|Jesus is condemned by Pilate; He receives His Cross. From St Augustine's, Ramsgate.|
On the internet, and particularly on conservative Catholic blogs, there has been a fair amount of talk about the possibility, the hypothetical possibility, of 'resisting the Pope': that is, when an initiative of the Holy Father, other than an infallible exercise of his teaching Office, should be so clearly destructive of the common good and the salvation of souls that individual Catholics, including priests, bishops, and cardinals, would be justified in refusing to cooperate with it, and perhaps obliged to do so.
It is useful to keep this possibility in mind, because it sets a theoretical limit to what we are obliged to do or to believe. Pope John XXII preached something incompatible with the Faith from the pulpit (in Avignon, since this was during the Papacy's exile there). Here is the old Catholic Encyclopedia on the case.
Before his elevation to the Holy See, he had written a work on this question, in which he stated that the souls of the blessed departed do not see God until after the Last Judgment. After becoming pope, he advanced the same teaching in his sermons. In this he met with strong opposition, many theologians, who adhered to the usual opinion that the blessed departed did see God before the Resurrection of the Body and the Last Judgment, even calling his view heretical. A great commotion was aroused in the University of Paris when the General of the Minorites and a Dominican tried to disseminate there the pope's view. Pope John wrote to King Philip IV on the matter (November, 1333), and emphasized the fact that, as long as the Holy See had not given a decision, the theologians enjoyed perfect freedom in this matter. In December, 1333, the theologians at Paris, after a consultation on the question, decided in favour of the doctrine that the souls of the blessed departed saw God immediately after death or after their complete purification; at the same time they pointed out that the pope had given no decision on this question but only advanced his personal opinion, and now petitioned the pope to confirm their decision. John appointed a commission at Avignon to study the writings of the Fathers, and to discuss further the disputed question. In a consistory held on 3 January, 1334, the pope explicitly declared that he had never meant to teach aught contrary to Holy Scripture or the rule of faith and in fact had not intended to give any decision whatever. Before his death he withdrew his former opinion, and declared his belief that souls separated from their bodies enjoyed in heaven the Beatific Vision.
It was good, was it not, even if some of their motives were mixed, that theologians and cardinals stood up to Pope John on this? They did not, as the wilder fringes of the neo-conservative blogosphere would no doubt demand, either ignore what he said or try to explain it away. And Pope John had the humility to understand that he was a servant of the Truth, not its master.
It is also important to emphasise to non-Catholics that Catholicism does not raise every utterance of the Holy Father to the level of dogma. One gets the impression from the media that the more casual and unscripted a remark of a Pope might be, the more authoritative it is. Perhaps this derives from their concern as journalists to penetrate the official presentation of public figures to find the 'real man'. But the Pope's private thoughts and unguarded comments are not a theological source. They may give us insight into his thinking, and therefore the motivation for policies and the like; they may have weight as the insights of a private theologian; but they are not authoritative statements which we need to fit into our beliefs as Catholics, even ideally. No: if they seem a bit odd, just forget about them.
The story of John XXII makes the point that even when preaching, the Pope is not necessarily exercising his teaching office. This might seem surprising, but the teaching office of the Pope is a piece of heavy artillery which takes a bit of priming, and aiming, and doesn't go off without anyone noticing. We know a Pope is using it when he says things like this:
Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral. This doctrine, based upon that unwritten law which man, in the light of reason, finds in his own heart (cf. Rom 2:14-15), is reaffirmed by Sacred Scripture, transmitted by the Tradition of the Church and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.
This is Pope St John Paul II in a Papal Encyclical Evangelium Vitae, (1995) 57. It is not an exercise of the 'Extraordinary Magisterium', but of the 'Ordinary Magisterium': it is infallible as a reiteration of the constant teaching of the Church, not as the clarification of a disputed question like the Immaculate Conception or the Assumption. Those questions are matters of the more complex implications of the (undisputed) Deposit of Faith, the unerring interpretation of which is specially granted to the Church and to the Papacy by God.
The teaching of Pope St John Paul II on the 'theology of the body', by contrast, is just the opinion of a private doctor of the Church. The same goes for his thoughts on the death penalty in the encyclical just quoted. All the more so would be anything involving prudential judgements, such as Bl Paul VI's allocutions on the pastoral advantages of the Novus Ordo Missae. Whether he was right or wrong we must judge from the actual pastoral consequences of his innovations. We aren't obliged to force the historical outcome to fit the Pope's hopeful expectation in this case, any more than in the case of Popes hoping for the success of the Crusades.
If I may indulge in a little prophecy myself, I would say that we are not going to be faced with a situation in which Pope Francis urges a novel position on the indissolubility on marriage, in terms of an official closing down of the debate, in which a contrary position may not be taught. Pope St John Paul II taught, infallibly, that abortion is a grave evil, and that women cannot be ordained to the priesthood, in such a way that Catholic theologians may not teach the contrary, and to do so is to depart from the Faith and potentially be subject to the sanctions of canon law. There is no question of this kind of thing happening to silence the conservative side of the debate on marriage, because the position has been held by so many Doctors and Fathers of the Church, and partly for this reason this is never the way theological liberals, when they are in power, operate.
The danger from the next Synod is not, in fact, the clear teaching of error. It is, rather, a danger of unclarity, a degree of unclarity which is then taken, by those who wish to take it this way, as making possible pastoral policies which in practice undermine or are indeed incompatible with the Church's constant teaching.
We have seen it all before, in the Second Vatican Council. There are debates about the possibility that, as a set of non-infallible documents, it might contain positive error. But more influential have been passages which appear unclear, and for that reason have been used to justify practices which are destructive of the teaching, discipline, and traditions of the Church: in some cases, even when the unclear passages have been clarified in other passages of the same document. How many times have we heard, for example, that the Council called for 'Mass in the vernacular'? On the strength of these words:
But since the use of the mother tongue, whether in the Mass, the administration of the sacraments, or other parts of the liturgy, frequently may be of great advantage to the people, the limits of its employment may be extended.
when the previous sentence reads:
Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.
We know exactly how this worked in practice. Taking the ambiguous passage to a one-sided extreme and ignoring the passage which clarified it became a sort of quasi-official interpretation, and while never explicitly stated it appears to be taken for granted in innumerable official documents. It was taught in seminaries and applied by bishops, to such an extent that requests for the New Mass in Latin were sometimes criticised as though they were tantamount to a rejection of the Council. Priests who celebrated the reformed Mass in Latin were regarded as theologically suspect. To agree with the clear words of the Council made one an outcast. Not as much of an outcast, of course, as wanting the Traditional Mass, but this was a distinction which, infuriatingly for the hapless supporters of the New Mass in Latin, people frequently failed to make.
Was this the intention of the Council Fathers? Certainly not of all of them. But it makes no difference.
The same thing could happen with the next Synod. I fully expect it to say something like 'The doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage remains in place.' What I very much fear is that this sentence will then be steadfastly ignored, even as it qualifies and should control the interpretation of other sentences, such as: 'Bishops and priests must extend every possible sign of welcome and mercy to those in irregular unions.' This isn't heresy: in light of the indissolubility, it might even be common sense. But it could be taken in a quite different way.
If a one-sided interpretation of ambiguous propositions begins to be spread abroad by the media, if it starts being implied in semi-official documents, off-the-cuff remarks by senior officials, in press conferences and in aeroplanes, we are going to be faced with a new iteration of a familiar post-Conciliar problem. That upholding the truth, the tradition and teaching of the Church, the Faith of Christ, is condemned by the ignorant, and then also by people who should know better, as resisting the will of the 'Bishops of the World' and of the Holy Father.
It is in this sense that one has to think about 'resisting the Pope'. I don't know what Pope Francis' attitude is going to be to a complex situation which hasn't yet come about. But we already have the spectacle of the authority of his 'will' being used to advance a certain agenda, and I hardly think the people doing this are going to stop.
See also my post on 'blind obedience'.
|A secret Mass celebrated by one of the Padley Martyrs in Derbyshire.|
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