I’ve read much from Pope Benedict on the matter of papal primacy in the last few years, and it strikes me as interesting that unlike the other popes of the last century and a half, he almost always proposes a view of primacy that can be (and inevitably is) read in two antithetical ways. The more traditional reading, of course, is to interpret his definition of primacy as descriptive: that is, Benedict is objectively describing what Catholic doctrine says papal primacy is. Read this way, his words are straightforward explanations of an integral characteristic of the papacy, regardless of who holds the office. Alternatively, critics of the Second Vatican Council (and especially of Pope Francis) apply a prescriptive reading of his words. They seem to believe that Benedict is saying that the doctrines regarding the primacy of the pope are instructive (“the pope must do this,” “the pope’s duty is that,” “the pope is forbidden from teaching this”), and that a pope, if he is wicked or incompetent, is free to disregard these prescriptions and teach errors and heresies.

I recently came across an example of Benedict’s understanding of papal primacy that I hadn’t seen before. It was in a preface he wrote for a book entitled The Organic Development Of The Liturgy by Dom Alcuin Reid:

“It seems to me most important that the Catechism, in mentioning the limitation of the powers of the supreme authority in the Church with regard to reform, recalls to mind what is the essence of the primacy as outlined by the First and Second Vatican Councils: The pope is not an absolute monarch whose will is law; rather, he is the guardian of the authentic Tradition and, thereby, the premier guarantor of obedience. He cannot do as he likes, and he is thereby able to oppose those people who, for their part, want to do whatever comes into their head. His rule is not that of arbitrary power, but that of obedience in faith. That is why with respect to the Liturgy, he has the task of a gardener, not that of a technician who builds new machines and throws the old ones on the junk-pile.”[1]

In this preface, Benedict rejects the idea that the pope’s “will is law,” but then says, “he is the guardian of the authentic Tradition and, thereby, the premier guarantor of obedience.”

Pope Francis’s critics read these words and say, “See—the pope can’t impose his will on the Church! He must guard the authentic Tradition and be the guarantor of obedience. Clearly, Pope Francis is imposing his own will! Look at Amoris Laetitia and his new teaching on the death penalty: these are clear violations of Church doctrine. He’s violating the authentic Tradition and destroying it!”

Another example of Benedict’s understanding of papal primacy can be found in the 1998 document “The Primacy of the Successor of Peter in the Mystery of the Church,” which was released by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith when he was the prefect:

“The Roman Pontiff—like all the faithful—is subject to the Word of God, to the Catholic faith, and is the guarantor of the Church’s obedience; in this sense he is servus servorum Dei. He does not make arbitrary decisions, but is spokesman for the will of the Lord, who speaks to man in the Scriptures lived and interpreted by Tradition; in other words, the episkope of the primacy has limits set by divine law and by the Church’s divine, inviolable constitution found in Revelation. The Successor of Peter is the rock which guarantees a rigorous fidelity to the Word of God against arbitrariness and conformism: hence the martyrological nature of his primacy” [7].

I’ve heard Pope Francis’s critics exploit this paragraph many times to “prove” that Pope Francis has exceeded his authority, and that he’s acting as the “master” of Church teaching, rather than its servant. Many will point to the sentence, “He does not make arbitrary decisions,” and assert that because Francis’s decisions are—apparently self-evidently—arbitrary, there can be no doubt that he’s a threat to truth and Church doctrine. They focus on the word “limits” and stress that Pope Francis is a disastrous pope, who has gone far beyond what the Church says he can.

A third example of this type of language is found in the homily Benedict gave in 2005 at his installation Mass:

“The power that Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors is, in an absolute sense, a mandate to serve. The power of teaching in the Church involves a commitment to the service of obedience to the faith. The Pope is not an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law. On the contrary: the Pope’s ministry is a guarantee of obedience to Christ and to his Word. He must not proclaim his own ideas, but rather constantly bind himself and the Church to obedience to God’s Word, in the face of every attempt to adapt it or water it down, and every form of opportunism.”

Later in the homily he says:

“The Pope knows that in his important decisions, he is bound to the great community of faith of all times, to the binding interpretations that have developed throughout the Church’s pilgrimage. Thus, his power is not being above, but at the service of, the Word of God. It is incumbent upon him to ensure that this Word continues to be present in its greatness and to resound in its purity, so that it is not torn to pieces by continuous changes in usage.”

This homily, of course, is the clincher for Pope Francis’s critics, with assertions like, “Benedict said the pope is not an absolute monarch!” or “The pope can’t make his thoughts and desires law, and that’s what Francis is doing!” or “Francis can’t do that because the pope is bound to Tradition in his decisions!”

And indeed, in this homily, Pope Benedict was using prescriptive language. He was acknowledging the responsibility he had just taken on, and the weight of the enormous task he was beginning to shoulder. But to say that the papacy includes great responsibility for the man who holds the office does not detract from the promises that Christ made to the Church through the papacy.

Pope Francis’s critics will often point to the “bad popes,” men whose personal lives were far from examples of chastity and humility—John XII, Alexander VI, Julius II, and so on. They will also point to cases of so-called “heretical popes,” about whom the historical record is hazy at best, described by Hans Urs von Balthasar as “the few borderline instances where a vacillating individual reigned (Liberius), or one unduly weak in facing lengthy intimidation (Vigilius), or a naive man who was easily deceived (Honorius).”[2]

What does Benedict believe about papal primacy, however? Does he see primacy as a directive for the pope to follow if he chooses, or does he see it as intrinsic to the papacy and part of a guarantee—as Vatican I’s Pastor Aeternus put it—that the “See of St. Peter always remains unblemished by any error, in accordance with the divine promise of our Lord and Savior”?

Well, let’s take a closer look at some of the statements in the first two excerpts above (emphasis added):

  • “The pope is not an absolute monarch whose will is law; rather, he is the guardian of the authentic Tradition and, thereby, the premier guarantor of obedience.”
  • “He does not make arbitrary decisions, but is spokesman for the will of the Lord, who speaks to man in the Scriptures lived and interpreted by Tradition”
  • “He cannot do as he likes”
  • “His rule is not that of arbitrary power, but that of obedience in faith.”
  • “The Roman Pontiff—like all the faithful—is subject to the Word of God, to the Catholic faith, and is the guarantor of the Church’s obedience”
  • “He does not make arbitrary decisions, but is spokesman for the will of the Lord”
  • “The Successor of Peter is the rock which guarantees a rigorous fidelity to the Word of God”

Note the language: “The pope is not,” “he is,” “he does not,” “cannot.” The pope is the “guarantor of obedience,” “guarantees a rigorous fidelity,” and “is spokesman for the will of the Lord.” These are not mere guidelines to follow. These are declarative statements. They are assertions about the pope—any pope—that have been twisted by Pope Francis’s critics to make it sound like papal primacy is basically an instruction manual that good popes follow and bad popes ignore.

Do Pope Francis’s critics simply need instruction in reading comprehension? There are no asterisks here, no caveats, no statements about what to do in an unfortunate circumstance where a pope does teach error. Because the Church doesn’t say he can. Not as part of his ordinary teaching on matters of faith and morals, at least. Yet so many people, many of whom are highly educated and extremely well-regarded intellectuals, seem to infer that the Church says it is possible.

As I’ve written before, the Church teaches that the pope will not lead the Church into doctrinal error. This is the position held by all the popes and councils of the last two centuries. (Stephen Walford explained this even more extensively in back in 2017.) This of course doesn’t mean the pope can’t make prudential errors, make bad appointments, or make errors in judgement. He’s still a sinner. History has shown that the pope can even be a notorious, scandalous sinner.

But it does mean that the accusations of doctrinal error in Pope Francis’s official teaching—about Amoris Laetitia, Laudato Si’, on the death penalty, in Querida Amazonia, his teachings about liturgy, marriage, fraternity, interreligious dialogue, the economy, scripture—constitutes dissent from the magisterium of the Church. And all the opposition—the dubia, the petitions, the open letters, the manifestos, the countless books and theological papers—is, from the Catholic Church’s perspective, pure folly.

This is a good thing because if it was possible, the Church has no recourse against a heretical pope. The Code of Canon Law states, “The First See is judged by no one” (CIC 1404). Practically speaking, there’s nothing (except God himself) stopping a pope from ordering a change to the Catechism, calling an ecumenical council or synod, overhauling the liturgy, or even expanding the College of Cardinals to 700 members. One pope can completely dissolve the Jesuit order if he wants to, and another pope can bring the Jesuits back 50 years later.

Pointing out these facts often draws accusations of papolatry. People will say that this describes a “magical papacy” or the idea that the pope is an oracle. Well, is it? No, it’s simply what the Church teaches about the papacy. Speaking for myself, I’m not terribly concerned with the metaphysics. It’s a mystery.

Yes, the pope has free will. Yes, the papacy is an enormous responsibility. And yes, the Church teaches that the pope is the visible sign of unity in the Church and the guarantor of orthodoxy. I don’t know why this is the case, but it’s the teaching of the Church. As a Catholic, I believe God works it all out somehow. That as we journey through history, scandals, reforms, developments, theologies, crises, prayers, and accumulated wisdom, the Church will continue to hand on the teachings of Jesus Christ through the successors to the Apostles and will grow in knowledge and understanding of the Word of God.

There’s a lot to fear in the world today, but we do not need to fear the pope leading the Church into error. If potential reforms and developments in Church teaching and practice terrify you, maybe you’ve forgotten half of Augustine’s “ever ancient, ever new.” Reform in the Church is good and should not be feared.

For a Catholic, is there even an alternative? Let’s look at Francis’s papacy. He promulgated Amoris Laetitia, no one stopped him. He ignored the dubia—it’s his right, and no one can force him to answer. Five years later, we’re having an “Amoris Laetitia Family Year.” The faculty of the St. John Paul Institute resisted Amoris (indeed, there were even rumors flying around Rome a few years ago that former president Msgr. Livio Melina may have been a principal ghostwriter of the dubia), so what did Francis do? He fired the administrators who opposed it, and completely overhauled the Institute.

Here’s another example. Pope Francis ordered a change to the Catechism on the death penalty in 2018, despite protests from some theologians. Today you can buy your updated copy wherever books are sold. And now the fear is that he’s “packed” the college of cardinals with like-minded prelates who will continue his path of reform.

Long-time Catholics should know by now that the Church goes on. The Society of St. Pius X has been defying Vatican II for over 40 years. At this point, what do they think will happen? Do they really believe Church is going to bend to their theological positions at some point in the future? Likewise, if they remain on their present course, maybe the current cabal of papal critics will start the Society of St. John Paul II (SSJP2?), with the belief that the Living Magisterium died in 2013 rather than in 1962. This is almost like a second wave of post-Vatican II neo-Pelagian fear.

But is the now-Emeritus Pope Benedict afraid?

Benedict said in his farewell speech to the Cardinals before his resignation, “I would like to tell you that I shall continue to be close to you with my prayers, especially in these coming days, that you may be completely docile to the action of the Holy Spirit in the election of the new pope. May the Lord show you the one whom he wants. And among you, in the College of Cardinals, there is also the future pope to whom today I promise my unconditional reverence and obedience.

Unconditional reverence and obedience. That’s firm faith. It didn’t matter to him who would be elected. And he’s kept his word. He is not afraid.

If you are a Catholic, you have baptismal promises to uphold, and God has promises to keep. Be not afraid.


[1] Reid, Dom Alcuin (2010-09-23T23:58:59). The Organic Development Of The Liturgy. Ignatius Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] von Balthasar, Hans Urs. The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church. Ignatius Press. Kindle Edition.

Image: Screenshot, Vatican News. Pope Francis visits Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on November 28, 2020 following the elevation of 13 new cardinals.

Discuss this article!

Keep the conversation going in our SmartCatholics Group! You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter.

Liked this post? Take a second to support Where Peter Is on Patreon!

Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

Benedict’s trust in the Church and his loyalty to Francis
Share via
Copy link