Adhering to the Papacy When Popes Go Astray

Pope Francis’ motu proprio Traditionis custodes has perplexed (or even shaken the faith of) many Catholics who find refuge in the sacred tradition preserved by the old Mass. Perhaps some souls are motivated by the nostalgia that Pope Francis has cited. But surely something deeper than romanticism motivates young families to endure inconvenience for the sake of a High Mass.

A Catholic deeply attached to the sacred and disappointed in Francis’ decision may therefore be tempted to hold out hope for the New Pope of St. John Bosco’s final dream. Faced with the Church’s last great struggle, “The new Pope, putting the enemy to rout and overcoming every obstacle, guides the ship right up to the two columns [the Eucharist and the Blessed Mother] and comes to rest between them….” A pope who decisively vindicates orthodoxy and tradition is the sort of thing for which one might pray. At the same time, Bosco himself taught the boys in his school devotion to the papacy, not to the individual who occupies it, admonishing them never to shout “Long Live Pius IX!” but only “Long live the pope!”

The challenge of Traditionis custodes is not the bitter trial of reactionaries awaiting a pope who will bring about the day of vindication. Rather, it is the enduring (though nearly forgotten) challenge of ordinary Catholics to stand for the pope’s authority even when they behold the man as corrupt, politicized, or simply misguided.

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The bitterness of Traditionis custodes is that it threatens to place Catholics who love the Latin Mass in a cruel catch-22. If schism, as St. Thomas defines it, is refusal “to submit to the Sovereign Pontiff, and to hold communion with those members of the Church who acknowledge his supremacy” (ST II-II, q. 39, art. 1, resp; the current Canon 751 repeats this definition), one feels at a loss when the pope’s actions seem contrary to the Church’s lasting tradition. A good Catholic submits to the pope, but what if the pope is not acting according to God’s will?

To be sure, as Benedict XVI clarifies, even papal authority has its limits:

The Pope is not an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law…. 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.

But Benedict’s clarification does not belie the papacy’s preponderance of power—a fact he emphasizes with the eponymous opening words of Summorum Pontificum (“Of the Supreme Pontiffs”). Nor would he deny what Pius XII tells us in his encyclical letter Mediator Dei,

The Sovereign Pontiff alone enjoys the right to recognize and establish any practice touching the worship of God, to introduce and approve new rites, as also to modify those he judges to require modification…. Private individuals, therefore, even though they be clerics, may not be left to decide for themselves in these holy and venerable matters, involving as they do the religious life of Christian society along with the exercise of the priesthood of Jesus Christ and worship of God. For the same reason no private person has any authority to regulate external practices of this kind, which are intimately bound up with Church discipline and with the order, unity and concord of the Mystical Body and frequently even with the integrity of Catholic faith itself.

Lest there be any confusion, Pius explicitly directs his admonitions as much against novelty as against “exaggerated and senseless antiquarianism,” by which he means those who revert to past prescriptions of liturgy and law “because it pleases them to harken back to the old formulas.” Pius castigates both parties as lacking trust in divine providence.

Acknowledgment of papal authority (including its limitations) and trust in divine providence do not abrogate the Catholic layperson’s duty to speak up for the Church’s good (Can. 212 §3). But what is needed in response to Traditionis custodes is neither quietism nor activism—that is to say, neither unthinking approval for the sake of peace nor a “come and take it” brashness.

The situation we face is not entirely novel—though perhaps it is a significant part of what Bosco saw as “the most serious trials for the Church.” We have before us the situation of St. Thomas More, which is to say the situation that all Catholics face when the majesty of papal supremacy seems unmerited by the present occupant of Peter’s Chair. Hilaire Belloc reminds us that More “had no enthusiasm for the Papacy.” 

Rather, More was a spirited man of intelligence and judgment who denounced not only “the manifold and crying abuses into which the clerical organization had fallen, but many things which are not abuses at all, rather honest devotions, if a little exaggerated.” Belloc even wonders whether More hesitated to believe in the pope’s authority.

Yet this harsh critic of Rome died merrily for the papacy—not with affection, but with the conviction of a serious Catholic. Unsparingly, Belloc reminds us that More could have had the beauty of Catholicism under Henry without the challenge posed by a papacy often held by corrupt princes. “The Mass went on just the same and all the splendour of religion; the monasteries were still in being everywhere, there was no interruption whatsoever.”

It takes a stalwart heart to adhere to the papacy when the pope acts improvidently. Fewer than half of the papal portraits adorning St. Paul Outside the Walls include halos. And of those who lack sainthood, not a few popes were known villains (just ask Dante). St. John Henry Newman may have been quite right in expressing his concern that the doctrine of papal infallibility would be egregiously misunderstood. Still, he understood the necessity of admitting “Whoever is infallible, I am not…We can but do our best.”

The majority of the faithful have had to endure this struggle throughout the Church’s history—and it is a struggle that does not preclude disagreement with the pope (to say nothing of the local ordinary), as Newman again affirms. To say the very least, we have many saints who, like More and Newman, criticized ecclesial authorities without losing their love of the Church or neglecting the duty of obedience. At the same time, there seem to be few (if any) saints made holy by defiantly carving out autonomous spheres of canonical irregularity for themselves.

The challenge of Traditionis custodes is to keep in view what St. Josemaría Escrivá called “the supernatural aim of the Church,” submitting to the Petrine office even while resisting attacks on orthodox teaching and sacred worship. One need not agree with the pope in matters not infallibly defined—and such matters are in the vast majority. But a Catholic must trust in providence, even while suffering persecution from within the Church and enduring misguided ecclesial decisions. The papacy is divinely instituted, but the pope is a man—and, as St. Josemaría goes on to observe in his remarks on the Church: “when we speak of men we speak of freedom, which permits the co-existence of grandeur and meanness, of heroism and failure.”

[Photo Credit: Daniel Ibaez/Vatican Media]


  • Michael Gonzalez

    Michael Gonzalez is a PhD candidate in political science at Baylor University. There he studies classical, Christian, and early modern political thought, focusing on the enduring questions related to religion’s role in political life.

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