The Corner

Papal Authority, A.D. 2009

Last month, Pope Benedict XVI released an encyclical on social and economic questions, and observers (many on the right, and some even on the left) commented that it was not up to this pope’s usual high standard. One explanation, by our own George Weigel, was that the pope indulged various advisers, to his own detriment and that of the encyclical. So I was startled just now to run across the following advice, written by conservative Catholics James Likoudis and Kenneth D. Whitehead in their 1981 book on liturgical change:

We should not make the excuse that we are loyal to the pope, but not to his underlings. The popes have necessarily depended for many centuries on a vast amount of “staff work” performed by others. . . . When the pope confirms with his own authority the work of his own subordinates, it thereby becomes his work. . . . We should, therefore, not waste our time trying to identify possible heroes or villains in the pope’s entourage, as, again, the media love to do. In the media the Church is considered just another “political entity” — though we know she is the Ark of Salvation.

For good measure, the authors quote a 1912 speech by Pope St. Pius X: “When we love the Pope, we do not dispute whether he commands or requires a thing. . . . Nor do we cast doubt on his orders, alleging the pretext which comes easily to the man who does not want to obey, that it is not the Pope who is commanding, but some one in his entourage. . . . Where there is holiness there cannot be disagreement with the Pope.”

 

As a Protestant, I of course have no problem, in principle, with dissent from papal teaching. But even faithful Catholics can and should, I believe, bridle at the high view of Vatican authority that is presented in these two quotes. To treat every phrase in a papal writing as equivalent to an ex cathedra pronouncement of dogmatic importance is to invest the Vatican with an authority that I believe none of the post-Vatican II popes would have claimed for it. Cardinal Ratzinger himself expressed an especially humble view when he was elected pope: “My real program of governance is not to do my own will, not to pursue my own ideas, but to listen, together with the whole church, to the word and the will of the Lord.” The current pope was a distinguished intellectual before his election, and continues to recognize now that there is a difference between, on one hand, the intellectual speculations that he pursues to the best of his ability, and, on the other, the core tenets of his religious tradition.

I do not intend to weigh in on the merits of this particular encyclical, beyond saying that I found some parts of it quite moving, and thought they had the ring of truth. But I think all should be able to agree that it was not intended by its author(s) to be the final word on the questions it addresses.

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