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On “conservative Catholics” and the papacy

Orthodox, conservative Catholics are both ecclesial monarchists and are ecclesial collegialists

Detail from "St. Peter Enthroned with Saints" by Cima da Conegliano (c. 1459-c.1517) []

Maureen Mullarkey’s recent post on Amoris laetita contains a line that bears nuancing not just because it is misleading, and not just because it is widely held, but because getting the principle that underlies it correct would reinforce Mullarkey’s mention of “a bugle call to the faithful to grapple with any pope who takes it upon himself to nullify the episcopate”.

Mullarkey writes“The absolutist temper of a monarchial papacy, in which all authority flows downward from the Chair of Peter, is a cherished model among conservative Catholics.” Hmmm.

If by “conservative Catholics” Mullarkey means conservatives who are Catholic or Catholics who are conservative maybe she’s right. I wouldn’t know. But if by “conservative Catholics” Mullarkey means ‘Catholics who hold demonstrably orthodox views in doctrinal matters and accept the disciplinary consequences that flow from such views’ (which is what I think Mullarkey means), then her assertion that these Catholics ‘cherish’ a model of the papacy according to which “all authority flows down from the Chair of Peter” is seriously deficient.

“Conservative Catholics” are, to be sure, very comfortable with (though they might not be able to quote) Canon 331 as it sets out, among other things, the Roman Pontiff’s “supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church”. They cherish papal power and thank Jesus that He left such authority to St. Peter and his successors. So far, so good.

But well-informed “conservative Catholics” will also know that, perCanon 336, the college of bishops “is also the subject of supreme and full power over the universal Church,” in other words, that there are two foci of “supreme and full power” in the Church, a pope (who can act alone) and a college of bishops (i.e., a pope and the bishops in communion with him who cooperate with each other in a magnificent and mysterious manner distinguishable from a pope acting on his own). It is this second focus of supreme and full power in the Church, one overlooked by Mullarkey but which Francis’ manner of governing is causing prelates and professors alike to begin to re-examine after several decades of post-conciliar quiescence, that bears closer examination—certainly closer than a blog post can offer.

In short, “conservative Catholics” are both ecclesial monarchists and they are ecclesial collegialists; noting the latter aspect of their ecclesiology (theirs, because it is the Church’s), instead of just noting the former, might help Mullarkey to demonstrate how Francis is setting lots of people to thinking about lots of things these days.

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About Edward N. Peters 120 Articles
Edward N. Peters, JD, JCD has doctoral degrees in canon and common law. Since 2005 he has held the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. His personal blog on canon law issues in the news may be accessed at the "In the Light of the Law" site.


  1. Keep writing, Edward Peters. It’s the details that often are rocking this papacy.

    I wonder if there will be a time when I read in CWR that a canon lawyer such as Mr. Peters will have to cross the Rubicon and declare definitively what, at the moment, only seems to appear what this heterodox pope is attempting.

  2. I thought it was fairly obvious that Mullarkey means to distinguish conservative Catholics from traditionalist Catholics (which she basically is now) – as the latter mainly had their ultramontanism beaten out of them in the 60’s and 70’s, or went sedevacantist (the only posture really possible for an ultramontanist traditionalist).

  3. Yes, if ALL of the bishops (including the Pope) unanimously teach a doctrine or exercise a discipline then it is binding on all of the faithful.

    But if the Pope dissents or declines to endorse what all the other bishops say, then it is NOT binding on the faithful. So isn’t that just another way of saying that only the Pope has full supreme authority? Albeit that the advice of the other bishops is invaluable to him.

  4. I realized the loaded language you quoted is designed to deceive the casual Catholic reader into thinking evil of one of the finest unifying principles of Christ’s call to unity in the Church. Thanks for the Article.

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