21 March 2015

The Magisterium: latest on the limits of Papal authority

Recently, Cardinal Mueller, in the faithful discharge of the office mandated to him by the Holy Father, has spoken frankly and lucidly about the limitations of the papal office. You will have seen his letter to the Hungarian bishops dated 13 January 2015 (in Vatican Documents).

His intervention is closely in line with the words of  Pope Francis' immediate predecessor: "In fact, the First Vatican Council had in no way defined the pope as an absolute monarch. On the contrary, it presented him as the guarantor of obedience to the revealed Word. The pope's authority is bound to the Tradition of faith ... the authority of the pope is not unlimited; it is at the service of Sacred Tradition."

Thus wrote Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, as part of his attack on that maximalising concept of the Papacy which, in the years after the Council, led to the notion that "the pope could really do anything in liturgical matters, especially if he were acting on the the mandate of an ecumenical council". Let us be clear about this: he was explicitly criticising, not Blessed Paul VI, but an incorrect understanding prevalent during the Montini papacy, and doing so forcefully at a time when he was Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

It is not always observed
that our Holy Father the Pope Emeritus was alluding to a controversy which arose after Vatican I. Chancellor Bismarck had accused Vatican I of creating a view of the Papacy under which the Pope was an absolute monarch ... to the detriment of political and other liberties. The German bishops replied (Denzinger 3114) by denying that the conciliar decrees had this sort of effect upon the the civil loyalties of Catholics; and went on to say that "praeterea neque quoad res ecclesiasticas papa monarchus absolutus nuncupari potest, quippe qui cum subordinatus sit iuri divino et obstrictus sit iis quae Christus pro Ecclesia sua disposuit ... ". B Pius IX himself subsequently, formally but with great warmth, approved this statement.

And all this is simply a rolling-out, an explicatio, of the Great Negative of Vatican I in Pastor aeternus; its vitally important teaching that the Holy Spirit was not given to Roman Pontiffs so that they could teach novelties. Moreover, by defining the authority of Roman Pontiffs, that admirable Council automatically set limits upon it (this is a point emphatically made by Newman, LD. 170, 204). That is what the verb definire means. Finis is Latin for a boundary.

What is particulaly interesting and immensely reassuring about Cardinal Mueller's recent intervention is that he explicitly cites the CDF document of 1998, paragraph 7, signed by Joseph Ratzinger, about the Papal Primacy. And that document itself cited with equal explicitness the Declaration of the German Bishops which I quote above (Denzinger 3114), and which was both confirmed and warmly applauded by none other than Blessed Pope Pius IX himself.

It is very disheartening to some faithful Catholics that some Eminent voices appear to ignore this clear Conciliar teaching by advocating a return to that maximalising, innovatory, exercise of papal authority which Benedict XVI discerned as having been so corrosive during the period following Vatican II; accurately discerned and appropriately condemned

The sort of faithful Catholics, who in the 1870s after Vatican I were criticised as maximalists for asserting what the Council did decree about extent of papal authority, seems now to run the risk of being criticised as minimalists for asserting what Vatican I decreed about the limits of papal authority. And behind it all is an uneasy feeling, I am sure, groundless, among some such people, that our beloved Holy Father may see them as a Problem standing in the way of what he wishes to achieve. Trust between the Roman Pontiff and those whose great wish is to be his faithful children, is thus damaged. Hence the anguish about this pontificate in 'traddy' areas of the internet.

I write personally as one individual in the communities which entered into Full Communion via the Ordinariates. We had spent decades asserting and defending the decrees of Vatican I on the Primacy and Infallibility of the Successor of S Peter (I particularly have in mind Dom Gregory Dix's papers on Vatican I, and the 'Centenary Papers', both from the 1930s). Our position since we came into Full Communion, I presume, continues to combine (a) full acceptance of both the positive and the negative formulations within Pastor aeternus of Vatican I, with (b) the summary of Catholic Doctrine in the Catechism.  

Meden huper ha gegraptai! 

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