This piece appeared at the beginning of last July. I am repeating it because it approaches a problem which is still very much with us: witness the endearing remarks which our beloved Holy Father made in the airliner about how he would thump anybody who insulted his mother. In the present circumstances, I don't see how any reasonable person could fail to see this as being at least a mitigation of the condemnation due to the Islamic terrorists who murdered the Paris Blasphemers. Yet again, Fr Lombardi went out afterwards to try to clear things up. It seems to me arguable that Popes should not make public statements which have not been vetted by the responsible dicastery of the Roman Curia. Because a Pope is not ... or should not be ... sharing his very interesting personal opinions (as I do in this blog). He should be reproving doctrinal error and strengthening us in doctrinal truth. And he is not enabled to do this by magic, but by a spirit-filled process of discernment in which his servants in the Roman Curia are indispensable assistants. He does not teach qua individual, but as the Bishop of Rome faithfully handing on the Tradition which the Roman and Petrine Church (pre-eminent and rock-like among all the Particular Churches in which the deposit of Faith has been handed down from the Apostles) has received.
The admirable Fr Zed sensibly and judiciously reminded us that much of what our beloved Holy Father says, and not least his daily fervorino, is 'Non-Magisterial'. He is right. But I sense a problem starting to emerge here which will not go away. It is not totally new (it has been growing particularly since Popes started chatting to journalists in airliners), but it seems to me to get more acute as the decades pass.
The Pope's remarks to the Latin American religious who went to see him were, I presume, very definitely non-Magisterial. They claimed he hinted rather heavily that they should not lose too much sleep about CDF interventions. But ... those worthy religious who went half-way round the world to Rome did not do so because they have a private hobby of chatting to emeriti Argentinian bishops. They went to see, to question, to hear, the Pope qua Pope. And journalists who hear a Roman Pontiff speaking in an aeroplane are not ordinary airline passengers who find that chatting to some genial fellow-passenger relieves the boredom of the flight. They are specifically there to talk with, to listen to, to report the words of, the Pope qua Pope. And these journalists, for the main part, are not theological specialists in the status of papal utterances. As they received their potty training ('In cathedram, pusille! In cathedram mingendum!'), Mummy or Nurse did not tell them about the mysteries of ex cathedra. As toddlers, they did not receive precise information from masterful Nannies about Magisterial versus non-Magisterial. Even when they went to their Preparatory Schools, they were probably not catechised on religiosum obsequium and definitive tenendum. For these good, plain, honest hacks ... and probably also for their even plainer and yet more honest editors ... "The Pope says" means "The Pope says" without painstaking distinctions. And the hermeneutic they bring to what they hear is gained from analysing the implications and nuances in the soundbites of secular politicians with ephemeral, mutable, and transient policy objectives.
And so, given the distinction we already have between Magisterial and non-Magisterial utterances, a further distinction seems to be necessary; between formal and informal utterances. Thus, the volumes Joseph Ratzinger wrote about Jesus of Nazareth were, and were clearly said to be, non-Magisterial. But they were formal utterances. And Francis' daily homilies, while non-Magisterial, must be 'formal' because every sermon preached by an accredited minister of the Church is formal. Evangelii gaudium may not be Magisterial, as Cardinal Burke clearly demonstrated, but it is surely formal. However, remarks like those of Pope Francis to the Spanish American religious about the ministry of the CDF, or his comment that, while he can understand old people being attached to the Vetus Ordo, he thinks that its popularity among the young can only be a mere fashion (modo), must be less than formal. Furthermore, they involve other problems. They may very well have been unreliably reported. And yet they may be particularly newsworthy as bearing upon current topics, or as revealing the mind of the man who is also Bishop of Rome. They may even correspond rather uncertainly to previous statements of the Magisterium (his reported comments on the Vetus Ordo sit a little uneasily with formal and Magisterial statements of Pope Benedict about the Old Rite being a treasure for all the Church). Will you really say to me that there are no problems at all in this?
How are we to handle such a situation? I am asking a genuine question to which I do not have an answer to peddle. Let me phrase it thus. Is it OK for us ordinary Cardinals, Bishops, Priests, Deacons, and Laics to say publicly, with regard to a non-Magisterial and non-formal papal statement, "Goodness me, what twaddle Bar Jona/Borgia/Lambertini/Pacelli/Ratzinger/Bergoglio did talk this morning"? If you reply to me "No; because of the deep respect and deference owed to the Vicar of Christ", then I have to say that, by bringing in his status, you seem to me to be smuggling the Magisterium back into the equation. If you suggest to me that it would be OK to talk thus frankly about the non-Magisterial and non-formal utterances of a previous Pontiff but not about those of this one (like all those bishops and journalists who kept moderately quiet during the last pontificate but do not refrain now from public sneers at Benedict XVI), I would have to ask you why the death or resignation of a Roman Pontiff means that the respect and deference due to a Vicar of Christ is no longer due to him. And I might raise with you an Alexander VI question: was it, either during his lifetime or since, proper to speak in frank criticism of that pope's sexually scandalous life-style? Will you reply to me "No, because of the deep respect and deference owed to the Vicar of Christ, one ought not even to condemn him qua serial adulterer"? And, if not, why not? Are not all Christians under some obligation to rebuke vice? (Of course, within the dynamics of an absolutist Byzantine or Renaissance court, one would hesitate to hint at the least criticism of what an absolute monarch had said. It might lead him to withhold a favour. But Pope Francis has intimated that this is not the model he has for his pontificate. And, in any case, B Pius IX implicitly condemned the proposition that the Roman Pontiff is an absolute monarch)
There must be in the four paragraphs above at least a few occasions when you might have murmured a sentence beginning with the verb distinguo. Yes? I really do seek illumination!
In the old, July, thread, Eques makes a good point. Might one distinguish thus: in his daily Domus Marthae sermons, the celebrant speaks with presbyteral but not with Papal Magisterium?