Where Peter Is was recently mentioned in the New York Times, in a column by Ross Douthat entitled, “What Will Happen to Conservative Catholicism?” In the piece, he surveys the ways that conservative Catholics in America have responded to Pope Francis. He also analyzes two potential paths forward for Catholic conservatives other than that of Cardinal Burke or that which he describes as a “schismatic plunge.” The first is:
A conservative Catholicism that strains more mightily than Burke to interpret all of Francis’ moves in continuity with his predecessors, while arguing that the pope’s liberalizing allies and appointees are somehow misinterpreting him. ..it persists in the hope of a kind of snapping-back moment, when Francis or a successor decides that Catholic bishops in countries like Germany are pushing things too far, at which point there can be a kind of restoration of the John Paul II-era battle lines, with the papacy — despite Francis’ experiments — reinterpreted to have always been on the side of orthodoxy.
This, of course, is a line of thinking that we’ve largely pushed back against because we can’t ignore that there have been changes during this pontificate, not only developments in doctrine or changes in discipline, but in a renewed approach to evangelization and radical conversion that’s already beginning to take hold in the Church. We are convinced that Pope Francis’s legacy will not be reduced to a footnote.
He mentions WPI while describing the second path forward:
“Another alternative is a conservatism that simply resolves the apparent conflict between tradition and papal power in favor of the latter, submitting its private judgment to papal authority in 19th-century style — even if that submission requires accepting shifts on sex, marriage, celibacy and other issues that look awfully like the sort of liberal Protestantism that the 19th-century popes opposed. This would be a conservatism of structure more than doctrine, as suggested by the title of a website that champions its approach: ‘Where Peter Is.’ But it would still need, for its long-term coherence, an account of how doctrine can and cannot change beyond just papal fiat. So it, too, awaits clarifications that this papacy has conspicuously not supplied.”
His description of our position is sadly inaccurate, but it is reassuring that he describes our approach as “conservative,” rather than liberal, progressive, or modernist. Too often in recent years fidelity to the pope has been associated with a liberal agenda.
Our position is simply that Catholics are called to respond with docility and obedience to the ordinary Magisterium of the pope, regardless of who the pope is. Our position is that the Living Magisterium is the authentic interpreter of Scripture and Tradition in the Church. As the Catechism says:
‘The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.’ This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome (CCC #85).
Douthat suggest that in order for the Where Peter Is approach to be coherent, there needs to be “an account of how doctrine can and cannot change beyond just papal fiat.” Such an account already exists, and it is called the development of doctrine. This is what we’ve been asserting since the beginning: that the development of doctrine is sometimes more mysterious and often less predictable than the critics of Pope Francis would have you believe. Yes, there is continuity, and there are unchangeable truths, but the movement of the Holy Spirit in the Church isn’t something that we can predict or immediately comprehend.
If the Magisterium is the only authoritative interpreter of the Tradition, then it follows that the Magisterium that informs the faithful’s understanding of Traditions. We should be learning from Laudato Si’ and Amoris Laetitia, not picking them apart and judging them against our ossified understanding of the Faith. Pope Saint Paul VI spoke of this in a 1976 letter to SSPX founder Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre:
“Tradition is not a rigid and dead notion, a fact of a certain static sort which at a given moment of history blocks the life of this active organism which is the Church, that is, the mystical body of Christ. It is up to the pope and to councils to exercise judgment in order to discern in the traditions of the Church that which cannot be renounced without infidelity to the Lord and to the Holy Spirit—the deposit of faith—and that which, on the contrary, can and must be adapted to facilitate the prayer and the mission of the Church throughout a variety of times and places, in order better to translate the divine message into the language of today and better to communicate it, without an unwarranted surrender of principles.”
Thus a development in doctrine is legitimate precisely because it is the Holy Spirit, through the Magisterium, that guides the Church in the development of doctrine. Popes do not rule by “fiat.” Rather, we as Catholics can trust that all magisterial teachings, are in continuity with Tradition.
We believe that Christ leads us to an always greater understanding of Himself by giving us the Holy Spirit who speaks through the living Magisterium. Stay close to the Pope and through him you will be led by the Spirit to the inexhaustible depths of Truth Himself. Vatican News recently published an explanation of the development of doctrine that said:
“Catholics should not only never be lacking in respect toward the Pope, but should love him as the Vicar of Christ. Fidelity to Jesus does not, therefore, mean being fixated on some text written at a given time in these two thousand years of history; rather, it is fidelity to His people, the people of God walking together toward Christ, united with His Vicar and with the Successors of the Apostles.”
Where Peter is, there is the Church. Where the Church is, there is Christ.
Paul Fahey is a husband, father of four, parish director of religious education, and co-founder of Where Peter Is. He can be found at his website, Rejoice and be Glad: Catholicism in the Pope Francis Generation.