Further Thoughts on Papal Silence

Recently I made use of Frank Sheed to suggest that the cloud of papal silence over the Amoris Laetitia crisis, and in particular the dubia of i quattro cardinali, might perhaps carry with it a silver lining. In a nutshell, Sheed explained that papal infallibility can be secured by the Holy Spirit in a positive way, definitive teaching for example such as that on Our Lady’s assumption, or in a negative way, in that even the most scandalous of popes were preserved from teaching error ex cathedra. In that case, their silence was at least silver, if not golden. So too now, papal silence might not be as bad as we think.

For we do well to remember that the papacy does not exhaust the teaching authority of the Church. Historically popes have not been doctrinally very active, save as courts of final appeal. The dubia were presented to Pope Francis precisely in his capacity as the final and magisterial arbiter of doctrinal contention. It would be wonderful if he answered them by reaffirming the teaching of Christ.

However his silence is not the end of the world, nor grounds for his deposition as a heretic as some commenters have suggested.

Bishops are also teachers of the faith, with magisterial authority especially when they teach as a college. The first responsibility for teaching and defending the faith and practice of the Church is the local bishop’s. If the pope is silent, nothing is stopping the bishops of the world from reaffirming the teaching of Christ. As we have been seeing, many have been doing so, while a few are temporising. There is nothing like a crisis to sort the sheep from the goats.

So while we should be praying for the pope, and praying that he bring to an end the current fractious debate, we can be also praying that our local bishops step up to the plate and start hitting some doctrinal home runs. Pope Francis has expressed esteem for collegiality. So the bishops can start employing it to a good end, teaching clearly and with charity what Christ has revealed as the truth on marriage and family life, and human sexuality. The combined weight of their positive teaching will itself encourage the strengthen the pope to do the same. This presents at least one positive aspect to the often problematic conception of collegiality.

09 Vatican Ecumenical Council and Ecumenical Procession, Rome, 1962
Also teachers within the Magisterium. If the pope is silent they do not have to be.

And instead of searching out scandal like bloodhounds—and if we have to search for it then there is probably little scandal in the proper canonical sense of the word—let us examine the Church’s teaching and the current situation in western society and what how we might both uphold Christ’s teaching and deal with real pastoral care for those who have entangled themselves, or been entangled, in complex and morally problematic relationships.

To that end, may I recommend you all go and read an article by Christopher Altieri, recently of Vatican Radio and now of Vocaris Media. He parses the controversy, and very helpfully, by identifying two basic camps and doing so without casting one or other of them as agents of darkness. Rather he identifies what the motivating principle is for both of them. Then he sets about trying to reconcile them in light of the teaching of Christ and the Church.

The article is long but lucid, and I need to reread it to comprehend more adequately the lineaments of his argument. He raises pertinent issues such a motivation, firmness of intent in repentance, and other categories of sinner who, it might reasonably be argued, get off much lighter than some remarried divorcees of goodwill.

Mr Altieri also implies that the role of conscience needs to be more fully and adequately taught. For many conscience is little more than a manipulable inner voice that we invoke to get us off hooks we find too uncomfortable. But when we invoke personal conscience we must remember it comes inevitably with personal responsibility. Are we truly confident that we can stand with heads held high before the Judgment Seat of God with the various decrees of our personal conscience in hand? Are we truly sure that God will see it our way? Are we truly sure, indeed, that we see it God’s way?

Therein lies what should always be our first prayer, or first quest: Lord, what is Your will? Let Your will be done, not mine.

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  1. as I think of the silence of popes—I am reminded of Pope Pius XII and his “silence” during WWII in the ever growing knowledge of the reality of the rumored infamous death camps…
    The world today in historical retrospect looks back at the former Cardinal Pacelli, elevated Pius, with either solid contempt or saint worthy virtue…
    He agonizingly remained silent in the wake of Hitler’s seemingly free reign of barbarism with nary a denouncement from the Vicar of Christ.
    Yet whereas Pius remained publicly silent—behind the scenes there were deafening sounds of resistance with the actual defiance and full knowledge of an underground swell hard at work.
    For each utterance from Rome, there were horrific consequences for those being held in harm’s way….as Pacelli was agonizingly aware.
    And whereas there is no comparison between today’s silence from Francis on current church doctrine and teaching verses Pius’s silence over Nazi criminality—it might behoove us here in the outside world to remember that what we most often see and often hear is not always the reality of what is actually taking place behind the famous colonnade.

  2. So much wrong with the above comment there is not enough bandwidth to express the shock and awe of the errors as expressed. Modernism is wonderful as is relativism according to cookie.

  3. I would agree that the ‘silence’ of Pope Francis is not a big deal. I would say, rather, that more silence on his part would be welcome! Or, at minimum, when he does speak let it be with clarity and brevity.

    With recent Popes, people have become too attached to their personalities rather than the function they perform. Popes don’t ‘make doctrine’. We didn’t receive our Faith from any Pope. Our Lord’s command to Peter to ‘confirm thy brethren” didn’t mean for him to teach something new, but to confirm/strengthen what had already been revealed.

    And that is my prayer for this Pope: confirm – not confuse – the faithful.

  4. This Pope is ANYTHING but silent! Oh sure, he’s silent on A.L. and the Dubia, but that’s all he’s silent about. He may say something totally Catholic one day and then turn around the next and spout some ridiculous heresy that is anything but Catholic and sometimes ‘let alone Christian’! That Christ actually BECAME THE DEVIL on the cross? Can you even imagine what that sounds like to someone who is not well catechized and learning the faith? That Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, perfect in every way BECAME THE DEVIL? Yes, He ‘took on’ our sins on the Cross, but He remained The Christ, the Perfect, the SINLESS, the SACRIFICIAL LAMB that took on the PUNISHMENT for US. But, He did not ‘BECOME THE DEVIL’. Are we still at the point of blaming this Pope’s missteps on ignorance or maybe ‘misinterpretation’? If that is truly the case, it’s funny that we don’t hear any ‘corrections’ from the Vatican on what he really meant to say. With past Popes we ALWAYS heard corrections when something he said could be ‘misinterpreted’. We hear CRICKETS CHIRPING with this Pope. A.L. is a document that is easily and almost blatantly the opposite of what has been handed down from the Magisterium in many parts. Not confusing at all, but A.L. is only the biggest problem ON PAPER. It’s only the tip of the iceberg of what we hear on a weekly basis. No, he is not speaking ‘from the Chair’, but the harm that is being promulgated is devastating,through the ‘back door’ so to speak.


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