Where Does it Say What the Pope Can’t Do?

So, things are heating up in terms of Church news lately. The “Synod on Synodality” is set to meet in October, and we have the Vatican clearly preparing for what it takes to be a major event. The appointment of Victor Fernandez as head of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith signaled this back in the summer, and in his latest interview he suggested that not even bishops can criticize what he calls the “doctrine of the Holy Father.” As an example of this, the Pillar has reported that Rome will ask Bishop Strickland of Tyler Texas, who has been critical of Pope Francis on social media, to voluntarily resign, which the bishop has indicated he will not do. Meanwhile, you have bishops in Luxembourg and Germany giving their okay for priests to bless same-sex couples, and papal supporters such as The National Catholic Reporter stating that the Synod on Synodality could in fact change the Church’s teaching on the ordination of women.

In short, things are a great mess, one that Pope Francis is ultimately responsible for. If you are reading my blog, you probably already know there is nothing the Synod on Synodality can do to alter the Church’s teaching on matters like this, and you have probably tried to explain this to friends or family members who don’t understand why the Church can’t ordain women or countenance sex outside of marriage.

And we know why this is the case: namely, because there is nothing in the Tradition of the Church (either in Scripture or the oral traditions handed down by the Apostles) that indicates these things are part of the faith (in some cases, are very much contradictory to them). With regard to specific issues, this isn’t hard to show from the Bible or the Church’s history.

However, that the Church is limited only to teaching what is contained in Tradition (or the “deposit of faith”), is sometimes hard for an outsider to the Church to understand–or even for someone who is Catholic but finds the myriad teachings over the centuries hard to untangle. There are places in the recent history of the Catholic Church (since 1870) where the Church has stated in general terms what the limits are to its teaching authority, and therefore that of the Pope. Though many reading or listening to this might know this stuff already, I thought it might be useful to collect the modern magisterial statements the Church has made about the limits of its teaching authority, and put them in place for people to consult. This list is not exhaustive, but contains the most authoritative general statements I could find on the limits to the Church’s teaching authority, particularly its “living” magisterium. The message that the boosters of this Pontificate have consistently argued, often implicitly, sometimes explicitly, that Francis can do whatever he wants just because he is Pope. These texts are evidence that this is not the case.

I have divided the quotations up into three categories: statements on papal infallibility, on papal primacy, and then two statements that are not magisterial but provide crucial historical context for the documents, most of which come from the First or Second Vatican Council. I also provide some brief commentary in brackets why the passage in question is important. Finally, I have provided links to the documents cited (and in one case, screenshots) so you can read the whole document from which they are taken. (Nota bene: if you know of any other quotations that might be helpful, email them to me and I will add the to the list.)

I should caution that these statements provide support for the contention that Francis can’t arbitrarily change doctrines, but they are not sufficient by themselves to demonstrate this. They require some interpretation and careful reading. Nonetheless, they are important historical witnesses against the distortions of the pope’s and the Church’s authority. -Darrick

Historical Sources on Limits to Papal Authority

Magisterial Statements on Limits to Infallibility

Dei Filius, Chapter 2, “On Revelation”

“It is indeed thanks to this divine revelation, that those matters concerning God which are not of themselves beyond the scope of human reason, can, even in the present state of the human race, be known by everyone without difficulty, with firm certitude and with no intermingling of error.”

Dei Filius, Chapter 4, “On Faith and Reason”:

Even though faith is above reason, there can never be any real disagreement between faith and reason, since it is the same God who reveals the mysteries and infuses faith, and who has endowed the human mind with the light of reason. God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever be in opposition to truth. The appearance of this kind of specious contradiction is chiefly due to the fact that either the dogmas of faith are not understood and explained in accordance with the mind of the church, or unsound views are mistaken for the conclusions of reason…

[Significance of this passage is that it sets limits of reason for the Church’s teaching; something that has been revealed by God or solemnly defined cannot be contradicted, and indicates that natural law is one limit on the Church’s teaching authority]

For the doctrine of the faith which God has revealed is put forward not as some philosophical discovery capable of being perfected by human intelligence, but as a divine deposit committed to the spouse of Christ to be faithfully protected and infallibly promulgated.

Hence, too, that meaning of the sacred dogmas is ever to be maintained which has once been declared by holy mother church, and there must never be any abandonment of this sense under the pretext or in the name of a more profound understanding.

May understanding, knowledge and wisdom increase as ages and centuries roll along, and greatly and vigorously flourish, in each and all, in the individual and the whole church: but this only in its own proper kind, that is to say, in the same doctrine, the same sense, and the same understanding.”

[These passages make clear that divine revealed faith is not like natural knowledge, which might fundamentally change or be transformed with time]

Pastor Aeternus, Chapter IV, “On the Infallible Teaching Authority of the Roman Pontiff”:

To satisfy this pastoral duty, our predecessors ever made unwearied efforts that the salutary doctrine of Christ might be propagated among all the nations of the earth, and, with equal care, they watched that it might be preserved, genuine and pure, where it had been received

[Consonant with what was written in chapter 3, Revelation is something that must be preserved in its integrity and purity, not re-interpreted according to different historical epochs]

“The Roman pontiffs, too, as the circumstances of the time or the state of affairs suggested, sometimes by summoning ecumenical councils or consulting the opinion of the churches scattered throughout the world, sometimes by special synods, sometimes by taking advantage of other useful means afforded by divine providence, defined as doctrines to be held those things which, by God’s help, they knew to be in keeping with sacred scripture and the apostolic traditions. 

[Formal teachings of the popes, dogmatic definitions, must be in accord with Tradition (Scripture and oral teaching), can’t openly contradict it]

For 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.”

[Charism of the papal office is not to produce novel teachings, but to guard the same teaching of the Apostles throughout the ages]

…with the approval of the sacred council, we teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman pontiff speaks ex cathedra, that is, when in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals, to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility that the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrines concerning faith and morals.”

[This passage indicates that the Pope is only infallible when he speaks as a “public person,” not as a private teacher of the faith relaying his own opinions]

Dei Verbum, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, I §4, 6:

“The Christian dispensation, therefore, as the new and definitive covenant, will never pass away and we now await no further new public revelation before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ (see 1 Tim. 6:14 and Tit. 2:13)…

God, the beginning and end of all things, can be known with certainty from created reality by the light of human reason (see Rom. 1:20); but teaches that it is through His revelation that those religious truths which are by their nature accessible to human reason can be known by all men with ease, with solid certitude and with no trace of error, even in this present state of the human race

[Vatican II quoting Vatican I on the faith making truths known by nature clear–meaning that if it has already been revealed or formally defined by the Church, it cannot be contradicted without violating natural reason]

Dei Verbum, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, II §10:

This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.

It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.”

Lumen Gentium, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, §25:

And this infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed His Church to be endowed in defining doctrine of faith and morals, extends as far as the deposit of Revelation extends, which must be religiously guarded and faithfully expounded. And this is the infallibility which the Roman Pontiff, the head of the college of bishops, enjoys in virtue of his office, when, as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith,(166) by a definitive act he proclaims a doctrine of faith or morals.(42*) And therefore his definitions, of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are justly styled irreformable, since they are pronounced with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, promised to him in blessed Peter, and therefore they need no approval of others, nor do they allow an appeal to any other judgment. For then the Roman Pontiff is not pronouncing judgment as a private person, but as the supreme teacher of the universal Church, in whom the charism of infallibility of the Church itself is individually present, he is expounding or defending a doctrine of Catholic faith.(43*)

But when either the Roman Pontiff or the Body of Bishops together with him defines a judgment, they pronounce it in accordance with Revelation itself, which all are obliged to abide by and be in conformity with, that is, the Revelation which as written or orally handed down is transmitted in its entirety through the legitimate succession of bishops and especially in care of the Roman Pontiff himself, and which under the guiding light of the Spirit of truth is religiously preserved and faithfully expounded in the Church.(45*) The Roman Pontiff and the bishops, in view of their office and the importance of the matter, by fitting means diligently strive to inquire properly into that revelation and to give apt expression to its contents; (46*) but a new public revelation they do not accept as pertaining to the divine deposit of faith.(47*)” (Emphasis added)

Pope Benedict XVI, Homily at the Mass of the Possession of the Chair, May 7, 2005:

As the living Word of God, Jesus told his disciples everything, and God can give no more than himself. In Jesus, God gave us his whole self, that is, he gave us everything. As well as or together with this, there can be no other revelation which can communicate more or in some way complete the Revelation of Christ. In him, in the Son, all has been said to us, all has been given.

But our understanding is limited: thus, the Spirit’s mission is to introduce the Church, in an ever new way from generation to generation, into the greatness of Christ’s mystery. The Spirit places nothing different or new beside Christ; no pneumatic revelation comes with the revelation of Christ – as some say -, no second level of Revelation…

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…

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.

The Chair is – let us say it again – a symbol of the power of teaching, which is a power of obedience and service, so that the Word of God- the truth! – may shine out among us and show us the way of life…

Limits on the Primacy

Pastor Aeternus, Preamble:

“And since the gates of Hell, with greater hatred each day, are rising up on every side, to overthrow, if it were possible, the Church and Her divinely-established foundation, We, for the preservation, safe-keeping, and increase of the Catholic flock, with the approval of the Sacred Council, judge it to be necessary to propose, for the belief and acceptance of all the faithful, in accordance with the ancient and constant faith of the universal Church, the doctrine of the institution, perpetuity, and nature of the sacred Apostolic Primacy, by which the strength and solidity of the entire Church is established, and at the same time to proscribe and condemn the contrary errors, which are so harmful to the flock of Christ.

3114 and 3116 a. Collective Declaration of the German Bishops, January-February 1875 (Denzinger, 37th ed, 618):

“The decisions of the Vatican Council do not provide a pretext for pretending that the pope has become an absolute ruler by them and, by virtue of his infallibility, a perfectly absolute sovereign more than any absolute monarch in the world. In the first place the domain of the ecclesiastical power of the pope is essentially different from that over which the temporal sovereignty of the monarchs extends; Catholics, therefore, in no way dispute the entire sovereignty of their prince in the civil domain. Apart from all this, the pope cannot be called an absolute monarch in ecclesiastical matters, because he himself is subject to the divine right, and he is bound to the dispositions traced by Jesus Christ to his Church. He cannot change the constitution given to the Church by his divine founder, as a temporal legislator can modify the constitution of the state. The constitution of the Church is founded in all its essential points on a divine ordinance and remains beyond the reach of human arbitrariness.

Finally, the assertion that the pope has become, “by virtue of his infallibility, a perfectly absolute sovereign,” rests on a completely false idea of the dogma of papal infallibility. As the Vatican Council has stated in clear and clear terms, and as it follows from the very nature of the thing, infallibility refers exclusively to a quality of the magisterium of the pontiff, and this power extends exactly over the same domain as the infallible teaching of the Church, and it is related to the content of Holy Scripture and Tradition, as well as to the doctrinal decisions given previously by the teaching of the Church.”

Pius IX, Mirabilis Illa Constantia, Apostolic Letter to the German Bishops, March 4 1875:

“You have once again maintained this glory of the Church, venerable brothers, when you undertook to expose the true meaning of the decrees of the Vatican Council, artificially distorted in a circular that was made public, and thus prevented the formation of false notions among the faithful and an odious falsification from giving the opportunity to hinder the freedom of choice of a new Pontiff. Your collective statement is so distinguished by its clarity and accuracy that it leaves nothing to be desired, that it has been for Us the cause of great joy and that there is no need for Us to add anything to it…

Your declaration gives the pure Catholic doctrine and consequently that of the Holy Council and of this Holy See, perfectly established and clearly developed by obvious and irrefutable arguments, so that it demonstrates to every man of good faith that, in the decrees in question, there is absolutely nothing new or that changes anything in the relations that have existed hitherto, or which could provide a pretext to further oppress the Church…”

Benedict XVI, Address to the Roman Curia, Christmas 2005:

“In a word: it would be necessary not to follow the texts of the Council [Vatican II] but its spirit. In this way, obviously, a vast margin was left open for the question on how this spirit should subsequently be defined and room was consequently made for every whim.

The nature of a Council as such is therefore basically misunderstood. In this way, it is considered as a sort of constituent [assembly] that eliminates an old constitution and creates a new one. However, the Constituent Assembly needs a mandator and then confirmation by the mandator, in other words, the people the constitution must serve. The Fathers had no such mandate and no one had ever given them one; nor could anyone have given them one because the essential constitution of the Church comes from the Lord and was given to us so that we might attain eternal life and, starting from this perspective, be able to illuminate life in time and time itself.”

Non-Magisterial Statements (On Infallibility and Primacy)

Relatio of Bishop Vincenz Gasser at Vatican I, July 11, 1870, pp. 41-46, 51, 59:

The Personal Infallibility of the Pope…does not belong to the Roman Pontiff inasmuch as he is a private person, nor…as he is a private teacher, since, as such, he is equal with all other private teachers…we do not speak about personal infallibility, although we do defend the infallibility of the person of the Roman Pontiff, not as an individual person but as the person of the Roman Pontiff or a public person, that is, as Head of the Church in his relation to the Church Universal…the divine assistance promised to him, by which he cannot err, he only enjoys as such when he really and actually exercises his duty as supreme judge and universal teacher of the Church in disputes about the Faith…

In what sense can the infallibility of the Pope be said to be separate? It is able to be called separate, or rather distinct, because it rests on a special promise of Christ and therefore on a special assistance of the Holy Spirit…but in saying this we do not separate the Pontiff from his ordained union with the Church. For the Pope is only infallible when, exercising his function as the teacher of all Christians and therefore representing the whole Church, he judges and defines what must be believed by all…

The purpose of this prerogative is the preservation of truth in the Church…

Note well. It is asked in what sense the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff is absolute.  I reply and openly admit: in no sense is pontifical infallibility absolute, because absolute infallibility belongs to God alone, who is the first and essential truth and who is never able to deceive or be deceived. All other infallibility, as communicated for a specific purpose, has its limits and its conditions under which it is considered to be present.  The same is valid in reference to the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff.  For this infallibility is bound by certain limits and conditions. What those conditions may be should be deduced not “a priori” but from the very promise or manifestation of the will of Christ. Now what follows from the promise of Christ, made to Peter and his successors, as far as these conditions are concerned?  He promised Peter the gift of inerrancy in Peter’s relation to the Universal Church: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it …” (Mt. 16:18).  “Feed my lambs, feed my sheep” (Jn. 21:13-17). Peter, placed outside this relation to the universal Church, does not enjoy in his successors this charism of truth which comes from that certain promise of Christ. Therefore, in reality, the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff is restricted by reason of the subject, that is when the Pope, constituted in the chair of Peter, the center of the Church, speaks as universal teacher and supreme judge: it is restricted by reason of the object, i.e., when treating of matters of faith and morals; and by reason of the act itself, i.e., when the Pope defines what must be believed or rejected by all the faithful…

Likewise it is to be noted that dogmatic judgments of the Roman Pontiff are especially concerned with controversies about the faith in which recourse has been had to the Holy See; and the Pontiff should therefore define them, either from the Scriptures, the holy Fathers, or Doctors of the Church, or from the Tradition of the Church of Rome, which faithfully and religiously has preserved what Peter has passed down…

Then from the words “to be consonant with Sacred Scripture and apostolic traditions…” there is described that that which the Roman Pontiff defines rests on Sacred Scripture and Tradition, under the Protection of Christ and the assistance of the Holy Spirit, which protection and assistance is not to be confused with revelation.”

Acta Synodalia Sacrosancti Concilii Oecumenici Vaticani II: Periodus Tertia, Pars I (Rome: Typis Polyglotis Vaticana, 1973)  p.247:

In Suggestionibus autem a Papa missis proponitur, ut in fine eiusdem numeri loco verborum: « dummodo Caput collegii eos ad actionem colle­ gialem invitet » dicatur: « dummodo ipse (Papa), uni Domino devi(n)ctus, eos ad actionem collegialem vocet ». Haec ultima expressio « vocet » libenter acceptatur, quia etiam in iuramento Episcoporum adhibe- tur. Incisum autem « uni Domino devinctus » Commissioni non placuit:

  1. quia duae priores novae insertiones earn inutilem reddunt, scilicet: « Papa semper libere agere potest », et: « potestas Episcopo­ rum independenter a Romano Pontifice exerceri nequit ». Sensum enim insertionis « uni Domino devinctus » videtur in intentione suggerentium praecise excludere altiorem auctoritatem humanam, quam Romanus Pon­ tifex observare deberet;
  2. quia formula est nimis simplificata: Romanus Pontifex enim etiam observare tenetur ipsam Revelationem, structuram fundamentalem Ecclesiae, sacramenta, definitiones priorum Conciliorum, etc. Quae omnia enumerari nequeunt. Formulae huiusmodi de « solo» vel « uno » cum maxima circumspectione tractandae sunt; secus innumerabiles excitant difficultates. Unde ne postea longiores et complicatae explicationes de tali formula praeberi debeant, Commissio censuit melius ab illa absti­ neri. Ratio est etiam ordinis psychologici, ne, unam partem pacificantes, alteram in novam anxietatem inducamus, praesertim quod spectat rela­ tiones cum Orientalibus, ut apparet ex historia aliae formulae, nempe « ex sese et non ex consensu Ecclesiae ».

In the Suggestions sent by the Pope, it is proposed that at the end of the same number instead of the words: “provided the Head of the college invites them to collegial action” it should be said: “provided he (the Pope), devoted to one Lord, calls them to collegial action” . This last expression “calls” is gladly accepted, because it is also used in the oath of Bishops. But the Commission was not satisfied with the cut “bound to one Lord”:

1) because the two previous new insertions render the earn useless, namely: “the Pope can always act freely” and: “the power of the Bishop cannot be exercised independently of the Roman Pontiff”. For the meaning of the insertion “bound to one Lord” seems in the intention of the suggestors precisely to exclude a higher human authority, which the Roman Pontiff ought to observe;

2) because the formula is too simplified: for the Roman Pontiff is also bound to observe Revelation itself, the fundamental structure of the Church, the sacraments, the definitions of the previous Councils, etc. All these things cannot be enumerated. Formulas like this about “alone” or “one” are to be treated with the greatest circumspection; otherwise they raise innumerable difficulties. Therefore, in order to avoid having to provide longer and more complicated explanations about such a formula, the Commission decided that it was better to stay away from it. It is also a reason of the psychological order, lest, by pacifying one part, we bring the other into a new anxiety, especially as regards relations with the Orientals, as appears from the history of another formula, that is, “from himself and not from the consent of the Church.”  (From Google Translate)

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