On obedience

Pope Francis

Ever since the days of Vatican II, there have been persons and groups that opposed all or some of the changes introduced in the Church by that Council. There was a variety of reactions ranging from mere disagreement to claims of apostasy. Some communities simply ignored the changes and continued as if nothing had happened but most of those in disagreement justified their position invoking Tradition. There is a bit of a contradiction there because Catholic Tradition emphasizes obedience to the Roman Pontiff. That important contradiction survives unexplained. The conundrum remains, no one has provided any credible theological solution to this day.

Since there is no theologically valid argument to disobey the Pope, some have proposed that the faithful could disobey the Pope only if the Pope is not a real, legally elected Pope. The question that follows naturally is: Who is the Pope? The answer provided in many cases was that the Holy See is vacant, Sede Vacante for those who like Latin. The strangest canonical convolutions have been invoked to explain how such a thing could ever happen. Several questions come up in my theologically uneducated mind. Was God taken by surprise? Of course, that is a theological impossibility. Was the Holy Spirit on vacation? Nonsense. I have heard good Catholics say that the Holy Spirit does not elect the Pope but the Conclave of Cardinals does. That seems to be in direct contradiction with Acts 20:28 “Take heed to yourselves, and to the whole flock, wherein the Holy Ghost hath placed you bishops, to rule the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.” Douay-Rheims American Edition of 1899. Since the Pope is the Bishop of Rome, it seems reasonable to understand that the Holy Ghost had something to do with his designation as such. On the other hand, who am I to judge? I am not a theologian, not even a Canonical Lawyer.

When a Pope needs to be elected, the Conclave of Cardinals convenes to pray and vote. A Conclave is a spiritual act but it is also a canonical event with legal consequences. After centuries of elections, the process has been perfected to a point that nothing is left to chance, there is no room left for interpretation. A Conclave is a meticulously programmed process regulated by very strict rules.  When a valid votation takes place and the elected candidate pronounces the acceptam, that candidate is bound to the Papacy on Earth and also in Heaven. Matthew 16:19.

When the new Pontiff is ready, all the Cardinals kneel before him and kiss his ring as a sign of agreement with the election, and also as a promise of obedience. The same ceremony is repeated later before the clergy and the faithful of Rome. That act says clearly to the whole world Tu est Petrus, you are Peter. After that, there is nothing anyone can say or argue. The Pope has to be obeyed and he has to be respected as the successor of Peter.

Are we obliged to love the Pope? Yes. Are we obliged to obey his declarations ex-cathedra? Yes. Are obliged to like the Pope? Not really but we should make a reasonable effort. Some Popes have been rather hard to like. They are human and they can’t please everyone. The See of Peter, however, has to be respected, protected and defended as a gift from God, a grace meant to sustain the unity of the Church.

When I became Catholic, I read about the prophetic dream of St John Bosco known as the “dream of the two columns“. In his dream, St John Bosco sees two columns in the middle of the sea, representing the Holy Eucharist, and Our Blessed Mother. The Pope steers his ship, the Church to a safe spot in between both columns. That vision allowed me to understand that there are three things that make a Catholic: the Holy Eucharist, Mary Mother of God, and the See of Peter. If only one of them is missing, then our Catholicity is lost. Obedience is what keeps us safe: we must obey God’s commandments, follow Our Blessed Mother’s instructions, and obey, respect, and defend the Holy See, even when those holding the office are not perfect. Peter’s faith will not falter. We have to trust Our Lord’s assurance.

The Dream of the Two Columns by St John Bosco