Catholic Apologetics

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More Catholic Than the Pope?

Years ago, when I was posting on the Catholic Answers Internet forum, an apparently sincere member posted this question: Must the pope be Catholic?


This was my response: "Ah; 'Is the Pope Catholic?' - One of the two Great Questions of life.  While the Church takes no position on where bears defecate, she has ordained that, yes, the Pope must be Catholic."


I believe it did get a few laughs.  Less amusing, however, is the disparaging comment we hear directed towards "traditionalists" ("restorationists") quite often: "They think they're more Catholic than the Pope!" Clearly the implication is that it is preposterous indeed for anyone to believe he is more Catholic than the supreme pontiff - who is indeed the successor to St. Peter, holder of the Keys, able to invoke the charism of infallibility in teaching faith & morals, and possessing of supreme juridical power over the entire Universal Church.


Actually, perhaps we should rephrase the statement as "a better Catholic than the pope" - that is really what is meant, even if that phrasing is even more offensive to the neo-Catholic mindset.


I would like to draw your attention now to this bit of news, together with CNA journalist Louie Verrecchio's comments:


The supreme pontiff refers to Mr. Tony Palmer, self-proclaimed "bishop" as his "brother bishop".  In a clip provided by Mr. Verrecchio, Mr. Palmer is heard describing the Catholic Church - that is, the one, true Church; the specific, visible, hierarchical Church established by Jesus Christ - as a "church" that "kills faith".


The big problem here is that Mr. Palmer is not a bishop - he's as much a bishop in the true, Christian, apostolic sense as my cat is.  That the supreme pontiff would refer to him as he did is very troubling in itself, of course, given the scandal and confusion that playing so fast & loose with truth brings, but there is another angle as well: the bishops of the Society of St. Pius Xth, who are actually bishops, do not merit such warm feelings from this pontiff.  And, taking his lead, the enemies of the Society, largely on the run during the previous pontificate, become bolder by the week, it seems.


Verrecchio comments: "If Tony Palmer, a man who not only rejects multiple dogmas of the one true Faith, but who also believes that the Catholic Church is where Christians go to have their faith killed, is a 'brother bishop', what does that make the bishops of the Society of St. Pius X?


If you don’t know, I’ll tell you: In this case, it makes them more Catholic than the pope, as I can assure you not one of them would ever confuse Mr. Palmer for the Roman Pontiff’s 'brother bishop'" (emphasis mine).


(Verrecchio also draws attention that the head of the organization our "bishop" is a part of lives in an 18,000 square foot mansion and owns a $20 million private jet, perhaps raising the question of where the "Church of the poor" spirit comes into play here.)


Back to our topic: is it possible that a Catholic - any Catholic, anywhere - could be a better Catholic than the pope?  Or are the anti-restorationists correct that the very notion is preposterous?  Here are a few of those tidbits from Traditionalism 101 that are always making the rounds:


Augustine: "[St. Paul] showed, nonetheless, that it is possible for subordinates to have the boldness to resist their superiors without fear, when in all charity they speak out in the defense of truth."


Bellarmine: "Although it clearly follows from the circumstances that the Pope can err at times, and command things which must not be done, that we are not to be simply obedient to him in all things, that does not show that he must not be obeyed by all when his commands are good. To know in what cases he is to be obeyed and in what not, it is said in the Acts of the Apostles: 'One ought to obey God rather than man'; therefore,were the Pope to command anything against Holy Scripture, or the articles of faith, or the truth of the Sacraments, or the commands of the natural or divine law, he ought not to be obeyed, but in such commands, to be passed over.


Suarez: “If the pope gives an order contrary to right customs, he should not be obeyed; if he attempts to do something manifestly opposed to justice and the common good, it will be lawful to resist him; if he attacks by force, by force he can be repelled, with a moderation appropriate to a just defense.”


Pope St. Gregory the Great:  “Peter remained silent so that, being first in the hierarchy of the Apostles, he might equally be first in humility.”


Pope Adrian VI (1522-1523) "If by the Roman Church you mean its head or pontiff, it is beyond question that he can error even in matters touching the faith. He does this when he teaches heresy by his own judgment or decretal. In truth, many Roman pontiffs were heretics. The last of them was Pope John XXII." (Quaest. in IV Sententiam)


Venerable Pope Pius IX: "If a future pope teaches anything contrary to the Catholic Faith, do not follow him." (Letter to Bishop Brizen)


These are by no means exhaustive.  


It seems that if we wish to take seriously the teachings of all the popes and of all of Catholicism, we must at least entertain the possibility that at any given time someone, somewhere actually might be "more Catholic than the pope".  Even more, a pope might actually, possibly, be a downright bad Catholic.  Catholics who debate Protestants regarding the actual existence of the papacy have to deal with such things, since popes who were not only bad Catholics but, on the whole, bad men litter the historical record.  One cannot defend the faith by turning a blind eye to such things.  Nor are these things troubling to the Catholic with the proper understanding of the papacy.


From Pastor Aeternus: “For the Holy Ghost was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by His revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by His assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or Deposit of Faith transmitted by the Apostles.” 


Self-made bishops entirely outside the apostolic Church are, in fact, brother bishops?  I'm sorry, dear Holy Father, but that is a new one.


Those who think the Pope always is and must be not just a Catholic, but the best Catholic imaginable, need to learn better the Catholic faith, lest they fall into the trap described by Bishop Melchior Cano, Theologian of the Council of Trent:


"Peter has no need for our lies or flattery.  Those who blindly and indiscriminately defend every decision of the supreme pontiff are the very ones who do the most to undermine the authority of the Holy See - they destroy instead of strengthening its foundations."


Nevertheless, the times are truly sad.  It is tragic to see the successor of Peter continuing to behave more like Simon than Peter, undermining rather than strengthening the Church and the faith.


I pray for the Holy Father every day, but if it ever comes to it, I will stand with Athanasius rather than Liberius.