Rorate Caeli

“When the shepherd becomes a wolf, the flock must defend itself”: Dr. Michael Fiedrowicz

The following essay by the eminent patrologist and scholar of the Roman liturgy, Michael Fiedrowicz, discusses classical theologians on the right of resistance to the abuse of ecclesiastical authority. It was written prior to the release of the CDW document but in anticipation of it. First published in IK-Nachrichten of Pro Santa Ecclesia, December 2021/January 2022, the translation appears exclusively at Rorate Caeli.—PAK

Saints Athanasius & Cyril

“When the Shepherd Becomes a Wolf, the Flock Must Defend Itself”
Prof. Dr. Michael Fiedrowicz

Expect the worst

It is part of the wisdom of the Catholic Church to always have a worst-case scenario in mind, that is, to reckon with the worst of all imaginable cases occurring. One thinks, for example, of the instructions De defectibus in the old Missals, where all possible situations are considered that might disturb the order of celebration, and instructions are given on how to proceed if, for example, the priest faints after the consecration of the host, the holy blood freezes in the chalice in winter, or something poisonous gets into it.

The category of such extreme cases in the life of the Church also includes the possibility of a successor of Peter disregarding the command given by Christ to the Prince of the Apostles, “Feed my lambs, feed my sheep” (Jn 21:15-17), and exercising his office in a counterproductive manner.

In ecclesiastical antiquity individual popes acted unhappily, such as Liberius, who excommunicated Athanasius, the champion of Nicene orthodoxy, in the mid-4th century, or Honorius I, who in the middle of the 7th century was accused of having fanned the heretical flame of Monotheletism, not with his apostolic authority but out of negligence. But it was not until the beginning of modern times that individual theologians explicitly addressed the question of the abuse of papal authority. Interestingly, such authors were usually defending the prerogatives of the papal office against polemics from the Protestant side, but at the same time they did not want to leave the Church open to attack. They formulated the necessary provisos for the case of a papal abusus potestatis, the possibility of which could not be excluded.

Conditions of legitimate resistance

The reflections on this matter by the Spanish Dominican theologian Francisco de Vitoria were by no means merely hypothetical. In his lectures On the Authority of the Pope and the Council (1534) he harshly criticized abuses of power by the Renaissance popes, who granted all kinds of dispensations so generously that the number of those who enjoyed them was far greater than that of those who faithfully adhered to the commandments of the Church. If a pope was obviously ruining the Church by arbitrarily granting dispensations, then, it was concluded, the bishops would have to refuse to accept and implement them, without prejudice to the deference due the pontiff. De Vitoria wrote: “If orders or acts of the pope should destroy the Church, it is possible to resist and prevent the execution of the orders” (Relecciones Teológicas, proposición 22). These clear words prompted Pope Sixtus V to place the Dominican’s published lectures on the Index, but Sixtus died before the decree was published, so his successor withdrew the planned sanction.

The problem had already been treated in an even more fundamental way by Cardinal Juan de Torquemada, who in his systematic treatise on the Church (1489) defended the infallibility and plenary power of the popes, while also considering the possibility of a papal breach of tradition—especially in the area of liturgy—which could make a successor of Peter a schismatic:

The pope can separate himself from the body of the Church and from the college of bishops without any reasonable reason, purely by his obstinacy, by not observing what the universal Church observes by virtue of apostolic tradition [...] or by not observing what has been universally decreed by general councils or by the authority of the Apostolic See, especially with regard to worship, namely, if he does not want to observe for himself what concerns the universal status of the Church and the universal rite of worship of the Church. (Summa de Ecclesia, lib. IV, pars I, cap. 11)

Papal encroachments on the Church’s liturgical heritage were also on the mind of the famous Spanish Jesuit theologian Francisco de Suárez (1548–1617) when he discussed the case of a schismatic pope who need not be a formal heretic: “The pope can be schismatic if he does not want to adhere to unity and union with the whole body of the Church, as he should: if he tried to excommunicate the whole Church, or if he wanted to abolish all ecclesiastical ceremonies that are based on apostolic tradition” (De caritate, disp. XII, sect. I; nr. 2). Suárez also emphasized the right to refuse obedience and to resist: “If he (i.e., the pope) orders something contrary to good morals, it will not be necessary to obey him; if he tries to do something contrary to manifest justice and the common good, it will be permissible to resist him” (De Fide, disp. X, sect. VI, no. 16). 

Another theologian of the Jesuit order, Robert Bellarmine, explained in 1586 what form this resistance could take:

As it is lawful to resist a pope if he attacks the body, so it is lawful to resist him if he attacks the soul or afflicts the state, and much more if he seeks to destroy the Church. It is permitted, I say, to resist him by not doing what he commands and by preventing the execution of his will. But it is not lawful to judge him, or to punish him, or to depose him, which alone is the business of a superior. (De Summo Pontifice, lib. II, cap. 29,7)

Thus far, we have heard representative voices of renowned theologians, showing that under grave circumstances one can or even must resist even the pope. 

The duty of all believers

“When the shepherd becomes a wolf, the flock must defend itself.” These words, not initially said of the papacy yet transferable to it under certain circumstances, come from Dom Prosper Guéranger, OSB.

In his multi-volume work on the church year, begun in 1841, he describes (on the feast day of St. Cyril of Alexandria, Feb. 9) how Cyril’s adversary, Patriarch Nestorius of Constantinople, shouted from the episcopal throne to the assembled crowd on the Christmas feast of 428: “Mary did not give birth to God; her Son was only a man, the instrument of God.” The Benedictine abbot of Solesmes described the horrified reaction of the faithful. From the crowd a man named Eusebius, an educated layman and later bishop of Doryläum, rose to protest and mobilize resistance against the scandalous utterances of the bishop of the imperial capital. In another letter of protest, written and distributed in the name of the deeply affected faithful, the Patriarch was openly accused of heresy. Every reader, the letter appealed, should make the contents known and distribute copies to all the bishops and the clergy and laity of Constantinople.

Guéranger comments on the event:

If the shepherd becomes a wolf, the first duty of the flock is to defend itself. Normally, the doctrine of the faith comes from the bishops to the faithful, and it is not for the faithful, who are subordinates according to the order of the faith, to judge their superiors. Yet every Christian, precisely because he may use the Christian name, has not only the necessary knowledge of the essentials of the treasure of revelation, but also the duty to protect them. The principle is invariable, whether it is a matter of faith or of conduct of life, that is, of dogma or of morals. A betrayal like that of Nestorius is rare in the Church, but it can happen that some shepherds, for this or that reason, remain silent in situations where the faith itself is at stake. The true faithful are those who, in such circumstances, take from their baptism alone the guide of their conduct, not the faint-hearted who, under the deceptive pretext of submission to existing authorities, postpone their opposition to the enemy in the expectation of receiving an instruction that is neither necessary nor appropriate. (P. Guéranger, L’année liturgique: Le Temps de la Septuagésime, Paris 1889, 321f.)

Fighting for the truth

Resistance is costly. Dom Guéranger showed this by quoting Bishop Cyril of Alexandria, who intervened in the controversy and criticized those pacifists in the Church who, although they did not share Nestorius’s error, nevertheless thought it opportune not to oppose his theses for fear of provoking an even greater scandal by opposing a patriarch’s authority.

Bishop Cyril was not among those who thought they could simply sit out the Nestorian blasphemy without having to take action themselves (cf. ibid., 324). He wrote (epistula 9):

If we shrank from speaking the truth for the glory of God out of fear of inconvenience, how could we dare to celebrate in the presence of the Christian people the struggles and triumphs of the martyrs, whose fame is based precisely on the fact that they realized in their lives the word: “Fight to the death for the truth” (Sir 4:28)?

Quoting Guéranger’s remarks at a pontifical Mass in the traditional form on the feast day of St. Cyril of Alexandria (Feb. 9, 2017) in Kansas City, none other than Cardinal Raymond Burke highlighted the saint’s heroic virtue in defending the faith against the advice of “many of his fellow bishops who urged him to remain silent in order to maintain the façade of Church unity.” The cardinal stressed that in the face of lies—even from those of high ecclesiastical rank—the necessary response “of St. Cyril and of all the faithful in all times and places” is to resist. He added: “St. Cyril had the honesty and courage to fight a lie, even if it was spread by a fellow bishop, supported by other bishops and tacitly tolerated by others. Thanks be to God for his honesty and courage, whereby the true and saving faith was delivered to us.”