Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

The inopportunists’ vindication

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 11, 2024

If this disastrous papacy brings one lasting benefit to the Church, it may be a careful re-examination of the question of papal primacy—in particular, the question of how the Pope’s authority relates to that of the college of bishops.

The Gospels clearly show St. Peter to be chosen by Jesus for a special leadership role in the Church. Even St. Paul, who claimed his own commission directly from the Lord, acknowledged his need for St. Peter’s recognition. Yet St. Peter did not govern as an autocrat; the other apostles could and did argue with him and change his mind, most notably at the Council of Jerusalem. The St. Peter shown in the Acts of the Apostles is not a dictator but a final arbiter, a “buck-stops-here” decision-maker, whose leadership preserves the unity among the apostles.

For centuries thereafter, Catholics have looked to Rome and to Peter’s Successor for an assurance of unity, built on a stable understanding of Catholic teaching. That unity has often been strained, as is inevitable in any organization of imperfect human beings. But generations of the faithful understood the logic of “Roma locuta; causa finita.” The Vatican was not issuing personal opinions, but rendering final judgment on what the Church has always and everywhere believed. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the “hermeneutic of continuity”—the understanding that any magisterial teaching should be understood in the context of previous magisterial teachings, and by implication serve as a guide to future teachings as well.

How things change

But my, how things have changed in the past decade! Many loyal Catholics who staunchly upheld the principle of papal authority in past years, and decried the liberal dissent from Humanae Vitae, now applaud the African bishops who have challenged Fiducia Supplicans. Many of us who once prayed that the Vatican would rein in the US bishops’ conference now hope that the American bishops will help restore order in Rome.

The doctrinal and disciplinary confusion that afflicts the universal Church today is truly unprecedented, at least in recent Catholic history. Scores of bishops from all around the world, breaking with their usual pattern of docility, have spoken out to criticize Fiducia Supplicans, issuing statements that have ranged from polite resistance to open defiance. In the past—with Amoris Laetitia, for instance—skeptical bishops made heroic efforts to exercise the hermeneutic of continuity, announcing that they would read the document as consistent with previous papal teaching, even if the clear sense of the document suggested otherwise.

Not so today. Bishops flatly charge that Fiducia is incompatible with the perennial teachings of the Church. And whereas bishops who dissented from Humanae Vitae hedged their bets by saying that lay Catholics could follow their own consciences, today many bishops are announcing that they will not follow the Vatican’s directive—that it is not in keeping with the tradition that the Pope is bound to uphold.

If the teaching of a Roman Pontiff is authoritative, how can bishops demur? But if one Pontiff appears to contradict that of his predecessors, how can he serve the cause of unity and continuity that is the essence of his role? With his timely new book, Infallibility, Integrity and Obedience John Rist offers some provocative responses to those questions. Although it was written before Fiducia Supplicans brought the debate to a boiling point, the Rist book is obviously prompted by the controversy that has simmered throughout the current pontificate. The author is a convert, a scholar with formidable credentials, and a writer unafraid of controversy (he is one of original signers of a 2019 letter accusing Pope Francis of heresy).

The teaching of the councils

In Pastor Aeternus the First Vatican Council taught of the papal primacy that “to him in blessed Peter was delivered by our Lord Jesus Christ the full power of pasturing, ruling, and governing our whole Church.” The Second Vatican Council would strongly confirm that stand, saying (in Lumen Gentium) that “the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church.”

At first glance, then, it appears that the Pope’s authority is absolute. But in Pastor Aeternus the fathers of Vatican I also said:

But so far is this power of the Supreme Pontiff from being any prejudice to the ordinary and immediate power of episcopal jurisdiction, by which bishop, who have been set by the Holy Spirit to succeed and hold the place of the apostle, feed and govern, each his own flock, as true pastors, that this their episcopal authority is really asserted, strengthened, and protected by the supreme and universal pastor…”

Again Vatican II echoed what Vatican I had taught, expanding on the theme in Lumen Gentium with a discussion of the authority enjoyed by the college of bishops:

The order of bishops, which succeeds to the college of apostles and gives this apostolic body continued existence, is also the subject of supreme and full power over the universal Church, provided we understand this body together with its head the Roman Pontiff and never without this head.”

Following Vatican II, Pope Paul VI established the Synod of Bishops. But he made it clear that the Synod was to be a consultative body; the only authoritative statement to issue from a Synod would be the apostolic exhortation issued by the Pope after its conclusion. And while Pope Francis has made “synodality” his byword, he has not relinquished his power to shape the discussions and steer the results of the Synod’s deliberations. So the key questions remain: can the college of bishops check the power of the Pontiff? Does the Pope’s teaching authority trump the authority of the Catholic tradition?

Limits of infallibility

Rist opens his book with a very through discussion of the debate leading up to the formal proclamation of papal infallibility Vatican I. He explains the ardent desire of Pope Pius IX for unambiguous support of his primacy—which he inelegantly expressed by saying: “I am the Church! I am the tradition!” Rist also explores the argument advanced by opponents of the initiative, such as Ignaz von Dollinger, whose implacable hostility toward the claim of papal infallibility eventually led to his excommunication.

But the most interesting arguments, in Rist’s recounting, are those of the “inopportunists,” notably including St. John Henry Newman, who recognized the authority of the Supreme Pontiff but questioned the prudence of the proclamation. Rist himself contends that the claim of papal infallibility, as it was set forth in Pastor Aeternus, has led to “an unwarranted respect for immediate utterances of the Supreme Pontiff even if these might appear contrary to both Scripture and Tradition intelligently understood.”

That “unwarranted respect” has led too many Catholics (not to mention critics of the Church) to see the Pope as the sort of monarch that St. Peter never was: an autocratic ruler who could change teachings at will and command unquestioning obedience from his subjects. Rist writes:

Contempt for tradition at the top, a sheepish passivity among the rank and file, whether clerical or lay, irresponsible behavior during a conclave to elect a pope: these were probably not the consequences hoped for by Pius IX when he encouraged the promulgation of his own infallibility. But if that is so, history has proved him wrong.

The net result, Rist argues, has been a stunted understanding of Catholic teaching authority, in which bishops are viewed merely as emissaries of the Pontiff rather than as successors to the Apostles. And while bishops frequently protest that they must not be dismissed as “branch managers,” their compliant deference to papal directives—and at times their inordinate efforts to ensure the faithful that the Pope doesn’t really mean to change perennial teachings—has often given exactly that impression.

Until now. But in the aftermath of Fiducia Supplicans maybe the time is ripe for a careful examination of Rist’s view, that:

…a model must be constructed whereby the Pope is clearly recognizable as the focus of doctrinal unity but which will simultaneously provide a structure for his activities [that] can inhibit the kind of abuse of office which—combined with and encouraging the passivity of too many Catholics—has threatened the Church since papal infallibility was defined at Vatican I and has now seriously infected it.

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 See full bio.

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

  • Posted by: timothy.op - Jan. 12, 2024 8:23 PM ET USA

    On this important topic, see also "Love for the Papacy & Filial Resistance to the Pope" by Roberto de Mattei. (I'm reading his book on St. Pius V, which is excellent.)

  • Posted by: feedback - Jan. 12, 2024 9:21 AM ET USA

    Throughout the Biblical history the majority opinion were wrong quite often. "God did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others. (...) The Lord knows how to rescue the devout from trial and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment" [2 Peter 2:5,9] I pray for Divine intervention at the next conclave.