Clarifying what it might mean for a pope to wish to change Catholic doctrine

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 28, 2014

On Saturday, Phil Lawler wrote about the role of the faithful if Pope Francis should indicate a desire to “change the Church’s teaching” (see Could respect for the papacy mean resisting the Pope?). This was designed to clarify his position in response to a column in the New York Times by Ross Douthat. As another case in point, I’ve had to write yet again about the Kasper Proposal in a last-ditch effort to avoid irreparable confusion about the Pope’s apparent interest in it.

But as papal authority was the topic of my doctoral dissertation, I'd like to try one more time to clarify the issues of papal authority we have been discussing, if only to stem what appears to be a steadily rising panic.

When we refer to the possibility of Pope Francis wanting to “change” Catholic teaching, we understand two things: First, that official Catholic Magisterial teaching changes only through legitimate development which adds greater precision and clarity to our understanding of the truths in question. It can neither contain error nor change in a contradictory way.

Second, insofar as Francis may wish to change Church teaching in a way that would ultimately be contradictory (or, indeed, false in any way), we understand this of Francis the man, not Francis the Vicar of Christ as protected by the Holy Spirit.

Now, as a general rule, popes do not receive private revelations to tell them what they should be teaching, and even if they did, they could not know their veracity on their own. The whole process of Magisterial teaching passes through all the normal human methods—prayer, extensive theological study and consultation, historical research into the state of the question, deep familiarity with relevant prior Magisterial and Scriptural texts, and consultation among the world’s bishops in an effort to gauge, at least in some measure, the sensum fidei.

So, when we say that Pope Francis could not “change” Church teaching without widespread support of the bishops, what we mean is that in the normal process of discernment, the man Francis would strongly suspect he is on the wrong track if a doctrinal idea he is considering finds little or no support in the universal Church. Thus, an outpouring of protest from faithful Catholics around the world, in the face of some idea the Pope is considering, could constitute another significant mechanism of discernment for the Pope.

But this does not mean that the Pope as Vicar of Christ is actually bound by any particular human means of exploring the advisability of issuing some teaching which develops a particular understanding of Divine Revelation. For example, he can, as Pope Paul VI did in promulgating Humanae Vitae, reject the majority report of the theologians he assigned to study the question, and go ahead and teach something to the whole Church on a matter of faith or morals by virtue of his supreme Petrine authority. Pope Paul had many of the standard indicators on his side, but he did not have them all.

Even in an ecumenical council, the votes are rarely unanimous, and the promulgated documents become “ecumenical” (truly universal and therefore certain) only by virtue of their approval by the Pope. This is similar to what Pope Francis said of the recent Synod, though that did not exercise any teaching authority. He said that its guarantee of fidelity came in working “cum et sub Petro” (with and under Peter). This is what collegiality means.

Thus there are many ordinary human considerations, and even specifically Catholic procedures, which typically go into the process of moving from a pope’s personal idea about the truth to a Magisterial teaching. The Pope is expected to exercise due diligence! But ultimately it is not any of these mechanisms, but rather the action of the Holy Spirit Himself, which makes it absolutely impossible, when push comes to shove, for the Pope to bind the Church to error.

This action of the Holy Spirit is guaranteed by Christ, who promised to be with His Church until the end of time—a promise which would be null if the Church could be Magisterially bound to believe error by the very obedience it is Divinely ordained to accord to the Successor of St. Peter. Hence the old proverbs in matters of faith: Ubi Petrus, ibi ecclesia (where Peter is, there is the Church); and Roma locuta, causa finita (Rome has spoken, the cause is finished).

Or as the great and greatly contentious St. Jerome said in opposing the heretic Ruffinus, “If anyone be joined to Peter’s Chair, he is mine.”

Even the sensus fidei cannot be determined by majority vote. The Pope as Vicar of Christ, by virtue of his direct pastoral jurisdiction over each and every member of the faithful, alone represents the full moral unanimity of the Church of Christ.

The men who are popes may have quirks, sins and faulty ideas. But however a particular pope comes to his decision, when he undertakes to teach by virtue of his supreme authority to the whole Church on a matter of faith or morals, the Holy Spirit makes sure he expresses himself correctly—or does not express himself at all.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Nov. 01, 2014 10:07 AM ET USA

    It's painful when a bullet gets removed too but you don't want the doctor to stop operating just because you cry out in pain...

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Oct. 29, 2014 12:13 PM ET USA

    I believe you are on a sinking ship with regard to this argument, Jeff. Maybe there are those who would like to depose the Pope (if that were possible) but that is really not the presenting problem. If I cry out in pain from an injury that you inflicted, deliberate or otherwise, & you are still within earshot "you" have a sacred duty as a Christian brother to consider my cry. Not to mention your duty to act & even apologize. Horrifically enough, it would seem that Francis has "moved on..."

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Oct. 29, 2014 7:15 AM ET USA

    Paul VI did contradict a number of theologians and advisers, but what Humanae Vitae did is reaffirm what the Church always taught anyway. It merely points out that "the Pill", the genesis of all the hoopla back in the 60s, is not truly different from condoms and other mechanical means of hindering conception. With Francis the danger is not some fundamental change, but the PERCEPTION that in these perilous times he is changing course, joining the Zeitgeist. And today perception is everything.

  • Posted by: Duns Scotus - Oct. 29, 2014 12:01 AM ET USA

    Well said. However, you might discuss what sort of papal teachings have the charism of infallibility attached to them. In a homily a Pope might (accidently) teach error, but in a formal dogmatic declaration, he cannot. A Pope might also suggest that a certain proposal, even though it's heretical, be studied, perhaps so that, once and for all, people will see that it is heretical.