Pope Francis Is Diminishing the Papacy. Good.

We thank our old friend and contributor to this blog, johnhenrycn, known here as JH, for drawing our attention to this perceptive and highly amusing article. As JH has advised, please don’t be put off by the title. The Papacy is not in any real danger.


The Pope is not an oracle, and it’s not Catholic to view him as such.

Sometimes I think Pope Francis is a gift to the Catholic Church, especially when he says something silly, clumsy, or even stupid. He allows serious Catholics to take the papal cult less seriously than they have been doing for generations. Overall, that’s a good thing.

It began almost gently, as a matter of style, with the way Pope Francis offered pungent insults in his homilies and interviews. He called out archetypes. He slammed what he called “airport bishops.” He characterized Christians who complain too much as “Mr. and Mrs. Whiner.” He belittled certain types of nuns as “old maids.” Suddenly, the almost Olympian dignity of the papacy was replaced by something else.

The cult that has surrounded the papacy in recent decades is not entirely Catholic. Much of it is driven by celebrity culture, and the demands of an unending news cycle. The pope functions in the mainstream media as a kind of living symbol of all Western religion. In the Catholic media, he’s the man who can move magazine covers, or get you to click. He’s the most famous Catholic, and he’s covered as if he were providing “the religious view” of current events.

One way or another, people look to him as a living oracle. Many believe, falsely, that a pope has the authority to change unpopular moral and theological teachings of the Church, as if he were the leader of a giant political party and decided that a few planks in the party platform needed to be changed to ensure his party’s relevance.

But in some ways, the exaggerated cult of the papacy has roots in the Church itself. The doctrine of papal infallibility as defined by the First Vatican Council was clearly a reaction to the age of revolution. Romantics within the Church wanted to re-invest the papacy with an authority that no politician or political movement could claim. The definition the Council promulgated fell far short of the ultramontanist ideal, and was in fact framed as a brake against novelty. The pope should invoke his infallible authority only when teaching what the Church has always taught and believed.

But faithful Catholics also used this doctrine of infallibility as a kind of security blanket during a long period of theological and doctrinal confusion. They reconciled their conviction that the Church was “indefectible” with the reality of apostasy all around them by clinging to the papal magisterium for stability. Joseph Ratzinger, first as a kind of ghostwriter for John Paul II and then as Benedict XVI, gave that sense of unshakeable solidity to the papacy.

Francis is now something less than a symbol of religion, or the living representative of Catholic faith on earth. He’s not a sign from God for all living in this moment. Through his own loquacity, he’s reduced himself to a stereotype that has become familiar to many Catholics: He’s the old liberal, who is just appalled by the young Huns entering his religious order.

Last week, Pope Francis was speaking to a group of liturgists in Rome, and summing up the 20th-century history of liturgical reform in the Roman Church. He told a very simple story of how conservative popes encouraged reforms throughout the 20th century, and then the Second Vatican Council issued its opinion, shortly thereafter, that there should be a new liturgy in the vernacular, one that encouraged more lay participation. In the midst of this clichéd and not altogether illuminating hash of history, he used language invoking his authority as pope in a rather clumsy way. “We can affirm with certainty and magisterial authority that the liturgical reform is irreversible.”

This little sentence caused liturgical traditionalists to erupt in shock and horror, and liturgical progressives to chortle in victory. But all this is premature. In the era of Francis, papal utterances no longer end debates — partly because Francis seems to open up debates that were previously closed under the previous pontificates, and partly because no one can quite tell you what, specifically, Francis means, or if he means anything at all.

How can a process of reform be “irreversible,” if it is also subject to continuing revision and application? “The practical application,” Pope Francis admitted in the same address, “is still ongoing.” In reality, the pope was merely gesturing at his great authority, as if that itself settled an ongoing dispute in the Church about whether the modern liturgical reform was a success or a dead end. In a way, he was trying to use papal authority as a kind of video-game cheat-code. And by doing so, he has once again reduced it.

Simply put, we don’t have to listen to popes when they are talking out of their rear ends. What Francis describes as an orderly procession of liturgical reform in the 20th century will very likely one day be seen as one of the greatest spams of iconoclasm in the history of Christianity.

And the fact that Francis is so wrong on this, as on many other things, will, one hopes, break the exaggerated papal cult once and for all. This period of time in the Church, in which its lay intellectuals and bishops turn almost exclusively to recent papal utterances rather than to Scripture and the doctors of the Church, will one day look very unusual. In God’s permissive will, and in his Providence, Pope Francis is hastening that day. For that I’m grateful.

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15 Responses to Pope Francis Is Diminishing the Papacy. Good.

  1. For that, we should ALL be grateful.


  2. Mary Salmond says:

    As with any person, it is difficult to know what is in the heart – only God knows!


  3. Roger says:

    Who couldn’t disagree with this!
    The Servant cannot be Greater than the Master. The Catholic belief in the Papacy is Christ centred because Peter must put Christ first.
    The Papacy is the putting Christ first and the Divine Rights. Our Lord told Us that those that followed Him would in turn suffer as He suffered.

    Since really 1958 and onwards the Popes have enjoyed almost Presidential style of Media coverage including International Awards for Man Of The Year.

    Many in Our Lord’s Day wanted and a worldy Messiah, civil and human rights etc.. This same cult status has been behind wordly Papacy that we see here! It has diminished the Papacy and by not being good shepherds the sheep are starved of the food they need to reach Heaven.

    It was Judas that sought to force Our Lord’s hand here into a Messianic worldy role. The Jews still await such a worldy Messiah.

    Our Lord came to repair for Adam’s Original Sin and win back for Man what had been lost by Adam and Eve. A land of milk and honey of Eternity, with No sickness, No death (because Our Lord had conquered Death) Heaven Our Fathers and His Sons and Daughters Home.

    Our Lord’s answer was to seek first the Kingdom Of Heaven and the rest would be given. The Papacy will only exist until Christ Return, because the Pope is Christ Vicar.

    Understand One Lord One Faith and One Rock!


  4. johnhenrycn says:

    Some good thoughts there, Roger, especially your third paragraph. I asked you yesterday on another thread which pope you favour. You didn’t really answer, probably because my question was poorly worded. I should have asked you – Who do you say is the pope right now?


  5. Roger says:

    Hi John
    Me I don’t know and I am not lowering my guard.

    What I know is that the Popes historically have been a mixed bunch. Some had children and mistresses. Some in their personal life left much to be desired. But the Faith was always preserved intact and the spirit of Truth has been revealing more of the Truth. Dogma building on Dogma. Our Lord promised His Church the spirit of Truth to shew the things to come (Prophecy) and we would be taught all Truth and this has been true for 2000 years.

    John 16
    [13] “But when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will teach you all truth. For he shall not speak of himself; but what things soever he shall hear, he shall speak; and the things that are to come, he shall shew you.”

    John 15
    [26] “But when the Paraclete cometh, whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceedeth from the Father, he shall give testimony of me.”

    1 John 4
    [6] “We are of God. He that knoweth God, heareth us. He that is not of God, heareth us not. By this we know the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error.”

    The Faith is One Lord, One Faith, One Rock (The Pope)

    Now almost every point of the above it seems is under attack. This is apparently at the highest levels in Rome. Instead of One Lord it seems we have to have acceptance of many! Instead of One Faith it seems we have to accept many. Its called Ecumenism. I call it Masonry. If there are Many Faiths there are Many Heads presumably and of equal standing.
    Nothing including Marriage it seems is sacred anymore


  6. johnhenrycn says:

    “Me I don’t know and I am not lowering my guard.”

    A very Toadspittilian comment if I may say so, Roger, but God bless all the same.


  7. kathleen says:

    I read an excellent article on “First Things” by Aaron Taylor last week where he discusses the limits of papal infallibility. Here are two extracts (with my emphasis in bold):

    “[…] As Brian Tierney has argued in Origins of Papal Infallibility, 1150-1350, the doctrine [of papal infallibility] was originally conceived as a bridle—preventing popes from contradicting their predecessors—rather than a permission to alter established doctrines and practices. Put another way, it was a way of re-affirming—against the backdrop of an increasingly powerful medieval papacy—Catholic belief in the definitive and final nature of Christian revelation, by which the papacy, too, is bound.


    The problem is that locating the justification for papal infallibility in the human need for certainty, in psychology rather than theology, dispenses with the limitations that the Catholic tradition sees as intrinsic to papal authority. The gift of infallibility flows not from our need for certainty, which is as unlimited as the human capacity to create controversy, but from God’s desire that we know with certitude those truths necessary for our salvation. The gift of infallibility is the condition of possibility for the existence of a Church that continues Christ’s teaching mission. The hierarchical nature of the Church means that this gift is not exercised by all equally, but by some in a singular way. But it is not a magic spell enabling those who attain sufficient ecclesiastical rank to make true what is not already part of God’s definitive revelation in Christ—or to make untrue what is.


  8. JabbaPapa says:

    In the midst of this clichéd and not altogether illuminating hash of history, he used language invoking his authority as pope in a rather clumsy way. “We can affirm with certainty and magisterial authority that the liturgical reform is irreversible.”

    How can a process of reform be “irreversible,” if it is also subject to continuing revision and application?

    Actually, this is, in canonical terms, first to reaffirm a doctrine of Trent, which established definitively that reforms of the Liturgy are made under the sole Authority of the Roman Pontiff ; second, to establish with that Authority that the Novus Ordo Missal can no more be “abolished” than could the TLM ; third, to point out, much as Pope Benedict XVI did in Summorum Pontificum for the TLM, that if a future Pope were to promulgate a further revised Liturgy, that priests would continue to be able to use the NO Missal.

    This is exactly coherent with the doctrines of Trent on these questions.

    As for “continuing revision and application” — it is little different, at least in principle, to the same process as it concerns the Traditional Mass. All and any actual abuses, formal or blasphemous, excepted of course — no matter how sadly common they may be.


  9. JabbaPapa says:

    As Brian Tierney has argued in Origins of Papal Infallibility, 1150-1350, the doctrine [of papal infallibility] was originally conceived as a bridle—preventing popes from contradicting their predecessors—rather than a permission to alter established doctrines and practices

    Well quite — this is actually a central principle of all orthodox forms of Catholic Monarchy.

    Another way to think about this is that the private person who happens to be the Monarch is subjected to the decisions of the Monarch as a function. In one current Catholic Monarchy, its Constitution establishes that the Monarch as a private person is subjected to the Throne, which is the abstract incarnation of the past decisions of the previous and current Monarchs. The fact that the King or Queen of England is NOT technically subjected to the Law is the result of Henry VIII Tudor’s grotesque violations of this very principle.

    The notion of “continuing revision and application” will always exist in the very principles of how a Catholic Monarchy should function — it does not contradict the subjection of all, including the Monarch, to the Law.


  10. Roger says:

    Our Lord was very clear as to what to His Followers should expect and this applies especially to Peter. For 300 years she suffered martyrdom , persecution and a version of ethnic cleansing to destroy Her. The Blood Of Martyrs Seeds The Faith

    This is from Leo XIII “Annum ingressi”, 18 March, 1902
    During the whole course of her history the Church of Christ has had to combat and suffer for truth and justice. Instituted by the Divine Redeemer Himself to establish throughout the world the Kingdom of God, she must, by the light of the Gospel law, lead fallen humanity to its immortal destinies; that is, to make it enter upon the possession of the blessings without end which God has promised us, and to which our unaided natural power could never rise — a heavenly mission, in the pursuit of which the Church could not fail to be opposed by the countless passions begotten of man’s primal fall and consequent corruption — pride, cupidity, unbridled desire of material pleasures: against all the vices and disorders springing from those poisonous roots the Church has ever been the most potent means of restraint. Nor should we be astonished at the persecutions which have arisen, in consequence, since the Divine Master foretold them; and they must continue as long as this world endures. What words did He address to His disciples when sending them to carry the treasure of His doctrines to all nations? They are familiar to us all: “You will be persecuted from city to city: you will be hated and despised for My Name’s sake: you will be dragged before the tribunals and condemned to extreme punishment.” And wishing to encourage them for the hour of trial, He proposed Himself as their example: “If the world hate you, know ye that it hath hated Me before you.” (St. John xv., 18.)

    The venom and poison poured out against Pius XII who died in 1958 is contrasted by the Time Magazine Man of the year awards to post 1958 Popes. “You Will Be Hated and despised for My Name’s sake” There then is the dilemma.


  11. E. says:

    Well, Peter did deny Jesus – and then was sorry, and then was forgiven, and so it goes… Let us wait for the next pope. The Gospel is there for the ones that do not know where to turn to. God is good, would not let us fatherless. Great article. Thankyou!


  12. Roger says:

    Peter wasn’t Pope when he denied Our Lord.
    He was raised the Papacy after the Resurrection. Our Lord can make the stones into Children of Abraham. Just so we understand the God of Abraham is Our Lord (God-Man). The First shall be last and the Last First. Pray for the Conversion of the Jews.

    But E you are absolutely right about we pray and love and correct where this is necessary. The poor sinner is to be forgiven and loved provided they sin no more. Thats what Our Lord said to the woman taken in adultery. Love the poor sinner BUT NOT the SIN.


  13. JabbaPapa says:

    There’s an intriguing implicit suggestion in a post over at Father Z’s — http://wdtprs.com/blog/2017/08/the-young-want-the-patrimony-of-which-they-have-been-defrauded/

    … that this might be a rearguard action by the Pope to prevent a future more Traditional Church from abolishing the Novus Ordo completely ; as the demographics appear to suggest that just such a smaller, more Traditional Church (as Pope Benedict XVI suggested) is on the way.


  14. kathleen says:

    Yes Jabba, a great post from Father Z ! I’d read the original article on the online version of the Catholic Herald, but Fr Z’s feisty opinions and insights certainly add a lot to the topic. Lots of interesting comments in his comment section too.

    I think it’s a pretty established fact now: the upcoming young generations of Catholics, passionately in love with their new discovery of the Church’s beautiful heritage, her traditions and liturgy, stolen (or hidden) from them by the libs at V2, are the ones who will one day bring about the cleansing of the Modernism and worldliness infiltrated into the Church in the immediate aftermath of the Council that my poor generation was brought up with.

    It is true that many of those old liberal ‘wreckers’ who, with the excuse that their destruction of the liturgy, altar rails, etc., was part of a so-called ‘spirit of Vatican II’, must be getting pretty desperate as they view the growing numbers of Catholics, especially among the young, who seek the Traditional Latin Mass and all those holy devotions they tried so hard to consign to the rubbish heap forever.

    The old liberals’ “shuffling of deck chairs on the Titanic” appears to be reaching levels of sheer hysteria now as time runs out for them!


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