Are There Limits to Papal Power? – Catholic World Report

Archbishop Jerome Lloyd OSJVPosted by

Some hypothetical questions will help us clarify what the Church actually teaches about the papacy, versus the popular and often maximalist understanding of it.

Are There Limits to Papal Power? – Catholic World Report
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Following the publication of Traditionis Custodes, there have been numerous pieces written in defense of the usus antiquor, as well as others claiming that Traditionis Custodeswas necessary and much-needed. Much of the frenzy surrounding the motu proprio has mostly centered on questions about liturgical reform and its relation to the Second Vatican Council.

But the questions arising from this motu proprio— as well as from much of Pope Francis’ pontificate— can also help us reflect upon Catholic teaching on the papacy. Are there limits to papal power? What is the scope and limits of papal infallibility? Given that the Church lacks a system of ‘checks and balances’, is there anything—aside from the Providence of God—that can counter a pope’s questionable declarations, decisions, or actions? As Adam DeVille wrote, “a papacy big enough to give you what you want is also powerful enough to take away what you love.” A healthy and happy Church is one that recognizes the papacy for what it is, and resists the urge to make it what it is not.

Papacy 101

Let us remind ourselves of some key doctrines regarding the papacy, so to avoid any confusion. The Catholic Church teaches that Christ chose the Apostle Peter to be the “rock” (petra) upon which He will build His Church (Mt 16:18). Peter—and every Bishop of Rome following him—enjoys a primacy (protos) that signifies his ranking as “first” among the other Apostles and their successors. Peter’s promotion, however, directly flows from his graced confession of faith in Christ as the Messiah, which as Christ notes, was revealed to Peter by the Father in heaven.

From its origin, papal primacy has as its roots the supernatural virtue of faith in Jesus Christ. It is Christ alone who is the Head of the Church, albeit invisible here on earth. Every pope stands in as a visual representative of ecclesial unity, who, like Peter, is called to confirm his brethren in the faith (Lk 22:32). At once, then, we can dismiss episcopal egalitarianism—the idea that neither Peter nor his successors have any proper, prime role in the Church. Even the Orthodox Church attributes a primacy to Peter and future popes, though there is disagreement as to how this primacy is to be exercised, which is an ongoing ecumenical discussion.

The Church elaborates on this primacy of the pope through two key teachings: first, that “he possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church.” (Can. 331); and second, that he is infallible when speaking ex cathedra (Vatican I, Pastor aeternus, IV.9).

To the first, the Church acknowledges that the pope’s power in the Church is not restricted by a parliament or popular vote, but belongs to the office as such and without jurisdictional restriction. The pope does not answer to any legislative or earthly authority, nor does he need permission to exercise his papal prerogatives.

To the second, the Church understands papal infallibility to be that, when a pope solemnly declares that a teaching on faith or morals is to be definitively held by all the faithful, this teaching is protected from error by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Such divine assistance is not guaranteed to the pope in his encyclicals, apostolic exhortations, motu propria, or even airplane interviews.

While it is pious to believe that a pope cannot ever fall into heresy, it is not impossible, and even then, it would not contradict the dogmatic teachings proclaimed at Vatican I and reasserted at Vatican II. The pope can teach error—that is, they can write or speak things that are wrong or that deviate from the full truth. One thinks of the famous examples of Pope Honorius, who was posthumously condemned at Constantinople III for seemingly promoting the monothelite heresy, or Pope John XXII who preached the error that the souls of the just do not attain beatific vision until the Last Judgment. Of course, Catholic apologists are quick to answer that Honorius did not technically subscribe to monothelitism, and that John XXII only preached the aforementioned error and never officially taught it as such.

Other examples include Pope Liberius who signed (under coercion) an Arian affirmation of faith, and Pope Vigilius’ wavering between orthodoxy and Nestorianism in the Three Chapters controversy. These historical examples, among others, reveal a possibility for papal error, though nearly every Catholic would agree that these mistakes do not fall within the realm of papal infallibility.

What if…?

In what follows, I offer a thought-experiment. A few preliminary comments are required. First, like the Doctors of the Church have taught us, nothing is beyond constructive questioning. After all, St. Augustine speculated what the resurrection of the body means for the unborn deceased (City of God, 22.13), and St. Thomas Aquinas asked what happens to the mouse when it goes into the tabernacle and consumes the Sacred Host (quid mus sumit). While these questions may seem ridiculous at first, they have both pastoral and doctrinal implications.

Second, the purpose of hypothetical questioning is to help clarify what we believe, and why we believe it. A thought-experiment is intended to isolate and identify principles so that we may follow where they lead in application. Applied to the papacy, these hypothetical questions will help us clarify what the Church actually teaches about the papacy, versus the popular and often maximalist understanding of it.

Let’s say tomorrow, Pope Francis releases an apostolic letter in which he bans public recitation of the Rosary and suppresses devotion to the Sacred Heart. Of course, the chances of him doing something like this are slim, if none. But the question is not “will he?”, but rather “can he?” In other words, is it within the scope of papal power to demolish centuries-old religious devotions?

Some Catholic apologists suggest that, because the pope possesses plena potestas and authority over sacramental and ecclesiastical discipline, the pope could, in theory, ban the Rosary and suppress the Sacred Heart devotion. While venerable in practice, they fall within the realm of private and popular devotions, and if the Apostolic See finds that such devotions are “divisive” to the “unity of the Church”, then the pope can, in fact, suppress them.

Such a hypothetical should not come across as shocking. After all, if the pope can replace a 1,500-year-old liturgy with a “new order” of Mass created by a committee of experts and thus radically change public worship for the majority of Catholics, what is stopping him from forbidding certain devotional practices? If Pope Francis were to do this, it would certainly upset and scandalize many of the faithful. But that does not mean he cannot—just that he ought not to.

We might already anticipate the potential defenses given to this hypothetical apostolic letter. “The Rosary and Sacred Heart belong to private revelation and devotion, and they, like all popular piety, can be regulated by the competent ecclesiastical authorities.” It might be worth reminding readers that Annibale Bugnini, the architect of the Novus Ordo Missae, also attempted to “reform” the Rosary by reducing the Our Father to one occurrence, mandating that public recitation would only contain one decade, and removing all the non-Biblical parts of the Hail Mary (thus everything following “Holy Mary, Mother of God”).1

Of course, we know that he was not successful in doing so, but, should Pope Paul VI have approved of his changes, would that suddenly make the traditional form of the Rosary illicit? Is there any substance to approved rites and devotions aside from their approval from the Apostolic See?

Contra papal maximalism and papal minimalism

Moving from the realm of devotion and liturgy to doctrine, we know well Catholic teaching regarding papal infallibility and the levels of assent required by the faithful to the Magisterium. A papal maximalist believes that everything the pope says is protected from error, and a papal minimalist holds that, unless the pope is giving an ex cathedra statement, there is no real assent required.

The truth, however, is somewhere in the middle. The pope does indeed possess the charism of infallibility which has, in general, a limited scope. The object of papal infallibility is his teaching on faith and morals, whether it concerns something explicitly revealed or non-revealed but closely tied to Revelation. The condition for papal infallibility is that it is ex cathedra, or from the chair. The pope needs to make it clear that he is speaking as the supreme pastor on a matter to be definitively held by all the faithful. And while it is true that most papal pronouncements and writings do not fall within this narrow scope of papal infallibility, they should generally be received with docility and “religious respect”.

However, there are those in the Church who, clinging to misguided notions of religious adherence and the submission of will and intellect, believe that the pope can change teachings by virtue of his office, and that Catholics who question such actions are pseudo-schismatics.

What is often ignored in these neo-ultramontane circles is that the pope’s power is indeed limited by natural and divine law. For example, the pope cannot declare that euthanasia is permissible or abolish marriage as a sacrament. Moreover, the promised assistance of the Holy Spirit does not mean that the pope cannot, at least in theory, speak and write errors. What divine assistance assures is that the pope is protected from error in his formal definitions. The pope is not the master and creator of the deposit of faith; the pope exists to serve divine revelation, not vice-versa.

Returning to the example of liturgy and devotions, papal ‘power’ would thus be understood as one of a gardener than a bulldozer. The pope does not have the power to create and destroy the true, good, and beautiful, because he is not the one whose power made truth true, or goodness good, or beauty beautiful. Only a decadent, reductionist approach to the liturgy and devotions would see them as papal playthings rather than gifts to be treasured and protected.

Moreover, the office of the papacy does not exist in isolation from the rest of the Church. Just as Peter’s primacy existed for the common good of the other Apostles and whose own faith would help confirm that of his brethren (Lk 22:32), so too does the same primacy today exist for the common good and welfare of the Church. The pope’s authority does not exist in a theoretical vacuum, but instead rests within the needs of the Church at any given time. Petrine authority, like all Apostolic authority, is given for the edification—not destruction—of the Church (2 Cor. 10:8).

If we find, then, that a megalomaniac pontiff on the Barque of Peter is drunk with power while manning the wheel into a rock formation, it does no good to suggest that it is his right as captain to capsize the ship. Or, to use another example: in Christ’s mandate to Peter, “Feed my sheep” (Jn 21:17), the implication is that Peter would feed them nutrition, and not poison. The former is the fulfillment of the Petrine vocation, and the latter is the rejection of it.

And so, are there limits to papal power? Yes, but this requires careful nuance. We must dismiss the modern impulse to resort to juridical solutions. The papacy—just like the Church—is given by Christ for the sanctification of the world. The answer to a papacy in crisis is not to turn to conciliarism or Gallicanism, which try to set up structures to limit papal authority. Rather, the limits of papal power are not from an external source but from one within. It is the Holy Spirit, the uncreated soul of the Church, who guides the Church into all the truth (Jn 16:13). It is the same Spirit through whom the Church comes to know the voice of the Good Shepherd—and who helps discern between His voice and the voice of a stranger (Jn 10:5).

The limits to papal power are the limits to power, in general. True power is not in lording and wielding, but in serving (Lk 22:25-26). Whether it concerns liturgy or doctrine, devotion or discipline, the pope certainly has a role. But if “power is perfected in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9), one would pray that the pope be so weak, that the true power—that of Christ’s—will rest upon him, guiding his Petrine ministry.


1 Annibale Bugnini and Matthew J. O’Connell, The Reform of the Liturgy, 1948-1975 (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1990), 874-77.

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