De Praeultramontanissimo – Assessing the Threat of Papal Totalitarianism

Introduction

From the ten questions proposed for the subject of this essay I have decided to answer the following: “The Petrine Office is more like a constitutional monarchy than an absolute monarchy. Discuss.” In short, my response is that the Petrine Office should be more like a constitutional monarchy than an absolute monarchy, but – according to the current state of Catholic Dogma – it is not. It is true that recent Popes (roughly from the 1900s on) have acted as if the Petrine Office is a constitutional monarchy – with Pope Francis in particular administering his office in a very collegial manner – but in this paper I will propose that there is nothing in current Catholic dogma and canon law which would prevent a rogue Pope from governing the church in the way of a totalitarian dictator or despot, at least in the realm of doctrinal and dogmatic pronouncements. There appear to be loopholes in existing canon law and dogma which – while no Pope has yet exploited them – make room for a megalomaniacal Pope to define doctrine according to his whim and fancy. I argue that these loopholes are one of the key stumbling blocks (although there are undoubtedly others) that are preventing a grand ecumenical reunification between the Catholic church and the various other ancient Christian communions, in particular the Eastern Orthodox Church. Finally, I propose some steps that could be taken to secure the loophole.

The Problem of Papal Infallibility

The fourth chapter of the Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Pastor aeternus) makes the following dogmatic definition:

We teach and define that it is a dogma Divinely revealed that the Roman pontiff when he speaks ex cathedra, that is when in discharge of the office of pastor and doctor of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, by the Divine assistance promised to him in Blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed that his Church should be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith or morals, and that therefore such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves and not from the consent of the Church irreformable.

So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema.1

Note that there is nothing in this dogmatic definition which explicitly requires the Pope to consult the bishops first, even if that is what tends to happen and many Catholics believe that it is necessary. Rather, the dogma here even goes so far as to explicitly state that an infallible definition of the Pope is irreformable “of itself” and that the “consent of the church” is irrelevant. Slightly earlier in pastor aeternus there can be found this section:

For the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter that by His revelation they might make known new doctrine, but that by His assistance they might inviolably keep and faithfully expound the Revelation, the Deposit of Faith, delivered through the Apostles.

This paragraph of the document is often cited and understood as a sort of “safeguard” against the possibility of Papal Infallibility being abused by an ambitious and nefarious Pope, however it seems clear to me that it does nothing of the sort. Firstly, the paragraph is very vague and subjective: How exactly in this context are we supposed to understand “new doctrine,” “the Revelation” and “the Deposit of Faith?” For example a Pope could feasibly define any doctrine and then defend it as being a crucial part of the Holy Tradition, so long as he is able to anchor his definition loosely in something that some church father or church doctor said long ago. Theologians may argue and dispute the definition and its theological foundations, but this would be paradoxical because Papal definitions are supposed to end debate over an issue rather than fan the flames.

Secondly, there is nothing in this supposed safeguard paragraph which clearly and precisely puts limits and boundaries on the exercise of infallibility. Catholics tend to assume that the Pope must first consult the college of bishops before promulgating a definition (and this has in fact been the historical precedent), however there is nothing in this safeguard passage, the actual dogmatic definition, or anywhere else in the encyclical which reveals this to be the case. As it stands, so long as the Pope claims that his new definition is in line with the tradition – no doubt marshalling some proof texts from scripture and the fathers in the process – there are no hard and fast checks and balances to stop him. If a Pope were to go ahead and define something really controversial – for example the doctrine of ἀποκατάστασις – he would be well within his dogmatic and canonical rights to do so, and the inevitable result would be massive schisms, furious theological debates, and relentless proliferation of anti-popes and sedevacantist splinter groups.

In short there is nothing in the dogma as stated in pastor aeternus which requires the Pope to consult the bishops before exercising his infallibility, contrary to the common understanding among Catholics. This is a big loophole in the Catholic system which I advise would be wise to plug sooner rather than later.2

There is also a problem of hermeneutics. Protestants often convert to Catholicism in order to escape the doctrinal chaos of Protestantism,3 where everyone agrees that the scriptures are the highest authority but no one is able to agree on the correct interpretation of those same scriptures. Catholicism often is presented as an attractive solution to the conundrum, in that the magisterium is a living authority which is able to provide definitive interpretation of the scriptures and traditions of the church. Some (but not all) of these Protestant converts eventually go on to discover that the problem of interpretation has not actually been solved by their conversion, and has in fact been pushed back a step; rather than debating the meaning of scriptural verses, now theologians have to debate the meaning of Papal pronouncements and canons of councils. If anything, their life has been made more difficult: Where before the Christian only had to confront a 66 book bible, now she has to wrangle with two millennia of Church documents, liturgies, councils and papal pronouncements, and all the while there still is no official hermeneutical key available by which all theologians are able to come to agreement. In practice the solution adopted by many Catholics is simply to obey and submit to whatever the leaders of the church are saying, which is why it is important that the Catholic system is able to effectively maintain consensus, consistency and cohesion among those leaders. An official hermeneutic which is simple enough for anyone to apply would arguably solve the problem – more on this below.

All of these concerns apply particularly to the papal pronouncements made under the conditions of infallibility; even once the pronouncement has been made, there is no official hermeneutic specified for interpreting the statement; as such, the statement is open to many various interpretations and these may even change, multiply or fade away as time goes by. A contemporary example of this phenomenon would be the hermeneutical controversy and chaos in the church over the correct interpretation of Amoris Laetitia: Some Catholic authorities have interpreted the document as if it permits communion to be given to divorced and remarried couples, while other Catholic authorities have interpreted it in such a way that they arrive at the opposite conclusion. This shows how even when a Pope promulgates a teaching, the problem of hermeneutics is not automatically solved and the Pope’s statements can always be interpreted in a variety of ways, with some of these ways being mutually exclusive. I suggest that it might be helpful to take action to clamp down on these hermeneutical ambiguities.

A Proposed Solution

I propose four action points to solve the problem:

  1. The infallibility of both Papal pronouncements and the canons of ecumenical councils should be re-framed as divine clarification: an open canon of inspired statements serving as an interpretive complement to the closed canon of scripture.

  2. The role of the papacy should be canonically and dogmatically reshaped such that it does indeed look more like a constitutional monarchy, rather than an absolute one. Specifically, the Church should officially ratify the common Catholic understanding that the Pope must consult his bishops (via ecumenical council) prior to promulgating a dogma.

  3. An official fundamental theology should be established and adopted, along with a simple and elegant hermeneutic for interpreting it.

  4. A new ecumenical council should promptly be held in order to canonically ratify and dogmatically implement points 1, 2 and 3.

Divine Clarification

In one sense this point is something of a “branding” issue. I would argue that the Catholic church already has a system of divine clarification in place, but without explicitly referring to it as such. I suggest that recognising this element of the Catholic doctrinal and dogmatic framework for what it is will gift Catholics with a more definite and perspicuous faith.

As it stands, the canon of divine clarification is open – which is desirable – but it is also fuzzy and ill-defined, which is problematic and – I argue – leads to an economic problem: the misuse of theological human resources. By this I mean that much time, effort and energy is spent among lay Catholics disputing what is and what is not the official church stance on various doctrinal and practical issues, and – more worrying still – this same debate is raging in the higher theological echelons of the Catholic church, with bishops and theologians disputing amongst each other over which church statements are and are not infallible. To take one example, some theologians consider the question of female ordination to be closed once and for all by what they take to be an infallible definition in the writings of Pope Saint John Paul II, and yet other theologians dispute this and so the debate and politics over the matter continues to this day.

Divine clarification in this context of interpretive chaos and confusion could be analogously understood as a form of continuing revelation. I propose that it would be helpful to collate and identify another official inspired text to which statements can be added as time goes by and from which no statement can be abrogated once included. The text would essentially be an infallible collection of infallible dogmas. It would be similar to Denzinger’s “Enchiridion symbolorum, definitionum et declarationum de rebus fidei et morum,” but less messy and haphazard (The Enchiridion strikes one as a dumping ground of clippings and creeds from various church documents that have been composed during the course of Christian history, rather than a clear and concise dictionary of infallible doctrines). Likewise, it would be similar to Ludwig Ott’s Fundamental Theology – which includes simple, precise dogmatic formulas – but stripped of all commentary. The purpose of the text would simply be to concisely and perspicuously present a list of infallible and inspired dogmatic statements, which would be a hermeneutical key that any Catholic can use to interpret the deposit of faith, and can themselves also be interpreted by the faithful.

If this recommendation were followed, it would provide an agreed focal point for theological discussion and debate amongst Catholics, whether they be lay, clerical or academic. Rather than having to sift through 2000 years of church documents and argue for or against the dogmatic status of various statements; Catholics would instead focus their attention on this single canonical text of divine clarification which presents a complete and up to date compilation of all statements thus far considered to be infallible, inspired and of the highest (De Fide) authority.

I have dwelt on this matter of fundamental theology and dogmatics because below I will be frequently referring to this proposed canon of divine clarification. I will suggest a framework for governing the relationship between the Pope, the college of bishops, and this proposed new and inspired canonical text.

Comparison with Mormonism

It is relevant to quickly note a comparison between this proposal and the way the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints operates. The Mormons have an open canon of scripture and revelation which includes the King James Bible, the Book of Mormon, and a book very similar to the one I have proposed here called “The Doctrine and Covenants.” Unlike the Bible and the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants is an open canon of “sections,” with new sections added to the book slowly over time. Unlike the inspired text I have proposed here, the majority of sections of the Doctrine and Covenants read like private mystical experiences as recounted by saints; in comparison the text I am proposing would be a concise and perspicuous collection of dogmatic statements, more akin to Ludwig Ott’s text of Fundamental theology, but stripped of all commentary.

Papal Monarchy and Ecumenical Collegiality

The role of the papacy should be canonically and dogmatically reshaped such that it does indeed look more like a constitutional monarchy, rather than an absolute one. Taking the Australian political system as a model, the role of the Catholic Pope would be akin to the role of the Australian Governor General: His doctrinal infallibility would be restricted to either approving or denying the dogmatic canons of ecumenical councils. This would officially ratify the common Catholic understanding that the Pope must consult his bishops prior to promulgating a dogma, and make it explicit in canon law and church dogma what most Catholics seem to think is already the case: that the pope can only exercise his infallibility after consulting his bishops. This would hopefully be a big gesture towards the Eastern Orthodox, who would presumably appreciate some official bounds and limits being applied to the Papacy.

To be more precise, I propose that papal infallibility should be somehow limited such that the Pope’s only role in the dogmatic system is to ratify a council as being ecumenical. When a Pope identifies a council as being ecumenical, all of the dogmatic canons of that council are then inserted into the previously discussed canonical text of divine clarification. To state the point more clearly: the Pope would not be able pick and choose statements from councils to ratify; he must instead accept all of them at once. In this way, the bishops together in council would deliberate and decide on the dogmas, while the Pope would merely approve the decisions of the bishops as to what statements should be added to the canon of divine clarification. The Pope would also not be able to just construct infallible statements and promulgate them at his whim and pleasure: he would instead have to call a council and have the bishops of the council approve the statement first.

An important aside: Justice would be done to the first Vatican councils insistence that the Pope has universal jurisdiction, in that the Pope can anywhere and at any time exercise his infallibility as I have just defined it. In other words, the Pope could point to any council of bishops throughout Christian history and declare it to be an ecumenical council. The Pope could also call a new council at any time and propose statements to the bishops for approval. This would open up room for the Pope to accept Eastern Orthodox councils as ecumenical, or retroactively convey ecumenical status on a regional council that happened long ago. I should note that there is still the problem of working out which canons of a council should be added to the canon of divine clarification, even after that council has been identified by the Pope as ecumenical. I will comment on this further below.

Comparison with the Australian System of Government

There are parallels between the system I have described and the way that the Australian Government operates. The Pope would be akin to the governor general of Australia. A new law is not officially ratified in the Australian system until it has been approved by the governor general, and the governor general cannot just invent and implement laws out of the blue. One difference is that the Pope would be able to at least propose new dogmas to the college of bishops, which is something not often seen in the Australian system.

Perhaps there would also be a similarity to the Australian interplay between the upper and lower houses of parliament. Bills often pass back and forth between the upper and lower houses of parliament, accruing revisions along the way before being finally passed or rejected. In a similar fashion, both the Pope and the bishops could veto each other’s statements and argue for changes and revisions to any proposed dogmatic statements before they are finally ratified into the canon of divine clarification. The Pope would have the final say on what dogmatic statements are in and out, but the bishops would have crucial input and possess a degree of collegial veto power.

An Official Fundamental Theology

Under my proposals, the discipline of fundamental theology would still be required, but its importance would be much less than it is today. This is because the canon of divine clarification would no longer be fuzzy and ill-defined. The inspired text containing the canon of divine clarification would be a focal point that Catholics could refer to. Fundamental theology would still be a relevant discipline because there would still be two millennia of church documents and creeds to analyse, but there would no longer be ambiguity about which statements are inspired, infallible and possess the highest authority, because all such statements would be easily accessible in the new canonical text of divine clarification.

There are however certain questions that need to be answered. Firstly, if a Pope decides to identify a council from long ago as ecumenical, which statements of that council are to be included in the inspired canon of divine clarification and which are not? This is a question which needs to be rigorously worked out and definitively answered, and it is beyond my competence at this time to propose a concrete solution. However as a tentative example of the form a solution might take, if a canonical statement from a council is concluded with the phrase “anathema sit,” perhaps this would be taken as an indication that the fathers of that council meant to proclaim a dogma. Another simple solution to the problem would be to revisit old councils under the new system: the canons and anathemas of previous councils could be submitted to the bishops of today in a modern council for revision and discussion, before being finally ratified into the canon of divine clarification.

A second question is the more direct issue of hermeneutics and language. Do translations of the canon of divine clarification possess equal authority to the original text? This question is again outside my area of competency at this time, but my proposal would be that statements should only be considered authoritative in the original language that they were promulgated. However, it would be possible for the bishops in council to also promulgate official translations, and these translations would be considered equal in inspiration and authority to the originals. In this way, dogmatic statements may be promulgated in any language, or even multiple languages simultaneously, and each version of the statement would be understood to stand on its own and possess equal authority and inspiration.

Case Study: Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus

Even after taking all of this into account, the fundamental hermeneutic problem remains: Once a statement has been included in the canonical text of divine clarification, how is it to be understood? A hermeneutic needs to be specified. It needs to be a hermeneutic which does full justice to the original intent of the canons, but is also flexible enough to avoid “shackling the spirit:” The Holy Spirit can say many different things to many different people through a single statement of scripture, and this would also apply to the statements of the canon of divine clarification.

To take one example, when it was originally promulgated the doctrine of extra ecclesiam nulla sallus (“outside the church there is no salvation”) arguably meant that anyone who dies without converting to Catholicism is certainly damned. However since the time of the second Vatican council this dogmatic formula has been creatively reinterpreted to give a more inclusive meaning. This phenomenon of reinterpretation may be desirable or undesirable, and so it would be helpful if the Church could officially decide on a hermeneutic which either removes or enables these ambiguities.

Vatican III: A New Council

My final proposal is that another ecumenical council should promptly be called, purely for the purpose of implementing the previous suggestions. At this council the bishops would sift through the history of councils gone before and select any creeds and canons which they would like to add to the canon of divine clarification. This would explicitly and definitively clarify which parts of the Christian tradition are infallible and inspired, and would put an end to speculations and arguments about whether or not a statement from a pope or council is infallible. During this new ecumenical council, all the many statements that fundamental theologians tend to argue over can be considered and a firm decision finally made, with a new canon perhaps being produced in response.

When sifting through the list of councils, the Catholic bishops would also examine councils that took place in eastern Christendom after the great schism. There are some councils which are considered to be ecumenical in the east, at least at a popular level. Any such councils which are generally held by the Eastern Orthodox to be ecumenical could be adopted by Catholics at their new ecumenical council. This notion might sound strange to Catholic ears, and a faithful Catholic might respond with confusion: “How could we adopt a council as ecumenical if there wasn’t a single Catholic bishop present!” But it is important to consider the matter charitably: this sentiment is exactly how many Eastern Orthodox Christians feel towards the purely “Latin” councils of Catholicism. Eastern Orthodox Christians may be more likely to accept Catholic ecumenical councils as ecumenical if Catholics are willing to at least consider Orthodox ecumenical councils in return.

In adopting the councils of the Eastern Orthodox, there will of course be some theological tension. To take just one example, many Eastern Orthodox councils have in the past been heavily influenced by the Eastern theological and mystical traditions of Palamism and Hesychasm, whereas western councils have tended to lean strongly towards Thomistic theology. I suggest that the council fathers of the proposed new council should be fearless in adopting canons from both East and West, even if they appear contradictory at first glance. This will force future theologians to respect both theological camps and construct a robust theological synthesis, rather than prejudicing only one side of the argument.

Conclusion

When examining the historical record, one could be forgiven for assuming that the Papacy is a constitutional monarchy: Popes have thus far governed the church with much assistance from the college of bishops. However canonically and dogmatically speaking, there does not seem to be any official safeguards built into the Catholic system to prevent a Pope from becoming an absolute dictator in the realm of doctrine, dogma, faith and morals. I have argued that this threat is real and serious, and if left unchecked it could quite easily lead to chaos and schism in the church. I have proposed four points of action which – if implemented – might help to prevent any such crisis from ever occurring.

Bibliography

Madrid, Patrick. Surprised by Truth. Manchester, New Hampshire. Sophia Institute Press, 1994

Madrid, Patrick. Surprised by Truth 2. Manchester, New Hampshire. Sophia Institute Press, 2000

Madrid, Patrick. Surprised by Truth 3. Manchester, New Hampshire. Sophia Institute Press, 2002

1Vatican Council, Sess. IV, Const. de Ecclesiâ Christi, Chapter iv

2Due to time constraints on this assignment, I was not able to do an exhaustive survey of canon law and tradition so as to discover if there are any other checks and balances available to the Catholic system. I have based this paper purely on the dogmatic definition in pastor aeternus. This would be an interesting area for further research.

3There are many testimonies of people converting to Catholicism for this reason in the Surprised by Truth and Coming Home series of books.

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