The Limits of Obedience to Papal Authority

Pope-Leo-XIII-980x380As mentioned in a previous post, there exist any number of magisterial texts offering clear, unambiguous instruction that, I must admit, seems to undermine the way in which most so-called “traditionalists” (aka Catholics) view the post-conciliar crisis in the papacy. Here, as promised, I will provide some examples.

Before digging in, I’d like to offer a brief word of encouragement…

All glory and honor to God, my goal with this blog has always been simple: To seek the truth about what it means to think and feel with the Church and, once it is found, to embrace it, defend it and disseminate it – even if doing so costs me followers, friends and finances, which it usually does.

If you share this primacy of truth mindset, take a moment before reading further to thank God for granting you that grace.

If, on the other hand, you’re the type of person who finds it extremely difficult to admit errors in matters of faith, even when confronted with evidence that your long held views and opinions have been off the mark (something that has happened to every single one of us at some point or another), take a moment to pray for the humility to conform your intellect and will to the mind of Holy Mother Church, our only safe haven.

That said…

The common traditionalist view of the conciliar popes, the one I have taken for years on end now, largely consists of the idea that the faithful can, and indeed must, reject whatever a pope may teach that is tantamount to a denial of, or even casts doubt upon, what had consistently been taught by previous popes. In other words, we are dutybound to reject such novelties, otherwise, we stand to lose our faith.

Part and parcel of this approach is the understanding that the only papal teachings that demand our obedience are those that either pertain to matters properly dogmatic, or those that amount to a faithful repetition of what has always been taught, albeit perhaps in a different style or language.

The challenge in carrying out this approach is figuring out which papal teachings are which; that is, one must carefully decipher and weigh everything that comes out of Rome in order to determine whether it must be embraced or rejected.

As I pointed out in a post some months ago, this mindset is utterly foreign to authentic (read, traditional) Catholic life inasmuch as the faithful are compelled to act, in a sense, as their own rule of faith.

One can argue all day long that we are simply placing our trust in what the Church has always taught, but, ultimately, we are still counting on ourselves to determine what Catholic teaching truly is relative to whatever the current pope might propose. That, my friends, is precisely what it means to act as one’s own rule of faith, and it’s the reason why sincere traditionalists so often end up disagreeing with one another.

One thing about which all of us can agree, however, is that when simple lay faithful find themselves shouldering the burden of determining which papal teachings demand rejection, something is terribly wrong. The question we must ask is what is wrong?

The stock traditional answer – the one I have been gladly giving to anyone who will listen – is that we have been subject to an unprecedented series of bad Roman Pontiffs over the last sixty or so years, popes so doctrinally undependable that we have been put in the equally unprecedented position of having to sift through their teachings to figure out what merits our obedience and what doesn’t.

The problem, as we will see shortly, is that this answer is about as far from tradition as one can get. In other words, nothing in Catholic tradition even comes close to supporting this approach to the Roman Pontiff; in fact, there is much in Catholic tradition that plainly condemns it!

So, what does Catholic tradition actually have to say?

In defining the limits of the obedience owed to the pastors of souls, but most of all to the authority of the Roman Pontiff, it must not be supposed that it is only to be yielded in relation to dogmas of which the obstinate denial cannot be disjoined from the crime of heresy. (Pope Leo XIII, Sapientiae Christianae 24)

Get that? It must not be supposed that we are free to ignore, resist or otherwise reject any exercise of papal authority simply because it doesn’t concern matters infallible.

For example, consider the so-called canonizations of John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II. Traditional commentators have gone to great lengths to make the case that canonizations are not infallible, and the reason is simple. If they are not infallible, we are – according to the common traditional approach – free to deny or otherwise reject them.

One small problem, however; authentic Catholic tradition would seem to suggest that their relative infallibility doesn’t matter one way or the other. Specifically, if the citation from Sapientiae Christianae above is to be taken seriously, we must conclude that since canonizations are an exercise of the authority of the Roman Pontiff, it must not be supposed that we are free to reject them.

Yes, one might insist, but even though we cannot resist the pope while resting on the excuse that what he proposed is not infallible, surely we are not called to hold, much less openly profess, those things coming from a pope that are reasonably considered opinion!   

Cardinal Burke is famous for drawing distinctions between Jorge Bergoglio’s private opinions and that which constitutes a genuine exercise of papal authority. I get it. The theory is that while we must hold fast to papal teaching even when it does not concern dogma, as Pope Leo XIII states above, we are free to reject papal opinion.

This sounds great, but Catholic tradition instructs us otherwise:

As regards opinion, whatever the Roman Pontiffs have hitherto taught, or shall hereafter teach, must be held with a firm grasp of mind, and, so often as occasion requires, must be openly professed.  (Pope Leo XIII, Immortale Dei41)

Think long and hard about this. Who among us is willing to firmly grasp in mind and openly profess the blather vomited from the mouth of Francis on a near daily basis? For that matter, who among us is willing to firmly grasp in mind and openly profess the blasphemous heresies in Amoris Laetitia – a formal papal decree?

The answer in both cases is clear, we cannot grasp and profess such things, not if we wish to think and feel with the Church. And yet, unless Pope Leo XIII totally missed the mark in teaching us what sensus Catholicus means vis-à-vis the teachings, and even the opinions, of the pope, we must do so.

This is a difficult reality to face, so much so that some will even go so far in trying to avoid what tradition has to say about our duty toward the pope that they will insist that Amoris Laetitia isn’t really teaching (i.e., authentic magisterium), and this even though its author insists that it is.

Yes, one may object, but what about Aquinas’ teaching about resisting a pope?

“There being an imminent danger for the Faith, Prelates must be questioned, even publicly, by their subjects. Thus, St. Paul, who was a subject of St. Peter, questioned him publicly on account of an imminent danger of scandal in a matter of Faith. And, as the Glosa of St. Augustine puts it (Ad Galatas 2,14), ‘St. Peter himself gave the example to those who govern so that if they should stray from the right way, they will not reject a correction as unworthy even if it comes from their subjects’” (ST II-II, q.33, a.4).  

This citation has gotten a lot of play since Francis arrived on the scene, and for obvious reasons; it is commonly used to justify, and to encourage, precisely what Pope Leo XIII insisted we must not do. We’ll address this specific quote from Aquinas momentarily. For now, let us ask:

In the presence of what appears to be a contradiction between two dependable teachers of the true faith, how are we to behave?

Simple, we are often told, hold fast to the traditional teaching, and reject the novelty!

For example, pretty much all of the most celebrated Catholic voices, both traditional and conservative, have been insisting that we must hold fast to what John Paul II taught in Familiaris Consortio, over and against what Francis taught in Amoris Laetitia, the former being the better informed.

On this blog, I have insisted that we must embrace what is taught in Casti Connubii, over and against what is found in Humanae Vitae, as surely Pope Pius XI was better informed than Paul VI.

That’s traditional, right? Well, as much as I hate to admit it, not so much. Once more, we’ll turn to Pope Leo XIII:

Those who, faced with two differing directives, reject the present one to hold to the past, are not giving proof of obedience to the authority which has the right and duty to guide them; and in some ways they resemble those who, on receiving a condemnation, would wish to appeal to a future council, or to a Pope who is better informed. (Pope Leo XIII, Epistola Tua)

With regard to the apparent discrepancy between Pope Leo XIII and Aquinas, note that the latter is speaking not of a pope who plainly teaches a false doctrine, he is speaking of those prelates whose behavior poses an imminent danger of scandal in a matter of faith. No less than twice in this brief treatment does Aquinas underscore this point by citing St. Paul’s confrontation with St. Peter, whose behavior he questioned publicly.

Questioning a pope’s behavior is a far cry from rejecting, refusing or otherwise resisting papal teaching.

But we’ve had bad popes before!

Much could be said about what are often cited as examples of papal errors past (e.g., on the part of Liberius, Honorius, John XXII), as if they compare to our present crisis. The simple fact is that they do not compare; they are but apples and oranges, and have been dealt with here in the past.

In conclusion…

Yes, I know, the citations from the magisterium of Pope Leo XIII offered above, when considered in light of the common approach to the post-conciliar popes taken by nearly all traditionalists, are enough to make one squirm. Believe me, I take little delight in them. They stand as an indictment of practically every page on this blog, an indictment issued not by some other blogger, but by a Holy Roman Pontiff of most blessed memory!

On the other hand, I thank God for compelling me to go through this painful exercise.

Let us pray for one another, that we may be given the grace and humility to desire nothing more than to know and to be, to think and to feel, in a way that is truly Catholic.

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