The Church of the Papal Fiat

Treating the pope as a “super-bishop” who is the only necessary member of the Church militant is a crime against sound theology.

In the media frenzy that surrounded Pope Francis in his 2015 visit to the United States, one small feature became a major talking point—the pope’s tiny automobile. The Holy Father was lauded for his humility in being driven in a dark gray Fiat 500L, and some even went so far as to suggest that his choice of car was an environmentalist message.

However, in recent years, concern that the Catholic Church has been reduced to a “papal fiat” has nothing to do with the pope’s opinion on vehicle models. Instead, the fear is that Christ’s Church is now an expression of the Holy Father’s will, molded like clay according to the papal potter, and sustained only in the person of the pope. And after the latest restrictions on the Traditional Roman Rite, these fears are not unfounded, nor are they without a history.

Many people know that the First Vatican Council (1869–1870) was the council in which the Church defined papal infallibility, as declared in Pastor Aeternus. Catholics who have received a basic catechesis know that, according to Vatican I, the pope possesses the charism of infallibility when he, ex cathedra (or “from the chair”), defines a doctrine of faith or morals that is to be definitively held by the entire Church. The council also affirmed that the pope possesses “full, immediate, and universal” jurisdiction over the Church, and therefore confirmed that the Church is not a democracy, or that bishops—individually or collectively—have power over the pope.

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The council was a flexing of papal muscle in the face of an ever-growing secularized world, and much of the papal claims made at Vatican I were a reaction against those movements which challenged papal and Catholic authority.

Today, just as during the First Vatican Council, there is a diversity of Catholic opinion regarding the papacy. There are the hyper-papal maximalists, who believe that the pope can never err, even in his ordinary magisterium. The distinction between papal infallibility and papal authority is blurred to the point that every word, papal plane interview, or Wednesday Audience enjoys divine protection from the Holy Spirit. 

These hyper-papal maximalists today are the spiritual sons of the nineteenth-century lay ultramontanes Louis Veuillot and William G. Ward, the latter of whom believed that papal infallibility pertained not only to the concrete, formulaic, and doctrinal definitions, but also extended to the entirety of papal documents, disciplinary instructions, and decrees of the Roman Congregations that were signed or approved by the pope. Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, a convert from Anglicanism, was arguably one of the most influential ultramontanes at the council. Though more nuanced on infallibility than Veuillot or Ward, Manning nonetheless believed that the definition was necessary and applied also to “truths of science, truths of history, dogmatic facts [for example, canonizations], and minor censures.”

Today there are also, albeit smaller in number, papal minimalists. Up until the present pontificate, these theologians typically resisted the papal magisterium, preferring to insist on a misguided notion of the “sense of the faithful.” The vociferous reaction against Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae is a prime example of this. (Ironically enough, those who questioned papal teaching authority under Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI have become decidedly less minimalist with Pope Francis.) 

At Vatican I, papal minimalists, who opposed the definition of papal infallibility on a doctrinal or pastoral basis, composed the minority position at the council. Ignaz von Döllinger, a German professor of history at the University of Munich, was one of the more vocal members of the minority group. He was originally an ultramontane who, upon visiting Rome and meeting the pope in 1857, receded from his ultramontanism after seeing how Pius IX saw himself as the supreme authority over all things. As a historian, Döllinger knew well that in the early Church the pope certainly held a primacy, but he was not considered a father to the point that every other patriarch and bishop were his children. 

Bishop Edward Fitzgerald of Little Rock, Arkansas, was one of only two bishops to vote against Pastor Aeternus. Fitzgerald believed in papal primacy, but he thought that the definition would be a stumbling block to converting American Protestants to the Catholic Faith. In contemporary times, the most notable papal minimalist was the recently-deceased Swiss theologian Hans Küng, who rejected papal infallibility in principle and believed that the Church’s creedal statements could indeed contain error. Although his example is an extreme one, Küng’s ideas find fertile ground in Protestant and even some Orthodox circles.

So where does the true teaching on the papacy reside? Truthfully, neither within papal maximalists or papal minimalists. If we use Aristotle’s golden mean as a tool, we might say that between the two extremes, there is virtue, and therefore, truth. The pope holds a primacy that is not merely honorific but actually has jurisdictional and magisterial responsibilities.

Treating the pope as a “super-bishop” who is the only necessary member of the Church militant is a crime against sound theology. The pope is not merely one bishop among many; he is truly the Successor of St. Peter and the chief steward to whom the Church is entrusted. That stated, the proper relationship of the pope to other bishops is one of an elder brother who mediates in disputes—not as a father who sees the bishops of the Church as his children. 

The papacy is not an object of the Church’s faith, but in a way, we may speak of “true devotion to the Chair of Saint Peter” without committing papolatry. As some Orthodox scholars even admit, there is a real need for primacy as one finds in the Catholic Church, and even papal infallibility is “inoffensive” when properly understood. The papacy is an essential element to the Church, one that was divinely instituted and cannot be written off as an accident of history. Papal maximalists err by exalting the papacy to an idolatrous height, while papal minimalists err in downplaying the significance of the Petrine office.

Francis’ pontificate, in many ways, is one marked by contradiction. Much has been said about “synodality” and the Church’s “decentralization”; much more has been done to centralize the Vatican’s power over local bishops. Francis has called for a more “universal” and global Church, and yet St. Peter’s Basilica has largely outlawed Latin in the liturgy (both in the usus antiquior and usus recentior), removing any sense of “universal” language in Catholicism’s most iconic church. 

Francis calls for a “poor Church for the poor,” and yet he continues the trend of multimillion-dollar papal trips, the costs of which largely fall upon whatever diocese he happens to visit. Francis goes to lengths preaching about the evil of judging others, yet he complains in his encyclicals of “self-absorbed promethean neopelagians”; he laments the declining birthrate of Italy, and Europe in general, yet criticizes women who have eight or more children

And, of course, possibly the greatest contradiction of Francis’ pontificate is this: the pope who famously speaks about the need for “mercy” and “accompaniment” shows neither to those Catholics attached to the Traditional Latin Mass. The same pope who famously called the Church a “field hospital” endorsed the ghettoization of Catholics attending the Latin Mass, excluding them from the parish family itself. And these are merely a few examples of such contradictions.

Pope Francis revised the Catechism to change the Church’s teaching on capital punishment, and the only footnotes given are citations of his own addresses. Pope Francis revised Church teaching so that public adulterers may receive Holy Communion, and despite conflicting interpretations of Amoris Laetitia, the Holy Father stamped as “correct” the Buenos Aires’ bishops’ interpretation into the Acta Apostolicae Sedis

Pope Francis stated that getting the COVID-19 vaccination is “an act of love” and suggested that it is a “moral obligation.” As such, Catholic universities will not give Catholic students a religious exemption from receiving the vaccine because the pope himself was vaccinated and has promoted it. Pope Francis supports same-sex couples in their civil unions, despite the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 2003 letter which rejected such a proposal. And the list goes on. 

To the untrained eye, it would seem that the Catholic Church is nothing else but a papal fiat—what the pope commands is law, and in speaking, he creates truth. This, of course, is erroneous. But in a papal-centered Church, where the pope’s every word is broadcasted to billions of people each day, ecclesiology suffers distortion. The image of Pope Francis is found all over parish websites, many of which do not even make any mention of the local bishop. It is no surprise that a Church that sees the pope as a divine oracle will abandon, overnight, anything and everything in the Church that came before the current occupant if he so desires. The pope simply says, “Let there be,” and bureaucratic Church officials make sure it is done. 

The “church of the papal fiat” is a counterfeit and false Church, one that hinges on an unhealthy and destructive notion of the pope and his mission. What is the proper response to a controversial papacy? I suppose one could simply ignore the pope, although that was a much easier task in a non-globalized, non-digital world. One could dedicate an entire project to defending every single word spoken by the pope, from plane interviews to encyclicals, but aside from being exhausting, it sets up its own issues. For example, what will happen if and when a future pope contradicts Pope Francis? How far can the “hermeneutic of continuity” stretch before it can snap? And yet another response could be the diminishment of the papacy and its importance to the life of the Church, as Orthodox and Protestant apologists are likely to do. 

But the problem in the Church is not the papacy itself, but rather the gross misunderstandings which accompany popular understandings of it. Catholics do not need to abandon the papacy in order to make peace with the current pontifical crisis. All that is required is a “conversion of the papacy,” one that turns away from idolatrous conceptions and moves toward understanding the pope as a servant of the tradition and not its creator.

[Photo Credit: Pixabay]


  • John A. Monaco

    John A. Monaco is a doctoral student in theology at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA, and a Visiting Scholar with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville.

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