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Papal power faces limits on changes

Tradition, doctrine to affect next pontiff


Firefighters, right, place the chimney on the roof of the Vatican's Sistine Chapel, where the cardinals will gather to elect a new pope. The conclave is set to start Tuesday afternoon.


VATICAN CITY — As the world awaits a new pope, polls are taken, essays written, and hopes expressed for what he might change. Priestly celibacy? Contraception? The working language of the Vatican Press Office?

The latter would be most feasible, but likely would involve a tough internal political battle for the new pontiff and his aides. There are theological and logistical limits on the changes he can make. He can’t create doctrine out of thin air.

“Popes are servants of the church’s settled tradition, not the tradition’s masters,” said papal biographer George Weigel, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

While the pope has authority to govern the church, he must answer to its doctrine as a president answers to the Constitution, said Edward Peters, canon law professor at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.

“There are an awful lot of things he’s in charge of, but he’s not free to change a doctrine of the church or to alter the fundamental structure of things like the papacy,” he said.

RELATED ARTICLE: Vatican: Cardinals eager for conclave

Some changes that laity say they want from a new pope may involve media-based misconceptions. A 2012 poll from the Public Religion Research Institute found 60 percent of American Catholics want the church’s public policy statements to focus more on the obligation to help the poor, even if that means speaking less about abortion.

However, regular reading of the Vatican’s daily eeeeeeeebulletin shows a church that cumulatively speaks far more often on hunger, poverty, violence, human rights, immigration, the environment, and even traffic safety than it does against abortion. But usually only the statements on abortion grab headlines.

The bureaucracy

The easiest things for a pope to change involve the way the Vatican gets its work done. Theologians from the left and the right, along with many bishops, have called for a bureaucratic overhaul.

“Conservatives … want an efficient Curia that speaks with one voice in implementing their policies,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit political scientist from Georgetown University who studies the hierarchy. “Liberals want more decentralization. One liberal said to me, ‘The last thing we want is an efficient Vatican bureaucracy. An efficient Inquisition?’”

Father Reese and Mr. Weigel, who have clashing hopes for the church, both want to see heads of Vatican offices chosen for their expertise and removed for ineptitude. Father Reese, who wants local bishops to have more freedom, argues that top Vatican administrators should no longer be made bishops or cardinals, so they can be removed more easily if they do a bad job.

Mr. Weigel, a conservative on matters of economics and foreign policy, takes issue with some statements on social policy that have been issued from Vatican offices. He wants the lower-level offices, such as the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, to cease making public statements and serve only as advisory think tanks.

But both want the Vatican to issue statements in English and Spanish as soon as they are available in Italian, and to vastly improve its crisis response. Some high-ranking Vatican officials allowed devastating sex scandals to fester.

“Nothing happened when these crises broke, thus underscoring the importance of a deep reform of the culture of the Roman Curia and its habits of work,” Mr. Weigel wrote in his latest book, Evangelical Catholicism.

Theological issues

To most Catholics, administrative concerns are inside baseball. Their focus is on theological issues, which the pope has limited authority to change.

Contrary to popular opinion, infallible statements by popes are rare, but many that carry lesser authority still can’t be easily revised. Most doctrines the church deems infallible, such as physical resurrection of Jesus, are rooted in Scripture and the creeds — and don’t need a pope to declare them infallible. Those can’t be tampered with, either.

“There are limits to the papacy. He’s not God, after all,” said the Rev. Francis Sullivan, 90, a Jesuit who taught theology for 36 years at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. As Pope Benedict XVI told some priests in 2008, “The pope is not an oracle; he is infallible in very rare situations.”

There have been only two papal declarations treated as officially infallible. Both concern the Virgin Mary.

The first, in 1854 by Pope Pius IX, was the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the belief she was conceived free from original sin. The second, in 1950 by Pope Pius XII, was the dogma of her Assumption, the belief her body was drawn up into heaven rather than decaying in the grave.

In order to make an infallible declaration, a pope must clearly address the worldwide church from the throne of Peter, saying that he is defining a matter of faith or morals that every Catholic is required to assent to. The doctrine at stake must already have strong roots in tradition, have wide support from bishops and the faithful, and be compatible with Scripture. A declaration of infallibility is called a “solemn definition.”

“He can’t just define anything he wants,” Father Sullivan said.

When it comes to doctrines that aren’t infallible, theologians speak of “development” rather than change.

Although the pope can’t violate the teachings of the Bible, “church teaching can evolve just as our interpretation of Scripture evolves,” Father Reese said. “Catholics no longer believe that the world was created in seven days, but they do recognize the role of God in creation and understand that the creation story is not just teaching scientific truth, but a truth about our relationship with God. Before a teaching can change, it must be studied carefully.”

A recent example concerns purgatory. The Catholic Church long has taught it is a state in which souls ultimately bound for heaven are purified of the effects of living a sinful life. Images of purgatory were shaped by the medieval poet Dante, who wrote of a place in which souls might spend centuries doing difficult penance. Dante wasn’t doctrine, but he fueled centuries of sermons.

But in his 2007 encyclical on hope, “Spe Salvi,” or “Saved in Hope,” Pope Benedict proposed purgatory as an encounter with Christ, whose divine love burns away all the effects of the sins that Christ’s death already has atoned for. This was an understanding, originally put forth by others, that Benedict had endorsed since he was a university professor and had included in one of his textbooks, Father Sullivan said.

It’s not infallible but must be taken seriously by all Catholics, Father Sullivan said.

“He is saying, ‘I think this is the way it takes place and I’m telling you about it.’ This is somewhat unheard of, to have such a sequence where something he put forth as a new idea when he was a theologian then appears in his papal encyclical.”

Religious freedom

Important modifications to popular or long-standing Catholic belief were made 50 years ago at Vatican II. There, the world’s bishops and cardinals denounced a belief that had been preached for centuries, though it was never doctrine, that all Jews for all time were guilty of the crucifixion of Jesus. They also rejected a teaching that “error has no rights” in civil society, endorsing the right to religious freedom.

On two of the most contentious issues for American and European Catholics — contraception and women’s ordination — experts disagree over whether church teaching can change.

The ban on artificial contraception is different from the ban on abortion, because it’s based on the spirituality of sex and marriage rather than on a belief that the sperm and unfertilized ovum are human beings. The idea is that God calls married couples to be open to participating with him in the creation of new life and that using chemicals or barriers to prevent conception shuts God out.

Some theologians argue that artificial contraception has been so consistently condemned over the centuries that it meets an infallibility standard without a papal definition. It’s “a settled matter,” said Mr. Weigel, who believes the church must do a better job of explaining it.

Father Sullivan believes it would be difficult but not impossible to modify church teaching against artificial contraception, perhaps reviving an idea that a papal commission proposed to Pope Paul VI before he issued his encyclical on contraception in 1968. The majority on the commission reportedly supported the idea that each sexual act didn’t have to be open to procreation as long as the marriage as a whole was. A minority on the commission, including one of Father Sullivan’s former professors, persuaded Pope Paul to reject that proposal. They argued, at least in part, that it would be a devastating blow to papal authority if he reversed what Pope Pius XI had said about contraceptives, Father Sullivan said.

A pope would have far more leeway to remove the celibacy requirement that was imposed on Western diocesan priests in the 11th century. The Eastern Catholic churches in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia always have had married priests. In the West, married Protestant clergy who convert to Catholicism have been accepted into the priesthood for more than 30 years.

Although the Church cites biblical support for celibacy in the examples of Jesus and the Apostle Paul, it is considered a rule, not a doctrine.

Mr. Weigel’s view on whether a new pope could lift the celibacy requirement is, “He could, but he won’t. And, in my view, he shouldn’t. In a culture choking to death on eroticism … the witness of celibacy as a gift of self to God and the people of God is even more important.”

Eventually, “the church will allow married male priests, and following that they will allow women to be priests,” said Joan Houk of McCandless, Pa., a bishop in Roman Catholic Womenpriests, which claims its clergy are validly ordained Catholics. The Vatican doesn’t recognize them and says they have excommunicated themselves.

“What it would take is action by the Holy Spirit,” she said. “Whether that could happen this time around, I don’t know.”

‘Complicated’ issue

Father Sullivan is doubtful, saying the issue of whether church teaching on women in the priesthood is infallible is “complicated.” Others are absolutely certain Pope John Paul II’s 1994 apostolic letter on the matter was definitive.

John Paul’s letter didn’t use words such as “infallible” or “dogma.”

“Normally, if he intended to issue a solemn definition, he would have done so more clearly than that,” Father Sullivan said.

“So I think yes, a future pope could reverse that. He could say that he does not agree now with the judgment of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,” Father Sullivan said.

Mr. Peters, the canon law professor, believes that if a pope announced that women could be ordained as priests, the bishops and faithful of the world would realize he had fallen into heresy and disregard him. On the other hand, polls show about 60 percent of American Catholics favor ordaining women as priests.

While he acknowledged the issue of whether women can be ordained as deacons hasn’t been settled, Mr. Peters said, “I think a crisis would erupt even if women were ordained to the diaconate. People would say, ‘I’m sorry. I think the pope has completely lost his reason. It may look like [the ordination] happened, but it didn’t. Nothing sacramental occurred in the ceremony.’ ”

If most bishops concluded a pope had committed heresy, he said, it’s unclear how they would proceed. He wouldn’t expect a trial to remove the pope.

“I think what you’d have would be a large number of bishops saying, ‘I observe this behavior in the Holy Father and I think it’s time for Catholics to pray for him. Church teaching hasn’t changed … and we trust the Holy Spirit will resolve this situation for us.’ ”

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Ann Rodgers is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.

Contact Ann Rodgers at: or 412-263-1416.

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