The Chair of Peter, St. Peter’s, Rome; Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680)
THE papacy of Pope Francis is one that has been dogged from nearly the beginning with controversy after controversy. The Catholic world—in fact, the world at large—is not used to the style of the man who presently holds the keys of the Kingdom. Pope John Paul II was no different in his desire to be with and among the people, touching them, sharing their meals, and lingering in their presence. But the papal saint was also very precise whenever he addressed matters pertaining to “faith and morals”, as was Benedict XVI.
Not so their successor. Pope Francis is unafraid to take on any question from the media, including those outside the mandate of the Church on matters of “faith and morals”, and address them in the most colloquial terms, and sometimes, with open-ended thoughts. This has forced many a listener, myself included, to make sure that the entire context of his thoughts are taken into consideration. Sometimes this means going over more than one interview, homily, or papal document. But it must go beyond that. Any teaching of the Holy Father must be understood in the context of the entire body of Catholic teaching called Sacred Tradition derived from the “deposit of faith.”
For the papacy is not one pope. It is the voice of Peter throughout the centuries.
THE VOICE OF PETER
The primacy of the Pope is rooted in Sacred Scripture when Jesus declared to Peter alone that he was the “rock” on which He would build His Church. And to Peter alone, He gave the “keys of the Kingdom.”
But Peter died, while the Kingdom did not. And so, the “office” of Peter was handed on to another, as were the offices of all the Apostles after their deaths.
May another take his office. (Acts 1:20)
What these successors were charged with was handing on the “apostolic faith”, all that Jesus entrusted to the Apostles, and to…
…stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours. (2 Thessalonians 2:15; cf. Matt 28:20)
As the centuries unfolded, the early Church grew with an unshakable understanding that they were custodians of the Faith, not its inventors. And with that conviction, there also grew a deeper comprehension of the indispensable role of the successor of Peter. In fact, what we see in the early Church is not an exaltation of the individual man, but of the “office” or “chair of Peter.” In the late second century, the bishop of Lyons stated:
…the tradition which that very great, oldest, and well-known church, founded and established at Rome by those two most glorious apostles Peter and Paul, received from the apostles… every church must be in harmony with this church [in Rome] because of its outstanding pre-eminence. —Bishop Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book III, 3:2; Early Christian Fathers, p. 372
Evoking that first and “prime” Apostle, St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, wrote:
It is on [Peter] that He builds the church, and to him that He entrusts the sheep to feed. And although he assigns power to all the apostles, yet he founded a single chair, thus establishing by His own authority the source and hallmark of the churches’ oneness… a primacy is given to Peter and it is thus made clear that there is but one church and one chair… If a man does not hold fast to this oneness of Peter, does he image that he still holds the faith? If he deserts the Chair of Peter upon whom the church was built, has he still confidence that he is in the church? —”On the Unity of the Catholic Church”, n. 4; The Faith of the Early Fathers, Vol. 1, pp. 220-221
This common understanding of the primacy of Peter’s office led to St. Ambrose famously stating, “Where Peter is, there is the church,” “Commentary on the Psalms”, 40:30 and St. Jerome—the great biblical scholar and translator—to declare to Pope Damasus, “I follow no one as leader except Christ alone, and therefore I want to remain in union in the church with you, that is with the chair of Peter. I know that on this rock the church is founded.” Letters, 15:2
PETER’S VOICE IS ONE
Again, the Fathers of the Church readily aligned themselves with the Chair of Peter, and thus, in unity with the man who held that office. And it was for this reason:
The pope isn’t an absolute sovereign, whose thoughts and desires are law. On the contrary, the ministry of the pope is the guarantor of the obedience toward Christ and His word. —POPE BENEDICT XVI, Homily of May 8, 2005; San Diego Union-Tribune
That is to say that not even a pope can change what has been derived from the “deposit of faith”, revealed in Christ, and handed on through apostolic succession to this present day.
Cardinal Gerhard Müller is Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He is the Vatican’s doctrinal chief, a kind of gatekeeper and enforcer of the Church’s doctrine to help individual churches maintain orthodoxy and the unity of faith. In a recent interview underscoring the immutable nature of the Sacrament of Marriage and all its implications, he stated….
…no power in heaven or on earth, neither an angel, nor the pope, nor a council, nor a law of the bishops, has the faculty to change it. —Catholic Herald, Feb. 1st, 2017
That is consistent with the teachings of the Councils of both Vatican I and Vatican II:
The Roman Pontiff and the bishops, by reason of their office and the seriousness of the matter, apply themselves with zeal to the work of enquiring by every suitable means into this revelation and of giving apt expression to its contents; they do not, however, admit any new public revelations as pertaining to the divine deposit of faith. —Vatican Council I, Pastor aeternus, 4; Vatican Council II, Lumen Gentium, n. 25
…even if we or an angel from heaven should preach [to you] a gospel other than the one that we preached to you, let that one be accursed! (Galatians 1:8)
The implication is immediately apparent. Any question of interpretation of a papal statement pertaining to matters on faith and morals must always be made through the lens of Sacred Tradition—that constant, universal and infallible voice of Christ heard in unity with all the successors of Peter and the sensus fidei “on the part of the whole people, when, from the bishops to the last of the faithful, they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals.” Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 92
…the Roman Pontiff does not utter a pronouncement as a private person, but rather does he expound and defend the teaching of the Catholic faith as the supreme teacher of the universal Church… —Vatican Council II, Lumen Gentium, n. 25
In Pope Francis’ own words:
The Pope, in this context, is not the supreme lord but rather the supreme servant – the “servant of the servants of God”; the guarantor of the obedience and the conformity of the Church to the will of God, to the Gospel of Christ, and to the Tradition of the Church, putting aside every personal whim, despite being – by the will of Christ Himself – the “supreme Pastor and Teacher of all the faithful” and despite enjoying “supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church”. —POPE FRANCIS, closing remarks on the Synod; Catholic News Agency, October 18th, 2014
This is why you will see, particularly in papal documents of previous centuries, the popes addressing the faithful in the pronoun “we” rather than “I”. For they are speaking, also, in the voice of their predecessors.
THE MATTER AT HAND
Thus, Cardinal Müller continues, expounding on Pope Francis’ recent Apostolic Exhortation on the family and marriage that is causing controversy in how various bishops are interpreting it with regard to allowing the divorced and remarried to receive Communion:
Amoris Laetitia must clearly be interpreted in the light of the whole doctrine of the Church… it is not right that so many bishops are interpreting Amoris Laetitia according to their way of understanding the Pope’s teaching. This does not keep to the line of Catholic doctrine. —Catholic Herald, Feb. 1st, 2017
Since the interpretation or definition of doctrine is “co-extensive with the deposit of faith”, the Second Vatican Council taught that, among the roles of bishops of which “preaching the Gospel has pride and place” in order to “inform [the faithful’s] thinking and direct their conduct”, they are to watch over those in their care and “ward off whatever errors threaten their flock.” cf. Vatican Council II, Lumen Gentium, n. 25 This is really a call for every Catholic to be a servant and faithful steward of God’s Word. It is a call to humility and submission to Jesus who is the “Prince of shepherds” and “supreme cornerstone” of the Church. cf. Vatican Council II, Lumen Gentium, n. 6, 19 And this also includes submission to the pastoral practices of the Church that are intrinsically linked to doctrine.
For all the bishops have the obligation of fostering and safeguarding the unity of the faith and of upholding the discipline which is common to the whole Church… —Vatican Council II, Lumen Gentium, n. 23
As we see bishops in various parts of the world begin to interpret Amoris Laetitia in ways that are contradictory to one another, it can rightly be said that we are facing a “crisis of truth.” Cardinal Müller warned against “entering into any casuistry that can easily generate misunderstandings” adding:
“These are sophistries: the Word of God is very clear and the Church does not accept the secularization of marriage.” The task of priests and bishops, then, “is not that of creating confusion, but of bringing clarity.” —Catholic World Report, Feb. 1st, 2017
FRANCIS GOING FORWARD
In conclusion, faced as we are with a papacy that is not always as precise as some may like, the mistake is to panic as if the “rock” is crumbling. It is Jesus, not Peter, who is building the Church.cf. Matt 16:18 It is Jesus, not Peter, who guaranteed that the “gates of hell” will not prevail against it.cf. Matt 16:18 It is Jesus, not Peter, who guaranteed that the Holy Spirit will lead the Church “into all truth.”cf. John 16:13
But what Jesus did not guarantee is that the road would be easy. That it would be free of “false prophets”cf. Matt 7:15 and wolves in “sheep’s clothing” who would use sophistries to “deceive many.”cf. Matt 24:11
…there will be false teachers among you, who will introduce destructive heresies and even deny the Master who ransomed them, bringing swift destruction on themselves. (2 Peter 2:1)
But watch out too for those who are sowing dissension against Pope Francis. There are many good intentioned “conservative” Catholics who have taken almost a default position of viewing anything Francis says under a pall of suspicion (see The Spirit of Suspicion). This is dangerous, especially when it is carelessly published. It is one thing to raise concerns in a spirit of charity with the desire to achieve deeper understanding and clarity. It is another to simply criticize under a veil of sarcasm and cynicism. If the Pope is sowing confusion by his words as some allege, than many are also sowing discord by a constant negative approach to the Holy Father.
For all his personal faults or sins, Pope Francis remains the Vicar of Christ. He holds the keys of the Kingdom—and not a single Cardinal who elected him has suggested otherwise (that the papal election was invalid). If something he says is uncertain to you, or even seems to be contrary to Church teaching, do not quickly assume that to be the case (I have already in the past provided exhaustive examples of how the mainstream media has misquoted or re-framed the pontiff’s words). Also, reject the temptation to immediately spout your frustration on Facebook, in comments, or on a forum. Rather, keep silent and ask the Holy Spirit to give you clarity before speaking.
And pray for the Holy Father. I think it is rather signficant that there is not a single credible prophecy in Scripture or from Our Lady that says, someday, the office of Peter should not be trusted. Rather, she calls us to pray for the Pope and all our shepherds and to remain in steadfast unity, while still upholding and defending the truth.
And that is relatively easy to do since the truth has been passed on, not by a single pope, but through the one office of the papacy, the Chair of Peter, and those bishops in communion with him… in 2000 years of unbroken written and oral Tradition.
The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor, “is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful.” —Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 882
Bless you and thank you.
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