As the endless stream of “doctrinal declarations,” “corrections,” and “clarifications” continues to cause confusion and scandal for the Faithful, I feel it is imperative to cast our minds back to the pontificate of Pope St Paul VI, who, like Pope Francis, faced challenges and great criticism from some members of the Church. We may remember that in 1976, he displayed clear frustration and sadness at the anti-papal attitude of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, founder of the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X:

Unfortunately, the position you have taken is that of an antipope. What can I say? You have not allowed for any measure in your words, your actions, your behaviour…You judged the pope as disloyal to the faith of which he is the supreme guarantor. Perhaps this is the first time in history that this has happened. You told the whole world that the pope lacks the faith, does not believe, that he is a modernist and so on.

Fast forward four decades, and the situation is far worse. The advent of social media, and the business model of profiteering at the expense of the beauty of the Church, has created a climate of disharmony, division and disloyalty. Obedience to the Pope for some only now applies to popes who lie in the grave, rather than the one who lives and watches over the flock with Christ’s authority here and now. Thankfully, in Pope Francis, we have a Pope with a very good sense of humour, endowed with true charity and mercy; one who it seems is able to deal with these constant dissenters in a way that does not distract him from his unique ministry as successor to St Peter.

Returning to St Paul VI, a decade before his confrontation with Archbishop Lefebvre, he gave a profound and prophetic address to an International Congress on the Theology of Vatican II.[1] His aim was to remind the 1400 theologians present, of their role as a bridge between faith and magisterial authority. I believe this address­– in the present climate of artificially constructed confusion by those opposed to what the Spirit is saying to the Churches (cf. Rev 2:7) – can serve to bury once and for all, the rather silly accusation that all who profess total obedience to the teaching authority of the Pope are guilty of papolatry. Instead, the text calls those bishops, priests, theologians and laity who in one way or another dissent from the authentic magisterial teachings of the present Pope, to leave this dead end path and return to fully unity cum Petro et sub Petro.

After the opening pleasantries, Pope Paul VI spoke of the modern mentality which had begun to seep into the Church whereby some reject authority altogether and decide for themselves what truth really is. “According to this view, no external or transcendent guiding norm is to be accepted. It is as if the whole realm of truth could be circumscribed within the bounds of human reason, or even created by it…Hence an authoritative magisterium is rejected, or at best, its function is restricted to vigilance against errors.” Of course we now see a step further that possibly Pope Paul could not have envisaged: that some theologians-supposedly loyal to the Pope would openly accuse the magisterium of being in error.

The Pope goes on to describe the common origin of theology and the magisterium–but in a passage that is like a dagger in the heart of the dissenting arguments and voices of today–firmly sides with those who uphold the doctrine of indefectibility as relating to the ordinary and extraordinary magisterium until the end of time:[2]

However, there is a fact that is of the greatest importance. Theology and the magisterium have a common source, Divine Revelation, which has been given to the Catholic Church by the Holy Spirit and is preserved in it. And, as you well know, when the Church received its Founder’s mandate to proclaim the Gospel to every creature, it was set up as the absolutely trustworthy teacher of truth and endowed with the charism of indefectible truth, so that thus it might fulfil its mission properly. The Church is ever mindful of this fact, and it never ceases to proclaim that in the world it is the pillar and ground of truth.

In accordance with Christ’s divine will, however, the proximate universal norm of this indefectible truth is to be found only in the authentic magisterium of the Church…Christ promised His Apostles the gift of the Holy Spirit, so that they might bear witness to the truth of the Gospel to the ends of the earth…He promised them the Spirit of truth, vowing that He would always be present to them. Thus they would be fortified against all error in their teaching mission.

The Pope goes onto explain the essential role of theology in the life of the Church and how it differs from that of the magisterium:

Sacred theology uses reason enlightened by faith; and it receives no little light from the Divine Paraclete, to which the theologian must pay heed. Its duty is to examine and comprehend the truths of Revelation more thoroughly; to bring the fruits of its labor to the attention of the Christian community and, in particular, to the attention of the magisterium itself, so that the whole Christian people may be enlightened by the doctrine which the ecclesiastical hierarchy hands down; and finally, to lend its efforts to the task of spreading, clarifying, confirming, and defending the truth which the magisterium authoritatively propounds.

It is the following passage concerning the magisterium’s function that is of critical importance and relevance to the manufactured confusion of today, especially in the light of Amoris Laetitia, the alteration to the teaching on the death penalty, the doctrine of doctrinal development, and of course, the doctrine of papal authority:

The magisterium on the other hand, has received authority from Jesus Christ, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, through which it teaches the People of God. Its official task is, first and foremost, to bear witness to the teaching received from the Apostles and hand it on, so that it might become the possession of the universal Church and of the whole human family; to maintain this doctrine completely free from errors and distortions; in the light of Divine Revelation to pass authoritative judgment on new teachings, and on the considerations proposed by theology as solutions to new questions; and finally, to authoritatively propose new and deeper investigations into Divine Revelation, and new adaptations of this Revelation to our times–which it, with the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, judges to be in full accord with Christ’s teaching.

This very clear teaching of St Paul VI is in perfect harmony with the doctrine stating that through the centuries until Christ’s return, the Church will discover in an ever more mature and perfect way, the truth of its own teachings. That is the purpose of doctrinal development, to refine and prune, until the full beauty of the truth is made manifest in the way that God intends it. This is simply the final stage of what God has done throughout salvation history; he teaches us patiently, wanting us to search and yearn for the truth, so that we ultimately discover the full glory of his salvific plan. Mariology is one stellar example of this, the dignity of human life is another.

The Holy Father also explores the role theology can play in helping the magisterium through the ages. “It benefits when theologians examine Divine Revelation–handed down orally or in written form–to explore its hidden, subtle meanings and to explain its major unifying themes. It also benefits when theologians interpret the general mental outlook of our age and the experiences of men in order to understand and resolve their questions in the light of salvation history.” Significantly though – in the light of those theologians who in various ways undermine the magisterium of Pope Francis – St. Paul VI states, “To be sure, the magisterium could preserve and teach the faith without the help of theology.” He continues by giving advice to theologians on how they can be of genuine service to the truth. “And they will share the magisterium’s concern to inform the faithful, not of something invented by themselves, but of the truth handed down by Jesus Christ…They will take care not to be won over by the desire for ready applause and easy popularity, to the detriment of the safe doctrine handed down by the magisterium…they will also take the greatest pride in being obedient and judicious interpreters of the magisterium.”

Pope Montini continues by addressing the vitally important issue of the spirit of communion that must prevail amongst the theological community. “Cultivating the spirit of communion is part of the very essence of the Christian vocation, as the Apostle John teaches…The Holy Spirit proclaims and clarifies divine truth within the Church, especially through the assistance of the magisterium. Hence you will possess that truth all the more surely if you develop more heartfelt communion with the Church’s magisterium.”

It is quite clear that this is no longer the case for a number of theologians and priests who consider Pope Francis’ magisterium as a rupture from authentic Catholic doctrine. For them, not even Jesus’ unique prayer for Peter’s faith not to fail (cf. Lk 22:32), and the constant magisterial teaching  interpreting that prayer to mean that a pope will always remain the guardian of truth in matters of faith and morals is enough to make them reconsider their erroneous position.

St Paul VI couldn’t be clearer in his condemnation of an attitude that seeks to create a sort of parallel magisterium that does nothing but sow division and the scandal of rebellion against the supreme authority of the Roman Pontiff:

On the other hand, if you depart from the magisterium in your search for truth and try to blaze your own personal trail, you will be in danger of becoming teachers without disciples, cut off from everyone else; of expending effort in vain, without bringing any benefits to the faithful; or even of moving off the right road, deciding to make your own judgments the norm of truth instead of respecting the sensus Ecclesiae. Such a decision would be ill-advised indeed, possibly giving rise to a sort of heresy or paving the way for heresy.

Before concluding his address the Pope asked all those theologians present to confirm their “filial loyalty” to him.

So we can see from this most valuable address that there is no wiggle room for theologians, laity or anyone else to be acting as a sort of theological vigilante association. There never was and never will be a counter-magisterium because the Holy Spirit has willed that a teaching authority should exist in, which He would guide in an authoritative and unique way. That explains why all bishops must be in communion with the Pope, and not the other way round. If we remain loyal and obedient to the divine will in this matter, then we can rest assured that we will always walk along the right path; we will stop the devil in his endless pursuit to replace humility with pride and thus lead many souls to ruin. No, what Jesus our Divine Master desires is filial love and devotion to His Vicar on earth.

The present supposed fight for the tradition and soul of the Church against the Pope is doomed to failure because it is a fight against God in reality. Yes, the fight against liberal dissention must continue because that is also opposed to God’s law, and only serves to encourage sin and a lighter carrying of the Cross. The true path to sanctity is through humility, obedience, prayer, and sacrificial love. If obedience to magisterial teaching is lacking, then the door is opened for a disintegration of the kind of spiritual life that leads to living in conformity with the divine will.

Those who oppose Pope Francis, I pray, will reflect on the wise words of St Paul VI and return to full unity with the Church, and thus help heal the wounds that their division have caused. May the Blessed Virgin, and St Joseph intercede for them, and beg the Lord to convert their hearts to where they belong, in the bosom of the Church.



[1] October 1, 1966, The Pope Speaks Vol. 11, no. 4 (1966)

[2] Pope Pius XII had already stated in Mystici Corporis Christi that Christ, hanging from his Cross, opened up the divine gifts that would ensure the Church would never teach “false doctrine” No 31

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Stephen Walford, a married father of five living in Southampton, on the south coast of Great Britain, is a Catholic author who combines teaching piano with writing theological works ranging from Catholic eschatology and Mariology to the papacy, notably the vision of Pope Francis. His most recent book, Pope Francis, the Family, and Divorce: In Defense of Truth and Mercy, contains a preface by Pope Francis, and is also endorsed by various members of the Vatican Curia, including Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, chair of the 'C9' Council of Cardinals, and Cardinal Kevin Farrell, prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life. His writings have also appeared in L'Osservatore Romano, Vatican Insider and National Catholic Reporter.

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