A Dialogue Between Two Monks Concerning the Papacy



Image: Max Barascudts (1869-1927) — In the Scriptorium

Br. Barsanuphius: Good morning, Brother! To my surprise, the guest house is completely ready for today’s arrivals, and we have some time before the next office. Are you free for a conversation? We could pick up where we left off.

Br. Romuald: That would be an excellent thing to do. Let’s sit over here by the herb garden.

Br. Barsanuphius: My problem comes down to the relationship between the “conservative” instinct of submitting oneself to the Pope, and the “traditionalist” instinct of taking Tradition as a safe guide and making a yardstick of it. I see, on the one hand, that the instinct of revering the Pope and going along with his teaching is healthy, but on other hand, I know enough Church history to see that this is not absolutely foolproof. And besides, what is meant by “the Pope’s teaching” is far from simple, since it is not a uniform body of teaching but comes in various forms and degrees of authority.

Br. Romuald: It’s so like you to get right to the heart of the matter!

Br. Barsanuphius: For some people, the idea of taking Tradition as a guide sets up an intellectual construct that can never be determinate, thus encouraging an almost Protestant spirit of “private judgment.”

Br. Romuald: But as other people see it, the approach of submitting oneself to the Pope can go wrong if it places too much weight, in an ultramontanist spirit, on the dicta et facta, the words and actions, of the reigning pontiff.

Br. Barsanuphius: That’s the contrast in a nutshell.

Br. Romuald: I think, however, that both of these positions are extremes. There is a genuine via media that holds to the real primacy of the Pope as well as to the normative standing of the Tradition he is called to serve—and which he can betray in one way or another.

Br. Barsanuphius: Yes, exactly! I used to think that a Pope could never say or do anything wrong at all, as if it’s his job to be a sort of Delphic oracle who always gives an inspired answer, or a God-king whom we all venerate—“the Great Leader” in an almost Communist or fascist way.

Br. Romuald: You were suffering from a common illusion among Catholics. Most do not grasp well the meaning and the role of the papacy.

Br. Barsanuphius: Right. It was a watershed moment for me when I found no less than Joseph Ratzinger saying in The Spirit of the Liturgy—let me see, I have this book in my satchel… Ah yes, here it is.

After the Second Vatican Council, the impression arose that the pope really could do anything in liturgical matters, especially if he were acting on the mandate of an ecumenical council. Eventually, the idea of the givenness of the liturgy, the fact that one cannot do with it what one will, faded from the public consciousness of the West. In fact, the First Vatican Council had in no way defined the pope as an absolute monarch. On the contrary, it presented him as the guarantor of obedience to the revealed Word. The pope’s authority is bound to the Tradition of faith, and that also applies to the liturgy. It is not “manufactured” by the authorities. Even the pope can only be a humble servant of its lawful development and abiding integrity and identity. . . . The authority of the pope is not unlimited; it is at the service of Sacred Tradition.

Br. Romuald: A fine passage indeed, and indicative of a deep trend in his thinking. For if I’m not mistaken, he reiterated this position as Pope in 2005.

Br. Barsanuphius: You’re right about that. I have it printed on a sheet of paper tucked into this book, because it seemed so important to me:

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. … 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 the Word of God, but at the service of it. 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.

Br. Romuald: Well, then, we seem to be in agreement about the actual role of the Pope and the limitations of his office. But I recall that yesterday you were struggling with the problem of John Henry Newman’s conversion and how he switched his allegiance, in a way, from an abstract construct called “Tradition” to a concrete measure called “Papacy.”

Br. Barsanuphius: Yes. In 1840, Newman believed that “Tradition = Catholicism,” while in 1845 he had come to believe that “Pope = Catholicism.” Ubi Petrus, ibi ecclesia, and all that good stuff.

Br. Romuald: In light of the foregoing quotations from Ratzinger, however, wouldn’t we have to maintain that the difference between Newman the Anglican and Newman the Catholic is not this at all, but rather, that by 1845 he had come to see that the Pope is an integral and central part of the picture, as the one who can determine and define—and indeed has historically determined and defined—what is and is not according to Tradition, or what is or is not taught in Scripture?

Br. Barsanuphius: Of course. The absence of this magisterial power in Protestantism explains why it exists in over 30,000 denominations. Someone has to be able to say, when push comes to shove, what is or is not taught by Scripture and Tradition.

Br. Romuald: Surely, the next step is to say that the Pope cannot in any way add to or subtract from the dual font of Revelation, namely, Scripture and Tradition. The Magisterium interprets Revelation; it does not originate or modify it. The Magisterium is decisively secondary to it. This is pure Catholicism, without a whiff of 1840s Anglicanism. One may and must view the head of the Church on earth as a visible sign and source of communion within the Church, without viewing his authority as absolute over doctrine and discipline.

Br. Barsanuphius: How could I disagree? This seems like pure common sense to me. But how do we know when a Pope is acting according to his office and when he might be departing from it? If he is ultra vires, outside the bounds—can we ever know that?

Br. Romuald: Yes, I think we have to be able to do that. At least something of the content of Revelation can be known by faithful Catholics with such certitude that if—perhaps per impossibile, if you wish—a Pope were to contradict it, they could know he was in error and refuse to follow the error, in spite of its papal patronage.

Br. Barsanuphius: If one were to deny that the orthodox faith could be known at all apart from the teaching of the current incumbent of the papacy, how would that be any different from epistemological skepticism about the knowability, objectivity, constancy, and universality of the Catholic Faith?

Br. Romuald: Indeed—we would not even be able to recognize the continuity of the Faith over time, since whatever continuity showed up in the historical record would be merely the result of a lot of Popes who happened to will the same thing. It would not be a guarantee that what they adhered to was the truth and that they would never adhere to anything different.

Br. Barsanuphius: Such an approach would negate the age-old rule of St. Vincent of Lérins, who taught that we must adhere to doctrines believed “always, everywhere, and by everyone.”

Br. Romuald: Exactly! My dear brother, you surely see by now that we cannot sidestep or wave away the need for rational criteria to determine how and when to obey the Pope or embrace his statements, precisely in order to remain faithful ourselves to the immutable truth of the Faith. By this, I mean that no matter how much our insights into God may develop over time, they will never contradict that which has been solemnly or consistently taught before.

Br. Barsanuphius: As you were explaining to me last week, this is the reason why John of St. Thomas, Cajetan, Bellarmine, Melchior Cano, and other great theologians of the past wrote extensively on these matters, distingushing carefully between papal statements or judgments that must be accepted, and those that might be questioned or, in dire cases, must be rejected.

Br. Romuald: Perhaps we should not speak so hypothetically. Many things said and done by more recent Popes are extremely hard to reconcile with the manifest teaching of earlier councils and Popes and even Sacred Scripture; it’s downright scandalous at times. Simply compare the encyclical letter Casti Connubii to the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia!

Br. Barsanuphius: Ah, brother, you have raised a painful subject. For quite some time, to be honest, I’ve avoided following Vatican news, so as not to lose heart or become angry or depressed or distracted.

Br. Romuald: I totally sympathize with the desire not to know how bad things have become, but we must recognize that the issues at stake—such as the proposal that we should invite to Holy Communion those who are living objectively in a state of adultery!—concern the very essence of our Faith. We cannot ignore them, wishing they would go away.

Br. Barsanuphius: Besides, people will be asking us what our opinion is. As men of religion, we have a duty to be well-informed and well-educated—

Br. Romuald: —and prepared for those awkward moments after Mass or in the gift shop.

Br. Barsanuphius: You can say that again! A few weeks ago, when I was running the shop, a man came in and started going on about how the situation in the Church today was so bad that it was surely a sign that we did not have a legitimate Pope. I tried to reason with him about the difference between not having a Pope at all and having a bad Pope. If you’ve got a bad Pope, you can explain the desperate situation in the Church without much difficulty. In this case, we apply Ockham’s razor.

Br. Romuald: Did you convince him?

Br. Barsanuphius: I think so. I told him that our situation would never get any better unless he was praying every day for the Pope and the Church—and made sure to protect himself against evil spirits. After friendly banter and a cup of tea, he bought a bunch of St. Benedict medals, a few rosaries, and a small booklet with Prime and Compline, and left in good spirits.

Br. Romuald: Good to hear. What a blessing that gift shop is.

Br. Barsanuphius: But the conversation made me melancholy. In fact, it’s what prompted our conversation yesterday about the traditionalists’ insistence on the fixed and settled teaching of the Church in the past—for example, the decrees, canons, and anathemas of the Council of Trent—as a permanent measure of the present. It made me wonder if I am perhaps too attached to a certain vision of the past…

Br. Romuald: We can all feel that way at times. Yet the past is given to us as the foundation on which the present is built, and we do not change the foundation of a building unless we want it to fall down.

Br. Barsanuphius: A sign that we are not crazy is the vast number of priests, bishops, and even cardinals who are shocked and sickened by what they see happening in Rome. This is not at all about distrust of the Pope, rejection of the papacy, or the exaltation of private judgment. It is about distrust of those who are damaging the Church and the Faith their predecessors taught.

Br. Romuald: Positively, it is about holding fast to the teaching of Our Lord in the Gospels about marriage and divorce—teaching clearly stated and determined past all doubt by the Magisterium of the Church, including most recently (and repeatedly) by St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Br. Barsanuphius: Amen to that. What is the Pope for, if not to guard and proclaim the Deposit of Faith, integral and unadulerated?

Br. Romuald: And to think this used to be taken for granted! Newman calls the pope a remora, “a breakwater, a hindrance, a stopper against innovation,” as the genial Fr. Hunwicke puts it. By his very office he is to be stubbornly conservative, doctrinally unoriginal, utterly traditional.

Br. Barsanuphius: That is what the Roman Church was famous for in the first millennium of Christianity—her Roman Canon is the most ancient and unchanged of all anaphoras—and she largely retained that role in the second millennium as well.

Br. Romuald: Yes, the Roman Church was so resistant to change that it did not even recite the Creed during Mass for many centuries, since that was not a part of the existing liturgy, and finally gave in when everyone else was using it elsewhere.

Br. Barsanuphius: We sure could have used some of that spirit of resistance to change in the sixties and seventies, when secular culture had more or less made a religion out of evolution!

Br. Romuald: You can say that again.

Br. Barsanuphius: Clearly, what we need is a reforming Pope, a man like St. Gregory VII, St. Pius V, or St. Pius X, one who can come in and be that stopper against innovation—with, I might as well say it, a pair of strong arms to sweep out the Augean stables.

Br. Romuald: What’s strange beyond belief is that there are people out there who would think we are disloyal Catholics for saying such things. How little they know of loyalty or Catholicism!

Br. Barsanuphius: In any case, by God’s grace I will never abandon Our Lord or the See of Peter or the Catholic Faith that has been handed down to each generation in the official doctrine of the Church. As the first pope said: “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Br. Romuald: Well said.… even if we may be legitimately perplexed and grieved by the latest successor of Peter, to whom Our Lord, were He still walking the paths of this earth, would have plenty of reason to utter the same words as he did to the first Pope: “Get behind me, Satan: you are thinking the thoughts of men, and not the thoughts of God.”

Br. Barsanuphius: “The thoughts of men, and not the thoughts of God…” That reminds me. Did you hear the news about the Acta Apostolicae Sedis?

Br. Romuald: Alas, yes. What do you make of it?

Br. Barsanuphius: As far as what the texts say, it’s nothing new. Astute observers all along have known that sacramental access for Catholics living in adultery is what both Synods as well as Amoris Laetitia have always been angling towards. Conservatives who kept doing hermeneutical somersaults to prove that “nothing has changed” now have enough egg on their face for a lifetime supply of omelettes. The defenders of continuity have just been unceremoniously dumped, while the agents of revolution have received the signal: “full steam ahead.”

Br. Romuald: But it raises the stakes, doesn’t it, invoking “magisterial authority” and sticking it in the Acta and so forth?

Br. Barsanuphius: It seems to be a favorite move nowadays to think that slapping the label “magisterial” onto packages will suddenly make the contents edible or even healthy. No, that depends on the ingredients, not on the label. Weren’t you paying attention when we discussed this just a minute ago?

Br. Romuald: But it seems that including something in the Acta is a big deal. I remember reading in a neoscholastic manual from the fifties a statement that “whatever appears in the acts of the Holy See may be assumed to be binding teaching, since there is no more official manner in which to publish documents intended to bind the faithful with a religious submission of will and intellect.”

Br. Barsanuphius: For one thing, you are forgetting your Lumen Gentium.

Br. Romuald: There are some things I have never tried very hard to remember.

Br. Barsanuphius: Come now, this document is your friend—on this point, at least. It says that one must gauge authoritative statements by many criteria: the type of document in question, the repetition of a doctrine, the clear intention to define or condemn. Although published in the Acta, this recent thing is just a letter to a small group of bishops, not even an episcopal conference; it enunciates a novelty rather than repeating what has always been taught; and it is not couched in language that could possibly vie with Canon 915, which expresses either dominical teaching or a conclusion logically derived from dominical teaching.

Br. Romuald: In short, it changes nothing in the Church’s doctrine or discipline.

Br. Barsanuphius: Nor could it, for that matter. It’s a bit like saying “There are special circumstances in which it might be appropriate to square a circle.” But a circle can never be squared. Therefore the special circumstances will never arise.

Br. Romuald: Well said.

Br. Barsanuphius: Getting back to your manual, let us be frank: the neoscholastic manuals have their strengths, but a sane, moderate account of papal authority is not one of them. Remember how Newman complained about the likely results of the proclamation of the dogma of infallibility at Vatican I?

Br. Romuald: He predicted that there would be a dangerous veneration and adulation of the person and opinions of the reigning pope, contrary to the limited doctrine of infallibility defined at that council.

Br. Barsanuphius: Perhaps what we are going through today is the messy manner in which the problems Newman diagnosed will finally be sifted through and brought to clarity. For there has been over a century of papal maximalism and positivism that sits uneasily with most of Catholic tradition, and we can see it pretty much self-destructing at this time.

Br. Romuald: In other words, we have had unreasonable expectations about the papacy, and now the Lord is putting us to the ultimate test, to see whether we are mature enough in our faith to deal with it.

Br. Barsanuphius: To put it more positively: this pontificate will force theologians to make more distinctions about the exercise of the papal office and the exact parameters of the obedience of the faithful than they have ever been required to make before. It used to be considered a rule of thumb—in your neoscholastic manuals, for instance—that the mere appearance of something in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis would justify making a religious submission of will and intellect to it. This latest publication rather abruptly puts an end to that exaggerated deference!

Br. Romuald: You mean, shows us that the assumptions of the 1950s are untenable?

Br. Barsanuphius: Right. The 1950s gave us two striking examples to think about: the Assumpion with a capital ‘a’, and the assumptions of the liturgical reformers that gave us the “reformed Holy Week.” The former is a dogma of the faith; the latter was a tragic rupture.

Br. Romuald: I know what you mean. For a long time I had this uncomfortable feeling that the Pacellian rites were a pastiche of old and modern bits, based on someone’s clever idea of how things ought to go. It never seemed right.

Br. Barsanuphius: And when the monastery returned to the ancient rites of Holy Week, I was—I have to say—just carried away by the awesomeness, the majesty, the overpowering reality of them. I felt almost crushed by their weight, and yet oddly free to be serious about the most serious thing of all.

Br. Romuald (after a silence): You are turning into a mystic on me, brother…

Br. Barsanuphius (smiling): You can blame that on the old liturgy!

Br. Romuald: The point is, we need a better rule than that neoscholastic automatism, which practically assumes that every incumbent of the papal throne will be a saint and a doctor of the Church to boot. We need something more in accord with the intentions and texts of Vatican I, not to mention the nuanced understanding, developed over nineteen centuries, of the inherent authority of Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium.

Br. Barsanuphius: What you say reminds me that in this regard, as in so many others, we are inferior to our forefathers, who, in addition to their other good qualities, tended to be more flexible, more realistic, more zealous, and more common-sensical than we are… Ah, do you hear the Vespers bell ringing? Let’s go, so we’re not late for station.

Br. Romuald: Pray for me, brother. I never thought I’d live to see such times.

Br. Barsanuphius: Nor does any of us. But this is the age God willed for us—for you and me. And, as strange as it may seem, He chose us for these times, He wanted us to be here, living, praying, suffering. We’ve mentioned Newman a lot. You know that marvelous meditation of his, which has brought me much consolation over the years:

God has created me to do Him some definite service;

He has committed some work to me

which He has not committed to another. …

Therefore I will trust Him.

Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away.

If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him;

in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him;

if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him.

My sickness, or perplexity, or sorrow

may be necessary causes of some great end,

which is quite beyond us.

He does nothing in vain;

He may prolong my life, He may shorten it;

He knows what He is about.

He may take away my friends,

He may throw me among strangers,

He may make me feel desolate,

make my spirits sink,

hide the future from me—

still He knows what He is about.

It is our job to offer up a pure sacrifice of praise, and to keep the truth jealously that He has imparted to us. This will be how we “save the Church.” It will not happen any other way.

Br. Romuald: You have some wisdom beyond your years, young man. Let’s be off.

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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  1. It was great to evesdrop on this Conversation. Everyone else should do so too!!!

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