Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Pope is not as powerful as you think.

Many people believe that the pope wields a strong and potentially tyrannical power over his flock. The concept of an infallible teacher leads them to imagine a dictator (even if benevolent) who can force doctrines upon Catholics at whim, leaving the faithful either a) anxious and uncertain about what dogmatic changes will come next to disturb their lives, or b) ready to run like lemmings off whatever cliff the Supreme Pontiff decides to lead them. Sure, maybe the current pope is mentally and emotionally stable, but what of the next? And the next? Think of the havoc he could wreak! Who in his right mind would put his life under the pope's authority?

In reality, however, the pope is not quite as powerful as one might think.

For example:

They say: "The pope has forbidden Catholics to use contraception!"

The reality is: For twenty centuries, the Church has taught that contraception is wrong. No pope in any era has the authority or power to reverse a teaching of the Deposit of Faith.

They say: "The pope won't allow women to become priests!"

The reality is: For twenty centuries, the Church has never admitted women to the priesthood. No pope in any era has the authority or power to reverse a teaching of the Deposit of Faith.

They say: "The pope says women can't have abortions under any circumstances!"

The reality is: For twenty centuries, the Church has taught that any and all abortions are intrinsically evil (even when there's been debate over the issue of "ensoulment"). No pope in any era has the authority or power to reverse a teaching of the Deposit of Faith.

They say: "The pope won't approve pre-marital sex or homosexual activity!"

The reality is: For twenty centuries, the Church has taught that sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage is gravely sinful. No pope in any era has the authority or power to reverse a teaching of the Deposit of Faith.

They say: "The pope won't let people defraud the poor!"

Wait... what? The Church-bashers don't take issue with that part of the Catholic Faith? Well then, they might be happy to hear this:

For twenty centuries, the Church has taught that defrauding the poor is evil. No pope in any era has the authority or power to reverse a teaching of the Deposit of Faith.

Are you seeing a pattern here?

The pope has no power to change the Deposit of Faith. None. Nada. Zip and zilch. He can't change the moral law. He can't change the tenets of the Creed. He can't touch the truths of faith and morals because he has no authority to do so. 

As my friend Kim relates in her conversion story (a must read!), infallibility doesn't give a pope carte blanche to invent any doctrine he wants to make up; instead, infallibility is actually a highly limiting doctrine. Jesus' teachings are preserved and protected, leaving them intact throughout the centuries.

And our dear pope, thank God, is powerless to change a single truth. 


  1. I really enjoyed reading the posts on your blog. I would like to invite you to come on over to my blog and check it out. God's blessings. Lloyd

  2. Awesome! Would you mind if I reposted this on my blog? Just let me know - it's soo well-put and I think I've got some family members who, if their hards aren't too hard, could get something out of this!

  3. Oh wow, its interesting where the "pope hater" thing comes from...I had no idea they actually believed he was a dictator. It's what I have always felt, but I never understood why....

    I just would never be able to handle a woman priest...I mean never.

    I love life inside the bubble.... ;)

  4. Love it! Great job, Leila!!!

  5. I've never really understood why people blame the pope for everything (and then there are the people that think he's the Anti-Christ...they're a totally different story lol). I guess I just didn't realize that they think popes make stuff up whenever they want!

  6. Katie, of course! Please feel free to link anything you'd like. :)

    Lloyd, welcome!

  7. This was one huge misunderstanding that I had to clarify before I become Catholic. One way I've heard it put is that with each subsequent Pope we have, their "power" actually decreases even more, because they can't change what's been done before that regarding the Deposit of Faith. That helped me understand exactly where the Pope's "power" comes from.
    Compare that to the Mormon faith, however, and you see a drastic difference. It seems as though they can change whatever they want, whenever they want.

  8. Great post! This is such a huge misunderstanding that people have!

  9. Big smiles! Great post. I've been called a promoter of misogyny for not supporting that women be Catholic priests, although the Catholic women I know are happy being who they are! :-)

  10. I. Love. You.

    And to me, love has ultimate meaning.

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  12. Paul, I would have to argue that the Popes and doctors of the past did not operate as you say. There was no reversal or invention of truth by any of them. Perhaps that is a subject for another post.

    For those who don't like the "shackles" of unchanging Truth, there are other Christian communities to choose from, which change and reverse morality based on the spirit of the age.

    As for your prediction about the death of the Catholic Church. I like the Church's odds. ;)

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  14. Paul, I get where you're coming from. But it seems illogical to me that the Christian leaders who lived closest to the time of the Apostles (and even during the lifetime of the Apostles) would be the ones to misunderstand or invent doctrine (with no outcry from other bishops or the faithful when heresy was being put down right and left), and yet we who are so far removed are able to keep doctrine unchanging for the rest of the ensuing millennia.

    Makes no sense to me at all, on a few levels.

    But, I need to tuck that away for a future post. I appreciate your thoughts, as they help me clarify my own.

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  16. Paul -

    I am curious about your idea of "this suffocating changelessnes." Does the idea that truth is malleable and can change comfort you? I find that idea that truth is ever changing and subject to the whims of time and culture to be unsettling at best.

  17. Paul, you made things clearer for me when you said, "I think that they're all wrong."

    But of course, that makes me curious. I know you said you are a Christian. What is your source of truth and how does it come to you?

  18. Thank you for this post! So often I feel like people view the Holy Father as a dictator. I relate to him like a loving father!

  19. Was it Chesterton who said "The Church is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside"? Whoever said it, is has been absolutely true thus far in my conversion process, so I have no fears about shackles or oppression.
    The Catholic church has one of the most beautiful views of femininity and women's roles of any modern religion, and I can only imagine how radical it was 2000 years ago for its time. Why, why, why, is it so hard for modern women to admit that we have uteruses? (uteri?) What a sad society, attempting to remove all natural differences between men and women in the name of equality. Let's throw all of that beauty out the window in exchange for androgyny!

    The Church's miracle investigations have grown more complex as science has evolved. For the Church to declare something a miracle in our current age, it practically takes an act of God. (haha)

    And finally, it's true the Catholic church hasn't done much for gay marriage rights. Or polygamist rights, for that matter. Or furby love. Or human-avatar marriage. What a shame. Funnily enough, the Church does still insist on the individual dignity and value of a gay person's life, something modern society still seems hard-pressed to accept outside of the voting booth.

    Leila, your friend's conversion story was beautiful. It was a great read, especially coming from my protestant childhood.

  20. Monica great comment! I love reading your comments and insights...Especially churchs view on femininity etc...Ahh, it's so wonderful being a woman in the church with a uteri! ;)

  21. The Pope is the Vicar of all of Christ's teachings. There is an inherant power with the chair of Peter.

  22. Oh yes, Marcy and Walter. You are correct!

    But the pope has no power at all to change the moral law or the tenets of our faith. That is the beauty of infallibility: He is unable, thanks to the protection of the Holy Spirit, to teach error on matters of faith and morals. Of all men, the pope is the one man who cannot mess it up!!

    It is an incredible gift to be protected like that!

  23. Marcy, just to make sure you understand. This was in no way a dig at the Pope. It was to clear up misunderstandings that so many people have about the office of the Papacy. I hope that was obvious!

    For example, on the all-male priesthood, Pope John Paul II wrote this:

    "Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Luke 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful."

    (emphasis mine)

    The pope has power and authority, for sure! But he has no power or authority to teach error or "change" truth. Awesome!!

  24. Thanks for the post, Leila, and thanks for the link to Kim's story. I'm still trying to catch up with all your info here, and that IS a must-read!

    Monica, well said: "Funnily enough, the Church does still insist on the individual dignity and value of a gay person's life, something modern society still seems hard-pressed to accept outside of the voting booth."

    -Cathy BB (who apparently can't get my Google Account to load tonight!

  25. Leila,

    Marcy of : marcy and Walter...ha ha ha : )

    I loved your post. I wasn't trying to be argumentative at all. I only had a few minutes to jump into the thread before I was running kids here there and everywhere.

    The power of the chair of like the power of the truth....the power of love ....the power of all that is good true and beautiful.

    I know we are saying the same thing. No worries.

    I love your blog.

  26. Marcy, whew! You are such a great sister in Christ that I would hate to have offended in any way! :) :)

    I couldn't agree with you more!

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  28. Paul, you've really got me scratching my head over here.

    I am with you about scientific, material things. I stipulate (as does the Church) that science is the purview of scientists.

    But then you say things like: "these things [the resurrection, walking on water, etc.] would not be required. All that's required for Christians is accepting and respecting the teaching of Jesus, that he died for our sins, and that he came back in some form, and that we will too.

    Everything else is optional. The trinity is optional."

    But Paul, it's merely your personal opinion that those things are optional. You have decided that for yourself. You would agree with that, right?

    Christianity doesn't say that those points are optional. In fact, the vast body of Christianity does not consider Mormons or JW's "Christians" in that they don't accept the Trinity. They certainly are honest and earnest folks who love the Jesus they see, but it's not the Jesus of Christianity.

    The problem is, you (or I) are not the arbiter of what Christianity is, or what is essential or optional belief. We don't get to determine what is optional.

    You have not only thought your way out of belief in the Trinity, but you don't necessarily subscribe to a bodily Resurrection (as you've said before) or the inerrancy of the Bible. So, three essentials of Christianity are off the table for you. Why stop there? Maybe in a few months you will change your mind on the few things that you still do accept about Christianity.

    Surely you can see that you have left orthodoxy for heterodoxy? I just don't get where you draw the line, or why you believe Christian truth is left for each of us to decide on our own. It is simply unworkable if you see it played out in the real world.

    Last question: Do you think it's impossible for God to have protected his teaching (via the Church and the Bible) so that all generations could find the truth, intact? On matters of salvation, wouldn't it have been cruel of Him not to leave us with any certainty about what should or shouldn't be believed?

    Why do you conclude that He couldn't (didn't) protect and guard His truth?

    Thanks, Paul! You are a trooper for hanging in here.

  29. Paul, sorry, one last thought: How do you know you are not simply concluding things to suit your own needs?


  30. Leila,

    About religion, there is no way to be sure. It's a matter of faith.

    And Catholics are at risk of this too. Maybe they just want clear answers and this feeling of certainty where there is none, and they are fooling themselves. They've accepted this religion to suit their own needs.

    All this might be wishful thinking.

  31. Oh, and Leila, you are very welcome.

  32. Something strikes me reading this comment string - it is not new to me, but I don't know if I have pointed it out here.

    Orthodox Catholics seem to find much comfort in the fact that things do not change, and in the fact that there is an authority. The authority may not be "the pope", and you can call it what you like - the church, or even "objective truth". But whatever you want to call it, it seems to me that conservatives are much more comfortable submitting to this authority than liberals are.

    Liberals, on the other hand, value correction, and are much more comfortable with accepting change where change is necessary.

    There are many studies about this, I wrote about it and linked to just two in a post on my blog a few weeks ago:

    A statement from one of the articles which puts both sides in a positive light was: "A number of studies suggest that conservatives think in more structured and stable ways, while liberals reason more flexibly, changing their beliefs as they take new experiences into account."

    I think my point is, there is no changing who we are - removing religious authority from a conservative may be like removing clothing - and removing the ability to think for one's self from a liberal would be equally disconcerting.

  33. Paul, I would echo Leila's question: how do you know what is essential and what is not?

    Mai, are you under the impression that Catholics do not think for themselves? I'm puzzled as to why you would say that. I say this as a former liberal, and former member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. It wasn't until I started "thinking for myself" that I discovered the truth of the Catholic Church. As a liberal, I tended to swallow whatever the news media and society fed me without questioning it (I'm ashamed to say). For example, I accepted without question all the myths I'd been told about Catholicism, and it wasn't until I took it upon myself to investigate the Church's claims that I discovered that I'd been fed a load of BS my entire life.

    It's true I've become more conservative, but I hesitate to label myself as either because I don't believe that either liberals or conservatives have a monopoly on truth. I listen to NPR and get my news from various sources, including CNN but only occasionally Fox News. (I'm also a big fan of!) My philosophy is, if you listen to both sides of the political spectrum you can more ably discern the truth.

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  36. I only have time for a drive-by comment....

    Mai, I'd like to give that theory credence, but almost all of the devout Catholics I know used to be card-carrying liberals.

    I might actually try to do a tally, just out of my own curiosity.

    But for starters, my husband was a Democrat activist, and a pro-choice agnostic. He is now a devout Catholic.

    We have many of the bloggers here who were liberal relativists for much if not most of their lives. One of our own was a Berkeley-trained liberal ( (good liberal credentials!). Most of us lived lives that would be considered seriously sinful by Catholic standards.

    One personal friend and blogger was not only was a junior board member of Planned Parenthood, but also was raised as a liberal Episcopalian (not much dogma there!). Her mom is still best friends with Gloria Feldt, who ran the national Planned Parenthood.

    Anyway, I don't know how one could account for all of that.

    Paul, I'll be back with a quick thought or two.


  37. Mai, by the way, I would love your thoughts on my friend Kim's story:

    She was a feminist, non-Christian, worked in domestic violence shelters, most all her friends were lesbians, etc. She told me early in our friendship that she has no earthly idea why I would surrender my life and free will (and brain) to follow some man in Rome. She was dumbfounded, and even thought it was un-American.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

  38. Mai, the idea that religious people don't think for themselves, and agnostic/atheist/secular people do is just silly. We are all influenced in our actions by something- whether it be religion or modern culture, and those of us that do think (and I would argue that there is a large population out there that would rather watch 3 hours of tv every evening instead of think) can look at the evidence and try to determine a moral philosophy based on something reliable.

    Like JoAnna, I am not a cradle Catholic. I spent most of my life blindly hostile towards Catholics. I was raised protestant, and turned agnostic and even borderline atheist around 19 years old. I also got a degree in physics and a minor in math, so I'm not one to really let my illogical emotions run away with me.

    In order to convert, my logical brain had to be convinced that a) objective truth exists, and b) that the Catholic Church is the best representation on Earth of that Truth. And I have been.

    I have not had a close, personal experience with God, and I do not expect to in this lifetime. But because the two conditions above have been met by the Catholic church and no other philosophy, I accept the Church.

    It's not particularly romantic, but there it is.

    Paul, I think you are right- ultimately (almost) everyone accepts a religion or lack thereof based on looking at the arguments, and making a calculated wager. Jesus Christ was probably the only Christian who never doubted his own story. Faith and doubt must go hand in hand, because we are not perfect creatures capable of perfect faith. (Perhaps there are some saints who do have perfect faith). Faith is a virtue, like honesty and integrity, and we all must struggle to be virtuous in a world where virtue has little remaining meaning in society.

    Having doubts in our faith is not a reason to throw it out the window, any more than slipping up and lying is a reason to throw honesty out the window.

    And when I do feel doubts about this big step, I don't start hoping for divine intervention in the form of a living room miracle next Thursday at 2pm. I go back to the facts and philosophy that got me to the Church in the first place.

    There's a great post about this over at Conversion Diary right now-

  39. I think my point was more along the lines of

    Given these lines (for example) from Leila's post: "He can't change the moral law. He can't change the tenets of the Creed. He can't touch the truths of faith and morals because he has no authority to do so. "

    This is apparently very comforting to you - Leila is promoting it - as the reason for this blog post - as a positive aspect of the church. This sort of thing does not comfort me. It didn't even comfort me when I was young and being raised Catholic.

    And I understand there are plenty of people who have moved from being liberal to being highly Catholic - that sort of thing happens, and I'm very happy for people who have finally found the truth in life that fulfills them. But there are also plenty who have gone the other way.

    Perhaps one of you could suggest another way to differentiate liberal thought vs conservative thought without being derogatory to the "other" side. I tried, but obviously failed. Every time Leila tries, she comes across as implying we don't have any morals, or that we don't even understand what we are thinking. I try and try to explain myself, but she goes back to it each time.

  40. I'm not in any way tryijng to be a moderator here, but these are my two thoughts on what you said, Mai:

    I would prefer, personally, if Leila used the terms secular and deist rather than liberal and conservative. It takes the political undertone out of the discussion, it ends the whole "Well, I'm a pro-life liberal", or "I'm a progressive conservative" justifications that cloud the issues. With the exception of our friend Paul Rimmer, I think we can all firmly state that we are either secular, or deist, but not both or neither.

    But this is Leila's turf, not mine. :-)

    Second, no one has ever stated that liberals are immora, as Leila keeps reminding everyone. I think the real question, which maybe has not been explicitly asked in a blog post (though it may have been explicitly asked in comments, but not yet answered explicitly, IMO) is:
    IF you are not a deist, and
    IF you are not a moeral relativist (i.e. each individual determines what is moral),
    then, through what philosophical method to you derive your objective truth/morality?

    You have said that you are not a moral relativist, but when you describe how you arrive at a moral decision, it sounds like you are, so this needs to be clarified for us more I think.

    If you ARE a moral relativist, and you think Leila is being unrealistic with her "it's all going to become pandemonium!!!" routine, then describe for us (or link us to) a well-reasoned argument that moral relativism does nto lead into hedonism/nihilism/chaos, so that we can understand your perspective.

    Just my two cents.

  41. My original question was: "Perhaps one of you could suggest another way to differentiate liberal thought vs conservative thought without being derogatory to the "other" side."

    Thanks for giving it a shot.

  42. "The Church has wisdom, the world has technology".

    Yep, 2,000 years worth of it and full of some of the greatest minds of history (St. Augustine, St Bruno, Tomas a Becket, St Thomas Aquinas, Pope JP the Great, Benedict XVI) and some of the greatest testaments to faith (St. Maximilian Kolbe, Terese of Lisieux, St Bernadette Siborius, St Joseph of Cupertino, St Francis of Assisi).

  43. Mai, this is why it is hard for me to have a conversation about ideas with most (not all) on the left: It all comes down to "feelings" for you. If I or anyone challenges you to show us a well-reasoned argument, or to give us the basis of your philosophy, you think we are attacking you personally.

    Like Friendly anonymous said a while back: Because liberals base a person's worth on their thoughts, ideas and acts, then it becomes personal when a someone challenges their thoughts, ideas or acts. We Christians see worth in a person not connected to anything you think, do or say. Therefore, we really are not judging you. We really are judging ideas. Please take that at face value.

  44. And, Mai, it could just be a personality thing. Neither Paul Rimmer nor Mrs. M., nor Matt in Seattle seem to take my questioning personally. Maybe you read something into my words that really isn't there? I don't know. But I don't think I can change my words and tone. As long as most people understand that this is an arena of ideas, not personal attacks, then I am satisfied that I am doing the very best I can.

  45. Mai,

    Thomas Sowell has written an entire book on this subject called "A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles"

    He calls the liberal outlook the "unconstrained vision" and the conservative outlook the "constrained vision."

    Here is a quick summary from an article on the book:

    "The constrained vision takes human nature as given, and sees social outcomes as a function of (1) the incentives presented to individuals and (2) the conditions under which they interact in response to those incentives..."

    "In the unconstrained vision, human nature itself is a variable, and in fact the central variable to be changed."

    I think the most important difference between conservatives and liberals is that conservatives believe that human nature is not something that can be transcended.

    Liberals seem to believe that with the right environment, or education, or whatever variable, we can transcend human nature or transform it and that this will lead to good outcomes like a more equitable society.

    Here is a link to the article which goes much further:

    Well, that's a try at it...


  46. Mai,

    While I have a moment: Do you think your child finds comfort in the fact that the rules you set for him are not arbitrary, or would he be happier knowing that the rules could change from day to day?

  47. Marc, that is fascinating! Thanks for that. I have always admired Thomas Sowell.

  48. I'm so sorry I did not connect the dots in my comment to answer your question, Mai. I was proposing the substitution of the terms secular/deist in order to remove what you feel is a derogatory attitude towards the term "liberal". I hope that is now clear enough for you.

    But of course, hat must come up to Marc, who found a much better answer.

  49. I do find myself struggling to use the right terms (and terms that most readers will recognize).

    The problem is the huge overlap between the political left and atheists. I know many politically liberal deists (New Agers, mainline Protestants, lapsed Catholics, etc.) who believe in God, gods or goddesses and who also believe that "I have my truth, you have yours" -- i.e., moral relativism.

    I have used the term secular humanist, but that doesn't always fit each person either.

    I have to hope that everyone gets my general point and tries to give me the benefit of the doubt.

    Work with me, people! :)

  50. Mai, why do you find it comforting that truth can change? What if it changes in a way that goes against your beliefs?

    (Actually, that happened to me when I was in the ELCA... hence the reason my faith was shaken and I started exploring Catholicism.)

  51. I know this post is long-dead, but I recently had a conversation with two Catholic missionaries about papal infallibility, and it is worth noting.

    The actual meaning of papal infallibility is that the Pope is free from error when proclaiming something on Sacred Tradition or Scripture as inspired to do so by the Spirit. However, if ANYONE is inspired to proclaim something by the Spirit (and we know the lowest of the low have been at various points in history), they will also not speak in error. So the doctrine was really born out of clarification of *when* exactly we need to take the Pope's word as infallible instead of *why* exactly we need to take the Pope's word as infallible.

  52. This is terrific teaching - and all of it I knew but you have said it so well. I am posting the link and hope others do the same.

  53. Well, I am jumping into this thread very late (how characteristic of me!), but had a comment about one of the topics: the fact that the Church's teachings are unchangeable, and that Catholics find that comforting, whereas it DIScomforts liberals. First of all, the idea that a changing truth is appealing to anyone is intriguing to me, in that I can't relate to it at all! However, while the Church's teachings are irrevocable, that doesn't mean they are 'static' or lifeless. The Church DOES teach that its doctrines are living and growing continuously, and a proper understanding of this can be found in Blessed John Henry Newman's "On Development of Christian Doctrine". He well defines the difference between a properly developing doctrine and a heretically mutating one. SO, while the Pope CANNOT revoke or essentially change any of the Church's doctrines, he CAN affirm a genuine development of them. Maybe this could help a person who is uncomfortable with the notion of a rigid, stone-hard system of beliefs. Just sayin'.

  54. I don't understand how one can come to the conclusion that someone is without sin; i.e., the Pope being infallible. Can someone explain this to me, a faithful Protestant?

  55. Hi Mehridith! I think I can clear it up fairly quickly. We don't believe that popes are without sin. All of them were/are sinners, and some were grave, horrible sinners. So, infallibility does not mean what you think it means. It means that, sinners that they are, the popes will never teach doctrine which is in error. Like the writers of the Bible who wrote without doctrinal error… the popes cannot teach error on issues of faith and morals. Hope that helps! I will come and write more in a bit if I get a change.

    (But basically, infallibility is not impeccability.)

  56. Nice article, Leila. Thank you for dealing with a topic that is little understood - even by Catholics. The Pope has the authority AND the responsibility of handing on what he has been given. Divine Revelation ended with the death of the last Apostle, and the Pope may only interpret matters of Faith and Morals in light of this Revelation. His power is "supreme" in this regard, but it is truly limited.

    A common friend referred me to this blog, and I already see that I will not be disappointed. I look forward to reading much more!

  57. Robert, thank you! I think I know who our common friend is! :) I am glad you are here!


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