21 December 2013


I wish to revert to what I am convinced are some important questions about the implications of the Holy Father's controversial choice last year concerning whose feet to wash and kiss on Maundy Thursday.

Fundamentally, it seems to me that his action ran the risk of multivolent signification: of being a gesture which could bear a variety of different possible meanings, whether one at a time or in combination. I refer, of course, to the Holy Father's disregard of the law restricting the pedilavium to viri, males.

His action is able to mean at least three quite radically dissimilar things; either that
(1) we must love and respect and serve all men and women, even the lowest in society; or that
(2) law may be disregarded whenever we think we know better, or that
(3) the Sovereign Pontiff is above the Law; that his position is so exalted that, unlike every other Christian, he is under no legal or moral or even prudential obligation to obey the Law or to appear to do so. (Morris West, writing during the maximalising papacy of Pius XII, gives imaginative, if chilling, expression to such an inflated attitude to the Papacy in The Devil's Advocate: " ... the Chair of Peter ... was a high leap, halfway out of the world and into a vestibule of Divinity. The man who wore the Fisherman's ring and the triple tiara ... stood on a windy pinnacle, alone, with the spread carpet of the nations below him, and above, the naked face of the Almighty. Only a fool would envy him the power and the glory and the terror of such a principality ..." Oh dear. No, I don't think I want to go down that sort of path.)

I will disregard (2). Furthermore, we must notice that, logically, if meaning (1) is intended, then (3) would have to be intended together with it. This because the Sovereign Pontiff  could have gestured to express (1) without breaking the Law. He could - he is the undoubted Supreme Legislator - have changed the Law before his action; he could have devised a different and lawful gesture to express this love and respect; he could have performed the pedilavium lawfully in exactly the way he did, even on Maundy Thursday itself, by doing it apart from the Maundy Thursday Liturgy (as English Sovereigns did until the Dutch Invasion, and still vestigially do). Meaning (3), on the other hand, could be intended on its own without presupposing (1).

Frankly, I am not keen on (3). This particular, populist, papal gesture undoubtedly seemed attractive and liberating to those who find gesture more important than substance. But even papal chickens eventually come home to roost, and this un-legal action must, once its implications are fully understood, have a very detrimental effect upon ecumenical relationships. The closest historical parallel I can think of is the principle expressed by Ulpian in the third century that Emperors are legibus soluti - free from the Law; an attitude exemplified by the Arian Emperor Constantius, who ordered Egyptian bishops to renounce S Athanasius and, when they declined on the grounds that this was not the Church's rule, replied All'hoper ego boulomai, touto Kanon nomizestho ("My wish has gotta be regarded as having the status of Church Law"). (Who was it who said "L'etat c'est moi"?)

Modern media are understandably impressed by a pope who does his transactions in their coinage: soundbite, impulse, gesture. But we should beware lest the other side of that same coin have an older and a scarier name: Arbitrary Power.

Since I first drafted this piece nine months ago, one or two other things have happened. I have read ... December 19 ... Sandro Magister's piece in which he describes the style of this papacy as "monocratic and centralising"; and, of course, the business of the Franciscans of the Immaculate has erupted and shown no signs of reaching a resolution. I continue ... 

It is for a similar reason that I am most uneasy about the decision of the Commissioner ad interim of the Franciscans of the Immaculate, to require them not to celebrate the Vetus Ordo without a special indult from himself: a decision which he appears to think is within the bounds of the powers given to him, through the dicastery for Religious, by the Roman Pontiff. Of course, I neither have knowledge of what Fr Volpi's faculties allow him to do, nor, since I am most certainly not a canonist, do I have the forensic skills to gloss them. I can only talk about the appearance of things. This action looks like a prohibition inhibiting the friars from doing something which the general law of the Church allows them to do "without permission either from the Bishop or even from the Apostolic See". It looks like a capricious act of tyranny within a legal system in which anybody can be deprived of their rights in universal law at any moment, and even by the extraordinarily delegated powers of a fairly low-ranking official.

This presents the world with an image of papal jurisdiction which will confirm the worst suspicions of Orthodox or Anglican Christians about what being subject to the See of Peter implies.

I spent 43 years as a priest in the Church of England working for unity cum et sub Petro, and I am now incardinated into an Ordinariate. I do not feel the need to prove to anyone either my profound respect for the papal office and its occupant or my deep personal concern for Christian Unity. I would be distressed if, absolutely unintentionally, this pontificate were to lead to an imaging of the Petrine Ministry which put further obstacles in the way of the Lord's prayer that they all may be one.

Surely this is not what our beloved Holy Father wishes to do?


Joshua said...

Several close friends all expressed their unease - as loyal and orthodox Catholics – with the present occupant of the Apostolic See; I had to in all honesty candidly confess to sharing same.

In defence of Pope Francis, God bless him, I had to mount the cultural argument: that he is very much a Latin American, an Argentinian (surely not a Peronist?!); and to Anglo-Saxons, things Hispanic (e.g. Opus Dei) can look downright sinister. The rule of law is not, I am informed, one of the hallmarks of South America…

I feel simply awful writing this, but I cannot but profess my confusion, and upset, and worry. Hopefully he is simply being saintly, "comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable"; I do worry that the good Pope Benedict did has gone in the rubbish bin, and that the unpleasant liberal elite are celebrating.

Any consolation or rebuke that can deliver me from these worries will be most gratefully received. God bless our Pope!

Jacobi said...

The”law“must not be disregarded. Did St Thomas More not say something like this? Well he did in the film anyway!

I agree. Your points (2) and (3) are definitely out. But you raise something indirectly, which is very interesting, namely can a Pope ever overrule the considered and therefore binding teaching and authority of an earlier Pope.

I must be careful since I am not a lawyer, just a humble retired scientist. But clearly the Pontiff is not and cannot be above legitimate Church law and precedent. My particular interest is in new additional forms of the Mass, as for instance the Ordinariate, and of course that other one, the Pauline Form of 1969. All perfectly acceptable. However, they cannot overrule, as was clearly implied in 1969 and long afterwards, the then normal Form, the Vetus Ordo, which was established by the Apostolic Constitution Quo Primum, without another such document, and that would at best only produce stalemate.

Conclusion. The Vetus Ordo remains a standard Form of the Roman Rite and we all have the right, including the Franciscan Friars, to say and/or attend it, at any time, without interference from Fr Volpi – or anyone else for that matter.

p.s. I am trying to get one of my grandchildren, who is “high church” to attend the Ordinariate Mass. Prayers, pls.

B flat said...

Dear Father,
So glad to have you writing again for edification of those who wish to read. Thank you and God bless you for many years of active apostolate in this and every form.

As to your last (rhetorical) question, my own cynical reaction is to answer with another question: does he care? Pope Francis is fixing his attention and care on the underclass. He is allowing his appointees to create a new one, below his horizon.
I am so glad not to be within his jurisdiction, because by the treatment of the FFI he has certainly destroyed the vestigial respect I had for the Church of my youth, which Benedict XVI did so much to revive. May God bless us all, in His love for the just and the unjust.

B flat said...

Dear Father,
So glad to have you writing again for edification of those who wish to read. Thank you and God bless you for many years of active apostolate in this and every form.

As to your last (rhetorical) question, my own cynical reaction is to answer with another question: does he care? Pope Francis is fixing his attention and care on the underclass. He is allowing his appointees to create a new one, below his horizon.
I am so glad not to be within his jurisdiction, because by the treatment of the FFI he has certainly destroyed the vestigial respect I had for the Church of my youth, which Benedict XVI did so much to revive. May God bless us all, in His love for the just and the unjust.

Fr John Hunwicke said...

I think we should all hold tight and hold on and not panic. We have to give this pontificate time to bed down. I also think that we should pray and that we do have right, temperately and respectfully, to share our anxieties.

I apologise to those whose comments I have not enabled. It was my judgement that we should go carefully and with proper obsequium religiosum towards the Successor of S Peter.

GOR said...

As to the pedilavium, I had an uncomfortable feeling about it. I know the law is flouted all over the place, but one expects the Holy Father to lead by example - especially when it comes to Church law.

As to Fr. Volpi’s action, I am at a loss. If this was done at the behest - or with the approval - of Pope Francis, it is hard to square it with the Holy Father’s oft-repeated claim that the Church needs to show the merciful face of God. It also flies in the face of: “Who am I to judge?”.

The action smacks more of vengeful punishment rather than merciful and fraternal correction and it is hard to believe this was the Holy Father's intent.

Jacobi said...


“he is very much a Latin American, an Argentinian”

Too true! I know that part of the world reasonably well. They are intuitive, instinctive, but careless Catholics.

Now that’s all very well for laity and priests and even bishops, in Buenos Aires, for instance, but not out in the big bad world. He will learn, don’t worry!

Rubricarius said...

Beatus vir qui non abiit in consilio impiorum etc surely does not exclude women?

Matthew Roth said...

"L'├ętat, c'est moi"-Louis XIV. What a disaster. Centralizing power in one person guiding a bureaucracy, instead of a system with an unquestioned head working in hierarchial cooperation, is a disaster.
I love Francis. I find him to be very holy, and Evangelli Gaudium seems to be a great document. But I can't understand his governance, and the neo-conservative Ultramontanists are lapping it up.

Chris Jones said...

yes it does exclude women. The "beatus vir" of Psalm1 is our Lord Jesus Christ.

Ben Whitworth said...

"Beatus vir qui non abiit in consilio impiorum etc surely does not exclude women?"
For the many Church Fathers who interpreted Psalm 1 Christologically, it effectively does. See the late Chrysogonus Waddell's important article on the subject in Communio (1995). (Of course on that reading it also excludes all men but One.)

Patruus said...

It may be observed that not all Latin translations of Ps.1:1 use "vir". Castellio, for instance, has "Beatus homo qui in impiorum consilio non versatur, nec improborum viam insistit, nec in sede scurrarum sedet". Another translation I've seen opens with "Beatitudo homini qui ...".

Shirelands Goldadors said...

Was the Sabbath not made for man but man for the Sabbath?

Fr John Hunwicke said...

Jackie clearly believes that the Bishop of Rome has the same authority to define, interpret and set aside Divine Law, as the Incarnate Second Person of the Blessed Trinity does. This is precisely the sort of bloated idea of Papal authority which I find unappealing.

BTW, Brown Driver Briggs gives little support to the idea that ISH in psalm 1 means anything other than male. Even if it did, I find it far fetched to argue that the word VIR in a rubric or law of the Latin Church is to be glossed by what a Hebrew word might mean (but in this case doesn't).

The Sybil said...

I have been in a state of depression since the election of the new pontiff. I have committed my self to watch and week after week I witness more confusion and distress - Yes, at the end of the day Peter is Peter and the pool of eligible cardinals poor- what can be expected. May God have mercy on us

Shirelands Goldadors said...

18] Thou art Peter: As St. Peter, by divine revelation, here made a solemn profession of his faith of the divinity of Christ; so in recompense of this faith and profession, our Lord here declares to him the dignity to which he is pleased to raise him: viz., that he to whom he had already given the name of Peter, signifying a rock, St. John 1. 42, should be a rock indeed, of invincible strength, for the support of the building of the church; in which building he should be, next to Christ himself, the chief foundation stone, in quality of chief pastor, ruler, and governor; and should have accordingly all fulness of ecclesiastical power, signified by the keys of the kingdom of heaven.

[18] Upon this rock: The words of Christ to Peter, spoken in the vulgar language of the Jews which our Lord made use of, were the same as if he had said in English, Thou art a Rock, and upon this rock I will build my church. So that, by the plain course of the words, Peter is here declared to be the rock, upon which the church was to be built: Christ himself being both the principal foundation and founder of the same. Where also note, that Christ, by building his house, that is, his church, upon a rock, has thereby secured it against all storms and floods, like the wise builder, St. Matt. 7. 24, 25.

[18] The gates of hell: That is, the powers of darkness, and whatever Satan can do, either by himself, or his agents. For as the church is here likened to a house, or fortress, built on a rock; so the adverse powers are likened to a contrary house or fortress, the gates of which, that is, the whole strength, and all the efforts it can make, will never be able to prevail over the city or church of Christ. By this promise we are fully assured, that neither idolatry, heresy, nor any pernicious error whatsoever shall at any time prevail over the church of Christ.

[19] Loose upon earth: The loosing the bands of temporal punishments due to sins, is called an indulgence; the power of which is here granted.

Anonymous said...

I just want this Pontificate to end before it undermines my Faith, Hope and Charity. As a thirtysomething South African, I returned to the bosom of the Church in the happy years of Pope Benedict after a sojourn of 12 years with the SSPX. Now it seems all I ran from when I turned to them is back with a vengeance. Fortunately, I have the oasis of an excellent Parish with orthodox Priests and a weekly EF. But the rest of the diocese and country is - mostly - a wasteland. How long also before Francis suppresses Summorum Pontificum? (Or more likely allows his liberal lieutenants to do so). We wait from day to day to see what he will say or write to undermine our faith and be twisted by the media. Our local "Catholic" rag is The Southern Cross and is basically a poor reproduction of the US National Catholic Reporter. They are lapping up everything "their" Pope says. Pope Benedict is conmstantly belittled and compated unfavourably to "the best Pope evah". When will Humanae Vitae be "re-interpreted" out of existence or remarried divorcees admitted to communion. Or the godless spineless faithless episcopal conferences given real doctrinal authority? When will "the most humble Pope ever" give another horrific interview or ignore liturgical rubrics again? Or belittle the pro-lifer movement anew? Or treat orthodox Catholics who care for the Church as small-minded Pharisees again. I truly feel an orphan. I want my Father back. I am sure he is good and holy but we need reassurance, before it is too late. Econe is beckoning.

rick allen said...

I might suggest a fourth option, suggested by an observation of the poet Eliot in his essay, "Thoughts on Lambeth." (I would have simply cut and paste it if I could have found it on the internet--and my personal copy of the book is elsewhere. I am summarizing from distant memory). There Eliot observes that the English understanding of law and the Roman understanding are often quite different, that the English tend to want every exception and nuance spelled out, whereas the Romans are content and comfortable with dispensations and exceptions, so long as made by the person with appropriate authority. That does run the risk of implying that the person in authority is above the law, just as the opposite approach can support a graceless legalism. For myself, I just can't see getting terribly upset over such a minor relaxation of the rules and as a layman tend to trust the Bishop of Rome to know what he's doing vis-a vis the appropriate canons.

It's a shame, I think, that so many get so anxious about the papacy, as if each new occupant is some terrible threat to the Faith. The authority of the pope is supposed to assure us, not keep us up at night worrying if he's going to say something that the New York Times will take in the wrong way.

We also need not engage in others' insisting on comparisons. You don't have to choose between Benedict and Francis. I happen to like both of them very much--they are very different men, with different priorities, but both faithful and supported by our Lord's promises to Peter. It seems to me a terrible shame that the faith of so many can be so contingent on their evaluation of the holder of the papal office.

Don Camillo SSC said...

Problem: from where does Canon Law derive its authority? The Church is not a parliamentary democracy, where laws are made by an elected and representative body. As far as I can see, a canon binds either because it has been enacted by a synod or council ratified by the Supreme Pontiff, or by the Supreme Pontiff himself. If (even informally) he decides to ignore a merely positive rule on a particular occasion, how can he be said to lack the right to do so?

Deacon Augustine said...

If Fr. Spilsbury is correct in his assessment that a Pope has the right to simply ignore laws that receive their authority to bind from his own office as the Supreme Legislator, then it would appear that the power with which the Pope is invested is indeed absolute and arbitrary.

Would the formation in Canon Law received by the Ordinariate clergy confirm this interpretation? Did the subject not come up? Or did nobody think to ask the question?

Liam Ronan said...

I have always wondered what Peter can bind and loose, i.e. anything he chooses or are there limits on papal authority? Can a Pope overstep his authority as the Vicar of Christ?

Shirelands Goldadors said...

Just to correct dear Rev Fr. ,
Jackie in no way whatsover thinks the Pope is in any way whatsover equal to Our Blessed Lord. My comment re the Sabbath merely referred to the Pharisees observance of the law.

Don Camillo SSC said...

I asked a question, I did not express an opinion. The question is a real one: in matters of purely positive ecclesiastical law, who or what limits the power of the Supreme Pontiff. I ask because I would like to know.

Stephen said...

The Filioque was the first overuse of Papal power; what other options exist other than1) he had the right to do so then and can do whatever he wants now or 2) the Orthodox approach is if greater antiquity