Comment Opinion & Features

Can the pope do no wrong?


In recent months, controversies in the Catholic Church have reached a new pitch. On one side are critics of the Pope, often accused of being crypto-schismatics or sedevacantists. On the other side are ultramontanes – people who speak as if (even if they don’t quite believe) the Pope can do no wrong. Though superficially opposed, these two factions have a great deal in common, and they share a fundamental mistake.

In the 19th century, a group of Catholics sought to resist secular powers by insisting on the authority of the pope, who resided “over the mountains”. These “ultramontanes” were right to stress the pope’s authority, but over time their polemics became narrow and extreme.

In order to gain rhetorical advantage over their foes, they spoke as if every word of the pope were true and binding, every deed above reproach. As St John Henry Newman observed, they became “an aggressive, insolent faction”.

The ultramontanes went far beyond the doctrine of papal infallibility proclaimed at Vatican I. Counter to what many believe, that doctrine is carefully circumscribed. It means that the pope will never require Catholics to believe that which is false. It does not mean that whenever the pope makes a forceful statement, Catholics think it correct. The pope speaks infallibly only when he speaks in a certain way on certain matters.

Sedevacantism is the shadow side of ultramontanism. Like ultramontanes, sedevacantists refuse to admit that the pope can do serious wrong; they differ merely in the conclusions to which this refusal leads them. When presented with evidence that a pope has acted badly, ultramontanes deny that what the pope did was wrong. Sedevacantists, presented with the same evidence, deny that he who did wrong is the pope.

As history and scripture both show, popes can and do make grave errors, though never ones that controvert the Church’s own claims about papal infallibility. One need only consider the career of the first pope, St Peter. Christ himself rebuked Peter – “Get behind me, Satan” – and still Peter went on to deny him. On a later occasion, Paul, who was subordinate to Peter, nonetheless “opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong”. St Thomas explained the fittingness of Paul’s action, saying that Paul “opposed Peter in the exercise of authority, not in his authority of ruling”. Aquinas believed that the criticism was necessary, despite any fear of scandal, because “where danger is imminent, the truth must be preached openly and the opposite never condoned through fear of scandalising others.” Paul knew it was possible, even necessary, to say that Peter had acted wrongly, without questioning Peter’s authority.

Perhaps our current controversies are a kind of jittery withdrawal from the Church’s ultramontane highs. Since the latter part of the 19th century, the Church has been blessed with an unusually holy and brilliant series of popes. In this period, the Church may have come to expect too much of the successors of St Peter. Expectations are now so high that not even Peter could meet them. Twitter would have a field day with his denial of Christ. Some social media luminaries would declare that the Chair of Peter was empty, and others would explain that Peter had said something incontestably true.

Conservative Catholics, the kind who championed John Paul II and Benedict XVI, are particularly prone to disappointment. John Paul II witnessed to the truth of Christ against the lies of Soviet tyranny. He made grave mistakes, particularly in his inattention to sex abuse, but few men have presented to the world such a comprehensive image of human excellence. He was at once scholar, statesman, sportsman, and saint. Benedict XVI was in his way no less impressive. He was not only Bishop of Rome but one of the greatest minds of his time. Nothing like this could be said of most popes, but that did not disqualify them from the office.

At various points, Benedict XVI challenged exaggerated notions of papal authority. When asked whether the Holy Spirit chose the pope, he said no. After all, “There are too many contrary instances of popes the Holy Spirit obviously would not have picked!” Perhaps he hoped his resignation would lessen the tendency of some Catholics to view the pope in ultramontane terms. Whatever one makes of his resignation, that would be a commendable legacy. A far less welcome one would be a Church divided between crypto-sedevacantists and extreme papalists united by the belief that a legitimate pope can do no real wrong.

Forms of more or less explicit sedevacantism will remain in the Chuch so long as Catholics cling to an exaggerated idea of papal infallibility, one that goes beyond (and undermines) Catholic belief. The pope is the Vicar of Christ, not his replacement. Rebutting criticism of the pope with ultramontane effusions will reinforce crypto-sedevacantism, rather than undermining it. The surest way to stop exaggerated criticism of the pope is to stop the exaggerated praise.

Matthew Schmitz is senior editor at First Things