January 27, 2024 Column Father De Celles News

[I’ve been on vacation all week, so I thought you’d be interested in this…]

“Papal Power and the Obedience of the Faithful” by Archbishop Charles Chaput, First Things, 10/9/23 (excerpt):

                 For Niccolò Machiavelli, Pope Julius II was the model Renaissance prince. He was highly intelligent…skilled at diplomacy, politics, and war [and]… a visionary patron of the arts. Julius was also… intensely vindictive… moody, humorless, and coarse, with a violent temper…

                 A year after his death in 1513, the tract Julius Exclusus (“Julius Excluded From Heaven”) made its debut in Europe. It was…massively popular. In it, the deceased Julius shows up at the gates of heaven …St. Peter is unimpressed and turns him away…

Julius Exclusus was written anonymously, and for good reason…in an age when skewering popes and kings could lead to an unhappy “accident.” We live in different times… Which is good news for John Rist and his new book, Infallibility, Integrity and Obedience: The Papacy and the Roman Catholic Church, 1848-2023.

Rist is a Catholic convert and, like Erasmus, a serious scholar.… Unlike Erasmus, alas, prudence is not Rist’s strong suit…

The target of Rist’s text is a set of “serious unresolved problems in the understanding and governance of the Church itself.” These are rooted in a growth of “excessive papal power” that breeds subservience among the baptized. The result has been the reduction of morality in Western Christendom to mere obedience. And over time, argues Rist, this has damaged the mentality and the integrity of Catholic clergy and faithful alike. An inflated sense of papal infallibility, cemented into ecclesial life at Vatican I, “could not but produce (and was intended to produce) a relationship between pope and Church . . . very different from that which pertained hitherto.”

Put simply, Rist claims that

“. . . especially since the First Vatican Council, Catholic teaching . . . has come to be seen as too dependent on the will and authority of the Roman bishop . . . [resulting in] an unwarranted respect for immediate utterances of the Supreme Pontiff even if these might appear contrary to both Scripture and Tradition intelligently understood. That in turn has encouraged an excessively autocratic –at times even domineering– attitude at the top and a self-deluding servility easily identifiable as plain bad faith among the ‘lower ranks.’”

The story Rist tells does have merit… The nineteenth century was a time of revolution and strong anti-Church sentiment. Pius IX convened Vatican I in 1868 as a hostile kingdom of Italy encroached on the Papal States. The council disbanded in 1870 with the fall of Rome and the collapse of the papacy’s temporal power. Many of the council bishops who supported some form of papal infallibility did so out of doctrinal conviction. Many others did so from “an intense sympathy with the predicament in which Pius had found himself.” Still other[s] …acted more broadly in the interest of the Church, “particularly in its opposition to the modern world.” The unintended result was “an episcopal servility that was to become a pattern.”

For Rist, problems with papal infallibility…have dogged every papacy since Pius IX. …Until now, the damage done by an exaggerated sense of infallibility has been masked by a line of adequate to outstanding popes, all of them committed to what Benedict XVI called a “hermeneutic of continuity.” The trouble happens when a pope has very different ideas and a very different direction from his predecessors. It becomes “disloyal” to challenge the resulting rupture. Rist’s judgment on the Francis pontificate will thus surprise no one. His chapter on the Bergoglio papacy is titled “Perón Meets Ignatius: The Choice Against Tradition.”

One of the key flaws in Rist’s text is its polemical spirit. There’s a caustic undercurrent throughout the book that weakens its narrative….

Having said all of the above, Rist’s concern … can’t easily be dismissed. Whatever their flaws, Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI …each sought to pull a centrifugal Church back together after Vatican II. The Francis papacy has a different spirit. There’s a unique kind of irony in a notion like “synodality,” …being championed by the most authoritarian pope in decades. Thus, Rist is probably right that

“a model must be constructed whereby the pope is clearly recognizable as the focus of doctrinal unity but which will simultaneously provide a structure for his activities [that] can inhibit the kind of abuse of office which–combined with and encouraging the passivity of too many Catholics–has threatened the Church since papal infallibility was defined at Vatican I and has now seriously infected it.”

…The primacy and authority of the Petrine office are vital to the Church—so long as Peter remains faithful to the Word of God and consistent Catholic teaching. In ensuring Peter’s faithfulness, diocesan bishops are more than simply franchise managers of “Catholicism Inc.” They have the duty of obedience to the Holy See in all things true to the faith, yes. But they have no obligation of unthinking agreement. The obedience of bishops should be shaped by the candor of mature adults.

I know from experience the instinct to avoid such candor. Rist might describe it as episcopal servility or cowardice. Far more often it’s a prudent fear of scandalizing the faithful and causing division. But …at this point, we’re well past worrying about such things. The papacy and the Vatican will look very different in the decades ahead whatever we do…The Holy See in its current form is unsustainable, and shoring up structures is not our greatest challenge. The overriding issue facing the Christian world today is …anthropological, not structural, and it’s summed up in Psalm 8, verse 4: Who and what is a human being?….

We need to acknowledge that too many critics of Francis speak from an anger that defeats itself and ends by being unjust. His commitment to the poor, …mercy, … the lost and alienated, and …to the margins—all these things are gifts to the whole Church.…So [is] his teaching on issues like gender, the sanctity of life, and bioethics….

It’s also a fact that his overreliance on the Society of Jesus is unhealthy considering the Society’s seeming surrender to the spirit of the age in too many instances. Francis  is intolerant of even respectful disagreement. His manner can often seem mean-spirited. His complaints about the Church in the United States are insulting and uninformed, and they embarrass the dignity of his office. They also discourage many bishops, priests, religious, and lay faithful who heroically live the Gospel in an age of aggressive secularism and hostility to the Church. And…his ambiguity on matters of doctrine creates confusion and feeds division in the Church …If saying these things is “disloyal,” then so is the truth.”

What we need now is for the papacy to return to its primary task of strengthening and uniting the faithful. This requires stability, clarity, and the embrace of spiritual fatherhood.…The Petrine ministry …should protect Scripture and Tradition and reject “paradigm shifts” that subtly but significantly change the nature of theology. Obviously, the papacy should also promote sanctity. The Pope and his close collaborators should reflect heroic virtue and holiness, and history tells of the harm done to the Church when they do not…”

Oremus pro invicem. Fr. De Celles