On Legitimate Disagreements with the Successors of the Apostles in Prudential Matters


Aelianus of Laodicea has posted a reply to my post on the anointing at Bethany that I think merits an extended response. He writes:

The Holy Father’s moderation of the papal liturgy along with his comments about the desired poverty of the Church seem to imply that he feels there is a relationship between the splendour of the liturgy and the provision the Church makes for the poor. Presumably some people feel this is an unfair suggestion and that the faithful have more than enough resources to provide for the poor and for the worthy service of the altar. Presumably they also feel that the implied relationship is a distraction from the inadequacy of the provision made for either. Furthermore, while the faithful may indeed neglect the poor materially, the essence of the problem lies in the principle upon which wealth is acquired not the mere quantity or distribution. Here perhaps the true negligence lies in the coyness of the holders of the teaching office in proposing the divinely revealed truth concerning the true function of money. In this (as in other matters) there have been shepherds, who have not, as becomes Apostolic authority, extinguished the flame of heretical teaching in its first beginning, but fostered it by their negligence.

This in turn underlines the fact that the prudential judgements of Popes about liturgical style or when and how much to teach are not guaranteed by God and that it is not the role of the faithful to imitate the apologists of the late USSR in frantically discerning why the Pope is necessarily right in every such prudential judgement. One only has to apply this prudential infallibility idea to previous centuries to see its absurdity. The faithful do not need to be guided and ruled by the Vicar of Christ, the authentic guardian of tradition (whether Benedict XVI, John XII, Celestine V, Boniface VIII or Francis) in their choice of footwear or transportation, liturgical composers, prose style or missionary strategy. When, however, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he undoubtedly possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals.

I have never denied that one can have legitimate disagreements with the Holy Father on prudential matters. In fact in a previous post I expressed my own disagreement with his liturgical minimalism, and unease at his apparent Gallicanism. Aelianus is surely right that our attitude toward the Holy Father should not be that of Soviet apparatchiki toward Stalin. But neither should it be the attitude of the citizens of liberal democracies toward their leaders — an attitude of habitual mistrust and scorn. It should be the attitude of a pious son toward his father, of a loyal subject toward his legitimate ruler.

It is vital not to regard our Holy Father with habitual suspicion, but rather to regard him with filial trust and docility, to try to learn all we can from his teaching, to be guided by his rule, and to voice legitimate criticism only with the utmost reverence and discretion.

Aelianus suggests that one is only obligated to be guided by the Holy Father when he infallibly defines doctrine. This is a popular position among theologians who would like to be able to dissent from every papal teaching save the definitions of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption,  but it is false. The Church requires religious submission of will and intellect not only to the extraordinary magisterium but also to the ordinary magisterium. On Aelianus’s account what would be the point of the ordinary magisterium? What authority would be left to all the other bishops in Christendom, who who cannot teach infallibly? Moreover, the Pope and the other bishops (in their own dioceses) are not merely teachers; they are also rulers. Not only lawgivers and judges, but also executives. That is, it is their office to make prudential decisions which guide the rest of us.

A great example of the proper disposition toward the pope is Bl. John Henry Newman’s attitude toward Bl. Pius IX. It is no secret that Newman thought Pio Nono very imprudent and suffered much from what he saw as the Holy Father’s bad policies. But he mostly voiced his opposition in confidential correspondence with people who could actually do something about it: officials of the Roman Curia, bishops and so on. The magnificent sermon on Bl. Pius IX that I have been excerpting on my blog is a wonderful testimony to the supernatural attitude which he preserved toward the Holy Father, and above all tried to instill in the faithful. Newman was an implacable foe of “popolatry” and even of legitimate ultramontanism, but he is a luminous example of proper reverence toward the Vicar of Christ. Newman teaches that in even in prudential matters it is safest to submit to the Vicar of Christ: “His yoke is the yoke of Christ, he has the responsibility of his own acts, not we; and to his Lord must he render account, not to us. Even in secular matters it is ever safe to be on his side, dangerous to be on the side of his enemies.”

There are two things that are vitally important in understanding to what extent and in what way we are free to criticize the Pope and other bishops: the first is the reverence that we owe them due to their office, and the second is the modesty and caution with which we should regard our own very fallible opinions.

On the first point: how does a good son regard his father and loyal subject his ruler? Certainly not the way the traditionalist bloggers that I attacked regard the Holy Father. To compare the Holy Father’s concern for the poor with that of Judas Iscariot, and therefore to imply that it is hypocritical (“he said this not because he cared anything about the poor but because he was a thief”) is pure poisonous malice. (The fact that they use a passage of scripture that the Fathers interpret in a virtually opposite sense makes their attacks also ridiculous). One wonders whether they would publishing such violent attacks on their own natural fathers. If reverence and love is due to one’s natural father, who has only given one bodily life, how much more so toward one’s Fathers in the order of supernatural life? St Catherine of Siena, who certainly had her prudential disagreements with the popes, writes:

Know that the son is never in the right against the father, even if the father is ever so evil and unjust, for so great is the good which he has received from the father, that is, life itself, that he can never repay him for it. And we have received the life of grace from the Church, which is so great a benefit, that we can never, by any kind of homage or gratitude, pay the debt we owe.

Surely she is not merely speaking of submitting to the extraordinary magisterium when she writes: “Even if the Pope were Satan incarnate, we ought not to raise up our heads against him, but calmly lie down to rest on his bosom.”

On the second point we should express our disagreements with the Holy Father on prudential matters with great hesitation and discretion for the simple reason that our prudential judgements might very well be wrong. Supreme confidence in one’s own opinion might be justified if one is St Catherine of Siena or St Catherine of Genoa (and yet mark with what reverence and humility they address themselves to popes), but it is certainly not justified in the likes of us, whose intellects are darkened by sensuality, wrath and a host of other vices. The modesty with which one expresses legitimate disagreements ought to spring from a realistic sense of the fact that the Holy Father, a man of evident purity of heart, endowed with the graces of his high office, is much less likely to be mistaken than am I. Overconfidence in ones own private opinion is a sure mark of pride–the root of ever heresy. Let us rather have that modesty about our own opinions as to what is best for the interests of the Church demonstrated by Newman in a meditation for Good Friday, with which I conclude:

[We] are in no doubt or trouble whatever, we have not a shadow of misgiving as to the permanence and the spiritual well-being either of Thy Church itself or of its rulers. Nor do we know what is best for Thy Church, and for the interests of the Catholic faith, and for the Pope, or the bishops throughout the world at this time. We leave the event entirely to Thee; we do so without any anxiety, knowing that everything must turn to the prosperity of Thy ransomed possession, even though things may look threatening for a season.


9 thoughts on “On Legitimate Disagreements with the Successors of the Apostles in Prudential Matters

  1. I quite agree that the proper attitude to the Holy Father is the “attitude of a pious son toward his father, of a loyal subject toward his legitimate ruler” and I certainly do not believe that “one is only obligated to be guided by the Holy Father when he infallibly defines doctrine”. However, it is quite obvious that the changes in liturgical style adopted by Pope Francis imply some criticism however mild of his predecessor’s choices. I am not saying he is wrong in making these changes. I don’t know. I am not saying he wrong in implicitly criticising his predecessors choices. I don’t know. I am just saying that one might well disagree with him as he seems to disagree with his predecessor and vice versa. There is certainly no need for venom or disrespect in such disagreement. I have a friend who dearly loved John Paul II and is a friend of Benedict XVI personally but really did not like his use of various sixteenth century items from the papal wardrobe and was not coy in saying so. If I did not like some item of clothing my father had taken to wearing I don’t think I would be too worried about saying so and I don’t think my father would be too worried about it either. I might joke about it to my Mother or my siblings. I would not feel the need to raise my dislike of his new shoes only in hushed tones or in a long thought out respectful private letter to my father. I think that is a good sign not a bad one. The Pope’s legislative power must be accepted even if exercised imprudently, just as I must drive on the right in those benighted countries where this option is chosen. I do not think my open expression of disagreement with the Canadian practice of driving on the right implies disrespect for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth of Canada. I am told her views are not uniform on the topic.

    Too much is made of the “extraordinary magisterium” a phrase which is almost never used by the magisterium. I quoted the definition of Vatican I because of its breadth not its narrowness. It never restricts the Pope’s infallible teaching to the “extraordinary magisterium” it never mentions this. It give (by my count) four preconditions for an infallible exercise of the papal magisterium and the chief drafter of the definition officially told the Council prior to the vote that “thousands and thousands of dogmatic judgments” already fulfilled those criteria by 1870. Certainly we must give obsequium religiosum to the Pope and the bishops in the manner laid out in Lumen Gentium 25. Nevertheless, it has been legitimately asked why all of a sudden since 1832 Pope have begun issuing long texts which mostly do not fulfill the four criteria Pastor Aeternus to the universal church when this had never previously occurred? It might also be legitimately asked whether this is really a wise course of action. One asks this not out of disloyalty to the Holy Father but because it actually fosters an attitude of dissent to his teaching. Catholics do not assume in advance that a communication to the entire Church by the Pope is a dogmatic judgment and so when it is a dogmatic judgments it passes them by. Furthermore, those with no scruple about rejecting the Pope’s dogmatic judgments find it much easier to generate confusion as to what is and is not binding on the faithful because of the sheer volume of material. Consequently we encounter the bizarre situation of some people howling with rage about the Pope’s sartorial choices and others piously explaining why his sartorial choices are good and holy and in perfect continuity with all previous sartorial choices made by the successors of St Peter with only positive doctrinal implications. This is not healthy. In fact, it is ridiculous.

    I quoted Leo II’s condemnation of Honorius in order to point out the extreme limits of Papal fallibility which should not be forgotten lest we slip into the superstitious idea that the Church (usually identified with the Papacy) is some sort of hypostasis with limited but growing knowledge wherein every day in every way everything just keeps getting better and better until the cosmic nuptials begin.

    The Holy Father’s moderation of the papal liturgy along with his comments about the desired poverty of the Church do seem to imply that he feels there is a relationship between the splendour of the liturgy and the provision the Church makes for the poor. However, they may simply be a matter of style designed to avoid any incongruity in his teaching. I doubt that when St Dominic realised that the Cistercian missionaries to the Cathars were undermining their case by the splendour of their demeanour he meant by the simplicity of his dress to imply an abstract general critique of aesthetically pleasing abbatial dress. Those who fear that the Holy Father’s sartorial choices do imply that he feels there is a relationship between the splendour of the liturgy and the provision the Church makes for the poor are entitled to point out that there is not. If them do so with venom or disrespect then they are rightly criticised.


  2. OK, I agree with everything you write here–it shows your usual good sense.

    I do, however, have two small questions:

    1) You write that some people piously explain why the Pope’s sartorial choices are “good and holy and in perfect continuity with all previous sartorial choices made by the successors of St Peter with only positive doctrinal implications.” Who are these people? I have not read them. As for me, I have never defended Pope Francis’s choice of vestments. In fact, I have implicitly criticized him for it by expressing sadness at his liturgical minimalism. I have however read a number of blogs whose writings on the Holy Father are the equivalent of you saying to your siblings “I’m horrified that Dad is our father! I think he is determined to destroy everything good about our family! I think his suggestion that we celebrate his birthday by helping out poor cousin Fred is hypocrisy and treachery of the worst sort!”

    2) Do you think that Queen Elizabeth is still the legitimate ruler of Canada? I thought it was your position that any State which legalizes ‘gay marriage’ declares war against its own constituent parts and so dissolves itself. And that therefore driving on the “wrong” side of the street is a sin against prudence rather than justice in any realm (such as Canada) which has such a law.

    A blessed Triduum.


  3. 1. Oh no! I wasn’t accusing you of suddenly acquiring a penchant for polyester chasubles. I had a conversation with a friend the other day in which she gave me an amazing account of how Benedict XVI’s thrones and jewelled mitres had been a brilliantly planned preparation for Francis’s eschewal of the red mozzetta, people’s altar etc. The poor girl clearly thought it was her duty as a good Catholic to develop this theory rather like Rex Mottram and the spiritual rain. You did say we have to express disagreement with the Holy Father on prudential matters with “great hesitation and discretion” and I am not sure I would go along with that. I think we should disagree with the Holy Father on prudential matters without venom or disrespect. As with any disagreement with anyone we ought to bear in mind the likelihood that this or that person knows what he is about far more than I do (is better qualified to decide, enjoys graces of state I don’t have etc.) before, during and after opening our mouth. Of course if one is a cleric, especially if one is preaching, one must be more careful because when one speaks for the Church even in a fallible humble capacity it is best to avoid prudential judgements as far as possible (precisely because people find it hard to distinguish).

    2. Legitimacy is a thorny issue. St Augustine and St Thomas seem to think that in some sense no regime is legitimate outside the Church. Eusebius (fwiw) said as much back in the 330s. Outside of that it seems one just has to be a de factoist. I think it is perhaps a little like parenting you have to leave the parents to fulfil their positive duties to the child (like baptism) unless and until you see the child is in danger of death and so they have definitively failed. Then you may baptise the child contrary to the wishes of the parents. But if some parent is a rapist or something else awful that doesn’t actually kill the child but is clearly inherently incompatible with parenthood then you can go in and rescue the child because the parent has abdicated (like the Whigs claim about James II). The question is, is ‘gay marriage’ that serious? Perhaps it is.


  4. ‘The chief drafter of the definition officially told the Council prior to the vote that “thousands and thousands of dogmatic judgements” already fulfilled those criteria by 1870.’
    Aeliane, do you have a reference for that?


    • The Gift of Infallibility: The Official Relatio on Infallibility of Bishop Vincent Gasser at Vatican Council I, trans. James T. O’Connor (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008), 51.


  5. I reader sent in an e-mail disagreeing with your account of the distinction (or lack thereof) between the Ordinary and Extraordinary Magisterium of the Pope:

    I disagree thoroughly on the question of the Ordinary and Extraordinary Magisterium. [Aelianus’s] thesis … is, more or less, to abolish the distinction between the Ordinary Magisterium of a Pontiff and those occasions when he chooses to exercise his supreme authority in a solemn judgement. [He] reckons that the term ex cathedra is to be understood to include the Pope’s teachings in his Ordinary Magisterium. Even if the term ‘Extraordinary’ is found more in theological texts than Magisterial ones, still, differing levels of Papal authority are constantly implied within the Magisterium. As Pope Pius XII in Humani Generis 20:
    ‘Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to say: “He who heareth you, heareth me”;[3] and generally what is expounded and inculcated in Encyclical Letters already for other reasons appertains to Catholic doctrine.’
    He doesn’t use ‘extraordinary’ but, still, there is ‘ordinary’, and on such occasions popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority. The “supreme power”, which is reserved for particular occasions and needs, can legitimately be called ‘extraordinary’.

    I’m not quite sure what to think myself. I have to study the question more, and would like to read the Gasser text you cite. I do think that you are right about this much: many more Papal Teachings are in fact ex cathedra than current theological fashion would have us hold. On the other hand, if everyone gave the bishops and the Pope the sort of religious submission discussed in LG 25, I don’t think the question of which teachings actually fullfil Vatican I’s criteria for infallible statements would be so urgent.


    • There is certainly a distinction between the ordinary and extraordinary magisterium but the question of where this distinction lies is not relevant to the scope of Pastor Aeternus which encompasses both under the conditions given in the definition. These conditions are sometimes fulfilled by ordinary acts of the papal magisterium and always fulfilled by extraordinary acts of the papal magiterium. The point I was making is that the distinction not relevant to Pastor Aeternus which is why the Constitution does not make it.

      The only significant place where ‘extraordinary magisterium’ seems to be used is Mortalium Animos §9. Here the distinguishing characteristic of the extraordinary magisterium seems to be that imposes or proscribes not only the content but the form of a particular doctrine. Pius XI says,

      “the teaching authority of the Church, which in the divine wisdom was constituted on earth in order that revealed doctrines might remain intact for ever, and that they might be brought with ease and security to the knowledge of men, and which is daily exercised through the Roman Pontiff and the Bishops who are in communion with him, has also the office of defining, when it sees fit, any truth with solemn rites and decrees, whenever this is necessary either to oppose the errors or the attacks of heretics, or more clearly and in greater detail to stamp the minds of the faithful with the articles of sacred doctrine which have been explained. But in the use of this extraordinary teaching authority no newly invented matter is brought in, nor is anything new added to the number of those truths which are at least implicitly contained in the deposit of Revelation, divinely handed down to the Church: only those which are made clear which perhaps may still seem obscure to some, or that which some have previously called into question is declared to be of faith.”

      Thus the principle characteristics of an extraordinary act of the magisterium seem to be:

      a) it is a definition
      b) with solemn rites and decrees
      c) opposed to error or heresy
      d) which more clearly and in greater detail
      e) explains or enacts an article of sacred doctrine

      It is b) and e) which distinguish the extraordinary from the ordinary. This fits with the historic practice of the Church where the highest acts of the magisterium seem mostly to be prefaced with ‘if anyone shall say’ or ‘if anyone shall deny’ or to take the form of creeds.

      Nevertheless, there are not ‘thousands and thousands’ of such acts and it would be contrary to the intention of those who enacted Pastor Aeternus to restrict its scope to these texts.

      The effect of this identification of Vatican I’s definition with the extraordinary magisterium is to confine the ascertainable scope of the infallible teaching office to a very small number of texts. The remainder are either treated with indifference or (what is worse) suffused with a sort of inspiration as the latest oracles of the emerging Kirchengeist. This suits those of a conservative rather than orthodox disposition but it transforms theologians into exegetes not of the sources of the faith but of Zenit.

      These are just two different forms of Modernism. In fact they represent the two elements in the last error condemned in the Oath Against Modernism “Finally, I declare that I am completely opposed to the error of the modernists who hold that there is nothing divine in sacred tradition; or what is far worse, say that there is, but in a pantheistic sense”.


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