Pope Francis and the Limits of Papal Authority

Screenshot 2018-05-21 at 10.29.44 - Edited

The above image is a screenshot of the Drudge Report on the morning of 21 May 2018, which is the staple source of breaking news in the United States and around the world. Basically, the Drudge Report compiles leading news headlines around the globe and aggregates them onto a single one-page source with clickable links to each story. It’s been around over at least twenty years now, and has become the primary way most informed Americans get their news in a quick daily summary. If you see something headlined on the Drudge Report, you can rest assured it is now mainstream news at the highest level. There is no way to bury, hide or ignore it. More people will know about it, after reading it on Drudge, then they will from watching the six o’clock news on any major television network. In fact, it’s likely the television network will use Drudge Report to compile their evening news agenda.

The headline on Drudge today links to the following story from the Los Angeles Times. The story alleges that Pope Francis was speaking to a gay man who was a victim of priestly sexual abuse in Chile. (This is probably the main reason why the poor fellow is homosexual now. Many boys who are sexually abused as minors grow up to become gay. It is believed by many that homosexuality can become part of the psychological damage caused by underage sexual abuse.) The story alleges that Pope Francis told the homosexual man: “God made you that way and loves you as you are.”

Here’s the problem. God did not make people with same-sex attraction (homosexual temptation), because God is not the author of temptation. There is no definitive scientific evidence that people are genetically predisposed to same-sex attraction, but even if they are (which is scientifically unproven) it would be the result of mankind’s fall from grace, otherwise known as original sin. It would be a defect in the genetic code, a corruption caused by original sin, and not by the hand of God’s creative power. God may have allowed it to happen, but he certainly did not make it happen. To say that he did, is to say that God tempts people to commit sin. So if Pope Francis actually said “God made you that way” in reference to a man’s homosexuality, then it would appear that Pope Francis is saying that God made you to be tempted by this sin, and thus, God is playing the role of Satan and tempting you.

While we must acknowledge that this is the mainstream media, and the mainstream media are prone to exaggerate what the pope says, especially when it pushes the liberal agenda they themselves support, we must at the same time acknowledge that it is entirely possible the pope really did say this. I do not object to the pope telling a gay man that God loves him. God loves all people. What I object to is the pope telling a gay man that “God made you that way.” That is to imply that God made him to sin, that God himself is tempting him to sin, and perhaps that even God supports the sin.

If true, this is heresy. If the pope really did say this, then I must distance myself from him, and plainly say I reject this teaching. If the pope really did say this, it is within my right, as a Catholic, to reject this particular teaching of the pope when the pope plainly and obviously contradicts the Catholic faith. Popes are not gods, and no pope can change established Catholic doctrine. No Catholic is required to accept known heresy, even if the pope preaches it. We can only hope and pray the pope has been misquoted here.

I wouldn’t put it beyond the media to misquote the pope, but at the same time, based on the history of this pope, I wouldn’t put it past Francis to say something like this. That is the problem. Pope Francis has been “all over the map” with his “off the cuff” statements, press conferences, and cold calls to random people, it really isn’t so unbelievable to accept that the pope could have said something like this. In the history of the Church, never before has such a situation been the case. Pope Francis truly has created chaos in the Catholic Church, leaving the faithful in a situation where they truly cannot say with any certainty what the pope believes any more.

The whole purpose of the office of the papacy is to confirm the faithful in the belief and practice of Catholicism. That means his job is to be unapologetically Catholic, and encourage faithful Catholics to be the same way. Granted, we all know that the pope has certain pastoral sensitivities that he must be mindful of, in more ways than the common man, or even the common priest, and this means he must be more sensitive than the common man or the common priest. However, at the same time, he must never say or do things that blatantly contradict the Catholic faith, especially in such a way that encourages the faithful to say or do the same.

When we run into statements like this, allegedly from Pope Francis (or any pope), we should do the following…

  1. Question the validity of the quote. It may not be accurate.
  2. If the quote is accurate, then we must learn the context. Often papal quotes are taken out of context, especially in the mainstream media.
  3. If the quote is accurate and in context, we must then ask ourselves, does it violate known Catholic practice. Sometimes the mainstream press will try to sell something the pope said or did as some kind of “new” thing, when it fact it’s nothing new at all, or it’s just a variation of what the Church has always taught or allowed. For example; the press might say: “BREAKING: Pope allows Catholics to drink alcohol.” When in fact, the Church has always allowed this, and there is nothing new here at all. Strangely enough, this sort of thing happens quite a bit.
  4. If the quote is accurate, and in context, and it does indeed violate known Catholic practice, then we must ask, is it a doctrine or a discipline? The pope can change Church discipline. That is within his scope of authority. For example, priests wearing clerical collars is a discipline not a doctrine. The pope could change that if he wants to. On a higher level of discipline, priests in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church, with very few exceptions, must remain celibate and cannot marry. Likewise, the Latin Rite of the Church only ordains celibate and unmarried men to the priesthood, with very few exceptions. The pope could change this if he wants, because it is just a discipline not a doctrine. He could allow the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church to ordain married men in much higher frequency if he wants to because it is just a discipline, and it is within his scope of authority to change Church discipline.
  5. However, if the quote is accurate, in context, violates known Catholic practice, and the practice it violates is a known Catholic doctrine (not a discipline), then it can rightly be said that the quote is in error (or heresy) even if it was the pope himself who said it.

The pope is a very powerful man in the Catholic Church, because of the authority he wields. A pope can appoint bishops and fire them at will. He can change canon law. He can change discipline. And he can even change the very face of the Catholic Church in many ways. A pope can canonise Saints, by infallibly declaring they are in heaven. The pope can also settle disputes, and clarify Catholic teaching on his own accord. On rare occasions, the pope can even make infallible statements that clarify a Church teaching beyond dispute, elevating a doctrine to a dogma. However, there is one thing he cannot do. He cannot reverse established Catholic doctrine. He doesn’t have that authority or that power. He never did and he never will. This is the limitation of the office of the papacy. Popes can clarify Catholic doctrine, but they cannot reverse them. If the Church has always taught that a certain act is a sin, then a pope does not have the power or authority to reverse that and say it is no longer a sin.

Furthermore, if any pope ever tries to do this, it is the obligation of all faithful Catholics to oppose him on this teaching, or at the very least, simply ignore him. To do any less would be the same as assenting to heresy and becoming heretics ourselves.

Can a pope commit heresy? That seems to be the dominant question for over the last couple-hundred years at least. I believe the answer is yes. It is possible for a pope to commit heresy and even try to teach it as if it were Catholic teaching.

“What about infallibility?” Some might ask. The teaching on papal infallibility came about as a result of the First Vatican Council (AD 1869-1870) which limited papal infallibility to ex cathedra (Latin: “from the chair”) statements on matters of faith and morals only. Since then, ex cathedra has only been used twice (Munificentissimus Deus in 1950, and Ordinatio Sacerdotalis in 1994), and the second time was more of a passive use. Outside of these two documents, no pope has defined any decree infallibly, using his ex cathedra authority. Infallibility is an important part of papal authority, but it is rarely ever used. The overwhelming vast majority of papal acts, encyclicals, proclamations and statements are not made with the invocation of infallibility (ex cathedra) and this most certainly applies to random “off the cuff” statements made by Pope Francis. Probably, the one thing most popes do, which can be considered infallible, is the canonisation of Saints. This is an area of infallibility that falls outside the normal ex cathedra limitation.

Nevertheless, the pope is the supreme pastor of the Church, which means everything he says must be taken seriously. Just because popes rarely invoke ex cathedra infallibility, that doesn’t mean their teachings can be dismissed. As supreme pastor, the pope must be listened to with even more attention than one would listen to the teachings of his own priest or bishop. Yet it is because he cannot be dismissed, that anything he says contradictory to the established faith must be examined carefully. If he is found to be in contradiction with established Church doctrine on a particular matter, we have a significant problem.

When a pope goes rogue, venturing into areas that are outside his authority, such as reversing Catholic teaching, Catholics are bound to either oppose him or ignore him on that particular teaching he has attempted to reverse. If indeed, Pope Francis has actually said what the press is reporting he said, and it is in the context they are reporting, then we must ask the following question. Is Pope Francis suggesting that God, through his creative powers, designs people with a genetic predisposition to commit the sin of homosexuality, and thus by that creative act tempts people to commit sin?

If the answer is in the affirmative, then yes, the pope has committed heresy, and he must be opposed and/or ignored on this teaching. If the answer is in the negative, then the pope has been horribly misquoted, and confusion abounds around his papacy. It is therefore his responsibility as the Successor of St Peter to correct it as soon as possible.

I haven’t been a Catholic for that long. It’s still been less than twenty years. However, I believe I can accurately say that under the pontificates of Pope St John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI we never had this problem. In the case of both of those popes, we always knew (beyond the shadow of a doubt) that the pope is Catholic. I could say with absolute certainty that Pope St John Paul II believed everything written in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The same went for Pope Benedict XVI. So when the Catechism calls homosexual acts a sin, I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that both popes believed that. They confirmed my own faith this way. Any suggestion to the contrary would have been laughable.

The problem with Pope Francis is that nobody’s laughing. When the press tells us that Pope Francis said God, through his creative power, makes homosexuality and therefore tempts people to commit homosexual acts, we are left not laughing but silent. We are left unsure. We are left in doubt. We just don’t know. Did he really say that? That, my friends, is the problem with the Francis pontificate.

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