Pope Francis released his papal exhortation Amoris laetitia earlier this month. As expected, he upset many traditional Latins and confused many more. I am not going to comment on the document, which I have not read—the commentaries of others suffice for my purposes. Rather, I would like to share a link to Rorate Caeli’s reaction: “More Catholic than the pope.” I highly recommend that you read the entire post, but here is a lengthy selection:
. . . As explained in the First Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution Pastor Aeternus, the Church firmly holds that “the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles.”
The Catholic Faith is not something invented anew by each pope according to his own opinions, predilections, understanding, or whims. The pope is only good as a “yardstick” when he formally teaches in accordance to “the Faith once delivered unto the saints,” as St. Jude the Apostle wrote.
When Pope Liberius assented to the unjust excommunication of St. Athanasius the Great, and signed off on an ambiguous creedal formula that could be accommodated to the Arian or semi-Arian heresies, every faithful Catholic was then “more Catholic than the pope.”
When Pope Honorius I uttered false theological opinions and failed to correct and condemn the Monothelite heretics, every faithful Catholic was then “more Catholic than the pope.” Indeed, they were so much more Catholic than Honorius that the Church posthumously condemned him as a heretic, a decision that Honorius’ successor St. Leo II approved. “We anathematize the inventors of the new error, that is, Theodore, Sergius, ... and also Honorius, who did not attempt to sanctify this Apostolic Church with the teaching of Apostolic tradition, but by profane treachery permitted its purity to be polluted.” For most of the Church’s history, priests praying their Office repeated the anathema pronounced against Pope Honorius.
When Pope Stephen VII desecrated the remains of Pope Formosus during the hideously shameful Synodus Horrenda (the “Cadaver Synod”), every Catholic who strove to practice justice and who respected the sanctity of the human body was then “more Catholic than the pope.”
When Pope John XII effectively “turned the Lateran palace into a brothel,” as contemporary historians so colorfully put it, and when Pope Benedict IX gave himself over to unchastity and bloodshed, every faithful Catholic who strove to cultivate the virtues of chastity, purity, mercy, and peace in their personal conduct was then “more Catholic than the pope.”
When Pope John XXII preached in his sermons the error that the faithful departed do not enjoy the Beatific Vision until after Judgment Day at the end of the world, every faithful Catholic was then “more Catholic than the pope”—and the loud and outraged cry of the faithful against him led him to retract his error, and his successor then infallibly defined John XXII’s opinion as heresy.
Papal infallibility doesn’t mean papal impeccability or papal omniscience. The obligations of docility and obedience do not extend so far that one must stand on one’s head and cross one’s eyes in order to see how a scandalous, erroneous papal utterance is in fact true after all. Most of what a pope says is not infallible, and papal authority has never extended to having the right to introduce teachings and laws that contradict or go counter to the Faith. It’s no dishonor or disrespect or disobedience to the Holy Father to point out and to believe those truths of the Catholic Faith.
Words fail me. Ever since my Jesuit undergrad. days, people have called me a liar and a fool for mentioning Honorius and for making the points laid out so well by Confitebor on Rorate Caeli. These accusers have tended to be the most enthusiastic Latin traditionalists, and their extreme ultramontanism horrified me and confirmed decision to stay away from the Roman Church. In truth, I sympathized with my estranged Christian brethren and excused their commitment to papism since, during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, one could understandably believe that the Bishop of Rome alone kept the Latins from going over their cliff in a crowded clown-mass car. Yet, I knew that it was the previous popes who had veered off course to begin with, and I have always found the Latin insistence on papal infallibility either unintelligible or objectionable (or both). Why would any group of people trust their treasure to such fragile hands? Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man—successor to Peter or not! The apostolic patrimony is too precious to hand over to any man—or generation.
The Latin contention is, most fundamentally, that the buck (of resolving disputes) must stop somewhere. Hence, the pope must exercise a superepiscopal role with some sort of infallibility (to settle those disputes). For the Lord would not leave his ignorant, straying. foolish sheep without a shepherd, or so they believe. For the same reason, the Latins have centuries’ worth of experience in categorizing every conceivable sin and proper penance—the Good Shepherd would want every aspect of ovine husbandry listed and specified! The Romans have a massive global bureaucracy to manage their Christian flock, and they had specialized “think tanks” for ages before any modern secularist considered them. For the Church must have an answer for every thing—a detailed formula for salvation, a comprehensive jurisprudence that deals with every matter of life, positions on this or that issue in the domains of morality, science, politics, anthropology—you name it. The resulting edifice is impressive, and I certainly do not object to progress in knowledge or to Christians’ attempting to redeem the time here on earth to make the world better. I’m a tikkun olam kind of Christian, after all. What I find objectionable, however, is the blurring of apostolic authority on the fundamental doctrines of the faith with the theologoumena and philosophical theorizing of Christians, hierarchs or otherwise. Mission creep has affected the Roman episcopate in such a monumental way! It is no wonder the Protestants rebelled against this ridiculous shackling of the human mind—and their heirs continue to do so in ever more bizarre and demonic ways. The West’s obsessive compulsive need for the resolution of all questions—indeed, even of life in its totality!—has fouled the reputation of authority and tradition and led to (or at least helped to ignite) the Satanic reaction of the modern world.
We live in a fallen world: life is hard, truth is difficult to grasp, and ignorance is the default position for the human mind most of the time. We must work with what we have—and the Lord has amply provided us gifts—but the proper path for man is not obvious. There is no desk (or cathedra) where the buck of human questioning must stop. We are social animals, and it is folly to disregard the wisdom of previous ages and of one’s betters. Nonetheless, each human soul must struggle to conform to truth, goodness, and beauty to the extent possible. The result is messy, but that is how it must be until the eschaton. No counterfeit Gospel can resolve the contradictions of the human heart. The Almighty has left us no demigod to guide our every step; the Golden Age is long past. So, the basic papist argument fails the reality test. Our fallen world is one where we cannot resolve all our questions and disputes with surety. Rather, it is one where the seeking man finds much providential assistance along his way, though he never is absolutely certain of where he is at any given moment while his travels persist. His only consolation, besides the splendor and beauty of the landscape along the path, is that he has enough tools to know that he is generally headed in the right direction.
With that said, I think that Pope Francis might indeed provide the latest occasion for one of those undeserved divine gifts. Perhaps, someone like him is necessary to correct Rome’s ultramontanism—a prerequisite step for a possible future reconciliation between the East and the West. An odd gift, one might think, but providence often appears inscrutable until we examine it in hindsight. Similarly, the turmoil following the Second Vatican Council has been very instructive to the Orthodox. The Latins have been the blue whale in the coal mine of modernity, so to speak. In both cases, the Christian West’s contemporary hemorrhaging might be the painful though necessary trauma that will eventually lead to the restoration of Christian unity. Even the best Physician must sometimes amputate a mutilated or diseased limb to save the body.