Saturday, March 16, 2013

Papolatry and prudence

Everyone wants to know about our new Pope. What was his attitude to Liberation Theology? To the Extraordinary Form? To the Curia? What motivated the cardinals to elect him? These are interesting questions, but we shouldn't overestimate how much light the answers shed about his future actions, even if we get them. Pope Francis is in a completely different situation today than he was ten or twenty years ago: he has new information, new priorities, and a completely different job, which - let us remember - brings with it the grace of the office. And anyway we can't influence him with our puny blogs. What we can do, as time goes on, is support and explain to others some of his teaching and initiatives.

That is not to say that we have to adopt the attitude of some kind of Protestant parody of Catholics. It is not Catholic teaching that Popes are impeccable (incapable of sinning). Popes have to go to confession like everyone else. Nor does the Church teach that they possess infallibility in what they do and teach, outside the carefully defined conditions of infallible teaching on faith and morals. There is a wonderful passage in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited when the Jesuit instructing Rex in the Faith discovers that Rex is incapable of distinguishing the real teaching on infallibility from a joke: what if the Pope said it was raining, and it wasn't? The point is that Rex's desire to become a Catholic is insincere. He isn't over zealous, he's just not taking it seriously.

We are not bound to 'Papolatry': to the worship of the Pope. We are bound to obedience, but this has it's proper sphere: matters of faith, morals, and ecclesiastical discipline; it is also limited by Divine and Natural Law. We don't believe that the Pope was chosen by the Holy Spirit; he was chosen by men, and we know from history that these men have sometimes chosen badly. In some cases they have even allowed themselves to be blackmailed or bribed. We know that Popes have made grave errors in dealing with difficult situations - Pope Benedict referred to these errors in the letter accompanying Summorum Pontificum:

Looking back over the past, to the divisions which in the course of the centuries have rent the Body of Christ, one continually has the impression that, at critical moments when divisions were coming about, not enough was done by the Church’s leaders to maintain or regain reconciliation and unity. 

Pope Pius IX
The great Pius IX was man enough to reverse his political policy completely when things went wrong. Bl. John Paul II made an astonishing number of apologies in his reign for the human failings of the Church, which include those of Popes; Wikipedia's helpful list leaves out a particularly important one, relating to the immediate past (Dominicae caenae 12):

I would like to ask forgiveness-in my own name and in the name of all of you, venerable and dear brothers in the episcopate-for everything which, for whatever reason, through whatever human weakness, impatience or negligence, and also through the at times partial, one-sided and erroneous application of the directives of the Second Vatican Council, may have caused scandal and disturbance concerning the interpretation of the doctrine and the veneration due to this great sacrament [the Eucharist].

In short, and there is no shame admitting it: there have been good Popes and bad Popes. There have been corrupt men who have made reasonable Popes. There have been holy men who have made bad Popes. And there have been good and holy Popes who have made disastrously bad decisions.

This does not mean our support, spiritual and material,  our obedience, and our veneration for the Pope, goes out of the window. Even the worst of Popes is still the Pope. Even the worst of Popes has then gift of infallibility and the power of the Keys: he can teach unerringly, and has the power to grant indulgences. These are spiritual gifts: they don't make the Pope holy, but they make him worthy of veneration. Is this so incredible?

THEN Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to his disciples, Saying: The scribes and the Pharisees have sitten on the chair of Moses. All things therefore whatsoever they shall say to you, observe and do: but according to their works do ye not; for they say, and do not. (Mat 23:1-3)

Furthermore, even bad Popes have jurisdiction: they, and they alone, can enact or repeal laws, commands, and disciplines which bind under pain of sin for the whole Church. Finally, they and they alone are able to coordinate and guide the whole Church, to deal with practical problems and give impetus to new initiatives. That is their charism, and we need to take this seriously. When they speak, we sit up and listen. 

The view that only a 'worthy minister' can do the people any good is Protestant. The view that Popes are automatically wise and holy leads, logically, to sede vacantism: it implies the view that Popes 'fall from office' when they go wrong. The Catholic view is that they have the gifts of the office not by personal merit, but by God's cooperation in an institution which is both human and divine. God will preserve the Church, yes, but He won't stop us making fools of ourselves.

Pope Francis commands our respect, our veneration, our obedience, and our attention. He has more than ordinary human powers in seeking solutions to the Church's difficulties, but there will be nothing automatic about his plans meeting with success. We can help by a respectful, serene and well-informed participation in the debate about what measures might work and what might not. We can help also by accepting the teaching of the Church and obeying her laws and traditions: for the Holy Father is the guardian of these teachings, laws, and traditions. And above all we can help by striving for personal holiness, giving witness to the Faith in our daily lives. 

He is going to need our help, even of he turns out to be a genius. Let us be ready to play our part. 

Almighty and everlasting God, have mercy upon Thy servant Francis, our Supreme Pontiff, and direct him, according to Thy loving-kindness, in the way of eternal salvation; that, of Thy gift, he may ever desire that which is pleasing unto Thee and may accomplish it with all his might. Through Christ our Lord. Amen. 


  1. "The view that only a 'worthy minister' can do the people any good is Protestant."

    Indeed it is, and it is rejected in one of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. If even the Anglicans can get this right, so should we.

  2. We give veneration only to saints and those showing a very high degree of sanctity.

    Just commenting on the use of a word here.

  3. Many thanks for your clarity of thought, loyalty and honesty in respect to our Holy Father. We are all said and done Roman Catholics which many of our fellow catholics seem to forget or are so ignorant of our religion through lack of proper teaching a situation which has existed now for many years and shows no signs of being resolved. Thanks to blogs such as your own maybe more and more catholics can be made more fully aware of their religion. Quaesumus, Domine, Deus noster, ut sacrosancta mysteria, quae pro reparationis nostrae munimine contulisti; et praesens nobis remedium esse facias, et futurum.

  4. This is extremely good, clear-headed and helpful. Thank you.

  5. I endorse your remarks entirely.

  6. Sorry to disagree with you Joseph but the view that "only a 'worthy minister' can do the people any good" predates Protestantism. The Donatist Heresy dates back to the 300's when the Donatist Christians of North Africa rejected the validity of Sacraments of Ordination offered by Bishops who were accused of compromising with Paganism during a period of persecution. This Heresy was condemned by the Council of Arles in 314 so long before Luther et al.

    That said at the end of the day the fact that a Minister is unworthy and is seen to be so damages his ability to be an effective minister of the Gospel however liturgically valid his services may be

  7. Anonymous1:21 am

    Supertradmum is right, but it's curious to note that the Anglicans even venerate their archdeacons (or at least they call them "venerable")

    Good article..

  8. Supertradmum: we also venerate things, including the office of the Papacy, and in virtue of his office, the holder.

    At Vat

  9. Whilst I do not dissent from a single word that you have written Joseph, I do not accept that the only alternative to being an unorthodox or ill-instructed Catholic is to be a Pollyanna Catholic.

    He certainly doesn’t appear to be the “Dirty Harry” pope I was praying for. Moreover, his seminaries in Buenos Aires are empty, which says in all as far as I’m concerned. If that doesn’t concern you, then his praise for the writing of Cardinal Kasper, whom he described as “a talented theologian, a good theologian” during his Angelus meditation, should make the blood of any genuine Catholic run cold. Kasper! – spare us oh Lord.

    Ultimately, I don’t believe it makes too much difference; the Conciliar church is dying as we write. When I became a Catholic over fifty years ago, the Mass attendance in England was over 3,000,000 and steadily rising, today it is a little over 800,000 and rapidly declining – and most of those who still go to Mass have long ago been turned into Roman Protestants by the Novus Ordo, and are moreover steadily contracepting themselves out of existence with Episcopal blessing. Most of our post-Conciliar shepherds may well be asked on Judgement Day, “Why did the directors of Coca Cola care more about their sales figures than you did about saving souls?”

    Traditionalists need to stop looking wistfully to Rome for salvation. The renewal that is taking place is clearly coming from the laity, good priests and a tiny handful of good bishops.

    Incidentally, I shall be absolutely delighted to be proved completely wrong.

  10. I think "reverence" would have been a better word.

    That being said, it should be clear that the "office" can not, metaphysically, be separated from the fact that it requires, by its very nature, to be occupied by a man.

  11. Excellent thoughts, Dr. Shaw. I agree entirely. Thank you for your charitable and respectful approach.

  12. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council (and, I assume, earlier ones) referred to each other as 'Venerable Father(s)', just as MPs call each other 'Honourable Member(s)'. In both cases it is the role and not the person which is at issue.

    I don't see this concern about saying the Papacy is worthy of 'veneration', the word has a wide meaning. Perhaps I'm using it loosely. But the point of the post is to point out that the person of the Holy Father is not worthy of worship, latria.

  13. Thank you Joe for a balanced and clear posting, which contrasts favourably with some of the hysteria that has been going around over the last week. A moratorium on alarmism for the rest of Lent would be no bad thing, though probably not very likely.

    'Venerable' is a perfectly respectable ecclesiastical title, which was formerly used for Archdeacons.

    Though the personal worthiness of a minister doesn't affect the validity of the sacraments, or of ecclesiastical jurisdiction, it can't be said that it has no effect whatsoever. I recall a good article in the Catholic Encyclopaedia on this point. The essential grace of the sacrament is transferred ex opere operato, but many further graces are available ex opere operantis, I think was the gist.

    Which supports the point that, if we want Pope Francis' reign to be fruitful, it isn't enough to acknowledge his authority and venerate him - we've also got to pray for him.