John Henry Newman
Could respect for the papacy mean resisting the Pope?
By Phil Lawler | 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.