The question of our attitude towards the pope is a delicate one, especially since there is much confusion amongst Catholics concerning this question.
The last 50 years have made this question more important than usual since we have witnessed the introduction of various theories and practices, often by the popes themselves, that run counter to the perennial teaching of the Catholic Church.
It behooves us then to look at the principles involved in this case:
First, there is no doubt that we believe all the dogmas of the Church, especially those concerning the office of the papacy:
A) That it was divinely founded:
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." (Mt. 16:18-9)
B) That the Bishop of Rome has a primacy no other bishop has:
We point to the tradition of that very great and very ancient and universally known Church, which was founded and established at Rome, by the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul: we point I say, to the tradition which this Church has from the Apostles, and to her faith proclaimed to men which comes down to our time through the succession of her bishops, and so we put to shame... all who assemble in unauthorized meetings. For with this Church, because of its superior authority, every Church must agree—that is the faithful everywhere—in communion with which Church the tradition of the Apostles has been always preserved by those who are everywhere." (St. Irenaeus, Against the Heresies, III, 3:2)
C) That the pope is infallible under certain conditions:
The Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra—that is, when in the exercise of his office as pastor and teacher of all Christians he defines, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, a doctrine of faith or morals to be held by the whole Church—is, by reason of the Divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, possessed of that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer wished His Church to be endowed in defining doctrines of faith and morals; and consequently that such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable of their own nature and not by reason of the Church’s consent." (First Vatican Council, Denzinger §1839)
There seem to be two errors common in these turbulent times. The first temptation is to presume to judge the Holy Father of being a formal heretic, a situation which would, according to them, cause the apparent pope to be an anti-pope, possessing no true jurisdiction. Although this has been put forward as a theoretical possibility by some theologians historically, such a theory cannot explain what happens to such doctrines as the visibility of the Church, or Christ’s promise to be with His Church until the end of time. Such a simplistic notion is actually based on the same premise as the opposite temptation: that the pope is actually protected by an extended infallibility which cannot account for any error.
The opposite error is far more common and assumes that whatever the pope does or teaches is correct. This is perhaps understandable since, in normal times, this is in actuality what happens. But one must distinguish: history is replete with examples of popes who taught or did things which were not proper. As an example, Pope Liberius signed some form of a semi-Arian document, and Pope John XXII temporarily taught that the souls of the saved do not see God until after the Final Judgment. Some Renaissance popes led lives of dubious morality. In all these cases, though wrong, papal infallibility was not involved.
The pope is infallible primarily in matters of faith and morals, and secondarily in matters of discipline (legislation for the Universal Church, canonizations, etc.) to the extent that these involve faith and morals (cf. principle 4), and then only when imposing for all time a definitive teaching. Indeed, if the pope had some form of personal infallibility with regard to his ordinary teaching, there would be no need for a definition of its limits.
"Infallible" means immutable and irreformable (principle 6), but, the hallmark of the conciliar popes, like the Modernists, is a spirit of evolution. To what extent can such minds want irreformably to define or absolutely to impose? (Cf. question 15, n. 3)
How then are we to judge him?
We are not to co-operate blindly in the destruction of the Church by tolerating the implementation of a new religion or by not doing what we can to defend the Catholic Faith. Archbishop Lefebvre was surely our model here:
No authority, not even the highest in the hierarchy, can compel us to abandon or to diminish our Catholic Faith, so clearly expressed and professed by the Church’s Magisterium for 19 centuries."
“Friends,” said St. Paul, “though it were we ourselves, though it were an angel from heaven that should preach to you a gospel other than the gospel we have preached to you, a curse upon him.” (Gal. 1:8)
That is why, without any rebellion, bitterness, or resentment, we pursue our work of priestly formation under the guidance of the never-changing Magisterium, convinced as we are that we cannot possibly render a greater service to the Holy Catholic Church, to the Sovereign Pontiff, and to posterity.
1 By such men as Cajetan, St. Robert Bellarmine, and John of St. Thomas. There are different levels of theological certainty. Among these levels we might count revealed dogmas, which all Catholics must believe; teachings proximate to the Faith, which, though not defined, are generally regarded as true, and theological opinions, which the Church has not definitively settled and about which theologians disagree.
2 It should be noted that we do not speak primarily of the pope’s personal, subjective intentions. The six objective intentions of the Holy Father, traditionally understood, are:
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