Could respect for the papacy mean resisting the Pope?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Oct 25, 2014

A challenging column by Ross Douthat in the New York Times prompts me to clarify my thoughts on the recent Synod and especially the Pope’s role in the October session.

Douthat kindly links to my piece, “The Pope is not the problem,” as representative of efforts by conservative commentators to assuage fears about the Pope’s involvement. That was certainly part of my intent. But I did not intend to passive acceptance of what happened at the Synod, nor did I argue that organizers “went rogue” without encouragement from the Holy Father. On the contrary I cited “the abundant evidence that Pope Francis was a party to the manipulation.”

Still the Pope did not make any public statements or endorse any proposals until the Synod had concluded. We may all know (or think we know) where the Pope’s sympathies lie, but he avoided anything that might have been seen as an invocation of his authority as Supreme Pontiff. This, I feel sure, was quite intentional and quite prudent.

The nature of papal authority is very often—I am tempted to say nearly always—misunderstood. The Pope cannot change established doctrine. He speaks infallibly, but only when he speaks for the universal Church, defining what the faithful always and everywhere have believed.

So Pope Francis might wish to change the Church’s teaching, but he realizes that he cannot do so unilaterally. He needs the full support of his brother bishops, to assure him that he is not merely promoting his own personal preferences. If he is contemplating an important change (as in this case he is), he needs much more than a voting majority; he needs an expression of support so overwhelming that it trumps what Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead”—the consistent witness of faithful Catholics across the centuries. Nothing approaching that level of support materialized at the October meeting of the Synod. In his closing address (which I strongly encourage everyone to read), Pope Francis tacitly acknowledged as much and signaled that he wanted above all to preserve the unity of the Church.

Still this debate is not finished; it will be rejoined at the Synod session next year. Between now and then we can be quite sure that Cardinal Kasper and his supporters will continue aggressively to promote their proposals for change. There is no reason to doubt that Pope Francis will continue to listen sympathetically.

So I can accept Douthat’s conclusion that orthodox Catholics “might want to consider the possibility that they have a role to play, and that this Pope may be preserved from error only if the Church itself resists him”—but with two crucial caveats. If the Pope is contemplating a change in Church teaching on marriage, and insofar as he is contemplating such a change, then faithful Catholics should be vocal in opposing the idea. By doing so we would be helping him to discern the truth, not setting ourselves up as enemies of the Vicar of Christ.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: rickt26170 - Oct. 29, 2014 2:27 AM ET USA

    This issue is about Christology. JPII, Benedict and their supporters against Kasper, Schillebeeckx, Haight, Martini and theirs. Kasper and company have a very low level of Chirstology - arguing that only a kernel of history is behind Scripture - allowing them great latitude when interpreting the New Testament. It is the opposite of Benedict's biography of Jesus. So what does Francis means when he warns against "wanting to close oneself within the written word." The New Testament?

  • Posted by: hartwood01 - Oct. 29, 2014 12:26 AM ET USA

    The Pharisees didn't like Jesus when he held a mirror up to them,either.It is so easy to see Jesus in Pope Francis,calling us away from our certainties and leading us to the generous love of His Father.

  • Posted by: Erusmas - Oct. 28, 2014 10:08 PM ET USA

    Bravo! Same could be said of hints of new teaching on the death penalty. Take a look at what Doctors of the Church, especially St. Thomas, have said of this. And then consider the passage in the Roman Catechism on the Fifth Commandment. It contrasts with the corresponding passage in the modern Catechism of Catholic Church and it contrasts very sharply with paragraph 56 of Evangelium Vitae. When had any previous magisterial document ever mentioned this condition of "absolute necessity"?

  • Posted by: jeremiahjj - Oct. 28, 2014 9:37 PM ET USA

    Well-said, Phil Lawler, well-said! Cardinal Kasper at least should feel push back, and not just from African bishops. Love and compassion for the suffering is primary in the Catholic faith, but bowing to popular sentiment is not. Francis knows that holy matrimony for heterosexuals does not create the same "right" for same-sex couples. He also knows there is an avenue -- the marriage tribunal -- for divorced or remarried couples to be accepted into (or back into) full communion.

  • Posted by: Defender - Oct. 28, 2014 11:17 AM ET USA

    Minnesota Mary: You're right, just read the comments of some of the bishops and you wonder what they taught in seminary and how little they have learned since and these are among the people who are telling the laity about family? In this overall subject, Americans have generally respected the office of the president, but not necessarily the person occupying it. This pope has been exposed to Liberation Theology and things Jesuit for a long time and it obviously affects his perception of things.

  • Posted by: Minnesota Mary - Oct. 27, 2014 6:23 PM ET USA

    Jackist, you ask, ..."where is the orthodox plan for change?" The orthodox plan for change has been to properly catechize the members of the Church with solid Catholic/Biblical teachings. This plan has largely been ignored by those in the chancery offices for fifty years now. What other plan could be offered? If you don't teach the truth, then you might as well close up shop.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Oct. 26, 2014 10:06 PM ET USA

    "By doing so we would be helping him to discern the truth, not setting ourselves up as enemies of the Vicar of Christ." This is an enormously important statement, and it comes from one who would give his very own life for the Vicar of Christ without hesitation. We have very reputable cardinals who appear to be offering resistance, and they are reputable men who know what's the score. They too would gladly give their lives. Our Lord commanded: Watch and pray! Our baptism demands no less.

  • Posted by: jackist7902 - Oct. 26, 2014 12:15 PM ET USA

    The Pope has recognized that what the Church has been doing has not been working in the developed world. The Pope has identified the family as a major problem needing to be addressed. The Pope invited proposals on how to do something about it. If the Pope has favored Cardinal Kasper's proposal, perhaps it is because Cardinal Kasper is trying to solve the problem. Cardinal Kasper is wrong, but where is the orthodox plan for change? The Pope needs good ideas, not just resistance to bad ones.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Oct. 26, 2014 9:29 AM ET USA

    I believe one thing kept spiritual chaos from advancing its cause at the Synod: the intervention of the Holy Spirit. What we saw was disgraceful and disturbing, but that's as much as history will say about it. And what instrument did the Holy Spirit choose to make His wishes known to all? The faithful around the globe expressed its dismay in journals like this one. Mr. Dooley said the Supreme Court reads the election results; clearly we can say something similar about the 'court' at the Vatican.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Oct. 26, 2014 12:11 AM ET USA

    This argument is so old that one can almost see the grey hair & wrinkles. So far as ANYONE in the Church is opposed to maintaining a certain "agenda" & resisting the advancement of the practice of reasonable doctrine & reform, that person(s) attempts to frame their opponent(s) as "enemies of the Pope" & underminers of "the teaching authority." There is little talk of gross practical abuses or rampant hypocrisy but the argument is kept on a purely intellectual plane.