“Do not exaggerate, overestimate, what a Pope can do….”

Vatican IThe inimitable Fr. Hunwicke has a good reminder at his fine blog HERE about papal authority (my emphases):

Two points. Despite the anxieties entertained by the Intellectuals on both sides of this question … the Traditionalists and the Tablettentendenz … I see no grounds for panic. I see no practical likelihood whatsoever that anything will happen to put into doubt our duty, in our day-by-day Christian life, to adhere obediently to the judgements of the Roman Pontiff. But … let’s be honest … there have been in history occasions when Roman Pontiffs have wobbled in their adherence to orthodoxy …. Liberius and all that. In these circumstances, there does have to be a duty to resist that wobble and to decline to give effect to edicts purporting to enact the wobble. But here is the Red Line: at Vatican I, a great deal of historical work was done to ensure that the Decree on the Infallibility of the Roman Pontiff was so worded as not to be vulnerable on such historical grounds. It is watertight. We can be sure that whatever a pope says ex cathedra is protected by the Holy Spirit from any error (but even here, we are not obliged to believe either that the decree concerned was necessary, or that it expressed things in the best of all possible ways). But it is not unknown for a papal decree which falls short of the ex cathedra status to be flawed. Of course, that cannot be a good position for the Church to be in. But it is not some sort of Ultimate Catastrophe! The Church survived Liberius! And so did the Papacy! And, to the end of time, both will survive!

It is very important to remember the limits of the Papal Magisterium. This is best done by a careful reading of the decree Pastor aeternus of Vatican I. That is the touchstone. Do not exaggerate, overestimate, what a pope can do, and then, when some pope or other goes a bit off the rails, or you think he has, start running around in a frantic fear that you have “lost your faith”. The pope is not an Absolute Monarch. B Pius IX made this very explicitly clear. Benedict XVI taught this with determined vigour. This is serious! The Pope is not some God-on-Earth who can never make a mistake! Not a few of them have made quite a lot. There is no reason why the same should not be true in the future. Learn not to fret! Learn to live with it, as so many Catholics in previous generations have done! And if you’re the sort of person who can laugh at it, laugh. In any case, sit yourself down comfortably, pour yourself a drink … and learn the following off by heart:

“The Holy Spirit was not promised to Peter’s successors so that they should, by His revelation, disclose new teaching, but so that, with His assistance, they should devoutly guard and faithfully set forth the revelation handed down through the apostles, the Deposit of Faith.”

Popes make mistakes.  Popes are not infrequently wrong on a range of issues.  There is nothing new in this.

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27 Responses to “Do not exaggerate, overestimate, what a Pope can do….”

  1. The Astronomer says:

    Good to know, especially in light of His Holiness alleged recent comments, via Zenit, about seminarians and priests that prefer the 1962EF:
    “…the Pope noted that there are priests and bishops who speak of a “reform of the reform.” Some of them are “saints” and speak “in good faith.” But this “is mistaken”, the Holy Father said. He then referred to the case of some bishops who accepted “traditionalist” seminarians who were kicked out of other dioceses, without finding out information on them, because “they presented themselves very well, very devout.” They were then ordained, but these were later revealed to have “psychological and moral problems.”

    [The accounts of the Holy Father’s actual words are pretty sketchy. When I see stories that report only a word or two in quotes with some reporter’s filler, alarm bells ring. I can’t find any verbatim account or video of the Pope speaking. That said, what the reports say he said is, at the same time, both yawn inducing (“Oh… the Pope bashed conservatives again?”) and alarming (“I think, Holiness, you are worried about the wrong group!”), if that’s possible. It seems to me that if you are looking for guys with “psychological and moral problems”, look among the liberal progressivists and homosexuals. I’d be far more worried about a seminarian with a subscription to the Fishwrap than one who gets The Remnant and The Wanderer.]

  2. Barto of the Cross says:

    This post would seem to suggest that Cardinal Burke has been mistaken in all the things he’s been saying, and that, in fact, there’s nothing (or nothing much) to worry about.

    Cardinal Burke recently said that things in the Church were currently “worrisome.” A couple months ago he said the Church was like a “ship without a rudder.” That’s just a sample of the similar things he and Bishop Athanasius Scheider have been saying.

    Cardinal Burke is clearly VERY distressed and fearful at all that’s going on under the leadership of Francis.

    Cardinal Burke even said ” I will resist” Francis if Francis does what it appears he’s planning to do regarding the divorce and remarried and not annulled. This “I will resist” means, I think, that Cardinal Burke will imitate the path of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. I don’t know what else “I will resist” could mean. What else could it mean?

    Francis and his “party” (sorry, I don’t know what other term to use) are very astute, and will never directly attack doctrine. They will solemnly affirm traditional doctrine even as they deliberately undermine it via the backdoor procedure of “pastoral” change. They are already doing this. They’ve said over and over and over again that their proposed change of discipline regarding reception of communion by divorce and remarried and not annulled is merely pastoral and does not touch upon doctrine. Francis has said over and over again that he doesn’t have a very high regard for doctrine and orthodoxy.

    This “pastoral not doctrinal” maneuver appears to already have the approval of most bishops. Francis and his party are in the driver’s seat. They are going to do whatever they want, regardless of what Cardinal Burke and maybe a dozen other bishops say or do.

    Francis and his party have the whole mainstream mass media on their side, and virtually all the Catholic universities, and virtually all the other institutions of cultural influence in the West.

    When they accomplish their “pastoral” change, in late 2015 or early 2016, there will be worldwide celebrations akin to Bastille Day. The few discredited “dissenters” will be put off the stage, as was the case with Cardinal Ottaviani and Archbishop Lefebvre after their struggles against the “pastoral” Council.

    The progressive party in the Church has learned its lesson well from Vatican II: immense harm (from their point of view it is rather a blessing, a liberation, a benefit) can be done to souls with mere pastoral changes that don’t directly attack or alter doctrine and that don’t in any way involve the pope using his infallibility.

    Don’t exaggerate what the pope can do? Au contraire. It doesn’t matter whether “technically” no heresy has been proclaimed by the pope. IMMENSE and lasting harm can be done to millions of SOULS even while the pope stays within the technical bounds of orthodoxy. This is what’s been going on since Vatican II.

    I see no justification for saying, “Relax, everyone, things aren’t that bad.”

  3. HighMass says:

    Barto of the Cross:

    Says it how it is….and how many of us feel and have felt since Vatican II. Pope Benedict as Pope was where our hope lied, now granted Christ is the Head of the Church, but Pope Benedict was in Charge on Earth..This is sad But True, I fear for the Mass of 1962 as that will be the next thing the Dynamic 9 go after, most likely already have since March 2013….
    Oremus

  4. norancor says:

    It seems to me the problem today isn’t losing faith in the Church because of papal irregularities. It’s the ultramontane streak in a large number of Catholics that think they have to embrace and defend prudential (personal, non-infallible) bad decision making with dogmatic certainty.

    There is a plumb line in Catholicism: the Deposit of Faith and immemorial liturgical patrimony. They provide the norm for belief and practice.

    Because recent popes have decided over the past fifty years to allow variances to be expressed about belief, often officially, and a whole tsunami of changes have been allowed or encouraged in the practice of our Faith, too many Catholics have drifted away from the plumb line, and think they have to because of ultramontane belief that a good Catholic is a Catholic who defends the pope and all his utterances and decisions without question and without thought.

    Its a false conception of the papacy and the Church, and has led to the cementing of many bad decisions. As the famous Dominican theologian Melchior Cano remarked at the Council of Trent,

    “Peter has no need of our lies or flattery. Those who blindly and indiscriminately defend every decision of the supreme Pontiff are the very ones who do most to undermine the authority of the Holy See — they destroy instead of strengthening its foundations.”

  5. dbonneville says:

    “In any case, sit yourself down comfortably, pour yourself a drink.”

    Technically, I drank a couple shots right from the bottle, but the advice is well-taken in retrospect. I’ll use a glass going forward. It’s less hasty, and makes Dewars taste better (splash of soda, on ice).

    I then wrote to Fr. Z about the papal comments, hoping for a reply. The article from Fr. H. is a perfect a reply as I could have gotten had Fr. Z. written back personally. I said I knew he probably couldn’t write back, but did ask that he post something to sooth “the anxieties entertained by ” interested parties “on both sides of this question.” Wow, and praise the Lord for such a timely piece. And I do mean timely.

    Kudos to Fr. H. and Fr. Z. on this one.

  6. dans0622 says:

    I appreciate these comments from Fr. Hunwicke, and similar ones he has made in the past. I ask for the readers to pray that I can finally complete an article I am trying to write on the meaning of the Code of Canon Law, c. 331, which says that the Pope “can always freely exercise” his “power” (cf. Lumen gentium, 22).

  7. ChrisRawlings says:

    Our Lord used the marvelous theological and moral witnesses of St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict to draw me into the Church. For me the deep intellectualism and epistemological solidity of both men came to define Catholicism.

    That is the ultramonantist trap, though, and I fell for it. There are many Catholics, both cradle and convert, I think, who fell for it. I don’t like the sourness with which some approach Francis, but I have no problem saying that he is different from his predecessors in ways that leave me feeling nostalgic. That is my problem, though. Because a Catholic needing affirmation from the pope is simply missing the point of it all. When you have Christ you don’t need affirmation at all, and you surely don’t need to go looking for it. The zealousness with which some liberals deceitfully highlight every turn of phrase by Pope Francis and attach to it ultimate significance should demonstrate how spiritually deformed it is to use popes as political or even theological footballs. The desire to use Francis to advance a liberal ideological agenda is not at all faithful and it is shameful. But even “good” Catholics can stumble by placing themselves on the other side of the ball and pillory the pope for not satisfying their desire for the kind of edification and support that we think we need.

  8. acricketchirps says:

    I’m not nervous that teaching will be changed. I’m nervous that confusion will be sown.

  9. chantgirl says:

    I would argue that, for those with their heads screwed on straight and those well-catechized, the mistakes of a pope would ordinarily not cause a loss of faith. Among these, papal mistakes could be a near occasion of sin and cause heartache.

    Among the uncatechised, and the mentally or morally weak, papal mistakes could very well mean the loss of faith. Combined with the digital age of instant information and misinformation, papal mistakes could harm the faith of many.

  10. Tony Phillips says:

    The best way to be infallible is to keep quiet. Like the owl, ‘that wise old bird.’

  11. eymard says:

    I do not in any way dismiss the words of the excellent Father Hunwicke, but I raise a corollary point. This pontificate has, for reasons varied, unleashed “Progressives”. My liberal diocese, liberal from stem to stern for 40+ years, is aglow with the sureness of its “Progressive” stances and practices. Even if nothing is changed, empowerment has taken place. The liberal bent, if I might use that word, is all that has been required. But indeed out, out have come the “Progressives”, rather like Mao’s Let 100 Flowers Bloom so we can know who they are.

  12. Cornelius says:

    I pray for the Church and the Pope daily, and then go my merry way. This matter is in the Holy Spirit’s care – I refuse to fret about it.

  13. Kathleen10 says:

    This is reassuring. Thank you Fr. Hunwicke and Fr. Z.

  14. kmtierney says:

    We certainly shouldn’t lose heart when a pope does something wrong, but we have to acknowledge that it is indeed wrong, not sugar-coat it, acknowledge it for what it is, and plan accordingly.

  15. Aquinas Gal says:

    This is a good reminder of the limits of papal authority, and one much needed today.
    Recently Cardinal Wuerl wrote a column on dissent from papal teaching in which he said, “Unhappiness with a Pope’s position on issues whether doctrinal, pastoral, canonical or as simple as clerical vesture, seems always to be present in some form.”
    In this column the cardinal did not distinguish between papal teachings that require the obedience of faith, and non-essential matters on which Catholics are free to disagree (like clerical vesture…). No wonder ordinary Catholics are confused when they read this king of thing coming from a cardinal.

  16. anilwang says:

    One of the great things about studying the 2000 year history of the Catholic church is that you see that nothing is really new. Everything we’re experiencing now has already happened in one form or another. The Church always bounces back stronger than before. In particular, these crises seem to happen every 500 years or so, and usually immediately after a period of triumph.

    The fact that the Church seems to have been near the point of death so many times and appeared to have been immersed so many times in heresy yet somehow managed to recover stronger than before is one of the key reasons I returned to the faith. Only a divinely instituted institution could survive so many attacks from within and outside without changing its doctrines. No other institution has survived anywhere near as long, and none have preserved the equivalent of doctrine even a few hundred years. For instance, notice how the constitutions of most countries have been reinterpreted by courts to mean exactly the opposite of what was originally intended.

    We are however in a very bad time and it’ll take at least a hundred more years before we see the light at the end of the tunnel.

  17. Netmilsmom says:

    It’s not Pope Francis I’m worried about. It’s the Cardinals and Bishops who have been chomping at the bit to take any crack in the cement and drive their agenda through.
    Humanae Vitae closed the door to Birth Control but now how many Catholics contracept without a thought? Why do we think that happened? It sure wasn’t the Pope.

  18. Supertradmum says:

    Good. The “wobble” which has caused me the most irritation in the past two weeks has been the comment on global warming. Thank God for the Infallibility Doctrine as being so specific.

  19. ad Deum says:

    But the issue is that most Catholics do not understand infallibility, so everything Francis is a part of, from the Synod to the FFI, and does can still cause major problems.

    Just because his words or actions do not change doctrine, does not mean scandal cannot occur.

  20. jhayes says:

    I think the issue will not be that changes are made to the Magisterium but that there will be disputes over how the Magisterium should be understood. The SSPX argues that some of the teachings of Vatican II are inconsistent with encyclicals of earlier Popes. Benedict said it was necessary to distinguish between principles taught by earlier Popes and their application of those principles to issues as they existed in their specific time. The principles were permanent but their application could change as the context of the issues changed from one time to another.

    For a fuller explanation see Benedict’s 2005 Christmas Address to the curia.

  21. z4g.mug says:

    If only someone would write a book about the rights, duties, responsibilities, authority, limits to it, and the reasons for them, of the Pope in his several capacities. Until someone does so, the Church is going to continue to be plagued by Papal absolutism and by lickspittle subservience to every word that comes from the mouth of the Bishop of Rome -to say nothing of calumnies against the Papacy rather than well-founded & justified criticism. The myth of Papal omnipotence unlimited by anything but the Papal will has done immense harm, & continues to do so.

  22. Traductora says:

    This is a very difficult point, and one of the problems is the fact that little theological thought has been given to the matter in recent times. There have been many opinions on the limits of papal power over the centuries, but of course, the game-changer was the declaration of infallibility, and this is what needs examination. However, I wonder if it could even get a decent analysis now, since theology for the last 50 has revolved around defending Vatican II and “interpreting” its vague and not very grounded documents.

    But in any case, I don’t think this Pope is likely to say anything that will specifically trigger the conflict. For one thing, he’s good at saying one thing one day, and the opposite the next, although without ever denying the first thing. But neither one of them are authoritative to anybody except the press.

    Also, I think his use of words is highly individual, shall we say, and often I have read statements by him where the meaning would depend entirely on what he had in mind by a particular ambiguous word. Sort of like depending on what the meaning of “is” is… But again, there is nothing specific enough to make a big difference.

    I also think there is the possibility that he really doesn’t have any plan at all, and that he simply says whatever rolls into his mind in a sort of giant stream of consciousness. That’s pretty alarming in itself, but on the other hand, I don’t think it will ever get specific enough to be truly dangerous. It does undermine the confidence of Catholics in their Church, though, and that’s the real danger.

  23. SanSan says:

    I love Pope Francis. I know he is human. Concern rises when he speaks “off the cuff” and calms when he speaks ” ex cathedra”. It’s been amazing to watch the shrill of the libs rise to a fevor pitch when Pope Francis speaks in his own words and how they all become really quiet when he speaks in the Lords Name. Pope Francis is human and he makes mistakes, however, I feel quite confident that he will always be guided by the Holy Spirit when sitting in Peter’s chair.

  24. Traductora says:

    Fr Z, regarding the Pope’s comments on the dread traditionalists, one of the reasons there has not been better reporting is that the meeting was not open and only the first 15 minutes were (accidentally) broadcast and therefore officially accessible to the press. As usual, the Pope said some things that were good, many things that were ambiguous, and some that were really off the wall.

    Several of the attending priests seem to have recorded his remarks all the way to the end, and the reason that what you have seen is a little vague is that it would have been from leaked sources, that is, the priests who were there and released their unedited recordings.

    He definitely said the usual insulting bits about unstable traditionalists and how bishops should be reluctant to admit traditionalists to seminary. I read it on several Spanish and Italian sources this morning, but the strange thing is that these posts have disappeared now. There have been some bloggers in Europe who have supposedly been threatened by their bishops, and of course, if they are priests, as many of them are, this is a serious threat. I think there is genuine fear out there. But of course, anybody who runs up against a “progre” (progressive) knows that there is nothing worse than a progre scorned or even modestly opposed.

    The other thing he said, at the very end, was that a married clergy was “on his agenda.” This has been triumphantly quoted in the mainstream press in Europe, so this particular part of the talk was obviously officially released to them.

  25. theophilus says:

    If Cardinal Burke is worried. I am worried.

    Guess what.

    Cardinal Burke is worried

  26. kurtmasur says:

    SanSan wrote: “I love Pope Francis. I know he is human. Concern rises when he speaks “off the cuff” and calms when he speaks ” ex cathedra”.”

    If I understand correctly, very few popes have issued “ex-cathedra” pronouncements…something Benedict nor JPII never did, much less Francis. If I’m not mistaken, it was Pius XII who last spoke “ex-cathedra” when in 1950 he defined the dogma of the Assumption of Mary…

  27. SanSan says:

    correction: mainly my point is when he speaks “Truth” from the maginsterum of the Church……mis-spoke about ex-cathedra…..thanks for the lesson :)