21 October 2015

A Critique of Contemporary Ultramontanism (5) – Papal Impeccability

(Today I continue my series on errant forms of contemporary ultramontanism. Given the Holy Father's recent discourse on his new "synodal Church", I suspect that the question of Papal authority is only going to become more relevant over the next few years.)

  • The Pope has supreme jurisdiction over the Church Militant, but the Pope himself is merely a vicar or steward within the Church. As such, he is subject to various fundamental laws which constitute the nature of both the Church and his own office—laws which he must personally obey, and which he cannot change.
  • These laws include the basic principles of reason (logic and prudence), the moral law (the natural law and divine commandments), and the rule of faith, which is the deposit of Divine Revelation. With respect to these things, the Popes are and have always been subjects, not masters, and their power to govern is derived from these bodies of law, rather than the reverse.
So far, the posts in this series have focused on errant forms of ultramontanism which place the Pope above the laws of reason.  In the second phase of our critique we will look at the Pope's relationship with the moral law, focusing on two forms of ultramontanism which get it wrong.

Part II. The Moral Law

A. Papal Impeccability

The first form of moral ultramontanism we will discuss is the belief in Papal Impeccability, or the inability of the Pope to commit sins.  One rarely hears this view stated outright, but it seems to underly a lot of popular piety surrounding the Pope.  This time I will present the error in a short dialogue between a proponent of the view and a critic.


—It would be wrong to suppose that the Pope is guilty of a moral fault in any particular case.


—Because he is the Pope.

—What does that have to do with it?

—Well, the Pope is our spiritual father. 

—Spiritual fathers, like natural fathers, sin all the time.

—But the Pope is a good and holy man.

—Is he a good and holy man because of his character, or because he occupies the See of Peter?

—Out of piety we should assume that he is a good and holy man, because he is the Pope.

—Why? Does the Petrine Office guarantee goodness and sanctity?

—If we suppose that the Pope is sinful or is committing some grave moral error, then the integrity of the Petrine Office collapses.

—Surely that's not true.  Christ never guaranteed to Peter that he would be the leader of the flock in sanctity.  He gave him the task of feeding his sheep.

How could Peter be trusted to feed Christ's sheep unless he was a holy man?

—This is where the important distinction between charismatic grace and sanctifying grace comes in.  Charismatic grace works for the upbuilding of the Church, and is effective regardless of whether it sanctifies the one who receives it.  Sanctifying grace, on the other hand, works inwardly in the person who receives it to make them pleasing to God.  The graces of the Petrine Office are charismatic graces, not sanctifying graces.

—Regardless of all this grace stuff, the Pope is our model in sanctity and moral living, so it would be a wicked scandal to suggest that he would ever do anything contrary to the moral law.

—But that doesn't make sense either!  We see examples of the Popes sinning all the way through history.  It's even in Scripture!

Maybe it's OK to say that maybe the Pope sins sometimes in private matters, but definitely not in the exercise of his office.

—Wrong again.  There are many historical examples of Papal sins which involve failures of office, public scandals, the misuse of power, cruelty, corruption, dereliction of duty, worldliness, etc.  The Popes have not reliably been exemplars of moral excellence.  Yes, a good number of them have been saints, and most have at least been decent men committed to the Gospel, but occupying the See of Peter is not enough to make one a saint in itself.

Oh no! Then who are we supposed to imitate and look up to?!  The foundations of my faith are  s h a k i n g ! ! !

We're supposed to look up to Christ and the Saints.  The Pope's office is one of preservation and government.  It's what he preserves that is sanctifying: the faith and sacraments.  He himself is not master of these things, nor does their power originate in his own personal excellence.  In exercising his office, and in living out his own life as Pope, the Holy Father has no more of a guarantee of moral perfection than anyone else.

But this means that the Pope might do something terribly damaging to the Church, and scandalous to the faithful, while he's Pope!

Yes.  It does.  And such things have happened in the past, and they seem to be happening now, and they will probably happen in the future.

—But why would God deliver us into the hands of a fallible man who could mislead his flock?

—Perhaps God never meant for the Church to worship the Pope as a quasi-divine leader, but to revere him as a human man endowed with divine authority, not in his own right, but by virtue of the treasure he is charged to preserve. Anyway, I can't remember any Pope ever teaching that Popes are incapable of sin.

(To be continued... a complete index of this series can be found here.)