On this Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, the first Pope and his primary missionary bishop respectively, and in light our current Pope’s new encyclical, I thought a few words on the papacy itself would be helpful, and particularly the often-misunderstood charism of infallibility which goes with the office.
Today’s Gospel reading gives the great commission placed upon Peter by Christ. In response to Our Lord’s question, “Who do you say that I am”,
Peter replied “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”. And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Powerful words. The Church has unpacked our Lord’s intent, through her living Tradition, and one can find the culmination of this teaching in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church from Vatican II, Lumen Gentium (cf., par. #25 especially).
The Pope, from the Latin ‘papa‘, a derivative of ‘pater‘, meaning Father, is called to teach and govern the Church in the name of Christ. Thus, he is often termed the ‘Vicar of Christ’, one who stands in the place of Christ; the Pope is a living link, a mediator, a pontifex (or ‘bridge builder’) between Men and Christ, between heaven and earth.
Although the Pope fulfills this duty with all the strengths, and weaknesses, of himself as a man, he is fortified and elevated by the grace of Christ, especially by what the Church has discerned as the charism of infallibility, always believed by the Church, but defined by the first Vatican Council in 1870, and reiterated by the Second Vatican Council and in the Catechism (CCC, #891).
The Latin term for ‘charism’ is a gratia gratis data, a ‘grace freely given’ by God to fulfill some office or task, primarily to sanctify others (cf., CCC #2003, 2004). That is, the charism of infallibility does not belong to the Pope as a man, but belongs to God, working through the humanity of Christ, present in the office of Peter, but only under certain conditions, so that the Church may be guided without error, in the words of Saint Paul, as the ‘pillar and bulwark of truth’ (1 Tim 3:15).
These conditions were specified in paragraph 25 of the Church’s Constitution from the Second Vatican Council, alluded to above. The Holy Father must be teaching as Pope, to all the faithful, in a definitive manner, on faith and morals. To such teaching, the Catholic faithful must give the ‘assent of faith (fidei obsequio). Much of the Church’s teaching has been defined in this way, as we can read in the Catechism, but clarification continues, and some things are not so clearly defined. Even to non-definitive teaching on faith, morals and, to some extent, the discipline of the Church, the faithful must give ‘religious assent of mind and will’ (religiosum voluntatis et intellectus obsequium).
To other opinions of the Pope, the faithful should give respect, but they are not bound by such, even if they appear in an official document or pronouncement. John Paul II offered his opinion about the injustice of the first Iraq invasion, with which I happened to agree, but we were not bound as Catholics to do so. Benedict XVI thought Mozart the greatest composer, with which I also concur (albeit, I do also love Bach) . And, as mentioned in my last post, we do not have to assent to Francis’ own opinions about climate change. The charism of infallibility does not extend to such.
Our response to papal teaching requires that we use our discernment, our wits, and, in the end, our conscience. Some teachings do bind us, others are there to guide and inspire us. Theology and catechetics, spiritual direction and prayer are some of the ways that help us to put into effect the teaching of the Holy Father and his bishops (especially through the various Councils and synods of the Church).
The office of papacy is part of supernatural revelation. Although there is Scriptural and historical evidence for the Pope acting as the ‘Vicar of Christ’, with all that entails (infallibility, power to govern the Church, choose bishops and so on), ultimately one needs to believe in the office of the papacy by divine faith. To try to disprove the papacy historically is an act of futility, for we believe not on the basis of history (although history may help), but on the authority of Christ Himself. From a worldly, human perspective, it would seem to make more sense to govern the Church by democratic means. Although the Church usually does use such means in her decisions (the Pope has advisers, councils, asks his bishops and faithful before deciding a question, does not usually interfere with the work of his bishops and priests, and so on), at the end of the day, the Pope still has ‘full, supreme, universal power’ (Lumen Gentium, #22) to govern and teach when and how he wills, flowing from the very power of Christ Himself.
Folly? Perhaps, but what is foolish in the eyes of men, is wise to God, and what is weakness to men, is strength to God…
We have been blessed to have had a panoply of saints on the chair of Peter to match the dignity of the office, men of high, indeed unique, intellectual and spiritual virtue. We have not always been so fortunate, although the ‘bad Popes’ are few and far between (and their vices often exaggerated in historical accounts). But no Pope has ever officially, at least as Vicar of Christ, taught error or heresy. God protects us from the weaknesses, foibles and limitations of the bad (and even the good!) men chosen to succeed Saint Peter. For we are all sons of Adam, and all the Popes have had their faults, their pride, their ignorances, their blind spots. The burden of the office of Peter, to carry Christ’s Church, its billion or so adherents, and indeed all men, through the complexities and evils of this world, is great indeed, which is why the vestibule where the new Pope first puts on his robes of office is called the ‘crying room’ or the room of tears.
But we have hope: As Our Lord says to Peter, towards the end of the Gospel of Saint Luke, on the very eve of His Passion when all seemed lost:
Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.
With Christ Himself praying for the Holy Father, what need have we of anxiety? Saint Peter himself said to the first Christians, ‘cast all your cares upon Him, for He cares for you’, and as one of his greatest successors never tired of reminding us, ‘Be not afraid’…
June 29, 2015
Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul