Papal Supremacy

Francis: Papal court is ‘leprosy of papacy’ NCR by Thomas C. Fox Oct. 1, 2013.

Although the incident that sparked both the National Catholic Reporter article and the following comments are time-bound they are useful for understanding Pope Francis’ papal trajectory thus far and hints at future directions.

A few days ago Cardinal Marx, one of the Big Eight (pen name for the newly created Papal Advisory Board), reported that the Vatican needed an image overhaul. He was indicting the notorious curial bureaucracy at the heart of the Catholic Church’s ossified government for over a billion believers. In an environment of true change where the symbols that we need to get to our God are in play, an “image” overhaul can never be enough. That’s why Pope Francis, from the moment of his election, made a frontal attack against the Vatican curia’s imperial culture, the historical components of that image.

 The Vatican lost most of its territory and virtually all its millennial temporal power in the political changes of 19th century Europe, but it did not lose as quickly the imperial culture it had become accustomed to. On the contrary it embarked on a process of vaccinating itself against outside influences which might imply any change in its diminishing hegemony over the Catholic faithful.  It would appear that Pope Francis would like to change an outdated bureaucratic culture, but in order to get to its underpinnings he has to undercut seriously the presumed grounds for his own authority,  the doctrine of Papal Supremacy. Pope Francis will not have it easy.

 Papal authority in Wikipedia, a non-religious source, refers to Papal Supremacy as defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 882 and 939 referenced footnote numbers : “The doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church that the pope, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ and as pastor of the entire Christian Church, has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered:[1] that, in brief, “the Pope enjoys, by divine institution, supreme, full, immediate, and universal power in the care of souls.”[2] The above definition of supremacy, as worded, dates back to Vatican I when Pope Pius IX, made himself and his successors infallible under certain conditions. On that occasion, although not with an infallible declaration, to all the other Bishops’ amazement the elderly Pope blurted out that “he was the Church.”

The legacy of Pope Pius IX, in addition to an unquestionable authority, planted in the minds of the faithful an aura of certitude to any announcement from Rome. Assent was required to papal pronouncements under pain of sin without any possibility of discussion. This environment previously not the rule in theological circles effectively stifled in the universal Church initiatives to adapt to a geometrically growing need to adapt to modern culture. In our own time, since the revisionism of Vatican II has been in vogue,  certainty in faith, or our intellectual assent, in a manner different from that of belief in revealed truth, is being invoked for teachings of the Magisterium, the Encyclicals of the Popes, and more recently, for the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The Papacy of the Catholic Church through the Vatican curial bureaucracy has lived this vision of God’s oversight and protection as its style of governance for close to 150 years. Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) in his notes on the Council (1966) noted that Vatican I had sounded the death knell of Counciliarism, the doctrine that an Ecumenical Council could be superior or equal to the power of the Pope. In the wake of Vatican I the curial bureaucracy to buttress its centralized power assumed control over the naming of bishops, thereby, effectively  cementing a universal environment of acceptance of Papal Supremacy, while throttling the voice of the local church, the lay faithful, along with their theological spokesmen. That explains why much of the spirit and intent of Vatican II was so easily suppressed by the last two papacies and the Church never escaped being held hostage by the Vatican Curia dedicated to insuring Papal Supremacy. By mandates and even oaths it has attempted, not always with success, to control the intellectual life of the faithful through legal impositions placed on Catholic Universities, a controlled indoctrination in the preparation of priests, the censoring and silencing of theologians, including many of the brightest and most faithful of the Church. The Vatican has declared even the non-fallible Magisterium, characterized in many cases by cultural and time bound arguments for belief, off limits to further discussion by theologians. In the most recent 40 to 50 years the naming of bishops has been subjected to the litmus test of this concept of orthodoxy. The Petrine Office since Vatican I up to the election of Pope Francis has meant just that, the supreme and “unhindered” power of the Pope in doctrinal, moral and disciplinary affairs of the Church”.

Pope Francis himself has proclaimed that he was elected to make changes. After six months in office he gradually has afforded us a glimpse of his strategy, which is, as I see it, to make less radical hints of change until a larger picture of what he thinks the Church should be becomes evident. In his most recent interview, 7 hours with his Jesuit confreres, within the general spirit of a fresh approach you find intimations of what the big picture might be. A few direct quotes: “If one has the answers to all the questions…that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself.” “…those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security,’ those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists —they have a static and inward-directed view of things.”  “We should not even think, therefore, that ‘thinking with the church’ means only thinking with the hierarchy of the church.”

Finally, you can interpret, I think, in an optimistic light one of his personal phrases, regarding the Jesuit practice of discernment for important spiritual decisions,: “This discernment takes time. For example, many think that changes and reforms can take place in a short time. I believe that we always need time to lay the foundations for real, effective change….  Sometimes discernment instead urges us to do precisely what you had at first thought you would do later. And that is what has happened to me in recent months.” He is hinting here that the discernment phase in many areas has already passed. We need to pray hard for Pope Francis.