The Limits of Papal Authority

Christ handing the Keys of the Kingdom to St. Peter
Pietro Perugino, painted in AD 1481-82

And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.
-- Matthew 16:18-19

Coming from a Protestant family, with 500 years of Protestant family tradition, I can testify that the issue of papal authority is a sore spot for many of my relatives. Part of the problem centres around a misunderstanding of what papal authority is, and what it isn't. It's a problem not limited to the Protestant world. Many Catholics don't understand it either.

As with most misunderstandings, there are two extremes, and they each have a name. The first is called Ultramontanism, and it is an ideology that places extreme emphasis on the prerogatives and powers of the pope. The second is Protestantism, which is the opposite extreme, that is sort of a knee-jerk reaction to Ultramontanism, basically stripping all prerogatives and powers from the pope entirely. So the Ultramontanism extreme goes too far in one direction, giving the pope too much emphasis. While Protestantism goes in the opposite extreme, giving the pope too little emphasis, or none at all.

It has been my personal experience, that many of today's Catholics are Ultramontanists at heart. By this I mean they place so much emphasis on the pope, that they wait with baited breath upon every word that falls from his lips. Whatever the pope says, even in "off the cuff" remarks in a jetliner press conference at 30,000 feet, is considered "infallible." Of course, I've also found that these same people are often selective with their Ultramontanism, depending on whether they like the pope or not. I've run across Catholics who couldn't stand Pope Benedict XVI, but absolutely adore Pope Francis. Likewise, I've run across Catholics who feel the same way, only vice versa. Personal preference of popes is not really a problem, so long as one approaches them with a proper understanding of papal authority. It is quite inconsistent, and hypocritical, to regard one pope's "off the cuff" remarks as infallible, and then dismiss another's as irrelevant. I confess, that when it comes to recent popes, I do have my favourite, but I do so with the understanding that even he was fallible from time to time, and occasionally spoke about things to which his competency was limited.

To get a better understanding, let's roll back the clock a bit. Let's take it back to the 1940s and 50s, when a certain pope, by the name of Pius XII, reigned from the Chair of St. Peter. During this time, a certain Catholic priest, by the name of Georges Lemaître, was working as an astronomer and physicist. He developed what is known today as the scientific understanding of cosmic inflation, otherwise known as the "Big Bang Theory." Prior to Lemaître, most scientists assumed the universe was eternal, and in a fairly static condition. Using physics and mathematics, Lemaître proved them all wrong. The universe had a definite beginning. Initially, Professor Albert Einstein opposed his proposition, but when confronted with empirical evidence from Edwin Hubble, Einstein immediately called for a press conference and gave all the credit to Lemaître as the man who cracked the cosmic code long before Hubble's astronomical observations. Thus Father Georges Lemaître, a Catholic priest and scientist, discovered cosmic inflation (the "Big Bang") and scientifically proved this universe had a definite beginning, and is not eternal.

Now once Pope Pius XII got wind of all this, he immediately began pointing to Father Lemaître's theory as scientific proof that God created the universe, and the universe had a definite beginning, like it says in the creation stories of the Bible. Not that anything Pius XII said was wrong, it wasn't, but Father Lemaître opposed the pope's public statements and begged him to stop. Eventually, the pope agreed, and he did.

Now why is that? Why would Father Lemaître oppose the pope's support of his theory in the propagation of religious truth? The answer is twofold...

First, Lemaître was an old-school Catholic priest, who firmly believed in the separation of science and religion. It's an old Catholic principle that goes back centuries, and one that Galileo frequently ignored, which is what got him into trouble with the Church. So long as religion and science are kept as separate disciplines, there is no problem. Once they cross paths however, problems can arise very easily. Theologians are generally not scientists, and scientists are generally not theologians. So when scientists start making theological statements, that is fuel for heresy. The same is true vice versa, once theologians start making scientific statements, that is fuel for scientific error, and sometimes even "junk science." In other words, the Catholic Church decided long ago that scientists should stick to science, while theologians should stick to theology. Never the twain shall meet, but if they do, it better be prefaced with the disclaimer: "this is my private opinion."

Second, Father Lemaître, being an old-school Catholic priest, firmly understood the limits of papal authority, and ultimately the pope did too. You see, the pope's only authority is over matters of religion and morals. The pope is not a scientist. This is why, in history, some popes were heliocentric (believing the Copernican theory that the earth, and other planets, orbit the sun), while others were geocentric (believing the Aristotelian theory that the sun, planets and stars orbit the earth). They were all popes however, and they all had equal authority over matters of religion and morals. What they believed about science simply didn't matter. It didn't matter then, and it doesn't matter today. If a modern pope said he believed in little green men on Mars, we might laugh, but when it comes to a matter of religion and morals, he's still the pope, and if he makes an infallible statement regarding religion or morals, we must obey. His scientific belief about little green men from Mars would be irrelevant. It's just a private opinion, and has no bearing on us. If the pope says there are little green men on Mars, I don't have to believe that, and neither do you, because it's not a matter of religion and morals. It's just his personal opinion on a scientific matter, and as I stated above, it really doesn't matter what the pope believes about science.

Would it matter, for example, if a man were elected pope today, who happened to believe in the geocentric theory? There are still some Catholics who hold to that you know. I'm not criticising it at all. I'm just stating that they do still exist. Though small in number, they're out there, and the few I know are actually very good Catholics, and relatively smart people too. So what if one became a priest, then a bishop, then an archbishop and cardinal, then was finally elected pope. While pope, suppose he made some "off the cuff" statements about the sun and stars orbiting the earth. What would happen? Would that shake your faith? Of course the news media and Leftists will try to use it to undermine the papacy and the Church. That's what they always do. Atheists and agnostics would scoff. A few hardcore geocentrists (what few remain) would immediately run to the pope's defence. What would you do? I'll tell you exactly what I would do. I would do nothing -- and by that I mean absolutely nothing. The pope's scientific beliefs don't matter. The cardinals didn't elect him to the position of "chief scientist." He was elected as the pope, and the office of the papacy is a religious office, dealing specifically with religion and morals. What the pope thinks about science doesn't have any significant bearing on that, or at least it shouldn't.

You see, when Jesus gave the "keys" of authority to St. Peter, he promised that he (and all his successors) would receive the "keys" to the Kingdom of God, so that whatever Peter and his successors bind on earth will be bound in heaven. In other words, God himself is going to support the pope in all matters related to religion and morals. That, in part, means protecting the pope from making a serious error in faith and morals. Most specifically, he will not allow the pope to ever teach a heresy as if it were infallible. Jesus never promised that the pope would be a science expert. Likewise, he never promised that the pope would be a good historian, or an expert on human behaviour. For that matter, he never promised the pope would get anything right, except for doctrinal matters related to religion and morals. If the pope said the sun and stars orbited the earth, I would simply shrug my shoulders and say; "Wow! We haven't had a geocentrist in the Vatican for centuries." Then I would carry on with my business as if nothing happened. If the next day, he issued an encyclical with some important religious and moral message, I would listen and obey, as well I should, without giving much of a thought to his scientific beliefs, because as I said, they don't matter.

The majority of Catholics today still hold to the position of Ultramontanism, which is to say that they cling to every word that falls from the lips of the pope, as if it were inspired by God. Granted, I find that most Catholics are selective about which pope they want to hold to this standard, but it's pretty obvious when they do. This of course fuels the position of Protestantism, which holds to the exact opposite notion that nothing the pope says really matters at all.

The official and authentic Catholic position is right down the middle. When the pope speaks authoritatively, he does so on matters related to religion and morality alone. Topics outside of this are not as important. So when Pope Francis tells us that man-made climate change is real, he is of course free to say that, and in response, Catholics are free to ignore it. This is because man-made climate change is a scientific theory. Whether it's true or not doesn't even matter. What matters is this. Does the pope have the authority to make it part of religious doctrine? The answer is no. It's science not religion. The pope can talk about man-made climate change all he wants, but when it finally comes down to it, he's just speaking his personal opinion and nothing more. The same goes for history. The pope's infallibility does not extend into the realm of history outside of the gospel. So if the pope tells us a tale about the American Revolution, it doesn't matter if it's true or not. He's not a historian, and even if he were, he can't elevate American history to the level of religion and morals. We can enjoy his opinion on such matters, and we can choose to agree or disagree with him, but we are not religiously obligated to ascent to his private opinions as a matter of faith. That would be Ultramontanism, and that's not Catholic.

I know some Catholics who have told me that I must believe in man-made climate change now, as a matter of faith, because Pope Francis is a believer, and he has taught it in an encyclical. To which I must respond that while his personal opinion about a scientific theory may have been included in a papal encyclical, we are certainly not obligated to believe it, because that is a scientific theory, not a religious or moral truth. Now, in that same encyclical, the pope did speak about a Catholic's moral obligation to conserve natural resources. That is different, because the pope is now talking about morality. When he says this, I do have a religious obligation to believe, and try to obey, to the best of my ability. Why? Because conservation is an issue of good stewardship over God's creation. Catholics have a moral obligation to do our best on this, regardless of the reason behind it. You can call it man-made climate change, or an impending meteor strike that's going to cause another mini-ice-age. It doesn't matter what the scientific reason is, because as I said, the pope's scientific beliefs don't matter. He's not a scientist, and even if he were, the cardinals did not elect him to the office of "chief scientist." He was elected pope, which means we must listen and obey his religious and moral teachings, but we are not obligated to give mental ascent to his personal belief about science, history, sociology, or anything else.

I think if we can keep this principle in mind we can avoid the errors of both Ultramontanism and Protestantism.

I've got a whole lot of Catholic friends and readers who've been upset by the teachings of Pope Francis on matters that have nothing to do with religion or morals. To which I must say to them, check your papal beliefs. Are you dabbling into Ultramontanism? Are you giving too much emphasis to the pope's prerogatives and powers? Have you moved into a realm of belief about the pope that is more than what the Church requires? If so, you may want to back off a bit. The pope is not inspired in everything he says. In fact, the only time he is truly guarded from error by the Holy Spirit is when he makes an infallible statement ex cathedra. In other words, he has to actually say something is infallible, before it must be regarded as infallible. The last time a pope actually did that was in 1950, when Pope Pius XII declared the Assumption of Mary an infallible dogma of the Church. No pope since then has exercised his papal authority in this way.

Since then, popes have issued many encyclicals and apostolic decrees. These bear the weight of his normal authority. They may not contain infallible statements, as in an ex cathedra decree, but nevertheless, they do carry weight and must be taken seriously, especially the parts about religion and morals. If we remember this, we need not worry about falling into the error of Ultramontanism, and we need not give fuel to the knee-jerk reaction of Protestantism.

Lastly, we delve into the area of religious and moral doctrine itself. Exactly, what are the limits of papal authority on this matter? Can a pope just wake up one morning and decide to completely change the teaching of the Church? Well, no. He can't. Here's the reason why. All popes are equal in authority. A newer pope is not "more authoritative" than a previous pope. Being newer does not make one more authoritative. So all popes are equal in authority, on matters of religion and morality, going all the way back to the first pope -- St. Peter. This means that no pope can contradict a previous pope. New popes can, of course, expand on previous papal teachings, or the teachings of Scripture, or the teachings of an ecumenical Church council. However, no pope can expand or elaborate on a teaching in such a way as to completely contradict what was previously taught. This is why infallible decrees from the pope have become less common over the last 2,000 years. Why? There is just less to say with each generation. During St. Peter's time, he was making infallible decrees left and right. However, in our era, an infallible papal decree hasn't been made since 1950. There simply hasn't been much need. Why? because almost everything has already been defined. So each successive pope is burdened by less and less teaching necessity on infallible matters.

The problem arises when a pope teaches something that APPEARS to contradict previous papal teachings. What to do in these situations? First of all, we need to remember that appearances can be deceiving. Something can sometimes appear to be as plain as the nose on one's face, but in fact, it is really not what it seems at all. In these situations, the Church has a process for inquiring and dealing with these matters. Such processes need to unfold on their own, without us getting too worked up about them. Remember, no pope can contradict the infallible teachings of a previous pope, council or the sacred deposit of faith found in Scripture and Apostolic Tradition, and then attempt to bind such a contradiction onto the faithful. So we must let the process work its way out, and always pray for the pope, that he may do God's will. In the mean time, while we are waiting for a clear explanation, we simply default back to what was always previously understood. Because you see, since previous Church teaching cannot be wrong, then it is never wrong to defer back to it, until the pope's newer teaching becomes more clear or better explained.

When I was a Protestant, I believed that all Catholics were Ultramontanists. I didn't understand that word at the time. It's doubtful I had even heard of it back then. But that was my belief. I was convinced that the pope could say whatever he wanted, even deny the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and Catholics would blindly obey and follow. I was wrong. Even the most ardent of Ultramontanists within the Church wouldn't go that far. I was right about one thing however, many Catholics do place too much emphasis on the pope, and do spend far too much time fixating on every word that falls from his lips. I think in this age of modern media, and instant communication, it's easy enough to fall into that. We Catholics have also been spoiled in our lifetime, with two previous popes (John Paul II and Benedict XVI) who were superb in so many areas. We've forgotten what it's like to have a "regular pope" who is not as well articulated and scholarly. The important thing to do is check ourselves, and make sure we're not placing more emphasis on any pope than what the Church requires. This is not only for our own good, but for his as well.


Shane Schaetzel is an author of Catholic books and a columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of '' Your support is what makes essays like this possible. This essay and all of Shane's Internet resources come to you (ad-free) thanks to the generosity of benefactors. Please consider becoming a benefactor.

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Pair O' Dimes said…
Thank you very much for this blog entry. I have a number of things to add to it.

First, I am one Catholic who does believe in geocentrism--not the Ptolemaic model, which I think Galileo disproved, but the lesser-known Tychonic model. I'm saying this not to preach that, because as you rightly said, which model of the cosmos we believe in has no bearing on the salvation of our souls. I'm only saying this to inform that 1) I am one of the Catholics you were referring to (I only have been for a few years), and 2) I concur with you that ultimately what we believe about that doesn't matter as far as our souls are concerned. That being the case, I thank you for saying that the few geocentric Catholics you know are good Catholics and smart.

Second, correct me if I am mistaken, but isn't it true that canonizations are infallible (using infallible language)? Or were you simply referring to infallible teachings of the Church in general when you said that an infallible papal decree hasn't been made since 1950?

Third, I agree with you that almost everything has been defined--but you didn't bring this to the conclusion that this means that each successive pope has more and more that he says (relatively speaking) that faithful are free to disagree with him on (which puts the lie to Ultramontanism). Blessed Pope Pius IX supported the Confederacy: while I don't feel I can ignore that out of hand, that's hardly proof that being a faithful Catholic means supporting the Confederate side of the war any more than it means supporting the Union: that wasn't a holy war with Catholics on one side and Satanists on the other.

Fourth, when you mentioned a "regular pope", you got me thinking about how Our Lord Himself was a "regular guy": He didn't even have a scholarly education, something which I have had, and that's humbling to me. The unremarkability of Christ points to the remarkability of His message, I think.

Finally, I owe you an apology: Until the end of last year, I was guilty of clinging too much to a future narrative which was partly inspired by a past blog entry of yours (early in 2014), and I put that on my own blog. But a priest knocked some sense into me and I've let it go, and I'm trying not to dwell on that anymore, since the future is forbidden knowledge except where prophecy is concerned--and even there the Church can't mandate that we believe private apparitions. It wasn't my intention to associate that with you and I'm sorry. Please forgive me.

God bless you.
Shane Schaetzel said…
I was simply referring to infallible teachings, not canonisations.

True, I didn't follow this to its logical conclusion, but you succinctly did above.

Apology accepted of course. I am curious though, if you could help me, what blog post of mine was it?
Pair O' Dimes said…
I figured as much. I just wanted to clear up my confusion, thank you.

Thank you for saying so.

And thank you for accepting my apology. I don't know if you still have it up, but the main one was the one from January 2, 2014, when you talked about Rabbi Yitzhak Kaduri, the blood moon tetrad, and the supposed "Prophecy of the Popes" and how Evangelicals are taking that seriously.
cameron said…
Thank you for your worthwhile and well thought out article. Just a couple quick remarks.

I do not think Catholicism in North America has survived the cultural revolution as well as you think. In Canada the pews are full of members who are now in their 70s and 80s. The younger are much fewer. In the next decade or so a collapse similar to the mainline Protestant denominations will occur. It has simply been delayed a generation.

Second, the flight from mainline churches (including Catholic) to evangelical Protestant churches (like the Pentecostal) can also be seen, in part, as a rejection of traditional liturgical structures. The generations born after the War are immersed in pop culture and music. They like their music and like worship that uses it. Further, they find ritual boring (With the frequent exception of their weddings. I found it ironic that Pentecostal weddings often use traditional ritualistic ceremonies, obviously borrowed from another denomination, yet have no use for traditional ritual for Sunday worship). They much more prefer a free-style with lots of loud music (like a concert, even with the lighting and sound board), preaching and extemporaneous praising.