Peter Kwasniewski

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How Francis may be vindicating the ‘inopportunists’ of the First Vatican Council

Today, the pope is frequently exalted above the very Church that makes him what he is while his ability to teach on matters of faith and morals has become diluted and inefficacious.
Thu Jan 2, 2020 - 6:57 pm EST
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January 2, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – The 150th anniversary of the opening of Vatican I on December 8, 1869, which came and went even more quietly than did the 50th anniversary of the imposition of the Novus Ordo Missae on November 30, 1969, prompts us to seek answers to the increasingly urgent question: Can we find a healthy way to think about the pope and the papacy, considering how much damage a certain “papolatry” has caused to the life of the Church in recent times?

It is more than a little intriguing to think about the fact that at Vatican I there was a sizable minority of bishops, with many sympathetic theologians behind them, who considered the definition of papal infallibility “inopportune” (hence their name: “inopportunists”). They did not necessarily dispute the dogmatic content; they disputed the timing of it as well as the manner in which it would be likely to be (mis)understood and (mis)applied. Indeed, this is the sole grounds on which anyone could reasonably oppose a definition of something already known to be true. For example, we know that Our Lady is the Mediatrix of All Grace and the Co-Redemptrix, that is, the one who perfectly participates in the redemption won by her Son on the Cross — sub et cum Christo, with and beneath Christ. It is therefore a blasphemy to dispute that these titles belong to Our Lady. But people may legitimately disagree about when and how, and even if, they ought to be officially declared by the Church.

Let us look for a moment at the benefits and liabilities of Vatican I’s teaching on papal prerogatives (obviously a huge subject, but here we are concerned with larger patterns discernable over the past 150 years).

As regards what we might call “one-off events,” the only teachings of the pope the Holy Spirit will absolutely protect are, of course, the infallible ones. As Vatican I defines, the pope enjoys the infallibility with which Christ willed to endow His Church when he is declaring a doctrine of faith or morals in the exercise of his role as supreme shepherd of the universal Church, and makes it clear that he is doing so. This is an act of the extraordinary Magisterium, and, as such, not likely to be easily missed when it happens — which is not very frequently. The obvious examples are the dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception in 1854 and of the Assumption in 1950.

But we should keep in mind that the Holy Spirit will protect the Church’s ordinary Magisterium, and so, the general “drift” of non-infallible teachings over the centuries — potentially leading to a cumulatively infallible teaching, that is, something that is seen as universally taught in such a way that it cannot be mistaken — is also protected. Examples would include the restriction of holy orders to men and the prohibition on contraception. In fact, when Our Lord says “the gates of hell will not prevail” against the Church, He has the ordinary Magisterium more in view than the extraordinary one, since it is far more common a guide to Christian faith and life. An encyclical like Humanae Vitae or an apostolic letter like Ordinatio Sacerdotalis has a much greater immediate impact than the Marian dogmas, as sublime and central as they are.

The bishops at Vatican I thought they were erecting an effective bulwark against modernity when they defined papal infallibility, but, in point of fact, the defining of papal infallibility has brought about a detrimental result: the general devaluing of the Church’s day-to-day teachings, since they do not rise up to the lofty level of an extraordinary act. Hence the phenomenon of liberal dissenters who say: “Apart from the two Marian dogmas, nothing popes have taught is binding on us.” (It is no less true that a pope’s teaching must be consistent with that of his predecessors, or else it loses its status.) I will not be so bold as to say that Vatican I should not have defined this papal prerogative, but it does tend to distract people as they think about the meaning of Our Lord’s promise to Peter. 

Vatican I also declared that, in matters of governance, the pope has universal jurisdiction — something that was seen in a piecemeal way throughout Church history from early on. Yet now that the fact has been defined, the pope over the past 150 years has come to exercise his universal jurisdiction more extensively than is needful or helpful, pressing even beyond his real jurisdiction to being every nation’s primate and every Catholic’s personal spiritual director via daily meditations and tweeted messages. This is not the kind of “immediate jurisdiction” Vatican I had in mind. To be fair, they could never have imagined the reach and impact of modern media.

In regard both to teaching and governance, the reality is that the pope carries in himself the Church’s ability to teach and to govern — abilities that cannot be exercised in a state of separation from the pope. Our Lord’s promise was that the Church would not fail in its teaching and governance in union with Peter the foundation, which only obliquely addresses the fact that Peter will not fail when acting solo. 

To take Peter’s solo actions as the focus when pondering Our Lord’s promise distorts the nature of the promise and the role of the papacy. We end up simultaneously underestimating Peter’s teaching role (by limiting it to infallible statements) and overestimating his governance (by pushing it to the details of life in every parish). 

Vatican I, in a way, seems to have led to a doubly ironic result: on the one hand, the pope is frequently exalted above the very Church that makes him what he is, considers himself free to depart from the teaching and holy example of his predecessors, and encroaches almost continually on the God-given office and responsibilities of his brother bishops, while on the other hand, his ability to teach on important matters of faith and morals has become diluted and inefficacious owing to a flood of excessive and often trivial verbiage, broadcast 24/7 around the globe, because commenting on everything is somehow seen as “expected” of him. The pope is, at once, far greater than ever, and far more negligible.

What is necessary, above all, is to recover the properly ecclesial and episcopal context of the papacy, so that we see the pope as an officer of the Church, under the same twin measure of orthodoxy — that is, right teaching and right worship — as every other Catholic, and not as the Church’s lord and master.

My next two articles will continue exploring questions concerning the papacy.


  apostolic letter, catholic, dogma, first vatican council, magisterium, novus ordo, orthodoxy, papal infallibility, vatican i

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