What should faithful Catholics do if their bishop (or worse, the pope) started preaching something contrary to the Catholic faith? That’s the question that Rev. Hans, a Lutheran pastor from Kansas City, asked me in response to yesterday’s post:
Luther’s 95 Theses
What happens if the Pope is not loyal to the gospel? What if a bishop is not loyal to the gospel? There does not seem to be much recourse built into the Catholic faith if the Pope or a Bishop is not loyal to the gospel. This is where the obedience practice of the Roman Church is a major problem for my understanding of the gospel. The Pope demands the loyalty/obedience of the bishops. The bishops demand loyalty/obedience of the priests. It is a rather feudal structure. How can we be loyal to the gospel and to the man (bishop or Pope) that we have sworn obedience to at the same time?
This is not some “Devil’s Advocate” question because this is one of my major issues with the Roman Church. How can we be loyal to the gospel when we have already sworn obedience to a bishop? I understand that this does not always conflict and that there are many faithful and good men serving the church. But this is one of those issues where I see a member of the church or a local priest being caught between two masters (Matthew 6:24).
Strangely, I think that this is my first post squarely on the subject. Let me sketch the Catholic view out very basically, then.
I. We are Family
|Raphael. Portrait of Pope Leo X
with Cardinals Giulio de’ Medici
and Luigi de’ Rossi. (1519)
Rev. Hans is right that there are some “feudal” elements to the view, but the most helpful lens for understanding obedience and the hierarchy is a family (And frankly, it’s fitting that a religion in which we worship our “Lord” and “Father” has feudal and familial elements).
When we talk about the Church as a family, we’re not doing so in some vague Sister Sledge sense. We’re meaning something concrete, but which can only understand by analogy. We mean it when we say that God is our Father, and the Church is our Mother. In fact, to the extent that this is an analogy, it’s in the opposite direction: in Ephesians 3:14-15, St. Paul says that “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family [lit. “fatherhood”] in heaven and on earth derives its name.” Did you catch that? The Trinity is the truest Family. All other families are just derivatives and imitations, that give us a glimpse into what God (and His relationship to us) is like.
So the Church is a family at every level. The relationship between a priest and his flock is a paternal one, as is the relationship between a bishop and his priests, and the Church is our Mater et Magistra (Mother and Teacher). She nourishes us, cares for us, and disciplines us when we screw up. If you really grasp this notion of Church, hopefully everything else that I say about obedience will be obvious.
I’m assuming up front that Rev. Hans and I agree that children should honor and obey their parents (Ephesians 6:1; Exodus 20:12), but that this doesn’t extend to denying or acting against the Gospel (cf. Matthew 10:34-36). So the first thing I’d say is: determine if our grievance is prudential or not. Is this an issue on which Christians can take either side without one being objectively wrong? Having said that, let’s address each in turn.
|Carlo Saraceni, Gregory the Great (1610)|
As Catholics, we believe that the Church can speak infallibly both as a collective whole (Mt. 18:15-18), and through the successor Peter (Mt. 16:17-19). This means that anything that is dogmatically defined, either by a Church Council or by the pope, is settled. We trust these statements because we trust the Holy Spirit, and we trust the Father, who sent the Holy Spirit, and we trust Jesus Christ, in Whose Name the Father sent the Spirit to lead the Church into all truth (John 14:26). So these dogmatic definitions literally cannot be wrong, because God is True.
But infallibility doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit protects every word that comes from the mouth of a pope (The First Vatican Council has specifically defined those contexts in which the pope is speaking infallibly). I know of one clear example in which a pope was wrong about an issue of faith and morals, but you have to go back to the 14th century to find it. Pope John XXII was wrong on the question of whether souls experience the Beatific Vision prior to the Final Judgment (a question that had not been formally settled by the Church at that time, but on which there was already broad agreement). As the Catholic Encyclopedia explains:
Before his elevation to the Holy See, [Pope John XXII] had written a work on this question, in which he stated that the souls of the blessed departed do not see God until after the Last Judgment. After becoming pope, he advanced the same teaching in his sermons. In this he met with strong opposition, many theologians, who adhered to the usual opinion that the blessed departed did see God before the Resurrection of the Body and the Last Judgment, even calling his view heretical.
Pope John XXII (1316-1334)
A great commotion was aroused in the University of Paris when the General of the Minorites and a Dominican tried to disseminate there the pope’s view. Pope John wrote to King Philip IV on the matter (November, 1333), and emphasized the fact that, as long as the Holy See had not given a decision, the theologians enjoyed perfect freedom in this matter.
In December, 1333, the theologians at Paris, after a consultation on the question, decided in favour of the doctrine that the souls of the blessed departed saw God immediately after death or after their complete purification; at the same time they pointed out that the pope had given no decision on this question but only advanced his personal opinion, and now petitioned the pope to confirm their decision. John appointed a commission at Avignon to study the writings of the Fathers, and to discuss further the disputed question. In a consistory held on 3 January, 1334, the pope explicitly declared that he had never meant to teach aught contrary to Holy Scripture or the rule of faith and in fact had not intended to give any decision whatever. Before his death he withdrew his former opinion, and declared his belief that souls separated from their bodies enjoyed in heaven the Beatific Vision.
- The theologians were quick to object to the improper teaching, and in an appropriate manner. They responded to the pope, rather than trying to bash him in the court of public opinion. But they still publicly made it clear that Catholics shouldn’t deny that souls enjoy the Beatific Vision;
- The pope made clear that he was not speaking in a Magisterial capacity;
- The theologians explained why the pope’s view was wrong; and
- The pope retracted his view.
- After his death, his successor, Pope Benedict XII, quickly settled the matter in a papal encyclical, Benedictus Deus, in 1336.
Joan d’Arc being interrogated (1824)
Ironically, Luther would latter “unsettle” the issue by teaching the doctrine of “soul sleep,” but that’s a topic for another discussion. In any case, those five steps are the ideal of what should happen in the case of a Church leader (from the pope on down) teaching something contrary to the faith. Indeed, while it is incredibly rare to have a situation in which the pope is in need of theological correction, it’s less rare among ordinary bishops and priests. To the greatest extent possible, these situations should be handled with zeal for souls, charity, prudence, and humility. We should all strive to have the guts of Pope John XXII, who could admit to being wrong.
Unlike prudential issues (which I’ll get to shortly), we need to be prepared to face any earthly consequence in defending the objective truth. Here, consider the case of St. Joan of Arc. She was falsely accused of heresy, and the Bishop of Paris excommunicated her. Rather than deny the truth, she was burnt at the stake as a heretic. Not long after, the pope ordered an inquiry into her execution, and declared her innocent. She was ultimately canonized, numbered among the Saints of Heaven.
Rutilio Manetti, St. Catherine of Siena (c. 1625)
“be a manly man…wanting to live in peace is often the greatest cruelty. When the boil has come to a head it must be cut with the lance and burned with fire and if that is not done, and only a plaster is put on it the corruption will spread and that is often worse than death. I wish to see you as a manly man so that you may serve the Bride of Christ (the church and its people) without fear, and work spiritually and temporally for the glory of God according to the needs of that sweet Bride in our times.”
What I just laid out is something of a worst-case scenario: a bishop orders you to do something morally evil, or the pope gives a sermon in which he says something incompatible with Catholicism. But while this is all theoretically possible, most of the disputes between Catholics and their leaders are cases in which (1) the complaining Catholics are objectively in the wrong, or (2) the matter is one of prudence, left up to the bishop to decide. So don’t just assume because you would do things differently than Pope Benedict or your bishop that you’re right. For most of us, in the vast majority of cases, the opposite will be true.