Ethics & Public Policy Center

What Popes Can and Can’t Do

Published in The Catholic Difference on January 15, 2014


George Weigel

Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies


A good friend habitually refers to the Wall Street Journal as his “favorite Catholic newspaper”—a bit of whimsy not without foundation, given the openness of theJournal’s op-ed pages to serious Catholic argument on numerous issues. But just as Homer occasionally nods, so does America’s best newspaper. And on Jan. 2, theJournal nodded, big-time, in this description of why Pope Francis was one of the “People to Watch” in 2014:

“After raising expectations for shifting views toward homosexuality, divorce, the environment, and society’s obligations to the poor, the pontiff is expected to also undertake bureaucratic reform at the Vatican, as well as the possible expansion of the role of women in the Church.”

By my count, and bypassing the unnecessarily split infinitive, there are four errors in that one sentence, plus one grave misconstrual of ecclesiastical “roles.”

Although it is very difficult for those who see Catholicism through political lenses to grasp this, popes are not like presidents or state governors, and doctrine is not like public policy. Which means that a change of papal “administration” does not—indeed cannot—mean a change of Catholic “views.” Doctrine, as the Church understands it, is not a matter of anyone’s “views,” but of settled understandings of the truth of things.

Nor are popes free agents who govern by the seat of their pants, if you‘ll permit the phrase. Prior to the completion of Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Pope Paul VI proposed adding to that seminal document a sentence stating that the pope is “accountable to the Lord alone”—an effort, I suspect, to protect papal authority and freedom of action from potential civil or ecclesiastical encroachments. But the council’s Theological Commission rejected Pope Paul’s proposed amendment, noting that “the Roman Pontiff is . . . bound to revelation itself, to the fundamental structure of the Church, to the sacraments, to the definitions of earlier Councils, and (to) other obligations too numerous to mention.”

Those “other obligations” include honoring the truth of things built into the world and into us. At an academic conference years ago, a distinguished Catholic philosopher remarked (perhaps hyperbolically) that “If the pope said that ‘2+2 = 5,’ I’d believe him.” An even more distinguished Catholic philosopher gave the correct, and far more Catholic, response: “If the Holy Father said that ‘2+2 = 5,’ I would say publicly, ‘Perhaps I have misunderstood His Holiness’s meaning.’ Privately, I would pray for his sanity.”

Popes, in other words, are not authoritarian figures, who teach what they will and as they will. The pope is the guardian of an authoritative tradition, of which he is the servant, not the master. Pope Francis knows this as well as anyone, as he has emphasized by repeating that he is a “son of the Church” who believes and teaches what the Church believes and teaches.

Thus the notion that this pontificate is going to change Catholic teaching on the morality of homosexual acts, or on the effects of divorce-and-remarriage on one’s communion with the Church, is a delusion, although the Church can surely develop its pastoral approach to homosexuals and the divorced. As for the environment and the poor, Catholic social doctrine has long taught that we are stewards of creation and that the least of the Lord’s brethren have a moral claim on our solidarity and our charity; the social doctrine leaves open to debate the specific, practical means by which people of good will, and governments, exercise that stewardship, and that solidarity and charity.

And “the role of women in the Church”? No doubt various Church structures would benefit by drawing upon a wider range of talent (irrespective of gender) than the talent-pool from which Church leaders typically emerge. Still, in an interview with La Stampa before Christmas, Pope Francis made it clear that identifying leadership in the Church with ordination is both a form of clericalism and another way of instrumentalizing Catholic women. Flying a Vatican desk, Francis was suggesting, is not the acme of discipleship.

As for Curial reform: Oremus, as we used to say.

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