In Pope Paul VI’s 1967 social encyclical, Populorum Progressio, he writes:
4. Before We became pope, We traveled to Latin America (1960) and Africa (1962). There We saw the perplexing problems that vex and besiege these continents, which are otherwise full of life and promise. On being elected pope, We became the father of all men. We made trips to Palestine and India, gaining first-hand knowledge of the difficulties that these age-old civilizations must face in their struggle for further development. Before the close of the Second Vatican Council, providential circumstances allowed Vs to address the United Nations and to plead the case of the impoverished nations before that distinguished assembly.
To put it bluntly, the paragraph reads like Paul had multiple personalities, or is trying to signal to us that there’s… another pope! But don’t worry: it’s not crazy-talk. It’s just another usage of the papal “We,” the tendency of popes to refer to themselves in the first-person plural.
The papal We, when I first heard it, made me uncomfortable. It seemed self-aggrandizing, and sounded like a man who’d forgotten his role as spiritual father in his clamoring for royalist trappings. It turns out, I had things entirely backwards.
I Who’s the Author of the Bible?
To understand the basis for the papal We, consider this question: who is the author of the Bible? Or more specifically, let’s take the Book of Revelation. Who’s the author? Well, in a certain sense, it’s John, obviously: he says as much in Revelation 1:9. But we also know that the Revelation is inspired, and therefore, “comes from God,” or is “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16). So it’s accurate to say “John wrote Revelation” and “the Holy Spirit wrote Relevation.” The writing is done harmoniously. Christ’s teachings are the same way: when He speaks, He speaks not just for Himself, but for the Father who sent Him. He says as much repeatedly, as in John 7:17. Christ and the Father are a “We,” because they act as One. And when John (or any of the others) and the Spirit are operating in perfect harmony in the writing of Sacred Scripture, they operate as One as well. Not the same Oneness which the Trinity enjoys, a Oneness in Being, but a Oneness in Unity, of the sort which Christ compares to Trinitarian Unity in John 17:22-23.
II. The Biblical and Theological Basis of the Papal We
The Biblical roots for the papal We comes from the St. Matthew’s account of the temple tax in Matthew 17:24-27,
After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the
two-drachma tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple
tax?” “Yes, he does,” he replied.
When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own sons or from others?” “From others,” Peter answered.
“Then the sons are exempt,” Jesus said to him. “But so that we may not offend them, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.”
The passage seems pretty benign, but to the careful and thoughtful reader, it’s incredibly potent. (I should note, I suppose, that I am not that careful and thoughtful reader: I learned of this from listening to one of Abp. Fulton Sheen’s talks). God, the Almighty, the Eternal Son, is calling Himself and the sinful and lowly mortal Peter “We.” It’s not “you and I,” but “We.” No longer two distinct units, but one, connected, first-person plural.
What makes this all the more outstanding is that Jesus never does this other than this passage. We see sinful men using the “we” in conjunction with other sinful men (Acts 15:10 is a characteristic example), and we see Jesus saying things like (John 14:23), “If anyone loves Me, he will obey My teaching. My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him. ” This is the continual pattern from Genesis (e.g., Gen. 3:22) onwards, with this one exception.
Even more incredibly, the final part of the passage, “My tax and yours” refers to Peter in the singular. So the one time in the entire Bible that God (or anyone) refers to God and man as “we” isn’t to the entire world, or even the entire Church, but to just one man: Peter.
There are only a few other passages in the New Testament that come anywhere close to this, and they all refer to the relation between Christ and His Body, the Church, or between the Holy Spirit and the Church. So is Acts 15:28, where the Council of Jerusalem, made up of the Church hierarcy at Council, says, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us …”. There are a few differences: the Council distinguishs Itself from the Holy Spirit, even while speaking on His behalf. That distinguishing isn’t done in Acts 9:4, where Jesus refers to the Church simply as “Me,” or in 1 Corinthians 12:27, where Paul says “you [plural] are the Body of Christ” to his readers.
So membership in the Church makes us collectively, in some sense, part of a grand Christian We. But the only individudal who can claim that We is the pope, as successor to St. Peter.
The reason for this isn’t that Peter’s a god, obviously. Rather, it’s that Peter is to represent Christ in a particular way unique from the other Eleven and anyone else. He will be the living representative of the Church, and in a unique way, the Vicar of Christ, speaking on His behalf. Through his exhortations and teachings, he’s called in a particular way, even beyond the way that a Scripture-writer like St. John the Revelator, to represent and operate in perfect Spirit-protected harmony with Christ.
So when a pope writes, “We define and declare,” for example, he means “God and I define and declare.” And if that seems like an awfully bold claim, it is. But it’s no bolder than saying “it seems good to the Holy Spirit and us.”
III. The Royal We
So there’s a pretty solid theological basis for the pope speaking as We in his public teachings. He’s not teaching simply what he, as an individual, thinks or desires. Frequently, he may find himself called to do or say something he’s not totally comfortable with. He’s teaching what the Spirit calls him to teach.
Now what about the royal We, the one we’re more used to? If you’re not familiar, royalty does the same thing as the papacy: as when Queen Victoria famously signified her disdain by saying, “We are not amused.” In fact, it’s more broadly used than simply royalty: Margaret Thatcher perhaps more famously said, “We have become a grandmother,” a phrase many found amusing. So far as I can tell, the usage of the term began out of a theory of the divine right of kings. That is, that since the king operates as God’s instrument (Rom. 13:1; Rom. 13:4), the king, like the pope, operates on God’s behalf, and has an equally unique oneness with the Lord.
Whatever the basis, it’s pretty clear that instead of the papacy trying to imitate royalty, royalty was trying to imitate the papacy, attempting to co-opt the papal union with God in support of a grand view of the state. This result is fairly ironic, given that the passage in which the papal we was born involves Jesus distinguishing Himself and Peter from the “kings of the earth.”
In reading up on this, I found an Anglican claiming that:
The Catholics stole the Royal WE and incorporated it into their organization. This is because they wanted to elevate themselves to the level of royalty so they could communicate with the royalty on equal terms, pun intended. So if you noticed that when J2P2 [sic] died a couple of years ago, they referred to the bishops who would elect the new pope as the “princes of the church”. This, BTW, was the first time I had ever heard of the bishops being referred to as princes. So this is the papal WE.
This gets it entirely backwards. First, Cardinals have been referred to as “Princes of the Church” for centuries, but that’s irrelevant. The pope didn’t have to embrace royal language to speak with the royalty on equal terms. Those men who wished to be considered kings had to contend with the powerful papacy. Just think about it historically: which is older? The English crown or the papal one? Or replace “English” with any other nationality; you get the point.
And as for my original fear that what I thought was an attempt by the pope to embrace royal pomp at the expense of true spiritual fatherhood turned out to be completely reversed from the truth as well. As Pope Paul VI says, “On being elected pope, We became the father of all men.” It’s as the spiritual father of all the living that the pope claims this We, not otherwise.
Again, this is all Biblical. In Ephesians 3:14-15, there’s one of the best passages explaining why priests are called Father, and the pope called Pope (or Papa): “I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name – or – from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth derives its name. ” The pope is only the pope, because he derives his power and authority from our Heavenly Papa, God. Instead of the “we” drawing him away from spiritual fatherhood, it’s the only thing drawing him into it.