Why popes don’t always get what they want

In my last column I argued that it would be foolish to ignore the signs that Pope Francis has been giving for almost two years concerning the admission of the divorced and civilly remarried to Holy Communion.

Furthermore, after the synod his close advisers have made clear their expectation that the Holy Father will change the traditional practice, in contradiction to the clear teaching of St John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

That column has been cited as making a stronger claim than it actually did, namely that Pope Francis will certainly make such a change. There is good reason to think that the Holy Father desires to make a change, and that those close to him are indicating how he might do it.

But that Pope Francis might desire a change does not mean that he will actually do it.

We know that Pope Francis is more than capable of acting on his own initiative. On two important occasions he has done just that. His creation of the Secretariat for the Economy was done and announced without the Holy See’s secretary of state being informed ahead of time.

The recent motu proprio on annulment reforms was published without the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith seeing the final draft. So Pope Francis is not shy about acting on his own authority.

Yet popes do not always get what they want.

A relevant example comes from Vatican II, at which Blessed Paul VI was concerned about preserving the independence of the Petrine office.

He proposed that the text of Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, include that the pope “is accountable to the Lord alone”, signalling that his autonomy was limited by no earthly power, civil or ecclesial.

The council’s theological commission, having heard the pope’s view, rejected it, noting that “the Roman Pontiff is … bound to revelation itself, to the fundamental structure of the Church, to the sacraments, to the definitions of earlier Councils, and [to] other obligations too numerous to mention.” Continue reading

  • Fr Raymond de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of Convivium magazine.
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