More Papal than the Pope

The election of Pope Francis has lured from their lairs a number of Catholics who are more papal than the pope. I am referring to the  bloggers and commentators who are quite sure that they know better than the pope what true Catholic doctrine is and its correct liturgical expression. They tend to be selective about their acceptance of the Councils of the Church and condemn the present successor of St Peter, along with several of his predecessors, to the circle of hell reserved for heretics and obstinate preachers against truth. Overstated? Yes, but I want to make a point, and at least that has got you reading.

Every Catholic knows that the doctrine of Infallibility applies to the office of pope, not his person, and is so ringed round with qualifications and caveats that it has only once been invoked since it was formally proclaimed. Not everything, therefore, that a pope says or does is to be regarded as ‘authoritative’. There is, however, a long tradition in the Church of receiving the teaching of popes and bishops with respect. Sometimes, however, respect seems to be the last thing anyone thinks about. During the last few weeks we have seen something of a divide along soi-disant conservative and liberal lines.

The so-called liberals have hailed every act of Pope Francis as a breath of fresh air, a return to the days of good Pope John. The so-called conservatives have quailed before every liturgical change and muttered darkly about infidelity. In my simple way, I think the liberals will be disappointed and the conservatives find they have nothing to fear. The pope doesn’t make it up as he goes along. There is a deposit of faith which he articulates; and the Holy Spirit is the ultimate guarantor of the Church’s fidelity to the truth. That doesn’t mean, of course, that there won’t be changes which some will find heartening and others dispiriting. In fact, it is a guarantee that there will be change. ‘Behold, I am doing a new thing’ is true in every generation; so, something to please the liberals and appall the conservatives after all? Perhaps. I’m not a soothsayer.

What really interests me is this. When did people start to think that they could call themselves loyal Catholics but believe the pope and bishops to be in error? That cuts both ways, across both liberals and conservatives. We have liberals believing they can do anything, especially if they invoke ‘pastoral necessity’, and conservatives believing that they can condemn anything, especially if it has ‘Vatican II’ anywhere in its make-up. It is a rather odd situation. I myself think it is fundamentally unCatholic, but then, I disappoint my liberal friends by being a traditionalist, and my conservative friends by sitting more lightly to maniples and birettas than they.

I write this with a smile, as befits a Saturday morning post, but underneath there is a serious question. The unity of the Church is a mark of her Catholicity. We all have a duty to preserve that unity, whatever labels we want to give ourselves. Might it be time we asked whether we do or not?

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