A one-year-old blog known as “Where Peter Is” — a sort of inverse image of OnePeterFive — features writing from ardent defenders of Pope Francis. Recognizing that Catholicism is inherently a religion of Tradition, the blog avoids the awkwardness of patent contradiction between earlier magisterial teaching and Francis’s “creativity” by arguing that Tradition equals “what the pope says.” Therefore, Catholics must assent to Amoris Laetitia, the abolition of the death penalty, human fraternity among a plurality of divinely willed religions, and every other kind of novelty “proposed” by the pope.
The heart of the argument is the claim that the pope and bishops are the “interpreters of tradition,” such that we cannot even know what Catholic doctrine is unless we are told what it is by the pope and bishops. It has no existence in itself, apart from their acknowledgment and exposition of it. And if they say something is Catholic doctrine, or is somehow “part of tradition” — even if it sounds very different from what other popes and bishops used to teach, or even if it’s never been said before by anyone — that’s okay, because tradition is, after all, what the current pope and bishops tell us it is or isn’t. In this perspective, no one could ever have a legitimate disagreement with a pope, because such a one would be pitting his own “private interpretation” against the interpreter set up by God. This brand of ultramontanism elevates all papal statements and policies into authoritative dictates that ought to be trusted on faith as God’s will for us today and, accordingly, should never be criticized.
The basic difficulty with this approach is that it makes a hash out of any claim of consistency of teaching on the part of the Catholic Church. If you can get unanimity from the time of the Old and New Testaments to yesterday on the question of the legitimacy of capital punishment, but then Pope Francis can suddenly declare it contrary to the Gospel and to human dignity (as he very clearly does in his October 11, 2017 address), where are we? Where does that leave us? This line of argument empties Catholicism of any objective content whatsoever and makes the pope the master rather than the servant of tradition. Something is wrong if a pope one fine day can make a statement that renders inaccurate or unusable an entire library full of previously approved catechetical, apologetic, theological, and spiritual writings.
See how different the understanding is of Pope Benedict XVI, who said in a homily in 2005:
The power that Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors is, in an absolute sense, a mandate to serve. The power of teaching in the Church involves a commitment to the service of obedience to the Faith. The pope is not an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law. On the contrary: the pope’s ministry is a guarantee of obedience to Christ and to his Word. He must not proclaim his own ideas, but rather constantly bind himself and the Church to obedience to God’s Word, in the face of every attempt to adapt it or water it down, and every form of opportunism. … The pope knows that in his important decisions, he is bound to the great community of faith of all times, to the binding interpretations that have developed throughout the Church’s pilgrimage. Thus, his power is not being above the Word of God, but at the service of it. It is incumbent upon him to ensure that this Word continues to be present in its greatness and to resound in its purity, so that it is not torn to pieces by continuous changes in usage.
This is what everyone had always believed to be the role of the papacy. The pope was expected to make his magisterium conform to a Tradition that already existed as a God-given measure for all believers. This view furnishes the basis on which the Third Council of Constantinople saw itself as competent to issue a crystal-clear condemnation and anathematization of the deceased Pope Honorius, a judgment Pope Leo II endorsed and indeed repeated in his own right. It explains the shadow that lies over the name of Pope Liberius in the West, as a vacillator who gave encouragement to enemies of the Faith.
The original ultramontanists of the 19th century could be forgiven for their enthusiasm. The popes of the Counter-Reformation and post-revolutionary period in Europe were generally as committed to traditional dogma as can possibly be imagined; the popes from Gregory XVI to Pius XI in particular were anti-modern(ist) to the core. They were the heroes fighting the drift into total secularism.
We are, regrettably, in a very different place. One who reads Pope St. Pius X’s Pascendi Dominici Gregis today would find it difficult not to see the opinions he is condemning in the very words of Pope Francis and his supporters.
Note how carefully Benedict XVI, in the quotation above, chooses his every word. He says: “The power of teaching in the Church involves a commitment to the service of obedience to the Faith.” In other words, it is not involuntary, like the reflex motion of a knee struck with a doctor’s rubber mallet. Each bishop, including the bishop of Rome, must make a voluntary submission of mind and heart to the Faith, and he can fail to do so in the vast realm of statements, decisions, and actions that fall outside the confines of papal infallibility as defined by Vatican I. If a pope’s failure to submit himself to Sacred Tradition and to defend it strenuously is notorious enough, it merits blame and condemnation.
Pope Benedict continues: “He must not proclaim his own ideas, but rather constantly bind himself and the Church to obedience to God’s Word, in the face of every attempt to adapt it or water it down, and every form of opportunism.” Implied in this “must” is an “ought”: he ought not to proclaim his own ideas, but bind himself and the Church to what is true, regardless of the pressure of progressive elites, with their humanistic opposition to the death penalty or their utilitarian view of marital permanence or their perverse enforcement of “sex education.”
As for “not tearing to pieces the Word of God by continuous changes in usage,” it seems that the current Roman pontiff never received the memo. In almost every area of the Church’s life, he has attempted to change what his predecessors — including the popes immediately before him — had established. Humanae Vitae? Courageous for its time, but we’re beyond that now. Veritatis Splendor? Oh, scholastic moral theology no longer corresponds to the new needs of today. Familiaris Consortio? Never mind…
In the fourth century, during the Arian crisis that swept through the Church, most of the bishops stopped defending Catholic Tradition. To put it bluntly, they were heretics, borderline or blatant. St. Athanasius of Alexandria, St. Hilary of Poitiers, and just a few others whom we now revere as confessors of the Faith claimed that their brother bishops — in the hundreds — were renegades. Did this mean that all of those bishops ceased to be successors of the apostles? No. Did they lose their authority to govern? No. They remained what they were divinely ordained to be. But they were not living up to the demands of their office; they were not living by the charism of truth entrusted to them.
If a pope or bishop is automatically trustworthy, where is the room for free will — his or ours? Where is the room for collaboration with, or stubborn resistance to, God’s grace? St. Athanasius was faithful to the office that Christ gave him, but he was hounded out of his see multiple times by his opponents and died from maltreatment at the hands of Arians and Semi-Arians who had the backing of “successors of the apostles.” The laity supported Athanasius because they recognized in his doctrine the truth of the Faith proclaimed immutably at Nicaea.
Having an apostolic office makes a bishop worthy of honor and obedience — but he still has to work out his own salvation in fear and trembling, like everyone else. He still has to profess the Faith by an act of free will supported by God’s grace. He still has to submit to the same tradition to which every other Catholic from the day of Pentecost to the Second Coming has to submit. And, if I may be allowed to lapse into slang, he can blow it big time, just like the rest of us. As it says in Scripture, the mighty, if they fail, shall be mightily tormented (Wis. 6:6). It’s not for nothing that Dante puts popes and bishops in his Inferno.
Catholics who protest the novelties of Francis are not setting up their “private interpretation” against “God’s interpretation.” We are looking at the witness of 20 centuries, 21 councils, and 265 popes preceding this one and seeing contradictions on any number of points, using our God-given gift of reason, which can indeed tell us infallibly that two plus two equals four and cannot equal five.
“What good, then, is having a pope?” someone might be tempted to ask.
This frustration occurs only for those who have an exaggerated notion of the pope’s role. For the most part, Catholics throughout history have been able to ignore what the pope is doing, because they already knew their faith — what they had to believe, pray for, do, and shun. For its part, Vatican I is clear about the specific circumstances within which the Church’s infallibility is engaged by her earthly head. The pope is supposed to be “where the buck stops” when there is a dispute that cannot be otherwise resolved. He is meant to be, as Cardinal Newman says, a remora or barrier against doctrinal innovation, not an engine for doctrinal development, let alone a chatterbox sharing his personal opinions. In fact, the gravity of the papal office is such, and so great the responsibility, that a pope should be characterized by saying rather less than most bishops or priests do, rather than more. He should be a man of few and serious words.
We are duty-bound to pray for our shepherds — and then, with a cheerful countenance and a jaunty step, get on with our daily lives as Catholics. For most of her history, the Church has bustled along in her mission, without waiting to hear the latest homily or address (much less airplane interview) by the pope, or counting the votes of the bishops at the latest synod. What we need to believe and to do has been laid out for us for a long time, with no possibility that it will ever be changed.
The city of Rome houses the bones of at least a hundred popes, most of whom are forgotten by all but historians. Visitors to St. Peter’s basilica walk past one sarcophagus after another as they proceed toward the confessio to pay homage to the Prince of the Apostles. Soon, the wretched papacy under which we now suffer will be past, as we draw closer, step by step, to the final confrontation of Christ with Antichrist. Let the dead bury the dead; let modernists bury modernists. “As for you,” says the Lord to each of us, “follow Me.”
Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, Thomistic theologian, liturgical scholar, and choral composer, is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and The Catholic University of America. He has taught at the International Theological Institute in Austria, the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austria Program, and Wyoming Catholic College, which he helped establish in 2006. He writes regularly for Catholic blogs and has published seven books, the most recent being Tradition and Sanity (Angelico, 2018). For more information, visit www.peterkwasniewski.com.