“[I]t is neither wise nor laudable to reduce everything to antiquity by every possible device.”
— Pope Pius XII, Mediator Dei §62 (1947)
Last week, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the ongoing Synod of Bishops that was established by Pope Paul VI in 1965, Pope Francis made a number of remarks about his vision of the Church’s structure and future, remarks which have raised not a few eyebrows in the world of Catholic commentary. In this post I will focus on only a small portion of Francis’s address, in order to show how well founded the concerns of the eyebrow-raisers are.
According to Francis:
[I]t is precisely on this way of synodality where we find the pathway that God expects from the Church of the third millennium. [As opposed to the Church of all ages?] …
As a constitutive dimension of the Church, synodality gives us the more appropriate [than what?] interpretive framework to understand the hierarchical ministry. If we understand as St. John Chrysostom did, that “church and synod are synonymous,” [citation, please?] since the Church means nothing other than [?] the common journey of the Flock of God along the paths of history towards the encounter of Christ Lord [sic], then we understand that within the Church, no one can be raised up higher than the others. On the contrary, in the Church, it is necessary that each person be “lowered” in order to serve his or her brothers and sisters along the way.
Jesus founded the Church by placing at its head the Apostolic College [sic], in which the apostle Peter is the “rock” (cfr. Mt 16:18)1 I am aware that the metaphor of the rock places St. Peter at the base of the Church, but Pope Francis is the one who chose to invert the hierarchical metaphor. In any case, what the metaphor of Peter as Rock is meant to suggest is strength and stability. If the argument is that St. Peter can’t be both the base and the head of the Church, then neither can Christ, which proves too much, to say the least., the one who will confirm his brothers in the faith (cfr. Lk 22: 32). But in this church, as in an inverted pyramid, the summit is located below the base. For those who exercise this authority are called “ministers” because, according to the original meaning of the word, they are the least of all. It is in serving the people of God that each Bishop becomes for that portion of the flock entrusted to him, vicarius Christi, (vicar of that Jesus who at the Last Supper stooped to wash the feet of the Apostles (cfr. Jn 13: 1-15 ). And in a similar manner, the Successor of Peter is none other than the servus servorum Dei (Servant of the servants of God). …
As I have said, “In a Church Synod it is not appropriate for the Pope to replace the local Episcopates in the discernment of all the problems that lie ahead in their territories. In this sense, I feel the need to proceed in a healthy “decentralization.”
These remarks recall comments Francis made in Evangelii Gaudium (§32):
The papacy and the central structures of the universal Church also need to hear the call to pastoral conversion [?]. The Second Vatican Council stated that, like the ancient patriarchal Churches, episcopal conferences are in a position “to contribute in many and fruitful ways to the concrete realization of the collegial spirit”. Yet this desire has not been fully realized, since a juridical status of episcopal conferences which would see them as subjects of specific attributions, including genuine doctrinal authority, has not yet been sufficiently elaborated. Excessive centralization [per se], rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach.
Now, no one can fault the Holy Father’s oratorical skills (when he chooses to read from the script, that is), but he’s not the only one with an “interpretive framework” up his sleeve.
Long ago, in a land called Catholica, a little ol’ thing called the First Vatican Council had the gall to solemnly and infallibly make its own claims about the “constitutive dimension[s] of the Church” (to borrow Francis’s phraseology). Unfortunately, the difference between that Council’s teaching and Francis’s oratory could not be starker.
[I]f anyone says that blessed Peter the apostle [as opposed to the collective “Apostolic College”] was not appointed by Christ the lord as prince of all the apostles and visible head of the whole Church militant; or that it was a primacy of honor only and not one of true and proper jurisdiction that he directly and immediately received from our lord Jesus Christ himself: let him be anathema. …
[W]e teach and declare that, by divine ordinance, the Roman Church possesses a pre-eminence of ordinary power over every other Church, and that this jurisdictional power of the Roman Pontiff is both episcopal and immediate. 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.
3. In this way, by unity with the Roman Pontiff in communion and in profession of the same faith , the Church of Christ becomes one flock under one Supreme Shepherd.
4. This is the teaching of the Catholic truth, and no one can depart from it without endangering his faith and salvation.
5. This power of the Supreme Pontiff by no means detracts from that ordinary and immediate power of episcopal jurisdiction, by which bishops, who have succeeded to the place of the apostles [i.e., the Apostolic College] by appointment of the Holy Spirit, tend and govern individually the particular flocks which have been assigned to them. On the contrary, this power of theirs is asserted, supported and defended by the Supreme and Universal Pastor; for St. Gregory the Great says: “My honor is the honor of the whole Church. My honor is the steadfast strength of my brethren. Then do I receive true honor, when it is denied to none of those to whom honor is due.”
6. Furthermore, it follows from that supreme power which the Roman Pontiff has in governing the whole Church, that he has the right, in the performance of this office of his, to communicate freely with the pastors and flocks of the entire Church, so that they may be taught and guided by him in the way of salvation.
7. And therefore we condemn and reject the opinions of those who hold that this communication of the Supreme Head with pastors and flocks may be lawfully obstructed; or that it should be dependent on the civil power….
8. Since the Roman Pontiff, by the divine right of the apostolic primacy, governs the whole Church, we likewise teach and declare that he is the supreme judge of the faithful, and that in all cases which fall under ecclesiastical jurisdiction recourse may be had to his judgment. The sentence of the Apostolic See (than which there is no higher authority) is not subject to revision by anyone, nor may anyone lawfully pass judgment thereupon. And so they stray from the genuine path of truth who maintain that it is lawful to appeal from the judgments of the Roman pontiffs to an ecumenical council as if this were an authority superior to the Roman Pontiff.
9. So, then, if anyone says that the Roman Pontiff has merely an office of supervision and guidance, and not the full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the whole Church, and this not only in matters of faith and morals, but also in those which concern the discipline and government of the Church dispersed throughout the whole world; or that he has only the principal part, but not the absolute fullness, of this supreme power; or that this power of his is not ordinary and immediate both over all and each of the Churches and over all and each of the pastors and faithful: let him be anathema.
— Vatican I, Session 4, Pastor Aeternus, chapters 1, 3 (1870)
The “inverted pyramid” of journalism (and Bergoglian ecclesiology?)
“Tell me more about this inverted pyramid of yourn, Pharaoh Phrancis!”2 “What Catholics Believe: sketch-talks” by Rev. Lawrence G. Lovasik, S.V.D. (1977), page 31. HT to the “Call Me Jorge” blog for this image.
Having played this game before, I fully expect the retort to this damning contradiction to be along the lines of, “Well, Francis wasn’t speaking infallibly“—I’ll say he wasn’t!—or perhaps that “Francis is respecting the spirit of Vatican I, if not the letter, by way of a deeper, more holistic ressourcement of the biblical and patristic kerygma of the first millennium”—though, thankfully, this level of pious bafflegab3 Yes, Virginia, our educated betters in the Church are just as enamored of polysyllabic bullshit as their secular counterparts. has not had as much success infecting the minds of healthy Catholic layfolk.
But… hope is a virtue… so…
Perhaps we can call another synod to get the job done?
Until that boggy day arrives, however, I leave you with three messages from Pope Pius XII. May his words be like pebbles in the mouths of desert wanderers as we march on through the New Springtime, the Church’s Mirkwood, gloomy, dank, and seemingly inescapable.
The Church of our times cannot return purely and simply to the rudimentary forms of the first tiny flock. In her maturity, which is not old age, she holds her head high and shows in her members the unfailing vigor of her youth; she remains what she has been since her foundation; always the same. She changes neither in in her teaching nor in her strength; she is unassailable, indestructible, invincible. She is unchangeable, inalterable in the charter of her foundation which was sealed by the Blood of the Son of God; and yet she moves, yet she clothes herself in new forms as she advances with the times, progressing always without changing her nature…. The Church certainly can look proudly and fearlessly [dare I say “triumphantly?”] at her past, at the gigantic edifice … of her magisterium and her discipline, an edifice raised in virtue of the full development and study of the truth confided to her…. The Church, now arrived at the maturity of her mission as universal mother of all believers, faced with needs and duties which are vaster than ever, could not consent, without being unfaithful to herself, to turn back to the forms of life and action of primitive Christianity.
— Radio Message to the world, May 13, 1942 (as cited in Papal Teachings: The Church [Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1962], p. 523 [Shut up, Pharisee, that’s not ex cathedra!])
[T]he Church of Christ, today, in what concerns her visible aspect, [is] more perfect, more complete, more developed than in the dawn of her nativity and the first stages of her external manifestation. Today the Church, with her … [countless] faithful spread over the face of the earth, needs quite another cohesiveness, different bonds of organization and laws, a more effective guidance by means of a central government, than in primitive times when Christians numbered only a few thousand, and, with very rare exceptions, belonged to the very State and civilization of the Roman Empire itself. But the structure of the Church in its essential characteristics and in its interior life was then, as always, the same, even more in certain points than historical research would have led us to expect. In her maturity which knows no enfeeblement, the Church has not changed the expression of her face; her voice, keeping its own unalterable tonality. has acquired still more vigor and force. …
The Church established on Peter and his successors, and she alone, must be the Church of Christ, one in herself and destined to remain until the end of time by means of submission to a personal and visible Head. …
In the succession of Roman Pontiffs there are many who, like the Prince of the Apostles, have sealed with their own blood their fidelity to Him whose visible representatives they were. … There were others whose purely human qualities corresponded less accurately to the dignity of their supreme [that word again!] pastoral office. [Shhhh…] But the most formidable tempests unleashed from the time of the Apostle Peter down to our own have not been able to shake the Church or prejudice the divine mission of her Rulers. Each Pope, in the very moment in which he accepts his election, receives it immediately from Christ with the same power and with the same privileges of infallibility.
If ever should come a day—We say this as a matter of pure hypothesis—when the physical reality of Rome were to crumble …, even then the Church would not, by that fact, be overthrown or undermined…. Thus it is: Rome the Eternal in the Christian and supernatural sense, is superior to the Rome of history. Her nature and her truth are independent of the historic City.
— Allocution to Roman students, January 30, 1949 (as cited in Papal Teachings: The Church [Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1962], p. 641 [Shut up, rad trad, that’s not ex cathedra!])
The Church of Christ … does not beg for favors; the threats of disgrace of earthly powers do not intimidate her. She does not meddle in questions which are purely political or economic; she does not care to debate on the utility or the lack of it in one or another form of government. …
Now, it is well known what the totalitarian and anti-religious state exacts and expects of her as the price of her toleration…. This is what it wants her to be:
a Church that will be silent, when she should speak;
a Church that will water down God’s law, adapting it to the tastes of the human will when she should proclaim it aloud and defend it;
a Church that would detach itself from the unshakable foundation on which Christ built it, and take up a convenient position on the moving sands of the opinions of the day, or yield herself to the passing currents; …
a Church that, with shameful servility, will remain enclosed in the four walls of the temple, forgetting the divine mandate received from Christ: “Go ye into the highways; teach all men”.4 Wait a sec, hold on—I thought this idea of going outside the safety of our Church walls began with Pope Francis!
— Allocution to the faithful of Rome, February 20, 1949 (as cited in Papal Teachings: The Church [Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1962], p. 643 [Shut up, batlike rosary-counter, that’s not ex cathedra!])
Happy pebbles, gang!
Elliot Bougis (Florida Man™) is a convert from the Reformed tradition. After a decade of teaching in Taiwan, Elliot returned to America and is now a freelance translator, interpreter, marketer, and writer. He is a happily married, multilingual father of three and occasionally a fitness nut. Find out more at ebougis.wordpress.com.
|↑1||I am aware that the metaphor of the rock places St. Peter at the base of the Church, but Pope Francis is the one who chose to invert the hierarchical metaphor. In any case, what the metaphor of Peter as Rock is meant to suggest is strength and stability. If the argument is that St. Peter can’t be both the base and the head of the Church, then neither can Christ, which proves too much, to say the least.|
|↑2||“What Catholics Believe: sketch-talks” by Rev. Lawrence G. Lovasik, S.V.D. (1977), page 31. HT to the “Call Me Jorge” blog for this image.|
|↑3||Yes, Virginia, our educated betters in the Church are just as enamored of polysyllabic bullshit as their secular counterparts.|
|↑4||Wait a sec, hold on—I thought this idea of going outside the safety of our Church walls began with Pope Francis!|