Pope Francis celebrates the opening Mass of the Synod of Bishops on the family in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Oct. 4. (CNS/Paul Haring)
The avalanche of media coverage of the Synod on the Family cannot be escaped, so rather than try to run from it, perhaps now is the time to try to provide some necessary context to what will (and will not) take place in the next few weeks. To that end, there are two documents that make strikingif today virtually incomprehensibleclaims about what popes cannot do. Keep these documents close to hand and read them regularly between now and the end of the Synod, and quote them liberally to your friends and others who suffer from the common and mistaken view that popes can change anything they want.
Proceeding chronologically, let us go back to Pastor Aeternus of the First Vatican Council. That council (1869-70) is perhaps the most misunderstood of all modern councils insofar as it is generally thought to provide justification for a maximalizing papal authority. In fact it does the opposite: it set clear limitsvery high fences if you willaround papal authority.
In the first place, what is the purpose of papal authority? Why have a pope at all? Protestants don’t. The Orthodox don’t. Why do Catholics? Vatican I makes it clear that papal authority can really only be used for one purpose: unity. Papal authority cannot be used to promote favored papal causes, no matter how noble. It is to be used to keep the Church one and focused on the one true God. Vatican I is extremely clear on this point.
Unlike both Protestants and Orthodox, some of whom almost seem positively to exult in their divisions, and resist every attempt to overcome them, the Catholic Church and the papacy in particular have an almost existential horror of division, and take great measures to prevent doctrinal divisions leading to open schism. Whereas some Lutherans to this day celebrate “Reformation Sunday” in October as a good thing, and some Orthodox to this day exult on the first Sunday of Lent every year in the collapse of the Council of Ferrara-Florence in the fifteenth century (the last council of union between East and West), the Catholic Church must regard both not as days of feasting but as days of fastingdays of penance and sorrow for sins against unity.
This deep and anxious concern to keep the Church united is a heavy burden placed on the papacy. This is clear not only in Vatican I, but also Vatican II, and recent papal documents, including Ut Unum Sint.The pope’s responsibility for unity begins with his brothers in the episcopate.
Thus the pope’s job at the upcoming synod is to ensure that the bishops speak with one voice in proclaiming not their own pet theories about marriages but the orthodox and catholic faith that comes to us from the apostles. Neither he nor they are given charge of Christ’s flock to advance their own agenda. They are to serve the one God who wants his followers to be one (cf. John 17:21ff.). As Pastor Aeternus says:
In order, then, that the episcopal office should be one and undivided and that, by the union of the clergy, the whole multitude of believers should be held together in the unity of faith and communion, he [God] set blessed Peter over the rest of the apostles and instituted in him the permanent principle of both unities and their visible foundation (s.4.4).
Pastor Aeternus is a largely negative document insofar as it says much about what the pope cannot do, which is to say, in highly circumscribed circumstances, he cannot make a mistake when offering a dogmatic statement ex cathedra. Those circumstances are extremely rare. The rest of the time, the pope is offered no such protection and remains on his own: a human being prone to weakness, sin, and error like all of us.
In the 19th century when papal authority was being debated, many people wanted the pope to be able to do a lot more. In the infamous words of W. G. Ward, they wanted to wake up each morning to breakfast along with a copy of that day’s newspaper and that day’s newest encyclical telling them what to do. That groupthe “ultramontane” partylost the battle, and Vatican I adopted a very narrow definition which embarrassed some people.
Pulled into these debates was no less a figure than the towering genius Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, who recognized the dangers of papal expansionism and “creativity” being promoted by his fellow Englishman Cardinal Manning. Newman proudly extolled the opposite virtues: a limited papacy whose point was not to be “creative.” Instead, the sole task of the papacy and its sole attraction was precisely how simply, faithfully, and exactingly it transmitted the tradition as it was received from the apostles. This has always been the charism of the bishop of Rome, as some of the earliest Fatherse.g., St. Irenaeus of Lyonsrecognized and celebrated.
In his ApologiaPro Vita Sua, Newman flatly retorts to his contemporary critics who asserted that the papacy was a reactionary backwater producing no new ideas or insights that such was indeed the point. To use today’s technical language, a dull and unimaginative papacy is a feature, not a bug:
it is one of the reproaches urged against the Church of Rome, that it has originated nothing, and has only served as a sort of remora or break in the development of doctrine. And it is an objection which I embrace as a truth; for such I conceive to be the main purpose of its extraordinary gift.
In other words, the pope is best who does the least; the pope is best who is known the least; the pope is best who is the least among us: the servus servorum Dei whose task is to resist doctrinal innovationsand nothing more. One does not prize “creativity” or “individuality” or “outspokenness about cutting edge issues” in the gospel writer, biblical translator, or the iconographer: their jobs are to hand things on (traditio) as exactingly as they have received them. The same applies to the pope.
This is not just a statement about papal “strategy” or “effectiveness” or even ecumenical appeal: it is a deeply biblical understanding of the pope as being not so much a successor of St. Peter as of St. John the Baptist: “Christ must increase and I must decrease.” The Baptist’s sole job and his only glory is to say “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” We do not need to hear any other message from him than this. Any other message, in fact, would be counter-productive and confusing.
Another elegant and witty English Anglican-cum-Catholic of our own day, Fr. John Hunwicke, has recently put it in memorable fashion when he has said that we expect far too much from modern popes when we expect them to proffer views on every topic. “But they are not what the Papacy is about. At base, the Pope is the (life-saving) man who goes around sticking into the ground the notices which say BEWARE OF MINES. It gets dangerous when people start to expect much more of a Pope than this.”
Both Hunwicke and Newman are here faithfully reflecting what Pastor Aeternus says: “the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might…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” (s4.c4.6; my emphasis). In other words, if popes wanteven with bishops in synod egging them onto try to invent new doctrine, or “reform” existing doctrine in such a way that it becomes new for all intents and purposes (what Newman would have called a corruption rather than an authentic development), they are on their own. They are not acting with the authority of the Church or their office; they are ultra vires.
This question of being without, or outside, authority, is at the heart of how popes (including Francis on his return flight from the US) have handled the repeated demands of the world, and worldly-minded Catholics, to ordain women. In 1994, Pope John Paul II’s document Ordinatio Sacerdotalis phrased it very bluntly. Basing itself on the 1976 declaration authorized by Pope Paul VI, which said that the Church “does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination,” John Paul II concluded his own wonderfully terse and succinct statement (would that more papal documents were this short and clear!) by flatly saying “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women” (no.4).
In other words, the pope couldn’t do it even if he wanted to. His office, together with the Church, has limits, and this is one of them. The Church has no authority. This phrase, compelling in its brevity and bluntness, is nonetheless virtually incomprehensible to many today. We live, as many have noted, in a voluntaristic age where truth is not discerned from the reality of things but is invented by a determination of the will. If I determine that I am really a woman, then nature’s endowments must be surgically altered to conform to “my truth.” If the pope determined that gays can get married in the Catholic Church, then that must be the truththe pope said so!
But the Church has no authority. Why? Because Christ has given her none. The Church can only act with the authority of Christ or she ceases to exist. Everything the Church does and sayseverythingmakes sense and is trustworthy only insofar as it comes from Christ. Nothing can be done apart from Christ. Like Peter on the water, the moment the Church and churchmen take their eyes off the Lord and no longer rely totally on His word, they have neither authority nor life but will sink to a watery grave.