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How Far Can the Pope Go?

The article, “Are There Limits to Papal Power?” by John A. Monaco does a good job of giving the accepted view of papal authority that is further explicated in the universal catechism.  It is really nothing new although I know many critics are worried that the timing of the article is to question statements and the direction of the Church under Pope Francis.  Monaco is certainly concerned, as are many of us, about the recent restrictions placed upon the old order of the Latin Mass.  While some version or rite of the Mass must be promoted as constitutive of our worship and faith; I would question whether this would demand that every rite or reformation of the liturgy (old or new) must be permitted.  While St. Pope John Paul II gave a restricted freedom to the practice of the old liturgy; it was Pope Benedict XVI that really opened it up as a gesture of freedom and in the hope of reconciliation with traditionalists.  But despite the language used implying there had never been a strict suppression; most of us know that in practice there had been.  This in itself demonstrates something of the scope of papal authority, no matter if we agree with it or not.

I take it that the consternation some have expressed is not about the first part of the article which simply teaches what the church understands by papal authority and infallibility, but rather about the adjoined “thought experiments.”  Actually, the latter part is familiar to me as such proposed scenarios, even questionable ones, were often posed when I was in seminary some four decades ago.  How far can a pope go?  While I do not believe the author wanted to insinuate that the rosary will be the next item on the pope’s agenda to forbid— I suspect he selected the topic of the rosary because any possibility of suppression is technically nil.  However, there was a commotion in 2002 when St. Pope John Paul II enriched the rosary by adding the wonderful Mysteries of Light.  Some people just do not like change, either in private devotions or in the liturgies of the Church.

The author rightly affirms:  “And while it is true that most papal pronouncements and writings do not fall within this narrow scope of papal infallibility, they should generally be received with docility and ‘religious respect.’”  Yes, and this is a fact that many on the left and today too many of the right seem to be dismissing.  No matter whether the Pope is Benedict XVI or Pope Francis, the author is correct that papal power is “limited by natural and divine law.”  The pope is the servant of the Word, not its master.

I cannot speak to the overall intent of the article.  I suspect that many of the clashes today signify a failure to trust the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church.  The fact that must be accepted is that popes have jurisdiction over the worship and prayer forms available in the Church.  Just a few years ago, Eucharistic Adoration, which was a long-standing devotion in the Church, was raised to a formal liturgy.  This was done to avoid abuses and to insure certain uniformity.  The late St. John Paul II was criticized by certain traditionalists for raising the host over the chalice (instead of the paten) at the Ecce Agnus Dei.  What they forgot was that the Pope “is” the ROMAN RITE. Historically other local churches imitated the liturgy of Rome even before there were official mandates.  Today, in the Roman Missal (English Translation) used since 2012, the rubrics give the priest the option of raising the host over the chalice instead of the paten— a change rooted in the papal practice. 

While I might prefer freedom in regards to the old or newer form of the liturgy, it is my conviction that the Holy Father has authority over such matters.  We can pray that the shepherds of the Church will exert proper discretion along with compassion.  We can pray that the flock will embrace both humility and obedience in living the faith and in participating in whatever form of worship available to them in the Church.  As a warning, let none disparage the reformed ritual of the Mass as the Spirit is efficacious in the sacrament.  The Mass is the Mass, despite the various accidentals and languages.  It is an unbloody re-presentation of the one-time sacrifice of Christ on Calvary.  The man at the altar, either looking toward us or away, is a sharer in the high priesthood of Christ.  The Eucharist given while we kneel or stand, either on the tongue or in the hand is the real presence of the Risen Christ, body, soul and divinity.    

3 Responses

  1. I think it is well know to every educated Catholic that the Pope’s authority is not unconditional. Also we have seen the example of the Pope Emeritus, which establishes a precedent that a living Pope can resign, willingly or perhaps not so willingly. Of course the final word is from the Lord God, who decides when we will draw our last breath on this earth. There is nothing in the creed that says we believe in the Pope, is there?

    FATHER JOE: The Pope and the councils are the authority that back up the creeds. The Pope is the visible head of the Church. All that Jesus said to Peter as the ROCK of his Church applies to the Pope. We must give obedience to solemnly proclaimed definitions. We must give religious assent to the rest, even if it requires a great deal of soul searching. The Holy Father is the Vicar of Christ. Where we find Peter (the Pope), we find the Church Jesus established and protects.

  2. I have discovered that much of the news we get about Pope Francis is like the old Chinese telephone game— by the time the message reaches you it has been twisted and distorted. Likewise, after his words and actions are filtered through the internet and all the talking heads and self appointed inquisitors, one ends up with the worst possible spin and misrepresentation if his words, actions and intentions. While I am s big fan of the traditional liturgy, I am aware of a lot of poison being spread by those who cloak themselves in traditionalism and seem to reduce the gospel to attending a beautiful liturgy, and become instruments for attacking the pope and dividing the Church, activities which are the hallmarks of the devil’s work. Isn’t that what happened to Jesus too?

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