Browse Our Articles & Podcasts

Objections and Replies on “Pastor Aeternus”

Above: some of the popes, but not all. 

As readers will know, I have written much on the error of “hyperpapalism,” which is a way of referring to an extreme or exaggerated ultramontanism in the Church. Naturally, such writings as last July’s “The ‘Spirit of Vatican I’ as a Post-Revolutionary Political Problem” are bound to occasion objections from hyperpapalists themselves. Here, I share some of them, with my responses.

Objection 1:

First, we’ll start with Pastor Aeternus and go from there:

2…. Both clergy and faithful, of whatever rite and dignity, both singly and collectively, are bound to submit to this power by the duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, and this not only in matters concerning faith and morals, but also in those which regard the discipline and government of the Church throughout the world.

I once believed that the qualifying “true” in the phrase “true obedience” excused my lack of obedience when I relied on tradition against papal orders, but I now believe I was reading that wrong. It is simply an emphatic adjective, to show that the obedience must be real and not dissimulated. This follows from paragraph 7, where we read:

This gift of truth and never-failing faith was therefore divinely conferred on Peter and his successors in this See so that they might discharge their exalted office for the salvation of all, and so that the whole flock of Christ might be kept away by them from the poisonous food of error and be nourished with the sustenance of heavenly doctrine. Thus the tendency to schism is removed and the whole Church is preserved in unity, and, resting on its foundation, can stand firm against the gates of hell.

Reply to Objection 1:

The difficulty here is that paragraph 7 does not actually interpret itself. It does not say, for example, that a pope’s personal opinions, or even his non-infallible magisterial acts, will always and necessarily redound to the good of the Church or better preserve its unity. This is one of the dubia of Vatican I. I’m with John Henry Newman on this point: we should never say that a dogma requires more of us than the strictest interpretation of it requires. This is a principle of epistemic humility and realism, as well as a way of not tempting God and not forfeiting the gifts He has given us.

Paragraph 7 is, on the face of it, a rather generic description of the way the office of Peter will be discharged if and when it is being discharged in the manner in which Pastor Aeternus describes—that is, in obedience to apostolic tradition. Indeed, this is so obvious a condition that it is usually not even necessary to say it. It would be like saying “The pope is always to be obeyed (except when he commands something that must not be obeyed).” Examples come to mind: Francis on the death penalty or chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia. In these cases, it is clear that Peter as this particular man, as this individual Christian, has departed from the Faith, and the protection of God consists here in preventing him from defining error or mandating sin. That’s what I mean by a minimalist interpretation of infallibility and primacy.

I do not claim to have “the whole picture” in which all tensions and difficulties are resolved—does any one of us have such a picture? if you do, please let me know—but I do intend to keep in view the truths I know by faith and by reason, lest I sin against the light. Whatever understanding we have of the papacy, it cannot be one that compels us to reject what we know to be true by reason or by faith, or even to call it into question. We may question the adequacy of our own understanding, but we may not embrace contradiction or surrender the obvious meaning of the Church’s dogmatic and moral teachings.

Pastor Aeternus gave us the limits of papal infallibility. It will be Francis—and also, to some degree, John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI—who will provide the material for assessing the limits of papal fallibility.

Objection 2:

Recognizing the problems with our modern hyper-ultramontane pontificate, I was not surprised to see your critical view of the maximalist reading of Pastor Aeternus. I was, however, surprised to see what looks like a certain enthusiasm for Gallicanism, since down that road went the fellow travelers of Ignaz von Döllinger into the schism of the Union of Utrecht and the disastrously hyper-modernist “Old Catholic” churches.

Given the tragedy of what happened to those who rejected the definition of the First Vatican Council, I see a likely outcome for any similar return to a more Gallican understanding of the papacy. Wouldn’t this simply result in a further dissipation of the unity of the Faith by today’s Modernist bishops waging a diocese-by-diocese war on Tradition? How could such a view of papal primacy do anything other than aid the heresies of something like the German Synodal Way, cloaking itself in the guise of “local needs”?

I would be grateful if you could share your views on how to balance pushing back on the maximalist reading of Pastor Aeternus without similarly dissolving the Latin church into division and schism, as occurred in 1870.

Reply to Objection 2:

We are all wading waist-deep through this continual stream of evil in the Church, and it’s not at all clear what the way out is going to be, or rather, the manner of deliverance that God will arrange in His providence. I am convinced that Our Lord is trying to teach us three significant lessons, too easily forgotten: that we must (1) hold fast to what is certainly true as opposed to what is in any way dubious, and do so using the faith and reason He gave us; (2) throw all our trust on Him as the ultimate Head of the Church, and (3) be able to live with difficulty, obscurity, and uncertainty – “to walk by faith, not by sight” as it were. We do not have to have a ready-made, implementable, neoscholastically approved solution in order to be able to see the problems themselves and to name them for what they are.

The enthusiasm for the Gallican mentality that you thought you saw in my article was solely and simply for its traditional understanding of the rootedness of the Church in episcopacy and tradition, as opposed to seeing Tradition and episcopacy as somehow radiating from Rome. That’s all I intended to say. The Old Catholics cannot be the solution, of course, because they refused to accept the dogmatic definition when it was made. That is why, it seems to me, the minimalist interpretation is important: it shows that Vatican I does not equal hyperpapalism, even if the popes themselves, in their ordinary (non-infallible) magisterium and obiter dicta, have strongly encouraged this way of thinking.

The papal primacy is necessary for the unity of the Church. Therefore, with Roberto de Mattei, I fully believe that God will grant us a good pope someday, who will flex the muscle of his primacy to put an end to the lavender mafia by deposing them from their offices and to the Modernists by anathematizing their errors into oblivion. In doing so, he would, in fact, be doing what a pope is traditionally supposed to do: feed the flock and repel the wolves. Although this kind of intervention may look autocratic or heavy-handed, it is manifestly designed to rid the local churches of impediments to their own flourishing in episcopal integrity and liturgical tradition. In fact, every bishop has the divinely-given authority to do this sort of thing right now in his own diocese.

Light from Germany

As a “coda” to the above replies, I would like to discuss two documents that are far too little known.

At the issuing of Pastor Aeternus, the German Chancellor Bismarck, a bitter opponent of the Church, published a forceful denunciation of it in December 1874. (Who can blame him? His understanding was that the pope was now being said to be a God on earth… you know… the way Catholics have commonly treated popes since the writing of Pastor Aeternus. So his obtuseness is helpful, and moreso as time passes.) In January and February of 1875, the Catholic Bishops of Germany composed a reply, which all of them signed: Responses to the Circular Letter of Chancellor Bismarck on the Interpretation of the Constitution “Pastor Aeternus” of the First Vatican Council.

Why is this document not plastered all over the internet, given that its content was endorsed by Pius IX himself? As far as I can tell, only the tiniest snippets of it exist online. The full text is printed in Denzinger, 43rd ed., nos. 3112–16. Let’s have a look at what the German Bishops—back then, apparently a good lot—say in their Responses. First, they summarized the false doctrines that Bismarck (echoed by today’s hyperpapalists) derived from his false reading of Pastor Aeternus:

In virtue of these decisions [i.e., Vatican I], the pope has appropriated to himself the rights of the bishop in every diocese, and he has replaced the territorial power of the bishop with his own papal power. Episcopal jurisdiction has been absorbed by papal jurisdiction. The pope no longer exercises, as he did in the past, certain definite rights reserved to him alone, but now all the rights of the local bishops have passed into his hands. As a matter of principle, he has taken the place of each bishop, and it depends on him alone at any time with regard to practical matters to take the place of the bishop in negotiations with the civil government. Now the bishops are only his instruments, his functionaries without personal responsibility; regarding the civil government, they have become officials of a foreign sovereign; indeed, of a sovereign who, because of his infallibility, enjoys absolute authority, more than any absolute monarch in the world.

The bishops refute Bismarck’s misconceptions with admirable clarity:

All of these assertions are bereft of any foundation, and they contradict the wording and the meaning of the decisions of the Vatican Council, a meaning clearly and repeatedly expressed by the pope, by the bishops, and by the experts in Catholic studies.

To be sure, according to these decisions the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the pope is a potestas suprema, ordinaria, et immediata (supreme, ordinary, and immediate power) that was conferred on the pope by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, in the person of St. Peter; this supreme authority is exercised over the whole Church and therefore over every diocese and every individual believer… [Yet] the decisions of the Vatican Council offer no basis for the assertion that the pope, because of them, has become an absolute master…

First of all, the area covered by the ecclesiastical authority of the pope is essentially different from that over which the earthly power of a sovereign monarch extends, and Catholics do not challenge in any way the sovereignty of kinds and princes over civil matters. But prescinding from that, the application of the term “absolute monarch” to the pope in reference to ecclesiastical affairs is not correct because he is subject to divine laws and is bound by the directives given by Christ for his Church. The pope cannot change the constitution given to the Church by her divine founder, as an earthly ruler can change the constitution of a State. In all essential points the constitution of the Church is based on divine directives, and therefore it is not subject to human arbitrariness.

Just as the papacy is of divine institution, so also is the episcopacy. The latter has its own rights and duties in virtue of having been instituted by God, and the pope has neither the right nor the power to change them. Therefore, a complete misunderstanding of the Vatican decisions is involved if one concludes from them that “episcopal jurisdiction has been absorbed by papal jurisdiction,” that the pope, “as a matter of principle, has taken the place of each bishop,” that the bishops are only “his instruments, his functionaries without personal responsibility”… With regard to the [last] assertion in particular, we must reject it categorically; it is certainly not the Catholic Church that has embraced the immoral and despotic principle that the command of a superior frees one unconditionally from all personal responsibility.

Finally, the opinion according to which the pope is “an absolute sovereign because of his infallibility” is based on a completely false understanding of the dogma of papal infallibility. As the Vatican Council has expressed the idea in clear and precise words and as the nature of the matter requires, infallibility is a characteristic of the papacy that refers exclusively to the supreme [i.e., extraordinary] Magisterium of the pope; it is coextensive with the area of the infallible Magisterium of the Church in general, and it is restricted to the contents of Holy Scripture and tradition and also to the dogmas previously defined by the teaching authority of the Church. Consequently, the teaching on infallibility has not changed in any way the popes’ administrative actions.

Pope Pius IX—not just any pope, but, at the cost of belaboring the obvious, the very one who supported and promulgated Pastor Aeternus—addressed an Apostolic Letter Mirabilis illa constantia to the Bishops of Germany, dated March 4, 1875, in which he forthrightly endorsed their entire interpretation:

You have increased the glory of the Church, venerable Brothers, because you have taken upon yourselves the task of reestablishing the true sense of the definitions of the Vatican Council that had been distorted by a widely distributed and deceptive circular latter. [You wrote so that the aforesaid letter of Bismarck] might not deceive the faithful and, subverted by envy, provide a pretext for intrigue against the freedom of the election of a new pope. The clarity and solidity of your declaration is truly of such a nature that, since it leaves nothing more to desire, it can only give rise to Our deepest congratulations, unless the cunning voice of certain newspapers should require from Us an even stronger testimony. For, in order to put some power back into the letter that you rightly rejected, they tried to attack the credibility of your document by claiming that the doctrine of the conciliar definitions was toned down by you and therefore in no way corresponds to the intention of this Holy See. We therefore reject this cunning and calumnious insinuation and suggestion; for your declaration presents the truly Catholic understanding, which is that of the holy council and of this Holy See; you defended the teaching so skillfully and brilliantly with convincing and irrefutable arguments that it is obvious to any honest person that there is absolutely nothing in the attacked definitions that is new… (Denzinger 3117)

Many theological discussions when left to theologians (or would-be theologians on YouTube) tend in two opposite directions: either the esoterically complex, or the clumsily oversimplified. It is when a teaching “hits the streets,” so to speak, that Catholics are forced to explain themselves in common language that harmonizes well, in the sight of the common man, with the preceding teaching of the Church. In this case, when the dogma of papal infallibility “hit the streets” in Europe, Chancellor Bismarck was shocked and confused by what he was hearing (no doubt from triumphalistic ultramontanes). We see in the German Bishops’ Responses an explanation of the dogma in common language that any man can understand, and we see in Pius IX’s endorsement of it a conviction that this dogma represents nothing “new” (novus).

Obviously, not everyone who has studied papal history and ecclesiology would agree, without demur, that this definition of 1870 contained nothing new. That is a point on which you will have to consult someone like Erick Ybarra.

Germane to our present situation, however, is the limited understanding of papal monarchy reflected in the above documents and the reaffirmation of the rights and duties of the episcopacy—matters of the most urgent relevance under the tyrannical regime of Pope Francis, which has violated in countless ways the divinely-ordained constitution of the Church as regards relations between the pope and the bishops. A large number of bishops who replied to the CDF survey that they were content with Summorum Pontificum as it stood were stymied. Bishops have been removed without cause or process. Many bishops have been coerced into harming members of their presbyterate and their flocks who are customarily and virtuously attached to the traditional rites of the Church. Wicked men have been appointed as bishops or created cardinals, while virtuous men have been passed over. In every way, we are looking at another saeculum obscurum (the third such period in the history of the Church) in which the papacy is blackened by its own misdeeds.

The solution is not to abandon the papacy or to embrace Gallicanism. The solution is to hold fast to the traditional Faith and to pray daily to the Lord for the hierarchy of the Church and for the deliverance of His people by His strong right arm.

Popular on OnePeterFive

Share to...