Rorate Caeli

'More Catholic than the pope'

We beseech Thee, O Lord, mercifully to receive the prayers of Thy Church, that, all adversity and error being destroyed, she may serve Thee in security and freedom. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, who livest and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end. Amen.

O God, the Shepherd and Ruler of all the faithful, look down favorably upon Thy servant Franciscus, whom Thou hast been pleased to appoint pastor over Thy Church. Grant, we beseech Thee, that he may benefit both by word and example those over whom he is set, and thus attain unto life eternal, together with the flock committed to his care. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, who livest and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end. Amen.

Due to the publication of the papal exhortation Amoris laetitia, Catholics who seek to hold fast to the Church's perennial teachings which conflict with the reflections and counsel of Pope Francis will inevitably find themselves being assailed as thinking themselves "more Catholic than the pope."

The old expression "more Catholic than the pope" has historically referred to the kind of Catholic who (usually unwittingly) relies upon his own limited or defective grasp of the Faith and his own preferred Catholic devotions and religious practices as the ruler by which he measures orthodoxy and orthopraxis.  If someone is described as thinking himself, or acting like he thinks himself, "more Catholic than the pope," it's supposed to mean he's self-righteous, priggish, a rigorist or perhaps suffers from scrupulosity -- or so the accuser would say.

The expression, of course, is connected with the Catholic doctrines of Petrine primacy and papal infallibility and universal jurisdiction. Taken literally, however, the expression "more Catholic than the pope" suggests that the way Catholics determine what Catholicism is, or what it isn't, is by finding out what the pope says and does in his daily life.

That, however, couldn't be further from the truth. As explained in the First Vatican Council's dogmatic constitution Pastor Aeternus, the Church firmly holds that "the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles."

The Catholic Faith is not something invented anew by each pope according to his own opinions, predilections, understanding, or whims.  The pope is only good as a "yardstick" when he formally teaches in accordance to "the Faith once delivered unto the saints," as St. Jude the Apostle wrote.

When Pope Liberius assented to the unjust excommunication of St. Athanasius the Great, and signed off on an ambiguous creedal formula that could be accommodated to the Arian or semi-Arian  heresies, every faithful Catholic was then "more Catholic than the pope."

When Pope Honorius I uttered false theological opinions and failed to correct and condemn the Monothelite heretics, every faithful Catholic was then "more Catholic than the pope."  Indeed, they were so much more Catholic than Honorius that the Church posthumously condemned him as a heretic, a decision that Honorius' successor St. Leo II approved. "We anathematize the inventors of the new error, that is, Theodore, Sergius, ... and also Honorius, who did not attempt to sanctify this Apostolic Church with the teaching of Apostolic tradition, but by profane treachery permitted its purity to be polluted."  For most of the Church's history, priests praying their Office repeated the anathema pronounced against Pope Honorius.

When Pope Stephen VII desecrated the remains of Pope Formosus during the hideously shameful Synodus Horrenda (the "Cadaver Synod"), every Catholic who strove to practice justice and who respected the sanctity of the human body was then "more Catholic than the pope."

When Pope John XII effectively "turned the Lateran palace into a brothel," as contemporary historians so colorfully put it, and when Pope Benedict IX gave himself over to unchastity and bloodshed, every faithful Catholic who strove to cultivate the virtues of chastity, purity, mercy, and peace in their personal conduct was then "more Catholic than the pope."

When Pope John XXII preached in his sermons the error that the faithful departed do not enjoy the Beatific Vision until after Judgment Day at the end of the world, every faithful Catholic was then "more Catholic than the pope" -- and the loud and outraged cry of the faithful against him led him to retract his error, and his successor then infallibly defined John XXII's opinion as heresy.

Papal infallibility doesn't mean papal impeccability or papal omniscience. The obligations of docility and obedience do not extend so far that one must stand on one's head and cross one's eyes in order to see how a scandalous, erroneous papal utterance is in fact true after all. Most of what a pope says is not infallible, and papal authority has never extended to having the right to introduce teachings and laws that contradict or go counter to the Faith.  It's no dishonor or disrespect or disobedience to the Holy Father to point out and to believe those truths of the Catholic Faith.

"More Catholic than the pope," you say?  That has happened many, many times in the Church's history.  It's greatly to be lamented when it happens -- but why should anyone believe it can't happen today, or be offended even by the mere suggestion that it has again happened?

More than ever, pray for the Church. Pray for the pope.

He that thinketh himself to stand, let him take heed lest he fall. (I Cor. 10:12)