  5. A religiously illiterate media quoting out of context, and predicting he would change Church teaching on homosexuality, abortion, contraception, etc. and hostile factions believing it.
  6. Blaming the Pope for those out of context quotes. 
  7. An instantaneous communication misrepresenting what Pope Francis said and did. 
It is these factors that lead to confusion in the Church. It has been true since the rebellion of the 1960s, and continues today, aided by improved communications of error. We didn’t hear as much about this confusion from his predecessors because the internet and the smartphone came relatively late to the game. 
There will always be some incidents where a Pope doesn’t act as we think a Pope should act. Since, a Pope is a sinner in need of salvation like the rest of us, it is possible a Pope will do something regrettable. But this catastrophic view of the Church we have today shows a lack of knowledge of problems we’ve always had. Blessed John Henry Newman, for example, had to defend Pope Pius IX from those who received faulty understanding about what he said as reported by an ignorant media.

We need to avoid the argument from ignorance fallacy. Just because someone is not aware of the controversies involving the predecessors of Pope Francis does not mean these controversies did not exist. They most certainly did—but they had a much more limited reach than today. We should keep this in mind, and not assume that because this is the first time we’re noticing it, that this is the first time it happened. Once we clear out this misinterpretation, we can see the real issues clearly and perhaps come to a better attitude in dealing with them.


[†] Prior to Benedict XVI’s motu proprio on the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, they made the same attacks against him.
[¶] When these critics were questioned about the censures given, it was never enough. They believed the Holy Father should have excommunicated them, even though that was not the established penalty.
[§] For example, the picture of St. John Paul II kissing the Qur’an, and the Meeting in Assisi were portrayed as “proof” that he was a heretic.
[Ω] As a personal anecdote, in 1992, doing my senior thesis for my B.A degree, defending the Church against the charge of “sympathy to the Nazis,” I had no access to Pius XI’s Mit Brennender Sorge or Pius XII’s Summi Pontificatus which denounced the Nazis, and was unable to use them (I still got an A, even though my thesis advisor was overtly hostile to the position I took). Nowadays, anyone can do a Google search and get the full text
[√] These were the big three the media obsessed over during this era. They really seemed to believe that a change was possible, which should have served as a warning to how incompetently they would deal with Pope Francis. 
[ø] For example, without the internet, I am sure that I would not be able to reach the audience I have with my blog The expense of publishing would have made it literally impossible.  
[π] If the Vatican News Service would lock the reporters on the plane until the full transcript of a press conference was released to the public, I’d be all for it. 

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Which is Manmade? The Church or Your Movement?

Introduction: The Context of the Question

In 1850, Blessed John Henry Newman gave a series of lectures to Anglicans of the Oxford Movement who wanted the Established (Anglican) Church to adopt pre-Reformation beliefs and practices. In one of these addresses, he pointed out that the Establishment hostility to this movement meant they had to make a choice:

But, first, there is a point to be cleared up. Either the movement is not from God, or the Establishment is not: we must abjure our principles, or abandon our communion. If we abandon our communion, we do so as denying that it is from God; if we continue in it, we do so as not denying it. 


 John Henry Newman, Lectures on Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Submitting to the Catholic Church (London: Burns & Lambert, 1850), 139.

This point wast they needed to make a choice between fidelity to one or the other because they couldn’t have it both ways. If they thought the Anglican Church was manmade, they needed to go where this Apostolic Church of God existed (Rome). But if they thought the Anglican Church was from God, it meant they had to abandon their movement because the Anglicans rejected their movement. They couldn’t have it both ways. His point was, if they wanted to follow God, they had to embrace the Catholic faith and not try to pretend Anglicanism was a third branch alongside Catholicism and Orthodoxy.

The Application: Do We Declare the Church Manmade to Defend Our Movements?

Church struggle

His dilemma is relevant today for the movements tempted to dissent from the Catholic Church. Whether it is a case of radical traditionalists claiming they can disobey the post-Vatican II Church in favor of their movement, or whether it is a Catholic conformed to the world who wants the Church to change her moral teaching where it is inconvenient, we have to ask, what is manmade? The Catholic Church? Or one of these movements claiming she went the wrong way?

Blessed Cardinal Newman asked this to encourage people to go to the true Church. I repeat it to encourage people to stay in the true Church. 

If the Catholic Church comes from God, then obedience to God means obedience to the Church. She has the authority to address new situations or change disciplines on how to best serve God and guide the faithful to Him. In that case there are no breaks when the Church intends to teach. Individual (or groups of) bishops, priests, religious and laity can fall into error. But if we stay in communion with the successor of Peter, we stay in communion with the Church God promised to protect. In such a case, movements rejecting the authority of the Church must be manmade and are rebellious against God, not faithful to Him. 

On the other hand, if the Catholic Church is manmade then it only has the authority we choose to give it. If we don’t like something, we’re free to reject it. The problem is, there’s no reason for anyone else to accept what you accept. The radical traditionalist who likes the period between the Council of Trent and 1958 only has a preference. There’s no reason it’s any more valid than the parts they reject. Likewise, the dissenting Catholic who objects to certain teachings and invokes a “higher” belief taught by the Church has no basis for invoking that “higher belief.” If the Church is only manmade then the truth of her teaching depends on the human wisdom of the teacher. And, like every other human teacher, people often disagree about their value and relevance.

So, if the Church is manmade, she has no more standing than a political party or a think tank. Some of her ideas may be right, but we’re free to disagree about what those right ideas are. The Extraordinary form of the Mass is no more or less valid than a Clown Mass and dissenting with the Church on abortion is no more wrong than dissenting from the Church on social justice.

But if God founded the Catholic Church, then it matters a great deal whether we obey or disobey, whether we trust her evaluations in modern times or reject them.

The Conclusion: Claiming the Church Broke From Your Movement is Absurd and an Excuse for Dissent

To avoid the consequences, the person who rejects a certain part of Church teaching when it goes against his preference usually tries to claim the Church broke away from what God intended when the Church taught what they didn’t like. The radical traditionalist argues that the Church went wrong somewhere between 1958 (the election of St. John XXIII and 1970 (when the Missal changed). The secularized Catholic claims the Church went wrong in teaching “X is a sin” usually tries to argue that God intended the Church to be democratic and when Church teaching is against them, it’s “breaking” with what Jesus intended.

But if the Church can break and fall into error, then it undermines the authority of the teachings dissenters want to invoke. How does one know the Church didn’t break earlier? After all, that is what the non-Catholics argue. 

Trying to support a particular movement changing what the Church should be and trying to justify it by saying the Church itself fell into error at a certain moment in time (when it disagreed with you) is to declare the Church a manmade institution that can break and err. The Church has always claimed her teaching has been unbroken. The teaching has developed, but it has never contradicted itself. Moreover, the teaching authority of the Church has remained unbroken. Again, if one wants to argue that it has broken under Pope Francis, one has to acknowledge it could break under a previous Pope. But if God protected the Church from breaking and teaching error in the past, we can trust Him to protect it now and in the future.

This brings us to the modern version of Blessed John Henry Newman’s dilemma. 

  • If the Church is from God and rejects these dissenting movements, then we too must reject them if we would be faithful to God.
  • if the Church is not from God, then our favored dissenting movements have no more authority than any other dissenting movement we might despise.

The only rational choice is to stick to our belief that Church came from God, not man, and trust Him to protect the Church from teaching error, especially where souls are at stake. Otherwise, we are lost, never knowing which one of many competing interpretations of what God teaches is correct.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Kicking Against the Goad?

We all fell to the ground and I heard a voice saying to me in Hebrew, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goad. (Acts 26:14).

Goad: a spiked stick used for driving cattle. (Concise Oxford English Dictionary).

The Goad

Kicking against the goad means stubbornly resisting guidance in a way that only harms the one resisting. If the animal didn’t kick, it wouldn’t be injured. Likewise, if Saul hadn’t resisted God’s will by persecuting Christians, he would not have found himself thrown to the ground, blinded. If we resist God, even if we think we are doing right, we harm ourselves until we get on track. 

Watching the Church since 2013, I feel like the latest attack against her revolves around attacking our faith in those who shepherd us. Either people distort his words, for their own benefit, to the point where we have doubts about what the Pope really means, or they attack his character, so we doubt his orthodoxy. Sadly, it is effective. Some Catholics sift his words, seeking sentences and footnotes that justify what they planned to do anyway. Some treat it as if Papal teaching was an treasure hunt where we discover what he “really” means from scattered clues. Others watch what he writes and says, looking for the excuse to reject his authority, as if he were an usurper on the Chair of St. Peter and they were gathering evidence.

I believe we are witnessing Satan’s attack on the sheep of the flock. The attack isn’t intended to destroy the Church or the papacy. It seems aimed at destroying our faith so we no longer trust the Church as mother and teacher. Once the devil can trick us away from the Church, we fall into pride and become easy prey. That doesn’t necessarily mean falling into formal schism. It only means we stop obeying when the Church says something we dislike.

This happens when a majority of Catholics use contraception in defiance to the teaching of the Church. It also happens when Catholics legalistically search for reasons to argue that a Pope’s teaching is non-binding. We make ourselves judges of right and wrong, justifying our behavior as “faithfulness to Jesus, not the Church” or “faithfulness to the true Church over a bad Pope.” But these arguments assume the individual knows more about the teaching of Our Lord and His Church than those He chose to shepherd us—a dangerous attitude when Our Lord warned that rejecting them meant rejecting Him (Luke 10:16).

So, when we resist the Church guiding us, we kick against the goad and harm ourselves. Not because God treats us like Saul, but because we undercut the basis we have for living as Christians, thinking the direction we prefer is the direction God must want us to go and the Church only has authority when she agrees with us. But that’s spiritual anarchy. Our Lord’s words about taking disputes to the Church for the final say in the matter (like Matthew 18:17) assumes a visible authoritative Church.

But if God intends us to have a visible, authoritative Church which we could appeal to, it stands to reason this authority has to be visible today. If the protection from error was in Rome during one era and in Ecône [*] during another, we could never know who we could trust. If the Rock on which Our Lord built His Church can crumble into error, we could never trust the Church to be accurate at any specific time. Each of us could point to our favorite theologians as refuting a theologian we disagree with. Liberals could point to Hans Küng or (retired) Cardinal Kasper, traditionalists could point to Professor Spaemann. For that matter, some could point to Arius or Nestorius. Who’s to say that the protection from error wasn’t with the Patriarchate of Constantinople? But that’s not the Rock of Matthew 16:18. That’s the tower of Babel, scattered in all directions without leadership.  

It’s only when we have a “go to” source of authority in the Church, which judges how we apply the timeless truths of the Church in the present age, that we can avoid Babel. As Catholics, we believe the Church is that authority and we belief the Pope is the head of the Church as Vicar of Christ. That authority is not removed by the bad behavior of a Pope. Our Lord told us we must still obey those leaders (Matthew 23:2-3), though not imitate any bad behavior they do.

Pope Francis has chosen mercy as his theme on how we apply the teachings of the Church. This results in challenges from two sides, kicking against the goad:

  1. Those who think a focus on mercy is laxity.
  2. Those who think focusing on the teachings of the Church is rigorism.
But mercy in applying the teachings of the Church is nothing new or dangerous. St. Pius X wrote in his first encyclical, E Supremi, 113 years ago:

13. But in order that the desired fruit may be derived from this apostolate and this zeal for teaching, and that Christ may be formed in all, be it remembered, Venerable Brethren, that no means is more efficacious than charity. “For the Lord is not in the earthquake” (3 Kings 19:2) [†]—it is vain to hope to attract souls to God by a bitter zeal. On the contrary, harm is done more often than good by taunting men harshly with their faults, and reproving their vices with asperity. True the Apostle exhorted Timothy: “Accuse, beseech, rebuke,” but he took care to add: “with all patience” (2 Tim. 4:2). Jesus has certainly left us examples of this. “Come to me,” we find Him saying, “come to me all ye that labour and are burthened and I will refresh you” (Matth. 11:28). And by those that labour and are burthened he meant only those who are slaves of sin and error. What gentleness was that shown by the Divine Master! What tenderness, what compassion towards all kinds of misery!


 Claudia Carlen, ed., The Papal Encyclicals: 1903–1939 (Ypsilanti, MI: The Pierian Press, 1990), 9.

Pope Francis reflects this view in Amoris Lætitia when he says we must do more than cite rules:

[50] In such difficult situations of need, the Church must be particularly concerned to offer understanding, comfort and acceptance, rather than imposing straightaway a set of rules that only lead people to feel judged and abandoned by the very Mother called to show them God’s mercy. Rather than offering the healing power of grace and the light of the Gospel message, some would “indoctrinate” that message, turning it into “dead stones to be hurled at others.”

Francis, Pope (2016-04-22). Amoris Laetitia: On Love in the Family (p. 40). Our Sunday Visitor. Kindle Edition.

To reject the authority of Pope Francis is kicking against the goad of the authority his predecessors had. If Pope Francis was wrong to speak on mercy, so was St. Pius X!  On the other hand, if one wants to reject St. Pius X for saying we need to follow Church teaching, we have to reject Pope Francis as well. It’s only when we give respect the teaching authority of the Pope today and in the past that we have a healthy relationship with the Church and Our Lord who founded her.
Rebelling against the Church may feel right. Saul thought it was right to persecute her. But in the end, he learned the error of his ways. We ought not to follow Saul’s example. We have the teaching of 2000 years of a Church guided by God through the centuries of hardship and turmoil. We know what God calls us to do. If we do not follow, we’re kicking against the goad, even if we think we’re doing right by claiming to follow Christ against the Church, or the earlier Church against the later.


[*] The SSPX headquarters are in Ecône.
[†] In modern Bibles, this would be 1 Kings. Older Bibles labeled 1 and 2 Samuel as part of the four Books of Kings, so 1 and 2 Kings today were called 3 and 4 Kings then.  Also, I think there is a typo in this version. It should be 1 Kings 19:11. Perhaps someone saw “11” and thought it was a Roman 2 (II).

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Brief Thoughts on Papal Gaffes and Non-Magisterial Statements

One thing to always keep in mind is the extent of Papal authority. By this I mean we neither downplay an actual authoritative statement of the Pope or elevate something which is merely a private opinion of the Pope. Popes can speak about the issues of the world where they are not theologically binding and were never intended to be seen as a teaching in the first place. There are many examples of this in recent times. For example, St. John Paul II and his Crossing the Threshold of Hope, or the unfortunate kissing of the Qur’an. Or Benedict XVI and his Jesus of Nazareth, the (unfortunate) comment about the “male Prostitute with AIDS” in Light of the World and his misunderstood Regensburg Lecture. And yes, Pope Francis and his brilliant The Name of God is Mercy, and his controversial news conferences and interviews. I could go back further and discuss the laws of the old Papal States or the Vatican policies with different nations through history. Some of those laws and policies are embarrassing when viewed today. But they weren’t magisterial teaching and an error there does not make the Pope a fraud or heretic.

I say again, whether these things are properly understood or misunderstood, they are not any part of the teaching authority of the Church, and must not be used to judge a Pope's fidelity to the Catholic faith, even if a he should commit a gaffe or carry out an unwise policy.

This isn’t a modern occurrence. We had a controversy back in the Middle Ages where the Pope of the time—John XXII [*] (reigned 1316 to 1334)—spoke in sermons on a theme he had written on prior to his election concerning the beatific vision.

John XXII(Pope John XXII)

In these sermons (and pre-Papal writings), John XXII described the beatific vision (seeing God) as something which would not happen until the final judgment. Until that time, people’s souls slept. This issue had not been formally defined as of this time, but a majority of theologians at the time held that the souls of the departed did see God after death. So this was a concern. Was the Pope teaching that that what was commonly held by Catholics was actually false?

The answer was, no. John XXII said he had not had any intention to formally teach on the subject and actually called on theologians to study the issue. The Catholic Encyclopedia, in its entry on John XXII, describes the affair this way:

In the last years of John’s pontificate there arose a dogmatic conflict about the Beatific Vision, which was brought on by himself, and which his enemies made use of to discredit him. Before his elevation to the Holy See, he had written a work on this question, in which he stated that the souls of the blessed departed do not see God until after the Last Judgment. After becoming pope, he advanced the same teaching in his sermons. In this he met with strong opposition, many theologians, who adhered to the usual opinion that the blessed departed did see God before the Resurrection of the Body and the Last Judgment, even calling his view heretical. A great commotion was aroused in the University of Paris when the General of the Minorites and a Dominican tried to disseminate there the pope’s view. Pope John wrote to King Philip IV on the matter (November, 1333), and emphasized the fact that, as long as the Holy See had not given a decision, the theologians enjoyed perfect freedom in this matter. In December, 1333, the theologians at Paris, after a consultation on the question, decided in favour of the doctrine that the souls of the blessed departed saw God immediately after death or after their complete purification; at the same time they pointed out that the pope had given no decision on this question but only advanced his personal opinion, and now petitioned the pope to confirm their decision. John appointed a commission at Avignon to study the writings of the Fathers, and to discuss further the disputed question. In a consistory held on 3 January, 1334, the pope explicitly declared that he had never meant to teach aught contrary to Holy Scripture or the rule of faith and in fact had not intended to give any decision whatever. Before his death he withdrew his former opinion, and declared his belief that souls separated from their bodies enjoyed in heaven the Beatific Vision

So, the Pope was offering his private opinion and, when given good reason to abandon his opinion as not being true, rejected his former view in favor of one which fit better with Scripture and Tradition. The only people who tried to tar him as being heretical were those groups who were rebuked [†] (such as the “Spiritual Franciscans” or Fraticelli who held to a rigorous interpretation of the Rule of St. Francis) and wanted to discredit him. He was not a heretic, but some who want to discredit modern Popes cite him as an example of a “heretical Pope."

I think there is a lesson there to be learned. The Pope can make a gaffe just like any other Catholic. He can even say something in a non-teaching which is theologically dubious. But that’s not heresy. Canon Law gives us a good definition here:

can. 751† Heresy is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.


 Code of Canon Law: New English Translation (Washington, DC: Canon Law Society of America, 1998), 247.

The key words are obstinate and divine and Catholic faith. If the Pope commits a gaffe which might be interpreted by some as supporting error, the question is, does he obstinately hold to it? Or is he just being unclear and not intending what the people claim he means? It’s only when someone digs in their heels and refuses correction from the magisterium that he or she becomes a heretic.

So, why do I bring this up? Because some people are concerned about the current Pope and the fact that some of the things he says in his press conferences seem unclear without deeper study [§]. Some would actually accuse the Pope of being a heretic on account of that confusion (on the part of some) as to what he means. Other Catholics who want to be faithful feel unsure when presented with forceful arguments and begin to doubt.

That’s nothing new. The case of John XXII shows that gaffes do exist throughout history but those gaffes do not prove the existence of heretic popes. That’s not because every Pope was perfect or geniuses (they weren’t). It’s because we trust God to protect the Pope from teaching error in a matter involving our salvation. The Pope isn’t teaching in a binding manner in a press conference or a private book or the like and we should stop thinking that he is and stop accusing him of error.




[*] Not to be confused with St. John XXIII. The two popes lived reigned over 600 years apart.

[†] Does this sound familiar compared to today?

[§] Which few ever attempt. Most of his critics insist on what they call the “plain sense” of his words and label any deeper study as “attempting to explain away.” But keep in mind St. Peter warned the Church that St. Paul wrote on things not easy to understand which “the ignorant and unstable distort to their own destruction, just as they do the other scriptures.” (2 Peter 3:16). So the “plain sense” is not always the true sense.