[Photo by Jacquelyn Griffin)

Monday, November 9, 2015

Help the Anglocat: A Question of Ecclesiology

Right, dear friends and readers, I'm going to ask for some clarification, especially from the Roman Catholics among you. Now, as a former member of the Roman Catholic Church ("RCC" for short here), I had a pretty good grounding in the Church: Four years with the Marianists, three with the Jesuits, and having read both the Pio-Benedictine Code of 1917 and the Code of Canon Law (1983) to write a peer-reviewed article on the role of canon law in the RCC sex abuse crisis, I don't think I'm a dunce on these matters.

But--that doesn't mean I know it all. So, let me ask you to be my reality check. In an echo of this post, I expressed surprise at the ease with which SoCon members of the RCC felt free to dismiss the very pope they demanded liberals obey a few years back, only to receive the reply, "For the eleventy-billionth time, Popes are themselves bound by Tradition and Canon Law."

Now, I have to admit, i don't believe this to be correct as a matter of Catholic ecclesiology. The Apostolic Constitution Sacrae Disciplinae Leges that precedes the 1983 Code of Canon Law describes the promulgation of Code itself as “an expression pontifical authority, and is therefore invested with a primatial character.” The Code itself states that it abrogates customs (traditions) that are contrary to its terms unless they are immemorial *and* tolerable in the judgment of the ordinary *and* cannot be removed due to circumstances. (Canon 5.) Section 331 of the Code states that "The bishop of the Roman Church, in whom continues the office given by the Lord uniquely to Peter, the first of the Apostles, and to be transmitted to his successors, is the head of the college of bishops, the Vicar of Christ, and the pastor of the universal Church on earth. By virtue of his office he possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely." Succeeding canons (332-335) make clear that the Pope has power “not only over the universal Church but also obtains the primacy of ordinary power over all particular groups of churches and groups of them.” (Canon 333 S 1). He is in communionn with bishops, but he has the right to determine how to exercise his office. (Id., S 2) “No appeal or recourse is permitted over a sentence or decree of the Roman Pontiff.” (Id., S 3). The next section provides that "Bishops assist the Roman Pontiff in exercising his office. They are able to render him cooperative assistance in various ways, among which is the synod of bishops. The cardinals also assist him, as do other persons and various institutes according to the needs of the times. In his name and by his authority, all these persons and institutes fulfill the function entrusted to them for the good of all the churches, according to the norms defined by law."

This is consistent with the old (but well researched) Catholic Encyclopedia, which describes the authority as “plenary” allowing him to bind and loose in individual cases or in general, annulling his own laws or those of his predecessors, with or without the assistance of a council:
Whatsoever thou shalt bind . . . Whatsoever thou shalt loose"; nothing is withheld. Further, Peter's authority is subordinated to no earthly superior. The sentences which he gives are to be forthwith ratified in heaven. They do not need the antecedent approval of any other tribunal. He is independent of all save the Master who appointed him. The words as to the power of binding and loosing are, therefore, elucidatory of the promise of the keys which immediately precedes. They explain in what sense Peter is governor and head of Christ's kingdom, the Church, by promising him legislative and judicial authority in the fullest sense. In other words, Peter and his successors have power to impose laws both preceptive and prohibitive, power likewise to grant dispensation from these laws, and, when needful, to annul them. It is theirs to judge offences against the laws, to impose and to remit penalties. This judicial authority will even include the power to pardon sin. For sin is a breach of the laws of the supernatural kingdom, and falls under the cognizance of its constituted judges. The gift of this particular power, however, is not expressed with full clearness in this passage. It needed Christ's words (John 20:23) to remove all ambiguity. Further, since the Church is the kingdom of the truth, so that an essential note in all her members is the act of submission by which they accept the doctrine of Christ in its entirety, supreme power in this kingdom carries with it a supreme magisterium — authority to declare that doctrine and to prescribe a rule of faith obligatory on all. Here, too, Peter is subordinated to none save his Master alone; he is the supreme teacher as he is the supreme ruler. However, the tremendous powers thus conferred are limited in their scope by their reference to the ends of the kingdom and to them only. The authority of Peter and his successors does not extend beyond this sphere. With matters that are altogether extrinsic to the Church they are not concerned.


As the supreme teacher of the Church, whose it is to prescribe what is to be believed by all the faithful, and to take measures for the preservation and the propagation of the faith, the following are the rights which pertain to the pope:

it is his to set forth creeds, and to determine when and by whom an explicit profession of faith shall be made (cf. Council of Trent, Sess. 24, cc. 1 and 12);
it is his to prescribe and to command books for the religious instruction of the faithful; thus, for example, Clement XIII has recommended the Roman Catechism to all the bishops.
The pope alone can establish a university, possessing the status and privileges of a canonically erected Catholic university;
to him also belongs the direction of Catholic missions throughout the world; this charge is fulfilled through the Congregation of the Propaganda.
It is his to prohibit the reading of such books as are injurious to faith or morals, and to determine the conditions on which certain classes of books may be issued by Catholics;
his is the condemnation of given propositions as being either heretical or deserving of some minor degree of censure, and lastly
he has the right to interpret authentically the natural law. Thus, it is his to say what is lawful or unlawful in regard to social and family life, in regard to the practice of usury, etc.


The legislative power of the pope carries with it the following rights:

he can legislate for the whole Church, with or without the assistance of a general council;
if he legislates with the aid of a council it is his to convoke it, to preside, to direct its deliberations, to confirm its acts.
He has full authority to interpret, alter, and abrogate both his own laws and those established by his predecessors. He has the same plenitude of power as they enjoyed, and stands in the same relation to their laws as to those which he himself has decreed;
he can dispense individuals from the obligation of all purely ecclesiastical laws, and can grant privileges and exemptions in their regard.
In this connection may be mentioned his power to dispense from vows where the greater glory of God renders it desirable. Considerable powers of dispensation are granted to bishops, and, in a restricted measure, also to priests; but there are some vows reserved altogether to the Holy See.
Now, leave aside whether you, gentle readers, or I, agree with this model of the papacy or not. It certainly accords with the medieval research I did, and with the Code as quoted above. But is there something I've missed, some limitation that curbs the powers of the Pope?


rick allen said...

I'll be happy to take a run at it, though I have no more expertise here than the next guy.

The first, and most important, and most overlooked limit on the Pope's authority is of course God. I know that that sounds naïve, but the Church really does teach, and some of us really do believe that the Holy Spirit guides the Church through the magisterium. This doesn't do much to answer everyday conflicts, but it does enable us to follow these various conflicts without undue concern.

On a more mundane level, the authority of the pope and bishops is subject, in a real way, to assent. If the supreme authority of the US Supreme Court is disregarded by some little Pentacostal clerk, she is sent to jail in short order. All secular law rests on force, and we lawyers know how to invoke it if we need it.

Popes and bishops have some limited coercive power, from control of property, but even the spiritual power to excommunicate falls short of the actual power to damn (only we can do that to ourselves, thank you very much). Historically the use of excommunication as a means of control has had very mixed results.

True story: When I was a Catholic catechumen, over thirty years ago, there was some local conflict, where the bishop told a group of pious ladies to stop doing something, and they essentially told him to stick it. I was puzzled by this, and pointed out to my wife, a cradle Catholic, that, after all, the bishop had full, plenary ordinary power in the Church. She, of course, looked at me like I was crazy. Sure, he had the authority. So what? A bishop has to persuade. He may have the authority to order people around, but if he relies on his authority alone they're going to just keep doing whatever the hell they want.

Final point, perhaps related to the previous. A pope is limited by Church teaching and tradition because that's the sole basis of his own authority. Popes are old men. They typically don't reign a long time. If they make changes of too drastic a nature to the traditions of the Church they undermine their own authority, and whatever changes they make will themselves be up for grabs in the next pontificates. So popes, who tend to be rather intelligent men, know how to preserve their own legacy by confining their actions to an acceptable range of changes within the framework of what is understood as an unchangeable core of the deposit of faith, which the pope is to hold, teach and pass on to his successor.

I know this doesn't answer all questions, which only the future can tell us. What if the changes are such that the Faith itself is compromised? Who knows? Easy case, pope converts to Islam, preaches at St. Peter's the next Sunday that Muhammad is the final prophet, and directs scriptural readings be replaced by Quranic sutras. Are we stuck with that? I don't think so. It's kind of a clear abandonment of the Petrine office. How we toss him out may be problematic. And obviously there may be apostacies of a more subtle nature that would raise more difficulties. How that might be dealt with in the future I can't say. But the gates of hell won't prevail, and all that, so I don't worry too much about it.

Anglocat said...

Thanks for your comment, Rick. A helpful approach and one that addresses how to live within the tension of a seemingly absolutist monarchical structure and the Church's mission. You engaged with the deeper meaning of the problem, and I was footling about with the more prosaiac question of did-I-miss-something-in-my-research.

Nicely done, if I may say.

rick allen said...

If you're looking for something a little more official (and the probable source of the characterizations cited), there is this from a May 7, 2005 sermon by Benedict, which is available in full at the Vatican website:

"This power of teaching frightens many people in and outside the Church. They wonder whether freedom of conscience is threatened or whether it is a presumption opposed to freedom of thought. It is not like this. The power that Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors is, in an absolute sense, a mandate to serve. The power of teaching in the Church involves a commitment to the service of obedience to the faith. The Pope is not an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law. On the contrary: the Pope's ministry is a guarantee of obedience to Christ and to his Word. He must not proclaim his own ideas, but rather constantly bind himself and the Church to obedience to God's Word, in the face of every attempt to adapt it or water it down, and every form of opportunism.

"Pope John Paul II did this when, in front of all attempts, apparently benevolent to the human person, and in the face of erroneous interpretations of freedom, he unequivocally stressed the inviolability of the human being and of human life from the moment of conception until natural death. The freedom to kill is not true freedom, but a tyranny that reduces the human being to slavery.

The Pope knows that in his important decisions, he is bound to the great community of faith of all times, to the binding interpretations that have developed throughout the Church's pilgrimage. Thus, his power is not being above, but at the service of, the Word of God. It is incumbent upon him to ensure that this Word continues to be present in its greatness and to resound in its purity, so that it is not torn to pieces by continuous changes in usage."