How Pope Francis Is Inadvertently Developing the Doctrine of the Papacy

By his abuse of Catholics’ already-unhealthy overemphasis on the papacy, Pope Francis is leading many of them to now look more closely at the underlying official teaching.


October 9, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Not long ago Pope Francis, in lamenting the existence of “backward-looking” American Catholics, said that “doctrine evolves…doctrine also progresses, expands and consolidates with time and becomes firmer, but it is always progressing.” The pope was essentially arguing that Catholics should not be upset about potential changes to doctrine, because doctrine is not static, but always developing.

Well, yes and no.

Development of doctrine is a concept made most famous by St. John Henry Newman in the 19th century, but it is an idea that actually goes back to the early Church, particularly to St. Vincent of Lerins, whom the Holy Father is fond of quoting. It’s a concept well-accepted by Catholics, but also one little understood.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

In a nutshell, development of doctrine recognizes that our understanding of the mysteries of faith deepen over time. Just as an adult can understand a teaching more deeply than a child, so too can the Church come to understand a doctrine with more precision through the centuries.

The development of the doctrine of the Trinity provides a clear example. Our Lord revealed to His apostles that He is God, yet also acknowledged His Father as God, as well as the Holy Spirit, all while maintaining that there is only one God. This is beyond the human mind’s capacity to fully comprehend, and over time Christians grappled with the implications of these seemingly-contradictory beliefs. This led to mistakes and confusion among the faithful. Some posited that God presented Himself in different modes over time—sometimes as Father, sometimes as Son, sometimes as Holy Spirit. Others rejected the idea that Jesus Christ could be fully God as the Father was. They believed he was a divine being, but created— a “god,” perhaps, but not God.

Eventually the Church had to resolve these conflicting ideas by defining the doctrine of the Trinity, which was accomplished particularly at the great ecumenical councils of the 4th and 5th centuries. But note that this happened more than three centuries after the time of Christ. It took that long for the doctrine to “develop”—the underlying belief itself did not change, but our understanding of it was more precise.

Development of doctrine is not, however, a doctrine transforming from one belief into a contrary belief. That is not development, but change. While it’s not clear what exactly Pope Francis meant when he used the terms that were translated as “evolve” and “change,” we know as Catholics that doctrine cannot fundamentally change, for the nature of truth is such that what was true yesterday is true today. Jesus Christ, who is the Truth, is “the same yesterday and today and for ever” (Hebrews 13:8). Development of doctrine is not a doctrine transforming from one belief into a contrary belief…we know as Catholics that doctrine cannot fundamentally change, for the nature of truth is such that what was true yesterday is true today.Tweet This

So when John Paul II wrote that the divorced and remarried cannot receive Communion, asserting that this teaching is based on Sacred Scripture (cf. Familiaris Consortio 84), or that the Church has no authority to ordain women to the priesthood because this is the constant and universal Tradition of the Church (cf. Ordinatio Sacerdotalis 4), he recognized that he could not change these teachings any more than he could change the teaching on the Trinity. If it was not true that divorced and remarried could not receive Communion and women couldn’t be ordained in 123 AD or 1023, then it can’t be in 2023. X cannot develop to mean Not-X.

Yet what I find interesting is that Francis’s apparent push to insert fundamental change into the long-standing meaning of doctrinal development might actually lead to a legitimate development of doctrine; namely, our understanding of the role of the papacy itself.

If there’s one doctrine that’s undergone almost constant development since the first century, it’s that of the papacy. It’s evident from the beginning that Peter was given a special leadership role among the Twelve, and that this special role was passed on to his successors, the bishops of Rome. Yet if you study the history of the Church, you see a deepening of the Church’s understanding of exactly what that role means.

This development in fact is the fundamental issue that ultimately led to the tragic schism between East and West. While the West expanded its understanding of the papacy, many in the East tended to minimize the role of the papacy more and more over time until it became nothing more than ceremonial, inconsistent with the actual authority given to Peter by Our Lord.

Yet once the East broke away from the West, there was no brake, so to speak, on developments in the West when it came to papal doctrine. Over time the increasing political role of the pope was melded in many minds with his essential and theological spiritual role. The Church eventually became a “top-down” structure in which everything centered on Rome, and most problems, big and small, were referred to the papal office. 

This new understanding of the papacy was fundamentally different from the early Church’s understanding. For centuries and even into the Middle Ages, how the Church operated and the faith was lived was more “bottom-up”—one starts with the family, then the parish priest, then the diocesan bishop, and only then moves up the ranks if necessary to resolve issues.

The growing centrality of the pope, both political and spiritual, was exacerbated even further in the wake of the French Revolution. In response to the worldwide upheaval caused by revolutionary forces, which upended the primary role of the family, popes began to take on a more direct pastoral role in the Church, writing more and more universal encyclicals on diverse subjects. (The process is documented by Timothy Flanders in a recent article at OnePeterFive.)  

In this context, we easily see how the overall situation in the West eventually led to the 19th century Vatican I declarations on the infallibility and universal jurisdiction of the pope. However, some Churchmen of the time, including St. John Henry Newman and the Melkite Patriarch Gregory II Youssef, were concerned with these definitions, not necessarily because they believed them to be false, but because they worried they would give Catholics an improper understanding of the role of the papacy.

English theologian William George Ward, who converted to Catholicism a month before Newman, famously said, “I should like a new Papal Bull every morning with my Times at breakfast.” This is exactly what concerned faithful Catholics like Newman and Youssef. It’s not a doctrinal issue as much as a practical understanding of that doctrine that can be a problem. They worried that the pope would come to acquire a cult of personality, that he in time could be seen as a semi-divine religious leader who could do no wrong. They were right to be worried, as that’s exactly what happened.

Here is where we see the important connection between official teachings and unofficial attitudes. An official teaching is, for example, the definition of the pope’s infallibility when speaking ex cathedra. An unofficial attitude, however, is the widespread belief among Catholics of the pope as the definitive source on all manner of issues, both spiritual and political. Vatican I did not declare that the pope should be issuing daily bulls in which Catholics received their marching orders, but for many Catholics like Ward, that is exactly what they saw Vatican I urging.

It’s important to understand the interplay between official teachings and unofficial attitudes (I go into detail about this relationship in my book Deadly Indifference). Often it is unofficial attitudes that lead to a development in the official teachings; and likewise, it is often official teachings that push forward certain unofficial attitudes. 

This distinction is too often ignored by Catholics. If a particular unofficial attitude is widely-held (and well-liked!) enough, most Catholics come to believe it is a sacrosanct official teaching. For example, the Church’s official teaching is that “outside the Church there is no salvation,” but most Catholics today have the attitude that non-Catholics have almost as much chance of salvation as Catholics, and so ignore or even reject the official teaching in favor or the commonly-held unofficial understanding.

A similar divergence exists when it comes to the papacy, but in the opposite direction. While the powers and responsibilities of the pope as found in Vatican I are actually limited, the view of the papacy by most Catholics following that council is far more expansive. The pope in many ways has become the center of the Catholic Faith, the lodestar that guides all Catholic life. While the powers and responsibilities of the pope as found in Vatican I are actually limited, the view of the papacy by most Catholics following that council is far more expansive.Tweet This

It was not uncommon, for example, in the 19th century and even continuing into the 20th century, for spiritual writers to talk about the three pillars of Catholic life as Christ, Mary, and the Pope. This is understandable as a reaction to the rejection of devotion to Mary and communion with the pope which occurred on such a massive scale in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. But including the pope with Our Lord and Our Lady as pillars of daily Catholic life would have been foreign not just to 1st millennium Catholics, but even to medieval Catholics.

The centrality of the pope is so infused in our attitude as Catholics today that most of us don’t even realize it. It’s the air we breathe. For example, it’s a common devotional practice to offer the first Our Father in a Rosary for the Holy Father. Of course Catholics should pray for the pope, but why the pope in this case and not one’s local bishop? After all, the local bishop is supposed to be a Catholic’s primary teacher and pastor. It is he who is directly responsible for the salvation of the souls in his diocese.

The modern centrality of the papacy is also seen in how the Church is managed. For more than a millennium, most bishops in the Church were not selected by the pope. In fact, it wasn’t until the 19th century (there’s that century again!) that the pope chose every bishop in the Church. For most of Church history, a bishop was selected locally, and then that selection was sent to Rome for what was usually a rubber-stamp confirmation.

Popes have been involved in politics for centuries, but today the understanding of many Catholics is that we conform our own political views to the pope’s views on any and all political issues, from immigration to capitalism to environmentalism. To be politically Catholic, to this way of thinking, is to submit to the current pope’s political opinions. Doesn’t work so well these days, does it?

Everything today in the Church now revolves around the pope, from devotional practices to parish life to constant fiddling with Church teachings. As a result, a bad or even below-average pope has a huge negative impact on the Church, far more of an impact than such a pope had in previous eras. The hard truth is that Catholics have become addicted to the papal drug, completely dependent and obsessed with whomever is the current occupant of the papacy.

Again, this is not how Catholics in previous ages lived. In fact, they could not have lived that way even if they wanted to. Just as Protestantism was not possible without the invention of the printing press, so too a papal-centric understanding of Catholicism is not possible without modern methods of communication. It simply wasn’t feasible for every diocese in the world to wait for the pope to pick their bishops in ancient or medieval times. Only in the modern world can the pope’s thoughts on any and every subject be disseminated far and wide. Without today’s technology, a billion-plus member organization like the Catholic Church simply couldn’t be as centralized as it is.

This addiction to the papal drug is, like any addiction, not healthy. This is evident from the massive confusion and scandal that is generated by a single pope who wants to create a mess.

Catholics therefore must drop their unhealthy addiction to the pope, without denying the proper functions of the papacy. To do this, I’m convinced a wider acceptance of a more Newmanian attitude toward the papacy must be the way forward, one that is attuned to the dangers inherent in an extremely papal-centric faith. 

This attitude is often found naturally among Eastern Catholics. Eastern Catholics’ bottom-up ecclesiology places the local bishop at the fore as a true successor to the apostles, and not just as a branch manager for the Vatican. The pope is not the dominant figure in every discussion, every debate, every devotion. Yet at the same time, unlike the Eastern Orthodox, they do not reject the proper role of the pope. They see him as the true successor to St. Peter who is to “confirm his brethren” (Luke 22:32), but not as someone who controls everything down to the announcements in the parish bulletin.

Bishops should not be constantly looking over their shoulders to see if they have run afoul of the Vatican for simply teaching the Faith. Instead they should be allowed to keep their eyes on their flocks, embracing their roles as shepherds.

Making such a radical change in our attitude toward the papacy might have seemed highly improbable in the 1930’s or even the 1990’s during the height of John Paul II’s popularity. But this is where Pope Francis might inadvertently and unintentionally move the Church to develop her doctrine about the papacy. It is typically a crisis that leads to a change in unofficial attitudes, which then often leads to a development of official teachings. The political instability in the West naturally led to a more papal-centric Church in the Middle Ages. The French Revolution led to the ultramontanist movement in the 19th century. 

By this author:

Today’s crisis might move the needle in the opposite direction. By his abuse of Catholics’ unhealthy attitude toward the papacy, Francis is leading many of them to now look more closely at the underlying official teaching. Should the pope be such a central figure in the day-to-day life of every Catholic? Or should his practical role perhaps be diminished, while keeping the doctrinal authority that Vatican I declared? A change in our attitude toward the papacy might be what it takes for the Church to achieve further precision in her official teachings as to the role of the papacy in Catholic life, from the pope’s relationship with his fellow bishops to the importance of his views on political matters.

Almost thirty years ago Pope John Paul II recognized that how the pope exercises his ministry of primacy must be “open to a new situation” (Ut Unum Sint 95). He was speaking from the perspective of the pope, suggesting that how popes exercised their office in recent centuries is not the only—or even necessarily best—way it should be practiced today. Likewise, Catholics’ overemphasis on the centrality of the papacy in Catholic life in recent centuries is not the only—or even necessarily best—attitude going forward.

Examples of how these attitudes can change could be Catholics becoming more spiritually connected to their local bishop, or no longer following the latest news (or political encyclicals) coming out of the Vatican, or even advocating for bishops to be selected in a more decentralized fashion. When we no longer see the pope as the source of all teaching—and of all problems—in the Church, then we can drop our addiction to the papal drug.

The development of doctrine can be a dangerous business. In trying to better understand a mystery of the faith, one may easily veer off the path toward the truth. Many theologians got the Trinity wrong before the Church finally settled the issue, and many over the centuries have gotten the papacy wrong as well. But today’s deep confusion and crisis shows clearly that Catholics must be willing to take a hard look at the role of the papacy in the Church, fine-tuning the Church’s official teachings as well as our attitudes to ones that conform more to Our Lord’s desire for the role of the successor to St. Peter.


  • Eric Sammons

    Eric Sammons is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine.

Join the Conversation

Comments are a benefit for financial supporters of Crisis. If you are a monthly or annual supporter, please login to comment. A Crisis account has been created for you using the email address you used to donate.

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...